My First Team: 2008 Phillies
By Matt Hopkins
First thing’s first: that title regarding the Phillies is a lie. A bold-faced, unapologetic, unmistakable lie. And I’m the completely unabashed liar who’s telling it to you. But it’s a lie that’s told with the best of intentions; a lie that’s trying to make things clearer, not pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. It’s a lie, but it tells the truth better than honesty could, and at the end of the day that’s all that’s important.
It’s a lie because asking for my “first” Phillies team is, to me, a false premise. There is no first team, just like there will never be a last team.
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My father was a South Jersey kid who grew up watching the Phils and saw them win their first World Series from his college dorm room. The year after I was born, the team would become National League champs and, in my mind, were one of the greatest teams to never win the World Series. I was a Phillies fan before I even knew what a baseball was.
So while the 2008 Phillies were not my “first” Phillies team, they were instead something greater; they were my first passion.
Before the 2008 team, I knew what sports passion felt like from a variety of local sources. Allen Iverson was a childhood idol. The Eagles were an annual ritual. The Flyers gave some fun division wins. And of course, the Phillies themselves had their moments.
But the passion at those times flowed through me, not from me. I would get caught up in a great wave of excitement, but it would crest and then fall and eventually move on. I would do the same, and be left feeling roughly the same after as I had before these fleeting moments, games, or seasons.
It all started with JRoll and his 2007 “We’re the team to beat!” proclamation.
But 2008 was different. In truth, it had been growing for a while; Ryan Howard‘s monster 2006 season was fresh in my mind, and Jimmy Rollins‘ defiant “Team to Beat” was the rallying cry that I didn’t know I had been waiting for all my life.
I still remember those 2007 Phillies as well. They were really the ones who kickstarted it all. I remember being 15 years old, and stopping on my way home from work to run into a Best Buy to watch when they clinched the division against the Washington Nationals in late September. The following playoff series against the Rockies was heartbreaking, but swept me up like nothing before.
So I went into 2008 with more vigor than I had with any previous team. Watching the Phillies was a summer ritual, but it had mostly been limited to those baseball “High Holidays”: Opening Day, Fourth of July, and the occasional pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Citizens Bank Park. (My one visit to Veteran’s Stadium in its dying days was, and still is, remembered with a sense of reverent grace.)
But ’08 was different. There were no half measures. Phillies games weren’t something you hoped to catch if you had a free moment, they were the bedrock upon which my life was built. Being forced to miss a game was almost blasphemous. Willfully choosing to skip a start was a transgression worthy of excommunication. Never before in my life as a sports fan had I been such a fervent follower of a team.
And did the team ever reward me for my effort. Even leaving out the incredible World Series championship parade that would eventually run down Broad Street, those 2008 Philadelphia Phillies were an absolute embarrassment of riches for the memory banks.
Nearly every member of the roster resides among the pantheon of Phillies greats. JRoll and Chase Utley proved to be the best that the franchise has ever had at their positions. Ryan Howard was a terrifying presence to opposing pitchers. Carlos Ruiz was swiftly becoming a cult hero, as was the “Flyin’ Hawaiian”, Shane Victorino.
Pat Burrell, the powerful slugger known as ‘Pat the Bat’, and Jayson Werth were star sluggers on the outfield corners. Cole Hamels was showing the world what a true, bonafide young ace pitcher looked like. Brad Lidge was literally untouchable as a closer, earning his “Lights Out” nickname with a perfect season. Pedro Feliz was…well…steady.
And, of course, crowning it all was the World Series title. The reward that no one in Philadelphia dared mention past September, when it had gone from a joke to a dream to a hope to a chance to an inevitability. Looking back, every second of that season seemed like it was mounting to that finale.
Every pitch, swing, throw, catch and hit all lead up to that one, beautiful moment that an entire generation of sports fans were waiting for, the moment that Lidge struckout the Rays’ Eric Hinske, and he and Chooch dropped to their knees in that joyful embrace at the mound. It felt like we were all out there with them.
The 2008 World Series never felt like a culmination to me; it felt like a beginning. It felt like the start of a new, never-ending dynasty that wouldn’t just shock, but revitalize the world of baseball and everything around it.
Obviously, it wasn’t. Try as they did, the Phillies still haven’t recaptured the magic of that season. 2009 came close in returning to the Fall Classic before falling in six games to the Yankees. The 2010 team was possibly the best Phils team that I’ve ever seen, but again they ultimately fell short, this time in six games to the Giants in the NLCS.
By 2011, even the success of the regular season couldn’t shake my feeling that the dream was more or less dead. It didn’t officially end until an early October series against the Cardinals. I was at that game, when they were shut out 1-0, and when Howard tore his achillies on the final play. I saw it all happen live. Even then it felt like a prologue for the future.
Now, most of those 2008 hereos are long gone. Burrell was gone the next year, to the very same Rays he had just won a ring against.Feliz left town following the ’09 Series loss. Werth took a huge free agent paycheck to DC. Victorino was traded away, and most recently JRoll was dealt away this off-season.
The Ryan Howard that I knew, the MVP-caliber slugger, left us in that final NLDS game against Saint Louis, though I still can’t help but hope he might return, just for a bit. Chase and Chooch are still around, for now at least. But even Charlie Manuel has since moved on from the team.
In my heart, they’re all still out there. They’re still the team to beat, and always will be. They weren’t my first, but they were the first that I saw in a whole new light. Today, I don’t need any help to be a fanatical follower of any of my teams, it all comes so naturally. But I never could have been this way if that team hadn’t shown me how. The 2008 Phillies were the first in that regard, the first to show me what it is to be a true fan.