Part 5: In Search of The Big Story
by Timothy Malcolm
Jonathan Papelbon arrived in Philadelphia on a Sunday evening.
He passed his physical and would greet the media on Monday. But he would not quite arrive quietly. Lately, especially as the Phillies’ profile has increased, it has been commonplace to see an eager broadcast journalist stalk an airport or train station to first greet a high-profile acquisition. “Welcome to Philadelphia! Here’s a soft pretzel! Got a few words for the fans?” This happened to Cliff Lee upon his arrival one offseason earlier, and he simply shrugged and admitted happiness. It happened one year before that, to Roy Halladay, before he was officially traded even, and he batted off the journalist while keeping a kind demeanor. Months earlier, Pedro Martinez wore a loud orange shirt and strutted down Broad Street the day of his acquisition, practically asking for the journalists to invade his privacy. They did, and he smiled wide as he waxed about getting a new opportunity, one he rode into the deciding game of the 2009 World Series, no less. That was the first one, the first time the broadcast journalists sniffed amusing regalia around the Phillies.
This time it was Papelbon meeting Jeff Skversky, a journalist with WPVI, the ABC affiliate in Philadelphia and the forerunner of the “Action News” style of broadcast. You know, the powerful, relentless theme. Deep brass. Rolling percussion. News van. Helicopter. Quick cuts. Action News! The Delaware Valley’s leading news program! And The Big Story: Papelbon.
“I came here to add to my ring collection,” the Phillies new closer told Skversky. What a quote! Ring collection! The brashness of the line! Considering he only had one ring! That’s the guy the Phillies needed, a man unafraid to talk a big game, even when he technically talked incorrectly. And it reminded of another guy, the one who chatted on about the postseason and the Dallas Cowboys and golf games immediately after ripping his National League Championship tickets. Jonathan Papelbon was, in many ways, the pitching version of Shane Victorino.
It is possible that one of the many reasons Ruben Amaro Jr. signed Papelbon, somewhere deep on the checklist, is this: He is a lunatic. At least people think he is a lunatic. He stares at hitters like they possess three noses. His own nose fumes as he waits, and waits more, and waits even more, and then unfurls a fastball that hopefully doesn’t get swatted and deposited onto the Massachusetts Turnpike. When the hitter doesn’t do this, and instead strikes out in a blaze of haplessness, Papelbon assumes a Donkey Kong position, pumps his fist, and growls toward the moon. He’s Macho Man Randy Savage in a baseball cap. And so, with that knowledge, and the cringing quotes he might sometimes say, Papelbon is regarded as a lunatic. And you don’t pay a lunatic $50 million over four years, and a couple weeks into the offseason no less, unless you really feel you need the lunatic.
Amaro could have paid slightly less money to Ryan Madson – and journalists reported that a three-year offer had been extended – but he instead dipped deep into the coffers for a pricier Papelbon. The two were extremely different: Madson a tall, laid-back Southern California kid who relied on a graceful changeup; Papelbon a Louisiana lunatic. With Madson, the Phillies would have likely coasted through three consistently manageable years in the bullpen, but with Papelbon, the Phillies get nail biting ninth innings, cagey post-game interviews, a relentless rock soundtrack and The Big Story on Action News. The lunatic signifies a shift, and one that may be calculated. The message: We need more Victorinos.
Ask any journalist, even the broadcast ones, and they will agree: The Phillies locker room can be boring. Sure, Carlos Ruiz dances around in other guys’ uniforms, says Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated. And sure, Hunter Pence geeks about with clipped catchphrases and constant Twitter updates. But there is ice everywhere – Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, and yes, Madson. Veterans who mean more to the Phillies than the Phanatic, all of them quiet and boring. Slowly, however, a young cadre of extroverts are invading the clubhouse, and they seek leaders. Sure there is Victorino, ready to supplant Jimmy Rollins as mouthpiece – if the team leader was to exit through free agency. But look, on Twitter, at Michael Schwimer and Mike Stutes and Justin De Fratus, all ready to assume positions in the bullpen, all talking big and laughing and being young. They could use a leader! They could use a Victorino! How about a lunatic?
All the talk of leaders cannot ignore the forty-something tapped to lead the bench. When Jim Thome met the media (he was not invaded at the airport), he spoke about seeing Philadelphia as an outstanding opportunity to win his first championship. Yes, his chance to reign majestically. Since becoming a postseason stalwart, the Phillies have signed a few guys approaching their final playing days, giving them that chance to reign majestically. Unwittingly they gave Geoff Jenkins a proper sendoff; the longtime Brewers slugger signed a two-year pact with the Phillies but retired halfway through, closing the book with a championship and a memorable final at bat: a double late in the clinching game. Matt Stairs also won his first and only title as a Phillie, leaving his mark with a parabolic blast that will forever live on in city lore. Scott Eyre also won his first and only ring that year. Mike Sweeney, well liked and offensively proficient, reached the postseason for the first time as a Phillie, then retired soon after. Jim Thome? He fits the profile and then some: Not only is he nice like Sweeney and Stairs, but he is a hall of famer. Not only does he deserve the title, he has earned the damn thing.
And that shouldn’t be lost as the 2012 season approaches. The 2011 Phillies methodically outpaced their counterparts in the regular season. Think of Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint.” The third one. They were “On to the Next One,” a cold march past every opponent. But the march petered unexpectedly, and quickly. It was not very dramatic, it just happened. There was no underdog story. No “Rocky” ending. This was not Philadelphia. This was a bunch of guys who just fell off the cliff.
These new guys? Continue the metaphor. Papelbon is “Hate,” a lunatic of a song. Thome is “Young Forever,” the last attempt, draped in strings and introspection. Together they bring life to the Phillies – not the kind of life that doesn’t methodically march through a season, but the life of the underdog, the hopeful, the feisty. It’s the kind of life the team has desperately needed, and the kind of life that could reinvigorate a following that cannot shake the sight of an ogre gasping for air while watching another team celebrate around him, in his home. This new life brings fiery fastballs and wild tempers, and it brings swings that can cause a throng of nearly fifty-thousand to erupt in elation. It brings The Big Story. For a team lacking those characters, and for a city seeking an underdog to wage war behind, The Big Story may be a welcome sight.