by Kevin Franklin:
“Who the hell are the Dallas Cowboys? We beat them every time we play them.”
– Buddy Ryan
I realize it is unusual starting off an article about the Phillies with a quote from a former Eagles coach. It was unexpected, and flies in the face of the title of this piece. But, then again, we’ve been dealing with some unexpected stuff around here lately. There’s the Flyers’ dark horse dash down the back stretch of this past Spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs; there was the unloading of long-time face of the franchise QB, Donovan McNabb – to a division foe, of all things! There was the christening of the Kevin Kolb era which quickly hippity-hopped to Michael Vick 2.0 – a man whose presence in Eagle green last year was also unexpected. Hell, the Phillies traded Cliff Lee for three future telemarketers. Bet you saw that coming. All of this expect-the-unexpected means that the expected itself should be unexpected.
For the stoners out there, now might be the time to pause the Jim Jarmusch movie, splash some cold water on your face and grab a yodel. I promise it doesn’t get any more metaphysical from here on out. But then again, you never know what to expect…
The world is a crazy place. We have water-skiing squirrels, senator-wannabes who claim to have “dabbled” in witchcraft and has the planet ever really recovered from William Hung? However, through these past four years, we have had something in this town to set our watches to – the Phillies. We’ve come to know what to expect out of them.
I’m an old fart, so my Phillies-watching days began when Steve Carlton was still called “Super Steve” and not “Lefty,” Dave Cash was holding down second base with his Anton LaVey facial hair and Eddie Watt led the team in saves with six. Yes, I said six. Ah, those were the glory days. Fortunately, I wasn’t around for the 1964 House of Cards Phillies when the pennant slipped through through their fingers and was won by, well, the Cards. It goes without saying I was not around for the 1950s Whiz Kids when the world was still in black and white and the Phillies were just good enough to lose three one-run games on their way to being swept by the Yankees. I was, however, in attendance for the 1915 pennant-winning Phillies of Grover Cleveland Alexander and Gavvy Cravath – a team which had a TOTAL of six saves for the season. Yes, I said six. How was I there? Well, there’s science and a lot of math involved and you expected there would be no math.
For many of you, the teamsters, hit men and horse rustlers who made up the 1993 Phillies was your first exposure to fandom. Like a prom night pimple, they arose out of nowhere, but unlike said carbuncle, they captured the hearts and minds of this town like no other team. They were the Bad News Bears of our sports history, and like that fictional team sponsored by Chico’s Bail Bonds, they lost in dramatic fashion. Funny thing, though, is that team would be no more beloved if they had won the World Series that year. For anyone who remembers that unforgettable year, can you honestly say that team would be any more memorable had they brought home the hardware? No? That’s what I expected.
And then the doldrums hit.
Thirteen years. Thirteen years of scuttling, suffering and sympathizing. False starts and false hopes mixed in with the coming home of a local hero in Larry Bowa, Gregg Jefferies’s bat-flinging after another pop out and Jim Thome shaking hands with construction workers. Thirteen years of a mix of Scott Rolen not giving enough answers and Curt Schilling giving too many; Thirteen years of Harry Kalas’s well-seasoned baritone and Dan Baker’s booming echo. Thirteen years of almost and not-even-close. Thirteen years. It almost came to be expected.
And then, something unexpected happened. The Phillies started winning…and then winning some more. They overtook the Mets in an improbable and historic charge (or collapse, depending on which end of the I-95 corridor you favor). Like little Timmy Lupus closing his eyes and catching the ball, the Phillies were dumbstruck to find themselves in the postseason. They were so surprised that they forgot to actually show up. The Rockies had already kicked the keg before our hometown heroes had a chance to blow out the candles on the cake. But something started that year. Suddenly, Charlie Manual wasn’t a bumbling idiot anymore, even though he never changed. Suddenly, leaders started to emerge from the long-cast shadows of Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino led the charge as well as the now-veteran Pat Burrell. Jamie Moyer, who was almost as old as the combined ages of lefty phenom Cole Hamels and rookie Kyle Kendrick, was still a spry 44 years old and pitching effectively. 2008 would surely be their year, right? As a fan base, we expected as much.
Well, you know the rest. A World Series win in 2008, a close-but-no-cigar World Series appearance last year that could have used a 2008 version of Hamels and closer Brad Lidge and the thundering post-All-Star bull rush of the 2010 club. The injury bug worked it’s way through the Phillies locker room but all the main pieces are now in place for a healthy playoff roster. Placido Polanco has been a rock, Jayson Werth’s play has been as heroic as his beard and Wilson Valdez may have the ultimate bacon-saver with his speed, defense and timely hitting. From Carlos Ruiz’s position, he can look out and see an All-Star at each position – seriously, EVERY position; well, except his own, and yet, “Chooch” just might be this team’s non-pitching MVP. All-Universe pitcher Roy Halladay was added and he delivered as expected; Roy Oswalt and his whipsaw windup was brought in and all he’s been is the best pitcher in baseball since the midseason trade. Hamels got his groove back and even Joe Blanton has been quietly – almost eerily – effective in the last half of the year. I wouldn’t have any problems with Blanton being this team’s #3 starter in the playoffs, but as divine providence has dictated, he’s the #4. Damn the luck. But, he knows his role and what is expected.
Why, Kevin? Why, why, why regurgitate something we’ve already known? Why remind us of facts we need no reminding of? Well, dear friends, it’s because you already know this. You no longer hope for a Phillies win. You expect it. You no longer pray for a chance to see the team in the World Series because it’s a foregone conclusion. You no longer get mad at a late-inning deficit because you know someone – anyone – with a Phillies uniform is going to pull it out with a clutch hit. Face it, we ARE the Phillies. The confidence they exude, we exude. The stoicism they display in bad stretches, WE display. They’re a tough, lunch pail, close-knit team and we are just as tough, just as lunch-paily and just as close-knit. The guy you argued with is the guy you’ll be hugging and crying with when the Phillies are doing the same on the pitcher’s mound. It will be expected.
Yes, even the negadelphians are looking past the NLDS and NLCS as if the World Series this year is at the end of the Eminent Domain Highway. It is Manifest Destiny to face the Yankees again, but this time to put four hot slugs into their well-fed bellies instead of the two they were able to get off last year. The Phillies themselves do not allow themselves to entertain such nonsense. They will methodically, sometimes dynamically, fire up the engine and play chicken with whichever team puts itself in their path because they know as sustaining and satisfying as this recent success has been, it can just as easily be swept away. We’ve gained a sense of entitlement with this team, sloughing off the “Expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed” mantra we lived with for so long prior to this stretch and the 10 years before 1993. We expect a World Series champion this year – and every year, dammit!
I’m only trying to do everyone a favor here. Stop expecting a championship and revel in the joy and newness of the playoff season. Embrace each win as you did in 2008 with the giddiness you still get seeing Eric Hinske whiff and Brad Lidge dropping to his knees yelling “Oh my God!” before he fell victim to the dog pile. With arguably the best offensive lineup this team has ever assembled and definitely the best top-3 pitching Phillies fans have ever seen, it is going to be hard to see any team beating them in a series. Oh, hell, I’m all in, too. See you at the parade.
After all, what did you expect?
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