Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The 2011 PHREAK SHOW, where people who know and don’t know anything about the Phillies are brought together to create a thunderstorm of guest blogging, lightning strikes of nostalgia, and relentless downpours of snarky comments.
Today, we open our celebration with an old friend: Bureaucratist. Hello, Bureaucratist. Please water us with your thoughts.
FEAR AND REMEMBERING IN PHILADELPHIA
It is a strange, disorienting time to be a Phillies fan.
I was born in 1975, on a significant historical anniversary, just as the baseball season was beginning. (Mike Schmidt would go on to hit his 500th homer on my twelfth birthday.) Through 1983, the Phillies and their Eagle/Sixer/Flyer brethren enjoyed a run of success that shaped my life as surely as the Delaware shapes New Jersey. In those eight years, my four hometown teams made the playoffs in 27 out of 36 possible seasons, with championships for everyone but the Eagles (of course).
The names associated with those teams are still like magic to me, like giants out of fairy tales: Schmidt, Carlton, Rose (oh, yes–Pete Rose will always be a Phillie to me), McGraw, Luzinski, Jaworski, Bergey, Montgomery, Carmichael, Erving, Malone, Cheeks, Clarke (who lived down the street from me), the messianic Parent. What a roll call, and I tingle even now, three decades on, alone in my crappy studio apartment, naked from the waist up with my gut spilling over the top of my pajama pants at two in the afternoon, to the thrill of recall.
But memory is so strange. Do I really remember sitting in the Samolis’ living room in Deptford, New Jersey, in October 1980 as the room exploded to its feet when Rose snatched Bob Boone’s bobble out of the foul air? or Kenny King’s 80-yard initiation of disappointment in Super Bowl XV? Or even Moses Malone’s famous “Fo’ fo’ fo’,” uttered when I was eight years old? Surely this is is old enough to remember specifics. Surely my insatiety for breathless children’s athletic biographies complemented my memories but did not create them. Surely this strength I feel, this sense of destiny, this certainty that I am a winner, is real, as real as my DNA of which it seems a part.
It must be so, for even now, after all this time, there remains an irrational part of me that cannot understand how anyone could deny that the Philadelphia teams are quite literally and objectively the best teams ever. I understand that it was only an accident of my personal history–an accident of divorce, paternal breakdown, and the Women’s Movement–that settled my childhood in South Jersey. I understand that if the breaks had gone the other way I would be just as devoted to the Detroit Red Wings, or the Iowa Hawkeyes, or the Los Angeles Dodgers. I understand all this … and yet if I do why does my friend Michael, who was born and grew up in Queens, strike me as unhinged, and perhaps mentally retarded, for rooting for the Mets?
If my life had been designed for disappointment that octade’s gambit could not have set me up more efficiently. Those heroes of my youth were replaced in turn by Juan Samuel, Randall Cunningham, and Jeff Ruland, all of them masters of the dashed dream. Larry Bird kicked Dr. J’s ass midcourt in 1984, the Eagles lost the Fog Bowl in 1988, and the Phillies had no highlights to speak of in their decade between World Series appearances save for Schmidt’s MVP in ’86 and Bedrock’s Cy Young in ’87. Not a winning season among them, save for an 86-75 campaign in 1986 that left them 21.5 games behind the coke-addled Mets. This losing I know I remember, for it was in these years that I grew into a man. Those years are part of my DNA, too.
Which leads me to my eighteenth circle around the sun and the glory of 1993, which remains in my difficult imagination the greatest Phillies year of my life. In part this is because that suigeneris combination of personalities and dirt and scrap is impossible to imagine today, and had no small impact on my conception of manhood. (I bear more than a passing resemblance to the John Kruk of 1993–I am not proud of this–Steely Dan is our mutual favorite band–especially now that my hair is so long.) Who on these great Phillies teams could hold the jock of Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, Mitch Williams, Pete Incaviglia, or even Jim Eisenreich for sheer personal appeal and excitement?
Jimmy Rollins? A likeable egomaniac, but an egomaniac nonetheless.
Chase Utley? I’d love to have a Scotch with him (and a red snapper with his wife) but his professional persona could hardly be more buttoned down (which is why his eff bomb at the ’08 parade was so endearing).
Cole Hamels? Poseur personified.
Roy Halladay? Probably the greatest current Phillie, but I have it on fairly good authority (who said we don’t do reporting here at TBOH?) that his hobby is staring at walls. To quote Jim Pagliaroni, “He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he’s not my kind of man.” But he is a Mormon, and although the metaphysics of that faith are fairly entertaining, they can’t hold a candle to Dutch Daulton’s.
Maybe Charlie Manuel. One of the great plot points of these Phillies’ ongoing narrative of greatness was his challenge to Howard Eskin (I’ve been out of the Philadelphia area for nearly twenty years, and it both amazes me and doesn’t that Eskin still has a job) on my 33rd birthday, which I watched from a hotel room in Corpus Christi, Texas, where I was scheduled to give a speech the next day.
Among the players only Ryan Howard (“peace, love, Jheri curl”) might have stood with the rapscallions of 1993. But, ah, Ryan Howard, there is also no greater candidate for letting us down in 2011, with his strikeouts, his inability to hit left-handed pitching late in games, and a contract that, even though I abhor the SABR-rattling bullshit that rates Howard only slightly above average, I am afraid may one day anchor us to the bottom of the NL East. The lords of baseball give with one hand and take, notoriously, with the other.
But none of this is what really separates 1993 from 2011. No, the great difference between those Phillies and these is the specter of expectations. In 1992 the Phillies were 70-92 and their major offseason acquisition was Milt Thompson. It was the unexpectedness of their success that was so delicious, and the building tension of the summer that slowly crowded out the memory of a decade of disappointment. In my mind the ’93 Phils loom larger than all the teams between 1994 and 2006 combined, and I remember in 1994 a certain sneaking relief when the strike canceled the World Series: The Phillies would be defending NL Champs for one more season. The Expos franchise would be a small price to pay for this nugget of dignity. And then I felt humiliated at being so weak to have such a feeling, but this is what expectations do to you.
Expectations, we have them now. Hoo, boy, do we. The bases are loaded with them. I’m drunk with expectations (as well as Early Times bourbon), like everyone else, and this makes me afraid. For the third year in a row the Phillies have made the season’s splashiest acquisition (assuming Albert Pujols isn’t traded in June). Nothing in the nearly constant losing between 1984 and just a few years ago prepared me for this, and I feel as a young girl at her first frat party after the fourth shot of tequila: By the time everything has happened I will either be skywriting my name across the heavens or passed out in a puddle of my own sick, splay-legged in the center of the street, the victim of a gruesome violation.
A roller-coaster without loops is a disappointment. Pretty good reviews are a disappointment. A U.S. luxury automobile is a disappointment. These Phillies have to turn us ass over teakettle, win Oscars, and manifest state-of-the-art German engineering not to disappoint. These are the curses of success and expectations.
Not that I would have it any other way, of course. When I go to the casino I play the numbers at roulette and bet the hard eight at the craps table. As with our Phils, there is only one path that does not lead to sadness. All the others head over the Cliff-Lee-edge of disappointment. And even if they’re still standing in early November, I fear that the feelings will be dwarfed by the disappointment if they’re not. The risk and reward are classically imbalanced. And I wish I weren’t so afraid of falling.