Rhys Hoskins stands in with a 3-1 count. Pedro Baez fixes himself and readies what could be a decisive pitch for him, for Hoskins, for the Dodgers, the Phillies and, 200 miles away from Citizens Bank Park, my sanity.
“My heart’s really pumping …” I say with a tinge of surprise while holding my tablet. My wife chuckles.
A strike taken. I exhale. My heart continues to throb.
It’s September 19. The Phillies are in baseball’s basement, currently the second-worst team in the game, and they’re playing a team with 96 wins, the best in baseball. This game, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t matter at all. Sure a loss could help the Phils get closer to the first pick in the 2018 First-Year Player Draft, and sure a win could help the Dodgers get closer to clinching the National League West division, but no, this doesn’t matter. From a distance, there’s no reason for my heart to be pumping any harder than usual. But I’m a Philadelphia sports fan. I’m a Phillies fan. This was totally different.
If there’s anything you can say about Phillies fans these days, it’s that we’re patient. And if there’s anything you can say about Philadelphia sports fans, it’s that we’re so patient that it borders on miraculous. We’re told every year that the Eagles are this close to being a real contender; meanwhile, the Patriots continue to wipe up the league from a million miles away, and we watch the Cowboys become instant darlings right down the block. It’s slightly worse than being told every year that the Flyers are a Class-A hockey organization, when – show of hands – how many of you were alive when that organization last won a championship? Then there’s the other half of me, the pure-blooded Sixers fanatic who jumped on the Hinkie train early and never looked back. We’re so close we can … well, look, building a champion in the National Basketball Association does take time. And so we trust.
The Phillies are about as far as the Sixers from winning the ultimate game. Though there’s nothing in sports quite like the Process and everything it birthed, the Phillies are playing a long game that’s nearly as taxing to endure. We watched in 2012 as a veteran team with injury problems limped to .500. We sighed deeply in 2013 as Charlie Manuel walked away from us with his Wawa bag and Delmon Young, Kevin Fransden and John Lannan filled our summer days. In 2014 we saw hope dash with Domonic Brown’s poor play, Cody Asche’s steady nothingness and Sean O’Sullivan’s penchant for giving up all the home runs. We hit rock bottom in 2015, found new life with Pete Mackanin, Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak, and began putting all our hopes and dreams on names like Maikel, Aaron, Jerad, Jorge, Jake, Nick, J.P. and Vince.
Last year was a slog. It had moments, and sure we unearthed some gems in Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera, but nothing really happened. Maikel faltered. Aaron broke. Jerad was just Jerad. Jorge barely showed. Jake, too. Nick never came. J.P. never came. And Vince never grew. We had to wait another year, but what the heck was another year going to do?
It’s September 19. Jorge is on third base, a victim of a far-too-inside fastball. Cesar walked – he does that a lot – so he stands on first. And Odubel is on first because he took an extremely and beautifully long time, drawing out Baez into a four-pitch walk. Odubel clapped and celebrated after the fourth ball. It was peak Odubel. That walk brought home J.P., who hit his first career triple and started this whole thing. All of this was happening, and there at the plate was the unexpected star we weren’t pinning our hopes on two years before: Rhys. Taking walks and clouting balls into the seats, Rhys had taken the city by storm, and here he was, standing in the spotlight in the seventh inning of a 2-2 tie. He had a full count, a pitcher doing everything to ensure each new pitch was the last he would throw, and he was probably the most comfortable person in the ballpark.
“Oh man, come on Rhys, come on.” My wife watches the tablet with me and mutes the television. He fouls off pitch after pitch, wasting Baez’s attempts at finally putting this to bed, but also getting closer and ever closer to striking that ball head on. I’m waiting for something. I know something will happen.
That’s something I haven’t felt in years.
Remember Ryan Howard? No, not the guy who limped in the 2011 NLDS. And not the guy who struck out far too much after that heartbreaking moment. I’m talking about the guy who swept us away with every blast he struck. I’m talking about the guy that had us in hysterics because once he connected with a pitch, that ball would sail farther and higher than any ball we could dream of hitting. I’m talking about Game 4 of the 2009 NLDS: “Get me to the plate, boys,” and the certainty of that entire plate appearance. I knew, you knew, he knew and we all knew he’d deliver. For years, Ryan Howard was certainty. For years, Ryan Howard seized our bottle of anticipation – all shaken up by Jimmy Rollins’ singles through the hole, Shane Victorino’s swift slides, Chase Utley’s perfectly placed liners and Jayson Werth’s marathon walks – and in one clout, opened that bottle and created an explosion unlike anything we ever experienced. That’s what brought everyone to the park. That’s what made them king. That’s what we hope to get one day again.
Well, it happened again.
Another 3-2 pitch. I wait for the one just low enough, the one he can drive, maybe out of the park but at least into the outfield. And he gets it, a fastball down in the zone, perfectly placed for his bat head. The ball screams into left-center and bounces to the wall. A game-breaking double. Everyone scores. I pump my fist, jump up and down and scream like it was 2009 all over again. Or 2008. Or 2007 or 2006. We’re close. We’re not there yet, but we’re close, closer than we thought. We need pitching. We need reinforcements. We need to see them develop. But we’re close.
I have to stay patient, and we should, because 2018 shouldn’t be a time for high expectations. Let’s be real, let’s focus, and let’s remember trust. But on September 19, in a game that really didn’t matter, everything seemed to matter for the past, present and future.
I’m getting my heart ready.