It is autumn.
Deep in the earth, scientists discover the oldest human skeleton ever found. Up in space, 32 new exoplanets are cataloged by European astronomers. Rio gets awarded the 2016 summer Olympics, Coldplay wins "Song of Year," and everyone’s talking about the first chapter of James Cameron’s planned tetralogy, Avatar. Can the franchise go on without Sigourney Weaver’s character, the enigmatic Dr. Grace Augustine? How many blue alien sex scenes will Americans pay for in one decade? Wait, Coldplay?
Welcome back to 2009, when these were the questions for which we sought answers.
When the World Series rolled around and the Phillies were set to return to the Fall Classic to face the Yankees, people had even more questions; this time, about the mysterious drifter who had joined the Phillies pitching staff at the trade deadline. No one realized until that month that Cliff Lee had just appeared in the Phillies' clubhouse buffet line one night, and after the lefty was discovered to have already set up a lean-to next to the radiator, eventually Ruben Amaro just claimed to have traded for him.
Former Phillies reliever Scott Eyre asked Kerry Wood what to expect from the raucously farting vagabond fingering the post game spread. Wood's ominous forecast set the stage for an epic half-season yarn.
"When we first traded for him," Eyre said, "I got a text message from Kerry Wood. I said, 'What's this guy like?' And I got a text back that said: 'Just wait.'"
So there Lee was, on the night of October 28, deep in The Bronx, strolling toward the Yankee Stadium pitching mound. In the stands, he was surrounded by the same ravenous, saliva-spewing fans whose horrid nature would be part of the reason why Lee would give up money to not sign with their team as a free agent two years later. I'd say no one knew what to expect, but after beginning his Phillies career with a 0.68 ERA in his first five starts, Lee's performances were generally considered "stifling." He didn't seem particularly rattled to be taking the hill with baseball's highest possible stakes on the line; in fact, he barely seemed conscious at certain points - but we certainly were wide awake, our stomachs infested with the post season butterflies that were becoming a yearly problem.
I had grown up watching playoff baseball in which the Yankees simply did not lose. My father, an Orioles fan in the time of Jeffrey Maier, raised me under bold philosophies like "The Yankees are terrible" and "Go tell that boy in the Yankees hat that he is terrible, I have already been told to step yelling at the children." The Yankees' absence from the World Series following 2003 was a welcome development to me and my dad and every other sane person, but in the 2009 World Series, with the Yankees returning due to a malevolent shift of the planets, it felt like the Phillies were facing true evil; not the scrappy, generally likable Rays team they had beaten down in their sleet-soaked fairy tale the previous season. Taking out the Yankees would mean taking out an ancient evil, and that was a taller order, even with baseball's most prolific shrugger starting things off.
My roommate at the time was a Yankees fan, and we had already agreed not to watch together, for fear of our good-natured wagers and congenial relationship being obliterated after the first inside pitch. I raced over to the home of a former roommate - an engineering grad student who I once watched snare a live possum with his bare hands - who happened to have both beer in the fridge and a cable connection. I remember him being on the phone the whole time while I grunted and twitched with every strikeout. As dominant as Lee looked making apple cobbler out of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada and the rest of the rancorous Yanks, it seemed each swing-and-a-miss was setting up some improbable comeback, some doofy blooper, some thunderous blast that would have Joe Buck howling with narrative delight.
Lee put the Yankees down, giving me and all of the other Phillies fans a level of confidence so strong I was still riding it days later to the last out of a World Series loss to the sport's most diabolical entity.
This was also the night that Chase Utley began his campaign to be only the second player in history to be named World Series MVP despite his team losing. Before the Yankees could get their heads (and bats) around Cliff Lee, Chase Utley had homered twice off C.C. Sabathia. Utley, despite the pleading of top scientists who feared his transformation into full supernova, didn't seem able to stop making solid contact for the entire series.
In a show of balanced menace that today would seem out of place, the Phillies lineup backed Lee's efforts increasingly through the evening. Everyone in the lineup had a hit, except for Ben Francisco and Pedro Feliz. Ryan Howard had two doubles. Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez helped. Jimmy Rollins made a sneaky defensive play to double up Hideki Matsui and keep the game as short as possible.
Last night's Jon Lester-Corey Kluber match-up was a title card worthy of a Game One, but Cliff Lee-C.C. Sabathia pitted Cy Youngers and ex-teammates against each other - any true fan will tell you the best baseball games end in ruined friendships. As Lee gleefully tore through the Bombers, Joe Girardi started kicking relievers into the game after the seventh, cycling through five post-Sabathia hurlers who could barely strike anyone out and allowed four additional runs that Chase Utley didn't even have to knock in.
Teixeira tried desperately to do something other than shame himself in the ninth, getting a run across with a ground-out, but the swinging strikeouts of A-Rod and Posada tied up any loose ends. Lee was the first pitcher - ever on this planet - to strike out at least ten hitters, allow zero walks, and surrender no earned runs in a World Series start. Jayson Stark's recap sounded like the opening to a true crime novel.
What happened at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night is not supposed to happen. What Cliff Lee did to the Yankees in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series -- nine innings of six-hit, zero-earned-run shutout World Series baseball -- just isn't done. Not to these Yankees. Not in this park.
We woke up the next morning feeling oddly optimistic, and not just because the reality TV show that was the Dodgers' off-season had recently become a little more scandalous following their Broxton-sponsored unraveling in the NLCS. The Phillies had followed the rules to starting a playoff series in another team's park - win at least one. They could lose the next game and still go 2-for-2 in World Series titles with three wins in Philadelphia.
Of course, we all know what happened. The Phillies did indeed go on to their second of five straight World Series titles, and the Yankees, Giants, and Cardinals all got together to cry about how all of their families had left them from sheer embarrassment. It's truly incredible we got to witness such dominance, all ignited by the laid back play of our new ace, Clifff Lee, who the front office knew at that point was going to be around for a long, long time.
No one knows where Cliff Lee is now. Some say he's in an Arkansas diner, shrugging at people. Some say he's a ghost haunting a ramshackle hotel off a midwestern highway. Networks have reached out to him to do some analyst work and, upon dialing his number, heard only an intense, otherworldly shrieking on the other end before their phones exploded. Wherever he is - my bet is 'fighting corrupt hill folk as a smalltown sheriff under an assumed name' - he gave us a night to never forget in New York.
And any baseball fan traumatized by the Yankees of the late nineties and early 2000s will tell you: that's not supposed to happen.