It's not the sort of thing you can ever know for sure, but my guess is that a lot of Philadelphians mentally closed the book on the 2005 Phillies after the team dropped its third straight to the Houston Astros, and fifth straight overall, back on September 7. The narrative came ready-made: same old Phillies--no guts, no glory. Even the specifics of that crushing defeat--the ill-timed error, the closer implosion--seemed like they could have been lifted from any of the last few seasons of near-misses. That Billy Wagner blows up far less often than Turk Wendell or Jose Mesa or Mike Williams or Tim Worrell did just added a little extra salt to the wound.
Attendance at Citizens Bank Park dropped sharply over the next seven games against the Braves and Marlins, even though the Phils won five of those contests. School was back in, the Eagles had begun their season, and why let the Phils suck you back in before another inevitable disappointment?
This is understandable enough, but also illustrative of who the real losers are here: the implacably fatalistic fans that gave up on this season. Happily, Frank Fitzpatrick of the Philadelphia Inquirer calls out the phaithless in a Friday column:
You know who they are.
Those whose capacity to enjoy has been erased by an irrational cynicism. Those whose response to the baseball season's spectacular ups and despairing downs is a collective "Who cares? They're not going anywhere." Those who stayed away from last week's Atlanta series because nothing less than a guaranteed championship is worthy of their interest.
As in life, the joy of a long baseball season is in the journey, not the destination. The fact that the Phillies are alive with two weeks remaining in a 162-game season should have meant an enjoyable 51/2-month journey.
I'm not suggesting that real Phillies fans need to be Pollyannas. I've often been critical of the Phils' blatant shortcomings. But win or lose, good or bad, they're my home team. In my scarred heart, I can't write them off until they have been mathematically eliminated. When that happens, and it probably will, I'll gripe and grouse. And then I'll come back for more pain next season.
Amen, brother. I sometimes wonder if one reason for the slow decline in baseball's popularity, at least relative to pro football and other sports, has to do with the slow-release nature of the pleasure it provides. In a real sense, the more you invest in the game over a season, or over a span of years, the more it will reward you: sure, it's thrilling to see Ryan Howard blast a game-winning homer or Jon Lieber throw a magnificent game against the Braves, but how much better is it if you've watched Howard scuffle against lefties for three months, or remember Lieber's serial implosions in June and July?
Don't get me wrong: I love football, and I feel especially lucky to follow a superbly run team like the Eagles. But the difference between the two sports is kind of akin to that between reading The Brothers Karamazov and watching Goodfellas: one lasts a lot longer and offers arguably deeper satisfactions, and the other offers more visceral thrills. Maybe one reason the Phillies reap scorn and indifference where the Eagles merit sustained devotion even through annual January disappointments is that people are increasingly conditioned toward more quickly gratifying pleasures.
But back to Fitzpatrick. I'd be remiss if I didn't offer particular propers for his placing the blame where it belongs:
They missed the emergence of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. They missed Pat Burrell's 30 home runs and 111 RBIs. They missed Jimmy Rollins' superb defense and sensational hitting streak. They missed Bobby Abreu's ongoing assault on the Phillies' record book.
Because these Phillies were never going to win 120 games or spend $210 million like the Yankees.
Funny he should use that example. As you might have noticed, the Yankees (who all season have borne an uncanny resemblance to our Phils--but that's another story for another, probably colder and shorter day) have been scorching hot recently. They've won four straight, nine of their last ten, and have positioned themselves to win an 8th straight AL East crown after trailing Baltimore and Boston almost all year.
How have they done it? Well, Alex Rodriguez is having an MVP-caliber campaign, and Mariano Rivera has pitched up to his Hall of Fame standards, and Randy Johnson has redeemed a mostly disappointing season with a fabulous September run, and Jason Giambi has reminded the baseball world that his powers didn't all come from gluteal injections. But no Yankees fan would deny that the story this year has been help from unexpected quarters. Aaron Small? Shawn Chacon? Chin-Ming Wang? Bubba Crosby? Matt Lawton? Felix freakin' Escalona?
You only really get to enjoy those guys--and their Phillies analogs, like Eude Brito, Shane Victorino, Michael Tucker, and Geoff Geary--if you've been around all year. They don't win awards or earn huge contracts; they only provide the difference between joy and disappointment in September. They carve out little legends: what Phillies phan doesn't retain fond memories of Marty Bystrom, Len Matuszek, Kim Batiste? The idiots of talk radio can shrug them off as flukes or frauds, and all it proves is that they're missing the point more egregiously than usual.
So thanks, Frank Fitzpatrick, for telling some useful truth here, and thanks to the Phillies for rewarding our faith with some unforgettable moments.