Part 2: The Rat and The Modern Age

by Timothy Malcolm

That’s unfair, of course. It’s unfair to say any baseball team deserved its fate. Because fate isn’t real, right?

Really, it’s action repeated numerous times that does in a team. And a manager like Tony LaRussa? He’ll expose a team that falls into the trap of repeated action. Ryan Howard can’t hit breaking balls? Throw him breaking balls. Raul Ibanez has trouble against left-handed pitching? Make that pitching change – who cares how many pitchers you’ve already used. Only once against the Phillies, a game in St. Louis back in June, did LaRussa’s frantic game of puppetry backfire – the Cardinals were leading the Phillies 2-1 in the top of the eighth, a seemingly inconspicuous game at Busch Stadium, until reliever Trever Miller allowed a single and a walk. The Phillies never faced Miller in the National League Division Series. Jason Motte hit two batters. He would soon become a savior for the Cardinals. Brian Tallet allowed a single. He never faced the Phillies in the playoffs either. Nor did Miguel Batista, who walked two hitters and allowed a single. And Maikel Cleto, who walked one and allowed another two singles – he also never made the postseason roster. At the end of the eighth the Phillies had tacked on nine runs and led 10-2, thanks to LaRussa’s juggling of his bullpen. But that bullpen wasn’t the bullpen that stymied the Phillies in October. And LaRussa played that card right this time. He also pitched the right guys in the right situations, and inserted hitters who swung lightly at every ball that approached the plate, and just so lightly that the balls would bounce off the bats and fling themselves in the outfield like pedals from a flower. Genius they call him, either sarcastically or admirably. Either way, most of his moves worked, and it’s because he saw right through the muck – those Phillies are creatures of action repeated numerous times. You could set your watch to those guys. And that’s fair.

In the days that proceeded the epic exit, fans underwent motions that mirrored the seven stages of grief. This is typical. It happened after Joe Carter blasted the Mitch Williams fastball over the left field fence of Rogers Centre. It happened after Shane Victorino meekly grounded out on a Mariano Rivera cutter. And it happened after Ryan Howard studied Brian Wilson’s fastball scooting by him for strike three. When that last one happened – the one that really hurt – I barely said goodbye to my father at that Doylestown, Pa., restaurant. I flew to my car, started her up and drove down Old York Road and Broad Street until I reached Citizens Bank Park. Then I met a friend and attended the post-game press and staff schmooze, which resembled more of a wake. Folks wearing fine sweaters and lanyards nibbled on crudites and drank Newcastle while me, that stupid fan who had just witnessed a silencing of the lambs, perused the whole charade in disgust. How could anybody celebrate at a time like this?

That’s the shock and denial stage. After the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter giggled his way to the National League Championship Series, you can bet nearly the entire Phillies fan base felt shocked. Professional writers felt shocked. It should have never ended this way. In the division series? To the Cardinals? The team they inadvertently let into the postseason by beating up the Braves? It made little sense, but there it was, shock. Fans then turned to pain and guilt, shielding it with humor, or alcohol, or facing it straight away by crying, yelling, whatever. Anger and bargaining came next, and for Philadelphians, that’s usually the fun one.

First, let’s explore what people know – or think they know – about Philadelphia sports fans. They’re fat, lazy, loud, abrasive, reactionary, vulgar, sometimes violent, drunk, negative, snappy and crude. Is this true? Well, sure, some Philadelphia sports fans carry those traits, and usually it’s those fans that gain media attention because, well, they’re the loud and vulgar fans. But not all Philadelphia sports fans are like this. Some are rational and see that baseball is a game, and they may be hurt immediately following a heartbreaking loss, but they will cope with the hurt and continue on with their lives. And yet some of these fans can be fat, or lazy, or loud – you get the idea. Not all fans are bad fans, and not all fans are good fans, and amazingly, nobody is really a bad or good fan. Everyone is a little of everything. But Philadelphia is serious about its sports, and so when the Phillies lose in terrible fashion far before anybody expected them to lose, the fans soon become angry. And they bargain. And those fat, lazy, loud stereotypes – all those stereotypes – seem to work their way into the thread with greater frequency, which create small, sometimes insignificant, but ultimately intriguing stories that help understand the mind of the Philadelphia sports fan.

On October 7, 2011, the night of the epic exit, Phillies fan blogs offered the shock, and fans began exercising the stages of grief. Some were already in anger. Handfuls of fans partially blamed umpiring for the Phillies’ exit. Some fans simply expressed hatred toward Tony LaRussa. Some piled onto Ryan Howard for making a few more outs than expected, for signing a five-year, $125 million contract and, somehow, for injuring himself.

At Beerleaguer, a longtime Phillies fan blog, commenters supplied hefty anger from the onset of the Cardinals’ celebration near an ailing Howard:

“I’m glad Howard is hurt.”

“Enjoy the offseason doofus. Rehab all you want, not like it matters.”

“Why couldn’t Howard get hurt earlier in series and get (John Mayberry Jr.) some at bats?”

These were posted immediately after the Phillies lost, so these are strong reactionary comments, written in blind anger without much thought of the situation.

But six days later at Phillies Nation, another popular Phillies fan blog, one commenter wrote: “I’m not too excited to get Howard back either. He just doesn’t have it anymore, he’s a choker.” On that same day, in the comments of an Oct. 11 Yahoo! Fan article debating Howard’s dissenters, a commenter referred to Howard as “a head case pure and simple.” On Twitter, a Phillies fan wrote on Oct. 19 “Fuck st Louis Shane Vic Ryan Howard cliff lee blow up the team get these guys out of philly.” These comments are just a sampling of some of the angry reactions to the Phillies’ postseason exit, and truthfully, there were fewer dissenters than supporters of Howard and his cohorts. But the reaction underscores a very real fostered dislike of some of the team’s players, even before the final out was reached. It seemed some fans were simply waiting, like flies to a sticky bun, for the meal to be set down. Once Howard collapsed to the grass, the flies swarmed, fueled by pure anger.

***

Back in 2002, before Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies averaged just under twenty-thousand fans a night at Veterans Stadium, the circular and concrete structure that served as a baseball and football field for three decades. The first decade of Veterans Stadium was a wild success for Phillies fans, as the team climbed from obscurity to register three consecutive National League East Division championships. In year ten of the Vet, the Phillies won their first world championship, becoming the last pre-expansion team to achieve that mark, setting off a party the likes of which Philadelphia hasn’t since witnessed. The second decade of Veterans Stadium began with enormous hopes, as the Phillies stormed in front of the National League in the 1981 season. But a midseason strike cooled off the older Phillies, and they wouldn’t recover until 1983, when a hastily organized group of former world-beaters staved off competition to reach, and lose, the World Series. Future Phillies teams were progressively worse. By the time all-time star Mike Schmidt retired in 1989, the Phillies were terrible, closing the Vet’s second decade like a blubbering baby. Ironically, that’s how Schmidt actually ended his career, a frustrated and broken man knowing his best days had finally left his superior body. The third decade picked up where the second ended: poorly. But the 1993 Phillies shocked the world, dominating the National League before closing out the Atlanta Braves in the championship series.

The 1993 Phillies were the perfect Philadelphia sports team. Quite literally, nothing will ever top them. They entered the regular season a footnote, predicted to finish behind the expansion Florida Marlins in the seven-team National League East. Then they swept the Houston Astros to begin the season, backed by solid pitching and a destructive offensive attack. But while bad teams fail to duplicate early success, the Phillies just kept winning with the same exact formula. Solid pitching, destructive offense. No pitcher was outstanding – instead, the quintet of Terry Mulholland, Tommy Greene, Curt Schilling, Danny Jackson and Ben Rivera consistently swam through six- and seven-inning outings. And the bullpen, led by the perennially wild Mitch Williams, held enough ground to successfully close out nearly every game. Lenny Dykstra fueled the offense, taking more than one-hundred walks, registering nearly two-hundred hits, reaching base in half of his appearances, diving into fences and sliding on his face to steal bags. Everyone else followed suit: Mariano Duncan and Mickey Morandini supplied key hits and solid defense; John Kruk lined laser singles and doubles, usually to move Dykstra to third; Dave Hollins picked up RBI with his limited attack; Darren Daulton and Pete Incaviglia rocked home runs and knocked in clutch runs; Jim Eisenreich, Milt Thompson and Wes Chamberlain hit well, fielded well and brought balance, respectively. And when the only hole in the lineup – Juan Bell – failed terribly, a rookie named Kevin Stocker stepped in and hit over .300. Bench players like Kim Batiste and Ricky Jordan had their moments. A fully functional offensive unit, and most importantly, they stayed healthy. Only a Hollins injury threatened to derail the attack, but Batiste stepped in admirably in the third baseman’s absence. A lucky team blessed with health and a score of peak seasons – a simple recipe for baseball success.

The twenty-somethings who celebrated the 2008 championship while swilling beer bottles were beginning to truly understand baseball when Joe Carter stepped into the batter’s box against Mitch Williams in the ninth inning of game six of the 1993 World Series. Those twenty-somethings had just acquired their heroes. Some of them loved John Kruk, the hairy and chubby uncle who flailed and fluttered his way through an at bat against Randy Johnson at the midsummer classic. Some of them loved Darren Daulton, the handsome captain who moved quick behind the plate and slugged the ball in key situations throughout the season. But most of them loved “Nails.” Dykstra would dig into the box as if he was creating a bunker. He’d twirl his foot into the dirt, hunch low so his elbow would block his view of the mound, then wind his bat back so it was unhinged, ready to attack at any moment. He’d swing at anything close, watch anything else just as long as he could. He did it better than anybody. And in 1993, nobody did it better than Dykstra. Barry Bonds won the National League Most Valuable Player award that season, bashing home runs and flying around the bases without batting an eye. Dykstra made everything look earned. He saw ten pitches in every plate appearance. He danced off first base before every set. Any ball that approached his barreling frame in the spacious Veterans Stadium center field became a catch, as he dove, leaped, tumbled and slid into the turf without consideration for his wellbeing. It’s as if Lenny Dykstra knew the 1993 season was his one perfect run through the summer. Maybe he bargained with a baseball god during spring training, sacrificing his future for one healthy and carefree summer, just to see what he could accomplish. In a twelve-year career, 1993 was his only full season. He played one-hundred and sixty-one games, stepping to the plate seven-hundred and seventy-three times, at the time a baseball record. He collected one-hundred and ninety-three hits and probably could’ve collected more, but he walked one-hundred and twenty-nine times. Both numbers led the National League. He hit nineteen home runs and drove home sixty-six runners. A .305 average. Thirty-seven steals (though twelve times caught). One-hundred and forty-three runs scored. Most impressively, a staggering three-hundred and seven total bases. He nearly won Most Valuable Player honors in the World Series, despite losing in six games, since he hit four home runs, collected a .500 on-base percentage and scored nine runs. And all of that – the numbers, the hustle, the reckless abandon, the treatise with the baseball gods – all of that made him an instant hero amongst Philadelphia boys discovering their baseball heroes for the first time.

The problem with Dykstra and Daulton, and Kruk and all the rest of that 1993 team, was that they didn’t stay long. After Joe Carter mashed that home run to end the ’93 season, the national media remained fixated on the Phillies and their macho demeanor. Baseball card companies devoted special sets to the Phillies. Half the 1993 team reached the All Star Game, either in ’93 or in ’94. But in that 1994 season, those Phillies, returning from the World Series disappointment, never found the spark that ignited them the year before. Dykstra didn’t quite have it. Kruk was hurt, and worst, had been struck with testicular cancer. Daulton lacked. Hollins was out. The whole thing fell to pieces, and then, worst of all, owners and players split and caused a strike. Just as young Phillies fans found their heroes, they were gone. And by the time baseball resumed in 1995, those heroes were old and dusty, nowhere close to capable of carrying a team to a championship. The following years became half-hearted attempts to recapture those heroic moments of one treasured summer. Schilling turned out to be the only highly redeeming member of the squad, and he hung on as the Phillies coughed up failed season after failed season. The third decade of Veterans Stadium ended badly, and that’s the decade we young Philadelphians really needed.

***

The 2011 Phillies would have started the fifth decade of Veterans Stadium. They would have done so as possibly the greatest team ever assembled at the structure, but they didn’t have the brute persona of the 1993 club. There were few goatees. Smoking and drinking weren’t regular pastimes. Nobody yelled “Whatever it takes, dude!” Barely anybody dove face first into Astroturf, completely disregarding health and wellbeing for the sake of nabbing a baseball from thin air.

But there is one guy who does that in 2011. His name is Shane Patrick Victorino, a regular sized rat living in a world of burly titans and slender gibbons. Beginning his Phillies career first as a Rule V draft pick, then as a situational bench player, then as a platoon player, Victorino always came to the park hungry. In those early days, Victorino possessed a red light, diving for quickly falling quails, hustling for an extra base after a lazy pop fell into play, waving at borderline strikes to keep himself from dropping off the face of the at bat. It became quite evident that Victorino would do anything to stay alive, stay winning and stay vital in the minds of his teammates and fans. He ran and ducked and weaved like that packrat hurdling through a labyrinth. In 2008, once he gained a fulltime position as center fielder, Victorino grew a beard – but it peaked at stubble, rough and unpleasant – yet it made him look more dangerous, like a hitman hired by the Phillies to disgust opposing players and fans. As a Mets fan. Ask a Dodgers fan. They all loathed him. But Phillies fans loved him, even if he swung too oddly and popped up too many balls, even if he played with an overzealous fervor that sometimes cost the team, and even if he displayed a hypnotic unawareness of everything happening around him, darting back and forth through situations without clear focus.

There was a partial reason for that. Shane Victorino had, and has, ADHD. It wasn’t a shocking revelation, just something revealed as part of Victorino’s life. By 2011 thousands of people had been diagnosed with ADHD, and many children born in the past twenty years seem to have some form of attention deficit disorder – merely part of our world, one where distraction regularly overpowers focus. For a major league ballplayer to thrive while living with ADHD is incredible in itself – the best players in baseball are normally intensely focused stars, such as Chase Utley, who seems to be staring intently every time the camera catches him in the dugout. Victorino is a special case – not only does he play at times with the reckless nature of a person with ADHD, but more often than not, plays well, and even uses his personality as an advantage.

Victorino hit well in the National League Division Series, roping six hits in nineteen at bats, collecting a double and driving home two. He didn’t walk, but he didn’t strike out. Defensively his trademark play surfaced – in game four, he misplayed a fly ball to center field and stumbled in the shadows of the Busch Stadium expanse. And this wasn’t the first time he did this; earlier in the season, Victorino tripped over himself at Toronto’s Rogers Centre. This was a habit. While the play in St. Louis may have gone down as one of the funnier moments of Victorino’s career, it could have hurt the Phillies. It didn’t, though the Cardinals won that game and sent the series to game five. And in that decisive fifth game, when Chris Carpenter stifled the Phillies’ attack, it was Victorino who showed up, striking that double off Carpenter. He was the only true offensive bright spot for the Phillies.

After that final game, Victorino was seen ripping up his National League Championship Series tickets, gifts to his family members and friends – friends like Ultimate Fighting Championship founder Dana White. A mixed martial arts supporter, Victorino epitomized the tenacious style of cannibalism that stirred the blood of alpha males across the world. Wearing the Ed Hardy-style shirts that symbolized the faux elegance promoted by the world of mixed martial arts, Victorino was not merely a hungry and tenacious rat clawing for notoriety, but an archetype, the kind of new age, all-or-nothing, distraction era poster boy that could make tearing tickets a piece of digital art – a statement against those who focused too much, who lost touch of the real goal. Victorino cared, or at least he demonstrated that he cared, and that was worth quite a lot.

The problem, of course, with the distraction era, is that it has given birth to communities that promote the cause. Look at Twitter, a daguerreotype in its own way. One year before, you couldn’t find Philadelphia Phillies trolling the Twitter byways. It seemed unfair – while other teams had their Nick Swishers and CJ Wilsons tweeting obsessively, the Phillies had nothing. Maybe the Phillies were showing the need to focus – no point in having ballplayers typing away at their smartphones in the locker room. Maybe that was a good thing: Nobody really liked Swisher, right? And Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison, the early frontrunner in the ballplayer Twitter race, even sparking a love affair with Phillies fans hungry for some ballplayer action, sparred with Florida management over his excessive and sometimes controversial tweets. Yes, maybe it was good that the men of the Philadelphia Phillies had no earthly reason to care about such a distraction.

That didn’t last, of course, with rookies and newcomers who hadn’t yet met Chase Utley first logging onto Twitter. And those guys – Hunter Pence, Vance Worley, Michael Schwimer, Mike Stutes – influenced the locker room’s extroverts to join. So Jimmy Rollins came on board, and soon, Victorino came on board, which makes perfect sense – no ballplayer makes more sense for the distraction-a-second nature of Twitter as the poster boy himself. And Victorino used Twitter predictably, shouting to his fans, promoting his UFC brothers and peppering in a couple Hawaiian greetings. He’d acknowledge the crowd after home wins and express discontent after rare losses.

After that horrible loss, that shocking Division Series exit, and maybe after ripping up those Championship Series tickets, Victorino expressed discontent to his Twitter followers. Then the Championship Series, with the Cardinals and Brewers, started.

“Craig with a big two out hit……whoa!” tweeted Victorino while watching the series. “Don’t know who’s hit has been the biggest yet………”

“Go Brewers Go…..big back to back doubles!!!!!” he tweeted later.

This followed a string of tweets uncomfortable to some fans, including one about hitting the links one day after elimination, and one praising Tony Romo, quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, a rival for Philadelphia sports fans.

Victorino’s tweets didn’t sit well with Kyle Scott, founder and lead blogger of Crossing Broad, which reports and opines on the Philadelphia professional and collegiate sports scene. He responded to Victorino:

“We don’t want to see Victorino talk about his golf game, and we certainly don’t want to see him openly rooting for the Brewers when most of us can’t even stomach watching baseball right now (!!!),” Scott wrote in a post titled “Following the Phillies on Twitter is More Annoying Than You May Have First Thought.”

After receiving multiple indirect tweets about Scott’s response, Victorino indirectly replied to Scott:

“Much love @MrGT425 probably some slappy who has no life @crossingbroad sending out tweets! #clown U have a great day!”

Later, Victorino surfaced as Major League Baseball’s official player tweeter during the postseason, which no less helped his reasoning for cheering about the games. As for the Cowboys tweet: Victorino likes quarterback Tony Romo. Still not a desirable thing to see from a Philadelphia athlete, but sound reasoning nonetheless.

Scott’s argument was that, considering the shocking and upsetting nature of the Phillies’ loss, it wasn’t a thoughtful move to cheer about the remainder of the National League postseason. Moreover, Victorino should have thought before tweeting positively about football’s Dallas Cowboys, a team that sticks in the craw of about 90 percent of Phillies’ fans. And tweeting about enjoying a sunny golf game just two days after exiting the playoffs? Scott just wanted Victorino to think twice.

“Not that Shane can’t do and say whatever he wants, but yeah, when he’s speaking to roughly 40,000 Phillies fans, tweeting about how great the playoffs are and ‘Go Brewers’ is annoying to say the least,” Scott said.

Scott, who claims he has held Phillies season tickets since the early 1990s and, around the time of his interaction with Victorino was feeling sad about the team’s failure, approaches Crossing Broad from the eyes of a devoted fan. His following is quite large (more than 8,000 Twitter followers and 6,000 Facebook fans), and according to Scott, he responds regularly to fans through Twitter, Facebook, comments and emails. He has a grasp of his core audience, and he said his audience probably felt the same way as he: It just stinks that Victorino was openly expressing himself in a manner not reflective of his devoted fans.

That’s the trouble with Twitter, and Facebook, and the rest of the modern world, this age of distraction we mostly embrace. It takes merely a smartphone and a wireless internet connection to broadcast our opinions to countless people. For Victorino, a man who must constantly be thinking, moving and charging with the world around him, Twitter certainly is a charming tool. Scott understands this, and thinks the Phillies center fielder must practice some filtering – either assisted or independent – before he begins tapping onto his phone keys.

“I don’t know if that means a PR person is needed,” said Scott, “perhaps just thinking twice about who you’re speaking to.”

But that’s Shane Victorino, a little rat clawing through a world of titans and gazelles. His intention wasn’t to upset his Phillies fans, of course, and Scott knew that. In the end the spat ended as a footnote, more a testament to Victorino’s exuberance, good or bad. And fans who grew peeved of Victorino after those initial tweets surely calmed in time. Two weeks after the spat, Victorino took to Twitter the morning of a Cowboys game against the Eagles:

“Morning all…sun is shining, weather is sweet…snow melting in the CITY OF BROTHERLY LOVE! Miss the fans and excitement at ‘the bank’ … But they are ready for #Eagles FB tonight and so am I! Sure ‘Lincoln Financial’ will be rockin! Philly #BEST FANS AROUND!”

Two decades before it was Lenny Dykstra fueling the fervor of thousands of young fans, astounded by a little guy who broke walls to succeed. Dykstra, of course, turned into an unfortunate story, a man not developed enough to calculate risk, to understand his limitations, to back away from a hailstorm. Imagine a young Dykstra in the age of distraction. Scary, isn’t it?

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