Commentary

Philadelphia finally gets another title

Originally Published: October 29, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- For a quarter of a century, they'd waited for this night, waited for this moment.

For a quarter of a century, they'd watched these scenes happen in somebody else's town, on somebody else's field of dreams.

Seasons came. Seasons went. Baseball seasons. Football seasons. Basketball seasons. Hockey seasons.

They never ended this way -- not a stinking one of them. Not in Philadelphia -- the city where these sorts of dreams never came true.

And then, on a wintry Wednesday night in October, in the cliff-hanger episode of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Parade Floats," it happened.

It was 9:58 p.m. in the Eastern time zone. The perfect closer, Brad Lidge, finished off the perfect season with the perfect pitch.

The hitter standing 60 feet away, Tampa Bay's Eric Hinske, swung through one last invisible slider. And as Brad Lidge collapsed to his knees and euphoria erupted all around him, you could almost feel the sky clearing and the universe shifting.

The Phillies had won the World Series, won it in five astounding games, won it by finishing off a 4-3 win over Tampa Bay that they had to wait 46 waterlogged hours just to complete.

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But that's not all. For the city they play in, the wait was over. A wait that had consumed every man, woman and child, every Mummer, every pretzel baker, every cheesesteak chomper, every boobird.

The wait that had dragged them all through 25 years and 98 combined seasons of misery and heartbreak, seasons whose only common trait was that they'd all managed to last just a little too long.

It was the longest wait, by far, of the 13 metropolitan areas in America with teams in all four major sports. No other metropolis out there -- anywhere -- was within eight years.

And then, with one pitch, with one euphoric shriek in the night -- in 45,000-part harmony -- it was over. And life in Philadelphia may never be the same.

"For all these years," said Jimmy Rollins as fireworks crackled through the night, "the part of playing here that upset me the most was that I was always home in October, watching somebody else celebrate.

"But not this year," said the man who first opened his mouth and dared them all to reach for this chunk of the sky. "This year, WE get to celebrate."

If you live in Kansas or New Mexico or Maine, you may not fully understand the meaning of all this. So we'll try to spell it out for you.

How long did Philadelphians have to wait? In between championships, their four professional teams played a combined 9,029 games without ever producing a night quite like this.

There were titles in Green Bay and Edmonton and East Rutherford, N.J. There were parades in Charlotte and Calgary and San Antonio. But never in Philly. Not once.

[+] EnlargePhillies Fans
AP Photo/Charles KrupaFans in Philadelphia got to celebrate a title -- any title -- for the first time in 25 years after the Phillies finished off the Rays on Wednesday to win the World Series.
Philadelphia's four teams reached the postseason 47 times in all those years -- and got bounced out of the postseason in all 47 of them. Seven of those teams made it all the way to the final round of that postseason. All seven watched somebody else spray the champagne.

But of all those franchises, none dragged its fans through the psycho ward more than the Phillies.

From 1984 through 2006, they reached the postseason just once in 23 seasons. They lost more games in that time than any team in their league except the Pirates.

They watched the Royals win a World Series. They watched the Diamondbacks win a World Series. They watched the Marlins win two of them. The Red Sox finally won. The White Sox finally won. But the Phillies just kept wallowing in that muck, looking for the formula that would lead them to a night like this.

So what were the odds that, in the 4,416th game they'd played since the last title in their town, it was the local baseball team that finally parted the polluted waters?

"When I was a kid, back in 1980, baseball was still exciting here," said Jamie Moyer, the only Phillie who could say he actually attended the parade of the 1980 World Series champs. "Back then, people lived for the game around here. So it's funny. Last year, one of our beat writers said to me, 'Do you realize you guys, as a team, brought baseball back to Philadelphia?'

"I never really looked at it that way. I never really thought about it that way, that we had brought baseball back to Philadelphia. He said, 'It's something that had been lost here for a lot of years.' And I said, 'You know what? If that's the case, that's really cool.' That in our own small way, we've been able to bring baseball back to Philadelphia, to bring the Phillies back on the map."

And now, of course, they're the team that actually owns that map.

What a concept.

Before this night, they'd won one World Series in the first 125 years in their history. They'd lost more games than any team in any professional sport in North America. They were a team that hadn't just dropped off their own city's map. There was a time they'd practically toppled off their own sport's map.

But not anymore.

Just a month and a half ago, in mid-September, these Phillies were a team dangling from the National League cliff -- 3½ games behind the Mets in the NL East, four games back of the Brewers in the wild card free-for-all. No one could have seen then that a parade was in their future.

But since then, all they've done is go 24-6. Yeah, 24-6. Only four World Series winners in history -- just two of them in the past 94 years -- ever had a better finish than that.

"You always see that every year, don't you?" outfielder Geoff Jenkins said. "There's always that one team that gets hot at the right time."

Yeah, you always see it, all right. You just never saw it in this town, from this team. Until now.

These Phillies were so hot, they won games in this World Series they had no business winning. A game in which they went 0-for-13 with men in scoring position. A game that lasted till 1:47 a.m. A game in which Joltin' Joe Blanton was their home run hero.

But they saved their grand finale for the goofiest game of all. A game with a 46-hour rain delay. A game divided into a two-part soap opera. A game so strange that even though it ended on a Wednesday night, history will always tell us it was played on a Monday night, thanks to that tricky suspension passage in Bud Selig's rule book.

It was all so bizarre, all so unprecedented, it was hard to know what these teams would encounter when the glop finally stopped falling out of the sky and it was safe to come back to the ballpark.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Rollins
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJimmy Rollins watched other teams win titles. He wanted one of his own. By beating the Rays in five games, he and the Phillies got one.
One of the big questions in the minds of Phillies players, Moyer said, was whether the seats would even be full. Who knows how many of the 45,000 people sitting in those seats Monday had left town, had other stuff on their plate or had even lost their ticket stubs, he wondered.

"I was looking around during [batting practice], and I was thinking, 'Boy, there's not a whole lot of people here,'" Moyer said. "But by the start of this game, this place was full."

And not just full, said Chase Utley: "This place was rocking."

And then up toward home plate marched Jenkins to kick off the long-awaited bottom of the sixth. He'd been told a mere 10 minutes earlier by manager Charlie Manuel that he'd be the guy leading off, pinch-hitting for pitcher Cole Hamels, whose last pitch was thrown two days earlier. But Jenkins, a missing person throughout this whole wild month, couldn't possibly have been more grateful for that one last chance.

Jenkins hadn't gotten a hit in over a month, since a Sept. 28 single against the Nationals. But he laser-beamed a double into the right-center-field gap. And the house was shaking.

"When Jenks hit that double, the decibel level was off the charts," Rollins said with a laugh.

One pitch later, Rollins bunted him to third. Six pitches after that, Jayson Werth blooped a single millimeters beyond the glove of Akinori Iwamura. And Jenkins found himself crossing home plate for the first time since Aug. 11 -- 79 days earlier.

"Biggest moment of my whole career," he said.

That lead didn't last long, thanks to a seventh-inning Rocco Baldelli bomb that turned into the first home run allowed by reliever Ryan Madson in Philadelphia in exactly six months. But three batters later, Utley made the kind of play that has made him a star -- backhanding an Iwamura chopper up the middle, faking a throw to first and then nailing Jason Bartlett, the go-ahead run, at the plate. And the Phillies never looked back.

Next thing they knew, Pat Burrell led off the eighth with a double off the top of the left-center-field fence -- his only hit of this World Series, and almost certainly his final hit as a Phillie. A half-dozen pitches later, Pedro Feliz gave the Phillies the lead again with a rope through the drawn-in infield. And from Bryn Mawr to Bensalem, there wasn't anyone breathing who couldn't smell a parade.

It was 9:46 p.m. ET when Lidge burst through the bullpen gates and began trotting toward the mound. Flashbulbs popped. Rally towels gyrated. The sound rumbling out of this ballpark had to be audible in West Virginia.

The Phillies were 93-0 when leading after eight innings. Lidge was 47-for-47 this season when a save was on the line. This was their kind of script.

[+] EnlargeJamie Moyer
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJamie Moyer, born in Philadelphia, attended the parade celebrating the Phillies team that won the World Series in 1980. Now, he'll be in one.
And then there he was, only a few minutes later, one strike away. Hinske rocked in the batter's box. The tying run was on second. The house was rattling. And Brad Lidge had to take a quick stroll behind the mound, just to remember how to breathe.

"With two strikes, I had to step off the mound, because, honestly, I don't even know what was going through my mind," he said. "I was going to throw my best pitch, the way I know how to. But I mean, you can't feel yourself. I honestly couldn't feel myself. It felt like the first time I ever pitched in a big league game. Your legs are heavy, and you have to take a big, deep breath just to be able to pitch."

But finally, he turned, headed back up to the rubber and launched one final untouchable slider. What followed was a slice of heaven that every pitcher who ever lived has dreamed about: The strikeout that wins your team the World Series.

Lidge crumbled to both knees. His catcher, Carlos Ruiz, raced into his arms. Then that tender scene was interrupted by the sight of a 6-foot-4, 256-pound behemoth doing a full-gainer diving on top of both of them.

Asked if he was trying to kill his pitcher and catcher, first baseman Ryan Howard chuckled: "Oh, most definitely. But then, when the rest of the pile came along, I knew that was a bad idea."

The rest of it, though, was the WHOLE idea. Fireworks sparkling. … Four coaches hugging Charlie Manuel at once. … Jimmy Rollins pointing toward the sky.

Howard picking himself up and racing around the field, waving the championship flag, accompanied by a swarm of teammates, photographers and police officers. … A fan holding up a sign that read: "Good night, Joe Carter." … And an entire city roaring, rumbling, laughing, crying, all at once.

"I think when you high-five the cops, and you're hugging the grounds crew, and you just see the jubilation in everybody out there, it really kind of hits you that wow, you just won the whole damn thing," Jenkins said, trying to digest it all. "And you just can't describe what that means to everybody. … They feel they won a title just like we did."

But they feel that way, of course, because, on a powerful human level, they did. They might not have played a single game -- not this year, not for that whole painful, title-free quarter-century. But they did something just as powerful.

"They lived it," Moyer said.

Moyer stood there at his locker with the ultimate souvenir -- the pitcher's rubber -- at his feet. And, as the senior member of this team, a born-and-raised Philadelphian, a guy who had waited 23 seasons for this moment to happen to him, he got it more than anyone else around him.

It makes no sense, logically, that what happens on a baseball field -- any baseball field -- could change other people's lives in any meaningful way. But throughout this exhilarating October, Jamie Moyer has made a point of stopping every night to look around and take in every unforgettable moment. So he knew exactly how profoundly this had changed people's lives.

"And I think that's great," he said. "That's what baseball does. There are going to be people today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year saying, 'I was blank-blank-blank when the Phillies won the World Series.' And that's pretty cool, to have a story of wherever they were when the Phillies won the World Series: 'I was in the parking lot. I was in the stands. I was at a bar. I was having dinner. I was coming back from a trip and I couldn't see it so I listened to it in the car.' And to me, that's kind of cool, because that's what baseball does for people. I just think that's why it's so special."

What made it special was that he and these men he plays with had just blown away the biggest cloud in America. And the best part of it all was, that cloud is never coming back. And they sensed it -- all of them.

"When you win, it's forever," said Geoff Jenkins. "It's forever, man. And that's a great feeling."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com