Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Perhaps a Past Life Should Stay Where It Was

Made a pretty good ass of myself watching the Phillies-Rockies game last night. Yelling at a television set for the transgressions of ballplayers thousands of miles away is not healthy behavior. It is fan behavior, a form of watching sports I once thought I couldn't revisit.

Nor should I revisit it. The Phillies were the first team I ever rooted for as a small child, and yours truly became a loudly, proudly, belligerently twisted, bitter Philadelphia fan. It's not a good way to live.

But then, watching the 2009 Phillies is not life-extending behavior, either -- not if you care about the outcome of their games. That goes for the other team's fans, too. During the agonizing eighth and ninth innings, when TBS showed the inevitable crowd between-pitch suffering close-ups, my reaction was pure empathy. Those poor devils were as strung out as myself, and they were freezing outdoors while at least I was warm.

It is one of baseball's singularities that it is the sport that produces both the most dismally tedious and excruciatingly exciting games. The Phillies are designed for torture. No wonder they have an old-school, no-pulse manager like Charlie Manuel. A dynamic leader of men like Tony LaRussa would've been straitjacket material by Mother's Day with this team.

My wife, Alice, is a casual sports fan who doesn't much care for baseball. Too slow, she says. You can imagine her reactions to playoff baseball, where pace of play would earn a two-stroke penalty on the PGA Tour. She came to sit on the sofa with me during last night's game to watch my antics and laugh at them. By the ninth, she was watching every pitch, or rather, listening and not watching every pitch. She had a blanket over her head, unable to bear the suspense.

Statistics tell part of the story. The Phillies lead baseball in come-from behind victories. The unspoken subset of that stat is that they are often behind. The Phillies also lead baseball in blown ninth-inning leads. That stat doesn't need a subset, except maybe that Brad Lidge, who closed out the Phils' two wins in Denver, lost the closer's job in September for blowing all those leads and possessing an ERA near 8. He got the job back through a Manuel hunch -- namely, "I got nobody else."

The Phillies have a set of hitters who perform with tremendous poise under maximum stress and a set of relief pitchers who have no poise and nearly no ability under maximum stress. Their games are never over until the last man is out, and he almost never is.

Everything I know about baseball and my sportswriting self tell me that such a club is doomed and deserves that doom. And yet, I feel a depth of affection for the team of my childhood that I didn't during their world championship run last season. Don't get me wrong. That was a great experience. But it all happened a little too quickly to achieve full emotional impact. One day, I was hoping they'd beat the Mets in the NL East, the next they were World Champs.

Nothing happens quickly to the 2009 Phils, or nothing has yet, anyway. I find their struggles more engrossing and endearing than the relatively easy path the 2008 bunch took to its title. It may be that in the final analysis, it is the pain teams inflict on their fans that provides the cement in their emotional bonds. You'd think a Philadelphian who lived through 1964 wouldn't be very tolerant of a ballclub possessing an uncanny gift for blowing leads, but here we are.

I will admit, however, that when Lidge got the final strikeout last night, my first reaction was "There might be two more rounds of this. Should I REALLY be happy?"

I will also admit that for one of the very few times in my life, I'm damn glad there's no games on TV tonight.


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