We all have expectations as sports fans, and as Phillies fans, I think our expectations were, by and large, rather similar going into 2011: don’t give up many runs, win the division, and go into the playoffs positioned to win another title.
As I said the other day, I don’t think we could have expected much more from La Furia Roja this season. And that leaves me in a curious emotional place going into the playoffs. For the first time I can remember, I’m nervous about the upcoming postseason.
I grew up in a time, as I’m sure many of you did, when the Phillies were awful. Really, unless you lived out ages 8-18 between 1975 and 1984, or between 2002 and 2011, the Phillies were most likely awful when you were growing up too. The idea that they’d win five straight division titles, or reel off 10 winning seasons and an 80-81 season in 11 years, or become the de facto Yankees of the National League–to say nothing of a certain World Series title–was up there with the ability to teleport on the list of things I’d love to see but had written off as impossible.
In a way, I loved the Phillies because they were miserable. It set me apart, I thought, from the kids for whom football season started in August and not the morning after the last game of the World Series, as it did for me. Baseball was this mythical thing to me, an arcane, pastoral, boring, game that I loved so much that I’d rather watch the team I loved play it badly rather than submit to the all-glowing, modern, and otherwise cool rule of the Eagles. I had fallen in love with the depth of the statistics and the magic (because there’s no more accurate word) of the mythology, history, and narrative of the game so much that I loved its biggest moments, even when they involved the Indians and Marlins.
Being a voracious reader and an avid baseball fan at age ten is like living in a C.S. Lewis novel. There’s always more to explore, more to learn. More history, more strategy, more mythology. And when that history–so often dominated by a handful of teams–intersected with the Phillies, I felt a special sense of pride. Ken Burns’ iconic Baseball documentary ran during the strike when I was seven years old, and my dad taped it and saved it. I could not tell you how many times I watched those tapes, and I can still recite certain lines from memory, but I always looked forward to the moment when they mentioned, for all of 15 seconds, that Pete Rose signed as a free agent with the Phillies and helped them to their only World Series title. It was the only time in the entire 18 1/2 hours that the Phillies were mentioned, by name, in a positive light. When the Phillies got on national TV, or were mentioned in the national media, I cherished the moment similarly. I still remember a Baseball Weekly cover in 2001, when the Phillies got hot out of the gate, that featured Travis Lee and Omar Daal.
Well, since 2005 or so, those rare moments have become commonplace. National media outlets discuss the Phillies repeatedly, and in glowing terms. My Lenny Dykstra shirsey isn’t the only piece of Phillies apparel you can see on the street anymore. There’s a new, expensive stadium, populated by cheering fans and some of the best ballplayers money can buy. And most importantly, I don’t have to pick a team, more or less at random, to root for in the postseason, the way I did once. My surrogate Orioles/Red Sox fandom is over. We are a part of baseball history every day, Ken Burns-style, and if you had told a certain thirteen-year-old boy who had watched his team lose 97 games and fire Terry Francona that all of this would come to pass, he would scarcely have believed you. From a baseball perspective, I’ve got everything I’ve ever wanted.
Before 2008, there was either no postseason or no optimism for the post season. It had been so long, in our institutional memory, since the last title, that we had neither a reason to expect one nor any conception of what it feel like if it happened. There are people drinking legally at tailgates outside Citizens Bank Park who were born after MOVE, who don’t know who Frank Rizzo was, or Rich Kotite, who were too young to see any of the first five Rocky movies in the theater. They can’t remember ever seeing a Flyers game at the Spectrum, even on television, and local politics started with the first election of Mayor John Street.
This is our institutional memory, and given those constraints, it’s understandable that postseason baseball should still feel a little weird to us. Over five seasons, I’ve come to expect it, almost as if it were a birthright, and yet something about a Phillies hat with a playoff patch on it just seems strange to me. This is what getting what you want feels like. It’s a feeling of the dog that caught the car.
This is Braves Kid. Those of you watching Craig Kimbrel walk the world on Wednesday night might remember seeing this screen shot live. I talked to my dad about the madness that took place Wednesday night the next morning, and the first thing he mentioned was Braves Kid.
What a wonderful picture this is–it’s the “Migrant Mother” of the 2011 baseball season. It touches you on so many levels. It’s the agony of defeat, captured on the face of an innocent child too young to remember any of the 14 consecutive division titles. It’s a reminder that, even though we drew great pleasure from the misery of the Atlanta Braves and their legion of war-chanting, sweet-tea-drinking, game-not-attending fans, schadenfreude takes its toll on someone. I want to buy that kid an ice cream cone and tell him it’s just a game, and it doesn’t matter. And not tell him that, when the Phillies were eliminated from the 2007 NLDS, I (at age 20) threw the television remote across the room, shouted “That’s what I get for believing!” and wept like a child for nearly half an hour.
I remember vividly watching Game 6 of the 1993 World Series. I was six years old, and I remember Henderson and Molitor being on base when Joe Carter hit it out. I remember the running joke that I had with my mom well into the next season, that whenever I said “Mitch Williams,” she’d scream. (In hindsight, I probably abused this joke to the point where my poor mother was ready to tear my arms off whenever I said “Mitch Williams.” We ran that gag what must have been a thousand times, and it never occurred to me that I might find it funnier than she did. Because I was six. And six-year-olds are self-centered and love repetition.) I remember thinking how bizarre it seemed to me that the Blue Jays set off fireworks in the Sky Dome when it was all over. Who sets off fireworks indoors?
But most of all, I remember thinking “We’ll get ‘em next year.” I had no concept of history, that the Phillies had won the pennant only once more in my parents’ lifetime than in my own, and only twice more in my grandparents’ lifetime, and only three times more in my great grandparents’ lifetime. I had no idea that I was witnessing what was literally a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and that it had passed us by.
That’s not what my father remembers. When Joe Carter hit that home run, he says, I was inconsolable. Watching Braves kid reminded him of me.
So what about 2009 and 2010? Well, in 2009, I think we were so bowled over by the excitement of the first title that there was nothing but eager anticipation for a second. Nothing could have been more exciting than that first title, the jumping and screaming. It was the most exciting, most cathartic ninety seconds of my life, from when Lidge struck out Hinske to when I finally sat back down. But 2009 was a rare moment of rationality for this fan base. Not in the “Crucify Cole Hamels” movement, a product of groupthink that still gets me into a shouting match with a stranger at a bar about once every two or three months, but in the approach to the postseason. The pitching staff was set up weirdly, Pedro Martinez and Cliff Lee had just sort of appeared out of nowhere, and who in the Sam Hill is J.A. Happ anyway? But more than anything else, 2009′s trip to the World Series felt like a bonus. Don’t get me wrong, the defeat hurt–there were few more demoralizing moments in my life as a sports fan than Damon’s Steal, but it didn’t haunt us because the shine on the Commissioner’s Trophy hadn’t worn out.
2010? Not racked by worry, but fueled by anger. It all unraveled so quickly that it was over before there was time to be nervous. There wasn’t fear, but disbelief and the search for someone to blame that, as it turns out, came up with no suspects. Sure, there was that whole “Ryan Howard should have swung” nonsense, but even that seemed halfhearted–the Phillies made a grand total of 108 outs in their four NLCS losses, in which they were outscored by all of six runs, and out of 108 outs, it seemed churlish to focus only on the last one, even for a fan base as choleric and hive-minded as Philadelphia’s. No reason to worry. No time to worry.
The reason I’m nervous about this postseason is that there’s a feeling of having something to lose.
It would be foolhardy to expect a championship in any season. I know in my head that the Phillies, while having a better chance than any other team to stage a parade, are not likely, even now, with home-field advantage and the best team, to do so. What I can’t reconcile is that I believe in my heart, that this team, with the season they’ve had, with all that we’ve been through, deserves a title.
If it happens, and a second World Series title falls into our laps, everything will have to go right. The umpires, the players, the weather, the coaches, the tiny subtleties of the fabric of space-time itself; they all have to work out just so in order for that parade to happen. And as much as I try to be rational about it, the possibility–hell, the likelihood–that they won’t terrifies me. I’ve been worried about this playoff series since Ryan Howard struck out to end last year’s NLCS.
I’ll let you in on a secret: I don’t have everything I want as a baseball fan. That 2008 title was celebrated more or less alone. I watched the last couple outs with my buddy Paul on speakerphone, but most of Game Five Part Two was spent explaining to my roommate, who wouldn’t know a baseball from a spoon, why I was so excited. I ran around my apartment alone. I dragged my roommates out of bed to drink celebratory champagne because none of them gave a crap about baseball, or the Phillies, and the extent of their interest in sports that night was that we were playing Tennessee at home on Saturday.
I watched news clips and heard firsthand stories of the pandemonium that ensued after Lidge struck out Hinske, and so great was my joy about the title that I didn’t feel envy about having to celebrate the title alone until some years later. Now, that’s what I want more than anything else: a Phillies World Series title that I can enjoy in community with others, because isn’t that what fandom is all about?
I don’t know if any of what I just wrote is true. Isn’t that lame, as if I was somehow victimized by my team winning the World Series alone and therefore deserve to celebrate another title in Philadelphia?
That’s the thing about getting everything you ever wanted: it only makes you want more.