Chapter Two: The Darkest, Coldest Days

Every year in Philadelphia, at the close of the city’s popular Thanksgiving parade, Santa Claus dashes up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is what Rocky Balboa did in the 1976 film “Rocky.”

For Rocky, the dash up the stairs symbolized his mental and physical achievement. Early in the film, he attempted to scale the steps but, out of shape and losing breath, he staggered to the top and glanced warily at the naked Philadelphia skyline. After weeks of grueling training and mental cleansing, Rocky raced up the stairs, the climax of an epic relay through the broken neighborhoods of gray Philadelphia. In the iconic scene, Rocky bolts easily up the stairs, sometimes taking in three steps with one stride. He reaches the top, whips around, and raises his arms to the clearing Philadelphia morning. His accomplishment is the accomplishment of any man, and especially of any busted and broken Philadelphian. His achievement is our achievement. So when Santa Claus reaches the top of the Museum of Art’s stairs, turns and waves to his assembled believers, it’s more than an introduction to the holiday season, but a reminder of the ever-present philosophy that hovers over the eternally gray city. With a lot of work and determination, anyone can reach the top of the stairs.

The influence of “Rocky” on Philadelphia is staggering. Youths across the neighborhoods seem born repeating the very things originally uttered by Sylvester Stallone’s titular character. Scores of Philadelphians believe you have to work hard to live well, and that means marry, own a row house and maybe put a kid or two through college. And work is hard. Life is hard. So sports – especially the serious professional sports – are not simply taken for leisure. The efforts of the athletes performing on the field, court or rink must match the efforts of the men and women performing in the factories, and on the streets and job sites.

But as Santa waved and smiled to Philadelphia from his Thanksgiving perch atop the city’s most famous staircase, the athletes of Philadelphia were not meeting the city’s expectations. The Flyers, the city’s hockey team, were solid, hanging near the top of the Eastern Conference, but they are rarely taken seriously by the entire city until winter’s thaw. The 76ers, the city’s basketball team, were inoperative, a victim of the National Basketball Association’s labor lockout. Then there were the Eagles, the football team, for years the highest-profile team in Philadelphia, tapped as a potential champion for a decade. They were the reason for the missed expectations: A team handed lofty goals in September, a 4-6 record heading into Thanksgiving weekend, a complete failure in multiple areas of planning and execution. Really, singlehandedly, the Eagles had put the sporting fans of Philadelphia into a complete funk.

And so people turn their attention to the Phillies, the new kings of Philadelphia.

But what happens when you turn your attention to a baseball team as the calendar turns to December? It’s nearly the darkest, coldest and most foreign time of the year, a time completely unsuitable for the common man to care deeply about bats and balls, caps and hot dogs. But in times of harrowing misfortune, the common man must do what the common man must do. And suddenly the chatter builds, the anticipation grows, and those December blues begin burning white heat.

***

Major League Baseball has found a way to capitalize on December blues. It’s called the Winter Meetings. Here, every franchise brings its front office to a specialized location, usually a luxury hotel, to preside over organizational meetings, Hall of Fame discussions, minor league drafts and arbitration deadlines. And since everyone is in one tidy place, front offices discuss trades, as if the Winter Meetings is a large-scale swap meet in the middle of a hotel lobby. Meanwhile, free agent players still seeking suitors dance about in the lobby – their agents holding them by tethers – looking for the right offers to secure better futures. All of this activity was usually transmitted to fans through team beat writers and national print scribes. But in 2011, add national web writers, bloggers, television personalities and just about anybody enlisted as a member in the Baseball Writers of America. And documenting all of that madness in 2011 were ESPN – setting up a “Baseball Tonight” desk in the lobby – and the MLB Network, baseball’s 24-hour hotel erotica for fans of all ages, who broadcast two live shows daily from the Winter Meetings. Needless to say, diehard baseball fans were struggling not to stay home from school and work to  watch “Hot Stove” all day.

With all the writers, pundits, experts, columnists and analysts scrambling in the lobby of a Dallas hotel, newspapers, websites, blogs and Twitter feeds were constantly pushing through new content, and nearly everything was pushed. The battle to sign Albert Pujols, free agent superior seeking a $200 million payday, led the Miami Marlins to one night working overtime in a hotel room with boxes of pizza and chicken wings. We know this MLB.com writer Joe Frisaro tweeted the world that Marlins executives were holing themselves into a hotel room with room service pizza and wings. Anything was game. What happened at the Winter Meetings … left the Winter Meetings within seconds.

The Phillies front office walked into the Dallas hotel lobby knowing there was an elephant still in the room. Jimmy Rollins, who expressed a desire for a five-year contract, was still a free agent. Maybe the Phillies were focused on signing Rollins. Leave Dallas with an old elephant that could still shock and shine. Instead, the Phillies decided they were interested in Gio Gonzalez, a young pitcher from the Athletics whom the Phillies once paid. So Ken Rosenthal wrote that the Phillies were interested in Gonzalez. Then Rosenthal, thinking aloud, wrote that Gonzalez might be a replacement for Cole Hamels, who would become a free agent after 2011. Then all hell broke loose.

“Setting aside the fact that all of the six old dudes hanging around the media room right now think this is the best joke of the morning, the fact is that you can only push off your ‘we must have a second elite lefty starter in the fold but paying for his contract extension is gonna really hurt’ problems off so far,” wrote Craig Calcaterra, writer at NBC Sports’ Hardball Talk.

“As long as Cole doesn’t get distracted by a jewelry gala or something, he’s going to be pretty sure he wants money. And the Phillies should pay him,” wrote Justin Klugh at Phillies fan blog That Ball’s Outta Here. “So let’s hope all this Gonzalez snooping is just to piss off the other GMs.”

“Do not want!” succinctly wrote Whole Camels at The Good Phight, another Phillies fan blog.

The last word came, 36 hours later, from general manager Ruben Amaro, speaking to Calcaterra. No, he said, Hamels wasn’t being shopped. In fact, he said, the Phillies saw Hamels as a franchise player. Yes, he said, Cole Hamels was a Phillie, and hopefully will forever be.

Then, Tuesday evening, late, MLB.com Cardinals reporter Matthew Leach tweeted a third team was showing strong interest in Albert Pujols. There was the Cardinals, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and … well, he didn’t have a name. So he called them “mystery team.” Or, as we know them, #mysteryteam. Or, as they were called last year, the Philadelphia Phillies. So all hell broke loose.

***

“Rocky” is a story within a story. The film chronicles a luckless bum boxer from Philadelphia who works hard to realize his dreams, given the opportunity to fight the world heavyweight champion. All Rocky Balboa wants is to “go the distance,” to stand face-to-face with champion Apollo Creed, and to the entire world, and not lose on his own accord. Take all the punches in the world. Come within inches of death. Just don’t quit.

But the story of “Rocky” is about Sylvester Stallone, a starving screenwriter inspired by real life boxer Chuck Wepner’s ability to go the distance with champion Muhammad Ali. Stallone wrote his little movie and shopped it around until he got an answer. But his only caveat was that he wanted to play Rocky. He knew the character too well. He knew, if it was him in that ring, the movie – not just the character – would go the distance. Somehow, the studio agreed. History played out from there.

Stallone lived for years in Philadelphia. He knew Philadelphia, and his Philadelphia in “Rocky” is a character in itself. The tall ship that hugs the harbor at Penn’s Landing. The crooked streets that compose Stallone’s Kensington neighborhood. The dark alleys and grim factories. The city is set completely in gray; the world of Philadelphia in December 1975 is a world of dim skies, cold realities and just a sliver of hope as the city’s finest moment – the 200th birthday of the United States – approaches.

On January 1 of every year, costumed clowns invade Philadelphia. The Mummers, composed usually of regular working folks – the kind of folks that might just talk to a guy like Rocky Balboa – strut and saunter down the crooked streets playing brash music and providing a colorful hope that the new year might be better than the last. It’s a small break from the blight, a bright yellow sun cast through the gray. But everything before that, and everything after Santa Claus waving from atop those stairs made famous by Rocky Balboa – everything in that period between, is gray, and cold, and it’s those December blues. When apathy turns ugly. When any dash of excitement becomes an orgy of emotion. When harsh realities hit hard. Those December blues never fail.

***

On December 13, 2010, the #mysteryteam first appeared. At the time, the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers were combating in a money-fueled episode of ownership warfare. Both franchises sought the most prolific name on the free agent market, Cliff Lee, and by the end of December 15, 2010, one of those teams would own his services, according to just about every writer, pundit, expert, columnist and analyst.

But the #mysteryteam arrived late in the afternoon. Twitter nation watched intently. Somebody thought maybe the Phillies could be the #mysteryteam. Then Jayson Stark mentioned that Lee liked this team, and the feeling was mutual. Twitter nation began to boil. And the Phillies possibly were the #mysteryteam. Then Stark confirmed the Phillies as the #mysteryteam. Twitter exploded. Fans gasped. Joel Sherman of the New York Post said the Yankees felt like they were out of the bidding. Fans jumped and hollered. Then the Yankees were told they were out. And the Rangers were told they were out. And the Phillies were told, yes, they had Lee. And fans partied, showering in alcohol and running around their living rooms in pure elation, the kind of elation reserved for wedding proposals, births and lottery winnings. The #mysteryteam became a point of pride. T-shirts advertised the phenomenon. Comments lived in repeat. A way of life: #mysteryteam.

***

For a glimmer, an actual fluid glimmer – maybe three seconds – the Phillies seemed like the plausible #mysteryteam once again, this time to win the hearts and minds of the Pujols family of St. Louis, Mo. And during that three second glimmer, Michael Baumann at fan blog Phillies Nation thought, while obviously unlikely, the Phillies could actually be the #mysteryteam. So, late at night in a haze, led by a Stark tweet that noted the #mysteryteam would need to move their first baseman to sign Pujols, Baumann’s musing companion Dr. Strangeglove sprung to life with thoughts of Albert Pujols’ dancing in his head.

“I want to take you through a little deductive reasoning exercise to find teams that 1) have the kind of money to sign a player to a $22-25 million per year contract for 10 years and 2) have a first baseman that you’d have to worry about moving,” Baumann wrote. He concluded that the Phillies would actually be a decent possibility to be that very team, or, in words everyone can understand, the #mysteryteam.

“Yeah, we know after the Cliff Lee Incident of 2011 (sic) that ‘Mystery Team’ means ‘Philadelphia Phillies,’ but all optimism and homerism aside, this is the team that actually makes the most sense to be Stark’s third bidder,” Baumann wrote.

On Thursday, Pujols signed a ten-year, $250 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The #mysteryteam still had not been revealed. But it did not matter. It only mattered on Tuesday night, when the concept of the #mysteryteam returned to the hotel lobby, when Twitter became a dumping ground for every inch of pontification necessary regarding the #mysteryteam, when fans stuck out their chests, boasted and berated about their hopes that their team could be the one that magically lands Pujols. And many Phillies fans took this seriously. They had to. Because the Eagles stunk, the Flyers meant little and the 76ers weren’t even happening yet. Because it was December, and you have to cure those December blues somehow.

And yet the biggest story, the one that actually mattered for Phillies fans worldwide, was still nothing, just a grouchy elephant hanging out in a room. No offer made to Jimmy Rollins. Not much talk between the Phillies and Rollins’ agent, Dan Lozano. Sure, maybe a meeting here and there, but nothing concrete, nothing noteworthy. No big words, just empty space. But that’s not good. Not in December, when the blues torment and torture a fan beyond compare. Empty space is the biggest enemy when nothing is happening otherwise. So the devilish fans play with fire. They wait to strike, then they attack, and sometimes in the most insanely amazing ways.

He, the most devilish fan in Twitter nation, is @FanSince09. He was created as a reactionary, perfected as a mirror to society, living and breathing as the worst nightmare of the easily duped. He is the underbelly of Philadelphia sports fandom, the one who says all the things that the fans want to say, but won’t, at least in public, to millions of people, on a social networking platform. And Wednesday night, as the #mysteryteam business was fading from existence, @FanSince09 attacked. Calculated? No. @FanSince09 almost never calculates. He simply throws the somewhat believable stick into the alley, hoping a passerby will do what many humans do: grab the stick.

“RT @Sl_JonHeyman Rollins a done deal. 5 years, 70 mil.”

The JonHeyman refers to Sports Illustrated writer Jon Heyman, who earlier in the day began his new job at CBS Sports, leaving Sports Illustrated. Not to mention the Sl was an SL, not the SI Heyman used to employ in his Twitter handle. It didn’t matter. Somebody grabbed the stick.

“5 years for Rollins is what I’m hearing” was a tweet from a regular fan.

“BREAKING NEWS: Phillies and Jimmy Rollins have come to terms on a 5 year deal worth Approx. 70 Million! #OFFSEASON” was a tweet from a baseball website.

“@JimmyRollins11 5,$70M can you verify?” was a tweet from another fan. Soon, Rollins’ own Twitter feed was full of people asking him if he accepted the Phillies’ offer, and telling him that he didn’t deserve the offer. Even Rollins himself was confused:

“I know, they almost convinced me that I did sign, lol,” he tweeted in response to someone’s question.

Two days later, @FanSince09 struck again, this time tweeting that the Cardinals had signed Rollins to a five-year, $70 million contract. He used a fake Twitter handle for Todd Zolecki, Phillies reporter at MLB.com. More people grabbed the stick, causing Leach to tell followers the Rollins news was fake. But the damage had been done. One influential Twitter user with a devilish disposition. He can bring down cities, especially in those most insane of times, the days of those December blues, when every rumor grows like fungus, when people can’t help but talk, and when the most minute of matters becomes a mammoth moment.

***

Rocky Balboa’s Philadelphia is a Philadelphia of despair, but there is hope. Beneath the layers of gray is that simple idea: Anyone can reach the top of the stairs. There is a sunshine. It will appear. Just work, and it will come.

Santa Claus, whether myth or man, fiction or reality, proves every year that there is sunshine behind the gray of the Philadelphia cityscape. When he turns and waves to the city, he reminds everyone that the light will shine, and not just on December 25, when childlike whimsy overwhelms reason. So there is no need to worry, and there is no need to rush matters. The Eagles may stink, and the Flyers may grow slowly to relevance, and the 76ers may live again, but it does not mean the Phillies must swallow the city whole. There must be room for optimism in the dreary rains of April, the bright skies of June, the sweaty evenings of August and the cooling silence of October. Especially the cooling silence of October.

These are new days in Philadelphia. To coin a song from the “Rocky” soundtrack, it is morning in Philadelphia. It is dawn in Philadelphia. A time of eternal optimism and, like it or not, of abundant madness portrayed by white heat.

***

All this beautiful madness. All this calamity, the kind that baseball loving Philadelphians still found alarmingly introductory. This used to be a football town. This used to be a town fit for the unfamiliar chill of fall, with leaves swirling and mouths tucked deep inside collars. Now, even in December, it’s spring everyone talks about. And it’s because of all this beautiful madness.

The madness of a made man like @FanSince09. The madness of a crowd grousing about a moose as a potential basketball mascot. The madness of social network mavens to adopt an imprisoned rapper as a rallying cry. These are the things people do when spring remains afar.

Then something happens. Something that draws every face close. Something that both relieves and reinvigorates: a major announcement.

@jcrasnick Jimmy Rollins has agreed to 3-year deal with #Phillies with vesting option for 4th year, says BB source

The tweet from Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com signified the tweet every red-blooded, red-shirted Phillies fan longed to see. Rollins, the shortstop, the leader, the backbone since 2001, and yes, the elephant, was back with the Phillies, safe and sound, once again manning the most important position on the diamond for baseball’s best team. It was, as most people thought, how it should be, and how it should always be. The elephant had been caged, and in the process, had been tamed, and by a ringmaster so used to sweeping gestures and terrific tricks. Somehow, someway, Ruben Amaro had tamed Jimmy Rollins.

It seemed impossible that Amaro could tame Rollins, and it seemed inevitable that Rollins would whip Amaro into a corner. The elephant asked for five years, thus, the elephant would get five years. Amaro’s track record stated such. He handed three years to a Raul Ibanez that was turning the wrong side of thirty-five. He handed four years to a Jonathan Papelbon, a closer, or more specifically, a man who would take part in less than five percent of the 2012 Phillies season. Amaro handed cushy contracts like complementary towels. So if Jimmy Rollins, the cornerstone, the smiling and smirking face of the Phillies for a decade, wanted five years, it seemed inevitable that he would receive the freshest, cleanest white towels around, emblazoned with a monogram and folded to detailed specifications.

But that didn’t happen. Amaro waited. He saw the Brewers settle for offensively challenged shortstop Alex Gonalez. He saw the Cardinals reunite with veteran ball shagger Rafael Furcal. Nobody touched Rollins. The elephant said the Brewers showed interest, but who knows. It never amounted to much. Nobody touched Rollins, and it became painfully obvious to the elephant that no team wanted to drag him into its kitchen. The more Amaro waited, the better it looked.

Meanwhile, Ringmaster Ruben pulled a coup. An odd coup, and yet, a sinister, sly coup. In retrospect, an outlandishly outstanding coup. The Phillies announced just three days before that they had signed pitcher Dontrelle Willis to a one-year, $1 million contract.

Willis, who starred as a spastic starter with the Florida Marlins, then floundered with mental hiccups in Detroit, rectified his career just slightly while in Cincinnati. Like vinegar, his fastball stung just enough. And with some sauce, his slider dipped just enough. Against left-handed hitters, Willis proved dominant, and it’s that trait that the Phillies spotted when locking him to a one-year pact. The former kingfish would bite left-handed minnows from the Citizens Bank Park mound. And if he was lucky enough, he would bite those minnows while his best friend, Oakland buddy Jimmy Rollins, watched in wide-eyed wonder. Maybe for a moment. And maybe that moment was from fifty feet northwest. Dontrelle and Jimmy, together again. They must have dreamed it once. Maybe it mattered just enough for Rollins to swallow that pride, tear up that Milwaukee offer, sigh in resigned satisfaction, and sign his name under the Phillies logo once more. The band, back together. How it should be. How it should always be.

***

Late in the 2000 season, the Phillies brought Jimmy Rollins to Philadelphia. He stepped onto the sizzling Astroturf of Veterans Stadium, decked in a fresh pinstripe jersey, stood in the batter’s box against Florida Marlin starter Chuck Smith, and took a five-pitch walk. Five pitches later, Rollins trotted home, scoring ahead of a Bobby Abreu home run. Two innings later, Rollins led off against Smith, scorching a line drive down the right field line. With Rollins’ speed it was never a question. He slid into third base, his first Major League hit: a triple. Jimmy Rollins had arrived.

His second act, the 2001 season, started slow, but as summer slid into the Philadelphia haze, Rollins gained traction, raising his average above .300 while swiping second base at a daily rate. Even better, the Phillies were winning. While the Seattle Mariners stormed away from the American League, the Phillies resembled the real deal in the National League. Abreu turned into a five-tool performer. Young Pat Burrell launched bombs nightly. Scott Rolen morphed into the Most Valuable Player candidate the world had been awaiting. And it became clear that when Rollins produced at the top of the lineup, the Phillies won baseball games. Not since Lenny Dykstra had the Phillies employed such a game-changing lineup leader. But Rollins was not Dykstra. He did not charge full steam into every single, every ground ball and every sixth pitch of a plate appearance. In fact, Rollins rarely saw six pitches in an appearance. He liked swinging the bat. Savored it. If the big boys could hit the ball, the little guys like Rollins could do it, too. So he swung, hit liners, dribbles, gappers and occasional home runs. Whatever got the job done. No time for waiting. Patience is for fools.

Sometimes it paid off.

September 17, 2001. The first game after the attacks of September 11. The start of a heavy series at Veterans Stadium against the first place Atlanta Braves. The four-game set, which could push the Phillies into first place, began with Harry Kalas, standing at home plate, reciting a poem about America’s resolve. Some young man whipped around Veterans Stadium nightly with an oversized American flag. Cameras caught manager Larry Bowa, the most volatile man in baseball, weeping while listening to the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Aces Robert Person and Greg Maddux stepped to their rubbers. Chipper Jones drilled a home run. Scott Rolen responded with a home run. Bobby Abreu tripled and scored on a groundout. Alex Sanchez responded with a triple, scoring on a groundout. The struggle continued until the seventh, when Rolen broke through. The biggest hit of his career, the kind that defines a ballplayer’s career, the kind that wins awards.

Rollins manufactured an insurance run in the eighth inning, helping put the game away for the Phillies. The crowd danced. Loudest crowd in eight years. Rollins was learning, and what a way to be learning.

Two days later, with the Phillies trailing the Braves by a game and a half, Rollins led off, and actually saw a sixth pitch against John Burkett. But he would not walk. He lined a single into right field. No time for waiting. A few pitches later, he took off for second, but Javy Lopez gunned him down. Rookie.

Retribution came five innings later. Leading off the sixth, no time for waiting, a liner to the gap. A double. First pitch. Off to third on a sacrifice bunt. An Abreu walk put pressure on Burkett with Rolen waiting on deck. And yet again, as he did so many times, Rolen drove home the run, bringing in Rollins with a single. The Phillies would win, 5-2.

But it fell apart from there. Hollow pitching. Inconsistent offense. Unproven stars. Abreu and Rolen, as good as they were, would prove wasted in a Philadelphia still needing an overhaul. Rollins would have to watch it all unfold: Rolen’s trade to St. Louis, Abreu’s trade to the Bronx, the Jim Thome era, staff aces that limped away from August with ballooning earned run averages, stadium changes, poor attendance and malaise beyond malaise. The energetic optimism that fueled those mid-September nights of 2001, when tragedy spurred strength and every moment seemed etched in time – those were all distant memories, but Rollins pocketed every one of them. If the Phillies found a way back to those halcyon days, Jimmy Rollins would make sure they would cross that finish line.

***

The question, as the matter settled and the kitchen cleaned itself, is if it is enough. Is Jimmy Rollins satisfied with three years and $33 million? Ruben Amaro did not hesitate to satisfy Ryan Howard with a monstrous five-year, $125 million pact. Amaro did not hesitate with Raul Ibanez, who actually received a higher per-season contract, and at an older age, without the history, while playing in left field, baseball’s version of a mailroom. Placido Polanco. Cliff Lee. Jonathan Papelbon. Money falling from the sky. Cushy towels of the finest fabric. And Jimmy Rollins received the three-star towels. Add the fourth year – the pocket moisturizer. But is that enough? Is Jimmy Rollins satisfied with being a quarter of Ryan Howard?

***

When the capacity throng at Citizens Bank Park surrounds Jimmy Rollins, he will wear a fine Italian suit. He will don designer sunglasses. He will clutch the microphone like George Carlin, suspending all in his charming grasp. And underneath the sunny sky, like the one that blanketed that Halloween afternoon in 2008, Jimmy Rollins will eagerly accept his enshrinement onto the Phillies Wall of Fame. The highlight reel will run, and it may ultimately climax on September 30, 2007.

Critics will say Matt Holliday put up better numbers. That may be true. But the 2007 baseball season belonged to Jimmy Rollins. The shortstop stole every moment, headlined every story, owned every memory. His legs ran over every scorebook. His bat drove home every winning run. His glove found every wayward ball. Rollins played 2007 like Dwight Gooden played 1984. Like Barry Bonds played 2003. Like Ted Williams played 1941. And on September 30, the very final day of the season, in his very final season-record plate appearance, Rollins sliced a ball into the right field corner. He dashed to second base. Slow fielding. He turned toward third base. A half-hearted throw. A furious slide. Rollins, feet first, landed his leading cleat on third base, then raised his arms to the heavens, a moment perfectly meant for cameras, as if the man had been planning it for years. His twentieth triple. After thirty-eight doubles and thirty home runs. He swiped forty-one bases, caught only six times. The absolute peak of his powers.

The night Scott Rolen slammed that second home run, against Greg Maddux and the Braves, directly after September 11, 2001, the crowd at Veterans Stadium roared. A defining moment capped by a roar that acknowledged baseball’s ability to spur hope in a populous shaking with fear and uncertainty. A culminating moment, for sure. Six years later, Citizens Bank Park represented dislocated memories. Its greatest night was the rainy June evening Jim Thome swatted his four-hundredth home run. Otherwise, the red steel and brick castle represented aggressive mediocrity and tight wallets. Up until September 30, 2007, Jimmy Rollins was merely a resident, a witness to aggressive mediocrity.

But the triple happened. You could swear the roof had blown off the building. Announcers reveled in joyful tears. Teammates leaped and shrieked like little leaguers. And the fans roared, harder and louder than ever before. this was baseball’s ability to spur hope in a populous, but not one shaking wi h fear and uncertainty, but one injured and uninspired by decades of aggressive mediocrity. And Jimmy Rollins was no longer witness. He was the moment.

***

At his press conference two days after signing the three-year contract, Rollins – wearing a fine suit – spoke of legacy. He understood the meaning behind continuing a career not in Wisconsin powder blue, but in red pinstripes, the suit he truly had come to define. The one he slipped on that day in 2000, the one that made him the moment.

“You think of everything else that you’ve done and what you’ll be able to do going forward, and where it makes more sense to do those things,” Rollins said. “And for me, it’s here.”

***

Shane Victorino swatted the grand slam heard ’round CC Sabathia in the 2008 National League Division Series. And Matt Stairs hit the legendary home run in the National League Championship Series. But in both series, Jimmy Rollins led off the clinching games with home runs. A veteran, hurt for a spell in 2008, Rollins busted the ice with his cool clouts. He led the charge. Those early days setting the table for Bobby Abreu and Scott Rolen. That 2007 season pacing every key victory. Just like those days, when the Phillies needed him, Rollins led the charge.

And in the 2009 National League Championship Series, with the Phillies facing a tied series, at least one daunting date back at Dodger Stadium and potential heartbreak, Rollins led the charge again. He drove Jonathan Broxton’s fastball into the gap, capping an incredible ninth inning rally, closing an enormous victory and creating his finest moment. Like that afternoon in 2007, the crowd roared, and louder than man’s thoughts can process. This moment was impossible years before. It was impossible in the days of Abreu and Rolen, when Rollins simply hustled to the next base. But in 2009, deeply entrenched in the era of Jimmy Rollins, this moment was not only possible, but happening with outrageous regularity. This had become Citizens Bank Park.

***

But is Jimmy Rollins satisfied with three years and $33 million?

Legacy is not money. One day, the money fades, and all that remains is memory. We do not remember what Rollins was paid in 2001, but we do remember his energetic play sparking an unlikely run toward contention. We do not remember what Rollins was paid in 2007, but we do remember his unhinged leadership. We do not remember what Rollins was paid in 2009, but we do remember a double that shook the foundation of Citizens Bank Park.

And we will remember Citizens Bank Park, because that will stand for as long as we live. When we visit, decades later, maybe when that shortstop stands in the middle of a throng, Italian suit, designer shades, the red steel and brick will sing of those memories. The days and nights that crowd roared louder than our thoughts. The days and nights Jimmy Rollins was the moment. When our beautiful madness reigned, when our expectations exceeded our fathers’ wildest dreams, and when Ringmaster Ruben tamed the elephant, the leader of our outstanding circus.

***

Oh, what days they were! What madness! What primal, orgasmic madness!

We long for that circus.

Today, on this sunny and clear day in South Philadelphia, an afternoon perfect for baseball, the folks assembled to witness Jimmy Rollins accept Wall of Fame membership have packed the house. Today, it resembles that utopian wonderland, that brick and steel castle. But once Jimmy steps off the field, and the pinstripes step on, few of the folks will leave. They will grab their families, their commemorative books, their bouncing backpacks and disinterested looks, and walk right past the gates. And the ushers will sigh but understand why. The circus is gone. It left town long ago.

It is amazing to think that. Just ten years ago, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, top of the world! They stood outside for hours, for days, red shirts and white shirts and maroon shirts and blue shirts, just to watch a game. To be part of that madness. That primal, orgasmic madness.

You need not squint to see the paint chips falling off the steel. You need not sniff to smell the crust of bread, the sting of urine filling the air. The shine has been removed, the hot dogs have been withdrawn. Halladay retired a Blue Jay, a final tour before fitting his bird cap in Cooperstown. Lee stumbled to the finish, yet his final mile fared better than that of Ryan Howard, a shell of the bruting slugger who routinely rocked this old park. The old park. Much older than its years.

Cole Hamels flew away long ago. He is finishing a fantastic career with the Boston Red Sox. And Shane Victorino, he was traded to the Bronx. The Phillies got fleeced in that one. Trevor May never panned out. Sebastian Valle is a backup at best. Jesse Biddle? Oh yeah, that bust left baseball after three Major League starts. And don’t get us started on the Philipe Aumont disaster.

But God help you, just God help you, if you utter his name. You know who.

I remember a piece – I actually recall the day: December 29, 2011 – written by somebody at The Good Phight, this old blog, back when blogs were still in vogue. The writer mocked a conversation between Ruben Amaro Jr. and God, in which Amaro is fighting the urge to trade … you know, him … to the Mets for David Wright. Pretty funny, as I remember, and pretty telling, at least concerning a small group of Phillies fans. See, some fans thought it clinically ridiculous for the Phillies to even entertain a trade involving you know who. That all started when The Philly Phans – that was another blog – leaked that very rumor. They were mocked, it was funny. Just another blog “covering” the Phillies, trying to beat the trained professionals to the news. It never happened. He was never traded. Maybe he should have been.

I remember a game in 2010, his first stint with the Phillies. They were playing the Giants, and routing the Giants, too. A crisp, warm, starry night at Citizens Bank Park, back when the old park was packed tight and rocking heavy. He stepped in, waved that wand, and in a flash, pulverized the baseball. I mean, few shots were that prodigious. Matt Stairs. A couple Ryan Howard homers. But that’s it. This was right up there, a no doubt missile, the kind that could break detente. The crowd erupted. He had arrived. He had arrived!

I just don’t get it. Why did so many people turn on him? Why did so many people abuse him? Sure he had trouble in the field, but he was young. The man could hit! Boy could he hit! What beautiful blasts!

And patience! A young twenty-something displaying plate discipline! How many guys were doing that at his age?

Maybe we were all riding so high. Maybe we didn’t want to wait out a young kid. We saw Ben Francisco struggle, and we grinded our teeth with Kyle Kendrick. Boy, if only one of our starters today pitched like Kendrick!

I wish I knew the answer.

All I know is I saved some tweets, from way back then, way before all that happened. One blog asked if he was going to live up to his huge potential. Live up to it? The kid had only three-hundred plate appearances! One guy asked “What’s the point of (him)? Let him move on, please.” Another said he would carry him on his back if it meant bringing in David Wright. Yeah, Wright, who threw his back out in 2014 and never lived up to his potential. That would have been great.

Instead, all of that happened. What a way to go. What wasted talent.
It is amazing to think that. Just ten years ago, Hunter Pence and Chase Utley, top of the world! Carlos Ruiz, on a mural! Before Del Ennis! The glory days. We stood outside for hours, for days, red shirts and white shirts and maroon shirts and blue shirts, just to watch a game. To be a part of that madness. That primal, orgasmic madness.

Today we long for that circus. Rollins will fly back to California. The twenty-year 2008 reunion is next. Those were the days. When the old park glistened, its red brick and steel shining in the clear blue afternoon, the crisp warm night. Center of the universe, a utopian wonderland. I remember that home run he hit. My God, what a home run. He could have hit two-hundred more like that at Citizens Bank Park. I know it. And maybe they know it, too. And maybe they are regretting all the hurt and pain. Maybe they realize he could have kept the madness alive.

***

It is February 2012. An unusually balmy winter presiding over Philadelphia. Temperatures in the fifties. Folks opting for lighter jackets. If ever theorists wanted to embrace the kooky allegations of apocalypse in 2012, the warm winter weather would serve as a fine warning shot.

One-thousand miles south of Philadelphia, the weather is warmer. Always warmer. It’s supposed to be warm in the winter, for it’s warm all the time. It is the epicenter of expectation, the reservation of rehabilitation. Clearwater, Florida, promotes a population of 100,642, but that number spikes, probably thirty percent, from February to April. Hotels are booked solid. Roads are swarmed. Airports are choked. And every single flight from Philadelphia International Airport is sold out. By December. Because from February to April, the Philadelphia Phillies – players and coaches, trainers and beat writers, family members and friends – hold spring training in the city. Clearwater has hosted the Phillies longer than any spring training city has hosted any franchise. It’s nearly impossible to imagine Clearwater without the Phillies. Every morning, Lenny’s, a famous diner sitting off a highway, becomes the Dining Car, or the Melrose, or the Mayfair. Scores of people in Phillies clothing eat bread and jellies, eggs and meat and fluffy pancakes, while Mike Schmidt, Ryan Howard and Robin Roberts surround them. A few blocks away is the Carpenter Complex and Bright House Field, the crown jewel of the city, and arguably baseball’s finest spring training facility. It’s where these folks watch intently, cheer with warmth and embrace the unforgiving Florida sun. It’s here where the dream begins.

“First day in Clearwater, this place is beautiful!” tweeted Hunter Pence on February 2. Vance Worley, the rookie pitcher who surprised with a 3.01 earned run average in 2011, had been in Clearwater for a month already. Upon his arrival in Clearwater, relief acquisition Dontrelle Willis snapped a photo of a giant Phillies logo inside a pizzeria. He seemed shocked the Phillies carried such weight in a gulf-hugging Florida city.

But the shock will fade. Because the fans will arrive, and will watch, and the players new and old will find it familiar, find it ordinary. And when the calendar turns to April, the players new and old will be stepping out onto the field at Citizens Bank Park, and game after game, without fail, a full house of fans will rein cheers, flood optimism, wish only greatness. For the fans, the word Clearwater itself springs that optimism. It means summer is nigh. The sweltering Sundays of cherry and cream. The breezy nights of glowing bells and pinstripes. It means the madness has justification, that finally, the dreary December blues and graying chill of January mean nothing. All that matters is the blooming rebirth close ahead.

***

So the offseason wrapped, with new faces appearing throughout Clearwater as the warm winter began to subside. Jimmy Rollins was back on board. Ty Wigginton was there. Jonathan Papelbon had arrived and Jim Thome came back. Dontrelle Willis, Laynce Nix, and Chad Qualls were new, too. Other hopefuls joined them. Hector Luna. Joel Piniero. Juan Pierre. Names from a thrift store discount rack – a team shopping for an outfit that could work in a rapidly changing current. And gone were Ryan Madson, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge, Raul Ibanez, Wilson Valdez, and Ben Francisco, articles tossed aside to their own racks, some picked by teams needing that final new accessory. Six new and six gone. The 2012 Phillies were looking decidedly different than their previous vintage.

***

On a May 12, 2006, the eyes of every Phillies fan were locked onto Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark. At this riverfront shrine to riverboat culture, the lanky and shaggy Cole Hamels threw his first pitch in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform. He lasted five shutout innings, surrendering just one hit, a Felipe Lopez double in the fifth. He struck out Ken Griffey Jr. twice. He walked the bases loaded in the second but struck out Elizardo Ramirez to survive the scare. Hamels’ defense featured many familiar names: Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz. When Hamels exited the game, Ryan Madson relieved him. Though he blew Hamels’ lead immediately, Madson scored the win that evening. Fans were wildly optimistic – Hamels was already the greatest pitching prospect the Phillies had introduced since Ferguson Jenkins. Fergie only got eight games with the Phillies.

On January 17, Hamels and the Phillies agreed to a one-year contract worth $15 million. At the time it represented the highest salary paid to an arbitration-eligible pitcher before free agency, but Tim Lincecum soon broke that figure with a two-year, $40.5 million pact. Whatever the historical significance, the contract laid one truth out into the open: Cole Hamels could hit free agency after 2012. He could very well end his Phillies career.

Also on the field on May 12, 2006, were Bobby Abreu, David Bell and Pat Burrell. Abreu would be traded to the Yankees in July. Bell would play his final Phillies game in September. Burrell would remain a Phillie through the franchise’s most wonderful moment. But the others remained through the second pennant, all the way to the fifth division title. Madson was the first to go, ironically, to Cincinnati. Now it was Ruiz, Howard, Utley, Rollins, Victorino and Hamels. And after 2012, Victorino and Hamels might be removed from that list.

***

If you’re lucky to buy a seat on an airplane traveling to Clearwater in March, you will likely be sitting amongst Phillies fans in cherry outfit and cheery disposition. Not one grumpy face. And you will likely strike up a conversation with one of these faces, as the airplane represents the beginning of a paradise vacation to a land of dreams. Everybody is kind when traveling to a land of dreams.

I flew to Clearwater twice, in 2008 and ‘09. That first time, I sat next to an older gentleman, a friend of a Phillies executive, who was actually not traveling to Clearwater to watch baseball. Instead, wearing a light and colorful Polo shirt and khakis, this gentleman was traveling western Florida with his golf bag, taking in at least one – maybe two – rounds of golf every day for a week. He did this every year, sometimes for two weeks, and sometimes with his Phillies executive friend. This was his paradise, and he was comfortably happy with this.

***

Ruben Amaro Jr. informed the media that he hoped to agree to a long-term contract with Cole Hamels during spring training. Considering Hamels’ current $15 million price tag, and his stalwart numbers in his first six seasons, Hamels should command nearly $20 million per season in a long-term contract. But in 2013, the Phillies are already paying $25 million to Cliff Lee, $20 million to Roy Halladay, $20 million to Ryan Howard, $15 million to Chase Utley, $13 million to Jonathan Papelbon, and $11 million to Jimmy Rollins. Adding Hamels to that crowded list will prove difficult, and if a contract isn’t signed by opening day, chances are Hamels will seek other teams’ offers in a free agent market where he might reign as king.

Victorino won’t make as much as Hamels in free agency. In 2012 he will earn $9.5 million, and with a solid season, should seek an average annual salary of about $12 million. It may be impossible for the Phillies to pull Hamels and Victorino back into the fold for 2013 and beyond.

So it’s up to other players to emerge. Vance Worley, the surprise right-hander with the deceptive two-seam fastball. John Mayberry Jr., the late-blooming slugger with decent tools. And Domonic Brown, the foggy future that could introduce Philadelphians to the Rust Age.

But Charlie Manuel will rely on Laynce Nix to swing the bat against right-handed pitching. He will rely on Juan Pierre to play every outfield position in a pinch. He will rely on Joe Blanton to find his fiery fastball. The young lions that stitched together the bullpen late in 2011 – Michael Schwimer, Justin DeFratus, Michael Stutes, Joe Savery – they will likely sit in Lehigh Valley, while Dontrelle Willis, Chad Qualls, Jose Contreras and David Herndon set up Jonathan Papelbon in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, 2013 seems ages away, and it very well may be a new age altogether.

***

One-thousand miles south of Philadelphia, the weather is warmer. Always warmer. Here, in the epicenter of expectation, the reservation of rehabilitation, all eyes are focused on what is ahead. And what is ahead are one-hundred and sixty-two baseball games, trials of strength and concentration. They will tear muscles, rip veins and decay bones. They will cloud brains and fog eyeballs, shaving life slowly off those who are willing enough to compete. The games don’t care if you’re Laynce Nix or John Mayberry Jr., Juan Pierre or Domonic Brown, Joe Blanton or Vance Worley. They will cramp and injure, and they will keep rolling, one after the other. The days are hot, some cold, and sunny, some rainy. There are long afternoons, long evenings, long flights and long swings. Streaks and slumps, wins and losses. Everyone gets fifty wins. The rest is talent, composure, health, ability, clutch, coaching, guile and sometimes, pure luck.

In Clearwater, it’s distilled to a couple ballfields, where on the sidelines stand people who simply want one thing. They want a championship. In the end, when that final pitch is thrown and that celebration occurs, it won’t matter if it was Laynce Nix or John Mayberry Jr. who got them there. It won’t matter if Cole Hamels is unsigned for 2013. At least for a moment, a singular special moment, none of that will matter. And that is why the fans watch. That is why the players play. That is why we invest money and time to these airplane flights, these March vacations, the optimistic trials in the darkness of a year already defined by discontent. Where December brings blues and January brings grays, February brings the first bright light of hope. The flowers are about to bloom, dawn is upon us. The dream is beginning again.

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