Saturday, October 16, 2010

Uneasy Lies This Head That Wears the Cursive "P"

The baseball saying invented approximately three days before Alexander Cartwright laid out the first diamond goes "you learn something new every day in this game." You can feel something new every day, too.

This baseball fan of over 50 years standing has been wrestling with an entirely new emotional setup the past month. I've been placed in a rooting framework that is wholly unfamiliar. I, and all other Phillies fans, will be pulling for a favorite when the NLCS starts tonight against the Giants. Cheering for the overdog? As much as I want the Phils to win, that's too weird an experience for me to be comfortable.

The Phillies are not favorites. They have not been favorites since they were founded in 1883. They are the baseball team with the major league records for most losses and most finishes in last place. Their victories (and there have been some) are always surprises. The proper emotions for a Phils fan are resignation, anger, and dread, often all three at once.

Saw my first Phillies game in 1956 at age seven. They lost. From age 9 to 12, I rooted for a team that finished last every year, and threw in a post-1900 record 23-game losing streak in as a bonus for my devotion. Then came 1964. No scars from blowing a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 to play.

I'm not complaining. The Phillies have won two World Series in my lifetime, which considering it took 97 years for them to get the first one, is two more than in the lifetimes of many good Phillies fans no longer with us. That first title in 1980 cured me of the Philadelphia fan negativity that was my birthright. I have never since believed in predestined doom for the Phillies or any other team. Even good stuff happens, sometimes.

But there's quite a gap between rooting for a team you think has a chance and one you think OUGHT to win. When the Phillies won it all again in 2008, I was thrilled, and also surprised. They were a good team, but I hadn't figured them for champions. When they reached the Series in 2009, I was again thrilled and surprised. The Phillies last year were a combination of extreme baseball virtues (a potent lineup with a penchant for late-inning production) and extreme vices (a closer who couldn't get people out). It was engrossing and excruciating to watch how the team's virtues raced its vices to the end of every playoff game.

This year, well, there's no getting around it. The Phillies are winners who play like it. Every objective and subjective standard I have used to evaluate baseball teams tells me they're winners. The little voice of Philadelphia dread is almost impossible to hear, outshouted by the evidence.

Aggressive front office able to address team weaknesses? Over there I see Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt. Put down a check mark.

Able to withstand adversity? Every member of the starting infield, including two former MVPs, spent at least three weeks on the disabled list. Yet here we are, getting ready for another NLCS in Philadelphia. Another check mark.

Play their best when it counts? For the fourth consecutive season, the Phillies came from off the pace, this time way off, to win their division. September has become their month. Put down four check marks. For a veteran of 1964, that's a real mind-blower.

Opportunism? See Game Two against the Reds last Saturday. Cincinnati's slipshod fielding gave the Phils a crack, and they used the crack to break the Reds apart for good. Check mark once more.

Here's a completely subjective metric. Fans of other teams are starting to say "I hate the Phillies." That ONLY happens to overdogs. Fans of other teams used to regard the Phillies with contempt and pity the once every decade they gave the team any thought at all.

Gosh, doesn't that sound great? It is. You'd think it'd make me a happy fan, and it does, sort of. But it's the "sort of" that gets me. I am profoundly ambivalent about rooting for a favorite. It is better than rooting for a patsy, no doubt about it, but it makes me uncomfortable. The easy arrogance of the Yankee fan (or Celtic fan, or Cowboys fan) is not for me. There's enough old-school Philadelphia fan left in my soul to feel, deep down, that the Phils' new status is a disruption of the universe as it should be. I put off writing this post for a week because I wasn't sure I should make my feelings public. Just saying the Phillies were favorites might jinx them.

Jinxes are for losers. I don't believe in them, when it comes to all other sports teams. With this one, my first sports love, my oldest love, I do and I don't. The evidence of my own eyes and the record books isn't quite enough to erase childhood terrors.

Although I must say Halladay is just about enough evidence to do it. How good are he and his teammates? Good enough that if they lose the NLCS to the Giants, I won't just be very sad. I'll be a little surprised. Being surprised when the Phillies lose WOULD be learning something new.


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