When I heard about the theme for this year’s Valentine’s Day project (“heartbreak”), my mind went to one place, and one place only. There have been girls and lost friends and deaths and broken hearts before, but for me, the biggest, most consistent heartbreak of them all comes from a team of 25 men wearing red pinstripes.
On Oct. 29, 2008, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series, and I wept. I wept because I was happy, surely; as happy as I had ever been, I believed at the time, and perhaps believe stronger now. I also wept because I was sad; in a much crueler way, as sad as I had ever been. The Philadelphia Phillies, my team for 18 years, had won the World Series for the first time since 1980 – two friggin’ months after I left the city for college. I watched every pitch of the 2008 World Series in the basement of ISRC, sometimes with friends, often alone, above the hum of churning washers and dryers.
Since winning the World Series in 2008, the Phillies have been eliminated in the playoffs in ever-earlier rounds by the eventual champions. Think about that for a second. In 2009, we lost the World Series – to the eventual champions, the Yankees (requisite Yankee hatred aside). In 2010, we lost the National League Championship Series, a step before the World Series – to the eventual champions, the San Francisco Giants (their first championship since moving out of the New York City Polo Grounds in 1958.) In 2011, we lost the National League Division Series, two steps before the World Series – to the eventual champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, who snuck into the playoffs as the NL Wild Card on literally the last day of the season.
Each of these was a great baseball story, a moment of baseball history – for the other team. The Phillies have been on the losing edge of history for the past three years, and if you look at it closely, we didn’t even really do anything wrong. It just wasn’t meant to be. I don’t believe in fate, but if I did, I still couldn’t believe how much it inexplicably hates these Phillies. No other team has come so close in the past three seasons, fielded a team so great and folded due to random circumstance. The 2008 Phillies team was arguably the worst of the past four seasons, but was the one that won it all.
What makes this team so heartbreaking is how much potential each of these teams had and utterly wasted. It feels a bit like high school melodrama, with the terribly bright kid on your QuizBowl team who never pushed himself toward scholarships, didn’t make it out of community college and is now and will forever remain the smartest pot dealer in central Pennsylvania. This team could have become one of the most storied franchises in baseball history, five straight World Series and a veritable dynasty. Instead we’re left with a bloated payroll, bad contracts, aging former superstars and three years’ worth of broken dreams and disappointment. I’m one of those kids who would have taken straight-up anger over disappointment from his parents any day of the week. I’m not even angry at this team anymore. Just let down and disappointed.
In 2009 we traded for starting pitcher Cliff Lee midseason, who went 4-0 in the playoffs (including a 9-inning 1-run gem of a Game 1 at Yankee Stadium), yet Cole Hamels and Pedro Martínez stunk it up. In Game 6 Shane Victorino dribbled a slow roller to Robinson Cano at second, who flipped it to Texeira at first and began jumping around in his pinstripes with his teammates as the Phillies filed back into the visitor’s dugout.
In 2010 we traded away Cliff Lee but got Roy Halladay (who would go on to win the Cy Young Award) and acquired Roy Oswalt in a mid-season trade. In Game 6, down 3-2 in the series and 3-2 in the game, Ryan Howard came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with men on first and second and two outs. He took a junk pitch for strike three – a changeup that was on the very edge of the zone and a pitch he was right not to swing at. Howard’s achilles heel (pun intended, for those who get it) is a 3-2 pitch low-and-away, and hitting coaches have been telling him to lay off for years. If the pitch is called a ball, the bases are loaded with Jasyon Werth, rounding out the best season of his career, at-bat. The one time he takes their advice, the stupid umpire calls it a strike and we lose the series. Figures.
In 2011 we signed Cliff Lee again and fielded a rotation with four legitimate aces, one of the best and most lauded rotations in history. Then, Lee inexplicably blows a 4-0 lead in Game 2, Oswalt got lit up by a rally squirrel (Google it) in Game 4 and Chris Carpenter outdueled his fishing-partner (Google it) and reigning Cy Young winner Roy Halladay in one of the all-time greatest postseason pitching matchups and individual performances in the history of the game, a complete game 3-hit 0-walk shutout on 110 pitches. Once again, the 2011 team was better than 2010’s and we’re undone by one godly pitching performance. There will be books written about this game in the future – all with the Phillies as the other team on the field.
These Phillies are aging. Halladay and Lee, still two of the best pitchers in the game, are 34 and 33, respectively. Hamels, just a smidge below their skill level, is only 28 but will most likely leave after this season in free agency. Oswalt already left in free agency. Our infield of Plácido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard is 36, 33, 33 and 32, respectively.
This is the year. It has to be. The Phillies are going to suck for a long, long time very, very soon. Our farm system is depleted and we’re not getting any younger. We’re coming off a franchise-best 102-win season and made some decent moves in the off-season. Our window is closing quickly, one last shot, and we will probably make a big mid-season trade and go all-in this year and hope for the best.
Which, following the trend of the past three years, would mean our stadium burning down and Ryan Howard’s liver exploding as he swings-and-misses on the last pitch of the season.