Part 1: Stupid Aura

by Timothy Malcolm

Sometimes, on the occasion of an important sporting event, I will cook food that feels appropriate for the setting. Maybe this is a Super Bowl thing, seeing as most people eat wings for the Super Bowl. Or maybe it’s a me thing. Maybe I just really enjoy living in the moment, sipping up every last bit of superstitious aura to facilitate my intellectual failings. I don’t know. But I know that aura is stupid.

I cooked cheesesteaks. That seems silly just thinking about it, since it’s the first thing people mention when they hear I’m from Philadelphia. “Oh, so you’ve must’ve had a Philly cheesesteak, right?” Of course I have. I’ve eaten Pat’s and Geno’s, and Jim’s and Tony Luke’s and Steve’s Prince of Steaks and Campo’s and Dalessandro’s. All of them. I grew up on Tony’s Pizzeria’s cheesesteak, which was more like crumbled ground beef cooked in American cheese. And I love Tony’s Pizzeria’s cheesesteak. But by cooking a cheesesteak I was giving into false hope. I was attempting to create an aura, a beneficial situation for my viewing experience, when in reality I knew the Phillies weren’t going to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in game five of the 2011 National League Division Series. It wasn’t happening. I knew it all day. Wasn’t feeling it. No fire in the belly. No focus. This happened before, mind you.

Just one year before I was sitting with my family at a Doylestown, Pa., restaurant, watching the Phillies and Giants tangle in game six of the National League Championship Series. The Phillies took an early lead, then came deliriously close to breaking the game wide open. All of us sat on edge, excited for one big hit, for one chance to slice the Giants down and force a game seven that the Phillies would surely win. Then Giants pitcher Jonathan Sanchez threw a ball at Chase Utley, who seemed angry. Sanchez responded. A fight almost occurred and, immediately, Giants players leaped out of the dugout, hoping to start a brawl. Nothing actually happened, but at that moment, as the Giants players pounded at their chests and pointed toward the Phillies players, I felt my stomach rumble, my eyes grow dim and my brain tumble violently. “We’re done,” I said, maybe to myself, maybe to my father, I forget. Sanchez was taken out of the game, the Giants bullpen started dissecting the Phillies and, a little later, Juan Uribe hit the quietest home run in the history of Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies would lose that game. I knew it, and yet there I was, at some restaurant with my family, trying to create this perfect situation that was doomed from dawn.

The 2008 season, the one that ended with a celebration on the mound, never felt like that. Each big hit, each inning-ending pitch, each crucial catch in the outfield – everything seemed like out of a dream, as if it couldn’t happen, not as if it wasn’t going to happen. When Shane Victorino lined a tying home run in game four of the Championship Series against the Dodgers, I lifted from out of a reclining stupor, thinking this was the downfall. But it wasn’t. Not this team. They were above that, and above me. When Matt Stairs launched his epic home run against Jonathan Broxton two batters later, I was converted. The Phillies took me for a ride that year, and they took every God-fearing Philadelphia Phillies fan along with them. It was a speedy cruise to a championship, and none of us had a moment to second guess. Even when nature suspended the Phillies’ celebration for two days, we didn’t have time to doubt. The Phillies won, Ryan Howard parked into Brad Lidge’s knee, we partied all night, we soaked in a parade and, just like that, it was over. The unforgettable ride ended. Another year passed and the Phillies came up painstakingly short – a knife-twisting loss to the Yankees, who were there to keep up appearances. Then the Giants loss. Then this night, when I cooked those stupid cheesesteaks that weren’t even good. And Chris Carpenter stood there against every Phillies hitter and literally laughed aura out of the building, winning with a 1-0 series-clinching spit in the face. And I vowed never to cook another cheesesteak. Ever.

The image of that loss forever to be ingrained in the minds of Philadelphians is of Ryan Howard. Of course it is. In the sixth inning, when doubt set in to the point of uncontrollable anger that the Phillies couldn’t score one filthy run, everybody in Philadelphia noted that Ryan Howard would be the batter to end the thing. Bottom of the ninth, two outs, and there he was, the slimmer slugger, pants down to the dirt, helmet hiding his ability to see forty-eight thousand people doubting his ability to hit a baseball, bat pointed to second base to remind the guy standing there that it was coming his way. He took a strike, I think. He probably swung at a ball, I think. I forget. It didn’t matter. My finger was already positioned on top of “LAST,” which I think was “Shrek,” which was both ironic and appropriate. Carpenter let loose a pitch, I think a changeup – and if it wasn’t then Carpenter wasn’t thinking straight – and Howard swung over it, of course, and dribbled the stupid thing right toward Ryan Theriot. Why Theriot ran to first didn’t make sense, but I didn’t see it. “Shrek” it was. Later I’d discover that Howard didn’t even make it to first. He hobbled until he couldn’t hobble anymore. And when Albert Pujols caught Theriot’s lob and pumped his fist, Howard awkwardly collapsed to a seated position. That was the image: Ryan Howard, collapsed on the grass of Citizens Bank Park as dozens of gray-shirted St. Louis Cardinals charged to celebrate a series victory.

After the game, Howard told reporters he may have torn his meniscus. And a day later, Howard told reporters that he did, in fact, tear his meniscus and might need surgery. Then he had surgery and was told he might return by May or June of 2012, and that was the optimistic outlook. A rather auspicious way to start a five-year, $125 million contract. Oh yeah, there was that, too.

And so the image of Ryan Howard, seated ever so injured on the field, encapsulated everything that ended that 2011 season. A brute force left to hobble and die. A monster pile of money stopped cold by Father Time. A pithy grounder to second base, another weak bullet fired by a team stymied by a crafty hurler who did his homework on the Phillies older, slower and clearly not-three dimensional batting order. And Shrek contemplated letting go of everything, hiding forever from ogredom.

***

The story of the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies might be most remembered for its sad ending, but the exposition read well. In the beginning there was Ruben, and he had Cole and Roy and Vice Roy. But he wanted one more, so he grabbed Cliff again, and the city rejoiced. In fact, it may be truth that the most celebratory day of the 2011 Phillies season was December 13, 2010, the day Ruben Amaro Jr. snatched Cliff Lee from the force field of those Yankees. The events of that day, confined to about six hours in primetime, progressed like an epic underdog tale, and the climax was exactly that – a full-fledged orgy by ecstatic Phillies fans sewing up the world championship ten months in advance. Add to that Lee’s happiness about returning to Philadelphia, taking a lesser contract than what the Yankees offered, and Phillies fans were rejoicing in the greatest day they had experienced in two years.

Two months later Cliff joined Cole, Roy and Vice Roy – oh, and Joe – at a spring training press conference introducing the world to the Four Aces – oh, and Joe. The whole thing seemed contrived, capped by the shrugging responses of the incredulous pitchers, who felt even a little perturbed by the whole spectacle. Fans lapped it up, watching the whole charade on their computers, mocking beat writers’ questions and devising clever Photoshop images of the watershed moment. Spring training went according to plan, except injuries to franchise stud Chase Utley and young prospect Domonic Brown. It didn’t veer the Phillies off course, as they blasted through the National League with ease, taking out competitors neatly – really, too neatly. Losses, which came sparingly, actually seemed like cruel jokes. The offense didn’t hit particularly well but the pitching held up. Roy Halladay had his usual superb season. Cole Hamels had become a stud. Cliff ebbed and flowed, but finished spectacularly. Vice Roy Oswalt fought through injury but remained effective. Joe Blanton? Injury closed him down early. Instead, young and punchy right-hander Vance Worley burst through the walls with an outstanding first campaign. The efforts of the pitchers kept the Phillies miles ahead of their peers – the team slipped up twice: in a lackadaisical run against the Pirates and Nationals, and in a couple outings against the Cardinals. Yes, those Cardinals. We should have known.

But the Phillies beat the Cardinals to win the National League East for a fifth year in a row. Then they took a week off, losing a string of games before hitting the gas once more and sweeping the Atlanta Braves, taking them out of the playoffs in legendary fashion and, oh yeah, allowing the Cardinals to sneak in. That turned out to work against the Phillies.

But the Phillies had won one-hundred and two games, the most in franchise history. They now had Hunter Pence, a younger and oddly gifted hitter capable of driving in runs at a solid pace. And the pitchers were great. The bullpen seemed good enough. They just swept the Braves out of the playoff race. They were going to be fine. And they won the first game in the Division Series, capped by a Ryan Howard home run that signaled the Phillies were here for business, not for laughs. Then they fumbled game two. But they won game three, thanks to a huge pinch home run by Ben Francisco. Then they were wiped out of game four. They were pressing. They were tired. They were older. But everything seemed fine. They weren’t going to lose! Not now!

After it all ended, smart Phillies fans told us that the team fell victim to the chances of a five-game playoff series. One cold spell and you got trouble. One poor pitching performance – and Cliff, the people’s champion, had one – and you could be cooked. One bad managerial decision and it could spiral out of control. Anything can happen, and anything would happen. Heck, Ben Francisco hit a home run for the Phillies, so it wasn’t insane to think anything can and would happen. And sure, the Phillies did have a cold spell, a poor pitching performance and some odd managerial decisions, such as barely letting John Mayberry Jr. – a skilled offensive player who won a large share of at bats during the season – see the batter’s box during the series. But there was something so poetic about Ryan Howard crumbling to a ball of broken parts. One couldn’t completely shake the notion that, maybe, in some odd universe inhabited by stupid aura and old-fashioned scouts and the baseball gods, that this was fate playing out right in front of our teary eyes. So you start from Howard, work backwards, find a healthy amount of bravado and see the comeuppance miles away. These stupid 2011 Phillies simply deserved this.

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