On May 31, 1983, the Philadelphia 76ers won the NBA championship. Philadelphia was in a period of great sports success: the 76ers had reached the NBA Finals three times in the previous six years before winning in 1983; the Phillies won five division championships in eight years, a pair of National League pennants, and the 1980 World Series; the Eagles reached the Super Bowl for the first time in January of 1981; and the Flyers had won a pair of Stanley Cups in the mid-70s before making multiple finals appearances over the next decade-plus.
That was May. Four months later, in October, I was born. For 25 years, and a hundred combined seasons, none of Philadelphia’s four major sports teams won a championship. For a while, I wasn’t sure those two events weren’t connected.
Five years ago tonight, that changed. In the years to come, hundreds of thousands of people will talk about that night, claiming to have been at Citizens Bank Park the night the Phillies won the World Series. Only 45,940 of them will be telling the truth.
I’m one of them.
* * *
Looking back, it still seems unfathomable that the Phillies were, for half a decade, the cream of the baseball crop. Five consecutive division titles. The best record in baseball two years in a row. Two straight National League championships. A World Series title. Considering how bad things had been in the past, it’s still preposterous to think about.
My sister had “won the lottery,” so to speak, and had her name pulled from the proverbial hat to purchase ticket for the second home game of the Division Series in 2008. And so there we were as C.C. Sabathia melted down and gave up a grand slam to Shane Victorino in Game 2. The Phillies took a 2-0 lead in the series that night, and had a chance to sweep the Brewers on my 25th birthday. Of course, in a postseason where they only lost three games, one of them came on my birthday. But the next day, with me at work and unable to watch, they finished the job and moved on to the NLCS a year after getting swept in the first round.
The 2008 NLCS was the first of two in a row between the Phillies and Dodgers. With the Phillies leading two games to one, but with the Dodgers on top late in Game 4 in Los Angeles, Victorino tied the game in the eighth inning with a two-run home run before Matt Stairs tagged Jonathan Broxton for another two-run shot three batters later to put the Phillies on top for good. Incidentally, Broxton would again give up the winning hit in Game 4 of the NLCS one year later, this time a double to Jimmy Rollins in Philadelphia. Both hits sealed the Dodgers’ fate, as in both cases the Phillies cruised to a series victory in Game 5.
I remember being nervous and excited and feeling like a little kid on the first day of the World Series, but everything went away in the first inning when Chase Utley hit a two-run home run to give the Phillies an early lead. They went on to beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 3-2, for a 1-0 series lead.
They lost Game 2 when their inability to hit with runners in scoring position – a problem that still plagues the franchise five years later – reared its ugly head. I remember being worried at work the next day until one of my coworkers pointed out that the loss guaranteed a Game 5, which was a good thing for me. That was because my family had once again lucked out in the ticket drawing; we were selected for the opportunity to purchase tickets for a game, and it happened to be Game 5.
The Phillies won Game 3 on a walk-off infield single, the first in World Series history. The next night (actually, due to rain delaying the start of Game 3, it was technically later the same day), the Phillies jumped out to an early lead, and while Tampa Bay answered, Joe Blanton hit the first home run by a pitcher in a World Series game since 1974 to keep the Rays at bay. In the eighth inning, Jayson Werth and Ryan Howard added a pair of two-run home runs to give the home team a 10-2 win and a 3-1 series lead.
As I watched Werth pump his fist as he rounded the bases, I had a feeling that would encompass me and everything around me for three days. It was a combination of excitement, nervousness, wonder, and dread: after all this time, my favorite team was one win away from a championship. And I might get to see it in person.
* * *
Rain was in the forecast for Monday, October 27, 2008, but by game time, it was just drizzling. And cold. Oh, it was so cold.
I made sure we arrived plenty early; my mother had recently had foot surgery, so she had a temporary handicapped parking placard, which meant we were parked very close to the stadium. This was nice getting into the game; leaving, however, was often tough.
I wasn’t thinking about that, however. I wanted to make sure I took it all in before the game started, so before I went to my seat – Section 305, Row 2, Seat 13 – I took a walk around the ballpark. The buzz was palpable. Everyone was ready.
So were the Phillies. For the fourth time in five games, they scored in the first inning as Victorino’s two-out single scored Werth and Utley to give the Phillies a 2-0 lead.
Tampa Bay cut it to 2-1 in fourth before tying it in the top of the sixth inning. By then, puddles were forming on the infield, and the umpires took the players off the field. Soon after, the announcement came down – Game 5 was suspended. It would resume when conditions were deemed “appropriate.”
Remember that dread I’d been feeling, along with those other things? It took over right around then. Cole Hamels had been dominating throughout the postseason, but had just given up the tying run and after six innings on a cold, rainy night, was probably done. With the team on the cusp of glory, now the game itself was done for an indeterminate amount of time. Why was everyone and everything conspiring against the us? Against me? Why couldn’t they just let us have this?
Of course they weren’t going to win that night. Not with me there. They would probably lose the next two games, too. It was the only thing that made sense. God, sports, and Mother Nature were joining forces to finish me off for good.
The next day was dark and dreary and filled with more rain. No baseball, just agony.
Finally, by Wednesday, things had cleared up. It had been announced the day before that Game 5 would resume in the bottom of the sixth inning at 8:00 p.m. We once again arrived plenty early, and I once again took a walk around the park before play resumed, but my feeling of nervous excitement was replaced with nervous sickness. And, once again, freezing cold.
And once again, the home nine came out of the gate right away, allaying those fears after three batters. Geoff Jenkins led off the resumption of play with a pinch-hit double, and Werth singled him in two batters later. Unfortunately, Rocco Baldelli homered for the Rays in the top half of the seventh to tie things up again. Of course.
Pat Burrell led off the bottom of the seventh for the Phillies. Burrell had always been a lightning rod for criticism in Philadelphia; while no doubt a very productive player, he seemed to have a penchant for striking out – usually looking – in big spots. But as his career began to wind down, he became more of a fan favorite. I had always liked Burrell; I appreciated his production, and always liked players that I felt people unfairly maligned. My mother really liked him. When people said mean things about him, I think it actually hurt her.
Burrell had a terrible World Series. He was 0-for-13, and if it’s possible to look even worse than that, he did. It was the final year of his contract, and it was kind of an unspoken understanding that these were his last games in a Phillies uniform. The Phillies knew. He knew. We all knew.
So when Burrell stepped to the plate, with no hits in his last 13 at bats, in what we all knew was his final game in this ballpark in this uniform, it occurred to me that this might be his last at bat as a Phillie. It was late in the game; ideally, they would take the lead and not bat in the ninth, so time was running out.
With the count at 1-1, J.P. Howell hung a curveball. Burrell did not miss. Up and out it went, deep to left center field…and it hit the top of the highest wall in the park.
As was customary late in games, due to his history of foot injuries, Burrell was lifted for a pinch-runner; in this case, Eric Bruntlett. Burrell received the standard ovation, but because of the stakes, we kind of hoped it was a goodbye.
Two batters later, Pedro Feliz, brought to town more for his glove than his bat, singled home Bruntlett for a 4-3 lead.
The game moved to the top of the ninth. Brad Lidge had converted all 41 of his save opportunities during the season – his only loss coming in the All-Star Game – and was six-for-six in the playoffs, and he came on to cap off his perfect season with a World Series title.
He didn’t make it easy. After a one-out single by Dioner Navarro, pinch runner Fernando Perez stole second base. Ben Zobrist then hit a sinking line drive to right field. Our seats were in right field, and for a second, we didn’t know if Werth had caught it.
He did. I think I threw up in my mouth a little bit. Two outs.
Eric Hinske came to the plate. A power threat from the left side of the plate, he was up there looking to put Tampa Bay on top.
I kept staring at Perez on second base. A ground ball through the infield and the game was tied. That’s all it took.
God, that guy is fast. Look how easily he stole that base! Lidge puts a lot of two-strike sliders into the dirt; Christ, if he does it again and he gets to third? Oh man. Ohhhh man.
Slider. Swung on. Missed. Strike three.
Screams. Dogpile. Hugs. Kisses. Joy. Pure, unadulterated joy.
* * *
You always hear people say that the happiest moment of their lives is when their child is born. Maybe it’s true, but I often wonder if some people are saying that just because it’s the answer they think they’re supposed to give.
Regardless, if I ever have a child, that kid is going to be hard-pressed to top that moment.
I was only 25, but with the Eagles being on the doorstep for half a decade and never winning the Super Bowl, and the Phillies building up to success but not quite reaching it, and the Flyers choking in so many playoff series, and the Sixers being so uninspiring, I had had more than my share of sports suffering. I was battered, nearly beaten; losing this Series after that rain delay with me in the building would have destroyed me. I don’t think I would have ever bounced back.
It’s ironic that the Phillies ended the city’s drought in a game delayed two days by too much rain, but no matter how they’d done it, they’d done it. Obviously, I will never forget that run, or that night. To be there, in person, to see it…to have the moment be shared with thousands of people and yet be so intimately personal…to remember it through my own eyes and words, and not through the call of an announcer…I mean, I’ve spent two thousand words trying, but I can’t describe it. As important as sports are to me, it’s not a stretch to say it changed my life.
No longer was I a long-suffering fan. I was a fan of a champion. I don’t like to use personal pronouns to describe the teams I root for, but in this instance, it was acceptable: we won. The Phillies, the city, the suburbs, the people.
We were the champions.
It’s been a long five years, but it also went by in a flash. Sure, the past couple baseball seasons have been disappointing, but I’d like to think that I have some perspective. We were spoiled for a while there; never more so than on October 29, 2008: a bitterly cold night that will warm our hearts forever.