The date is September 27. The year is 2003. Over 58,000 people have gathered to watch a regular season baseball game in Philadelphia.
Europe is going into space. A hurricane named Juan is brewing in the South Atlantic. Iraq is developing nuclear weapons. But nobody cares. Because this is the second to last time Philadelphia Phillies will be disappointing in The Vet. And no one knows it yet, but today is the last time they’ll ever win here.
Chase was there. Jimmy was, too. Even old Jim Thome was there, hanging out before that six year vacation to other parts of the league. There’s a funereal shade of drizzle drawn over the afternoon, though it is somehow April-warm at the end of September. The Phillies are a decade from their last playoff appearance, and they still had a little ways to go to their next one.
Today, they will pull out a walkoff victory in the 10th for their 86th win and last glory of the season. The Braves will ice The Vet tomorrow to end the season; appropriately closing the park on a note of bitterness that would be locked inside and blown up six months later.
But today, it is September call-up season, and both dugouts are flush with young talent, hoping to cause a scene. In fact, 43 players total will touch the field today (One of them is named Juan Bong!), most of them Braves, but it is clear that everybody’s willing to experiment.
One of those experiments adjusts his cap and sighs. Courtesy of a double and a wild pitch, his team just edged a little closer to matching Atlanta’s five runs, making it 5-3 in the top of the 6th. What’s true in this contest is true universally: The Phillies are building to something.
This afternoon, however, they’re just trying to give the fans a show. 22-year-old Ryan Madson trots out of the bullpen to begin a two-inning regime as king of the hill. No one knows who he is, really. They just know he’s replacing Ricky Ledee on the lineup card. And that is enough for them to like him.
He spreads his outs across the infield–a pop up to third, a grounder to second, and a second, dumber-looking pop up to first. They come fast and authoritatively. Young Ryan has no wish to linger out here longer than necessary; not when the only guys who could even the score are stuck playing defense.
Mike Lieberthal tries to cause trouble the next inning, but after somebody knocks a grounder to short, he and his shredded knees are quite easily thrown out at second. Ryan is informed he will be going back out to pitch the 7th. He returns to the field and fires away for three more hitters, sending them into early retirement. Several innings and four relievers later, Chase singles Thome home and the Phillies are Game 161 champions.
These are the only six batters Ryan will face in 2003. In the years to come, that number will balloon to a more appropriate size, and in the end, of the eight Phillies pitchers to throw today, he is the only one to wear their World Series ring five years later. His evolution from late season chin-scratcher to reliable weapon is swift and terrible for other teams, as he first poisons the eighth inning as a set up man, and then the ninth as a closer. He crafts a fastball that goes off like a nuke and a change up that settles in like radiation sickness.
“Mad Dog,” they’ll call him. He will be great. But unfortunately, sheer greatness isn’t enough to keep you on a baseball team, somehow. Eventually, when the time comes to renegotiate, Ryan is passed over for Jonathan Papelbon. Which doesn’t truly make him a victim–nobody hires Scott Boras if they aren’t looking to get paid.
As a skilled assassin in a thick market, he will move slowly past the Phillies’ offered arbitration and into free agent waters. Somebody will scoop him up. And from there, his story is no longer our responsibility.
But there is always a whimsical sadness in watching a young talent, raised in our own system and worked until he was not only effective, but deadly precise, depart thanks to the madness of offseason conversations, and replaced by a talented stranger. And we can dwell on his past accomplishments, knowing they must have a similar reverence to him as well. Yet there is a single underlying truth to discern from his first outing–and most that followed it–that can be uttered as Ryan walks into the sunset.
“Mad Dog … was the balls.”