Wednesday, December 3, 2008 Updated: December 8, 8:38 AM ET
The Things We Forget, Part 11: The 2008 World Series
By Chris Jones
For the author, J.P. Howell became a story of the year.
"The Things We Forget" is a chronicle of 2008 in sports. It is presented in 11 parts. This is Part 11, on the 2008 World Series. At the bottom of this piece, you can navigate to the other 10 parts.
The road ended in Philadelphia. Specifically, it ended in the bottom of the sixth inning in a cold, heavy rain.
Until the umpires waved their arms and the groundskeepers pulled a white tarp over the soggy infield, the Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays had been engaged in the least memorable World Series in recent history. Before the playoffs began, there were so many possible story lines. The Chicago Cubs could have played the Chicago White Sox; the Boston Red Sox could have played Manny Ramírez. Instead it was, Who is playing what?
Yes, the Rays had the potential to be a great story in their own right: worst to first, a fun young clubhouse led by a manager with a Mohawk. But they had been forgotten and invisible for so long, nobody could even pretend to have always loved them. And the Phillies…well, they had the misfortune of being from Philadelphia, which, in addition to being unseasonably cold and wet this fall, boasts a fan base that makes them just as impossible to love. There was an air of disbelief around the first four games, not because any of it was extraordinary, but because it seemed impossible that the last big championship of this amazing year would end on such a flat note.
Then came the fifth game, and then came the rain.
Cole Hamels pitched the Phillies to an early 2-1 lead. The fans were on their feet, waving white towels. It was cold, but the electricity of anticipation made it feel warmer than it was. The rain was light at first, looking like milk in the floodlights. The score remained the same through the top of the fifth as the game became official. The cheers grew louder, the rain grew heavier. Still they played. Somewhere below decks, commissioner Bud Selig needed the Rays to tie it up so he could suspend the game. The deep puddles on the infield reflected his dilemma. In the top of the sixth, B.J. Upton scored the tying run. Rounding third, he looked like a guy just learning how to roller-skate.
Selig called a press conference with an old rule book quivering in his hands, his vain stab at exuding authority. Someone told him to straighten his tie. "You're going on TV."
"Of all the things to worry about," he said.
The rain continued to fall, all night and into the next morning. By early Tuesday afternoon, the rest of the game, scheduled for that evening, had been postponed again. Finally, Wednesday night, exactly 46 hours after Game 5 had been suspended, the fans returned to their seats, and the players returned to their places, like actors after an intermission. There we were, right back in the middle of it. It wasn't like déjà vu. It was more like how Josh Hamilton must have felt as he walked to the plate at Yankee Stadium, knowing he was about to learn the answers to all his questions.
The Phillies scored in the bottom of the sixth, but Rocco Baldelli—who, suffering from a rare illness, had begun the year feeling as though his muscles were melting—tied the game again with a solo shot in the next inning. After the seventh-inning stretch, J.P. Howell ran to the mound for the Rays. Pat Burrell, who was 0-for-13 in the Series, dug in. Howell threw his money pitch, a curveball outside, but Burrell was ready, diving out over the plate and poking the ball to deep center. Howell turned and watched it soar through the night, bouncing maybe a foot below the top of the wall. Burrell stopped at second and was replaced by a pinch-runner named Eric Bruntlett, who soon scored what would be the winning run. After Brad Lidge struck out Eric Hinske on three pitches for the final out of the season, the Phillies piled on top of each other. It was as loud as I've ever heard a ballpark.
Out on the field, Jimmy Rollins sprayed a bottle of champagne into the surging crowd. Chase Utley handed out cigars. Jamie Moyer, 45 years old, as old as Rocco Mediate, grabbed a shovel and began to dig up the pitching rubber—an object like an iceberg, with a deep, concrete-filled tube as its anchor. A bunch of people took turns helping Moyer excavate it. Once it was free, he hoisted it on his shoulder like a log and ran with it out onto the outfield grass. There he posed for pictures with his wife and seven children. His father was there too, and Moyer turned to him and said, "Congratulations," because he knows how it feels to see a son succeed.
I asked him how he thought he would feel about that night the next day, the day after and the day after that. "The same way it feels right now," he said. "Pretty sweet."
In the Rays' clubhouse, J.P. Howell sat in his underwear at his locker, his back heaving with upset. He kept shaking his head and wiping away tears, and he stayed like that for a long time, until a reporter tapped him on the shoulder and asked if it would be all right to talk.
Howell stood up, just a skinny kid with a couple of tattoos wearing an old pair of boxers. He looked the most like me and the most like you. He turned around and swallowed. "Oh, man," he said, his eyes red and filling again. "I f—ed up."
James Shields, the pitcher who would have pitched Game 6, stood next to him. "J.P., man, go take a shower," he said.
"Take a shower?"
"Yeah. Take a shower."
"Okay," Howell said. "I'm going to take a shower."
There was something touching about the exchange, the shock of loss mixed with the bond of teammates.
"This is where we've wanted to be since we were little kids," Shields said in Howell's place. "J.P.'s upset right now, and he needs to go do his thing. But when we look back on this year, it'll be all smiles, man. All smiles."
Howell returned from his shower and pulled on a pair of jeans. The time off hadn't helped much. His eyes still betrayed him. "If I went fastball in, I could have beaten him," he said. "It's tough to have it come to an end, because this was one of the most fun years of my life. I can't be bitter, even though I am."
Then someone asked him about the Rays' famous 30-minute rule: Win or lose, 30 minutes after the game is over, it is over, gone like smoke along with everything else.
"Not tonight," Howell said. "I'm not going to cut if off. I'm going to let this eat me up for a while. We need to remember how this feels. This year we may be forgotten, but next year we've got another shot to be remembered." And in that instant, J.P. Howell became, for me, the story of the year.
He refused to leave his locker, as though the game might start again if he waited long enough; he forced himself to listen to the sound of the party still rollicking up the tunnel. Watching him, I thought about what Shields had said, about the Rays finding themselves where they had wanted to be since they were kids. Only not quite. Because kids don't think about losing, the way kids don't think about endings. Kids believe they will win.
Howell believed too. Even when he couldn't stop the tears, he believed that someday, maybe as soon as tomorrow, it would be him looking into the cameras and feeling the cold mist of champagne. He's believed in himself since he was 5 years old, the way we all once believed in ourselves. The difference is, Howell—like Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong and David Tyree; like Annika Sorenstam, Josh Hamilton and Venus and Serena; like W.C. Heinz, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce; like Rocco Mediate, Sidney Crosby and Michael Munson; hell, even like Lieutenant Jimmy Higgins—never stopped believing. He and all the other athletes who made 2008 a year to remember never forgot what it feels like to be young and to believe in the possibility of it all. That's what makes them different, and that's what makes them great.
I'd been wrong all along. People who make history never worry about what they leave behind; their minds are always trained forward, dreaming of things to come. Memories were. The future will be. Watching Howell finally lift himself up and head for the back of the bus, I remembered how this journey began.
I remembered how I used to feel about Thurman Munson.
I remembered how I used to feel.
Other Parts of "The Things We Forget" Part 1: The Closing of Yankee StadiumPart 2: Michael PhelpsPart 3: Lance Armstrong and David TyreePart 4: Annika SorenstamPart 5: Josh HamiltonPart 6: Venus and Serena WilliamsPart 7: The Boston CelticsPart 8: Rocco Mediate and Tiger WoodsPart 9: Sidney CrosbyPart 10: Thurman Munson's old locker at Yankee StadiumBonus: See the author's receipts from putting together this story.