Part 9: On the Shoulders of a Dream

by Timothy Malcolm

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.

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