Thursday, October 30, 2008

World Champions


For only the second time in history, the Philadelphia Phillies are World Champions. I let my daughter stay up to watch the game, and she sat with Mrs. S during the ninth inning while I talked on the phone with my father and brother, who had set up a conference call.

Brad Lidge, the Phillies closer, got the final out, a swinging strikeout, just like Tug McGraw did the only other time the Phillies won the title, in 1980. And, like McGraw in 1980, he did it with the tying run on base.

Last night was the resumption of a game suspended in the middle of the sixth inning Monday due to weather, but with all the anxiety and emotion, those three innings felt like nine. As I said to a friend earlier in the day, "If you're a fan of the chess match, this is the game for you."

Because the first five and a half innings produced a tie, other than the player already removed from the game (pitcher Scott Kasmir), they meant nothing. This was essentially an abbreviated game, with the World Series on the line. Every pitch takes on added significance in the postseason, but when one third of a game can determine the outcome of the World Series, that significance is tripled.

When Rocco Baldelli hit a home run in the top of the seventh, my stomach twisted itself into tense knots as I sagged on the couch. A single by the number-eight hitter, Jason Bartlett, didn't help. Two batters later, Akinori Imawura hit a bouncer into the no-man's land behind the mound. Chase Utley wisely didn't attempt to throw out the speedy leadoff hitter and caught Bartlett trying to steal a run.

It was the kind of play that that steals momentum. The Rays had tied the game and nearly taken the lead, but the Phillies took the momentum with them back to the first-base dugout.

Still, when Susie called in the bottom of the seventh, I was too anxious to take the call. The situation demanded my full attention.

Fortunately, Pat Burrell saved his only World Series hit -- a home run that the wind turned into a triple that he legged into a double -- for when the Phils really needed it. One productive out later, one of Chad Bradford's submarine pithces surfaced about belt high, and Pedro Feliz singled home pinch runner Eric Bruntlett. My stomach settled.

But the relief was brief because J.C. Romero, who was left in to hit in the seventh, fell behind in the count and then gave up a leadoff single to Carl Crawford. The double-play grounder off the bat of B.J. Upton did more for my stomach than Rolaids ever could. I knew we were one out away from Lidge. The title was in sight.

But nothing comes easy for the teams I root for, and Lidge left a slider up a little too much, and Dioner Navarro turned it into a broken-bat single. The tying run was on with one out. Soon after I said that the runner can't be allowed to steal, pinch runner Fernando Perez stole second. Then Ben Zobrist hit a soft liner to right that hung up long enough for Jason Werth to catch.

It was the last anxious moment of the game.

When Carlos Ruiz squeezed Lidge's last slider of the season, I yelled "Yeah!" and watched the pileup of red pinstripes in front of the mound. It was a celebration that nobody in that familiar uniform had participated in for 28 years, one that I hadn't seen since I was in grade school.

I could hardly believe that I was watching the Phillies celebrate a World Series title. It wasn't as unbelievable as when the Sox finally won it all in 2004, because I had seen the Phillies do it once before, and the Sox were never supposed to win. There was a whole industry built around their futility, libraries full of books by people congratulating themselves for sticking with such an apparently star-crossed franchise.

But I didn't grow up with any of that shit. I was thrilled when the Sox finally won and I celebrated their titles, but I was raised on the Phillies, teams that were good but not quite good enough until they won it all in 1980. By the mid 80s, they were just an average team. By the late 80s, they sucked. And they kept on sucking through the 90s, save for 1993. The tributes to the 1980 team and to the best players from the past that the team did every so often to attract fans to the ballpark were nice at first but soon became pathetic reminders that there was no other reason to go to the ballpark, and that current teams and players were unlikely to be honored this way.

Well, Phillies fans don't have to live in the past anymore. The Phillies are World Champions.

Entire generations of Phillies and Red Sox fans never got to see their teams win a title. I am blessed that I got to see each team win two titles, and that I got to share those titles with my family.

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