After so many years of disappointment, Robert Steven Williams isn’t sure how to feel as his team heads into the 2011 season as World Series favorites.
With spring training in full gear and the Phillies as the frontrunners for the 2011 World Series, I find myself in an unusual position as a die-hard Philadelphia sports fan. With possibly the best starting rotation of all time, the Phillies are poised to make history. But as a long-suffering fan of this city, I’m already fretting over injury and whether the loss of Jayson Werth will come back to bite us.
Until the 2008 World Series victory, Philadelphia had gone the longest without a championship of any city represented by all four major sports. Yes, Cubs fans still wait, but Chicago had the Michael Jordan years and that ’85 Bears team. We went a quarter-century without a single championship.
Most years the baseball salary structure ensured that my team had no chance. By mid-summer, exhibition football was more compelling than watching my beloved Phillies. And yet in ’93 they caught fire at the right time and beat Atlanta for the pennant.
This last-to-first team had a lovable ragtag collection of renegades like John Kruk and Mitch Williams. They lost to Toronto, but nobody had expected them to come close to making the playoffs, let alone the World Series.
Fortunately, I was too young to have witnessed the collapse of ’64, when the Phillies blew a six-and-a-half-game lead with 12 to go. I became a fan in ’68 when I attended my first game at Connie Mack Stadium. I can still remember the sound of the ball leaving Dick Allen’s bat. Whack—he hit it so hard the ball went over the left-field roof.
But in 1970 Dick demanded to be traded and so began my heartbreak with this team.
There was a brief run in the late ’70s, but I was living in California at the time and, without ESPN or the Internet, I struggled to follow along.
When we finally won in 1980, I treasured that copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer my dad sent me.
I adopted the Internet early on because it made it easier to follow my teams. But when Curt Schilling left the Phillies in 2000 and went on to win in Arizona, I was devastated. My stomach still turns when I see Scott Rolen come to the plate. He demanded a trade in ’02 and left mid-season, claiming the Phillies would never win. Those were dark days indeed.
At that time I was living in Connecticut. I had Red Sox fans to the north, Mets and Yankee fans to the south. Until the Sox won in ’04, I understood their pain, but Boston still had all those Patriot Super Bowls and would soon beat the Eagles for a third in four years.
Unless you live in New York, you can’t appreciate the intensity of the Mets-Yankees competition. Mets fans have a massive inferiority complex, and Yankee fans are arrogant because they know each year they’ll field a team that’s got a legitimate shot at a championship.
The Mets and Phillies were rarely good at the same time, so there was no real rivalry until the Mets overpaid for Billy Wagner in 2006. The Phillies offered their closer a fair contract, but the Mets were all about beating the Yankees—intent on getting Wagner at any price.
In ’07, plenty of experts picked the Mets to win the National League and that summer the Phils lost their 10,000th game, the most of any professional franchise. Boy, did I hear it from all sides. Met, Yankee, and Red Sox fans hammered me.
But that September, it all started to change. With just 17 games to go and a seven-and-a-half-game lead over the Phillies, the Mets looked poised to win it all. Despite what became an unprecedented Mets failure, the Phillies still had to go 13-4 through that same stretch to take the division. A double whammy: the Phils made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years and the Mets eclipsed the Phils’ ’64 collapse.
In ’08, the year the Phillies won it all, everyone still picked the Mets to win the division that spring.
In ’09, many experts believed the Mets would take back the division, but the Phils returned to the World Series and could’ve made history with back-to-back championships, but they lost out to the best team money could buy, the New York Yankees. (I promise, I’m not bitter.)
When the Phillies picked up Halladay before the 2010 season, much to the chagrin of Yankees fans, the Phillies were favorites to win the National League, but the Yanks were still favored to win it all. Injuries plagued the Phils all year. Despite the mid-season pick up of Roy Oswalt and a September surge, they ran into a red-hot Giants squad that went on to win it all. Ironically, the Yankees fell short too.
This off-season it was hard to kick my Mets friends since they’ve fallen so far, so fast. But I had no issue rubbing it in with my pals in the Bronx when Cliff Lee turned down all that Yankees money to come to Philly. I have no doubt the Bombers have the experience and the wallet to make a great run this year, but first they’ll have to get by a retooled Red Sox team that looks promising.
And so I stand at the precipice of what could be an epic Philadelphia Phillies season. They’ve spent with the big boys and won’t have any excuses if they falter. Will this squad rise to its potential and establish itself as one of the all-time great teams? Or will it find a way to disappoint as so many Philly squads have over the years?
Dick Allen summed up the way most players felt about my town. “I can play anywhere—first, third, left field, anywhere but Philadelphia.” Those days appear long gone.
Just ask Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Hamels.
—Photo AP/Eric Gay