"His voice betrayed a craving for terrible things." -- Don DeLillo

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October 2, 2007

The Pain and the Yearning: A Personal History With The Phillies -- OR -- THE PHILLIES ARE IN THE PLAYOFFS!!!!

The Phillies are in the playoffs.

Let that settle in for a minute. It still doesn't seem real to me, but here it is again: The Philadelphia Phillies Are In The Playoffs!!!! 14 years. It's been 14 long, long years, but the wait is finally over. I've had over 48 hours to let it sink in and I'm still struggling for words. After one of the most improbable, cathartic, and unforgettable runs of baseball I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing, the Phillies are in the playoffs. But to help explain why this is such a special moment for me, we need to start at the beginning...

How does one become a fan of the losingest franchise in sports history? How does one fall in love with a team that is synonymous with failure and heartbreak? For me, it was just geography. In 1987, I was living in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, about an hour outside of the city. When I came of age as a teeball playing baseball fanatic, the local team happened to be the Phightin' Phils and that was that, I was stuck for life. I still have the old school Phils cap my Dad bought me on our first trip to the Vet. I simply don't remember a time when I wasn't a fan of the Phillies. Maybe you should start pitying me about now...

Those first few years weren't much worth remembering. I still recall Mike Schmidt's tearful retirement, though I'd already missed all of his best years. The team, though, didn't crack .500 for my first six years I followed them. To think, we were only getting started.

My first taste of baseball bliss came finally in 1993. While this is the team that many contemporary Phillies fans hold near and dear, I'll admit that much of the season has faded into my brain fog. Considering I was only 11 years old and now living in New Jersey, I had to rely on USA Today and brief sports reports on TV for my Phils news (since the Extra Innings cable package, ubiquitous Internet sports coverage, and MLB.TV were still only glints in the future). As a result, I saw far fewer of the season's games than I would have liked. I had my favorites on the roster (John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra, and Darren Daulton foremost among them), but the game-to-game details are a haze. Like every other Phan, though, I have one distinct memory from 1993 tattooed in my memory and it's one I wish I could Eternal Sunshine outta there: Williams vs. Carter. I don't remember where I was when the Phillies clinched the NL East pennant, I don't remember the team moving on to the World Series, but I remember every detail about that tragic home run. I was sitting on the floor in front of the TV alone in the upstairs TV room, paying rapt attention to every pitch (after all, the playoffs were the one time I got to watch day after day of the Phils). Carter destroyed the psyche of an entire fanbase and I screamed. I yelled. I pounded on the walls in agony until my parents yelled at me to calm down. I took malicious, mean-spirited enjoyment out of hearing about the death threats that soon followed Wild Thing. If I had known at the time that it would be nearly 14 years before I'd get to watch the Phillies in another playoff game, I probably would have hunted down Mitch myself.

The next seven years were a dark time for Phillies fans. Not a single season above .500, culminating in a putrid 65-97 (.401) in 2000. It was already difficult to keep up with every game not living near Philly (though I moved back to the city when I started at Penn in the fall of 1999) and it became downright depressing when the team would find themselves buried in the basement 20 games out of first by the middle of May. Why would anyone want to be a Phillies fan?

Slowly, though, our fortunes begin changing. Unfortunately, this only meant that the inevitable collapses just came later in the season. The 2001 upstart team made a spirited late-season run at the pennant, but two back-breaking last-week losses to Atlanta cost the team a shot at the playoffs. The 2002 team regressed and finished a game under .500. In 2003, with Bunyanesque Jim Thome now onboard, the team was ready to make a serious push. Some great victories from that season still lurk in my memories. Kevin Millwood's no-hitter on the Phanatic's birthday remains the single greatest sporting event I've attended in person. It's also the only competition right now with September 30, 2007 as my all-time favorite Phillies moment. Another great win was Marlon Byrd's 11th inning walkoff on July 17, 2003 (I can still picture the team mobbing Byrd at the plate--it's also worth noting that this would be the highlight of Byrd's career here).

That said, it's the heartbreakers that linger. In 2003, it was Jeff Conine's home run against Millwood on September 23, the gamechanger that started a Marlins rally that lead to a Marlins sweep, and eventually brought the Wild Card title and World Series championship to Florida. There's still a dent in the wall of our old apartment from whatever I threw into it after that home run. In 2004, it was the crippling seven game losing streak in August that doomed the Larry Bowa Era.

In 2005, I blame Billy Fucking Wagner. First of all, if Ed Wade had any balls, he would have traded Billy Wagner for the king's ransom he would have fetched at the deadline (the rumor of Wagner to the Red Sox for Arroyo, Youkilis, and Shoppach may not have actually been true, but if it were, we would have probably made the playoffs a couple times since then). Instead, we kept Wagner and got to watch as he blew two straight saves to the Astros in September, handing the Wild Card to his old team. The fact that Wagner never hesistates to shit all over Philadelphia now that he's gone just makes this even more painful. I was at the catastrophic September 7 game that featured a David Bell/Billy Wagner/Craig Biggio gang rape of the entire Phillies fanbase and it is still the most soul-crushing game I've witnessed in person. Nothing like a sports game that ruins your entire night and most of the next few days. I can still feel the scars from the hatred, evil, and devastation that blackened my heart that night. And you think I'm being melodramatic.

In 2006, the Phils' 85-77 record simply wasn't enough to compete with a crowded Wild Card field--the combination of a 10-14 April and 3-4 finish to the season was just too much to overcome. Particularly disappointing was the June 20 loss to the Yankees I attended where Ryan Howard single-handedly tried to bash the team to victory (with two home runs, a triple, and seven RBI). However, the infinite crappiness of Phillies relievers Arthur Rhodes and Ryan Franklin was just too overwhelming. The stage was set, though, for 2007...

I'll refrain from commenting too much about the 2007 season since the team is still writing its story, but it's been a wild ride. It looked like we were in for a long season after Madson blew the first two games in extra innings (before suddenly flipping a switch and becoming our most effective reliever for much of the year before his injury in August) and the Braves kicked things off with a season-opening sweep. By the beginning of June, we were still a game under .500 and already eight games behind the Mets. The highlights were starting to come in, though. On June 3, it was Shane Victorino's walk-off on his figurine day, the game that broke my ignominious losing streak of games attended at Citizens Bank Park (which at that point stretched back to 2005 and was somewhere around 0-10 or so (though I stopped keeping track because it was too depressing)). On June 13, there was the rare weekday day game victory that, more notably, was the start of Kyle Kendrick's impressive season with the big boys. August brought the now-season-defining four-game sweep of the Mets at home that preceded the equally-critical sweep at Shea in September (I could write a whole essay on those seven games alone--suffice to say, I would pay $500 to have a seven DVD set of the full Phillies broadcasts of each of these games). Of course, it wouldn't be a Phillies season without the requisite low points (Chase breaking his hand and ending his chance at a record-breaking season for a second baseman; the infamous eight run collapse against the Braves on September 5), but, above all, this team has persevered.

For the last few years, one of my biggest fears has been the thought that we might have the privilege of watching Chase, Ryan, Cole, and J-Roll for all these years without ever knowing what they might be able to do in the playoffs. Tomorrow, we're going to find out. When Brett Myers threw that final strike in Sunday's game, clinching the playoffs after all these years, I barely knew how to react. I screamed, I cheered, I nearly collapsed, and I watched stunned as the team stormed on the field to celebrate. I was a complete mess of emotions. It was also probably the first time I've felt homesick since moving to California. I've been saying all year that the Phillies were destined to make the playoffs this season since it would be the first time in years I wouldn't be there, but to have it actually happen was almost overwhelming. Had I still been in Philadelphia, I would have been at the game, sharing in the catharsis and euphoria of exorcising 14 years of demons along with 50,000 other fans. Instead, I was sitting in bed watching the game on my laptop. But as I've watched the footage again (and again) over the past few days, I still get goosebumps each time. This is my team. The team I've suffered with through so many horrific seasons, so much wasted potential, and so much heartbreak. The team to which I've sworn my lifelong allegiance. The team that will always be a part of me. And after 14 years of waiting, the Phans are finally going to get to watch our team make a run at the championship. To some, it may be silly to invest so much emotional capital in a random group of mercenary athletes, but it's their loss. Chase, Ryan, Cole, and the others are not just playing for themselves. They're playing for a city that has needed a champion for a long time, a city that's dying to embrace a baseball team again, a city made up of the most passionate fans in the country. They're playing for all the Phans who one way or another found themselves rooting for a team that's had nothing but bad luck for a long, long time. This all may be over in a few days, but it won't matter. We're here now and nothing can take this feeling away from us.

Go Phillies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!