Commentary

Worth the Wait: Tales of the '08 Phillies

Originally Published: April 5, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This excerpt from "Worth the Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies" is printed with the permission of Triumph Books.

INTRODUCTION

Free At Last

The clock had ticked to the edge of midnight on the Night the Phillies Won the World Series. The clubhouse of the champs had finally grown quiet. The champagne-soaked plastic sheets had been ripped off the lockers, and the emptied bottles of Domaine Ste. Michelle had been tossed into America's most overloaded recycling bins.

And Jimmy Rollins, the visionary who had once imagined this scene in his brain long before the rest of civilization, was getting ready to burst out into the night, the craziest Philadelphia night of his lifetime. Except before he could slip out the locker-room door, he ran headlong into … me.

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Courtesy of Jayson Stark

I'd known him longer than just about any player in that room. I'd known him since he first showed up in Philadelphia -- all 5'8", 165 pounds of him -- in September 2000, at age 21, for the final weeks of another lost journey to the bottom of the standings.We'd shared a thousand conversations and a thousand baseball moments over those last eight years, but we'd never shared this. The Phillies -- his Phillies -- were heading for the parade floats. And Jimmy Rollins, a man never at a loss for words, was still trying to grasp the life-changing immensity of what had just happened.

"I can't even understand it right now," he said. "I can't do it."

So I tried to help.We began to talk about what was already happening beyond those ballpark walls, in this town he played baseball in, in this town I'd lived in most of my life. For years, for decades, these people had been so consumed by the accumulation of all this frustration that kept swallowing them whole, it was almost as if they woke up every morning and thought, Who can I boo today? And now, already, they were different: transformed, liberated. After a quarter-century of waiting for a team like this to end their torment, that team had finally arrived. This team. Jimmy Rollins' team.

"You realize," I told him, "you've set all these people free."

He laughed.

"Prison break, huh?" he quipped.

Right; prison break. After 25 years of heartbreak, 25 years of neverending misery inflicted by four star-crossed teams in four professional sports, these people had finally tunneled their way out of their excruciating sports torture chamber. This was their first chance to bask in a title -- any kind of title, in any of those sports -- since Moses Malone's 1982-83 76ers, a team that existed 25 years and more than 9,000 games deep in their rearview mirror.And leading the way to that title was -- how did this happen? -- the local baseball team. The losingest team in North American sports history. The team whose claim to fame was dragging about 87 generations of Philadelphians through one agonizing season after another. This, for years, had been the team these people had the least faith in. So how amazing was it that this was the team that had finally set them free?

"For all those years," said Mike Missanelli, dulcet voice of Philadelphia's ESPN 950 radio airwaves, "your grandfather looked at this team and said, 'These bums will never win.' And your father said, 'These bums will never win.' And you said, 'These bums will never win.' And then, all of a sudden, they won. How often has that happened to these people?"

To some of them? How about never. Ever. This was a life experience with which many of these folks had zero familiarity whatsoever. They knew as much about the migration patterns of wild caribou as they knew about how to act when a team in their very own town actually won something.

"When they won, I didn't know what to do," said one resident of that strange new world, 28-year-old Brian Turcich. "I was in a bar with about 20 friends. The place was packed. And when they got the final out, there was like a pause, like, Did that just happen? Then everyone started hugging and kissing and high-fiving all the way down the street. But it was just such a weird situation. No one really knew what to do, because you've got this whole generation of kids who had never won a championship."

So as you try to contemplate that tidal wave of emotions that engulfed him and all those people like him at that metamorphic moment, there is something important you need to understand before this book marches onward for even one more paragraph: When something like this happens, this is not a sports story. This is a life story.

A sports story is when somebody wins and somebody loses; you spend 75 bucks on tickets, parking, and cheesesteaks; and then you go home and resume your regularly scheduled life.

A life story is when something happens on a baseball field and tears start overflowing your face. And you find yourself calling everyone you've ever cared about in your entire life and telling them this is the happiest moment in the history of the solar system, even better than that day you met Tina Fey in the airport. And then you listen to everyone in all of your households shriek and sob and laugh and pop champagne corks right there in the kitchen. And then you're blowing off work, you're yanking your kids out of school, you're navigating the traffic jam from hell, and you're abandoning your car in a tow-away zone in center city, all because nothing in your regular life matters more than joining 2 million euphoric humans -- 2 million people who, by some inexplicable miracle, suddenly feel exactly like you do -- for a parade that makes the Tournament of Roses look like a little skit down at your kids' preschool.

And you know what? The more I reflect on it, the more I realize that that word parade doesn't even come close to describing what took place in the city of Philadelphia on the final day of October 2008. Oh, there were floats and confetti and all those customary parade accoutrements. But this was way too big, way too powerful as a life experience, to be described as a mere parade.

"I don't think I've ever seen a parade like that," said the man who somehow became the ultimate grand parade master that day, manager Charlie Manuel. "I don't think there's ever been a parade like that. That's the greatest thing I've ever seen in my whole life. When we won, I knew it would be a big deal. But I had no idea it would be that big, that we made that many people happy, that we made that many people celebrate something."

What the manager saw that day, what all these men saw that day, was a sight they didn't know was possible. They saw people whose whole lives had changed. And I'm not exaggerating when I say that, either. That really happened. These people had just had their entire image of themselves, their community, and pretty much every single human being around them completely rearranged. Seriously.

Yeah, yeah, I know that to people on the outside, this might have seemed like the same old basic plotline you see every single frigging year: Team wins. Fans happy. But on the inside, these people knew this was more than that, huger than that. I don't know to explain how something that happens in a mere sporting event could be that meaningful to that many people, way, way, wayyyyy down there in the cores of their souls. But it was. It happened. I was there, hanging out with my euphoric daughter Hali, so I saw it. And the baseball players who made it happen saw it. And they, too, may never look at fans -- any fans -- the same way because of what they saw.

"I'll be honest. I can't imagine having that kind of impact on a city, on the people in a city," said third baseman and pinch-hit king Greg Dobbs. "It really blows your mind. You know, for the most part, we're in kind of our own little bubble as athletes. But. … I saw grown men and women crying as we were passing by. Literally crying. You know, I'm just a baseball player. That's what I do. I don't hold myself up on any pedestal; I play baseball. And then here I am on this float … with people looking me in the eye and thanking me, with tears flowing down their faces, for bringing them a championship. That's beyond anything I ever imagined. I get goose bumps just thinking about it. That's an experience that's going to live with me for the rest of my life."

The tears. The men who rode on those floats keep talking about the tears. And the faces. The looks on the faces. You don't see those looks often in life, especially not on 2 million of those faces at once. Theoretically, that ought to be impossible, right? To have that many people walking around at the same time on the same day, wearing that same look in their eyes -- that blissful, life-is-great glow you wait your whole life for?

"That's the thing that really got to me, that became my No. 1 moment in baseball," said Phillies chairman Bill Giles, a man who rode down the same parade route with the only other World Series-championship team in Phillies history, back in 1980." To see the real love in the faces of all those people was unbelievable. It wasn't quite that way in '80. Just the expressions of admiration and love on the faces of those people was awesome.

"I wouldn't have used that word love in 1980," Giles went on. "It was more a 'Thank you.' … But this was different. And it was because of these players. There's just a more deep-down feeling between these fans and these players."

In Philadelphia, the highway's jammed with broken heroes who never lived up to their town's humongous expectations. But not this time. Not this group. Even before this team won, one of those special connections had already evolved between these players and the people who invest way too much of their lives in caring about them. But there's nothing like winning to launch that bond into a whole different orbit. And after that parade, or whatever the heck we're calling it, it's official. It's up there.

"If you go ask our players," Manuel said, "I bet you every one of them would say they learned a lot, not just about these people but about themselves. I think they realize now, these people are the same as you. And here's how I mean that. Sometimes when you're playing, of course you can get upset at somebody who's hollering at you or booing you. But when you see something like that [parade], I think you see what it's all for. You realize how hard these people are actually pulling for you. It gives you a different perspective. You find out you're not just winning this for the organization and you're not just winning for our team. It's bigger than that; you're doing it for all these people. You see how much it means to them, too. And everything about it is real, too, man. There's nothing phony about it. Winning the World Series in Philadelphia, seeing what it did for the whole city, it's very emotional. Believe me, I think about it every day, everything about it. I'll never forget it.We could win 10 in a row, and I'll never forget it."

"It just showed me the humanity that's attached to the relationship between these fans and this team," said Greg Dobbs. "Seeing that, it has to be unlike any other team-city bond anywhere. Maybe I'm wrong, but just [after] that experience, I can't imagine it being more intense anywhere. … Going through that, that's when I realized that what we do in that ballpark is much bigger than what I thought it was."

It was four weeks after the parade as Greg Dobbs spoke those words. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and the glow hadn't faded. Not even a little. There were still people lined up on a frigid night outside a Philadelphia sporting-goods store -- some of them for more than five frostbitten hours -- to shake his hand, grab a signature, and, most importantly, to pour out their still-bubbling emotions.

"Thanks for letting me celebrate a Philadelphia championship in my lifetime," one teenage boy told him.

Another marched up wearing a World Series cap. "I waited my whole life to wear this hat," he said.

"I waited my whole life, too," Dobbs laughed.

Then Joe Baskowsky arrived, accompanied by his 81-year-old mother, Marge. "How long did you have to wait?" Dobbs asked them, sympathetically.

"Oh, a couple of hours,"Baskowsky replied."But actually," he said, on second thought, "I've been waiting 28 years."

Somewhere out there, we could probably find a team of psychologists that could tell us why waiting -- especially lots of waiting, years and years and years and years of horrible, sickening, frustrating, deflating, relentlessly painful waiting -- makes the good times feel so much better when they finally do arrive. But whatever. Who cares why, when you get right down to it? The madness that has enveloped the hard-bitten residents of Philadelphia since that World Series is all the proof we need that there really and truly is stuff out there in life that can be totally worth the wait.

"That world championship made this whole town feel 110 percent better about themselves," said Mike Missanelli. "And we needed that, because we live here, and we know it's not the best spot on earth. You know what I mean? I mean, we all kind of like it, but we know it's not Xanadu. And that just kind of breeds this inferiority complex in the whole town. But that changed when this thing rolled through town."

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the power of sports. It makes no sense that something as theoretically unimportant as sports could be the best psychotherapy ever invented. But you'll never convince the lucky residents of the Philadelphia metropolitan area that it's not. Not now. Not when the buzz of winning is still fresh enough that they almost don't care that their stock portfolios have plummeted to approximately the same worth as the contents of their refrigerators' produce bins.

Life, for these people, is good. The only question is: How good? And the only question after that is: How long can this buzz possibly last? And the honest answer is:Way, way, way longer than you'd ever think.

It's nearly three decades now since Dallas Green managed the first Phillies team to win a World Series. And all these years later, when I asked him what it's been like to walk around Philadelphia, knowing how people still revere that feat, his voice actually quivered before he answered, "I don't have the ability to describe it.

"The pride I have in wearing this [World Series] ring and being recognized as the only guy who had it for 28 years has just been wonderful for me and my family," he said. "I've just never gotten over it to this day. … Let's face it, it springboarded my whole career."

Of course, that title hung there, all alone, in the Philadelphia sky for so long that no wonder the men responsible for it remain such indelible icons.Who was supposed to join them in that pantheon -- Ricky Otero? Jerry Spradlin? Steve Jeltz? The only parade those guys rode in was their parade right out of town.

So obviously, we don't know how long Philadelphians are going to have to wait for That Next Parade. But here's a bet: It won't change the way they feel about the team that gave them this parade.

"All my buddies told me, back in 1980, that I'd never have to buy another beer in Philadelphia," Green said. "And they're probably right. These people don't forget. And I really appreciate the fact that they don't forget."

So for Charlie Manuel, this love affair looks as if it just might be for life. For Shane Victorino, Brad Lidge, Jimmy Rollins, and all the architects of this little prison break, it would take some serious screwing up to make their adoring public forget the way those men made their city feel in the magical month of October 2008. We know and they know the months ahead won't all feel that good. We know and they know the seasons ahead won't all end on parade floats. We know and they know that this is still Philadelphia, so sooner or later, there will be sounds flowing down from those seats that won't remind them of the sounds they heard The Night The Phillies Won the World Series.

But that could be the ultimate test of the magnitude of winning. Is it actually possible that in Philadelphia, of all places, even the booing might not be the same?

"Oh, yeah. They'll still boo," said Phillies broadcast witticist Larry Andersen. "They have to. They're born to boo.

"Just now," Larry Andersen chuckled, "they'll only boo with two Os instead of like four."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com