October 02, 2007

Mets who???? Ain't life grand at least for the day

This Phillies team is competing for the championship. They competed against the other 15 teams in the National League to reach the play-offs. Here they are in the play-offs and will have to best the seven other post-season qualifiers to win the World Series.

We measure and celebrate great teams not only within the season competition but against itself. That is, we ask how this Phillies team matches up against the other great teams. The Phillies teams with the best season record, the 1977 and 1978 teams, did not make the World Series. The one winner has been the 1980 Phillies who were great but did not have an exception one-loss record.

As if the competition of the 29 other 2007 Major League Baseball teams was not sufficient competition, nor even the historical legacies of the Phillies five previous pennant winners of 1915, 1950, 1980, 1983, and 1993 – the Phillies are also playing now for the hearts of the city of Philadelphia.

The Phillies are playing against the National Football League’s Eagles, the National Basketball Association’s 76ers, and the National Hockey League’s Flyers. Of America’s cities with teams in all four professional major leagues, Philadelphia has now gone the longest without a championship. The 76ers were last when they won the NBA championship in June 1983.

The city is championship starved. This hunger is a collective hunger that cuts across the loyalties of the particular organization or club.

The Eagles have had the inside track since 2001 on bringing a championship parade to South Broad Street. The Eagles went to four straight National Football Conference championship games. In three of the four they fell flat; in 2004, they waited until the Super Bowl to lay-down.

In the absence of Phillies, Sixers, and Flyers success in the past ten years, the Eagles have become Philadelphia’s team. This has in part been due to the on-field success as well as to the brilliant marketing by the team since Jeffrey Lurie purchased the franchise in 1994.

Lurie rebranded the team from logos to uniforms with midnight green, picking a distinct color used only by the Eagles in pro-sports. He banned the use of the traditional kelly-green and under his tenure, the Eagles created the “One” marketing campaign, linking the city itself with a team philosophy placing the entire organization above one individual player.

But I am not so sure that the Eagles have always been so clearly Philadelphia’s team as we might think today in the wake of the Eagles’ success. There were many lean years between 1961 and 1977, and then again in the 1980s. The Eagles played home games in the 1980s that were blacked-out on local television because the team had not sold out Veterans Stadium (which held slightly fewer fans than the current stadium, Lincoln Financial Field).

But in a sense, the Eagles have been playing a dangerous marketing games. The Eagles have come so close for so long that we look for confirmation that something is changing inside the beast – registering that this path isn't progressing.

The Eagles have looked over-matched in three of their four games so far this year and Coach Andy Reid says the same things he says after other losses. Where is the soul of the Eagles? Joe Banner and Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb are clearly talented but where is theexcitement? Yawn!

The Eagles lack fire which may be one reason they are now 1 and 3. They are not playing with any emotional intelligence. The Phillies play hard. I like the bragger of the offense even the pitchers finished with the third worst Earned Run Average in the National League.

The Phillies lost two starting pitchers to season ending injuries, lost another to the bullpen, watched Adam Eaton finish with the worst ERA of all starting pitchers in the league, and even had their ace, Cole Hamels, on the disabled list for part of the season.

The Phillies used 28 different pitchers this season including 13 different starters. They saw nine different pitchers record saves.

The offense plays as if they decided that they do not care about the pitching staff. That is, their hit as if their job is to go out and hit as many homeruns and score as many runs as possible. If the pitchers hold it together, even better, but the offense is showing leadership.

The Phils’ offense this season has come to resemble beer-league softball. They go out and hit homeruns over the short fences, and steal bases because they know that the percentages are with them. They play like a bullying high school squad, sniffing their noses at other would be champions.

This offense dares the pitcher staff, taunting them - we're going to win whether you pitch well or not. But what is great is that this takes pressure off the pitchers who can settle down and concentrate on pitching.

I had feared that the Phillies would only be in the playoffs because of the wild card - that we would sneak in the back. The play-offs are great, sure, but I wanted the Phils to earn their way to a championship
by making the playoffs because they were one of the best in the entire league – not because they were in weak-division.

When I looked up on Sunday in the light of the win, the Phils had 89 wins, tied for second in the league behind the Diamondbacks' 90 wins. Sure, 90 is fewer than the 96 with which Boston and Cleveland finished in the American League – but 89 is up there at the top of the National League. The Phillies really did hold their own and here we are, we made it.

Everyone made a big deal back in spring training about Jimmy Rollins declaring the Phillies the team to beat. The sportswriters rolled their eyes at each other, fans laughed on both sides, and we noted it when the Phillies stumbled through April and May.

Now, headlines read that Rollins follows through on his promise. He took a chance back in spring training and put his reputation among his teammates on the line. And he backed it up with such a superb season. He .300, hit for extrabase hits and hit for homeruns. Plus, he ran again, stealing 40 bases. Rollins set a goal, pushed for it in himself and in his teammates, and led the way to first-place.

Right now, this is Rollins’ team. He was the one who took the microphone at CBP on Sunday after the victory. Rollins was the one to work the crowd at Dillworth Plaza yesterday at the Phils’ rally. Rollins was the one to say that the Phillies were the team to beat. Rollins is the phone who will contend for MVP ahead of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.

My feeling in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, was a feeling of waking up into a new view of a baseball team that was already in front of me.

All season, I was looking so close at Ryan Howard striking-out, Pat Burrell hitting .200 for three months, Freddy Garcia going-down with injury, the succession of closer Tom Gordan, and then his replacement, opening day starting pitcher Brett Myers, going down in injuries. Then the Phillies resigned Jose Mesa. Good gosh, this was a nightmare of a pitching staff.

I had not seen the sum of the wins adding up, slowly. I did not see the relief pitchers returning from the disabled list. I didn’t see JC Romero turning himself into a lights-out set-up man. I didn’t see Clay Condrey around his three melt-down appearances and Condrey’s sub-2.00 ERA in the balance of his innings.

Jayson Werth returned from an injury. Chase Utley returned and then Michael Bourn and then Shane Victorino. Everyone was back. September 17 the Phillies were back by seven.

The Mets began losing and the Phillies winning. A friend who is a Mets fan wrote me an email, “In the words of Moises Alou, ‘I hate baseball right now.’” The Mets were so harsh at the end. I was glad to see the Mets lose and I was unhappy to see them lose like they did. It was ungraceful as players stumbled and imploded and then disappeared. Billy Wagner gives the play-by-play through the press.

It was an ugly disintegration, as if they showed themselves with no fight even last week, when they still had a lead and fighting chance. Then last Thursday night came and the St Louis Cardinals were in New York for a make-up game and the Phillies hosted the Nationals. The Phillies won and the Mets lost and they were tied. By then, it was over. Yes, the Mets would be playing the Florida Marlins, the fifth-place team in the division, it did not matter, the Mets had given up. They quit right there in the homestretch. That is what makes their collapse so remarkable – they really could have stopped it had they shown a little fight.

The Phillies showed nothing but fight. Friday night, Cole Hamels struck out 13 batters and delivered the big-game performance which we always assumed he would master. Saturday afternoon’s loss to Nationals was maddening watching Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard make hurtful errors out of big-game jitters.

Saturday was the game the Phillies needed to win and when they were losing, they sat in nervous silence. The Fox sportscasters wandered at how quiet and sad they all looked. I was one of them Saturday afternoon, biting my shirt in fearful anticipation. The Phillies would blow it again!

The Mets’ game on Sunday afternoon began 25-minutes before the Phillies’. The Marlins came out punching against Mets starting-pitcher Tom Glavine and hit him for five runs before Glavine was pulled, recording only one out. Fans settled into watch the Phillies play when the score from Flushing came in, FLA 5 NYM 0. By the time the Phillies came to bat in the bottom of the first, it was FLA 7 NYM 0 after one inning.

Rollins started the game with a single. He stole second. He stole third. He came home on a sac-fly. The party was on. That was it. Philly fans started chearing.

It continued until 4:30 PM when Brett Myers closed out the Nationals in the ninth. At 4:36, my grandmother phoned me, crying, “I want you to know, I never gave up on them!”

Here they were, National League East Champions. We started thinking again about 1993 and Kruk and Dykstra and Daulton. We started thinking about 1980 and we thought about 1964 and 1950.

This team is different.

What is different about this team is that the color of its star players matches the colors of this city. Utley and Burrell are white and Rollins and Howard are black. “Big deal!” you say, “they are good for what they do on the field and the rest does not matter.”

Exactly! Which has not always been the perception of the Phillies in Philadelphia. The Phillies, of all the teams in 1947, were the hashest and meanest to Jackie Robinson when the Brooklyn Dodgers came to town. The Phillies were last team in the National League to integrate, in 1959. The star of the 1964 Phillies was Richie Allen who had popular (but racist) Frank Thomas pushed off the team. The top stars of the 1980 Phillies were white. The same was even more the case for the 1993 Phillies (Mariano Duncan does not count!).

Of course, the 1980 and 1993 were not deliberately composed in these ways. But given the legacy of racism in Philadelphia and around the Phillies in the critical years of 1945 to 1970, it is important that the Phillies have a star player of color – who is there because he is really good and not because he is black - as a tangible sign at the Phillies that times had thankfully changed. I think it was important for the soul of the city, as one small but important aspect of its long journey of racial conciliation.

The core of the current Phillies came up through the organization. Five of the eight starters came up through the organization, and a sixth, Shane Victorino, was rescued by the Phillies from the Dodgers’ minor leagues. Two of the play-off pitchers are farm-grown and a third, Jamie Moyer, is from the area.

The 2007 Phillies are looking more and more like the city itself, and playing hard dirty blue-collar baseball like we love here. They are doing so with all of the guts and courage that the Eagles are not showing. And they have a real shot, maybe not this year, but in the near future, of being champions and being the first since 1983 to parade down Broad Street.


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