Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Fightin' Phils

In mid-September, I attended a wedding in Philadelphia. I was the best man, and the wedding party was a hodgepodge of East Coast and Chicago baseball allegiances. There was a White Sox fan, a Yankees fan, a Cubs fan, a Red Sox fan (myself) and the groom himself, who is a Phillies fan. The minister was also from Chicago. He was a Cubs fan. In God We Trust, I guess.

Mike got married, and it was the best day of his life. Hands down. Hands down. I had a pretty good time as well. The wedding was at an arboretum on a picture-perfect late fall day, and afterward we retired to some Philly bars still dressed in our wedding threads. We had some beers, watched some football, caught up, talked to single people. And the next day, we spread back out across the country, eager to root against each other for the next six weeks.

Well, Mike won. In a stupefying but welcome recent first, the Yankees were the only team among the bunch that didn’t make the playoffs – Hallelujah! Going into the first round, the White Sox looked like the most vulnerable, playing against the upstart Rays, while the Phillies were right back where they were last year — at home, in the first round, favored. Last year, it didn’t go so well, as they lost to the Rockies in three games largely spurred by Colorado’s second baseman, Kaz Matsui, a punchline in Mets territory who sat out a good percentage of this season with an anal fissure. Go ahead and read that previous sentence again. Soak it in. It is fantastic.

This year, the Phillies were the bullies, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in three games. They won their first two games at home en route to sweeping every home game they played this postseason; if you want to win a World Series, kids, this is a good way to do it. The White Sox would win a home game as well, but it was merely one to stave off elimination against the Rays, who would finish them off the following day. The Red Sox started out west, beating the Angels twice in Anaheim and nabbing game four at Fenway to move on. The only team NOT to win at home was the Cubs.

Offfff course.

The Cubs have really turned into the Red Sox; a team that’s an occasionally ferocious competitor that finds a way to lose in the most heartbreaking way possible. You got the sense this year that if the Cubs had actually won a postseason game, they might have found their stride and romped to an overexposed championship. It didn’t happen. They got pummeled at home and quieted by the Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles, led by Manny Ramirez, whose quest to get back to the World Series fell just short. When his former team followed suit, it set the stage for one of the more bizarre World Series in recent memory: the young, eager team from city trying to round out its professional championship trifecta, against a team that had been around forever, won it all only once, and played in a city with four professional teams, none of whom had won a title since 1983 (Each of the others had failed once in the meantime).

During this time, I didn’t really hear from Mike. I don’t actually hear from Mike that often; he’s a pretty quiet guy. He’s the flip side to the stereotypical Philadelphian, who he’s fairly familiar with in the person of his father. Passionate about everything, ready to get mad at a moment’s notice, but fundamentally just upset about it all — that’s him. Mike just gets exasperated, and to tell you the truth, I would too. If Boston fans always thought they were superior, and the results didn’t show up on the field, Philly fans thought they weren’t superior, and the results did show up on the field. It wasn’t accurate, but Boston fans were wrong too (We weren’t superior). So when the Phillies won the title last night, and the only thing I heard from Mike was OH MY GOD, I knew something had snapped into place, the “It’s just sports, but it feels damn good to win” logic jump that usually comes far after a title win. Philly fans have known it’s just sports for years, which is why it killed them when they couldn’t win. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just sports. Win the game. It never happened. Now the Phillies are champions, Philly stands intact and life can go on. Whereas Boston fans changed for the worse after the titles, I expect Philly fans to change for the better. I expect less relief than a profound sense of pride, but a dignified pride. I also expect the Eagles to win the Super Bowl, so we’ll see if it gets tested in early February.

But let’s let them have their moment.

One last thing about the wedding: the morning of, we went to eat breakfast in Philly’s Center City Market. There’s a Pennsylvania Dutch Country restaurant/counter where, basically, the Amish cooked us food. It was great, but others went off in search of cheesesteaks. It was 9:30 in the morning, but they wouldn’t be deterred. They came back sans cheesesteak, but they had made a discovery. “Mitch Williams is over there,” they said.

Mitch Williams threw the last pitch of the 1993 World Series. Joe Carter hit it for a championship-winning home run. Since then, the heat-throwing, hard-living lefty had actually made a pretty good life and name for himself in Philadelphia, becoming a talk-show host and hawking a line of Mitch Williams Wild Thing salsa. We went over and met him, told him Mike was getting married, got pictures with him and everything. He even signed a jar of salsa. Little did we know then, or did we know, that his days as a top Philly sports celebrity were drawing to a close. Everyone loves a character, but what everyone really loves is a winner. In 10 years, you won’t be able to walk a block in that town without hearing about Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Brad Lidge, and Williams will be an increasingly small footnote — that’s how these things work. Ask Drew Bledsoe. Everyone loves a winner. The Phillies are just that.

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