Shane Victorino announced his official retirement from baseball today, effective in August, putting the 2008 World Series championship even further behind us. Acquired in the Rule 5 draft in 2004 from the Dodgers, the Phillies had dangled Victorino in front of L.A. when things didn’t work out, but the Dodgers had refused to take him back.
The Rule 5 draft is cruel.
In any case, the Phillies stashed Victorino in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and watched the Prospect Nobody Wanted hit .310 in 126 games and make the 2005 International League All-Star team, becoming the eventual league MVP, the last Phillies prospect to do so until Rhys Hoskins in 2017.
So it was up to the majors for Victorino, who burrowed onto the roster and, when Aaron Rowand departed as a free agent, earned himself a starting spot in the outfield, from which he helped the Phillies surge past the Mets in 2007 as the first of five straight division titles. As the Phillies geared up to face the Brewers in the 2008 NLDS, Victorino and his teammates had watched, intrigued, as national pundits cited again and again the monstrousness of Milwaukee’s top line starter, CC Sabathia, acquired halfway through the year to be a fully primed playoffs weapon against whom teams like the Phillies didn’t stand a chance. But Victorino was used to being counted out.
The first reigning Cy Young winner to be traded since Roger Clemens ten years before, Sabathia was the enormous key to the Brewers’ entry into the post season. Milwaukee was in third place when they had acquired the ace—four games behind the Cubs, a half game behind the Cardinals—their fate hardly solidified. That they, a small-market club with virtually no chance of keeping Sabathia beyond the few months left in their current season, had struck the deal, and not any of the more dominant contenders, was a bit of a surprise. But even for a third-place team, their intentions were made clear.
“I’d say we’re going for it,” Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. “That’s the way I look at it.”
After a turbulent start to the season in Cleveland—Sabathia didn’t reach the sixth inning of a start until his fifth appearance with the Indians that year—he had worked to bring an April ERA of 7.88 back down to earth. Going into his last start for his old team, Sabathia had thrown three straight 10+ strikeout performances, making him all the more enticing to a hungry pitchers market.
He was shipped north to Milwaukee on July 8, with the Brewers pretty sure that they could use half a season of him to get where they wanted to go. After going six innings in his Brewers debut, Sabathia threw three consecutive complete games, his last one being a shut-out. He went deep into games, carving up NL hitters as his coaches ignored pitch counts (He’d routinely stay out there for 120, 130 pitches) and that troublesome early ERA plummeted down to 2.70 by the end of the regular season. His last start, a 3-1 victory over the Cubs, was a fun divisional exclamation point as he and the Brewers celebrated the team’s 90th win in their season finale and looked forward to being the underdogs of a post season picture full of unfamiliar teams.
Fate, and the third best record in the National League, slotted the Brewers against the Phillies for the NLDS. Meeting six times during the regular season, the Phillies had beaten them in five, including a four-game sweep in mid-September that had not only locked the Phillies back into the playoff picture, but resulted in the firing of Brewers manager Ned Yost (Yes, a team on its way to the post season had fired its manager on September 15). The Phillies had Ryan Howard, the Brewers had Prince Fielder; the Phillies had Chase Utley, the Brewers had Ryan Braun. The Phillies had better players, the Brewers had better depth. Things matched up pretty well, but even this web site had to tip its cap to the Sabathia acquisition.
There hasn’t been a better pitcher on the planet since the end of June than CC Sabathia (apologies to Johan Santana, who I hope is enjoying the golf course this week).
Sabathia loomed over the NLDS, a source of dread to a Phillies lineup that was fully vulnerable of being nullified by another team’s ace. Images of the previous year’s NLDS sweep by the Rockies were still fresh, and having to stare down Sabathia in game two was a tall, wide order. But if they could stay patient and make him look human, they might be able to punch through.
Sabathia’s first start was on the road, in an intense playoff atmosphere, against a highly talented young Phillies team that had beaten Yovani Gallardo the day before to go up 1-0. But that’s exactly the game that Sabathia had been acquired to start; to pick up the pieces from whatever game one had entailed and quiet the Phillies offense back down.
The crowd of 46,208 was the biggest party in Citizens Bank Park history. Brett Myers celebrated by walking in a run in the first inning, putting the Brewers up 1-0. Sabathia kept the Phillies off the board in the first, but had run into an irritation in the form of Shane Victorino, who cracked a one-out double and then stole third base. Sabathia had then struck out the Phillies’ offensive titans in Utley and Howard, both with swinging K’s that indicated he really wasn’t hurt by that annoyance in scoring position.
Nevertheless, Sabathia wasn’t out of the woods. The next inning, back-to-back doubles from Jayson Werth and Pedro Feliz tied the game, and back-to-back walks, one famously to Brett Myers, loaded the bases.
As far as context, Sabathia was quite aware: “This is where I need to be, this is the situation I want to be in and I needed to come out and pitch a good game tonight,” he told the New York Times later. “And I didn’t do that, so you can blame this loss squarely on me.”
The next batter he faced was aware of it too. Shane Victorino stepped in with the bases loaded; an opportunity he knew well, having gone 4-for-9 in such moments throughout the regular season. It took four prospects (Including Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley) for the Brewers to acquire their ace, their stopper, their Philllies-killer; their ticket to the NLCS and beyond.
And it took Shane Victorino a 1-2 pitch to make it all for nothing.
Baseball—specifically playoff baseball—is comprised of a million moments that take forever to pass, but in our memories, exist in a flash of light and a splash of spilled booze from a plastic cup. That pitch Victorino sent into the left field seats went on a journey that took five or six seconds, but will live forever.
“It gave me the confidence to say, ‘Hey, I came up big in one situation. Why can’t I keep doing it?” Victorino said in his biography, “Shane Victorino: The Flyin’ Hawaiian,” written by Alan Maimon. “I think that feeling carried over for the rest of the playoffs. It helped me build character.”
“Grand slams in the playoffs” don’t have to happen a lot for them to become a defining characteristic of your reputation. So Victorino could have retired from hitting them at any point after 2008 and still been immortalized in the memories of over 46,000 people (and the thousands watching from elsewhere). But then, five years later, he did it again. At this point, it’s just his brand.
There’s more for which he is remembered in Philadelphia and beyond: Banging the war drum after Brian Schneider’s walk-off home run. Getting ejected by a home plate ump from center field for raising his arms in the air. Having a beer dumped on him at Wrigley Field. The stand-off with Hiroki Kuroda in the 2008 NLCS. The record-breaking All-Star votes (15.6 million) he received with support of the Philadelphia’s mayor office. Throwing out Gregor Blanco at the plate to end a game against the Braves. The Ed Hardy shirts. The MMA training. The walk-off bomb through the mists on “Shane Victorino Day” and Harry Kalas screaming, “No ka oi!” Victorino pointing up to the broadcast booth after homering in the Phillies’ first game after Kalas’ death. But we can actually say that Victorino did more for this city than hit a grand slam or let his eyes bulge out of his head when he got excited.
We learn every year that heroes aren’t guaranteed. Celebrating awful humans for their success as athletes is an ignorant and stupid practice, and there will always be repugnant people who claim that someone’s contributions on the field outweigh their crimes or ignorance off of it.
But Victorino never made us have that argument. He reached out to Philadelphia and made it better by donating $900,000 to the Nicetown Boys & Girls Club, which was in dire need of improvements to its 105-year-old headquarters and at one point had been on the verge of closing. Victorino and his wife, Melissa, continue to perform their charity work through The Shane Victorino Foundation, which is working to build baseball and after school facilities in Maui, runs an annual toy drive in Las Vegas, and is behind the Nicetown Boys & Girls Club that now bears his name. As a member of the Phillies and Red Sox, Victorino provided local children’s groups with tickets to games, as well. In 2010, the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association named him the Humanitarian of the Year.
Having been a part of Boys & Girls Club’s as a child himself, he knew the importance of the facility. “I wasn’t born and raised here,” he told reporters, “but I understand some of these areas need something uplifting.”
It’s the Utley’s, Howard’s, and Rollins’ who put you in the playoff picture and give you the foundation of a championship team. But it’s the Shane Victorino’s who win you a trophy. It’s the Jayson Werth’s, the Matt Stairs’, the Geoff Jenkins’, and yes, even the Eric Bruntlett’s, who have many, a few, or even just one moment that propels it all forward, and at times, even lets them become a part of the foundation themselves.
But more specifically, it’s the Shane Victorino’s who help make your city a better place to live. It’s rare enough to have a team come together with the right players at the right time; to have all the necessary moving parts fall into sync under correctly aligned planets and stars and take a long-dormant franchise to a World Series title. But to be able to do so with a player like Victorino, whose passion was never questioned and whose character was never maligned, made us lucky as fans and Philadelphians alike.
When Victorino officially retires, he will do so as a member of the Phillies, the organization that gave him a chance when he was a Dodgers cast-off and watched him become not just an every day player, but an all-star and a Gold Glove defender. In baseball, especially player acquisition, a lot of times, you’re rolling the dice. Sometimes, you think you’re getting an ace to coast through the playoffs. Other times, you’re getting the guy who hits a grand slam off him.