Certain games and specific events stick out to hardcore fans, no matter how many years have passed. That’s just what happens when someone devotes so much of his or her time to a team. The players start to feel like members of the extended family and their great memories become ours as well. I couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner last Thursday, but I know exactly what I did on September 22, 2005: I fell in baseball love with Shane Victorino.
The Phillies were five games behind the Braves in the NL East with only 10-11 games left, but remained legitimate contenders for the wild card berth. They were set to play the final game of a crucial late-season series with those Braves, and after splitting the first two contests, were sending ace Jon Lieber to the hill. The Braves countered with Tim Hudson, who was in his first year with the team. It was one of the most important games of the season for the Phillies, and a clear must-win.
The game was scoreless through eight innings. Lieber was on and Hudson wasn’t far off of that. However, Hudson started to falter in the top of the ninth. He walked Bobby Abreu on four pitches. Two batters later, he gave up a single to then-rookie Ryan Howard. First and second, one out, 0-0 game. Michael Tucker (!) singled Abreu in and the Phillies had finally broken through. Billy Wagner quickly started warming up to get ready for the save situation.
With Wagner getting ready to enter, Charlie Manuel pulled Lieber and decided to instead pinch-hit with Victorino, a September call-up. The Phillies had selected him in the Rule V draft prior to the season and he absolutely tore up the International League, winning the Triple-A MVP award. Over 126 games with Scranton, Victorino hit .310/.377/.534, with 18 home runs and 17 stolen bases. He had nothing left to prove and deserved the call-up. He would soon prove he deserved this pinch-hitting opportunity as well.
He had only logged about 10-12 big league plate appearances to that point, but he was energetic, legitimately looked like he had a blast playing, and seemed to cover the plate well. Pinch-hitting with him in that spot was questionable, as this was a must-win game for the Phillies to seriously remain in contention, and a one-run lead, even with Billy Wagner, wasn’t exactly safe against those Braves. Four pitches later, doubts were erased, and Victorino was well on his way towards becoming one of my favorite players.
I can still recall his three-run shot off of Hudson vividly, as if it happened yesterday. This was one of those specific moments, one of those certain games that I’ll forever remember, no matter how many other Victorino homers or Phillies victories have since occurred. He put his patented left-handed slap swing on the ball, with that hesitation at the top, the quick strike through the zone, and the almost startled look that he could actually hit a baseball that far.
He rounded the bases swiftly, giving a quick fist pump but doing what he could to avoid showing up the opposition. It was his first major league home run, and it put the game away. The Phillies won, 4-0, and while they didn’t make the playoffs that season, they had found their center fielder, a Rule V selection that they literally couldn’t give back to the Dodgers for free.
Fast-forward to April 9, 2006, and I was at a game with my father against the Dodgers. Victorino was starting in center and I was sporting my new custom-made shirsey. He was so new that his merchandise wasn’t yet available in the team store. It felt cool wearing that, like listening to a band that eventually becomes popular before many have heard of them. In the fourth inning, he gunned a runner out at the plate and everyone in my section started patting my back, as if Victorino was my guy.
After the play, you could almost hear everyone in the crowd become a fan of his. Maybe they didn’t know where he came from, if he had a prospect pedigree, what his strengths and weaknesses were, but he had a magnetic personality, played hard and played well. He won me over with the home run against Hudson in that crucial game. I think he started to win thousands more fans over with that throw to home plate in the fourth inning.
Those are two of my personal favorite Victorino moments, but there are just so many others. The walkoff home run on his own bobblehead day in 2007, against the Giants. The throw home in extra innings against the Braves in June 2008 that kept Brad Lidge‘s perfect season alive. The grand slam off of C.C. Sabathia in the 2008 NLDS. The Hiroki Kuroda “not at my head bro” incident one playoff series later. The line drive home run that just barely cleared the right field wall off of Cory Wade a few days later — which tied the game at 5-5, setting the stage for a famous Matt Stairs home run.
Getting ejected while playing center field for arguing balls and strikes, and running in incredulously, arms in the air. The reaction after having a beer tossed on him at Wrigley Field. The scrap with backup awful player catcher Eli Whiteside. The hilarious defensive miscues — which we can grant him because he played center field so well most of the time — including the time he somehow threw the ball behind him. His tremendous charity work with the Nicetown Boys and Girls Foundation.
The list goes on and on. He was a full-time regular with the Phillies from 2006-11, and an effective starter up until his trade on Tuesday. He averaged 4 WAR/season with the Phillies and, aside from the numbers, will undoubtedly go down as one of the best personalities in the history of Philadelphia sports. I’ve always said the toughest part of this extended run of success will be saying goodbye to the players that helped make it happen when they get traded or reach free agency, and it’s especially true here.
When Bobby Abreu was traded, it felt to me like he was on loan to the Yankees for the rest of that year. He was still a Phillies player, just being used by a different team. The next year he felt more like a distant cousin you rarely saw. A year later, he was officially no longer a Phillie in my head, as the statute had expired. The same will probably be true of Victorino. Though he’ll play the rest of the season with the Dodgers, it’ll feel like he’s a Phillies player who took a California vacation. He’ll sign somewhere else next season, get massive ovations when he returns, and then slowly and surely start to feel like a friend we’ve drifted away from.
But when his career ends, no matter which team he plays for, he will retire a Phillie. I knew a deal was likely, and was somewhat onboard with the prospect of trading him. I figured he would sign elsewhere after the season as well. Despite knowing and feeling all of these things, Tuesday’s deal still managed to catch me a bit off-guard.
And despite knowing and feeling all of these things, it’s still very difficult to say goodbye to a player I had such a fan-connection with. I always love listening to my dad talk about Tony Taylor, Cookie Rojas and other personalities from his own youthful fandom, and I cannot wait to one day talk to my future children about Victorino. He is just that type of player, the kind that you can’t think or talk about without smiling.
Thanks for the memories, Shane, and best of luck in Los Angeles and wherever your career heads after this season. You will be greatly missed here as both a player and person.