I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.—Timothy 4:7
He dropped to his knees, as if in prayer, gazing intensely toward the heavens with arms reaching out because he was so grateful, so overwhelmed with joy and relief. It was fitting that in the city of Philadelphia where there is a strong religious foundation, Phillies closer Brad Lidge celebrated getting the final out of the Game Five clincher of the World Series the way he did.
Lidge fits Philadelphia. So too does the entire team that just gave the city and Phillies fans everywhere their first championship in twenty-eight years. It is a time for Phillies worship. It is a time to be thankful for being a Phillies fan.
This World Series found the Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays battling it out and there was all sorts of the spiritual injected into the Fall Classic: from the late Tug McGraw’s son Tim scattering some of his ashes on the pitching mound, to a thunder storm of biblical proportions interrupting Game Five, to a young cancer patient’s—who died in August—inspiration and influence over the Rays players with the words, “Courage + Belief = Life.”
Both teams had their spiritual leader. The Phillies skipper, Charlie Manuel, a man with a quiet power and uplifting nature, he calmly observed his players from the dugout without much expression. He remained solid and unbreakable, even when his beloved mother June died just before they defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the NLCS. Rays manager Joe Madden found a way to inspire his young to rise to the occasion, with creative thinking and absolute faith in his players. He believed they had the best in them.
But there was an eerie feeling in the hearts of Philadelphians. A sense that victory was near and, somehow, the Phillies made it seem as if they knew it all along. Even with the maddening habit of leaving men on base, the Phillies were rolling over teams in every series they played and the World Series was no different. In each series (NLDS, NLCS, and WS) they lost only one game. Their superstar hitters—Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins—weren’t accomplishing much at the plate. Guys such as Shane Victorino and a couple of pitchers were doing the hitting.
The arms had to have it.
Phils starting pitchers (as well as the NL’s best bullpen) had to be more than good, and more than great; they had to go beyond what they had ever done in their careers. Brett Myers was getting on base, shrugging in confusion. Joe Blanton hit his first career home run. Jaimie Moyer threw his forty-five-year-old body to the ground to make an outstanding play to Ryan Howard at first base. It was a call against him that the umpire later admitted was incorrect.
Then there was the Cole train.
Twenty-four-year-old Cole Hamels was hurtling toward history with his tall and lean frame, and fearless disposition; he stared into the eyes of every hitter that stood before him as poised as a veteran. Manny Ramirez doesn’t just strike out. But in the NLCS, Hamels left the Dodgers star looking like a guy who’d just been shipped in to fill a roster spot.
Hamels won all four of his starts in the post-season. But keeping him from making history with a fifth win was a tough broad named nature.
After defeating the Brewers and the Dodgers, the Phils met their World Series opponent, the magnificent Tampa Bay Rays at their cow-bell filled, oddity of a domed park. Catwalks were the talk of the pre-game shows. How would the Phillies handle playing on astro turf? How would they perform after a five day break? The questions seemed absurd or desperate; the media searched for an angle to explain why the Phillies couldn’t win.
The Phillies shrugged away all concerns. They left Tampa with the series tied 1 to 1 and they never looked worried. And as anyone in baseball will tell you, an air of confidence can matter just as much as talent. In every interview, they carried themselves like a team that had won long ago. They were there, but there was no competition. It was an exhilarating and almost frustrating sight. Didn’t this team understand the Phillies just don’t win like this? Fans get nervous having too much confidence. We wait for the other shoe to drop. And when the Phils came home, those fans felt they heard a distinct thud.
When Tim, Tug’s son (who struck out Willie Wilson to get the final out of the 1980 World Series), went to the hill and quietly scattered some of his father’s ashes there was no fanfare about it. But it certainly added to a spiritual connection to the 1980 team that the media and fans had begun to create. It was, remember, in the numbers.
They won Game Three by a score of 5 to 4 at 1:47 in the morning. And they earned a Game Four victory with a stellar performance by Joe Blanton who also somehow hit a homerun. The Phillies were cruising to a World Series title.
So this was it? Were we actually going to be winners, us Phillies fans? All the Phillies had to do was win one more. It was amazing how the years to get there dragged on, but the moment actually seemed to be coming quite easy. It all felt too … effortless, too perfect. Oh, Philadelphia you had to know.
Everyone who’d been paying attention heard there was a system headed for the Philadelphia are, but when commissioner of baseball Bud Selig heard that it was going to be impossible to play Game Five, how early he understood it, and what his intentions were we’ll never know. He’s got a story. And maybe it’s true, but most people felt pretty certain that he was waiting for a really good moment to call the game. Well, he got it.
Before Game Five even began, Jaimie Moyer was shown crossing the field in a sheet of heavy rain. It didn’t look good. But the game went on as planned and, holy cow, Cole Hamels was dealing. But Rays starter Scott Kazmir had his own cards. He wasn’t giving the slouching Phils hitters anything either. Two runs for the Phils off a Shane Victorino double was all they were getting.
The rain was getting heavier, more consistent. Players were taking the field in standing water. Why wasn’t the game being stopped?
After the Rays tied it on a Carlos Pena RBI single, Selig felt the time was suddenly right to call the game. Though the rain was clearly not going to let up and had gotten progressively worse an inning ago, he chose that moment to get everyone off the field. He nervously addressed reporters in a press conference; the media seemed convinced this wasn’t just a little convenient. Rays manager Joe Madden was visibly thrilled at this turn of events.
And, strangely, the game was canceled quite quickly and it was announced Selig was on a plane about an hour later.
And so began nearly forty eight hours of waiting. Phillies fans began to imagine disastrous outcomes. We were waiting for the worst and we felt this was it. There was talk in the media about the upbeat Rays mood at their hotel in Delaware.
Finally, the weather broke and it was announced the game would resume Wednesday night.
The teams would enter the game in the sixth inning, with the score tied 2 to 2. Relief pitchers would be starters. The home team would bat first. This was the Phillies in the World Series. It could not have been anything but weird.
Geoff Jenkins hit a leadoff double and moments later would score a run: 2 to 3. The Phils dug out erupted in joy. But the masterful Ryan Madson, who’d attempted to become a starter the year before with terrible results, started this game. And just as soon as the Phillies could breathe, the game was tied on a home run by Rocco Baldelli.
Fear crept it again. We were not exercising faith. We were being sinfully negative. Or at least some of us were.
The Rays could have gotten more, but Chase Utley made a defensive play for the ages when he bluffed Jason Bartlett at the plate and catcher Carlos Ruiz tagged him out.
With the score tied 3 to 3, a man who bore the cross of Phillies failures over the last decade came to the plate. Pat Burrell was 0 to 14 in five games. The longest tenured Phillie on the team, he’d been hyped when he was a first round draft pick as the second-coming of Mike Schmidt. Schmidt himself projected dream numbers for the towering Burrell.
But over the years as much as he accomplished, Phils fans had an up and down relationship with the left fielder. Everyone knew the game of baseball meant everything to him. He was not a show boater. He quietly did his job and sometimes he was great and sometimes he wasn’t. In Philadelphia we do not forgive because we understand human frailties exist in our athletes. We forgive when you get a hit.
Now here he was standing on the stage in the biggest moment of his career: a tied ball game in the World Series, taking what might be his last at bat in a Phillies uniform.
The rain may have headed out of town, but the wind did not. And when Burrell hit one that looked destined to be a fan’s souvenir, the wind played a part by dragging the ball away and down just before it crossed the fence. It was a long, loud double.
Burrell was then lifted for pinch runner Eric Bruntlett, who would later score the tie-breaking run on a Pedro Feliz single. Burrell had started the engine. It was huge. That run would be what they needed and all they would get.
Understand that the Phillies had gone 81 to 0 when leading after the eighth. Their bullpen was unstoppable, or, rather, unexplainable. They just worked together. J.C. Romero, Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin, and a closer who’s 2008 story you’d have to write as some sort of fantasy tale to tell a young Phillies fan as a bedtime story.
Brad Lidge was literally perfect. With forty seven saves to his name, it was all on the line and the dreams of Phillies fans surrounded him. Signs reminded him that fans believed there was a connection between 1980 and 2008 … 08 to 80. And there was another one. Tug McGraw’s number was 45. Lidge? 54.
If Lidge didn’t know how serious these fans were about their heartaches, he needed only to look up and see the signs regarding Mitch Williams and Joe Carter. Williams- now a beloved post-game commentator for the Phillies- was the closer in 1993 and in Game Six of (stop me if you know it) the World Series he gave up a three-run homerun to the Toronto Blue Jays Joe Carter.
One sign in the crowd read, “Goodnight, Joe Carter.” Holy Fregosi, Phillies fans don’t forget.
Lidge made it (as they say) interesting after Even Longoria popped up, giving up a single to Dioner Navarro and pinch runner Fernando Perez stole second; the runner was now in scoring position. Ben Zobrist was out number two and Phillies fans waited for Lidge to do what he’d been doing all season. He would lead us to joy if we just had faith.
Have you seen that slider? Well, pinch hitter Eric Hinske didn’t. Swung. Over.
Lidge fell to his knees bathed in the light of Philadelphia worship. The streets flooded with hungry animals who felt, utterly, saved.
One eighteen year old fan in the street leapt on camera panting breathlessly and yelling, “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do right now! I don’t know what to do!”
No one did. We hadn’t planned a Broad Street parade for a sports championship in twenty five years. Where to begin?
The congregation of Phillies masses—their tired, their poor, and their hungry- all came to see.
They hung from trees and hoisted small children up to see what they couldn’t understand.
The Phillies were winners in a losing town.
And if you didn’t understand the brevity of Pat Burrell’s final at bat before, you did when you saw that first float with him leading the slow journey to Citizen’s Bank Park where a huge ceremony was planned. He sat atop a float all to himself (with Elvis his dog and wife Michele), dressed all in black, nothing too flashy, standing now and then to wave. But it was his face, his proud and grateful grin that was all you needed to see. His heart looked like it was glowing right through his skin.
These were our saviors. They’d given us all they had to give on a baseball field and no one outside the confines of Phillies fandom could understand the meaning of this to us. This was a working class team for the working class who would give up a day’s pay just to see this happen.
Some of us might admit we sat with rosary beads as we watched the Phillies battle in the post-season on television. But that’s us.
All those years, we walked in faith, not in sight.
Photo Courtesy of Femme Fan