(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Phillies Win! Phillies Win! Phillies Win!

It's a rare occasion when you get to take the family to a game where your favorite team can clinch a title. That's the position we found ourselves in yesterday afternoon, as we drove to Citizens Bank Park, hoping for rain, a good outing for Jamie Moyer, and a good enough offensive performance to carry the Phillies to victory and to the National League East title.

You all know the result -- the Phillies won, 4-3, against a gritty Nationals team that played as though it were trying to win the NL East title. As Baseball Prospectus wrote in its 2008 guide, it would be interesting to see what Nats' skipper Manny Acta could do with a good baseball team. He pushed all the right buttons yesterday, and the Phillies were in for a fight.

It was a great day all around. As we entered the park, the ushers handed us small towels with a red emblem that either said "Phiting' Phils" or "Fighting Phils." They were warm to the touch, and they were plentiful. We arrived early enough to watch batting practice, and the first sign of a special day was when Jamie Moyer alighted from the dugout about an hour before game time and, along with pitching coach Rich Dubee, headed toward the bullpen in center field. While the crowd had yet to fill the stadium, there were hundreds of people standing along the first-base line. As Moyer passed by, the fans gave him a rousing cheer. You see, while Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are the huge names on the Phillies, Moyer is the wise man, the sage veteran, the conscience of the team, the guy who strikes a chord with the entire fan base because of his professionalism and because at 45 3/4 he gives us all a sense that we, too, are young and still can battle athletically with people half our age. He gets as much respect now as any Phillie ever has.

The next thing we noticed was that the Phillies were relaxed before the game. Pat Burrell was the first position player to come out to stretch, and before he went back into the clubhouse he signed autographs for fans along the right-field line. His doing so surprised us. Normally it's Moyer who signs on days he doesn't pitch, Utley who signs about 10 autographs at the same spot along the right-field line before he heads in, and perhaps Cole Hamels, a Moyer protege, every now and then. But Pat Burrell? His contract expires after the season, he likes Philadelphia, and perhaps he's getting nostalgic about his time in the City of Brotherly Love.

Finally, it was game time. The weather was overcast, threatening, but the rain held off. The Phillies ran out to the field, and Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins met near second base. They shook hands, as if to tell us that they had come this far, they were out there to do business, and that the day was going to be special.

Moyer got the Nats out 1-2-3 in the first and pitched an outstanding 6 innings. The Phillies went up 3-1 by the middle of the game, thanks to the stalwarts -- Utley and Howard -- and great supporting player, Jayson Werth (home run) and the light-hitting starting catcher (Carlos Ruiz). My eight year-old said to me after Moyer exited, "Dad, we're going to win this game." Said, of course, with all of the exuberance of a third-grader.

I had endured enough shots to the arm and head from his twirling his rally towel, but this remark couldn't go unnoted. "Hey, wait a second," I admonished, "you haven't been a Philadelphia fan long enough. There've been enough late-game disappointments in Philadelphia sports history to get overconfident with only a 3-1 lead." I'm sure that he thought, "what's he talking about?", but I needed to make the comment nonetheless. The 1964 Phillies, the 1977 playoffs, where ghosts of Manny Mota and Vic Davalillo haunted Veterans Stadium for years, John Havlicek's stealing the ball against the 76ers, among others.

The Nats stayed gritty. No one told Anderson Hernandez and Cristian Guzman that they were 59-100 going into the game, and the Phillies' bullpen bent a bit. The hometown team yielded another run, and going into the bottom of the eighth it was 3-2, Phillies. Up until that time, of course, the story was Moyer, Werth's home run, and two great fielding plays by Jimmy Rollins, one on a funny hop to short that he grabbed at eye level to make an inning-ending play, the other a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch in short center that prevented a big Nats' inning. On that play, Rollins collided with Shane Victorino, but thankfully the starting centerfielder wasn't hurt. After that collision, the Phillies' fans saw skipper Charlie Manuel run as fast as he probably can to check on his speedy outfielder. As Manuel ran back to the dugout with equal vigor, he received a nice ovation from the fans.

In the bottom of the eighth, Victorino singled, and then 3B Pedro Feliz doubled to left center. Watching Victorino run three bases at a time is a true treat, and he sped to the plate, giving the Phillies a 4-2 lead. I then explained to the kids that this run is called an "insurance" run, because it's great to go into the last inning with an extra run, just in case.

Enter "Lights Out" Brad Lidge, the Phillies' closer, who was 40-40 in save attempts during the season. You would have figured that he would nail down the victory, enabling the team to start the party. Why not? He had been perfect all year, and, after all, the Nats were 59-100 while the Phillies were 77-0 when holding the lead after eight innings, the best record in the majors.

Well, "Lights Out" almost got his lights put out (or lit up, depending on how you categorize it), and the ghosts of Phillies' pasts -- Davalillo, Chico Ruiz and the rest -- were dancing in the atmosphere. The clouds were getting more ominous, and the patchwork quilt lineup that is the Nats' team summoned its inner Andre Dawson and Gary Carter -- two stars from the franchise's past -- and played as if it were they who needed to come from behind to win the game. The Nats scored a run and had the sacks jammed with one out and Ryan Zimmerman coming to bat. Lidge clearly pitched more like his injury-prone Houston self (the guy who lost the closer's job twice) than the guy who was arguably the NL's best closer this season.

Zimmerman hit a hard grounder up the middle. Most of us thought it was through. Rollins dove, flipped it to Utley, who pivoted and threw a high strike to Howard at first base. Double play! Game over! Phils win! Phils win! Phils win!

I turned and hugged by son, and then pivoted to hug my daughter and my wife. We high-fived the guy in front of us (who had a nifty catch of a foul ball innings earlier), his young daughter, the guys behind us, the people next to us, and people walking by in the aisle. Then we all stood there, watching young men in their prime running onto the field and jumping up and down. We cheered them, wildly, thanking them for their great season, for their pluck in September, and for winning the division. It was great to watch, great to be there, great to share with my family.

I welled up just a slight bit, if only to remember my late father, with whom I went to games from the time I was a three year-old (to the old Connie Mack Stadium) to the year before his death, over 22 years ago. We suffered when I was young, enjoyed a great team when I was in high school, and saw them start to slip right before he died. We drove to the games or took the subway, sat on the third-base line, and marveled at the batting prowess of Mike Schmidt, the fielding wizardry of Larry Bowa and Garry Maddox, and the master craftsmanship that Steve Carlton displayed ever time he took the mound. Somehow, I felt, he, my late grandmother (who listened to every game) and my late great uncle (who sometimes attended family functions with a transistor radio in his suit jacket and an earpiece in his ear) were there, watching, cheering along with the rest of us. And, I sensed, that this was the way with many Phillies' fans yesterday, that not only were they cheering for themselves, but they were also cheering for the memories that they had over the years and the additional chapter that was written yesterday.

Unless you've lived in New England recently, you just don't get to enjoy championship moments that frequently. When you do, you have to really enjoy them. Sometimes we don't cherish our celebrations for long enough, and that's a shame. We're off to somewhere else, to the next appointment, the next requirement, the next obligation. That's understandable -- it's a fast-paced world that moves quickly -- but it's nice when that world slows down, almost to slow motion, so that you can remember the smile on your child's face, the joy your wife shows at the victory, the happiness of a large segment of the population.

Because it doesn't happen every day.

And when it does, it's something to savor, to share, and to remember for a long time.

Rollins to Utley to Howard.

Moyer, the wise southpaw.

Forty-five thousand people, jumping for joy.

Hugs all around.


A great day.


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