When you look at baseball long enough, it stops looking like baseball; just the thing you watch grown men do and then write about. You try to spot the narratives in a dugout conversation you can’t hear, or find the intricacies of a pitch that takes a quarter of a second. So maybe it’s the Opening Day fervor setting in, the smell of peanuts in the air, the gawking at beer prices, or the idea that Bryce Harper is on the Phillies that somehow still hasn’t really fused with my brain, but something about today feels a little different.
I’m trying to remember where I was the last time the Phillies were in a spot like this.
It hasn’t been one of Philadelphia’s epic sports droughts since the last time they were relevant, but you subtract a 5-7 year chunk from anybody’s life and you’re going to miss a few formative scenes. I’m settling on the year they signed Roy Halladay, because they put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, with, I think, the headline “THIS MIGHT HURT.” Or was this the year of “THE DOCTOR IS IN?” There was one of them where he was standing next to Cole Hamels, and you were like, “Oh right; we have Cole Hamels, too.”
I was walking dogs in Brewerytown and Fairmount at the time, and as I wandered from ill-tempered boxers to worked-up chi-poodles on Opening Day 2010, I could hear the game coming from everywhere: Open windows. Idling cars. Police radios. Sewer grates. Empty bars had thrown their windows open, baseball playing instead of music as workers set tables and rolled silverware.
It’s probably not a surprise that I can follow the past events of my adult life by connecting them to what the Phillies were doing at the time. But some of this stuff is far enough back now that I can’t reliably trace events; just sort of force out a mess of memories that were reasonably close to the Phillies signing Doc. I think this was the year I went sledding down the Art Museum steps without a sled. I think this was the year I had to basically wrestle a diseased possum every time I wanted to leave my apartment. I think this was the year when I saved money on a box spring by just sleeping on the floor.
All the glorious, head-scratching (from confusion or possibly infestation) squalor of my early years is matched only by the much more adult squalor of my later ones. The point is, every memory, even finding a hissing city rodent with its brood squealing beneath its wretched belly when all you want to do is go across the street to pick up a pizza, becomes a fond memory for me when I connect it to what was going on with the Phillies at the time.
After 2012, those memories become less accessible. In the years following the Phillies 2007-11, I had hung up a pair of Phillies flags in the outdoor areas of each place I lived in, and in time, they grew sun scorched and saturated from summer heat and furious rain. When I moved out of my last place, the time had come to dispose of them, I was told; and I agreed. It was time for a fresh start.
Yeah, I never shut up about the time Sean O’Sullivan got hit in the throat with a return throw, but I couldn’t tell you offhand when it was or even who was the catcher that hit him. But I can tell you that the morning before I was at the game that ended with Jimmy Rollins’ walk-off double off Jonathan Broxton in the 2009 NLCS, I was sleeping off happy hour at the North Star Bar when my roommate burst into the apartment to announce that somebody had smashed into his car with the Yankees bumper sticker during the night (Reading back over this, I realize this makes it sound like it was me who smashed it, so let me just make clear that no, it probably wasn’t).
A good baseball team becomes a rudder on your memory, helping you steer through your past with greater accuracy. It doesn’t seem like a huge asset until later on. When a season like this begins, even after just a few seasons that did not begin like this, it gives a new wave of people the chance to experience what I (and we) did: a lurking enthusiasm behind every moment of your day, knowing that no matter how little you want to be at work or how many possums you have to fight, at 7:05, there’s a Phillies game waiting for you, and it’s going to be, at the very least, watchable. Something infects the city as a whole and for once we’re all yelling at a television in unison, not just at each other during the commercials.
I hope there’s a kid out there wearing a Harper jersey today who has no idea what they are in for. I hope when half the decade goes by and they look back at all this, they can trace some of the formative events of their life alongside Phillies box scores and use them to catalog not just what their favorite team was up to, but what they were doing, and just remember that it’s fun to be a part of something that, which at its best, can reach so far. Because this city is never better than when it has something to root for; something into which it can channel all of its needless, meaningless, murderous bluster.
When you look at baseball long enough, it stops looking like a game. A team like the Phillies have set up this year is good at reminding us what baseball is, and what it’s supposed to be: Something that makes us happy. Something that helps us remember. Something that lets us forget about the possum living in our walls.
They don’t have to win the World Series today. They just have to be worth a subway ride.