Commentary

From a Phillies fan, on being so close

b4bab448dfb1462f94c734fbd98aba1f.jpgAfter Aroldis Chapman struck out Jose Ramirez to end game five of the World Series, a Cubs victory that sent the teams back to Cleveland with the Indians up 3-2, Fox play-by-play announcer Joe Buck opted not to speak as fans sang “Go, Cubs, Go.”

The cameras showed elated fans singing in unison, holding up “W” signs, some holding signs referencing their grandparents or other relatives, or other genuine thank-you messages to the Cubs. But the moment focused on the unified voice. “Go, Cubs, Go,” written by Steve Goodman in 1984, sounds just like slick guitar-based Chicago blues in 1984. Yet when thousands of people sing it together, drowning out the relatively peppy music, it becomes beautifully melancholy, fading into the night as if the result was always predetermined.

Those faces, even the fresh ones, are weathered, the wrinkles showing decades of worry, frustration and, sometimes, acceptance. And everyone is holding onto someone else. Brothers and sisters arm in arm. Fathers and mothers holding tight to their children. Lifelong friends tearing up at the sight of October baseball in Wrigley Field, a reality that for lifetimes seemed completely impossible. It makes perfect sense to harbor doubt.

I couldn’t help but remember 2008 when watching those fans. It’s hard not to.

***

We experienced a singular moment of elation on Sept. 30, 2007, as the Phillies emerged above the panting Mets in the final moments of the regular season. For once, everything went our way for a day. The Mets fell early. The Phillies scored early. Jimmy Rollins cemented his case for the Most Valuable Player award. The game closed with a window-shattering strikeout.

Days later nothing went our way. The Phillies quickly fell behind the Colorado Rockies and never had a chance. The Rockies continued onto the World Series, where they fell to the Boston Red Sox, the same team that once was considered the cursed, the unable. For Phillies fans, the day of championship glory still seemed so far away.

My frustration came out during the NBA Finals, oddly enough. I love basketball almost as much as baseball, and back in 2008 I watched every game of that year’s finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. Off the heels of a Red Sox championship and a New England Patriots Super Bowl appearance, I watched the Celtics take down the Lakers. “Anything is possible!” screamed Kevin Garnett, and the only thing I could do was cry.

Three years earlier, watching drunk college kids and other Red Sox fans hustle to Kenmore Square to celebrate the team’s first world championship in 86 years, I was standing around with a good friend of mine from the Philadelphia area. Handing out red cups of champagne to kids, we sighed and thought that, maybe, at some time in the near future, we would be the elated. Maybe we would have a Phillies championship to celebrate one day. I was born in 1984; I didn’t know what it meant. I had 1993, but I knew before that game six ended what would happen. Like the sad tail of the “Go, Cubs, Go” chorus, there was a predetermined result for our Phillies. Even the most charmed season of all would end with a nine-year-old’s thud against a salty pillow.

So maybe we’d have our day. But we couldn’t bet on it. Not in a million years.

Since that moment I had watched Boston inexplicably turn into a city of champions. And as Garnett audaciously screamed “Anything is possible!” as if his team wasn’t put together in two days through a collection of major trades, I couldn’t take it. Screw you, Garnett. Screw you, Boston. When is my day? When do I know what it feels like? Will I ever?

***

Here’s what 2008 was. Starting when Ryan Howard hit a mammoth eighth-inning home run to steal a lead from Atlanta and put the Phillies up a half-game in the division, we got moment after moment after moment. Brad Lidge’s perfect season closing out with an impossible double play. Brett Myers’ walk and Shane Victorino’s grand slam. Pat Burrell’s two home runs in the clincher. Chase Utley’s big home run in game one of the NLCS. Victorino’s game-tying blast and Matt Stairs’ go-ahead blast in game four. Utley’s home run to kick off the World Series. Carlos Ruiz’s game-three winning squib hit. Utley and Howard going back-to-back in game four, and Joe Blanton’s unlikely home run. Utley’s defensive gem in game five. Pat Burrell’s herculean double and Pedro Feliz’s game-winning hit. The final strike.

I remember where I was for every single one of those moments. I know who was with me, what I was wearing, and how I reacted. We were spoiled in 2008. I don’t remember feeling relatively worried that entire postseason, since the Phils took quick leads in the NLDS and NLCS, and stole the first game of the World Series on the road. They went 11-3 in the postseason and never faced elimination. Spoiled? Yeah.

I was actually more worried the next year, precisely during and after game two of the 2009 NLCS, when old friend Vicente Padilla outdueled Pedro Martinez at Dodger Stadium. But then the Phils returned home and wiped Los Angeles 11-0. I was slightly less worried toward the end of game four – more reserved than anything – and even still Rollins ended that in arguably the biggest moment of his career.

The point is: We were lucky. God we were lucky. We got the perfect postseason: a flood of big moments, a few star-making performances, and absolutely none of the bite-your-nails-until-they-bleed evenings that seem to have peppered the postseason landscape over the past many years.

Once in awhile I revisit those moments, through whatever video remains, through my old writing from that period. And nothing beats remembering where I stood, what I wore, and who I was with. Nothing beats watching game four of that 2008 World Series with my dad, cheering for every home run, knowing that with each passing inning it was becoming more certain that, yes, this was going to happen. And few things compare to standing in the upper deck while screaming at C.C. Sabathia, then completely blowing my voice after Victorino struck the giant blow that made us believe this could be the year.

That’s why I smile at those Cubs fans, shaking nervously, smiling through their drunken, weary renditions of “Go, Cubs, Go.” That was me.

***

It’s possible that it all ends tonight in Cleveland, and the fans there are just as worthy of winning a baseball championship. It’s been far too long for Indians fans, and they’ve suffered enough. While visiting Progressive Field in 2011, as the Indians streaked out to the best record in the American League, one Indians fan convinced me that this team seemed different. They weren’t, though the pieces were beginning to form.

This fan was bleeding to be optimistic about anything. At the time LeBron James had just left the city for South Beach, and my interview subject happily described to me how he destroyed his old LeBron jersey in a bonfire. And the Browns? Forget it. Cleveland was going nowhere and had lost its native son.

That was five years ago. That’s it. Things change quickly.

Again, back to my friend and I on the night of the Red Sox 2004 championship. We hungered for a Philadelphia championship and harbored quite a lot of doubt. Just four years later, we’d know the feeling.

So it’s possible that this is the end for Cubs fans this year. Regardless of the outcome, they’ll be the odds-on favorite to win next year as the offseason opens. There’s still hope in Wrigleyville, still reason to blast “Go, Cubs, Go” and fill up the park and carry on despite every damn loss.

Because when it happens – and it will happen – they’ll know it. The moments will pile up like they did for us. They’ll get lucky a few times. Standout performers will emerge from undiscovered caves. It’ll feel like one big party is swelling around you, and you don’t want to acknowledge it for fear of letting it down, but even if you did, it won’t matter because it’s bigger than you, bigger than the movement, bigger than any silly curse. When it is your time, it really is your time, and it’s beautiful and magical and you won’t forget any of it.

Until then, whether you’re a Cubs fan or Indians fan, hold onto your brother and sister. Kiss your children. Keep praying for your grandparents. What matters the most in October, when the cold rushes through the power alleys and wants to beat you down, is that you’re around thousands of people just like you, who want the happiness you seek, who are there to connect with, to share the memory with. It’s makes perfect sense to harbor doubt, but it lessens the blow when there are beating hearts surrounding you.

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