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November 1, 2008

Always a Fan (In This Case, a Phan)

I should preface today’s post with a couple of disclaimers …

First, this is mostly about baseball, which I know isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I’m a casual fan of the sport – but more importantly, I’m a fan of great sporting moments, regardless of the venue.

Second: I have absolutely no connection with the city of Philadelphia, or any attachment to its long-suffering sports franchises. I’ve never lived there, and never visited; the closest I come to any association with the town is having a friend who is a recent Philly transplant.

Despite all that, there’s one thing I can say with certainty: the video clip below contains the most meaningful two minutes of television I’ve enjoyed in quite a while. It’s the final pitch of last week’s World Series – and it touches on just about everything I love about sports.

The Phillies were one strike away from willing the Series in front of their home fans, ending a 26-year championship drought in the 4 major sports for the city with the most notoriously passionate (and frequently vicious - but that’s another story) fan base in America.

The pitcher’s name is Brad Lidge, a closer whose legacy until this moment was permanently defined by a towering home run he gave up as a Houston Astro in the 2005 playoffs – a moon shot by Albert Pujols of the Cardinals that won the game for St Louis, and by most accounts, sent Lidge’s career into a tailspin. He struggled through the following two seasons, but his collapse of confidence was so complete that he was traded away to Philadelphia at the end of last year.

Throughout the 2008 season, Lidge had regained his form and pitched perfectly – in the most literal sense. He converted every save opportunity he faced, and the Phillies were undefeated in games they led after eight innings. And yet, with a Tampa Bay runner on base in the bottom of the ninth and the Phillies leading by a single run, the old ghosts were getting ready to reappear. Giving up a home run would have not only lost the game and rendered his perfect season meaningless, but potentially devastated both the pitcher and the city, and forced the Phillies to fight for survival in two more road games.

In other words, it was nervous time – and 40,000 anxious fans were feeling it.

It’s no mystery how this story ends: Lidge winds up and throws strike three on a nasty curveball, closing the game and winning the Series. And as much as I like the buildup to that moment, it’s the aftermath that always makes my eyes feel like there’s a lot of dust in the room.

As soon as strike three lands in his mitt, catcher Carlos Ruiz pumps his fist like an ecstatic Little Leaguer, and immediately sprints to the mound to celebrate with his pitcher. Lidge, meanwhile, has jumped in the air, then fallen to his knees, with arms raised to the sky in triumph and relief, as three years of frustration and disappointment turn to unbridled joy and redemption. He has about three seconds to enjoy the moment for himself before he’s tackled and mobbed by his teammates, who have all run to the mound to celebrate the ultimate accomplishment in sports.

(I’m more than a little biased here … because I’ve been in a victory dogpile like the one the Phillies enjoyed, and it’s an experience you never forget. It doesn’t matter if you’re eight years old, or 18, or 38 – the emotions you feel at a time like that are burned on your brain forever. In the days after the game, the Phillies will have a parade, and they’ll be celebrated all over town, and they’ll probably even go to the White House – but I can almost guarantee that those first seconds in that postgame dogpile will be their favorite memory of winning the World Series.)

The next 90 seconds of the clip are your garden-variety craziness that follows a team championship: fireworks in the sky, 40,000 fans going crazy in the stands, grown men crying and hugging each other on the field. In the middle of it all, the camera briefly cuts (at the 1:04 mark in this clip) to a 7-foot tall green fuzzy creature in a jersey: the Phillie Phanatic, waving a team flag and celebrating in all his goofy splendor right alongside the players.

The whole scene is ridiculous and hilarious and emotional and inspirational – and it’s precisely the reason why I’m such a sports nut. With every sport and every season and every championship, there are stories to be told, lessons to be learned, and memories to cherish. In fact, it almost never matters to me who wins (perhaps because all of San Francisco’s teams are currently terrible) as much as I enjoy viewing such triumphs through the larger prism of human experience.

Finally … I’m fully aware that sporting events are quite insignificant in the grander scheme of things - especially as we’re about to elect a new President, and countless people struggle just to make it through each day, and our country is in shambles in about 100 different ways. I could (and have, come to think of it) also list all sorts of reasons to be cynical about professional athletics in modern society. However, if it weren’t for distractions like sports, all we’d have left would be the serious stuff – and in my book, a life like that doesn’t seem very enjoyable at all.

That’s why I’m grateful to the 2008 Phillies, and why I’ll constantly look forward to having another team to celebrate.

**update 11/4/08: Fox Sports has pulled this video offline. I have no idea why. So much for my joie de vivre.


Darrell 11/1/08, 12:01 PM  

With no particular team allegiance of my own, you are right it is hard not to enjoy moments like that one and even get a little choked up for the winners.

209Mike 11/1/08, 2:46 PM  

That's good stuff. We're on a 14 year championship drought here in the Bay Area (49ers - 94). Sharks (hockey) are the only hope now.

David 11/1/08, 5:11 PM  

I forsook (?) my Red Sox of which I was a 40-year fan to show my support for the Rays, 90 miles to the west of us. They exceeded expectations all season long and when Crawford got to 2nd base in the ninth and Hinske came up with a 1 for 1 series record (a homer), it was deliciosuly exciting. In the end, it was all good. Either teams desrved what was to come to only one of them. The Rays should be back next year.
Go Giants! (my NL favorite)

mindy 11/1/08, 8:14 PM  

As a lifelong Phillies fan, I loved this post. Thanks for putting my feelings into beautiful words!

Dave 11/3/08, 10:48 AM  

Donald, one of the best things in life is baseball in October...I don't care who it is....After dealing with the Texas Rangers for the past 20 years...you wouldn't care either who was in the world series. I just sit back and enjoy October Baseball.:)

Rainmaker 11/4/08, 2:38 PM  

It was funny, I happened to tune into the game with one out in the 9th. It was perfect timing. Regrettably I didn't watch much of the series, mostly cause the Sox got sideswipped. :(

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