The Agony and the Ecstasy

The first time I saw the Philadelphia Phillies in person was on September 24, 2000.  Throughout the ’90’s I had seen their top “prospects” (Jon Zuber, Matt Beech, Wendell Magee, et al) come up through Double-A Reading, and been initiated into the big leagues at the cathedrals of Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards.  But on that Indian-summer Sunday, an invitation to join two of his brothers’ families finally compelled my dad to go see the hometown nine at The Vet.

It was the final home game of the season, and thus the final baseball game played on the old rock-hard, neon-green astroturf.  (A slightly less offensive NexTurf carpet was installed that winter after the Eagles’ season.)  The Phils dropped their 92nd game that afternoon, and then five more on the road the following week to finish with the worst record in the National League.  Terry Francona, who obviously didn’t know how to manage, was fired just hours after the final game.  It was in this deep, dark chasm that the Phightin’s began the most successful decade in their long and winding history.  No other franchise (with the possible exception of Francona’s Red Sox) so completely revitalized its image, culture, and spirit during the 2000’s.

The first inclination that the ship may be turning around was the hiring of Larry Bowa to replace Francona.  (Darren Daulton was also seriously considered.  How vastly different the decade could have gone if that lunatic had been hired!  There could have been Tralfamadorians all over the Delaware Valley.)  It soon became clear that age had not sapped Bowa of any of the fire and energy that made him a fan favorite in his playing days.  As the Phillies prepared for 2001, the general feeling was that the club was headed in the right direction, though still miles away from where they wanted to be.

The Phillies shot out of the gate in ’01, surprising even the least cynical (I was going to say ‘most optimistic’ but that would not be apropos) of Philly fans by winning 35 of their first 53 to open up an 8-game lead over Atlanta.  It was their best start since the magical ’93 campaign, and it was beginning to develop a similar feeling of destiny – a worst-to-first team led by a Vaudeville cast of characters.  (Remember Todd “I actually played for the ’93 Phils then became a pizza guy before returning to hit two of the most dramatic homeruns ever” Pratt?  How ’bout Johnny “I’m in tip-top athletic shape” Estrada, possibly the slowest Phillie ever?  Or Penn grad Doug Glanville, the smartest Philly guy since Ben Franklin?  Turk “sharktooth necklace” Wendell?)

Then they dropped 16 of their next 23, including a 3-game sweep by the woeful Devil Rays and a 3-game sweep by Atlanta that knocked them out of the lead in late June.  It looked like the Phillies’ carriage was turning back into a pumpkin, but they hung neck-and-neck with the Braves into September.  Then, of course, 9/11 rocked everybody’s world, and baseball took a back seat to more pressing matters.  When the game returned it was in its familiar role, that it had played during the Depression and World War II,  of bringing Americans together and offering a healthy escape from our nearly overwhelming troubles.  So it was with solemn hearts and tearful eyes that the Braves and Phillies met at Veterans Stadium on September 17 for a nationally-televised matchup, the first sporting event in this strange, new, vulnerable country.  The rivalries and playoff races had lost much of their intensity; the game itself was what we rooted for.  Scott Rolen whacked two homers, and Robert Person outdueled Greg Maddux, but the lasting memories of that night are all the people parading through the stands with Betsy Ross’s handiwork, Philadelphia once again the cradle of liberty.

Despite some thrilling games down the stretch, the Phillies finished 2 games behind Atlanta in the NL East.  The biggest upgrade was at shortstop, where J-Roll replaced the forgettable duo of  Relaford & Arias.  Even high-school age fans like myself could not remember a more highly-anticipated Phillies game than Opening Day 2002.

It was a chilly, cloudy Friday.  My buddies, Randy and Ryan, and I (the fourth guy chickened out) exploded through the doors of our school at lunchtime and took off running like we were escaping from Graterford.  Some kids are old pros at skipping class, but this was my first time and my blood felt like pure adrenaline.  Fifteen minutes later, we were on the turnpike.  Randy revealed that he had somehow procured one of those plastic bottles of cheap vodka (which we saved for the game – security was notoriously loose at the old Vet); I matched him with a bowl of cheap schwag (which entertained us on the trip down to Broad & Pattison).  It was a 3:05 game, so the gates were just opening as we purchased our $7 general admission tickets and found some lonely seats in which to sit and drink somewhere in the stratosphere above left field.  The stands filled up like I’d never seen them filled before, the speakers blasted Van Halen, fireworks went off, Navy Leap Frogs leapt out of a freakin’ airplane and parachuted down into the stadium, and then at last the game began.  The Phils hammered Julian Tavarez, as one would have hoped they would, and the Marlin hitters couldn’t touch Brandon Duckworth.  As twilight set in and the crowd thinned out, we moved down to the lower seats in left-center, where we could get all over Preston Wilson and Cliff Floyd for wearing beanies under their caps to keep their precious little heads warm.  Finally old “Joe Table” came in to seal the deal, Pat Burrell caught the final out right in front of us, and the possibility of playoff games at the Vet (like the possibility of someone puking) seemed very real.  (I would have gladly conceded the one for the other, but alas, neither came to pass.)

After such a dramatic climb from 2000-01 the Phils were due for some fallback in ’02, and indeed they staggered to a third-place finish at 80-81.  Unhappy All-Star Scott Rolen was cast off to the Cardinals for Placido Polanco and Mike Timlin.  But the organization clearly had a viable plan for the future, as a formidable band of reinforcements was assembling just over the horizon.  Chase Utley skipped Double-A and didn’t miss a beat.  Ryan Howard put up big numbers in his first full season, at Lakewood.  And 18-year old Cole Hamels joined the Phamily as the first-round draft pick.  However the most visible development was most exciting at the time – construction had finally begun on a new natural grass ballpark just behind the Vet’s rightfield seats.

The Phillies, for years, had been unwilling to spend big money on big-name free agents as attendance consistently ranked near the bottom of the league.  But they broke the bank in December 2002 to reel in the most coveted hitter on the market – Paul Bunyan’s nephew Jim Thome.  In his first year in the NL, he would lead the circuit in both homers and strikeouts.  In the year of its swan song, the Vet saw a solid team with just a few weaknesses (the black hole left at third by Rolen’s departure, and the bullpen that blew many close games).  Other than the closing ceremonies featuring the late great Tug McGraw and Harry Kalas, the highlight of ’03 was Kevin Millwood’s no-hitter against the Giants.  The Phightin’ Phils hung in the wild-card race into the final week before they finished 86-76, the identical record that they had posted in ’01.

They achieved that same level of above-average-ness again in ’04, but it was no longer satisfying.  The Phils first opened a state-of-the-art spring stomping ground in Clearwater, then a beautiful new cathedral in South Philly.  A record-breaking 3.25 million fans came out to Citizen’s Bank Park in its first year.  Utley, Howard, and Ryan Madson arrived, Thome hit his 400th homer, and Tomas Perez made a lot of shaving-cream pies.  There were sufficient distractions in ’04, but the pressure was on to win in ’05.  The roster transactions that off-season (signing guys like Jon Lieber and Kenny Lofton) were overshadowed by the pink slip handed to Bowa.  He had carried the Phillies from last place laughing-stocks to respectable contenders, but a gentler personality was needed to guide this veteran team to the promised land.  The dubious choice looked like a manager from a baseball comedy movie come to life.  A 60-something hillbilly with a perpetually-bent waist and twisted knees, who said things like “He’s bein’ more patient, gettin’ what I like to call hitter’s counts.”  Charlie Manuel will live forever in Philly folklore, but nobody could have foreseen that back on November 3, 2004.

Manuel’s first game at the helm was also the first ever for the Washington Nationals, an 8-4 Phillies win on Opening Day at Citizens Bank Park.  But then the Phils dropped the next two to Frank Robinson’s club and puttered along for a while; they were sitting at 24-27 on Memorial Day and there was already talk that Manuel was about to be fired.  But Randy Wolf delivered like a beast and his inspired teammates suddenly won 12 out of 13 to save Ol’ Cholly’s ass.  Jim Thome had been struggling all year; he was mercifully placed on the disabled list July 1.  He would never play another game for the Phillies, as Ryan Howard was called up from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and from that day on he was smokin’ – 21 homers in just 76 games en route to the NL Rookie of the Year award.

When the Astros came to town on Labor Day 2005, they trailed the Phillies by a half-game in the wild card race.  Every game of the series was excruciatingly, heart-breakingly, agonizingly close.  Once the mushroom cloud had dissipated, Houston was irreversibly on its way to its first pennant and Billy Wagner had effectively punched his ticket out of town.  Another season ended just short (1 game out) of the playoffs.  Philly fans were starting to get some pretty serious blue-balls, and so GM Ed Wade was fired in October.

Pat Gillick, one of the most respected and successful front-office men in baseball history,  replaced him in November of ’05.  Gillick had famously built the Blue Jays from an awful expansion team into a decent squad, constructed an Orioles team that played in back-to-back LCS, then went to Seattle (which had just lost Johnson, Griffey, and A-Rod) where he signed Ichiro and forged a 116-win team out of ashes.  Gillick was getting some blue balls too though; he wanted one more world championship.  He traded for hard-nosed Aaron Rowand, and he gave The Flyin’ Hawai’ian a shot as the everyday rightfielder.

At the onset of the ’06 season, the biggest story in baseball was J-Roll’s 36-game hitting streak that would carry over from ’05.  It would end at a franchise-record 38 as Rollins and the rest of the Phillies struggled through the first half.  Gillick apparently gave up the ship when he traded Bobby Abreu to the Yankees for two pounds of horsemeat, but the Phils picked it up in August with help from newly-acquired Jamie Moyer and once again were on top of the wild card standings in late September before politely yielding to the Dodgers.  That race was almost overshadowed by Ryan Howard’s chase for the “clean” single-season homerun record.  He had a monstrous 58 with 9 games to go – right on pace with Roger Maris, but the Fish and Nats decided to walk him 17 times rather than give up any more long balls.

2007 began with the departure of longtime catcher Mike Lieberthal, the virtually unnoticed signing of Jayson Werth, and then with J-Roll’s smack at the Mets – “we are the team to beat.”  Well you can talk the talk if you can walk the walk, and Jimmy did just that in ’07.  The Phillies buried themselves pretty deep with a 4-11 start, then climbed back within 2 games of the Mets after an unforgettable 4-game sweep in Flushing in late August.  They retreated to 7 games back by mid-September in order to stage one of the more dramatic finishes of all-time.  The Metros cooperated by completely collapsing, and the teams were tied for first on the final day of the season.

By this time I was stationed at an Air Force base in Abu Dhabi, but even 8,000 miles from Philadelphia I caught playoff fever.  The 1:00 ET games not only came on at 11 at night, but also had to compete against the football games preferred by the majority of the airmen.  After searching all over the dark desert compound I finally found the game on in the gym, so I had to ride a stationary bike the whole time in order to see it.  J-Roll had a great at-bat leading off – got a hit, stole second and third and scored on a sac fly.  Cut to Shea – the Marlins hung a 6-spot on Tom Glavine in the top of the first!  It looked like the worst case scenario would be a tie.   But Old Man Moyer was pitching his heart out, and J-Roll roped an RBI triple in the sixth (around 1 AM for me – the gym was nearly empty now) to ice it.  I not only felt like I was home, I felt ten years old again.  JIMMY ROLLINS IS THE MAN!  I said to myself.

I don’t remember seeing much of that postseason, which is probably for the best.  Gillick smoothly hustled old Ed Wade, now running the Astros, into a deal for Brad Lidge.  He was perfect in 2008, and the Phillies were once again too powerful for the Mets.  That fall I was living in St. Petersburg, Florida, a city whose imagination had been captured by the remarkable rise of the Rays.  Before the playoffs began, I half-jokingly predicted a Phillies-Rays World Series.  The Phillies did their part, dispatching Milwaukee relatively easily in the NLDS behind the brilliant pitching of Cole Hamels, and then the Dodgers in the NLCS thanks to a pinch-hit moonshot by everyone’s favorite fat mustachioed Canadian hockey coach – Matt Stairs.

I had tickets to Game 1 at Tropicana Field, to which I proudly wore the red NL champions T-shirt that my mother-in-law sent down from Montgomery County.  Attending a World Series game was on that list of things to do before I die, but to actually do it was surreal.  Utley homered in the first, and with good pitching by Hamels and sparkling defense all around, the Phillies cruised to as easy a 3-2 win as there could ever be.  They lost Game 2, won Game 3 on a weak ground-ball single by Chooch Ruiz in the bottom of the ninth, dominated Game 4 (even Joe Blanton homered), and hung on in Game 5 in a game that was split between two days of cold Pennsylvania rain.  Harry Kalas called Lidge’s strikeout of Eric Hinske that left the Phillies alone on top of the baseball world.  I went out on my patio and shouted for joy.  I didn’t get to see the parade down Broad Street because it wasn’t televised in Florida, but I did get a T-shirt with Chase Utley’s classic quote on it.

2009 brought a return trip to the Fall Classic after the Phillies breezed to the division championship and through the playoffs.  New GM Ruben Amaro (just a decade removed from playing for the Phillies) picked up Cliff Lee for the stretch run, and that whacky dude was so money.  Utley cemented himself as the 21st-century Mr. October, even though the Yankees, of course, took the Series.

The Phillies’ .525 winning percentage during the decade was their best since the memorable 1890’s  (The manager back then was Harry Wright, the man who created professional baseball.) and their two pennants and one world championship equals the great 1980’s teams.  The last big trade of the decade was a mirror image of the franchise’s first.  On July 26, 2000 the last-place Phillies were sellers at the deadline, and their big chip was Curt Schilling.  He would be a free agent after the season, and there was no way that he was going to come back.  Nobody wanted to play in Philly in those days.  Wade picked up Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, Vicente Padilla, and Travis Lee from Arizona in a comically one-sided deal.  On December 15, 2009 Amaro completed a trade for Roy Halladay, who had expressed his desire to come to the Phillies.  He gave up a few prospects as well as our World Series hero Lee, who had also wanted to stay in Philly and called his brief stint in the red pinstripes “a dream come true.”  The Phillies in the 2000’s were like Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries (yes, I have a little sister) – awkward frizzy-haired schoolgirls at the beginning, attractive erudite royalty at the end.

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One Response to “The Agony and the Ecstasy”

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