- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The champs and their closer don't just have a tough act to follow.
They practically have an impossible act to follow.
What they have to follow, you see, is perfection. And what's bigger and better than that?
The closer is Bradley T. Lidge. And he is coming off the season of his lifetime: 41 saves, and not a single blown save. That was followed by seven more saves in seven October chances. Is it possible to top THAT?
Hey, good luck.
"Sure, it's possible," the closer said. "It's possible for me to PITCH better. Just the results can't be better. I know that sounds kind of weird but there's always room for pitching better."
Not when they had to go 24-6 to do it, in a September-October finish for the ages. Not when all that was at stake was the tender, title-starved psyche of every man, woman, child and Labrador retriever in their entire metropolis.
How are they supposed to outdo their historic finish, their vanquishing of the Mets, their rewrite job on their own franchise history book and all the euphoria it unleashed around them? Can that be done? Seriously?
"Well," said their ever-eloquent shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, "we could always go 162-0. That would solve everything."
Ohhh, no it wouldn't. Not unless they won another 11 postseason games after that, it wouldn't. And even if they did, how could THAT be better?
There's nothing better, for any group of human beings, than winning the first time. Which means there's nothing harder than The Year After.
But for the Phillies, The Year After is here. And that means it's time for the champs and their closer to attempt that impossible Year After balancing act.
How do they convince themselves they're ready to move on, ready to play again, while they're still breathing in the magical aroma of the perfect season?
"How? Because you have to," Rollins said. "You have to let go, because it's the only way to move forward."
But how, exactly, does Lidge let go? Everywhere he turns this spring, he keeps running into another image of his own personal frozen moment.
He has just thrown the pitch he had waited all his life to throw. Eric Hinske has just swung and missed the invisible slider that ended the 2008 World Series. Brad Lidge has buckled to both knees, arms reaching for the stars, pandemonium erupting all around him. And apparently, several billion cameras were clicking, because the photo of this moment has become Lidge's version of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.
Lidge sees the photo of this moment -- his moment -- on office walls. On pocket schedules. On book covers. Even on a painting in his own house.
"It's a moment I'm going to have for the rest of my life, and I'm proud of it," the closer said. "Every time I see it, it gives me goose bumps."
And it should, because it represents not merely the ultimate freeze-frame dream of every closer, but the culmination of a season unlike any other in the grand, and sometimes not-so-grand, history of relief pitching.
Go ahead. Go try to find some other closer who saved 48 of 48, threw the last pitch of three straight postseason series and struck out the final batter of the World Series. Not going to happen. Never been done.
But when Lidge looks back on it now, he doesn't home in on the perfection of his numbers. What he remembers is the supernatural feeling that enveloped him every time he took the mound.
"Everything went right," he said. "But I really felt like, every time I went out there, it was GOING to go right. If there was a runner on third base and we had a one-run lead ... I really felt like somehow, some way, I was going to make this work, and he wasn't going to score.
"You know, sometimes [in other years], you get in these ruts where you get that guy on and you just feel like, 'All right, he's going to score. We'll just try to get everyone else out.' But last year, I was like, 'No way he's going to score.' Right up to the last game of the World Series, I felt that way. Every single time."
And had he ever had a feeling quite like that?
"Honestly?" the closer replied. "No."
Life inside that zone is the fuel that powers perfect seasons -- and also the essence that defines how it is possible.
But Lidge knows that, of course, luck went into it, too. He also knows that at least two astounding, game-saving, streak-saving defensive plays went into it. (Shane Victorino threw out the tying run at the plate in Atlanta in June; Rollins and Chase Utley turned an incomprehensible game-ending double play in the division-clincher in September.)
Nevertheless, whatever had to happen, the closer KNEW it was GOING to happen. And whatever bad stuff seemed to happen to every other closer on earth, "I never felt like that was even possible," Lidge said. "It was just a really weird feeling."
Meanwhile, that team he plays for found a zone of its own. It took the champs a long time -- 5½ months -- to find it. But once they checked in, they never did check out.
When the Phillies reached the point in mid-September at which they pretty much had to win every night, that's what they did: Win every single night. Or just about.
"We must love the pressure," Rollins said, laughing. "We must look forward to it. Look forward to playing in a rough city. Look forward to having to meet the challenge. There's glory in it, you know? There's glory in pushing yourself to the limit and finding out how good you are. It's almost like a high, like how close can you get to the edge and still keep going?"
The year before, they rode an almost identical 13-4 finish in toppling the Mets, but forgot to pack their magic wands for October. This time, they closed the regular season with a 13-3 rush, then kept right on rolling.
And just about the time that walk along the cliff began, the local oracle of a shortstop was goaded by his teammates into providing some words of inspiration. So Rollins grabbed a marker and scrawled these words on the clubhouse mirror:
- A talented team will lose to a determined team nine out of 10 times, because a determined team isn't going to give up. But a talented team with determination is what champions are made of.
So who first uttered those words? Knute Rockne? Vince Lombardi? Branch Rickey?
"You know what? I just came up with that," Rollins confessed. "It might not even be true."
Hey, didn't matter. His team then turned it into the living truth. Those words remained etched on that mirror for the next month and a half. And they were still up there the night the champagne corks floated through the sky after a World Series title.
In many ways, those corks are still floating. But now the palm trees are swaying. The Grapefruit League's gates are opening. And the magnetic forces of baseball are pulling the champs out of that orbit and back toward another launching pad.
Personally, I don't feel like we're holding onto anything. We realize where we are and what we've accomplished. But I think we've kind of let that go.
"-- Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer
Their challenge now isn't merely to do it again. Their challenge is not losing their grip on the magic carpet they finally learned to fly.
"There IS a magic there," said their wise old manager, Charlie Manuel. "And that's the part you've gotta keep."
History would tell you, though, that keeping it is just about impossible. Well, non-Yankees history would tell you that, anyway.
Other than the Yankees, only one team in the entire free-agent era (the 1992-'93 Blue Jays) has repeated. Just two other teams besides the Yankees (the 1975-'76 Reds and 1972-'73-'74 A's) have repeated in the past 79 years. And over the past half-century, even if you include the Yankees, only one team (the '73 A's) repeated AND won more games than it did the year before.
So no matter how tough any of these Phillies think repeating may look, it's obviously even harder than that. But don't try to convince Charlie Manuel. The manager is a big believer that, once you've conquered a hurdle, your brainwaves never look at it as a hurdle again.
"My second year in Japan, I hit 42 home runs," Manuel said. "And I heard Clyde Wright make a statement. He said, 'Charlie will never hit 42 home runs again.' But you know what? I could hit 42 in my sleep after that -- because I did it, and now I've experienced what it's like, and I learned from how I had to go about doing it."
But can a whole team be able to make that same transformation?
"Excellence rules success when you work to master the game," Manuel said. "You see great teams and great athletes strive for that moment -- that moment on that day. And they learn to live in that moment."
But reality says it's easy to lose your hold. The moment fades. Things change.
Not one of this team's top four starters missed a start last year because of injury. Will that happen again? And how about those miracle games the 2008 Phillies won, from the down-seven-runs-to-Pedro-Martinez shocker in August to The Matt Stairs Game in October. Are they going to win them again? And have we mentioned the closer never blew a save? Want to bet on that again? Vegas would love to take your money.
Utley (hip) may not be ready for Opening Day. J.C. Romero (suspension) is out of the bullpen mix until June 1. Their winningest pitcher last year, Jamie Moyer, is now 46 years old. Stuff happens. It always happens. It's already happened.
But the core of this team says that if it happens to these 2009 Phillies, it will be only because that's life, not because this team is still holding onto last year.
"Personally, I don't feel like we're holding onto anything," said Moyer, now in his 24th year of observing big league clubhouses. "We realize where we are and what we've accomplished. But I think we've kind of let that go."
And if some of these men haven't let it go, if some of them are prone to act a little too comfortable?
"There are people here who won't let that happen," Moyer promised.
One of those people is Rollins. Oh, he may get too stylish for the old-schoolers at times. And he can, from time to time, ensconce himself in his own world. But there's nothing this man cares about more than winning. And he's already finding ways to drive the people around him to win again.
You'll never hear him talking about "defending" this title, for instance -- because "if you're defending it, you're always on defense. And that's not us. We're trying to WIN."
What you WILL hear him talking about is trying to do something special. And winning once? That doesn't qualify.
"The last few years, it's almost like anybody could win ONE World Series title," Rollins said. "Since the Yankees lost their grip on it, it's been switching hands every single year. It's like a free-for-all. And we want to make it ours. You don't do that by defending. You do that by trying to take it again."
You win enough, and now you're in a whole new conversation, he said. You're in that group with the Yankees and Red Sox, the Braves and the Angels.
"When you hear the names of those teams," Rollins said, "you say, 'That's a winning organization. They just win.' People don't feel that way about us. Not yet."
So now, that's the mission. It's no longer about repeating. It's about carving a new niche in the culture. And that niche can't be carved with just one enchanted season. It takes many of those seasons. Starting now.
And if that's what it takes, that's fine with the closer. Sooner or later, he knows, he's going to blow a save. Sooner or later, his streak of perfection will end. But the mission? That will go on.
Brad Lidge knows all about history, but he also knows what he sees around him.
Another season of perfection? That may be impossible. But repeating?
"I really feel," said the perfect closer, "like we're the team that can do that."
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 and online. Click here to order a copy.
The Phillies compiled the perfect season a year ago, but now a new year starts and they must forget about the past.