Chapter One: Ogres and Elephants
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 15, 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.
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?
The rain fell soft that June evening in 2004. I emerged from the Pattison Avenue subway station and walked cheerily to the park. My mind raced as I saw the brick in the distance. The food. The crowd. The steel. The red. The sound. The smell! A new ballpark must smell like dogs and popcorn, fresh grass and clean dirt. There is such a thing, too. Clean dirt. And peanuts! The ballpark must smell like peanuts. That was a fact. I visited Oriole Park two years after it opened, and the smell of fresh peanuts lingered in the air even then. I was bound to be wowed.
Citizens Bank Park gleamed. The red brick and steel lived seamlessly together. I entered and scoured the park, noting every corner and kooky concourse deep in my mind. Where the cheesesteaks lived. Where the hats were sold. I would need all this information, since I’d take dates here, and my future wife, my children and their children, my father, my brothers and my friends. A home away from home. I carved out a living room, a dining room and a bedroom, in case I would ever need that. I would remember every pitch of every game, whether good or bad, and I would cherish all the memories, no matter how innocuous they would feel decades later.
And yet this day, my first at Citizens Bank Park, some rainy evening in June 2004, was not about the ballpark. And the others, like me, who were discovering the park for the first time, also felt that way. This night was not for brick and steel, but for Jim Thome, a man who was seemingly built of those things. He resembled an early twentieth century row home in Juniata, stout and still. His bat waved in the air like a statue. In sun, in shadows, in rain. Very still. And sometimes, when the timing was right, that bat would whip around, faster than lightning, and lift a baseball deep into the city skyline, like it was trying to knock William Penn off his perch. As this night began, Thome had clouted three-hundred and ninety-nine home runs. He did it for the Indians as a peppier, scrawnier infielder, then was acquired by the Phillies in a monumental signing over Thanksgiving 2002. Months after trading Scott Rolen, with the fans believing the Phillies would eternally and happily stay at the bottom of the baseball barrel, the team paid pounds for Bunyan, hoping he would rejuvenate a team nearing a new ballpark and a new era. By launching balls into the skyline, Thome nearly brought back the entire city.
That afternoon felt unfamiliar. Before Jim Thome there was Danny Tartabull. He brought hype but fell fast. Before Tartabull there was Gregg Jefferies. He was more of a stopgap. In the age of free agency the Phillies claimed early dominance, famously gobbling up half of the Big Red Machine to stagger into a National League pennant in 1983. Since, the Phillies made lame moves, signing cheap thrills like Lance Parrish and the aforementioned Tartabull. But Jim Thome? A prodigious slugger at the peak of his powers? This never happened before. As Bunyan smiled and held up a pinstriped Phillies jersey, deep within the bowels of the crumbling Veterans Stadium, we couldn’t believe any of the madness. The Phillies, possibly, maybe, wanted to win. Finally.
In 2003, his first year with the Phillies, Thome smashed forty-seven home runs, the most in baseball. He drove in one-hundred and thirty-one runs. And best of all, every one of his plate appearances was an event. Fans stopped to watch the human row home wave his stick high in the air, and spread his legs over the batter’s box like he owned the property. He would glare at the pitcher, wind up, then …
The Phillies hadn’t employed a guy like this since maybe Lenny Dykstra, but definitely Mike Schmidt – a guy capable of stopping everybody cold. And his name emblazoned shirts and jerseys across the stadium. His face was on billboards and ice cream cartons. His voice was in auto dealership advertisements. Jim Thome was Phillies baseball, and Phillies baseball was Jim Thome. And the Phillies wanted nothing more. Moving into a new home, engineering a new, powerful era of Philadelphia baseball, the Phillies must have been ecstatic to see a clean-shaven, smiling and brutish boy blast the ball for them.
On this June evening, Thome sat at three-hundred and ninety-nine, and the Phillies – already seeing fans stay home from the new park – hosted the mediocre Cincinnati Reds. Home from college, I decided to make this night my first at Citizens Bank Park, but mostly because of Thome. I sensed the milestone home run. Most of Philadelphia sensed it. The Phillies had just finished a road trip in which Thome hit bomb after bomb, eking close to the number. I bought a ticket and hopped on the train.
I reached my left field seat before first pitch. I watched intently. I knew four-hundred was coming. Maybe the first at bat. Maybe the second. Maybe the third. Definitely that night. Thome was not waiting weeks. He was not the sort. He just hit the ball.
He didn’t wait. The Phillies were down 2-0 in the first inning. Jimmy Rollins singled. Two outs later, Thome stepped in, worked a full count, then struck a ball into the seats. Very quickly, that was it. The four-hundredth home run of Jim Thome’s career. As gray clouds threatened overhead and Thome raised his helmet from the dugout, Pat Burrell lined his own home run. Very quickly, that was it.
But that was Jim Thome. Brought to the Phillies as a blockbuster signing, rejuvenating the fans overnight, smiling and slamming home runs. In Cleveland he quietly clouted behind Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and Roberto Alomar, big personalities with big games. In Philadelphia he was the main attraction, but he never fit that role. He was destined to hit home runs, then quietly and quickly fade into the dugout as the next guy took the stage.
The next guy in 2005 was Ryan Howard, a hulking young man who was bombing minor league baseball nightly. But Thome blocked his path to a first base job in Philadelphia. Uncertainty reigned. When Thome fell injured during the season, Howard stepped up and proved powerful, slugging home runs with ease. Thome didn’t return. Howard remained. After the season, new general manager Pat Gillick shipped Thome to the Chicago White Sox for Aaron Rowand and a couple minor leaguers, whom would later bring in Freddy Garcia and Joe Blanton. And Rowand planted himself into a fence to win the fans eternally. And Howard established himself in a way nobody predicted: fifty-eight home runs, a Ruthian season that netted the slugger a Most Valuable Player trophy and the keys to the franchise. Thome continued to clout in Chicago, hitting forty-two home runs in 2006, thirty-five home runs in 2007 and thirty-four home runs in 2008. But in Philadelphia, with Howard’s Herculean efforts, two division championships, a National League pennant and a world championship, Thome faded, and quietly, and quickly. The very shirts that blanketed Citizens Bank Park during its infancy, merely four years before, were gone. Howard and Utley, Hamels and Lidge, Rollins and Victorino, Burrell and Myers. No Thome. Never a thought. Quietly and quickly.
On August 15, 2011, Jim Thome stepped in the batter’s box in Detroit with five-hundred and ninety-eight home runs. He was no longer hitting them at a slugger’s pace. By now he had bounced from Chicago to Los Angeles, then to Minnesota, where he was seemingly playing out the string. He homered eleven days before, and this had become his pace. And on this night, as he swung in the sixth inning at Comerica Park, he launched another trademark blast into the Detroit skyline. Thome now sat at five-hundred and ninety-nine home runs; and while some would believe the six-hundredth would come in another two weeks, those people didn’t really understand Jim Thome. He just hit the ball.
One inning later, with two outs and two runners on base, Thome swung and launched six-hundred deep into the Detroit night. Tigers fans stood and cheered. Thome acknowledged the cheer. Danny Valencia flew out. And very quickly, that was it. Within thirty minutes, Jim Thome hit the anticipatory home run, then the milestone home run, and called it an evening.
On November 4, 2011, nine years after the Phillies first brought Jim Thome to Philadelphia, they welcomed him back on a one-year contract worth just $1.2 million. He finished the 2011 season in Cleveland, again seemingly playing out the string with the team that drafted him, that made him a legend, that would be represented on his Hall of Fame plaque. They are building his statue outside Progressive Field. They showered Thome with applause. But he was not finished. He was not leaving, and not quietly, and not quickly. Not this time.
Thome must want to win a championship. That is all that remains. He has hit more than six-hundred home runs. He will not hit seven-hundred. He will be lauded as one of the nicest men to ever play baseball. And his sturdy stature, his brick and steel build, all that will go in the Hall of Fame with his home runs, those majestic clouts that added fireworks to skylines, that brought people to stadiums, that resurrected cities and spread the lore of baseball to bedrooms across the country. Like a storybook hero, Jim Thome wants a storybook ending. He doesn’t want to fade away. He wants to reign majestically. And he wants to do it at the house where he, and nobody else, was once king. He wants to do it at Citizens Bank Park.
But for Jim Thome to win his first world championship, and for Phillies fans to recover from a heartbreaking 2011 season, and for fate to be denied as justification for failure, somebody has to pitch the ninth inning. At least that’s the plot. There has to be a closer. One man worthy enough to throw the final pitch.
Transport yourself to Yankee Stadium, 1978. It’s late in the game and the Yankees lead. Maybe on a Reggie Jackson home run, maybe on a Craig Nettles double. Catfish Hunter is gassed. Or maybe Ed Figueroa. Whatever. The Yankees need to win. So Billy Martin creeps out from the dugout, takes the ball from the starter and motions to the bullpen. In years past, the starter wouldn’t be lifted unless he was really struggling. Six runs, seven runs, maybe that much. But now that’s not the case, not with that guy out there.
A couple years before this, Sparky Anderson, that white-haired shrew that bounced about the Cincinnati Reds dugout, started fiddling with his bullpen rotation. Starters were removed at the first sign of weakness. A reliever entered but rarely stayed. And Sparky liked certain guys, the ones who got the outs all the time. Those guys pitched the big innings, usually the last one, the one that needed closing. They all became closers.
Back to 1978. That guy, the one walking in from the Yankees bullpen, is brawny and boldfaced. He has this mustache – you have to see it – the thing reaches down to his chin, as if it’s threatening the rest of the face. Nobody is doing this. The White Sox used him like this in 1976, finishing forty-nine games, pissing off rubber-armed comic book villains like Clay Carroll and Wilbur Wood. Then, thinking he could be better starting games, the Sox moved him to the front of games. He didn’t do so well. So off he went to Pittsburgh, finishing fifty-five games with an earned run average under two. Then, free agency, and the big boys came calling. George Steinbrenner’s Bronx Bombers, one championship under their belts, wanted another. They already had Catfish, and Guidry, and Sparky Lyle, and Reggie, Thurman Munson, Nettles, Willie Randolph. But they wanted the most imposing figure in the game, the one with that mustache. So they got Goose, and here he is, stepping onto the hill, receiving the ball from Billy, hurling fastballs at nearly one-hundred miles per hour, thrilling the throngs at the House that Ruth Built, the House that Reggie Renovated.
Goose Gossage finished fifty-five Yankee games in 1978, tops in the league. His earned run average barely rose above two. He threw more than one-hundred and thirty-four innings and – here is the statistic that mattered – saved twenty-seven games, also tops in the league. The statistic mattered because it told folks which pitchers could effectively finish games already in hand. It meant that in twenty-seven of the fifty-five games Gossage pitched in 1978, he entered with a lead of three or less and left with a team victory. And since Gossage normally threw two innings, maybe three, that statistic mattered quite a bit. Like a good starter, Gossage could keep other teams from scoring over multiple innings. And Gossage would save more than twenty games each season through 1986, proving relentlessly reliable, almost always pitching more than one inning, sometimes two, maybe three. Other teams wanted their own Goose Gossages. So brawny, boldfaced men with mustaches and wild hair became late-game stoppers, throwing wild fastballs and screwy breaking balls, earning the moniker “firemen” for putting out rallies with hoses for arms.
The year Goose Gossage last recorded twenty saves, a thirty-one-year-old starter for the Cubs was flat lining. Earning a 4.57 earned run average in thirty-two starts, Dennis Eckersley had fallen far from the top-line starter he had been in the 1970s. Traded to the Oakland Athletics, Eckersley found an entirely new life. His manager, a middle-aged and experimenting Tony LaRussa, moved Eckersley from the rotation to the bullpen, from a five-pitch over-thinker to a two-pitch fireballer with no sense of order. In 1987 he threw over one-hundred and fifteen innings, pitching multiple innings in many appearances, but finished thirty-three games and recorded sixteen saves. With those first steps, LaRussa saw more in Eckersley. He saw a man capable of completely shutting down opposing teams for one solid inning – the final inning. The formula: Get the starter through six, maybe seven, and grab a lead; throw into the game relievers who can match up well against the opposition; if all is good, in the ninth, give the ball to Dennis Eckersley. In 1987, Eckersley pitched in sixty games. He threw seventy-two innings. He finished fifty-three games and saved forty-five of them. There was no hot hand anymore. There was no multiple-inning specialist. Just one man capable of throwing one perfect final inning. And Eckersley, with his wickedly loose black hair flopping out from his green hat, and a thin mustache that intimidated more than anything Goose could have imagined, simply dominated. And like with Goose, the other teams followed suit, looking for wild and wacky pitchers who could throw one perfect final inning. The modern-day closer was born. Lee Smith did it extremely well. John Franco was efficient. Trevor Hoffman perfected the dropping changeup. And Mariano Rivera perfected the zipping cutter. Truthfully, nobody did it as well as Rivera, who settled into the Yankees ninth inning plans in 1997 and never left. His cutter never lost an inch. His guile never faded a minute. Get the starter through six, maybe seven, grab a lead, juggle the relievers but damnit, get to the ninth and give that ball to Mariano. One-thousand forty-two career games. Six-hundred and three career saves, the most ever. Simply, Rivera was – and is – the best to ever assume the role of closer, but truthfully, if the man started, he would have been one of the best there. It just so happened that the Yankees always kept him closer, so every other team kept suit, rotating new fireballers and one-pitch wonders into the closer spot. If one stuck, he’d stay there for a while. Billy Wagner, Francisco Rodriguez, Joe Nathan – there are really only a few every couple years. Some are good but possess a fatal flaw ready to implode at any moment, like the man who knelt and embraced the heavens after closing game five of the 2008 World Series: Brad Lidge.
The Phillies nabbed Lidge from the Houston Astros before the 2008 season. They traded speedy outfielder Michael Bourn, weak reliever Geoff Geary and filler minor leaguer Michael Costanzo for infielder Eric Bruntlett and Lidge, the Astros’ closer, who threw a mid-nineties fastball and devastating slider, and was reeling despite a few solid seasons finishing games down south. Lidge produced a miracle in Philadelphia in 2008, throwing sixty-nine innings, finishing sixty-one games and saving forty-one games, never failing to close a game victoriously. He also was perfect in the postseason, delivering that final strike to win the Phillies’ second world championship, forever fitting him deep into the hearts of fans.
Sort of. After signing a three-year contract worth $12 million each season, Lidge recorded a terrible 7.21 earned run average in 2009. Despite injuries, he rebounded slightly in 2010 to throw up a respectably bad 4.66 earned run average. Revamped with a high-eighties fastball and multiple variations of the slider, Lidge pieced together a 3.52 earned run average in 2011, reclaiming some form, and helping more than hurting. But the golden days had long left Lidge. Like the hundreds of relievers before him, Brad Lidge was just a solid, respectable pitcher who had a couple solid, respectable years in the modern-day role of closer. But he was not Billy Wagner, and he was not Francisco Rodriguez, and he was not Joe Nathan. Brad Lidge, like many before, was just a guy thrown into a role vaulted to unfairly high aspirations, simply because a guy like Mariano Rivera, and a guy like Trevor Hoffman, and a guy like Dennis Eckersley, and a guy like Goose Gossage were simply great pitchers.
While Brad Lidge stuttered through a revamped repertoire in 2011, the Phillies relied on longtime reliever Ryan Madson to be the closer. He certainly succeeded, throwing sixty innings in sixty-two games, saving thirty-two games and finishing with a 2.37 earned run average. It was Madson’s finest hour as a closer, an apex of a career that felt like the career of scores of other closers over the years. Madson started in the bullpen, flourishing in middle relief as a flame-throwing right-hander, then moved to the starting rotation and failed tremendously. A return to the bullpen made more sense for Madson, who possessed a low-nineties fastball and a changeup that many hitters believed was the best in baseball. Each year he improved, raising his fastball velocity near one-hundred miles per hour while retaining arguably the game’s best off-speed pitch. By the time he was forced into being the Phillies’ permanent closer, Madson had grown into one of baseball’s most efficient and seasoned relievers, a two-trick pony not unlike Trevor Hoffman. So when Madson’s neatly square three-year contract ended after 2011, it seemed obvious that the Phillies would want to retain their homegrown relief talent, turn him into a true superstar and ride his superior changeup to glossy trading cards, bedroom posters, bobbleheads and another world championship trophy. On November 7, 2011, multiple journalists reported the Phillies reached a pact with Madson – four years, $44 million. A little higher than hoped, to be sure, but at least the Phillies locked up their man, the guy they would ride to that third title. Sure, spending big money for a closer might be a big risk, but Madson felt like Hoffman. He wasn’t like those wild-hair closers, those crazy-head closers. He kept a short haircut, a straight face and an easygoing personality. Maybe he kicked a chair once, injuring his toe, but everyone has one moment of imploding frustration. No worry – we knew Ryan Madson, we liked Ryan Madson. Pending a physical, he was still ours.
A day passed. There was no physical. Then, the journalists reported, there was no deal. Reportedly, team president David Montgomery disapproved the contract. A rift in the organization, over a guy nurtured in the organization – this was bad news.
Another day passed. Still no physical. And the journalists now reported a deal was never even offered. The four-year, $44 million pact must have been plucked from the clouds. A fool made it up, then. Or maybe Madson’s agent, the controversial Scott Boras, played some games with Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. What a heel. Whatever the case – no Ryan Madson.
A third day passed. Not only was there no physical, but the journalists were reporting that the Phillies were inching closer to securing a deal with Jonathan Papelbon, a thirty-year-old flamethrower who had played the role of closer for the Boston Red Sox since 2006. His was a solid, if spectacular, six-year run finishing games for one of baseball’s best teams in, arguably, baseball’s most stressful environment, the shoebox of human loathing known as Fenway Park. This was no Madson, the next maybe-Hoffman. This was the second guy after Mariano Rivera. This was Billy Wagner. This was Lee Smith. This was also a rumored headcase. But no worry – at least Papelbon is really good at being a closer.
On the fourth day after that failed Madson deal, the journalists reported the Phillies reaching a deal with Papelbon. The terms: four years, $50 million, a fifth-year option, potentially $60 million overall. Fans weren’t sure how to respond. Most expressed frustration at Amaro’s ability to pay a one-inning pitcher a significant amount of money, while a few others simply reveled in the moment, impressed that the Phillies could land one of baseball’s top closers, and appreciative of this new, still fresh era of big spending. Whichever way fans landed on the Papelbon contract, one truth remained: The Phillies were spending big bucks on a closer, a man responsible for one inning, and in less than half of the team’s games. A few Phillies relievers could notch more innings, and it is likely some of their innings will be more important than some of Papelbon’s innings. Charlie Manuel doesn’t believe in forcing his best reliever into the game during its highest moment of tension. He likes the formula, the one that everyone else follows, the one that Tony LaRussa created for Dennis Eckersley and Dennis Eckersley only: Get the starter through six, maybe seven, grab a lead, juggle the relievers but damnit, get to the ninth and give that ball to Papelbon.
And so, because there must be a closer, Jonathan Papelbon will get that ball. And it might be with the world championship on the line. (Even though he loves throwing up in the strike zone.) The fans at the ballpark will be shaking. (And his fastball could start losing velocity at any moment.) The boys in the dugout will be sweating. (And he is known to get a little too feisty out on the mound.) Jim Thome will be praying. (But hey, live and die with the guy.) And the eyes of the world will be staring, all at once, at Jonathan Papelbon, a Philadelphia Phillie, a closer. (The closer.)
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.
Jim Thome on board. Nice move, sure, but the elephant was stirring.
Jonathan Papelbon on board. Big move, sure, but the elephant was stirring.
Brian Schneider! The backup catcher! Back on board?
Suddenly everybody started talking Brian Schneider.
“The Phillies were 27-8 in games Brian Schneider started last year…His job is to give Ruiz a blow and to handle the staff,” tweeted Philadelphia Daily News Phillies beat writer David Murphy, a Wednesday night before the team agreed to terms with the backup thirty-four-year-old backstop.
“And,” retorted blogger Paul Boye, “he hit .191/.254/.278 as a starter.”
The .191 was his batting average, the .254 his on-base percentage and the .278 his slugging percentage. Those numbers were simply poor, and Boye’s tweet sparked a dialogue between he and Murphy about the importance of re-signing Schnider. Heck, there were countless options out there. Why not Ryan Doumit, a younger and more powerful hitter capable of driving in big runs? Or maybe Ramon Hernandez, a powerful catcher with much better offensive numbers than Schneider? Why bring back an aging veteran with little offensive ability?
“And I understand where you are coming from,” Murphy tweeted, much later in the conversation. “Just think this is No. 25 on what to worry about.”
Squint closely, and you see his trunk. There, the tusks too. He’s much larger than you think. And he has sleepy eyes, but they are beginning to open. And now, the elephant in the room is starting to move. He is gray and plump, and he stretches, and he begins to stand, and suddenly he is humongous. And his eyes open wider, and wider more, and he is a sight to behold! Regal and prolific, maybe with some dents, and maybe with some wear, but boy, can he still move! He has been manning the shortstop position in Philadelphia since April 2001. He is Jimmy Rollins. His infield partners have included everyone from Kevin Jordan to Ryan Howard, with two Placido Polanco stints thrown in for good measure. He morphed from a speedy and near reckless spinning top, to a refined hitter with power, to an excellent fielder with reasonable offensive abilities. He is a Most Valuable Player award winner and a world champion. He anchored the Phillies through their finest days. And he is a free agent.
In 2011, Rollins hit for a .268 batting average with a .338 on-base percentage and a .399 sluggin percentage. While the batting average and slugging percentage were below Rollins’ averages during his prime, the on-base percentage was on par with that of his prime. A small reason: Rollins was walking at a higher rate, and striking out at a slightly lesser rate. Still, his sixteen home runs seemed more like bonus home runs, and his thirty stolen bases felt quieter than usual. At his most dynamic – that Most Valuable Player season of 2007 – Rollins recorded eighty-eight extra-base hits. Albert Pujols, in possibly his best season, 2008, recorded eighty-one extra-base hits. Add Rollins’ thirty-five net stolen bases (subtracting times caught from his overall steals) and the 2007 Most Valuable Player made himself a scoring-position player one-hundred and twenty-three times. Staggering. In 2011 made himself a scoring-position player just sixty-two times, or, half as many times.
But Rollins is not half the player he was in 2007. He displays more patience at the plate and works well with his slightly declining offensive abilities. More, however, he is a superior defensive shortstop, possibly the best in baseball. Making a few flashy plays, but never committing bad errors, Rollins is a steady anchor with speed and a highly trained arm that has perfected the throw to first base from multiple pivot points. In the grand tradition of stars like Dave Concepcion, Rollins is a smart veteran shortstop that can contribute substantially to a team’s championship drive.
Of course, that means multiple teams with championship aspirations are looking at signing Rollins to a multiyear contract. Jayson Stark of ESPN wrote on November 10 that he heard six teams had interest in Rollins; likely suitors, according to Stark, are the Phillies, Giants, Brewers, Cardinals and Braves. All are contending teams seeking to fill a hole at shortstop, and Rollins, who looks attractive compared to lesser talents Edgar Renteria and Yuniesky Betancourt, would fit nicely in nearly any situation. So with that sort of leverage, it was also reported that Rollins sought a five-year contract, even as he approached his mid-thirties. But who can blame him? Rollins wants a big paycheck, especially since he agreed to a friendly five-year, $40 million contract in 2006. And if the Braves, or champion Cardinals, or native Giants want to hand Rollins another five-year contract, why wouldn’t he pack his bags?
So now, Rollins is an elephant, standing taller than the furniture, eyes wandering rapidly, glancing about the parlor as the Schneiders of the world are brought back into the kitchen. Worse, at least to the fans, he seems not to care. Rollins is asked by a tweeting fan what he thinks about the Phillies signing Jim Thome, and Rollins says it’s a good move for them. Yup. Them. He says “the Phillies.” He is no longer with “the Phillies.” He is no longer “Us.”
In Saint Louis they’re having a similar problem. Albert Pujols has been a mainstay on the Busch Stadium infield since that same 2001 season, and now he is a free agent, potentially landing with any old team that might decide to shill millions of dollars for his services. It’s hard to imagine Pujols in Cubs pinstripes, or in Nationals grays, or god forbid, the black and orange they have splattered on the new Miami Marlins. This is Albert Pujols, the most feared hitter of his generation, a new version of Hank Aaron, of Barry Bonds. Albert Pujols, a Marlin? He is only a Cardinal.
This isn’t a problem in the Borough of The Bronx, New York. There, the Yankees can afford to overpay for Derek Jeter, then remain protected from critics who question the financial splurge. They can throw money at any old player and make it work. But the Cardinals can’t afford that sort of carelessness, even if the recipient is this generation’s Hank.
Just before Thanksgiving, Major League Baseball approved a new collective bargaining agreement; according to the contract, teams that surpass the luxury tax will have to pay nearly twenty-three percent of its overage to the league. That’s no huge problem for the Yankees, as they run a cable television network and lead baseball – and the world, apart from soccer’s Manchester United – in merchandising and global reach. A couple million bucks back to the league won’t injure the Yankees. But it would injure the Cardinals. And they’re a franchise with plenty world championships, a large American fan base and impressive reach throughout the Midwest. Yet they might have to engage creativity to afford their star player. And if they can re-sign Pujols, the Cardinals would most definitely have to purge in other places, invest strongly in younger, more affordable players and patch together another miracle run. They’ve done it before, and they can do it again, but boy, what a way to live.
Some teams have found success in this patchwork method of team building. The Oakland Athletics famously changed the game with “Moneyball,” a philosophy in which the underappreciated, the scarcely scouted and the physically odd were embraced, partly because they were cost effective, and partly because, hell, they could still play baseball. A book called “Moneyball,” written by Michael Lewis and detailing the Athletics’ and general manager Billy Beane’s mission to remain competitive in an unbalanced market, revealed the secrets of the philosophy. A pitcher named Chad Bradford, who threw at a kooky angle. A stocky catcher named Scott Hatteberg who broke his elbow, pushed to first base because nobody else wanted him. These were the lab rats of the movement, and Beane was the poster boy, helping to influence countless disciples who rode his strategies to varying degrees of baseball success. A dashing young man named Theo Epstein was one of them, assuming leadership of Boston Red Sox baseball operations and placing high value on patient hitters like Kevin Youkilis who, as noted in “Moneyball,” was Beane’s white whale. Epstein helped bring the Red Sox to the forefront of baseball prominence, winning two championships in the process. Andrew Freidman and his Wall Street-trained associates nabbed the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, then shortened the franchise’s name, changed its image and began heavily valuing the first-year player draft. The Rays would pay high above slot allowances, gobble more picks by letting prized youngsters walk as free agents, then pay the best ones early through ridiculously long and cost-effective contracts. The result? A World Series appearance in 2008 (against the Phillies), an American League East championship in 2010, and a shocking return to the postseason in 2011, winning when nobody thought they had a shot.
But Major League Baseball has a way of slapping down good theories. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it happens, it’s strong, and it’s hard, and it’s damning. Like the theory that the pitcher can be a productive hitter. The American League wiped that one out. Years ago a pitcher like Rick Wise could clout with any slick-fielding shortstop; now, just a handful of hurlers can actually hack it at the dish. Or the theory that the baseball postseason is perfect with four teams. It excludes any possibility of luck or mediocrity. But the wild card wiped that one out. Now a team that turns up the heat in September can climb into the thick with teams that proved their worth back in June. Of course, we can’t blame the teams that climb into the thick. We can only point to Major League Baseball. It slaps the good theories down and muddies the picture, mostly in the interest of fairness, or money, or contracts, or necessity, or whatever the league wants to cite. And when Major League Baseball passed its new collective bargaining agreement, it cited fairness, and money, and contracts, and necessity, and all the other stuff. It also slapped down the good theories laid by Beane and perfected by Epstein and Freidman. Since, according to the agreement, teams that overspend to attract draftees will be penalized harshly – whether by being taxed at least seventy-five percent, or by being taxed and losing a draft pick – the short-term victim is the Rays. It’s also the Royals, and the Pirates, and all other small-market teams that need the draft to leverage their ability to succeed. The Yankees and Red Sox, and yes, the Phillies, can spend millions on established free agents, but the Rays, Royals and Pirates cannot. But they could spend more on cost-effective and well-controlled draft picks. The Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies wouldn’t necessarily need this to operate successfully. The impact will be clearer in years. And more clear: The wealth of highly touted athletes who will shun baseball because it can’t pay them what they feel they deserve. That’s the long-term victim: Baseball.
Maybe somebody will devise a new philosophy, a new way to undercut the capitalistic ethos of the game. Until that happens, know that the St. Louis Cardinals – the biggest force in Midwestern baseball – will have trouble re-signing its franchise player.
On November 20, before the Philadelphia Eagles surprisingly snuck past the New York Giants on national television, the Phillies surprisingly snuck a trade through the wires. Long a prize for the Phillies, Ty Wigginton was acquired for a player to be named later. The super-utility right-handed everyman, formerly of the Colorado Rockies, swung an uneventful but decent stick, but more importantly, played practically every position on the baseball diamond. He can man first base while Ryan Howard sits out the beginning of the year with his ankle injury. He can spell Placido Polanco at third base. He can platoon in left field with whomever the Phillies desire to take the mantle. And he can do all of this while supplying a competent plate appearance each time out, capable of knocking in some runs, taking a few walks and possibly swatting some balls deep into the Philadelphia night. Compared to Wilson Valdez, who fielded well but hit terribly, Ty Wigginton is Babe Ruth. The Babe Ruth of super-utility men.
The Babe Ruth of super-utility men will be paid $2 million by the Phillies in 2011. A small chunk of the payroll, sure, but a chunk nonetheless. Like wads of gum, Wigginton is added to the Schneider chunk ($800,000) and the Papelbon chunk ($12.5 million) and the Thome chunk ($1.25 million). They’re all adding up, crowding the kitchen, chunk after chunk. One more big move might just push the Phillies past the $178 million threshold, which means paying the luxury tax, facing Major League Baseball’s rules, getting slapped in the face at the gates of the condominium complex known as baseball’s upper echelon.
And all the while … oh look, now the elephant, adorned with purple and gold, a crown and a glimmer in his eye, is walking around the room. And the room is shrinking.