I’d love to scream and jump for joy right now, but my voice is as hoarse as a 90 year-old lung disease victim. I was going to write something on Saturday, about Friday night’s Phillies game, but was busy almost all day, and so today, a post about the weekend’s games, about the playoffs, and anything else I happen to think of. This is a long post–just over 2300 words, so, ya know, make sure you’re comfortable.
Friday night’s game attendance came about on Thursday night, when older brother of Mr Thursday, the freakishly tall Stork, phoned to ask if freakishly tall younger brother Goose, and I, wanted in on standing room tickets. We said yes, and to add an extra for Mrs Thursday.
Going into the game, given the way the Kyles (Kendrick and Lohse) had delivered the previous two games (out-dueling John Smoltz and Tim Hudson), and the way Hamels hadn’t yet gotten his command since his return, I was honestly nervous about a sort of let down game. I thought we might see 5-6 innings out of Cole, with a lot of deep ball counts, and while he wouldn’t be terrible, we’d definitely need a good game out of the offense for the win. This fear gained a little traction as Hamels took the mound, as the Nationals clobbered a couple of Hamels pitched, but thankfully, the balls flew directly toward Phillie defenders.
In the second inning, everything changed. Hamels threw lots and lots of strikes, and the Nats were swinging wildly at curveballs and changeups for the next 7 innings, barely able to make any contact at all. Hollywood Hamels seemed to enjoy the hell out of his first Big Game start. He pitched 8 innings, giving up no runs, striking out 13, walking 1, and allowing only 6 hits. I said after the game that is was the best pitched game I’ve ever seen live. Brother Goose called it the second best he’s seen, after witnessing Kevin Millwood’s no-hitter a couple of years ago. Regardless of its rank in our personal pantheons, Hamels performance was electric. One fan, sitting 20 rows in front of us, held up a sign, which read METS down the left side, but across it read “My Entire Team Sucks”.
The lineup wasn’t half-bad, either. Rollins kept plugging along, stealing bases and playing excellent defense. Utley hit a double, Howard hit a home run. Shane Victorino nearly threw Ronnie Belliard out at first base in the first inning. Aaron Rowand made a sensation diving catch late in the game, which was wonderful not only on its own merits, but it immediately brought the fans to their feet, thus crushing the relentlessly obnoxious Wave that had been circling the stadium like turn in a toilet bowl. The Phillies win 6-0.
Saturday rolls around, and Mrs Thursday and I go to a nearby festival for bratwurst and brewery tours, missing the beginning of the game. By the time we return, and plant ourselves in front of the game, the Phils were floundering a bit. Some bad, bad, bad defense by the usually excellent Carlos Ruiz and the Thank-God-He-Can-Hit Ryan Howard give the Nationals a lead, which Matt Chico and the bullpen refuse to relinquish, despite some threats from the Phillie lineup. No dice, and with John Maine almost throwing a no hitter, and the Mets win 136-0, and move back into a tie for the NL East crown.
So, Sunday rolls around. Its Papa Thursday’s birthday, so at the game, once again are Goose and Stork, the freakishly tall older and younger brothers. Also there is Mama and Papa Thursday, and Mama Thursday’s brother his wife, the Aunt and Uncle. We’re somewhat spread out through the stadium, with Mama and Papa high in right field, while Stork and Aunt and Uncle recline in a nearby section, and Goose and I enjoy the shade in the 400 level, high above home plate.
We walked in a few minutes before the first pitch. Making our way through the concourse, the already largely filled stadium absolutely exploded. Running over toward the field to see what’s going on, Goose uses his freakish height to ascertain the situation. Marling 4, Mets 0, in the first inning. Things are looking fantastic.
We take our seats, already yelling about the glory of the Florida Marlins. The crowd is outstanding. For the first few innings, every strike called produces a war-cry, every ball, gets an ump jeered. The crowds screams “MVP” as Jimmy Rollins singles, steals second, then gains the attention of Nat pitcher Jason Bergmann for wandering to far from the bag. Bergmann throws and looks over a couple of times, and Jimmy promptly steals third, and then scores on Chase Utley’s line drive. A few innings later, Howard opens things up with a line-drive 2-RBI single over Ronnie Belliard, who had been shifted into shallow left field. Not much later, a Rollins triple scores two more, and Ryan Howard’s final home run of the regular season puts the Phillies up 6-1.
Charlie Manuel didn’t mess around during the game, and brought in the big 3–Tom Gordon, JC Romero, and Brett Myers, to lock things up once Moyer handed over the keys. With 1 out in the sixth, and two on, Gordon induced a double play to escape trouble. Romero carried the load for two stellar innings, and handed the game to Brett Myers for the ninth. The crowd was on its feet.
Myers pounds Dmitri Young with curveballs, striking him out. As he strikes out Young, the right field scoreboard announces that the Mets have lost to the Marlins, and the Phillies are 2 outs from the playoffs. The next batter, Austin Kearns, gets ahold of a Myers fastball, and sends hit skyward, but the ball lands comfortably in the soft hands of Michael Bourn, who took over leftfield for Pat Burrell.
And then came my favorite part of the game. One out away from the division title, the Opening Day starter, Brett Myers, receives the ball back in the infield. It seems weirdly appropriate that the opening day starter would somehow become the final game’s closer. Meanwhile, the crowd has erupted. There are no words to describe these kinds of frenzy. We’re not chanting or clapping or singing. There are 45,000 people jumping and roaring with as much sound as they can muster, after screaming just the same way for the previous 3 hours. Whatever anyone had left in their throats, they used at that moment. Myers took a moment, walking behind the mound with the ball, facing out toward centerfield, while we screamed. I don’t know what he was thinking about, out there. Just taking a deep breath, perhaps, to calm down. Maybe just soaking all this in, what it means to these fans, when he gets this final out.
Andy, who infrequently writes for this site, calls from New Orleans, as he’s watching the game on GameCast. It’s too loud in the stadium, so I just tell him to listen, and he gets to hear the crowd as the game ends. The first pitch, a strike, and the crowd somehow gets louder. Then a ball, and then two fouls. Finally, another pitch–I have no idea what he threw–and Wily Mo Pena swings through it. I’ve never heard anything so loud. Goose and I leapt, screaming, into the air, and grabbed each other, hugging, screaming, and pointing to the sky, to the field. The players come rushing in from the field, from the bullpen, from the dugout. Pat Burrell tackles Brett Myers. Jimmy Rollins finds a microphone–Jimmy who proclaimed the Phillies the team to beat in January, and who played every game. The stats indicate that, even after missing a month, Utley was the most valuable player on the team this year, and probably the most valuable in the entire league. But Jimmy, this year, represented every reason why fathers bring their sons to baseball games. He played every game, only taking a couple innings off at the end of blowouts. He played very well, too. He hit and ran, and turned double plays. Nobody in Philadelphia was more fun to watch, this summer, than Jimmy Rollins. He might win the MVP, and he might not deserve it, but I don’t care about that. As soon as Jimmy picked up that microphone and tried to thank the Phillies fans for the season, for showing up, for being loud, well, the only thing that could be heard were 45,000 voices crying “MVP! MVP!” again and again. By the time we relented, the part of Jimmy’s speech that could be heard were, “We’ll see ya in the World Series.” The crowd continues its madness.
Ryan Howard and Chase Utley tried similar speeches, and Citizens Bank Park speaker system similarly succumbed to the might of the roaring crowd. The jumbotron showed a fan with a sign, “From the Phillies – Thanks to the Marlins and the Nationals, and See You Next Year, You Stinkin’ Mets”. A perfect summary.
After we cleared out, the seven of us met in the parking lot, to hang out and watch the honking, celebratory cars depart. Stork, the older brother, is a big football guy who likes baseball. Goose and I are mainly baseball people. Papa Thursday loved the Phils when we were younger, driving us to a couple of games every year, and telling us stories about Jim Bunning and Lefty and The Bull and Tug and Michael Jack Schmidt. About the 1980 team with its “We are not afraid, we have Del Unser”. He recalled the misery of 1964 before it became vogue to do so. He couldn’t believe the 5-1 trade for Von Hayes when it happened. In 1993, when I was 9 years old, he made a habit out of predicting home runs by Pete Incaviglia. He probably wasn’t right as often as I remember, but as a 9 year-old, I was flabbergasted by this talent. He taught us how to throw baseballs, and how to hit them. How to take a lead at first base. But in 1994, when the strike hit, he left baseball. You can’t play baseball for love, but then stop playing it because of money, he thought, and to a fair degree, he was absolutely correct. My brothers and I, following the lead of our father, were similarly crushed, and likewise ditched the game–the MLB, the Phillies, Little League, all dead to us.
Somehow, we got back into it. I think I was the first to return, in 1998 or ’99, but Goose and Stork followed shortly thereafter. Pops Thursday wasn’t interested. He wasn’t interested in games on TV, or in attendance. In 2003, he went to his first baseball game since attending Game 4 of the 1993 World Series. This time, for a Steve Carlton bobblehead giveaway. Over the next three years, he went to a game or two each year, and slowly refound his interest.
By the time Christmas rolled around, Goose and I had given him tickets for the upcoming season. 6 games, including Opening Day and the final game of the year. Opening Game was, almost predictably, a disappointment, as the offense fails to come alive, and the Phils pitching isn’t quite enough. Complaints about the times of games getting changed kept flying for the next few months. Somehow, though, this team got through to him. All-business Utley who plays stellar second base, and runs out doubles every other game got his attention. Howard’s bombs did likewise. Hamels dazzling pitching, Kendrick’s surprising success after his callup. Jimmy’s leadership, hustle, and all-around excellence. Good performances from Dobbs and Werth off the bench. Pat Burrell “coming alive”. Shane Victorino and Aaron Rowand locking down the right and center portions of the outfield. There was just a lot to like about the team, and the elder Thursday was caught up in it.
That culminated yesterday. For the first time in 14 years, a Phillies team with something to play off, came through win it mattered.
Baseball is a community game. It’s not like basketball or soccer or even hockey in that, with the right equipment, you can do it on your own. And football only requires someone to catch and throw the ball with. Baseball needs more people. People to throw and catch and field and run. The game is so nuanced, that it’s nearly impossible to become good at it without a lot of help. Likewise, it’s celebrated by a community. After 162 games, a baseball team is like family. You’ve spent time with them almost every day for six months. When they succeed, far more than when, say, a football team succeeds, the success is shared by the fans. It can never feel as good to win the Super Bowl, as it does to win the World Series. If you’re unsure about that, ask Bill Simmons.
And so, when I was 5 or 6 and my father bought me a glove and took me to cold April games in Veterans Stadium and told me stories about no hitters and grand slams, it was a memorable part of my childhood. They’re some of the best and most distinct memories of time spent with my father. He left baseball, and for the first time, this year, with this team coming through and making the playoffs, his children helped give it back to him.
There’s no point in trying to predict the playoffs. There’s no analysis to be done. The team that plays best in a short stretch, and gets lucky, will win it all. We’ll be watching, father and son, and rooting, for the Phillies.