Saturday, October 11, 2008

Four games, three towns, 24 hours

WEST CHESTER, Pa. -- I make it to Dad's place a half-hour before game time Thursday night. I could have, maybe should have, covered a municipal meeting for the paper, but in the latest episode of a seven-month story arc, a Phillies game resulted in me giving a bit less than 100% at work. A couple of times, it's been quite a bit less. In this case, 0%. But since, as far as I know, town hall wasn't besieged by gunmen or atomic bombs or rabid Pine Barrens animals that night, I have no regrets. Fewer than too few to mention. I'm utterly regretless.

Game 1. Phillies open the seven-game National League Championship Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, competing for the right to face the A(merican)LCS winner for all the marbles. It's the first playoff game I'm watching with someone who gives a rat's ass about the Phillies.

The previous series, Phillies-Brewers, I watched parts of Game 1 from a sports bar near work, ostensibly to interview (other) people who were skipping work to watch the early-afternoon affair. I watched the rest standing beneath a wall-mounted TV in the office, wandering away at brief intervals when I could hear or see one of my five bosses.

I knocked off work early, semi-legitimately, the next day to catch a train to the airport. I'd be flying to Louisville for a weekend with my future wife. I got to the airport three and a half hours ahead of takeoff so I could park myself in the bar for all of Game 2. The good guys won -- as they had the day before, when I cut my elbow in a klutzy spasm of exultation -- and I strolled onto the plane two minutes later.

A Ben Folds concert Saturday in the Ville took me out of viewing range -- happily, as it turned out, because Game 3 was a clunker. Sunday, I deplaned in Philly and took the seat three to the right of where I sat Thursday. In both cases, it was a mostly indifferent crowd of people from somewhere else. I caught the final four innings of the series clincher and ran to the SEPTA stop to catch my train back to the shore. It wasn't a sprint, but it was more than a jog. I got to the train with less than two minutes to spare.

Then, after a few days sans baseball, here I was, again in front of a television rooting for millionaires who live each summer in suburban Philadelphia, hoping they'd manipulate a ball and a piece of wood better than some other millionaires who spend their summers in the wide cultural wasteland of Los Angeles.

As someone who prides himself on practicality, I know that's an entirely practical characterization of sports fandom, but I've never been able to embrace it. Actually, I've never tried. I love sports, especially baseball, especially the Phillies, and I blame/credit my parents for that. Both played several sports in high school, then Dad played collegiate basketball and Mom spent years as a sportswriter. I was a baby when the Phillies won the World Series, a preschooler when the Sixers won 12 of 13 playoff games to steamroll to an NBA title, a junior-high nerd when the Phillies returned to the World Series and lost in excruciating fashion, and a college newspaper editor stuck at work when my Maryland Terrapins won their first men's basketball championship. I was also an editor stuck at work three years later, when the Eagles reached the precipice of football glory but lost the Super Bowl by a single field goal.

The nuances of baseball strategy appealed to me even as a kid, when I saw how braininess could be less of a social liability if it occasionally manifested as game analysis and recall of statistics. Of course, being too into sports is a social liability, too, but that's an anecdote for another day.

So. BACK to live action. Dad and I sit on our hands as the Dodgers scratch out a couple of runs and Derek Lowe throws vicious sinkers that the Phillies bounce harmlessly to the enemy infielders. I reheat a kielbasa and move from the recliner to the table to eat it, and within minutes a Lowe sinker is thrown too Highe, and a slumping Chase Utley unslumps himself by knocking the pitch five rows deep in the rightfield seats. Dad and I hoot and holler, and I temporarily abandon my food to reclaim the recliner and its better view of the TV. Two batters later, Pat Burrell rips a Lowe offering into the leftfield seats, forging a lead and shifting me into the-game-can't-end-soon-enough mode. Soon enough, it ends, with the capable Phillies pitchers allowing little drama. Dad and I feel as though the Phillies have stolen a win, and we definitely feel more like going through with the next morning's 7:30 tee time than we would have otherwise.

I try to go to sleep at midnight, early for me, but I'm too excited about the next day, when Mom and I will see Game 2 in person, tickets courtesy of our little corner of a multi-family season-ticket plan. I drop off around 1:30, and the alarm rouses me at 6:15. I'm unexpectedly alert.

HONEYBROOK, Pa. -- Dad and I head to a golf course I haven't played in 10 years. I'm as relaxed as you'll ever find me on a golf course; there are no crowds, no waiting and the weather is beautiful. Also, I know that unless I shoot a 75 or a 175, the round won't be my signature memory of the day.

I start off very well, but I'm rusty, and it shows within a few holes. Though I enjoy the wedge shot that finds the cup, by far the longest hole-out of my life, my 18-hole performance is otherwise just OK.

We have a great time, though, and we make great time: three hours and 15 minutes, probably the fastest full round I've played. A guy in the parking lot afterward sees Dad's Phillies cap and asks how the team did last night. It seems inconceivable to us that anyone who would care wouldn't already know.

After lunch, I shower and pull on my red Ryan Howard T-shirt at Mom's. She buys the gray Chase Utley equivalent at the Exton Mall, and we zoom off toward the city.

PHILADELPHIA -- It's not the normal regular-season scene outside the ballpark. Booths everywhere, for radio promotions and facepainting and whatnot. A massive archway of red and white balloons over 11th Street, where the band Mister Green Genes plays covers and incites chants of "BEAT L.A.!" The music is way too loud, and my ribcage shudders. None of this is what we came for. We don't need Mister Green Genes to fire us up for this game. We need to grab beers, find our seats and then stand up in front of them, waving rally towels. And this is what we do, after Mom sends my Mets-fan brother-in-law a cellphone picture of the grass-painted NLCS logo and former Phillie Jim Eisenreich sends a ceremonial pitch down the middle.

The Dodgers again strike first by stringing together two hits and a well-placed ground ball, but the Phillies answer earlier than in Game 1. Five straight hits include a healthy line drive from the usually weak-hitting pitcher Brett Myers, and the Phillies lead 4-1 after two innings.

It's a frenzied atmosphere, and my biggest problem is deciding whether to clap or wave my towel. At most games, i.e. regular-season games, they don't hand out rally towels, so you always clap, stand and clap, clap when there are two strikes to urge our pitcher to throw a third one. The other problem with the towel is that when our whirling towels weren't colliding, we were accidentally whipping each other in the head. Rally-towel protocol is tough to master, and the historically inept Phillies have afforded us few opportunities to practice it.

If you hold the thing at the very corner and use a wide swing path, you look like a drunken cattle wrangler who's gotten hold of the bartender's dishtowel. Hold too much of it or swing too discreetly, and you look like the guy at the next stool, signaling for the bartender to bring the check. I try all the methods and see all the methods, and frankly, I don't think anyone else gives a shit what they look like. Sometimes baseball ISN'T a "thinking man's game" ... just wave the towel, asshole.

An inning later, I do, a lot. An improbable Brett Myers single is again the centerpiece of a four-run rally, and the Phillies are on top, 8-2. The Dodgers take the rare step of changing pitchers three times in one inning, and we are brimming with confidence. This would be a blowout, and we could relax and enjoy the atmosphere. How smart we were, to become fans of this team that was so obviously superior to any other! Kudos all around!

Then the most universally infuriating player in baseball makes it 8-5. Home run, Manny Ramirez. Everyone sits down in our section. Everyone is silent. Everyone but the man behind me, one of what seems like a maximum of 7 Dodger fans in the entire 45,000-seat stadium.

"8-5 ballgame! 8-5 ballgame! Yeah baby, woooo! Mann-eeeeeeee!" he hollers, breaking his long sullen silence. I remind myself that there are laws against strangulation, and I picture a comeback win for the Dodgers and wonder whether everyone he encountered between his seat and his car in the parking lot would remember that those laws exist.

Still, we are winning, 8-5, which is generally a good thing. But never have I felt so uncomfortable about a three-run lead. A fatigued Myers (and we later learned he sprained his ankle running the bases) soon departs, leaving the Phillies bullpen, an admitted strength, to retire 12 Dodgers without surrendering three runs. Again, a good position to be in. But you'd never know it from the mid-inning atmosphere.

The crowd becomes less willing to urge the pitchers on, more annoyed at the flailing swing-and-a-misses of the frustrated Ryan Howard. J.C. Romero and Ryan Madson put two runners on base with two outs in the top of the seventh inning. Dodger Boy is crowing again as Casey Blake steps in, knowing a home run would tie the game.

Blake unloads on a Madson pitch. It's a bullet to dead center field, and I stop breathing for four seconds. Then I see what Shane Victorino's doing. He's not just watching it. He's shuffling his feet on a path toward the wall, holding his right arm behind him to feel for it as he raises his glove hand and his gaze straight up.

He gets all the way to the wall, and for an instant I'm disappointed in him. How could you give me false hope, Shane Victorino? Is this ball really going to leave the ballpark, even after you convinced me you might catch it?

Then the short Hawaiian dude becomes my new hero, leaping and snaring the ball. The stadium ... I know it's tacky to say this about a building, but really, the stadium EXPLODES. The effect is enhanced because it is deathly silent in one moment and bedlam in the next. My scream leaves me unable to use the upper register of my voice in singing along with "God Bless America" 30 seconds later. (A quick aside: People often say "God Bless America" is a much more suitable national anthem to "The Star-Spangled Banner" because it's much easier to sing and therefore more likely to have everyone sing along. So here's a tip, lead singers of GBA: The song has a very recognizable cadence, and if you don't use it, if you veer all over the place with crazy stylistic inflection, it's difficult to sing along. Uncool!)

I visit the bathroom for the second time in the eighth inning, as Madson tries to lock down the sixth-to-last, fifth-to-last and fourth-to-last outs. On my way back, I notice the game is on TVs inside, and a strange calm envelops me. I stand under one of them, like I did at work for the first of these excruciating experiences. A security guard standing three feet away is also watching, and he notices me.

"Is everything OK, sir?"

God knows what kind of angsty look is on my face. I reply, "I don't know what it is, man, but for right now, watching the game on TV is less stressful than watching it in there," gesturing to the 45,000 expensive seats.

He laughs and says he understands. Then we see Madson get the second out of the inning and we cheer, and I go back to my seat, because really, what is there to worry about? Plummeting stocks and moronic campaigns for the presidency and questionable career paths are things to worry about. I'm at a baseball game, attending my first Phillies playoff game, and they're winning. As the other people in my section told Dodger Boy: "SIDDOWN!"

I siddown. Despite my attempt to keep things in perspective, I am nervous. So is Mom. Soon, it's the top of the ninth. We're standing with our arms folded, staring holes through the stretch of real estate between Brad Lidge's back and Carlos Ruiz's front. Can't clap, can't wave towels, although by the looks of things we're the only ones. The crowd is cheering wildly for every Lidge slider, and so am I, in my head. (Crash course: A fastball goes generally straight and is fast. A curveball breaks down, sometimes to the side, too, but is generally slow. A slider is their love child, and Brad Lidge indisputably throws the most devastating, unhittable one in Major League Baseball.) Softly, I spit out, "come on brad ... slider down, slider down ... come on buddy ..."

Lidge wisely pitches around Ramirez and James Loney, the two most dangerous hitters in the heart of the L.A. lineup. He works in a clutch strikeout of Ethier, then gets the impetuous Matt Kemp swinging. Then Nomar Garciaparra steps to the plate with two outs and two men on base. An out would, as erstwhile announcer Scott Graham loved to say, "put this one in the win column for the Fightin' Phils!" A home run would tie the game. Anything in between, and I'll have to make a third trip to the bathroom.

Garciaparra shares one thing, and maybe only one thing, with Brett Myers: Both LOVE to swing at first-pitch fastballs. I mentally instruct Lidge not to throw heat to Garciaparra. Even in my fantasy state of mind, I know it's unnecessary, because even more than usual, Lidge has relied on his slider in this series. Indeed, he deals two nasty ones to Garciaparra, who can do nothing with them. So it's an 0-2 count.

Here's how I'd characterize the biggest cheers from this game:
-When each of Brett Myers' first two RBI singles landed safely, the noise was just the noise of thousands of people hollering excitedly, maybe a crowd at a massive wet-T-shirt contest. (The ONE THING they didn't have at the pregame festivities! Although they did have a massive T-shirt, a 15-foot-tall inflatable replica jersey that fans could sign with Sharpies. I did, but the only available marker was purple. WTF?)
-When Victorino caught Casey Blake's moon shot in the seventh, it was a movie moment ... think the raptor poking his head through the wall behind Laura Dern in Jurassic Park, or the alien pilot's body armor bursting open in Independence Day. A sudden burst of earsplitting screams from the patrons, followed by slightly softer sustained screams, followed by a few moments of them holding hands to their chests and panting, "Oh my God ... ohhh, my GOD, did that just scare the shit out of me."
-When Lidge has gotten Garciaparra to 0-2 and is looking into Ruiz for the next sign, the noise itself is startling. The best comparison I can think of is a jet engine. When people shout, "Whooo!", they generally use as high a voice as they comfortably can, and yet the combination of all our efforts produces a low rumble, too. I've attended hundreds of sporting events, many of them crucial to the outcome of a team's season. I've seen a Democratic president speak in the most reliably Democratic county in the United States. I've seen dozen of concerts, stood next to giant speakers in tiny venues. And still, I have never heard a noise to rival The Count Is 0-2 On Nomar Garciaparra. 

Lidge doesn't make us make the noise twice. He fires a third slider, Garciaparra waves at it, and that is that. We cheer again, but it's softer than before the strikeout. There's no goal to it, it's a celebratory cheer. The Phillies have won the first two games, and they just need to win two of their next five to reach the World Series. We know this. We're already picturing a sweep, imagining Jamie Moyer frustrating the L.A. youngsters with slowballs in Game 3 and a short-rested Derek Lowe succumbing to a Ryan Howard resurgence in Game 4.

We stay at our posts a few extra moments instead of filing out with the "That was great! Now run like hell to the car so we don't sit in the parking lot for an hour!" crowd. I dance stupidly to "Cellllllllllllllll-uh-brate-good-times-COME-ON!" Then it's time to amble across the street to the Sixers preseason game, where a Phillies ticket stub is good for free admission, an offer we and the ticket-takers immediately see was advertised in Belligerent Drunk Digest. We wait in line while the staff assigns seats.

We're in the upper deck in a corner, and it's near the end of the third quarter, but it's better than sitting in traffic. Plus, my cousin finds us. He and my uncle and their friends were at the Phils game, too, and we relive the big moments as the Knicks and Sixers play fast-paced, relatively sloppy basketball. It's over within a half-hour, a six-point loss for the home team, and we're ready to try our luck on the highway.

There's not much traffic once we squeeze out onto Broad Street, then I-95. A pizza is ordered from the road and devoured at Mom's place (I hadn't had an appetite since lunch), and suddenly I'm acutely aware how long I've been awake and walking/club-swinging/screaming/towel-waving/seat-pounding/driving. Zzzzzzz.

It's 24 hours later now, and I'm sore from the golf. I'm scratchy-throated from cheering; as my niece Lea would complain: "Sand in mouth! Sand in mouth!" But I'm feeling lucky to have watched big Phillies wins with Mom and Dad, happy to have connected with other family and friends by phone during the games. Sports are historically unimportant this fall, compared to everything else, and that's as it should be. But still, if the Phillies win six more games, I wouldn't miss that Broad Street parade for anything. The Bermudan Air Force could fly over here and carpet-bomb Atlantic City, or all the blueberry crops in South Jersey could turn to dust, but if you think I'm going to work to write about it that day, you're crazy.


  1. Couldn't have said it better myself.

  2. There is nothing wrong with purple markers.