Dawn in Philadelphia

Chronicling the 2012 Phillies, by Timothy Malcolm

Part 15: Freddy! Freddy!

He stepped from the on-deck circle and strode to home plate, a 5’10”, 22-year-old kid. Freddy Galvis was playing in his fifth major league game, starting all five, parking himself at second base thanks to his glove. He dug his feet into the batter’s box, his paunchy face pointed toward the pitcher, Josh Johnson, a fire-throwing right-hander still recovering from a season-long shoulder injury. Around him, a Citizens Bank Park crowd filled to capacity stood and began clapping.

 

Galvis searched his peripheral vision. On first, a Phillie. On second, a Phillie. On third, a Phillie. By singling and slipping up the Miami Marlins defense, the Phillies had already scored three runs in this inning, owning a 3-1 lead. Finally, the offense was breathing life, and Galvis, this 22-year-old kid, had the opportunity to break a game open. The runners took tentative leads. Johnson found the sign, brought his glove to his chest, and unleashed a pitch. Ball one.

***

In 1958, Venezuelans Romulo Betancourt, Rafael Caldera and Jovito Villabla signed the Punto Fijo Pact, which sought to restrict the presidential election to three major centrist democratic parties. Betancourt of the Democratic Action party won the election. Kept out of the election were the Communist Party of Venezuela, the Republican Integration party, the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party of Venezuela.

Punto Fijo, resting in the state of Falcon, means “fixed point,” as in, the place where all congregate. In 1958 it meant influential leaders congregating to unite under a growing socialist and communist threat. Today it means a growing center, a home for Venezuelan fishermen and investment bankers. Punto Fijo also possesses the world’s largest oil refinery complex, fueling the entire country at 1 million barrels per day. Punto Fijo has risen in the Venezuelan economy, a boon on the shores of a tiny peninsula in the Caribbean Sea and hidden in the shadows of Hugo Chavez, the socialist president of the country.

Freddy Galvis was born in Punto Fijo, Falcon, in 1989, 10 years before Chavez assumed presidency of Venezuela. Like most boys in Venezuela, baseball became hobby, then passion. He played with his older brother and his friends, using corks and sticks to practice hitting, planting himself at shortstop to practice fielding. He tried hitting from both sides of the plate. He took any grounder that came his way, echoing his idol Omar Vizquel, one of Venezuela’s greatest players and, unquestionably, its most revered defensive infielder. By age 14, scouts with the Philadelphia Phillies found Galvis, whose father coached little league. Galvis could hit. Galvis could run. But most impressively, Galvis could field. Really field.

***

The clapping had become a loud, long cheer from the sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park. At once, all the fans began chanting the two syllable name:

“Freddy! Freddy!”

The Phillies opened the season losing a three-game series in Pittsburgh. They arrived home with a whimper, losing the home opener in wasted fashion. The fans booed a botched play involving Galvis. Two days later, here they were, on their feet, and Galvis dug in, waited for the pitch, and heard the fans growing in volume:

“Freddy! Freddy!”

Josh Johnson’s pitch came, and Galvis took a hack, but he fouled it off.

***

The Tampa Bay Rays offered Galvis about $250,000 in 2006. The Phillies had only offered $95,000. Yet the Phillies scouts housed Galvis in their facility. The Phillies made numerous trips to Venezuela, becoming friends with the Galvis family and creating a relationship that resulted in a contract. The Phillies, despite underpaying profusely, brought Galvis to America in 2007.

Williamsport, Pennsylvania, is a long way from Punto Fijo. Galvis flashed his glove for the Crosscutters, making up for a light offensive game despite his switch-hitting habits. And stuck in Central Pennsylvania, home of Little League glories, Galvis began learning English by watching syndicated episodes of “Friends.” He was 17, a baby by baseball standards, a fresh-faced, cherub bub pocketing ground balls for the low-A squad, miles upon miles from the big leagues, and yet, nobody knew just how close.

***

The crowd continued, louder and louder. The Phillies had finally broken through. Juan Pierre singled and stole second, though replays showed he was likely tagged out before he reached the base. Then Placido Polanco singled, and Jimmy Rollins singled, and Hunter Pence singled, and runs walked home because of porous Marlins’ defense. Finally, something to cheer about.

But this was the moment. The fans standing, waiting for the breakthrough. The rookie sought his second hit. His first was an inconsequential double in Pittsburgh. His average hung well below .200. It didn’t matter. This was the moment.

“Freddy! Freddy”

Josh Johnson hadn’t yet found his groove in 2012. He would later limit the New York Mets to one earned run over six innings and change. Returning from shoulder surgery, Johnson still needed time to acclimate. That meant the bub, a rookie, a 22-year-old kid, could strike a major hit off of him with the bases loaded.

Galvis stood in the box. Johnson had his sign. The fans chanted. The pitch came in: Ball two.

***

The same year Galvis started his ascension of the Phillies farm system, Chase Utley was finishing one of his finest seasons. Overshadowed only by Jimmy Rollins, the elephant leading the charge for a hungry young Phillies team, Utley secured his place as baseball’s greatest current second baseman, a surefire Hall of Fame candidate if he kept up his high level of play. The Phillies, meanwhile, reached the postseason for the first time since Galvis was age 3. The beginning of an era nearly unmatched in Philadelphia baseball.

In 2008, Galvis moved one step higher, to Lakewood, New Jersey. There, he hit a little better, and still fielded better than anyone. The whispers began. Could Galvis, this 18-year-old whiz, one day supplant Jimmy Rollins at shortstop? Meanwhile Rollins was striking leadoff home runs in playoff games, guiding his Phillies to their first championship since 1980. Galvis was still miles upon miles from the big leagues.

***

With the count two balls and one strike, the fans sensed a big hit. Galvis sensed a big hit. This was a hitter’s count. Maybe it could start “hittin’ season,” Charlie Manuel’s annual acknowledgment that the offense had arrived.

It wouldn’t. The Phillies would scuffle even moreover the next week, wasting heroic pitching efforts with weak at bats. It wouldn’t be Galvis’ fault. He wasn’t there for his bat. Still, Galvis would hit his first career home run two nights later against the New York Mets. And Galvis would find himself leading the team in runs batted in for a short spell.

But Galvis was there for his glove, which sparkled. Effortless dives into the outfield grass, quick wrists and laser throws. A madman on the dirt. A falcon from Falcon.

Josh Johnson had his sign. Galvis looked in tight. Two and one. Hitter’s count. Hittin’ season. Johnson unfurled the pitch. Galvis took a healthy cut. Foul.

Two and two.

***

Galvis kept moving higher in the farm system. In 2009 it was Clearwater, then Reading. His hitting improved slightly in Clearwater, remaining nearly steady in Reading. The fielding continued to dominate headlines.

“At SS, he’s as smooth as glass,” wrote commenter Bellman on Aug. 25, 2009, at PhuturePhillies.com, which tracks Phillies prospects. “Galvis was confident and taking charge out there.”

Galvis finished 2009 in Reading, returning in 2010 for the entire season. He returned again in 2011, amassing 985 at bats in all in Reading, while hitting .248. That was good enough. In August 2011, Galvis moved up to AAA Lehigh Valley.

The Phillies in 2011 used Chase Utley, Wilson Valdez, Michael Martinez and Pete Orr at second base. Valdez, Martinez and Jimmy Rollins each played shortstop.

***

Johnson set another pitch for Galvis. The bases still loaded, still two outs, still three across in the fourth inning. Johnson’s pitch was close, too close to take, and Galvis swung to get a piece. He got just enough. Foul pop, out of play.

***

In Reading, Galvis hit seeing-eye singles and little choppers. Soon those lucky grounders became line drives, a few home runs, too. By 2011 Galvis had become a pro at meeting the ball, striking easy singles and doubles, growing as an offensive player.

In 2011 with Reading, Galvis hit .273 with 22 doubles, four triples and eight home runs. When minor league play ended, the Phillies awarded Galvis with the organization’s Paul Owens Award for offense, the highest honor bestowed upon a minor leaguer. The Phillies sensed it: Galvis was no longer miles upon miles from the big leagues. He was one bad injury away.

***

“Freddy! Freddy!”

The team broadcasting the Phillies game for ESPN acknowledged the major chant circulating Citizens Bank Park. It was the Phillies’ first national broadcast of the season, and here was a 22-year-old kid digging in for the biggest at bat of his life. One wondered if he barely worried.

Valdez encountered ribbing in Venezuela. He struck corks with sticks. Anything to hit the ball, anything to play baseball.

Centrism no longer runs Venezuela. Hugo Chavez, leader of the United Socialist Party, has served as president since 1999. A revolutionary, he is both beloved and loathed. He is influential and controversial. Galvis grew up in this environment, one of sketchy human rights and socialist ethos. Everyone for themselves. Make your way out if you can. Opportunity knocks, but good luck finding it.

Galvis got out. He spent his teenage years in shabby hotels throughout the Midwest and East Coast. He never attended college, yet received a full college education in baseball from the Philadelphia Phillies. He learned English thanks to a long stay in America, aided by Joey, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Monica and Phoebe. Williamsport, Lakewood, Clearwater, Reading, Lehigh Valley. There are farther places from Punto Fijo, but there aren’t further places from Punto Fijo.

Philadelphia, however, couldn’t be closer. A fixed point. Forty-thousand men and women dressed in red and white, standing and clapping and shouting at this 22-year-old kid from the streets of Venezuela, sizing his bat during the at bat of his life.

“Freddy! Freddy!”

Josh Johnson set himself. The three runners led off their bases. The pitch came in. Galvis saw it sure – the biggest cork he’d ever see in his life. He swung the stick free and easy, like he did late in Reading, and struck the cork perfectly.

The ball sailed into right field, bouncing on the grass before meeting the glove of Giancarlo Stanton. Two runs came home. Galvis met second base with a wide smile. The fans hadn’t cheered louder in what seemed like years. This wasn’t the robotic ease of a Roy Halladay no-hitter. This wasn’t an obvious division championship celebration. This was a 22-year-old kid striking the biggest hit of his life, one that can bring white hot hope to a city beginning to search for a reason. It was the unlikely double. The unbelievable had happened.

Of course, Freddy was probably the biggest believer in the house.

Part 14: A Dust-Up at a Party

Jonathan Papelbon squinted sharply toward home plate, his head stretched slightly ahead, the brim of his hat hanging low, hiding his eyes.

He pumped his head once, then twice. Then the wind whipped hard. Wrappers wound behind home plate. A cloud of dirt flew wildly past home plate. Papelbon set, the umpire yelled for time, and Papelbon looped an underhand fastball through the thick air. It was 6-2 Miami Marlins, ninth inning of the Phillies home opener. The dusting dutifully defined the Phillies’ futile beginning.

***

The 2012 regular season began at PNC Park, the sparkling gold and stone playplace for Pittsburgh baseball fans. Opening in 2002, PNC Park immediately earned the adulation of baseball purists and entertainment seekers alike. Its cozy features sit snug against the Allegheny River, while spectacular bridges span from the outfield backdrop. Fans can walk across the major centerfield bridge, the Clemente Bridge, before Pirates games. And thousands did on April 5, the first afternoon of American baseball, one kissed by a brilliant Midwestern sun.

This was the Phillies’ first win of the season, and for a short time, it would be the Phillies’ only win of the season. It’s because Roy Halladay stepped onto the rubber of PNC Park that afternoon – his third consecutive opening day start as a Phillie – and surgically set down Pirate after Pirate. This wasn’t a surprise. This was Roy Halladay.

Born in Colorado, marrying young and joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Halladay was drafted in 1995 by the Toronto Blue Jays. Quiet and calm, Halladay possessed a furious fastball that excited Radar guns and caused a stir in opposing clubhouses. It allowed him to climb the Toronto system until he debuted in 1998, nearly notching a no-hitter in his second major league start. But baseball caught up to his heater, and by 2000, Halladay was a quiet and calm broken man. Pushed deep into the Toronto minor leagues, Halladay hooked up with pitching guru Mel Queen, found Harvey Dorfman’s “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching” and resurrected his career. Quiet and calm, Halladay adopted bite and sink, painted corners and finished off hitters with a cut fastball that excited pitching experts and caused a stir in his own clubhouse. By 2002 Halladay was reborn, beginning a masterful career in Toronto that ended nine years later. Quiet and calm, Halladay wanted to play with a contender, so the Jays shipped him to the Phillies, a team with two consecutive pennants and plenty of potential.

A Roy Halladay game might start shaky. His location is off a tick. Opposing hitters feast swiftly on the fastball. A run may score, but a run may not score. But most times, with runners on base in a perilous situation, the mechanics click, the lights switch and the puzzle is solved. The robot comes to life.

When he becomes a robot, Halladay is nearly unhittable. Maybe a batter waves his bat at a pitch and pokes a dying helicopter into the outfield. Usually, however, Halladay is deliberate, determined, dutiful and definite. The fastball whizzes into the Carlos Ruiz’s glove. The changeup swoops quick. The curve traces a perfect parabola. And the cutter darts across the plate, freezing the hitter until his blue face shatters. As some say, Halladay breaks faces. And when it’s over, Halladay stalks off the mound, lips tight, eyes heavy, steps strong and assured. It’s a march, a robotic march. Nobody is spared.

On April 5, with two runners on base in the first inning, the mechanics clicked, the light switched and the puzzle was solved. Halladay zoomed the ball in to the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, who dropped his bat onto it and grounded it squarely to Jimmy Rollins. He threw it to Freddy Galvis, who slid his foot across second base and fired the ball to Ty Wigginton. Double play. Inning over. The robot had come to life, and the Pirates would not get another hit.

The Phillies won, 1-0, thanks to an antsy slide by Wigginton, result of a Ruiz sacrifice fly. The Phillies barely flooded the basepaths, relying more on singles and bunts to discover their lone run. This would only start the problem.

***

The moment Ryan Howard limped to the grass of Citizens Bank Park, Charlie Manuel began his most challenging year of managing baseball. Confirmation of Howard’s ankle injury only solidified this fact, turning all eyes to the white-haired, wrinkly wombat wearing his winter jacket and pinstriped pants. Manuel had written the names Rollins, Victorino, Utley and Howard into lineups. He had written the names Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Martinez, Blanton, Happ, Worley, Oswalt and Myers onto pitching schedules. Sometimes he made pitching changes. Sometimes he brought hitters in during tense situations, and sometimes he substituted slower athletes for quicker athletes. In short, Charlie Manuel’s managing never made a large impact on Phillies games. Sure he’d screw up, and sure he’d prove correct, but it evened out, especially once Howard clouted a ball into the nether regions of a ballpark. But now there was no Howard. And there was no Utley. And now there was Galvis, Pierre, Nix and Wigginton. There was Qualls, Stutes, Bastardo and Herndon. Names that didn’t strike assurance. Names that didn’t fit like the winter jacket or pinstriped pants. This was an awkward crew, an uncomfortable job, a challenging season.

When presented with the challenge, Manuel conformed to safety. Pierre bunted. Rollins bunted. On April 8, after Pierre advanced to second on a wayward throw off a bunt, Manuel instructed Victorino to bunt. So a man who hit .288 in 2011 bunted Pierre to third and was thrown out. Rollins struck out, leaving Pierre at third. After intentionally walking Hunter Pence, Pirates pitcher James McDonald struck out Jim Thome, ending the inning and keeping Pierre at third. And on April 7, after Pence singled to open the ninth inning in a tie game, Manuel instructed Laynce Nix to bunt. So a man who only attempted two bunts in 2011 stuck out his bat, and popped the ball straight up. No advance, one out. The Phillies wouldn’t score then, either.

The Phillies would lose April 7, 2-1, in 10 innings, and they would lose April 8, 5-4, on the final at bat.

***

When Rich Gossage first blazed fastballs down the Bronx Broadway of Yankee Stadium, he ushered an era of ninth inning dominance that led to Tony LaRussa’s coining of the closer. That led to Mariano Rivera, the only true  legendary door slammer, but the template for every other team in Major League Baseball. The ethos continues to this day: There Has to Be a Closer.

On April 5, leading 1-0, Manuel finished Halladay at eight superb innings and brought Jonathan Papelbon into his first save situation as a Phillie. Within 10 minutes, he had converted, snatching the victory without a scrape. Two days later, tied 1-1 in the ninth inning, however, Manuel didn’t call Papelbon. He brought in Bastardo. And still tied 1-1 in the tenth inning, Manuel brought in Blanton, a starter.

Blanton allowed a triple, then the infield single that lost the game.

On April 6, leading 4-3 after a turbulent inning by Michael Stutes, Manuel called upon Kyle Kendrick to start the eighth inning. He promptly allowed a single, then recorded an out. A left-handed batter appeared, so Manuel called upon Bastardo. Walk. Strikeout. Single. Tie game. An inning later, tied 4-4, Manuel didn’t call Papelbon. He brought in Herndon. And he promptly allowed a double. Two outs later and he saw an escape hatch. Blocking it was McCutchen, by far the Pirates’ best hitter. Manuel decided Herndon should pitch to McCutchen.

After working the count full, McCutchen drove the ball deep to center field, the double that lost the game.

***

But on April 9, down 6-2 in the ninth inning to the Miami Marlins, there was Papelbon, kicking the loose dirt in the air, lobbing the ball high after being told to stop his windup. The wind whipped hard and the thousands of fans remaining covered their faces. But their faces had already been covered. This was terrible baseball.

Before this mess, Cole Hamels had surrendered two Omar Infante home runs. And, in the game’s most telling moment, he failed to telegraph a bunt play with rookie Freddy Galvis. The converted shortstop Galvis notched his first major league hit in the game, a pure two-run double near the right field corner. But when Galvis couldn’t match Hamels’ throw on a bunt play, boos reigned from the stands. But these boos weren’t directed at Galvis. They weren’t even directed at Hamels. The boos, funneling through the chilly wind, a wind more fitting for December than April, were directed at the whole spectacle. Four games into the 2012 season, and the fans had finally realized this wasn’t going to be 2011. It wouldn’t be too easy. There would be pain. There would be frustration.

But with pain and frustration comes a new realization: There can be underdogs. There was Galvis, and Wigginton, and Pierre, and Qualls. New names. The unbelievable could happen.

Two nights later, the unbelievable did happen.

Part 13: Dawn

But first …

John Mayberry has to reconfirm his offensive prowess. Hitting 15 home runs with a .513 slugging percentage in nearly 300 plate appearances in 2011, the 28-year-old outfielder slumped hard in spring training. Once an opening day starter, Mayberry was now looking out from the bench.

And Juan Pierre has to prove suitable. The veteran, signed on a whim, crept his way into the starting lineup through bunts and base-stealing attempts. Yet he made plenty outs in spring training, at the plate and on base.

And Ryan Howard has to return powerful as before. The ogre who fell flat in the division series is staring at a slog of a rehabilitation effort. Get him healthy and hitting by midsummer and there’s hope.

And Chase Utley has to return to half of his ability. Half of Utley is as good as most other second basemen in baseball. But the knees will cramp and creak, closer each afternoon to crumbling. Just keep him in one piece, as one half an Utley.

And Freddy Galvis has to hold the fort. Nobody needs the slick fielding shortstop to steal the show offensively. He merely must stand strong and take his licks. Field the grounders, hit the occasional single.

And Placido Polanco has to do the same. Don’t get hurt, there’s little there to back you up. Polanco has limped lame in the dog days of previous seasons. Now, in his final Phillie season, it’s time to suck it up.

And Ty Wigginton has to play big. Rope the random home run. Rush straight into ready tags at second base. Dive for the ball, stride a little wider for that bag.

And Jonathan Papelbon and Antonio Bastardo and Chad Qualls and Kyle Kendrick have to figure out a formula. They’ll get the ball in the seventh, maybe the eighth, and they’ll have to hold every slim lead. They’ll face McCutchen and Stanton and Wright and Sandoval, and they’ll have to stare them down and slap them away. Every time. Every single time.

And Joe Blanton and Vance Worley have to play bigger than the brains of critics. And Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay have to stay healthy, stay outstanding and stay focused. Don’t let the pitiful offense push you down. Don’t let the one-run deficit prove daunting. Don’t let the letdown let you down.

That’s not too much, right?

***

On April 2, the parking lots surrounding Citizens Bank Park started to fill. In their long sleeves and jackets, folks in red, white and blue gulped their beers, swallowed their hot dogs and blasted tunes from their parked cars. One group was interrupted by a golf cart. The driver asked if the group wanted a ride to the ballpark, and at first the group declined. But then the group saw the driver. It was Cliff Lee.

Two exhibition games open Citizens Bank Park every season. This year the Phillies hosted the Pirates, the very team they would open the 2012 campaign against, but on the road. In game one, April 2, a lineup led by Pierre pushed ahead of the Pirates, 3-0. Blanton allowed two runs, and spring remnant Pat Misch allowed one more, but in the eighth, Galvis tripled and later scored. The Phillies won, 4-3, primarily employing an offense that emphasized the tenants of small ball: bunts, stolen bases, advancing grounders, sacrifice flies. An era that opened with the most prolific offense in Phillies history was suddenly personified by Juan Pierre, the poster boy of punching and running.

Game two of the exhibition swing resembled the older Phillies, bashing the ball about the Bank like banshees. Tied 2-2 in the fifth inning, Placido Polanco blasted a three-run home run. Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence added run-scoring doubles. Mayberry also doubled. Carlos Ruiz doubled. Pete Orr doubled. Laynce Nix doubled. Galvis doubled. On the mound, Hamels held the Pirates without a run over four frames. Everything looked great.

***

Before the second exhibition game, the San Francisco Giants secured a long-term investment, inking pitcher Matt Cain to a six-year, $127.5 million contract.

Cain pitched well in 2011, keeping a 2.88 earned run average, striking out 179 hitters and walking 63. It was Cain’s third-consecutive outstanding season; overall, Cain had compiled six good seasons in his career, and at age 27, he could have strutted into free agency with agreeable prospects. But the Giants signed him, and they signed him to a fat pact, the kind that sets the bar for other pitchers his age and caliber.

Cole Hamels, age 28, approaching free agency without a new contract, is a better pitcher than Matt Cain.

***

The Phillies will file into Pittsburgh’s PNC Park on April 5, the first day of their 2012 campaign. They will play without Ryan Howard, without Chase Utley – without the core players that carried them over the hurdles and into the heavenly hold of championship glory. Now the team belongs to pitchers Halladay and Lee, acquisitions marking the gilded age, when anything was possible, when madness reigned, and madness was beautiful. The team belongs to Hunter Pence, the cagey new guy, and Jonathan Papelbon, the lunatic leading a lost boy bullpen. Jim Thome will get the grand ovations. Jimmy Rollins will receive the warm applause. And Juan Pierre, of all people, will stand in the box first. He will represent the beginning, the dawn of a new chapter in an aging era.

Critics aren’t comfortable with the Phillies, not like they were in 2011. Now there are just three aces, and beyond that an abyss of unknown quantities. Overseeing this abyss is Charlie Manuel, tasked with the toughest test of his career: He must guide a group of unknown quantities into the postseason and into a world championship. Anything less is failure, and it brings the harsh biting wind of autumn, the cold reality of winter, the certain death of the offseason. Worst of all, it brings the oncoming Rust Age. The beautiful madness will be no more.

On October 7, 2011, Ryan Howard crumbled to a ball of broken parts. The ogre, fallen. Chris Carpenter had laughed the aura out of Citizens Bank Park, leaving fans shellshocked, forced to face the offseason too soon, forced to face the cold reality too soon.

And now, reality. Necessity in every corner. Names like Juan Pierre and Freddy Galvis, Chad Qualls and Ty Wigginton. And the dawn. It has arrived. And maybe at dusk we will live a magenta sky, where the unbelievable really does occur.

But first … the Philadelphia Phillies have to play 162 games.

Part 12: Between the Walk and the Implosion

But something happens to the fan of the winning team.

***

October 2, 2008. A gray sky hovered over Citizens Bank Park, and soon the sky turned a raging violet, something apocalyptic, as if it was to swallow whole the masses invading the brick and steel castle. The fans assembled into the park, each standing and shaking and chattering and cheering. The Phillies had won their first postseason game in fifteen years just a day before, and now, with the horse of the Milwaukee Brewers on the mound – humongous old CC Sabathia – fans wanted nothing more than a statement. Show the cherub who’s boss. Ride the horsey right out of the castle.

The Phillies tied the game 1-1 in the second inning. Carlos Ruiz stood at third base as Brett Myers stared down Sabathia from the batters box. Two out. No reason to believe the unbelievable. But this was Brett Myers in the box.

Go back six years. Myers would receive odd phone calls during the summer of 2002. Upon answering, he would hear this:

“Brett, this is Ed Wade, and you’re coming here today.”

But it wasn’t Ed Wade. It was Phil Myers, Brett’s father, pranking his son. Back in 2002, Bob Brookover of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that one Sunday, a few hours after another Phil Myers prank, the real Ed Wade called Brett. The 21-year-old pitcher debuted for the Phillies three days later, allowing just one run off two hits against the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field. At the time the Phillies were nineteen games behind the division-leading Braves. The team had thrown in the towel on 2002, and Myers’ debut marked a new day in Philadelphia; soon upstanding Midwestern boys like Scott Rolen were out, and wild prank-playing Southern boys like Myers were in.

During spring training 2008, Myers channeled his father, orchestrating a prank that involved the actual Phillies front office. Myers cajoled Ruben Amaro Jr., Charlie Manuel, coaches, trainers, players and reporters to dupe Kyle Kendrick into believing he had been traded to the Yomiuri Giants of Japan. Becoming viral quickly, the prank was one of Myers’ finest moments, the kind of careful job that may have taken longer than preparation for a start. As Myers revealed his ruse to Kendrick, he pointed out that the other party in the “trade” was Kobayashi Iwamura. “The hot dog eater!” Myers yelped in his finest Jacksonville twang. “You got punked! Hot dog eater!” But midway through the 2008 season it was Myers getting punked, spending time in the minor leagues after a string of terrible outings. His struggle echoed the static nature of the Phillies, a team stuttering, waiting to explode. When Myers finally set his ship straight, he returned to Philadelphia, leading his team to the top of the National League East and into the postseason for a second consecutive season.

And so, in the second inning of game two of the National League Division Series, Myers stared down CC Sabathia and took an 0-2 pitch for a ball. The crowd cheered. Then Myers fouled off a pitch. The cheering grew louder. Then Myers took another ball. Suddenly the cheering had risen to a roar, and the fans began waving towels, whooping it up on their feet. Another foul. Wild, rousing cheers. And a third ball. And suddenly the fans were laughing, suspended in shock that a middling pitcher was piecing together the moment of his life here under this violet sky, which was turning magenta – a bleeding magenta. Another foul! The crowd was hysterical. “CC sucks!” they yelled. Myers ducked back into the box. Sabathia tossed the full-count pitch, and it limped low and inside. A walk. The roar nearly blew the steel from their beams. Citizens Bank Park was progressing toward its greatest moment yet, and nothing would hold it down.

After Jimmy Rollins walked on four pitches, Shane Victorino would strike the grand slam that shook the park off its bearings. But without Myers it never would have happened. Just as without Myers, the Phillies would have never rebounded back into first place. And just as without Myers, the Phillies would have never had the clubhouse prankster, the guy so engrossed in letting the unbelievable play itself out. So what if pitchers shouldn’t appear dominant in Wrigley Field debuts? And so what if major league teams can’t trade players to Japan? So what if pitchers aren’t supposed to have their biggest moments at the plate in postseason games? These things can happen. Nothing is unbelievable.

***

On March 27, as the Phillies wandered through the waning days of spring training 2012, with downed cornerstones and unknown entities sprinkling the corral, Michael Baumann, writing at the blog Crashburn Alley, ripped an emotional musing he titled “Victory or Death.” He surveyed the rubble surrounding his favorite team – the second baseman without a timetable, the first baseman fielding ground balls on a stool – and heard the marching minions of the Eastern Division dungeon approaching by the day, and realized he wasn’t feeling a fire within himself.

“There’s nothing to get excited about with this Phillies team, from where I’m sitting,” Baumann wrote. “Sure, they’re going to be very good, and the pitching is going to be great, but there’s no reason to expect them to be better than (or even as good as) they were last year. And it’s not because the team couldn’t have been constructed better. I’m not optimistic. And you shouldn’t be either.”

The thinking Phillies fan was empty.

***

October 2, 2011. A gray sky hovered over Citizens Bank Park, but this one remained gray. The Phillies struck early and often against the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter, depositing balls back through the infield for four runs in the first two innings. Like three years before, the Phillies owned a four-run lead after two innings of game two of the National League Division Series at Citizens Bank Park. Like three years before, the Phillies had won game one, and were seemingly baby steps from nearly clinching the damn thing before the plane took them to the Midwest.

But as Hunter Pence singled home Jimmy Rollins for the Phillies’ fourth run, the cheers quickly evaporated. The towels stopped waving. No yelling. No shouting. No laughing. This wasn’t the shock of a pitcher’s posture in a batters box. This wasn’t the orgasmic hysteria of a bases loaded situation, where the batter facing the outfield was prepped to explode, and the pitcher facing the batter was buttered up and ready to be devoured by the magenta madness surrounding him. This was a tea party, a stroll through the garden. Cliff Lee toed the rubber for the Phillies. He was supposed to win. He didn’t play pranks. He merely muttered “Whatever” and moved on. Hot dog eater? Whatever.

Lee surrendered a run here, a run there, a run here, two runs there, and before the buzz dissipated, the Cardinals had stolen the lead and, subsequently, the game, then the series, and soon, the world championship. The one the Phillies were marked to win. The obvious one. The one with Halladay and Lee and Hamels and Oswalt. The Cardinals stole it. Unbelievable.

***

Baumann searched deeper in the final paragraph of “Victory or Death.” He realized that worry, for worry’s sake, was not worth the worry.

“I’m tired of being unable to think about the Phillies without being overcome with rage. It’s exhausting. I want to feel other things, like joy or empathy or excitement. Baseball used to make me feel that way. But now the Phillies are in decline, and I get the feeling there ain’t going to be anything quick, easy, painless, or unexpected about it.”

The thinking Phillies fan was dead.

***

What happened between Brett Myers’ walk and Cliff Lee’s silent implosion? Two-hundred and ninety-two regular season victories. Twenty-five postseason victories. A Joe Blanton World Series home run. A Jimmy Rollins Championship Series double in the gap. A Roy Halladay perfect game. A Roy Halladay no-hitter. Two Cliff Lee acquisitions. A Roy Oswalt acquisition. Pedro Martinez. Chase Utley’s wonderful World Series. Matt Stairs’ heroic home run. The rise and fall and rise again of Cole Hamels. Jamie Moyer’s record-breaking shutout. More than one-hundred Ryan Howard home runs. The death of Osama bin Laden on a warm whirlwind evening against the Mets. The death of Harry Kalas on a breezy bastard afternoon against the Nationals. All in three years, a lifetime of memories.

Before the walk there was 2007, the season of surrender, when first the unbelievable became believable. But before that, small shoots of sunshine, caught only if in focus. And before even that, there was 1993, the treasured summer of slobber, when big and brawny bulls carried the city toward the World Series in a wild, wacky fairytale capped by a needle in the ass delivered by Joe Carter, the everyman undertaker. But dare to remember anything before that. Dare to feel fondness for the open oval of Veterans Stadium – its scorching carpet, its cavernous crawl of loss after loss after sad, sad loss. Those were the days nobody cared. Those were the days belief snored at the gates.

For children of those days the Phillies represented everything that didn’t matter in Philadelphia. The afterthought of afterthoughts. Baseball was pastime alone. It was a treat if the Phillies won, and if one was so lucky as to see that happen, it only mattered for a passing hour. Soon it would hit you, and it would hit you hard and fast: these Phillies weren’t winning anything.

In 1995, when the wind blew away the toxins from the Major League Baseball players’ strike, the Phillies dashed ahead of the pack in the National League East. Deep in June the Phillies held a four-game lead over the division, paced by rookie pitcher Tyler Green and the lost heroes of 1993, Mickey Morandini and Jim Eisenreich. But injuries lashed at the legs of the pinstriped warriors. Quickly the Phillies fell into the abyss, and the fans left Veterans Stadium for good. They’d really only return to boo former players, then to bid a tearful goodbye to the old stadium, as if they loved the place in good and bad. The stadium knew better, though. The stadium witnessed the exodus.

The first days of Citizens Bank Park echoed the last days of Veterans Stadium – sentimental fans showing face for the sake of showing face. By 2005 the new park had worn thin. It took a manic Rollins, a smooth Hamels and a powerful Howard to really bring the fans back to baseball. And it took a world championship to keep them there. But before the world championship, a pitcher had to stare down CC Sabathia and draw the biggest walk in Phillies history. The unbelievable had to happen.

***

Baumann isn’t the only fan expressing emptiness. A generation of Phillies fans have found it challenging to cheer louder each year. Just run the replay of game two, 2011. Rollins even tweeted that the fans were too quiet that night.

The most succinct statement concerning the state of the Phillies, after the Cliff Lee implosion, came three days after Ryan Howard crumbled to the ground like an ogre.

“They just didn’t have it. I wanted desperately to believe otherwise, but front-running doesn’t feel right in Philadelphia,” wrote Andy Greenwald Oct. 10, 2011, at Grantland. “We’re better at chasing than being chased. By the time we realized things had changed, the ground had already disappeared from underneath our feet.”

The fans couldn’t have realized any of it. They were too busy caught up in the beautiful madness, everything between the walk and the implosion.

***

By 2009, deeply entrenched in the era of Jimmy Rollins, when the brick and steel shook and sparkled, and chilly October nights became annual reunions, amazing moments were not only possible, but happening with outrageous regularity.

Philadelphians are not conditioned for this. They are not conditioned for success with outrageous regularity. It’s the city of Rocky Balboa, the underdog, the Big Story, speculation, criticism, paranoia and lunacy. It’s the city where the unbelievable has to be unbelievable. Brett Myers, a mediocre meddler who pranked better than he pitched, had to walk the unbelievable walk. And Shane Victorino, the Ritalin rat from Hawaii, had to swat the unbelievable grand slam. Under the magenta sky, within a daze on a chilly October evening, those were the things nobody expected. By 2009 these things were outrageous regularity. By 2010 they had worn out their welcome. And by 2011 a 4-0 lead became a tea party.

Face it. The Phillies locker room is robotic. Ruben Amaro Jr. wanted Jonathan Papelbon, the lunatic. Jim Thome came back for one final fling at glory. And Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix, Freddy Galvis – they’re all patchwork attempts at something solid, but together, they’ve created a true underdog. Suddenly the Phillies aren’t the favorite. Suddenly they’re eighth in the power rankings, losing in the division series without a bat of the eyelashes. And suddenly the thinking fans are dead. If they fall to third place, it’s not shocking. If they struggle to stay alive, it’s not shocking. Yes, if they don’t play well, it’s suddenly believable.

That’s why it’s dawn in Philadelphia. That’s why the heat is burning to a wildfire, and fans are scared, and reporters are scratching their heads in curiosity. It’s why emptiness has suddenly entered the Delaware Valley. If they fall, it’s believable. If they succeed, it’s believable.

And now there’s room for the unbelievable.

If the sky turned magenta …

Part 11: The Firestarter

Pop.

 

“The Phillies say Chase Utley will address reporters Sunday. That is all.”

Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer tweeted that on 1:12 p.m., Friday, March 23. It was retweeted fourteen times. @JCristello23 was one of the retweeters. His next tweet:

“Watch Utleys goin to announce his retirement Sunday”

One day before, Will Carroll of SI.com tweeted that Utley was traveling to Arizona to see Dr. Thomas Carter, “an expert in the field of orthopedic surgery and sports medicine,” as well as in “meniscus replacements and treatment of articular cartilage injuries.”

At the same exact moment Gelb tweeted the news of a Sunday press gaggle, John Finger of CSNPhilly.com informed readers that Utley had returned from Arizona, where he met “with knee specialists.” Finger also quoted Ruben Amaro Jr., who commented, “I still think Chase is going to be back at some point, but we just don’t know when.”

On March 20, David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote a column headlined “Utley’s career could be in jeopardy.” He led with an allusion to Utley’s six-year prime. This was the cream of his nut graph:

“At 33 years old, the best second baseman in Phillies history is fighting just to make it back onto the field. And until he succeeds, we can’t help but wonder.”

Murphy proceeded to offer Charlie Manuel’s take, which he deemed had to be faithfully optimistic. Then came Ruben Amaro’s take, which included this quote: “I worry about Chase because it’s a chronic problem. About his career? I don’t know.” The final take came from Jimmy Rollins, whose quote was “If he doesn’t play again that would be something horrible. That would be horrible. But I don’t see it that way. At least I hope that’s not the case.” Murphy ended with his take:

“Six years might mean a long run for a beagle. But for an athlete the caliber of Utley, it should mean a career that has barely begun.”

On Sunday, March 25, Chase Utley, the man who hadn’t played an inning of spring training baseball, whose knees had been the subject of a two-year carousel of speculation, met the gaggle of reporters to discuss his future.

“I was in Phoenix meeting with a physical therapist by the name of Brett Fischer for about four of five days, just to get some better ideas on how I can continue to move forward,” Utley told the gaggle, as transcribed by Ryan Lawrence of the Delaware County Times. “I have a better idea now on how my body is supposed to move compared to how it’s moving at this time, and I think we have something pretty good for the future.”

No surgery. No injections. And no retirement.

“Oh. I didn’t hear that one. I’m definitely not retiring.”

But holding a press gaggle?

“I did not feel the need. But there are a lot of rumors out there, which I don’t know how they get started. I understand you guys look for things to write about, but now you have the information so there’s no need to make things up or to speculate.”

Chase Utley had not played all spring. This followed the previous spring, in which Utley did not play at all, then announced that he suffered from chondromalacia, and his return to baseball was unknown. During this spring, Utley had avoided reporters constantly, leading Lawrence to write a blog post about being avoided by Utley. The second baseman is known to shroud himself from the media; he would much rather let his play on the field speak for him. Numerous baseball players have shown this same quality. In Philadelphia, Mike Schmidt generally strayed from reporters. Steve Carlton never said a word.

Instead, Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies publicity corps would allege that Utley was close to returning. Then, as time passed and Utley hadn’t returned, things became unclear. In time, the Utley knee carousel was a child’s toy lost in the fog. There was no answer. No right. No wrong. Nothing but a superstar second baseman, one of the greatest second basemen to ever play baseball, hidden from playing baseball, hidden from the media, hidden from the estate that connects information to the fans. So the fans couldn’t help but wonder.

Rumors begin because truth is not available. And rumors spread when the truth is withheld. In Philadelphia, with information concerning the Phillies, and one of its cornerstone players, a notoriously hushed player, withheld information simply doesn’t spread rumor, it spreads wildfire. It’s the very fire that begins as a white heat warming in the darkness of December, when the ridiculous rumors fuel and idle chatter fellates, and few are focused on pops and cracks, on gloves and bats, towels waving frantically in the chilly October night. The fire is kindled at Citizens Bank Park, but it’s also at Frankford and Cottman avenues, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, at a farm in Vineland, New Jersey, and at a business office in Wilmington, Delaware. The fire is everywhere. The opinionated words of reporters and speculators will help the fire spread, but the withholding of truth, the illusion of doubt, the seeping specter of paranoia – all of those things are sprays of gasoline.

The truth – the actual, confirmed truth – is that Utley will miss opening day. He will stretch differently, he will rehabilitate differently. His left knee now hurts more than his right knee, but nothing hurts as much as it hurt last season. Utley hopes to return soon in 2012. He can’t wait to contribute. But he’s not ready. Freddy Galvis will likely start opening day at second base. A 22-year-old will stand where Utley had always stood, and the kid will take grounders and choppers, and hit deep in the Phillies lineup, and hope to offer some positive contribution to a team that already looks different from anything assembled in Philadelphia over the past decade.

And the totality of that truth, all of that, is that the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies are not the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, nor the version of 2010, which finished two wins from the World Series, nor the version of 2009, which finished two wins from a championship. And the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies are not the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies, the squad that broke the ceiling, erupted an inferno and brought the ailing city its first title in a generation. Instead, these Phillies are broken, busted, older than dirt, and younger than diapers. They’re Halladay and Lee and Hamels, and they’re Rollins and Victorino and Ruiz, but they’re the minority. Now it’s Thome and Papelbon, Wigginton and Nix, Mayberry and Pence, and 22-year-old Freddy Galvis. They’re uncertainty. They’re underdog. Yes, they’re looking decidedly different than their 2011 vintage. And they’re The Big Story. They’re speculation and criticism, and paranoia and lunacy. And for the first time in a long time, the Philadelphia Phillies are a raging, impossible wildfire.

Part 10: Pop. Crack. Pop.

Pop.

Pop.

Pop.

Crack.

Pop.

Crack.

Pop.

All the while a warm sun drapes on your shoulders. You’re watching dozens of conditioned men throw and catch balls, and dozens of other conditioned men swing baseball bats. The balls fly into the limitless blue sky. The fictional John Kinsella wondered if an Iowa cornfield was heaven. You’re standing at the precipice of a ball field in Clearwater, Florida, and you’re damn well determined to advocate for this place.

Spring training officially started for the Phillies on February 18, but most of the pitchers, catchers and position players reported before that date. The first team workout was February 19, but most of the players worked out before that date. This was commonplace practice throughout the Phillies organization. Baseball wasn’t merely a game, not merely a sport. It was hard work, it was life. Roy Halladay, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, reported to the practice fields at 5 a.m. for his own brand of training. While in Philadelphia during the offseason, Halladay was spotted throwing on the field of Citizens Bank Park. Around him, the National Hockey League assembled a hockey rink for the annual Winter Classic. It was late December. It was mere insanity. But that was commonplace practice. Training never ends. Work never ends. The goal is an October celebration. It’s what brought Jim Thome back to Philadelphia. It’s what brought Jonathan Papelbon to Philadelphia. The Roy Halladay way. The Chase Utley way. The Phillie Way. Never stop working. Pitchers and catchers? They were already changing condo sheets on February 18.

On February 29 the Phillies met the Florida State Seminoles in their annual exhibition. Per usual, the Phillies defeated the Seminoles, though the outcome didn’t matter. The players’ performances really didn’t matter, either. What mattered was watching the men playing baseball on the fields of Florida. Actual baseball. Grass stuck to cleats. Dirt kicked into the air. Chalk mixed with dust. Numbers piled into box scores. Words pounded about the actions on the diamond, the smell of the rubber, the bite of the sun, the sound of the game.

Pop.

Crack.

Pop.

***

In every spring, a team showcases a handful of names that hang out of place. Amongst the Rollinses and Lees are Galvises and Elartons. Newcomers to the spotlight. Newcomers to the red and white. Reporters scramble to scribble their life stories. The first Sunday story about a flashy young infielder with a vaunted glove, or an aging veteran who escaped obesity and hasn’t pitched since the Bush administration.

Freddy Galvis is the flashy infielder, a twenty-two-year-old who knows nothing but acrobatic, unthinkable ground ball fielding. His glove has already been compared to that of Omar Vizquel, one of the greatest ever at the job. He broke camp a longshot to make a major league roster, but with every eye-raising defensive play and every surprising slice into the gap, Galvis was increasing his stock. A utility job was becoming possible. Hell, maybe a starting job. But that wasn’t really up to him.

Spring training 2011 meant flashes of light, gaggles of reporters and photographers hovering around the honor complex the Phillies dub Carpenter. While lenses pointed at Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels, the wrinkled star of second base, Chase Utley, was ducking and weaving. The Phillies, and Utley, contained speculation about an injury nagging the second baseman; they did it so well that nobody knew exactly what was wrong. In time the word was revealed: chondromalacia – pain caused by irritation to cartilage under the kneecap. The knee injury shelved Utley until May and, as it was chronic, slowed him late in the season. So while Utley told reporters he felt fine at the start of spring training 2012, he didn’t play. Every morning reporters photographed that afternoon’s starting lineup, all the names scribed in perfect calligraphy by bench coach Pete Mackanin. And each day the lineup picture didn’t reveal “Utley” in perfect calligraphy, bloggers, fans, reporters and baseball people grew slightly more concerned.

“Where’s Chase Utley?” was the piece written by Baseball Nation’s Wendy Thurm, which largely detailed why Utley wasn’t playing. The Philadelphia Daily News’ David Murphy wrote about the Utley situation, telling fans not to jump the bridge. There was, very probably, a plan.

“So as we look at this first week of Grapefruit League play and spin our worst-case scenarios, we must also acknowledge that April 5 is the goal,” Murphy wrote. “The 25 games that remain before Opening Day present more than enough time for a veteran hitter like Utley to get the at-bats that he needs.”

CSNPhilly’s Casey Feeney concluded “if Utley doesn’t emerge as an all-star caliber second baseman again … the Phillies offense figures to be inconsistent in 2012.” Maybe. Maybe not. And maybe that didn’t matter. Maybe the Phillies thought young Freddy Galvis and his superior defense was enough to sustain a team reliant more on its pitching than ever before. Maybe offense didn’t matter so much. Hell, they won 102 with an inconsistent offense.

It seemed the Phillies were hedging more bets on a stacked pitching staff. There was Halladay, Lee and Hamels, plus Papelbon, newly acquired Chad Qualls and Antonio Bastardo. But early in camp the Phillies touted a bullpen session by Joe Blanton, returning from a rash of elbow injuries in 2011. Vance Worley was adding pitches with Halladay’s help. Pitching coach Rich Dubee talked highly of prospect Jake Diekman. Rising prospect Austin Hyatt received the exhibition start, a prize for an over-achieving pitcher. Pitching led the way early, and why not? It’s what the Phillies did best.

One pitcher attracted high attention for his unorthodox road to spring training. Scott Elarton is the aging veteran, debuting in 1998 for the Houston Astros, winning 17 games as a twenty-four-year-old in 2000. He never dominated; in fact, Elarton annually rivaled some of baseball’s worst starting pitchers. He last pitched in the majors in 2008, eight games with the Cleveland Indians. He grew lazy and overweight, brushing against 300 pounds at one point. It snapped him. He lost the weight, started throwing and got back into baseball shape. He met Ruben Amaro Jr. while visiting a Phillies game and asked him for a shot. This is his shot.

Elarton made good work of the first shot, throwing two perfect innings against New York Yankees regulars. His appearance was part of a three-game super-series to start play in the Grapefruit League, the conglomerate of teams that make spring home in Florida. Galvis played, too, and started with a hot bat and hotter glove. Utley wasn’t there. But Halladay was, and Lee was, and Hamels was, and Blanton was, and Worley was. They all started strong. The Phillies were starting strong.

***

Spring training would also prove an important moment for the ballad of Domonic Brown. An outstanding spring meant a possible spot on the Phillies’ opening day roster. A solid spring meant high hopes heading to triple-A Lehigh Valley. A poor spring, or an injury, meant further doubt, increased exasperation and another glimpse at a potential Rust Age. But Brown, determined to nudge doubt and grow into a major league stud, struck a working relationship with Nicole Gabriel, manager of Next Level Performance Training. Gabriel worked Brown into a bulky beast, transforming his 230-pound frame into a lean, strong hitting machine. Hunter Pence joined Brown at workouts, and soon they were showing off their bodies for Twitter, making women swoon and men nod in approval for what could be a breakthrough in the ascension of young Domonic Brown.

“I’m not at peace if I start at triple-A,” he told David Hale of the Wilmington News Journal. “I’m coming to win a job.” He wasn’t as forthright in 2011, when he broke the hamate bone in his hand, sidelining him and starting a year of doubt and frustration. This was a new Domonic Brown, a young man matured, not proud but impassioned.

So Brown played heavily against the Yankees. He swung well, struck the ball hard and notched a few hits. He looked solid at the dish. In the field, the story was a little different. In game three of the series, whip-fast outfielder Brett Gardner dropped a tailing fly ball into left-center field. Brown closed on it, dove, and in the warm, blinding Florida sun, missed the ball. Fans sighed. Bloggers groaned. Reporters pounded it out: Another fielding mistake by Brown. Gardner strode into third, then scored on an errant relay throw, and all eyes fixed on Brown, shrugging it off, hoping for redemption. Instead, he found a nag. When he dove, he landed awkwardly on his thumb. It hurt. He didn’t play for a few days. He got an MRI. He had a minor thumb injury.

Pop.

Crack.

Pop.

Part 9: On the Shoulders of a Dream

It is February 2012. An unusually balmy winter presiding over Philadelphia. Temperatures in the fifties. Folks opting for lighter jackets. If ever theorists wanted to embrace the kooky allegations of apocalypse in 2012, the warm winter weather would serve as a fine warning shot.

One-thousand miles south of Philadelphia, the weather is warmer. Always warmer. It’s supposed to be warm in the winter, for it’s warm all the time. It is the epicenter of expectation, the reservation of rehabilitation. Clearwater, Florida, promotes a population of 100,642, but that number spikes, probably thirty percent, from February to April. Hotels are booked solid. Roads are swarmed. Airports are choked. And every single flight from Philadelphia International Airport is sold out. By December. Because from February to April, the Philadelphia Phillies – players and coaches, trainers and beat writers, family members and friends – hold spring training in the city. Clearwater has hosted the Phillies longer than any spring training city has hosted any franchise. It’s nearly impossible to imagine Clearwater without the Phillies. Every morning, Lenny’s, a famous diner sitting off a highway, becomes the Dining Car, or the Melrose, or the Mayfair. Scores of people in Phillies clothing eat bread and jellies, eggs and meat and fluffy pancakes, while Mike Schmidt, Ryan Howard and Robin Roberts surround them. A few blocks away is the Carpenter Complex and Bright House Field, the crown jewel of the city, and arguably baseball’s finest spring training facility. It’s where these folks watch intently, cheer with warmth and embrace the unforgiving Florida sun. It’s here where the dream begins.

“First day in Clearwater, this place is beautiful!” tweeted Hunter Pence on February 2. Vance Worley, the rookie pitcher who surprised with a 3.01 earned run average in 2011, had been in Clearwater for a month already. Upon his arrival in Clearwater, relief acquisition Dontrelle Willis snapped a photo of a giant Phillies logo inside a pizzeria. He seemed shocked the Phillies carried such weight in a gulf-hugging Florida city.

But the shock will fade. Because the fans will arrive, and will watch, and the players new and old will find it familiar, find it ordinary. And when the calendar turns to April, the players new and old will be stepping out onto the field at Citizens Bank Park, and game after game, without fail, a full house of fans will rein cheers, flood optimism, wish only greatness. For the fans, the word Clearwater itself springs that optimism. It means summer is nigh. The sweltering Sundays of cherry and cream. The breezy nights of glowing bells and pinstripes. It means the madness has justification, that finally, the dreary December blues and graying chill of January mean nothing. All that matters is the blooming rebirth close ahead.

***

So the offseason wrapped, with new faces appearing throughout Clearwater as the warm winter began to subside. Jimmy Rollins was back on board. Ty Wigginton was there. Jonathan Papelbon had arrived and Jim Thome came back. Dontrelle Willis, Laynce Nix, and Chad Qualls were new, too. Other hopefuls joined them. Hector Luna. Joel Piniero. Juan Pierre. Names from a thrift store discount rack – a team shopping for an outfit that could work in a rapidly changing current. And gone were Ryan Madson, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge, Raul Ibanez, Wilson Valdez, and Ben Francisco, articles tossed aside to their own racks, some picked by teams needing that final new accessory. Six new and six gone. The 2012 Phillies were looking decidedly different than their previous vintage.

***

On a May 12, 2006, the eyes of every Phillies fan were locked onto Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark. At this riverfront shrine to riverboat culture, the lanky and shaggy Cole Hamels threw his first pitch in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform. He lasted five shutout innings, surrendering just one hit, a Felipe Lopez double in the fifth. He struck out Ken Griffey Jr. twice. He walked the bases loaded in the second but struck out Elizardo Ramirez to survive the scare. Hamels’ defense featured many familiar names: Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz. When Hamels exited the game, Ryan Madson relieved him. Though he blew Hamels’ lead immediately, Madson scored the win that evening. Fans were wildly optimistic – Hamels was already the greatest pitching prospect the Phillies had introduced since Ferguson Jenkins. Fergie only got eight games with the Phillies.

On January 17, Hamels and the Phillies agreed to a one-year contract worth $15 million. At the time it represented the highest salary paid to an arbitration-eligible pitcher before free agency, but Tim Lincecum soon broke that figure with a two-year, $40.5 million pact. Whatever the historical significance, the contract laid one truth out into the open: Cole Hamels could hit free agency after 2012. He could very well end his Phillies career.

Also on the field on May 12, 2006, were Bobby Abreu, David Bell and Pat Burrell. Abreu would be traded to the Yankees in July. Bell would play his final Phillies game in September. Burrell would remain a Phillie through the franchise’s most wonderful moment. But the others remained through the second pennant, all the way to the fifth division title. Madson was the first to go, ironically, to Cincinnati. Now it was Ruiz, Howard, Utley, Rollins, Victorino and Hamels. And after 2012, Victorino and Hamels might be removed from that list.

***

If you’re lucky to buy a seat on an airplane traveling to Clearwater in March, you will likely be sitting amongst Phillies fans in cherry outfit and cheery disposition. Not one grumpy face. And you will likely strike up a conversation with one of these faces, as the airplane represents the beginning of a paradise vacation to a land of dreams. Everybody is kind when traveling to a land of dreams.

I flew to Clearwater twice, in 2008 and ‘09. That first time, I sat next to an older gentleman, a friend of a Phillies executive, who was actually not traveling to Clearwater to watch baseball. Instead, wearing a light and colorful Polo shirt and khakis, this gentleman was traveling western Florida with his golf bag, taking in at least one – maybe two – rounds of golf every day for a week. He did this every year, sometimes for two weeks, and sometimes with his Phillies executive friend. This was his paradise, and he was comfortably happy with this.

***

Ruben Amaro Jr. informed the media that he hoped to agree to a long-term contract with Cole Hamels during spring training. Considering Hamels’ current $15 million price tag, and his stalwart numbers in his first six seasons, Hamels should command nearly $20 million per season in a long-term contract. But in 2013, the Phillies are already paying $25 million to Cliff Lee, $20 million to Roy Halladay, $20 million to Ryan Howard, $15 million to Chase Utley, $13 million to Jonathan Papelbon, and $11 million to Jimmy Rollins. Adding Hamels to that crowded list will prove difficult, and if a contract isn’t signed by opening day, chances are Hamels will seek other teams’ offers in a free agent market where he might reign as king.

Victorino won’t make as much as Hamels in free agency. In 2012 he will earn $9.5 million, and with a solid season, should seek an average annual salary of about $12 million. It may be impossible for the Phillies to pull Hamels and Victorino back into the fold for 2013 and beyond.

So it’s up to other players to emerge. Vance Worley, the surprise right-hander with the deceptive two-seam fastball. John Mayberry Jr., the late-blooming slugger with decent tools. And Domonic Brown, the foggy future that could introduce Philadelphians to the Rust Age.

But Charlie Manuel will rely on Laynce Nix to swing the bat against right-handed pitching. He will rely on Juan Pierre to play every outfield position in a pinch. He will rely on Joe Blanton to find his fiery fastball. The young lions that stitched together the bullpen late in 2011 – Michael Schwimer, Justin DeFratus, Michael Stutes, Joe Savery – they will likely sit in Lehigh Valley, while Dontrelle Willis, Chad Qualls, Jose Contreras and David Herndon set up Jonathan Papelbon in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, 2013 seems ages away, and it very well may be a new age altogether.

***

One-thousand miles south of Philadelphia, the weather is warmer. Always warmer. Here, in the epicenter of expectation, the reservation of rehabilitation, all eyes are focused on what is ahead. And what is ahead are one-hundred and sixty-two baseball games, trials of strength and concentration. They will tear muscles, rip veins and decay bones. They will cloud brains and fog eyeballs, shaving life slowly off those who are willing enough to compete. The games don’t care if you’re Laynce Nix or John Mayberry Jr., Juan Pierre or Domonic Brown, Joe Blanton or Vance Worley. They will cramp and injure, and they will keep rolling, one after the other. The days are hot, some cold, and sunny, some rainy. There are long afternoons, long evenings, long flights and long swings. Streaks and slumps, wins and losses. Everyone gets fifty wins. The rest is talent, composure, health, ability, clutch, coaching, guile and sometimes, pure luck.

In Clearwater, it’s distilled to a couple ballfields, where on the sidelines stand people who simply want one thing. They want a championship. In the end, when that final pitch is thrown and that celebration occurs, it won’t matter if it was Laynce Nix or John Mayberry Jr. who got them there. It won’t matter if Cole Hamels is unsigned for 2013. At least for a moment, a singular special moment, none of that will matter. And that is why the fans watch. That is why the players play. That is why we invest money and time to these airplane flights, these March vacations, the optimistic trials in the darkness of a year already defined by discontent. Where December brings blues and January brings grays, February brings the first bright light of hope. The flowers are about to bloom, dawn is upon us. The dream is beginning again.

Interlude: In the Rust Age

Oh, what days they were! What madness! What primal, orgasmic madness!

We long for that circus.

Today, on this sunny and clear day in South Philadelphia, an afternoon perfect for baseball, the folks assembled to witness Jimmy Rollins accept Wall of Fame membership have packed the house. Today, it resembles that utopian wonderland, that brick and steel castle. But once Jimmy steps off the field, and the pinstripes step on, few of the folks will leave. They will grab their families, their commemorative books, their bouncing backpacks and disinterested looks, and walk right past the gates. And the ushers will sigh but understand why. The circus is gone. It left town long ago.

It is amazing to think that. Just ten years ago, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, top of the world! They stood outside for hours, for days, red shirts and white shirts and maroon shirts and blue shirts, just to watch a game. To be part of that madness. That primal, orgasmic madness.

You need not squint to see the paint chips falling off the steel. You need not sniff to smell the crust of bread, the sting of urine filling the air. The shine has been removed, the hot dogs have been withdrawn. Halladay retired a Blue Jay, a final tour before fitting his bird cap in Cooperstown. Lee stumbled to the finish, yet his final mile fared better than that of Ryan Howard, a shell of the bruting slugger who routinely rocked this old park. The old park. Much older than its years.

Cole Hamels flew away long ago. He is finishing a fantastic career with the Boston Red Sox. And Shane Victorino, he was traded to the Bronx. The Phillies got fleeced in that one. Trevor May never panned out. Sebastian Valle is a backup at best. Jesse Biddle? Oh yeah, that bust left baseball after three Major League starts. And don’t get us started on the Philipe Aumont disaster.

But God help you, just God help you, if you utter his name. You know who.

I remember a piece – I actually recall the day: December 29, 2011 – written by somebody at The Good Phight, this old blog, back when blogs were still in vogue. The writer mocked a conversation between Ruben Amaro Jr. and God, in which Amaro is fighting the urge to trade … you know, him … to the Mets for David Wright. Pretty funny, as I remember, and pretty telling, at least concerning a small group of Phillies fans. See, some fans thought it clinically ridiculous for the Phillies to even entertain a trade involving you know who. That all started when The Philly Phans – that was another blog – leaked that very rumor. They were mocked, it was funny. Just another blog “covering” the Phillies, trying to beat the trained professionals to the news. It never happened. He was never traded. Maybe he should have been.

I remember a game in 2010, his first stint with the Phillies. They were playing the Giants, and routing the Giants, too. A crisp, warm, starry night at Citizens Bank Park, back when the old park was packed tight and rocking heavy. He stepped in, waved that wand, and in a flash, pulverized the baseball. I mean, few shots were that prodigious. Matt Stairs. A couple Ryan Howard homers. But that’s it. This was right up there, a no doubt missile, the kind that could break detente. The crowd erupted. He had arrived. He had arrived!

I just don’t get it. Why did so many people turn on him? Why did so many people abuse him? Sure he had trouble in the field, but he was young. The man could hit! Boy could he hit! What beautiful blasts!

And patience! A young twenty-something displaying plate discipline! How many guys were doing that at his age?

Maybe we were all riding so high. Maybe we didn’t want to wait out a young kid. We saw Ben Francisco struggle, and we grinded our teeth with Kyle Kendrick. Boy, if only one of our starters today pitched like Kendrick!

I wish I knew the answer.

All I know is I saved some tweets, from way back then, way before all that happened. One blog asked if he was going to live up to his huge potential. Live up to it? The kid had only three-hundred plate appearances! One guy asked “What’s the point of (him)? Let him move on, please.” Another said he would carry him on his back if it meant bringing in David Wright. Yeah, Wright, who threw his back out in 2014 and never lived up to his potential. That would have been great.

Instead, all of that happened. What a way to go. What wasted talent.
It is amazing to think that. Just ten years ago, Hunter Pence and Chase Utley, top of the world! Carlos Ruiz, on a mural! Before Del Ennis! The glory days. We stood outside for hours, for days, red shirts and white shirts and maroon shirts and blue shirts, just to watch a game. To be a part of that madness. That primal, orgasmic madness.

Today we long for that circus. Rollins will fly back to California. The twenty-year 2008 reunion is next. Those were the days. When the old park glistened, its red brick and steel shining in the clear blue afternoon, the crisp warm night. Center of the universe, a utopian wonderland. I remember that home run he hit. My God, what a home run. He could have hit two-hundred more like that at Citizens Bank Park. I know it. And maybe they know it, too. And maybe they are regretting all the hurt and pain. Maybe they realize he could have kept the madness alive.

Part 8: How Ringmaster Ruben Tamed the Elephant

All this beautiful madness. All this calamity, the kind that baseball loving Philadelphians still found alarmingly introductory. This used to be a football town. This used to be a town fit for the unfamiliar chill of fall, with leaves swirling and mouths tucked deep inside collars. Now, even in December, it’s spring everyone talks about. And it’s because of all this beautiful madness.

The madness of a made man like @FanSince09. The madness of a crowd grousing about a moose as a potential basketball mascot. The madness of social network mavens to adopt an imprisoned rapper as a rallying cry. These are the things people do when spring remains afar.

Then something happens. Something that draws every face close. Something that both relieves and reinvigorates: a major announcement.

@jcrasnick Jimmy Rollins has agreed to 3-year deal with #Phillies with vesting option for 4th year, says BB source

The tweet from Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com signified the tweet every red-blooded, red-shirted Phillies fan longed to see. Rollins, the shortstop, the leader, the backbone since 2001, and yes, the elephant, was back with the Phillies, safe and sound, once again manning the most important position on the diamond for baseball’s best team. It was, as most people thought, how it should be, and how it should always be. The elephant had been caged, and in the process, had been tamed, and by a ringmaster so used to sweeping gestures and terrific tricks. Somehow, someway, Ruben Amaro had tamed Jimmy Rollins.

It seemed impossible that Amaro could tame Rollins, and it seemed inevitable that Rollins would whip Amaro into a corner. The elephant asked for five years, thus, the elephant would get five years. Amaro’s track record stated such. He handed three years to a Raul Ibanez that was turning the wrong side of thirty-five. He handed four years to a Jonathan Papelbon, a closer, or more specifically, a man who would take part in less than five percent of the 2012 Phillies season. Amaro handed cushy contracts like complementary towels. So if Jimmy Rollins, the cornerstone, the smiling and smirking face of the Phillies for a decade, wanted five years, it seemed inevitable that he would receive the freshest, cleanest white towels around, emblazoned with a monogram and folded to detailed specifications.

But that didn’t happen. Amaro waited. He saw the Brewers settle for offensively challenged shortstop Alex Gonalez. He saw the Cardinals reunite with veteran ball shagger Rafael Furcal. Nobody touched Rollins. The elephant said the Brewers showed interest, but who knows. It never amounted to much. Nobody touched Rollins, and it became painfully obvious to the elephant that no team wanted to drag him into its kitchen. The more Amaro waited, the better it looked.

Meanwhile, Ringmaster Ruben pulled a coup. An odd coup, and yet, a sinister, sly coup. In retrospect, an outlandishly outstanding coup. The Phillies announced just three days before that they had signed pitcher Dontrelle Willis to a one-year, $1 million contract.

Willis, who starred as a spastic starter with the Florida Marlins, then floundered with mental hiccups in Detroit, rectified his career just slightly while in Cincinnati. Like vinegar, his fastball stung just enough. And with some sauce, his slider dipped just enough. Against left-handed hitters, Willis proved dominant, and it’s that trait that the Phillies spotted when locking him to a one-year pact. The former kingfish would bite left-handed minnows from the Citizens Bank Park mound. And if he was lucky enough, he would bite those minnows while his best friend, Oakland buddy Jimmy Rollins, watched in wide-eyed wonder. Maybe for a moment. And maybe that moment was from fifty feet northwest. Dontrelle and Jimmy, together again. They must have dreamed it once. Maybe it mattered just enough for Rollins to swallow that pride, tear up that Milwaukee offer, sigh in resigned satisfaction, and sign his name under the Phillies logo once more. The band, back together. How it should be. How it should always be.

***

Late in the 2000 season, the Phillies brought Jimmy Rollins to Philadelphia. He stepped onto the sizzling Astroturf of Veterans Stadium, decked in a fresh pinstripe jersey, stood in the batter’s box against Florida Marlin starter Chuck Smith, and took a five-pitch walk. Five pitches later, Rollins trotted home, scoring ahead of a Bobby Abreu home run. Two innings later, Rollins led off against Smith, scorching a line drive down the right field line. With Rollins’ speed it was never a question. He slid into third base, his first Major League hit: a triple. Jimmy Rollins had arrived.

His second act, the 2001 season, started slow, but as summer slid into the Philadelphia haze, Rollins gained traction, raising his average above .300 while swiping second base at a daily rate. Even better, the Phillies were winning. While the Seattle Mariners stormed away from the American League, the Phillies resembled the real deal in the National League. Abreu turned into a five-tool performer. Young Pat Burrell launched bombs nightly. Scott Rolen morphed into the Most Valuable Player candidate the world had been awaiting. And it became clear that when Rollins produced at the top of the lineup, the Phillies won baseball games. Not since Lenny Dykstra had the Phillies employed such a game-changing lineup leader. But Rollins was not Dykstra. He did not charge full steam into every single, every ground ball and every sixth pitch of a plate appearance. In fact, Rollins rarely saw six pitches in an appearance. He liked swinging the bat. Savored it. If the big boys could hit the ball, the little guys like Rollins could do it, too. So he swung, hit liners, dribbles, gappers and occasional home runs. Whatever got the job done. No time for waiting. Patience is for fools.

Sometimes it paid off.

September 17, 2001. The first game after the attacks of September 11. The start of a heavy series at Veterans Stadium against the first place Atlanta Braves. The four-game set, which could push the Phillies into first place, began with Harry Kalas, standing at home plate, reciting a poem about America’s resolve. Some young man whipped around Veterans Stadium nightly with an oversized American flag. Cameras caught manager Larry Bowa, the most volatile man in baseball, weeping while listening to the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Aces Robert Person and Greg Maddux stepped to their rubbers. Chipper Jones drilled a home run. Scott Rolen responded with a home run. Bobby Abreu tripled and scored on a groundout. Alex Sanchez responded with a triple, scoring on a groundout. The struggle continued until the seventh, when Rolen broke through. The biggest hit of his career, the kind that defines a ballplayer’s career, the kind that wins awards.

Rollins manufactured an insurance run in the eighth inning, helping put the game away for the Phillies. The crowd danced. Loudest crowd in eight years. Rollins was learning, and what a way to be learning.

Two days later, with the Phillies trailing the Braves by a game and a half, Rollins led off, and actually saw a sixth pitch against John Burkett. But he would not walk. He lined a single into right field. No time for waiting. A few pitches later, he took off for second, but Javy Lopez gunned him down. Rookie.

Retribution came five innings later. Leading off the sixth, no time for waiting, a liner to the gap. A double. First pitch. Off to third on a sacrifice bunt. An Abreu walk put pressure on Burkett with Rolen waiting on deck. And yet again, as he did so many times, Rolen drove home the run, bringing in Rollins with a single. The Phillies would win, 5-2.

But it fell apart from there. Hollow pitching. Inconsistent offense. Unproven stars. Abreu and Rolen, as good as they were, would prove wasted in a Philadelphia still needing an overhaul. Rollins would have to watch it all unfold: Rolen’s trade to St. Louis, Abreu’s trade to the Bronx, the Jim Thome era, staff aces that limped away from August with ballooning earned run averages, stadium changes, poor attendance and malaise beyond malaise. The energetic optimism that fueled those mid-September nights of 2001, when tragedy spurred strength and every moment seemed etched in time – those were all distant memories, but Rollins pocketed every one of them. If the Phillies found a way back to those halcyon days, Jimmy Rollins would make sure they would cross that finish line.

***

The question, as the matter settled and the kitchen cleaned itself, is if it is enough. Is Jimmy Rollins satisfied with three years and $33 million? Ruben Amaro did not hesitate to satisfy Ryan Howard with a monstrous five-year, $125 million pact. Amaro did not hesitate with Raul Ibanez, who actually received a higher per-season contract, and at an older age, without the history, while playing in left field, baseball’s version of a mailroom. Placido Polanco. Cliff Lee. Jonathan Papelbon. Money falling from the sky. Cushy towels of the finest fabric. And Jimmy Rollins received the three-star towels. Add the fourth year – the pocket moisturizer. But is that enough? Is Jimmy Rollins satisfied with being a quarter of Ryan Howard?

***

When the capacity throng at Citizens Bank Park surrounds Jimmy Rollins, he will wear a fine Italian suit. He will don designer sunglasses. He will clutch the microphone like George Carlin, suspending all in his charming grasp. And underneath the sunny sky, like the one that blanketed that Halloween afternoon in 2008, Jimmy Rollins will eagerly accept his enshrinement onto the Phillies Wall of Fame. The highlight reel will run, and it may ultimately climax on September 30, 2007.

Critics will say Matt Holliday put up better numbers. That may be true. But the 2007 baseball season belonged to Jimmy Rollins. The shortstop stole every moment, headlined every story, owned every memory. His legs ran over every scorebook. His bat drove home every winning run. His glove found every wayward ball. Rollins played 2007 like Dwight Gooden played 1984. Like Barry Bonds played 2003. Like Ted Williams played 1941. And on September 30, the very final day of the season, in his very final season-record plate appearance, Rollins sliced a ball into the right field corner. He dashed to second base. Slow fielding. He turned toward third base. A half-hearted throw. A furious slide. Rollins, feet first, landed his leading cleat on third base, then raised his arms to the heavens, a moment perfectly meant for cameras, as if the man had been planning it for years. His twentieth triple. After thirty-eight doubles and thirty home runs. He swiped forty-one bases, caught only six times. The absolute peak of his powers.

The night Scott Rolen slammed that second home run, against Greg Maddux and the Braves, directly after September 11, 2001, the crowd at Veterans Stadium roared. A defining moment capped by a roar that acknowledged baseball’s ability to spur hope in a populous shaking with fear and uncertainty. A culminating moment, for sure. Six years later, Citizens Bank Park represented dislocated memories. Its greatest night was the rainy June evening Jim Thome swatted his four-hundredth home run. Otherwise, the red steel and brick castle represented aggressive mediocrity and tight wallets. Up until September 30, 2007, Jimmy Rollins was merely a resident, a witness to aggressive mediocrity.

But the triple happened. You could swear the roof had blown off the building. Announcers reveled in joyful tears. Teammates leaped and shrieked like little leaguers. And the fans roared, harder and louder than ever before. this was baseball’s ability to spur hope in a populous, but not one shaking wi h fear and uncertainty, but one injured and uninspired by decades of aggressive mediocrity. And Jimmy Rollins was no longer witness. He was the moment.

***

At his press conference two days after signing the three-year contract, Rollins – wearing a fine suit – spoke of legacy. He understood the meaning behind continuing a career not in Wisconsin powder blue, but in red pinstripes, the suit he truly had come to define. The one he slipped on that day in 2000, the one that made him the moment.

“You think of everything else that you’ve done and what you’ll be able to do going forward, and where it makes more sense to do those things,” Rollins said. “And for me, it’s here.”

***

Shane Victorino swatted the grand slam heard ’round CC Sabathia in the 2008 National League Division Series. And Matt Stairs hit the legendary home run in the National League Championship Series. But in both series, Jimmy Rollins led off the clinching games with home runs. A veteran, hurt for a spell in 2008, Rollins busted the ice with his cool clouts. He led the charge. Those early days setting the table for Bobby Abreu and Scott Rolen. That 2007 season pacing every key victory. Just like those days, when the Phillies needed him, Rollins led the charge.

And in the 2009 National League Championship Series, with the Phillies facing a tied series, at least one daunting date back at Dodger Stadium and potential heartbreak, Rollins led the charge again. He drove Jonathan Broxton’s fastball into the gap, capping an incredible ninth inning rally, closing an enormous victory and creating his finest moment. Like that afternoon in 2007, the crowd roared, and louder than man’s thoughts can process. This moment was impossible years before. It was impossible in the days of Abreu and Rolen, when Rollins simply hustled to the next base. But in 2009, deeply entrenched in the era of Jimmy Rollins, this moment was not only possible, but happening with outrageous regularity. This had become Citizens Bank Park.

***

But is Jimmy Rolins satisfied with three years and $33 million?

Legacy is not money. One day, the money fades, and all that remains is memory. We do not remember what Rollins was paid in 2001, but we do remember his energetic play sparking an unlikely run toward contention. We do not remember what Rollins was paid in 2007, but we do remember his unhinged leadership. We do not remember what Rollins was paid in 2009, but we do remember a double that shook the foundation of Citizens Bank Park.

And we will remember Citizens Bank Park, because that will stand for as long as we live. When we visit, decades later, maybe when that shortstop stands in the middle of a throng, Italian suit, designer shades, the red steel and brick will sing of those memories. The days and nights that crowd roared louder than our thoughts. The days and nights Jimmy Rollins was the moment. When our beautiful madness reigned, when our expectations exceeded our fathers’ wildest dreams, and when Ringmaster Ruben tamed the elephant, the leader of our outstanding circus.

Part 7: Those December Blues

Every year in Philadelphia, at the close of the city’s popular Thanksgiving parade, Santa Claus dashes up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is what Rocky Balboa did in the 1976 film “Rocky.”

For Rocky, the dash up the stairs symbolized his mental and physical achievement. Early in the film, he attempted to scale the steps but, out of shape and losing breath, he staggered to the top and glanced warily at the naked Philadelphia skyline. After weeks of grueling training and mental cleansing, Rocky raced up the stairs, the climax of an epic relay through the broken neighborhoods of gray Philadelphia. In the iconic scene, Rocky bolts easily up the stairs, sometimes taking in three steps with one stride. He reaches the top, whips around, and raises his arms to the clearing Philadelphia morning. His accomplishment is the accomplishment of any man, and especially of any busted and broken Philadelphian. His achievement is our achievement. So when Santa Claus reaches the top of the Museum of Art’s stairs, turns and waves to his assembled believers, it’s more than an introduction to the holiday season, but a reminder of the ever-present philosophy that hovers over the eternally gray city. With a lot of work and determination, anyone can reach the top of the stairs.

The influence of “Rocky” on Philadelphia is staggering. Youths across the neighborhoods seem born repeating the very things originally uttered by Sylvester Stallone’s titular character. Scores of Philadelphians believe you have to work hard to live well, and that means marry, own a row house and maybe put a kid or two through college. And work is hard. Life is hard. So sports – especially the serious professional sports – are not simply taken for leisure. The efforts of the athletes performing on the field, court or rink must match the efforts of the men and women performing in the factories, and on the streets and job sites.

But as Santa waved and smiled to Philadelphia from his Thanksgiving perch atop the city’s most famous staircase, the athletes of Philadelphia were not meeting the city’s expectations. The Flyers, the city’s hockey team, were solid, hanging near the top of the Eastern Conference, but they are rarely taken seriously by the entire city until winter’s thaw. The 76ers, the city’s basketball team, were inoperative, a victim of the National Basketball Association’s labor lockout. Then there were the Eagles, the football team, for years the highest-profile team in Philadelphia, tapped as a potential champion for a decade. They were the reason for the missed expectations: A team handed lofty goals in September, a 4-6 record heading into Thanksgiving weekend, a complete failure in multiple areas of planning and execution. Really, singlehandedly, the Eagles had put the sporting fans of Philadelphia into a complete funk.

And so people turn their attention to the Phillies, the new kings of Philadelphia.

But what happens when you turn your attention to a baseball team as the calendar turns to December? It’s nearly the darkest, coldest and most foreign time of the year, a time completely unsuitable for the common man to care deeply about bats and balls, caps and hot dogs. But in times of harrowing misfortune, the common man must do what the common man must do. And suddenly the chatter builds, the anticipation grows, and those December blues begin burning white heat.

***

Major League Baseball has found a way to capitalize on December blues. It’s called the Winter Meetings. Here, every franchise brings its front office to a specialized location, usually a luxury hotel, to preside over organizational meetings, Hall of Fame discussions, minor league drafts and arbitration deadlines. And since everyone is in one tidy place, front offices discuss trades, as if the Winter Meetings is a large-scale swap meet in the middle of a hotel lobby. Meanwhile, free agent players still seeking suitors dance about in the lobby – their agents holding them by tethers – looking for the right offers to secure better futures. All of this activity was usually transmitted to fans through team beat writers and national print scribes. But in 2011, add national web writers, bloggers, television personalities and just about anybody enlisted as a member in the Baseball Writers of America. And documenting all of that madness in 2011 were ESPN – setting up a “Baseball Tonight” desk in the lobby – and the MLB Network, baseball’s 24-hour hotel erotica for fans of all ages, who broadcast two live shows daily from the Winter Meetings. Needless to say, diehard baseball fans were struggling not to stay home from school and work to  watch “Hot Stove” all day.

With all the writers, pundits, experts, columnists and analysts scrambling in the lobby of a Dallas hotel, newspapers, websites, blogs and Twitter feeds were constantly pushing through new content, and nearly everything was pushed. The battle to sign Albert Pujols, free agent superior seeking a $200 million payday, led the Miami Marlins to one night working overtime in a hotel room with boxes of pizza and chicken wings. We know this MLB.com writer Joe Frisaro tweeted the world that Marlins executives were holing themselves into a hotel room with room service pizza and wings. Anything was game. What happened at the Winter Meetings … left the Winter Meetings within seconds.

The Phillies front office walked into the Dallas hotel lobby knowing there was an elephant still in the room. Jimmy Rollins, who expressed a desire for a five-year contract, was still a free agent. Maybe the Phillies were focused on signing Rollins. Leave Dallas with an old elephant that could still shock and shine. Instead, the Phillies decided they were interested in Gio Gonzalez, a young pitcher from the Athletics whom the Phillies once paid. So Ken Rosenthal wrote that the Phillies were interested in Gonzalez. Then Rosenthal, thinking aloud, wrote that Gonzalez might be a replacement for Cole Hamels, who would become a free agent after 2011. Then all hell broke loose.

“Setting aside the fact that all of the six old dudes hanging around the media room right now think this is the best joke of the morning, the fact is that you can only push off your ‘we must have a second elite lefty starter in the fold but paying for his contract extension is gonna really hurt’ problems off so far,” wrote Craig Calcaterra, writer at NBC Sports’ Hardball Talk.

“As long as Cole doesn’t get distracted by a jewelry gala or something, he’s going to be pretty sure he wants money. And the Phillies should pay him,” wrote Justin Klugh at Phillies fan blog That Ball’s Outta Here. “So let’s hope all this Gonzalez snooping is just to piss off the other GMs.”

“Do not want!” succinctly wrote Whole Camels at The Good Phight, another Phillies fan blog.

The last word came, 36 hours later, from general manager Ruben Amaro, speaking to Calcaterra. No, he said, Hamels wasn’t being shopped. In fact, he said, the Phillies saw Hamels as a franchise player. Yes, he said, Cole Hamels was a Phillie, and hopefully will forever be.

Then, Tuesday evening, late, MLB.com Cardinals reporter Matthew Leach tweeted a third team was showing strong interest in Albert Pujols. There was the Cardinals, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and … well, he didn’t have a name. So he called them “mystery team.” Or, as we know them, #mysteryteam. Or, as they were called last year, the Philadelphia Phillies. So all hell broke loose.

***

“Rocky” is a story within a story. The film chronicles a luckless bum boxer from Philadelphia who works hard to realize his dreams, given the opportunity to fight the world heavyweight champion. All Rocky Balboa wants is to “go the distance,” to stand face-to-face with champion Apollo Creed, and to the entire world, and not lose on his own accord. Take all the punches in the world. Come within inches of death. Just don’t quit.

But the story of “Rocky” is about Sylvester Stallone, a starving screenwriter inspired by real life boxer Chuck Wepner’s ability to go the distance with champion Muhammad Ali. Stallone wrote his little movie and shopped it around until he got an answer. But his only caveat was that he wanted to play Rocky. He knew the character too well. He knew, if it was him in that ring, the movie – not just the character – would go the distance. Somehow, the studio agreed. History played out from there.

Stallone lived for years in Philadelphia. He knew Philadelphia, and his Philadelphia in “Rocky” is a character in itself. The tall ship that hugs the harbor at Penn’s Landing. The crooked streets that compose Stallone’s Kensington neighborhood. The dark alleys and grim factories. The city is set completely in gray; the world of Philadelphia in December 1975 is a world of dim skies, cold realities and just a sliver of hope as the city’s finest moment – the 200th birthday of the United States – approaches.

On January 1 of every year, costumed clowns invade Philadelphia. The Mummers, composed usually of regular working folks – the kind of folks that might just talk to a guy like Rocky Balboa – strut and saunter down the crooked streets playing brash music and providing a colorful hope that the new year might be better than the last. It’s a small break from the blight, a bright yellow sun cast through the gray. But everything before that, and everything after Santa Claus waving from atop those stairs made famous by Rocky Balboa – everything in that period between, is gray, and cold, and it’s those December blues. When apathy turns ugly. When any dash of excitement becomes an orgy of emotion. When harsh realities hit hard. Those December blues never fail.

***

On December 13, 2010, the #mysteryteam first appeared. At the time, the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers were combating in a money-fueled episode of ownership warfare. Both franchises sought the most prolific name on the free agent market, Cliff Lee, and by the end of December 15, 2010, one of those teams would own his services, according to just about every writer, pundit, expert, columnist and analyst.

But the #mysteryteam arrived late in the afternoon. Twitter nation watched intently. Somebody thought maybe the Phillies could be the #mysteryteam. Then Jayson Stark mentioned that Lee liked this team, and the feeling was mutual. Twitter nation began to boil. And the Phillies possibly were the #mysteryteam. Then Stark confirmed the Phillies as the #mysteryteam. Twitter exploded. Fans gasped. Joel Sherman of the New York Post said the Yankees felt like they were out of the bidding. Fans jumped and hollered. Then the Yankees were told they were out. And the Rangers were told they were out. And the Phillies were told, yes, they had Lee. And fans partied, showering in alcohol and running around their living rooms in pure elation, the kind of elation reserved for wedding proposals, births and lottery winnings. The #mysteryteam became a point of pride. T-shirts advertised the phenomenon. Comments lived in repeat. A way of life: #mysteryteam.

***

For a glimmer, an actual fluid glimmer – maybe three seconds – the Phillies seemed like the plausible #mysteryteam once again, this time to win the hearts and minds of the Pujols family of St. Louis, Mo. And during that three second glimmer, Michael Baumann at fan blog Phillies Nation thought, while obviously unlikely, the Phillies could actually be the #mysteryteam. So, late at night in a haze, led by a Stark tweet that noted the #mysteryteam would need to move their first baseman to sign Pujols, Baumann’s musing companion Dr. Strangeglove sprung to life with thoughts of Albert Pujols’ dancing in his head.

“I want to take you through a little deductive reasoning exercise to find teams that 1) have the kind of money to sign a player to a $22-25 million per year contract for 10 years and 2) have a first baseman that you’d have to worry about moving,” Baumann wrote. He concluded that the Phillies would actually be a decent possibility to be that very team, or, in words everyone can understand, the #mysteryteam.

“Yeah, we know after the Cliff Lee Incident of 2011 (sic) that ‘Mystery Team’ means ‘Philadelphia Phillies,’ but all optimism and homerism aside, this is the team that actually makes the most sense to be Stark’s third bidder,” Baumann wrote.

On Thursday, Pujols signed a ten-year, $250 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The #mysteryteam still had not been revealed. But it did not matter. It only mattered on Tuesday night, when the concept of the #mysteryteam returned to the hotel lobby, when Twitter became a dumping ground for every inch of pontification necessary regarding the #mysteryteam, when fans stuck out their chests, boasted and berated about their hopes that their team could be the one that magically lands Pujols. And many Phillies fans took this seriously. They had to. Because the Eagles stunk, the Flyers meant little and the 76ers weren’t even happening yet. Because it was December, and you have to cure those December blues somehow.

And yet the biggest story, the one that actually mattered for Phillies fans worldwide, was still nothing, just a grouchy elephant hanging out in a room. No offer made to Jimmy Rollins. Not much talk between the Phillies and Rollins’ agent, Dan Lozano. Sure, maybe a meeting here and there, but nothing concrete, nothing noteworthy. No big words, just empty space. But that’s not good. Not in December, when the blues torment and torture a fan beyond compare. Empty space is the biggest enemy when nothing is happening otherwise. So the devilish fans play with fire. They wait to strike, then they attack, and sometimes in the most insanely amazing ways.

He, the most devilish fan in Twitter nation, is @FanSince09. He was created as a reactionary, perfected as a mirror to society, living and breathing as the worst nightmare of the easily duped. He is the underbelly of Philadelphia sports fandom, the one who says all the things that the fans want to say, but won’t, at least in public, to millions of people, on a social networking platform. And Wednesday night, as the #mysteryteam business was fading from existence, @FanSince09 attacked. Calculated? No. @FanSince09 almost never calculates. He simply throws the somewhat believable stick into the alley, hoping a passerby will do what many humans do: grab the stick.

“RT @Sl_JonHeyman Rollins a done deal. 5 years, 70 mil.”

The JonHeyman refers to Sports Illustrated writer Jon Heyman, who earlier in the day began his new job at CBS Sports, leaving Sports Illustrated. Not to mention the Sl was an SL, not the SI Heyman used to employ in his Twitter handle. It didn’t matter. Somebody grabbed the stick.

“5 years for Rollins is what I’m hearing” was a tweet from a regular fan.

“BREAKING NEWS: Phillies and Jimmy Rollins have come to terms on a 5 year deal worth Approx. 70 Million! #OFFSEASON” was a tweet from a baseball website.

“@JimmyRollins11 5,$70M can you verify?” was a tweet from another fan. Soon, Rollins’ own Twitter feed was full of people asking him if he accepted the Phillies’ offer, and telling him that he didn’t deserve the offer. Even Rollins himself was confused:

“I know, they almost convinced me that I did sign, lol,” he tweeted in response to someone’s question.

Two days later, @FanSince09 struck again, this time tweeting that the Cardinals had signed Rollins to a five-year, $70 million contract. He used a fake Twitter handle for Todd Zolecki, Phillies reporter at MLB.com. More people grabbed the stick, causing Leach to tell followers the Rollins news was fake. But the damage had been done. One influential Twitter user with a devilish disposition. He can bring down cities, especially in those most insane of times, the days of those December blues, when every rumor grows like fungus, when people can’t help but talk, and when the most minute of matters becomes a mammoth moment.

***

Rocky Balboa’s Philadelphia is a Philadelphia of despair, but there is hope. Beneath the layers of gray is that simple idea: Anyone can reach the top of the stairs. There is a sunshine. It will appear. Just work, and it will come.

Santa Claus, whether myth or man, fiction or reality, proves every year that there is sunshine behind the gray of the Philadelphia cityscape. When he turns and waves to the city, he reminds everyone that the light will shine, and not just on December 25, when childlike whimsy overwhelms reason. So there is no need to worry, and there is no need to rush matters. The Eagles may stink, and the Flyers may grow slowly to relevance, and the 76ers may live again, but it does not mean the Phillies must swallow the city whole. There must be room for optimism in the dreary rains of April, the bright skies of June, the sweaty evenings of August and the cooling silence of October. Especially the cooling silence of October.

These are new days in Philadelphia. To coin a song from the “Rocky” soundtrack, it is morning in Philadelphia. It is dawn in Philadelphia. A time of eternal optimism and, like it or not, of abundant madness portrayed by white heat.

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