PHILADELPHIA -- For the first game Abraham Dentis saw at Veterans Stadium, he wore a shirt with Mike Schmidt's No. 20 on it. That settled it.
"He was the reason I started liking baseball," Dentis said of the Hall of Fame third baseman. "That's when I started playing myself. My dream was to play for the Phillies."
Most people learn soon enough that there will be a wide gap between their highest hopes and real life. That's why millions play Powerball and Mega Millions, after all.
For Dentis, that lesson came as early, swift, brutal and harsh as an up-and-in fastball.
When Dentis was young, his father was seriously injured after being hit by a car. His dad did the best he could to support his family, handing out samples of the laundry detergent All from door to door before passing away from kidney failure. His mother worked and went to school trying to better herself. Still, when Dentis was 15, he had to choose between playing sports and working to help support the family.
Under the circumstances, it wasn't much of a decision. So Dentis took jobs at Wendy's and Dunkin' Donuts. He washed dishes at the Grand Hotel in Cape May, N.J. He worked at bodegas and warehouses. He was laid off, then he went to work for a friend who ran a deli. After that, while he was still in his mid-20s, everything began to unravel.
"In 2001, I had a mishap," Dentis said, matter-of-factly. "It was drugs. The way things happened, I was trying to help out a friend of mine because he was light on rent. I asked another friend of mine who was into that. I told him I needed to make some fast money real quick to help out a friend."
That eventually led to being arrested, which in turn led to a vicious downward spiral. By late 2015, Dentis was 40 years old. He hadn't had a job in five years. His son, Abream, was 10. Sometimes Dentis could stay with friends for a while, but more often, he lived under bridges, on benches and in abandoned buildings with no roofs. He ate out of garbage cans -- and that wasn't even the worst part.
"I wasn't too worried much about eating," Dentis said. "More about water. Because at the time, from not drinking water, my throat started getting raw to where I couldn't swallow. Even something soft. Bread and soup were about the only things. I begged a friend. I told her I couldn't take no more. I was getting tired. I started feeling sick. I asked her if I could come back in."
She told Dentis she'd have to check with her fiance. When she came back, she handed him his few possessions -- no, he couldn't come back in.
Dentis had been paroled, but the arrest continued to haunt him.
"That's when my downfall for trying to find work started," Dentis said. "That's when I started smoking weed and drinking. I was feeling depressed, because finding work was hard. I had child support I couldn't pay. No matter where I looked, no matter how hard I tried to find work, nothing was working.
"There were plenty of times I thought about giving up. I thought I couldn't take it no more, because no matter how hard I tried to change, nothing was happening. Things were just getting worse. I wanted to end it. I wanted to give up. But for some reason, I couldn't do it. Something told me to keep on going, keep on moving, keep on pushing."
And that's when, just in time, the Phillies came back into his life.
* * *
With Christmas 2015 approaching, Dentis had been living at a shelter, Our Brothers Place, for about a year. The facility is run by the Bethesda Project, a group the Phillies have long partnered with. Each holiday season, the organization pitches in for an event to feed the homeless, and the meal is served by the team's executives and broadcasters.
Dentis was excited when he heard the Phillies were coming, although at first, he thought it was going to be the players. It wasn't until the event actually started that he realized it was the front office instead. This was his chance.
Thanks to Resources for Human Development, another organization dedicated to fighting homelessness, Dentis was prepared. The staff at FaSST/Connections, an RHD behavioral health care unit that provides coordination of services to individuals in Philadelphia shelters, had already worked with him. They helped him put together a professional resume, coached him on interviewing skills and provided encouragement.
Dentis decided to approach general manager Matt Klentak.
"When everybody was getting ready to go, I walked up and gave my resume to him," Dentis said. "I told him I was interested in working for the Phillies. I was hesitant at first. I was scared, because I didn't know how he would react. I was a little worried he would say, 'No thanks.' Or just say nothing at all."
At the time, Klentak had only been on the job for a few weeks.
"This was all new to me," Klentak said. "It was really a cool afternoon. And at the tail end of the day, as we're packing up and getting ready to head out, this man walks over to me. I didn't know him. He didn't know me. But he was very sincere. Looked me straight in the eye and handed me something. And he said, 'If the Phillies have any openings, I'd love to be considered for one.'
"The truth was, at that very moment, I didn't even know how the hiring process worked at the Phillies. I didn't know what I was supposed to do with this. But there was something about Abraham that was really special."
It helped that Klentak attended a Catholic high school in Massachusetts that emphasized public service. Students were encouraged to become involved in a variety of projects, some of which involved homelessness. The idea that those who are in a position to help others have a responsibility to do what they can had been instilled in him early.
Klentak went to see Kathy Killian, vice president of human resources.
"What I've come to realize now, over the last couple years, is that there's nobody in this organization with a bigger heart," Klentak said.
Killian picked up the story.
"Matt said, 'I'm going to stop and see you,'" Killian said. "Which he did. He said, 'This resume came to me with good skills to be a dishwasher.' There were three valid places of work [as references] and he said, 'Hey, if we can help this person in the new season, let me know. It would be really nice to give him a chance.'"
Another fortunate twist: A position in the Press Club kitchen had just opened up. The job was posted, and Dentis was one of two finalists. Killian visited him at the shelter, called his references and became convinced that he was the right person for the job.
"He's clearly qualified," Killian said, her voice breaking slightly. "As an HR person, you don't want to be overly emotional. But I wanted this to work for Abraham, because he needed an opportunity. It's very gratifying when you see a human being getting a chance.
"Not only was he qualified ... but it seemed like he fit in with the group of people that we have here. They're just a really caring, loyal, dedicated group. So we felt that he was the best fit, and we offered him the job. It's just a wonderful story. I don't know anything about his life before here. I just know that he found himself in [a bad] place."
Dentis' first day of work for the Phillies was April 19, 2016. That's when his life began to change for the better.
* * *
The Press Club at Citizens Bank Park is located right behind the press box. Many afternoons, club employees eat their lunches there. That makes it easy for Klentak and Killian, among others, to stay in touch with Dentis. Every indication is that he's doing well.
"He's early for work, he stays late, he'll do whatever you want," Killian said. "He works really hard."
Dentis has gotten a second part-time job, too, as a kitchen assistant at Our Brothers Place. He's moved into transitional housing at the Connelly House.
"That's for independent living," Dentis explained. "I have my own kitchen and bath. [Before], I had my own bed, but I shared a kitchen with everybody else."
Dentis knows he's been lucky, and he thinks about others who haven't been as fortunate.
"I'm trying," Dentis said softly. "Working [at Our Brothers Place] helped me change a little more. When I was there, I volunteered to help wash the sheets, washing the guys' clothes. But being there, I also watched the guys and just looked at them, and that hurt me because I wished I could do more to help them. Before meals, I would say a little prayer to try to give them a little strength. Encouragement to get out of there."
Dentis is clean and sober, and he said that working to reconnect with his son, who just turned 12, helps him stay on the right path.
"It's because of him that I tried not to fall backwards," Dentis said. "I try to keep myself busy so I don't go back into that depression mode. Feeling depressed, that ain't nothing going to work out. Falling back into drinking -- I'm 42, and that's over with. I'm getting too old for that. It's time to change and be around for my son."
When he was younger, Dentis moved to Camden, N.J., with the intention of attending the Art Institute of Philadelphia. That didn't work out, but he's created some personal artwork that he'd like to reproduce on baseball-themed T-shirts. He plans to get them copyrighted and come up with a business proposal to sell them.
Going to work for the Phillies was the first step that helped Dentis move in the right direction. They gave him a chance when, because of his record, no one else would.
"That's what bothers me," Dentis said. "Because you try to change. Some things that we do don't necessarily start out being bad. You do them because you have no other choices to support yourself or support your family. I'm just happy the Phillies took a chance on me. If it wasn't for God bringing Matt and Miss Kathy in, if it wasn't for the both of them, I don't know what would have happened. To repay them, I try to do my best. I tell them if they ever need me, I'm there. I won't let them down."
When Dentis first dreamed of playing for the Phillies, he never envisioned that his connection with the team would be working in the kitchen. But that's all right. He's grateful for the path he's on.
"This is better, working for them," Dentis said. "If it wasn't for the Phillies, I'd probably still be on the streets or [worse]. I like it."
Dentis smiled, then added, "And I met Mike Schmidt."
Paul Hagen, a reporter for MLB.com, won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 2013 for a lifetime of excellence in baseball writing.