PHILADELPHIA -- Bryce Harper and Cole Hamels may instigate a rivalry between the Nationals and the Phillies. But that's only if Hamels re-signs with the Phillies and, even then, only because of their abilities on the field.
Professional sports teams are attempting at a furious rate to lure fans away from the comfort of their couches to live games. And sweet technological upgrades to their home venues become a bigger selling point every year.
PHILADELPHIA -- So what was it like, to be at the park on a drizzly October night a guy pitched his way into the pantheon? The fans at Citizens Bank Park waved their little white rally towels frantically. They stood and screamed -- pure, primal, throat-scratching screaming -- on pitch after pitch and after pitch. (And there were only 104 of them for the game.) The fans dressed in operating gowns, waiting for Roy (Doc) Halladay to see them, looked remarkably healthy, jumping up and down, up and down, up and down.
PHILADELPHIA -- The moment the clubhouse doors swung open to the media, a little past midnight Tuesday morning, the Phillies turned all at once and dashed from their lockers into the privacy of their back lounge. They surrounded their longest-tenured player, raised shots of Tequila Don Julio, and chanted: "One more! One more! One more!" Then they strutted back into the clubhouse, all of them following shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who was wearing a ring of shaving cream atop his head like a crown. It was as though he couldn't bring himself to wipe it off.
LOS ANGELES -- After Pedro Martinez had slicked his curls and packed his man purse, he stood in front of his locker at Dodger Stadium, holding a baseball he waited 18 years to get his hands on. The ball was signed by every member of the 1991 Bakersfield Dodgers, then the club's Class A affiliate, a team that featured Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi and Martinez on the same roster. The ball was a gift from a friend in Southern California, meant to honor Martinez's homecoming, and as the 37-year-old pitcher stared at the faded ink, a smile crept across his face from curl to curl.
He doesn't have the celebrity wife. Nor does he have the perfect hair, the perfect changeup, or the World Series MVP on his resume. No, Cliff Lee is not the fabulous Cole Hamels. But on a chilly Wednesday afternoon in Philadelphia, as winds swirled wildly and napkins and cheesesteak wrappers blew across Citizens Bank Park, the underrated and unflashy 31-year-old left-hander showed why he is the true ace of the defending champs. With two outs in the ninth of a 5-1 game, the chant of "Let's go Lee!" echoed across the ballpark as the lefty buzzed a 94 mph fastball over the plate and past swinging Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins for the final pitch of an exquisite October complete-game gem.
It was one big exhale. That's what that was Wednesday night. From the unbridled crowd of thousands that immediately closed down Broad Street, into the stands at glistening Citizens Bank Park, down on the field, back in the Phillies' clubhouse, to the banks of the Schuylkill and far beyond came the final, tightly held breath of a city that has been sucking it in for far too long.
PHILADELPHIA -- What we'll be watching on Wednesday night -- well, hopefully we'll get to watch it, anyway -- won't be baseball as we know it. It'll look like baseball, if you ignore the parkas and the earflaps. It might sound like a muffled version of baseball. There'll be plenty of spitting and plenty of Tim McCarver. We'll have umpires, though the way they've umped this October, that's probably not a good thing.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies rolled into a chilly but mostly dry Citizens Bank Park on Monday afternoon with visions of a night dominated by champagne, cigars and a big ol' shiny trophy. But by the time they left the field, chilled to the bone and soaked to their jocks, all they were thinking about was finding a warm, dry place to forget about everything.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Bank can only hold 45,000 fans. So the real ball-watching goes on in the bars and the pubs and the taverns, hundreds upon hundreds of them, all over the city, plus hundreds more in the suburbs and over in South Jersey.
If you're a Phillies fan, what gets you going right now is the potential for your team to win the World Series without ever going back on the road. By winning one game in Tampa, the Phillies took home-field advantage back for the remainder of the series. Although home-field advantage in baseball is generally small -- and certainly not worth using as an incentive for the All-Star Game -- the Rays were a much different team home than they were away: 57-24 with a +92 run differential at Tropicana Dome; 40-41 and +11 everywhere else.
PHILADELPHIA -- At least one person at Citizens Bank Park on Friday wasn't impressed with the biggest defensive play in Game 2 of the NLCS. "It wasn't that tough a catch," Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake said, of Shane Victorino's leaping grab in front of the centerfield wall at Citizens Bank Park. It was Blake's deep drive in the seventh inning, with two men on base, that Victorino snagged to preserve a three-run lead for the Phillies. "I'm not sure he had to jump like that," Blake said. "I think [Victorino] had more room than he thought."
I still remember the silence. It was October 2005, Game 5 of the NLCS between the Cardinals and Astros, and I was standing in the back of the press box at Minute Maid Park in Houston, shoulder-to-shoulder with other sportswriters readying for the postgame stampede to the media-only elevators. The scoreboard read 4-2 Houston, ninth inning, two outs, 0-2 count. Game Over, in other words. Albert Pujols was at the plate with two men on base, but on the mound was a closer who at that very moment had the aura of invincibility of Iron Man walking out of the cave-- a 28-year-old right-hander named Brad Lidge, the best closer in the National League. You know what happened next: The pitch, thrown as 42,000 screaming fans whapped their Thunderstix, was a hanging slider. Pujols swung.
1. Derek Lowe wasn't rattled. He wasn't tired. He was only 80 pitches into shutting out the Phillies in the sixth inning of NLCS Game 1. His game-changing mistake, however, was in failing to slow down the game. The crowd at Citizens Bank Park had come back to life thanks to a two-base throwing error by Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal. Chase Utley was the next hitter. The situation called for Lowe to step back and gain conviction for his next pitch, which is exactly what he had done in the previous inning in a key at-bat against Jimmy Rollins. Lowe's instinct was to throw a breaking ball after Utley had smacked a sinker for a hard single in the first inning, Lowe had fanned him in the fourth by throwing Utley five straight breaking balls.
PHILADELPHIA -- In the transparently obvious coast-to-coast hope to see the storyline win out and have Manny Ramirez return to Boston to play in a most venomous World Series, some of us forgot that there's another team playing in the National League playoffs. Despite their combination of pitching and punch, plus their penchant for the comeback, the Phillies are the forgotten team of the NL.
The turning point? No, it wasn't Shane Victorino's jaw-dropping grand slam in the second inning. No, it wasn't Prince Fielder's feeble groundout in the eighth with two men on in a three-run game. No, here was the turning point of Philly's 5-2 Game 2 victory (Recap | Box Score): Starting pitcher Brett Myers -- at the plate -- staring down CC Sabathia during an epic at-bat in the fateful second inning, the white-towel waving fans roaring after every pitch. There was Myers, fighting off a killer 79-mph slider. There was Myers, swatting away a 97-mph heater. Finally, after nine pitches, there was the hurler with the .059 batting average watching a 96-mph fastball buzz below his knees for ball four. Four pitches later, Jimmy Rollins also walked. Four more pitches later, Sabathia hung an 82-mph slider over the plate, and Victorino launched it over the yellow W.B. Mason sign in left field. The faithful here, who haven't had anything to cheer about in October since 1993, exploded. Citizens
Pity the poor Phillies. Not only are they down 2-0 in a best-of-five series, but they lost those two games at home and now have to travel to one of the most bizarre and unique parks in baseball, the literally mile-high Coors Field in Denver.
And so there they were, ready to plant their red and white flag square in the cold, cruel collective heart of Philadelphia sports fans from the Great Northeast to South Street. Yes, it was the perfect time for the Philadelphia Phillies to become the kings of Rocky Balboa City, at least for a while. The NFL Eagles are temporary toast. Their coach looks more catatonic than usual, their quarterback is getting little support for his charges of racism, their record is an anemic 1-3, and it's a bye week, for heaven's sake. No football unless you count Temple, which you should not.
Everyone knows the Rockies can hit, but by striking out the first four men he faced in the opening game of the Rockies' National League Division Series against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday, Jeff Francis officially served notice that his team can pitch a bit as well.
You can make fun of the rinky-dink ballpark, and you can giggle at the rotation full of no-names, retreads and a 44-year-old left-handed junkballer that, at least right now, is the de facto ace of a sorry staff. Disparage the bullpen. Mock the manager. Why not? Everybody in Philadelphia does.
PHILADELPHIA -- The box arrived in the Phillies' clubhouse around 4 p.m. on Friday, hand-delivered to Shane Victorino's locker. Its contents were preview copies of what, come June 3, will be the goofiest bobblehead giveaway in Major League Baseball this year: Victorino's "hula" figurine, complete with a lei around his neck, a ukulele in his hands, a grass skirt around his waist, and an adhesive base for mounting on the dashboards of fans' automobiles.