Chapter Three: Questions and Cliches

Pop.

Pop.

Pop.

Crack.

Pop.

Crack.

Pop.

All the while a warm sun drapes on your shoulders. You’re watching dozens of conditioned men throw and catch balls, and dozens of other conditioned men swing baseball bats. The balls fly into the limitless blue sky. The fictional John Kinsella wondered if an Iowa cornfield was heaven. You’re standing at the precipice of a ball field in Clearwater, Florida, and you’re damn well determined to advocate for this place.

Spring training officially started for the Phillies on February 18, but most of the pitchers, catchers and position players reported before that date. The first team workout was February 19, but most of the players worked out before that date. This was commonplace practice throughout the Phillies organization. Baseball wasn’t merely a game, not merely a sport. It was hard work, it was life. Roy Halladay, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, reported to the practice fields at 5 a.m. for his own brand of training. While in Philadelphia during the offseason, Halladay was spotted throwing on the field of Citizens Bank Park. Around him, the National Hockey League assembled a hockey rink for the annual Winter Classic. It was late December. It was mere insanity. But that was commonplace practice. Training never ends. Work never ends. The goal is an October celebration. It’s what brought Jim Thome back to Philadelphia. It’s what brought Jonathan Papelbon to Philadelphia. The Roy Halladay way. The Chase Utley way. The Phillie Way. Never stop working. Pitchers and catchers? They were already changing condo sheets on February 18.

On February 29 the Phillies met the Florida State Seminoles in their annual exhibition. Per usual, the Phillies defeated the Seminoles, though the outcome didn’t matter. The players’ performances really didn’t matter, either. What mattered was watching the men playing baseball on the fields of Florida. Actual baseball. Grass stuck to cleats. Dirt kicked into the air. Chalk mixed with dust. Numbers piled into box scores. Words pounded about the actions on the diamond, the smell of the rubber, the bite of the sun, the sound of the game.

Pop.

Crack.

Pop.

***

In every spring, a team showcases a handful of names that hang out of place. Amongst the Rollinses and Lees are Galvises and Elartons. Newcomers to the spotlight. Newcomers to the red and white. Reporters scramble to scribble their life stories. The first Sunday story about a flashy young infielder with a vaunted glove, or an aging veteran who escaped obesity and hasn’t pitched since the Bush administration.

Freddy Galvis is the flashy infielder, a twenty-two-year-old who knows nothing but acrobatic, unthinkable ground ball fielding. His glove has already been compared to that of Omar Vizquel, one of the greatest ever at the job. He broke camp a longshot to make a major league roster, but with every eye-raising defensive play and every surprising slice into the gap, Galvis was increasing his stock. A utility job was becoming possible. Hell, maybe a starting job. But that wasn’t really up to him.

Spring training 2011 meant flashes of light, gaggles of reporters and photographers hovering around the honor complex the Phillies dub Carpenter. While lenses pointed at Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels, the wrinkled star of second base, Chase Utley, was ducking and weaving. The Phillies, and Utley, contained speculation about an injury nagging the second baseman; they did it so well that nobody knew exactly what was wrong. In time the word was revealed: chondromalacia – pain caused by irritation to cartilage under the kneecap. The knee injury shelved Utley until May and, as it was chronic, slowed him late in the season. So while Utley told reporters he felt fine at the start of spring training 2012, he didn’t play. Every morning reporters photographed that afternoon’s starting lineup, all the names scribed in perfect calligraphy by bench coach Pete Mackanin. And each day the lineup picture didn’t reveal “Utley” in perfect calligraphy, bloggers, fans, reporters and baseball people grew slightly more concerned.

“Where’s Chase Utley?” was the piece written by Baseball Nation’s Wendy Thurm, which largely detailed why Utley wasn’t playing. The Philadelphia Daily News’ David Murphy wrote about the Utley situation, telling fans not to jump the bridge. There was, very probably, a plan.

“So as we look at this first week of Grapefruit League play and spin our worst-case scenarios, we must also acknowledge that April 5 is the goal,” Murphy wrote. “The 25 games that remain before Opening Day present more than enough time for a veteran hitter like Utley to get the at-bats that he needs.”

CSNPhilly’s Casey Feeney concluded “if Utley doesn’t emerge as an all-star caliber second baseman again … the Phillies offense figures to be inconsistent in 2012.” Maybe. Maybe not. And maybe that didn’t matter. Maybe the Phillies thought young Freddy Galvis and his superior defense was enough to sustain a team reliant more on its pitching than ever before. Maybe offense didn’t matter so much. Hell, they won 102 with an inconsistent offense.

It seemed the Phillies were hedging more bets on a stacked pitching staff. There was Halladay, Lee and Hamels, plus Papelbon, newly acquired Chad Qualls and Antonio Bastardo. But early in camp the Phillies touted a bullpen session by Joe Blanton, returning from a rash of elbow injuries in 2011. Vance Worley was adding pitches with Halladay’s help. Pitching coach Rich Dubee talked highly of prospect Jake Diekman. Rising prospect Austin Hyatt received the exhibition start, a prize for an over-achieving pitcher. Pitching led the way early, and why not? It’s what the Phillies did best.

One pitcher attracted high attention for his unorthodox road to spring training. Scott Elarton is the aging veteran, debuting in 1998 for the Houston Astros, winning 17 games as a twenty-four-year-old in 2000. He never dominated; in fact, Elarton annually rivaled some of baseball’s worst starting pitchers. He last pitched in the majors in 2008, eight games with the Cleveland Indians. He grew lazy and overweight, brushing against 300 pounds at one point. It snapped him. He lost the weight, started throwing and got back into baseball shape. He met Ruben Amaro Jr. while visiting a Phillies game and asked him for a shot. This is his shot.

Elarton made good work of the first shot, throwing two perfect innings against New York Yankees regulars. His appearance was part of a three-game super-series to start play in the Grapefruit League, the conglomerate of teams that make spring home in Florida. Galvis played, too, and started with a hot bat and hotter glove. Utley wasn’t there. But Halladay was, and Lee was, and Hamels was, and Blanton was, and Worley was. They all started strong. The Phillies were starting strong.

***

Spring training would also prove an important moment for the ballad of Domonic Brown. An outstanding spring meant a possible spot on the Phillies’ opening day roster. A solid spring meant high hopes heading to triple-A Lehigh Valley. A poor spring, or an injury, meant further doubt, increased exasperation and another glimpse at a potential Rust Age. But Brown, determined to nudge doubt and grow into a major league stud, struck a working relationship with Nicole Gabriel, manager of Next Level Performance Training. Gabriel worked Brown into a bulky beast, transforming his 230-pound frame into a lean, strong hitting machine. Hunter Pence joined Brown at workouts, and soon they were showing off their bodies for Twitter, making women swoon and men nod in approval for what could be a breakthrough in the ascension of young Domonic Brown.

“I’m not at peace if I start at triple-A,” he told David Hale of the Wilmington News Journal. “I’m coming to win a job.” He wasn’t as forthright in 2011, when he broke the hamate bone in his hand, sidelining him and starting a year of doubt and frustration. This was a new Domonic Brown, a young man matured, not proud but impassioned.

So Brown played heavily against the Yankees. He swung well, struck the ball hard and notched a few hits. He looked solid at the dish. In the field, the story was a little different. In game three of the series, whip-fast outfielder Brett Gardner dropped a tailing fly ball into left-center field. Brown closed on it, dove, and in the warm, blinding Florida sun, missed the ball. Fans sighed. Bloggers groaned. Reporters pounded it out: Another fielding mistake by Brown. Gardner strode into third, then scored on an errant relay throw, and all eyes fixed on Brown, shrugging it off, hoping for redemption. Instead, he found a nag. When he dove, he landed awkwardly on his thumb. It hurt. He didn’t play for a few days. He got an MRI. He had a minor thumb injury.

Pop.

Crack.

Pop.

Pop.

“The Phillies say Chase Utley will address reporters Sunday. That is all.”

Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer tweeted that on 1:12 p.m., Friday, March 23. It was retweeted fourteen times. @JCristello23 was one of the retweeters. His next tweet:

“Watch Utleys goin to announce his retirement Sunday”

One day before, Will Carroll of SI.com tweeted that Utley was traveling to Arizona to see Dr. Thomas Carter, “an expert in the field of orthopedic surgery and sports medicine,” as well as in “meniscus replacements and treatment of articular cartilage injuries.”

At the same exact moment Gelb tweeted the news of a Sunday press gaggle, John Finger of CSNPhilly.com informed readers that Utley had returned from Arizona, where he met “with knee specialists.” Finger also quoted Ruben Amaro Jr., who commented, “I still think Chase is going to be back at some point, but we just don’t know when.”

On March 20, David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote a column headlined “Utley’s career could be in jeopardy.” He led with an allusion to Utley’s six-year prime. This was the cream of his nut graph:

“At 33 years old, the best second baseman in Phillies history is fighting just to make it back onto the field. And until he succeeds, we can’t help but wonder.”

Murphy proceeded to offer Charlie Manuel’s take, which he deemed had to be faithfully optimistic. Then came Ruben Amaro’s take, which included this quote: “I worry about Chase because it’s a chronic problem. About his career? I don’t know.” The final take came from Jimmy Rollins, whose quote was “If he doesn’t play again that would be something horrible. That would be horrible. But I don’t see it that way. At least I hope that’s not the case.” Murphy ended with his take:

“Six years might mean a long run for a beagle. But for an athlete the caliber of Utley, it should mean a career that has barely begun.”

On Sunday, March 25, Chase Utley, the man who hadn’t played an inning of spring training baseball, whose knees had been the subject of a two-year carousel of speculation, met the gaggle of reporters to discuss his future.

“I was in Phoenix meeting with a physical therapist by the name of Brett Fischer for about four of five days, just to get some better ideas on how I can continue to move forward,” Utley told the gaggle, as transcribed by Ryan Lawrence of the Delaware County Times. “I have a better idea now on how my body is supposed to move compared to how it’s moving at this time, and I think we have something pretty good for the future.”

No surgery. No injections. And no retirement.

“Oh. I didn’t hear that one. I’m definitely not retiring.”

But holding a press gaggle?

“I did not feel the need. But there are a lot of rumors out there, which I don’t know how they get started. I understand you guys look for things to write about, but now you have the information so there’s no need to make things up or to speculate.”

Chase Utley had not played all spring. This followed the previous spring, in which Utley did not play at all, then announced that he suffered from chondromalacia, and his return to baseball was unknown. During this spring, Utley had avoided reporters constantly, leading Lawrence to write a blog post about being avoided by Utley. The second baseman is known to shroud himself from the media; he would much rather let his play on the field speak for him. Numerous baseball players have shown this same quality. In Philadelphia, Mike Schmidt generally strayed from reporters. Steve Carlton never said a word.

Instead, Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies publicity corps would allege that Utley was close to returning. Then, as time passed and Utley hadn’t returned, things became unclear. In time, the Utley knee carousel was a child’s toy lost in the fog. There was no answer. No right. No wrong. Nothing but a superstar second baseman, one of the greatest second basemen to ever play baseball, hidden from playing baseball, hidden from the media, hidden from the estate that connects information to the fans. So the fans couldn’t help but wonder.

Rumors begin because truth is not available. And rumors spread when the truth is withheld. In Philadelphia, with information concerning the Phillies, and one of its cornerstone players, a notoriously hushed player, withheld information simply doesn’t spread rumor, it spreads wildfire. It’s the very fire that begins as a white heat warming in the darkness of December, when the ridiculous rumors fuel and idle chatter fellates, and few are focused on pops and cracks, on gloves and bats, towels waving frantically in the chilly October night. The fire is kindled at Citizens Bank Park, but it’s also at Frankford and Cottman avenues, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, at a farm in Vineland, New Jersey, and at a business office in Wilmington, Delaware. The fire is everywhere. The opinionated words of reporters and speculators will help the fire spread, but the withholding of truth, the illusion of doubt, the seeping specter of paranoia – all of those things are sprays of gasoline.

The truth – the actual, confirmed truth – is that Utley will miss opening day. He will stretch differently, he will rehabilitate differently. His left knee now hurts more than his right knee, but nothing hurts as much as it hurt last season. Utley hopes to return soon in 2012. He can’t wait to contribute. But he’s not ready. Freddy Galvis will likely start opening day at second base. A 22-year-old will stand where Utley had always stood, and the kid will take grounders and choppers, and hit deep in the Phillies lineup, and hope to offer some positive contribution to a team that already looks different from anything assembled in Philadelphia over the past decade.

And the totality of that truth, all of that, is that the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies are not the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, nor the version of 2010, which finished two wins from the World Series, nor the version of 2009, which finished two wins from a championship. And the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies are not the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies, the squad that broke the ceiling, erupted an inferno and brought the ailing city its first title in a generation. Instead, these Phillies are broken, busted, older than dirt, and younger than diapers. They’re Halladay and Lee and Hamels, and they’re Rollins and Victorino and Ruiz, but they’re the minority. Now it’s Thome and Papelbon, Wigginton and Nix, Mayberry and Pence, and 22-year-old Freddy Galvis. They’re uncertainty. They’re underdog. Yes, they’re looking decidedly different than their 2011 vintage. And they’re The Big Story. They’re speculation and criticism, and paranoia and lunacy. And for the first time in a long time, the Philadelphia Phillies are a raging, impossible wildfire.

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 …

But first …

John Mayberry has to reconfirm his offensive prowess. Hitting 15 home runs with a .513 slugging percentage in nearly 300 plate appearances in 2011, the 28-year-old outfielder slumped hard in spring training. Once an opening day starter, Mayberry was now looking out from the bench.

And Juan Pierre has to prove suitable. The veteran, signed on a whim, crept his way into the starting lineup through bunts and base-stealing attempts. Yet he made plenty outs in spring training, at the plate and on base.

And Ryan Howard has to return powerful as before. The ogre who fell flat in the division series is staring at a slog of a rehabilitation effort. Get him healthy and hitting by midsummer and there’s hope.

And Chase Utley has to return to half of his ability. Half of Utley is as good as most other second basemen in baseball. But the knees will cramp and creak, closer each afternoon to crumbling. Just keep him in one piece, as one half an Utley.

And Freddy Galvis has to hold the fort. Nobody needs the slick fielding shortstop to steal the show offensively. He merely must stand strong and take his licks. Field the grounders, hit the occasional single.

And Placido Polanco has to do the same. Don’t get hurt, there’s little there to back you up. Polanco has limped lame in the dog days of previous seasons. Now, in his final Phillie season, it’s time to suck it up.

And Ty Wigginton has to play big. Rope the random home run. Rush straight into ready tags at second base. Dive for the ball, stride a little wider for that bag.

And Jonathan Papelbon and Antonio Bastardo and Chad Qualls and Kyle Kendrick have to figure out a formula. They’ll get the ball in the seventh, maybe the eighth, and they’ll have to hold every slim lead. They’ll face McCutchen and Stanton and Wright and Sandoval, and they’ll have to stare them down and slap them away. Every time. Every single time.

And Joe Blanton and Vance Worley have to play bigger than the brains of critics. And Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay have to stay healthy, stay outstanding and stay focused. Don’t let the pitiful offense push you down. Don’t let the one-run deficit prove daunting. Don’t let the letdown let you down.

That’s not too much, right?

***

On April 2, the parking lots surrounding Citizens Bank Park started to fill. In their long sleeves and jackets, folks in red, white and blue gulped their beers, swallowed their hot dogs and blasted tunes from their parked cars. One group was interrupted by a golf cart. The driver asked if the group wanted a ride to the ballpark, and at first the group declined. But then the group saw the driver. It was Cliff Lee.

Two exhibition games open Citizens Bank Park every season. This year the Phillies hosted the Pirates, the very team they would open the 2012 campaign against, but on the road. In game one, April 2, a lineup led by Pierre pushed ahead of the Pirates, 3-0. Blanton allowed two runs, and spring remnant Pat Misch allowed one more, but in the eighth, Galvis tripled and later scored. The Phillies won, 4-3, primarily employing an offense that emphasized the tenants of small ball: bunts, stolen bases, advancing grounders, sacrifice flies. An era that opened with the most prolific offense in Phillies history was suddenly personified by Juan Pierre, the poster boy of punching and running.

Game two of the exhibition swing resembled the older Phillies, bashing the ball about the Bank like banshees. Tied 2-2 in the fifth inning, Placido Polanco blasted a three-run home run. Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence added run-scoring doubles. Mayberry also doubled. Carlos Ruiz doubled. Pete Orr doubled. Laynce Nix doubled. Galvis doubled. On the mound, Hamels held the Pirates without a run over four frames. Everything looked great.

***

Before the second exhibition game, the San Francisco Giants secured a long-term investment, inking pitcher Matt Cain to a six-year, $127.5 million contract.

Cain pitched well in 2011, keeping a 2.88 earned run average, striking out 179 hitters and walking 63. It was Cain’s third-consecutive outstanding season; overall, Cain had compiled six good seasons in his career, and at age 27, he could have strutted into free agency with agreeable prospects. But the Giants signed him, and they signed him to a fat pact, the kind that sets the bar for other pitchers his age and caliber.

Cole Hamels, age 28, approaching free agency without a new contract, is a better pitcher than Matt Cain.

***

The Phillies will file into Pittsburgh’s PNC Park on April 5, the first day of their 2012 campaign. They will play without Ryan Howard, without Chase Utley – without the core players that carried them over the hurdles and into the heavenly hold of championship glory. Now the team belongs to pitchers Halladay and Lee, acquisitions marking the gilded age, when anything was possible, when madness reigned, and madness was beautiful. The team belongs to Hunter Pence, the cagey new guy, and Jonathan Papelbon, the lunatic leading a lost boy bullpen. Jim Thome will get the grand ovations. Jimmy Rollins will receive the warm applause. And Juan Pierre, of all people, will stand in the box first. He will represent the beginning, the dawn of a new chapter in an aging era.

Critics aren’t comfortable with the Phillies, not like they were in 2011. Now there are just three aces, and beyond that an abyss of unknown quantities. Overseeing this abyss is Charlie Manuel, tasked with the toughest test of his career: He must guide a group of unknown quantities into the postseason and into a world championship. Anything less is failure, and it brings the harsh biting wind of autumn, the cold reality of winter, the certain death of the offseason. Worst of all, it brings the oncoming Rust Age. The beautiful madness will be no more.

On October 7, 2011, Ryan Howard crumbled to a ball of broken parts. The ogre, fallen. Chris Carpenter had laughed the aura out of Citizens Bank Park, leaving fans shellshocked, forced to face the offseason too soon, forced to face the cold reality too soon.

And now, reality. Necessity in every corner. Names like Juan Pierre and Freddy Galvis, Chad Qualls and Ty Wigginton. And the dawn. It has arrived. And maybe at dusk we will live a magenta sky, where the unbelievable really does occur.

But first … the Philadelphia Phillies have to play 162 games.

Advertisements