Part 12: Between the Walk and the Implosion

by Timothy Malcolm

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 …

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