I’ve told this story enough times that people get tired of hearing it. But let me tell it once more.
Last Labor Day weekend my wife and daughter packed up and traveled to Texas to visit family. Those long weekend trips permit me an opportunity to get a lot of work finished without interruption, and to defragment myself, because I didn’t understand the point of that until I became a parent. My goodness, defragmentation is good.
I had plans, once I finished working, to literally sit around the house and drink wine. Maybe I’d play a video game. Maybe I’d read a book. But I had no plans, no cares, no need to leave the house- wait, that’s right, the Phillies are at Citi Field this weekend, aren’t they?
I live in Westchester County, New York, a short drive or moderate train ride to Citi Field. Remembering that the Phils – at the time 32 games under .500 – were nearby, and I that had the ability to freely watch this game live, brought me to the logical conclusion that would end my defragmentation: Go to Flushing, Tim.
The Phillies lost the game. But it was warm, and I drank beer, and I watched baseball while unwittingly being the backdrop of a Murph stand-up. And in the ninth, with the Phils down 11-5, an usher allowed me to sit in the lower bowl and take in the final half-inning.
I watched the Phils mount a small rally, which included the return of Odubel Herrera after a disabled list stint. He promptly worked a nine-pitch at bat and singled home a run. Mets fans seemed unhappy, in part because they were leaking oil, but also because this game just wouldn’t end. But I cheered; moreover, I found myself in a zen-like state in which no outcome mattered. Wins and losses meant nothing because I was enjoying myself. The Phillies, despite being 32 games under .500, were fun. And as Rhys Hoskins’ big fly ball fell just short of making it a two-run game, I left Citi Field smiling because I knew times were changing.
That evening J.P. Crawford was promoted to Philadelphia, and the next day the Phils throttled the Mets, 9-1. They’d finish the year going 14-11, which is nice but doesn’t tell the whole story. Hoskins became a story. A slew of young talent didn’t stumble all over the place. Everyone else either took a step forward or at least stayed healthy. And in the offseason Matt Klentak and the front office changed the roster by removing Tommy Joseph, Freddy Galvis and Cameron Rupp and adding Carlos Santana, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Jake Arrieta and Scott Kingery. A team that won 66 games last year (and probably was more like a 70-win team) suddenly looks like an 81-win team or better.
Meanwhile, don’t look now, but the national crowd is catching up. ESPN opened with the Phillies ranked 16th. The Ringer has them 14th. And according to Fangraphs writers, the Phils are the sixth-most-likely National League team to make the playoffs. Seriously.
One might say the Phils are the trendy team this year, the team the media jumps on just before the season begins so that, if it wins, those folks can go back and say “See! Told you so! I saw them when they were under .500!” That team almost never does well in reality, so there’s reason to worry if that’s the stance we’re taking. But I don’t think it’s really that true – I don’t see the Phillies as the trendy team. I see them as the fun team.
Yup. We’re now about to start the Year of Fun. It’s a year of under-30 talent rising and falling with the day. We’ll see ridiculous hot streaks, agonizing cold spells and plenty of stuff in between, but it’ll all be exciting. Crawford throwing himself at balls like a tarp, then shooting lasers to Santana that barely beat poor Atlanta runners to first. Franco swinging so hard it makes us slump out of our chairs and flop on the hardwood like a fish, but then the next time up he connects and it’s glorious, and we stand and say “YES. MAYBE FINALLY HE’S TURNING IT AROUND.”
Imagine Vince Velasquez getting a couple quick fly outs early in a start against Miami. Imagine his confidence rising like the mercury on a bakery fresh August afternoon at Citizens Bank Park. Imagine drawing your legs across the chair in front of you as Velasquez beams a 97-mph fastball past Derek Dietrich. Seven innings, nine strikeouts, four ta’ nuttin’ Phils.
The Phanatic’s birthday celebration is April 29. There’s close to 40,000 in the stands for the first time in forever, and the kids are hooting and wearing bucket hats and shirseys that say CRAWFORD 2 and KINGERY 4. And the Phillies are 18-9. Rhys Hoskins slams a home run early, while Jorge Alfaro lashes a double down the line to put the game away. We’re giddy. We drink an extra beer that afternoon – it’s cold and crisp and reminds us that summer isn’t very far away, and this team we love wants to desperately be a part of it in every way.
How about Hoby Milner trying to strike out Bryce Harper? Or Aaron Nola putting in work against the tough Nationals lineup later in the summer? How about Hector Neris taking a massive, deep breath as a sell-out crowd rings a roar around the park in late June. The Phils have somehow survived a brutal stretch of contests and find themselves in a tussle near the top of the NL East. Neris checks the runner and throws a fat splitter that causes Adam Eaton to swing long and unsuccessfully. Game over, Phils win six ta five and are just three back ada Nationals in National League East.
Imagine the Mets games.
The Mets are probably going to be hanging with the Phils much of the year. Maybe a few games better, possibly a few games worse. There’s too much noise – these teams are going to be throwing down. What about when Aaron Altherr lifts a 3-2 Syndegaard fastball into the Citi Field seats? Or when Carlos Santana takes Jeurys Familia yard to walk it off in August, keeping the Phils within spittin’ distance of a wild card? Or when the world watches Scott Kingery leg out a go-ahead triple in Williamsport on August 19?
Get ready to throw it down with those Mets fans once again. Get ready for taunts, good-natured arguments and plenty of rolled eyes. Get ready for someone to blow a save, but then for someone to get right back up and take one to Utley’s Corner. Get ready to want to beat the snot outta the Mets and get above them in the standings. Because if they do? Maybe that’s a wild card berth.
The possibilities are many. We could see a team that doesn’t quite have it, or we could see something we haven’t seen in seven years. We could be clamoring for tickets to a midweek September game against the Nationals. We could be working out scenarios in our head with a week left to play. As the great Hall and Oates once said: How does it feel to be back?
One thing we know is this is going to be fun. We suffered years of flaccid and agonizing baseball without even a semblance of hope. We saw Peter Bourjous and Cedric Hunter share an outfield. We watched inning after inning of Taylor Featherston and Tony Gwynn Jr. We had to watch both Ty Kelly and Ty Wigginton. And with every single pitcher who came and went, from A.J. Burnett to David Buchanan, and from Jerome Williams to Jeremy Hellickson, we waited for something to work. We screamed for trades to deliver prospects. We patiently waited for young talent to reach the majors. We grew to accept Pete Mackanin, because holy hell do we have to remember Ryne Sandberg? Do we have to remember Jeff Francoeur pitching two innings while McClure literally waived a white flag?
No more of that crap. This is the Year of Fun. This is when fresh-faced kids who are definitely younger than me do impossibly awesome things. This is when our kids start finding their favorite players. This is when the ballpark smells crisp and the beer goes down smooth. This is when we laugh a little more, smile a little more, and damnit, we’re gonna be biting our nails a little, shaking a little, and screaming more than we have in years. We’re back. The Phillies are back.
Who knows if this really is a wild card team. Who knows how far this team might go. But as these days grow longer and the anticipation swells, what I feel most of all is pure hope. I haven’t felt this way about the Phillies since almost 10 years ago. It’s felt like an eternity since I’ve been this excited for baseball not just to begin, but for it to continue well past the day when we’re all without a loss. Last year, and the year before that, and years before that I was already slumping in my seat by April 10. Now I can’t wait to see May 10, June 10 and July 10. I can’t wait to smell the air at that ballpark air and taste that cold beer. I can’t wait to cheer with my daughter and sneak in as many games as possible during trips and while working. I’m absolutely brimming with hope for these 2018 Phillies.
Welcome to the Year of Fun. Join me. It’s going to be one heck of a ride.