The best thing about the Phillies home opener is that it always happens.
I don’t count the days until baseball season anymore. I can’t name players on the bottom-end of the Phillies roster off the top of my head. Last season, I checked out well before the dog days of summer.
I had to use Google to remember that the last time the Phillies sniffed the playoffs was 2011.
There are parts of that NL Division Series against the Cardinals, particularly game 5, that I remember well. I remember Roy Halladay pitching an absolute gem through eight innings, only letting up one run off back-to-back extra-base hits by the Cardinals’ first two batters.
Doc tossed 126 pitches in that game, and was followed up by 1-2-3 Ryan Madson performance in the top of the ninth.
The Phillies had three hits through nine innings and scored no runs, but that was the most exciting damn baseball game I ever went to. I remember the energy in Citizens Bank Park, the wild feeling that any moment the bats would start cracking and we’d be back on another World Series run.
But mostly when I think about that series, that Phillies season, that whole year, I remember this:
Howard came to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and hit a weak grounder right into the shift. He hardly got out of the box.
Howard limped a few strides, stopped, then let himself down to the ground as the the Cardinals players flooded out of the dugout to celebrate. The Phillies were knocked out of the playoffs. Ryan Howard tore his achilles.
In a way, it was the perfect juxtaposition — Howard slumped on the ground, the silence of the stadium, the Cardinals jumping around in a cheerful huddle somewhere between the pitcher’s mound and first base.
Walking out the stadium with my brother, deflated, I thought about the few seasons before.
It was one of those rare moments in sports when losing reminds you of how good it feels to win.
The Phillies weren’t far removed from their 2008 World Series win. In 2009, they got close again, but lost to the Yankees in a six-game World Series. In 2010, they lost in the National League Championship to the Giants, again in six.
Philly teams have had moments, but nothing touched that. We got to hear Harry Kalas call our team World Champions of Baseball. We got to see Carlos Ruiz make the happiest face anyone has ever made.
We got to see Pat Burrell (presumably) hammered, being pulled in a carriage down Broad Street by a pair of Clydesdales. We got to see Chase Utley use profanity on live television.
Sports championships are not frivolous things. They are incredible.
I can attest to this, as can most Philadelphians who had a pulse in 2008. They lift a city up in a way that nothing else can. Seriously, what else can we all come together on? When’s the last time you even considered hugging a stranger in Philadelphia?
If someone was wearing Phillies gear, and it was within a month of October 29, 2008, it’s possible I hugged them. I may not have. I’m sure I was holding things at times and it would have been inconvenient, or I was distracted, or I forgot in moments that the Phillies just won the World Series.
I’m not saying it was a lock, but hugs were always in play.
The years that followed the 2011 season haven’t been kind to the Phillies.
Our star players aged, and were traded away for assets. The team sort of just fell into obscurity in this town. It didn’t happen right away like that. It was more of a gradual dip.
The highly touted 257-game sellout streak ended in 2012, and attendance slowly declined since. Over the last two seasons, it has fallen off a cliff.
At times it felt like younger players would emerge and the Phillies rebuild would quicken its pace, but that’s not typically how baseball rolls. It’s a slow build. If you put enough pieces in place, who knows, you could end up with a homegrown core of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Cole Hamels.
This thought led to moments when I tricked myself into believing that Dom Brown could be an amazing baseball player.
That, uh, didn’t pan out.
Fast forward a few years, and you’ll find a lot of good reasons to hope for Aaron Nola, Césár Hernandez, Odubel Herrera, or Maikel Franco, but its definitely not my place to make projections on any player’s career.
I’m here mainly to tell you why the Phillies Home Opener is awesome.
My dad tells me the same joke every year when we go to Opening Day. Him, my brother, and I have been to something like 22 Phillies home openers together, so I’ve heard this joke a ton of times.
“Why couldn’t the Phillies drink any beer?”
“Because they lost the opener!”
This joke is horrible and perfect. It applies even if the Phillies win. You just adjust it in some ridiculous way, like:
“If the Phillies had lost, why couldn’t they have drunk any beer?”
I will accept this mangled sentence as the beginning of a joke because I need to hear this every year, and sometimes they win.
There’s another great thing that happens during the first home game, something which (I believe) hasn’t happened for the last two years because of the weather.
The U.S. Navy ‘Leap Frog’ team jumps out of an airplane, and parachutes onto the field to deliver the game ball to the umpire. Literally, a bunch of guys jump out of jet into a baseball stadium.
Look, I know dozens of baseballs are used over the course of a game, but when the opening synth chords to Van Halen’s “Jump” play over the stadium speakers, you just don’t care. That is the game ball. That is the only baseball that anybody will ever play with.
The Phillies players have also done some cool things over the years. Sometimes the whole team goes through the crowd and climbs down a makeshift staircase in center field, for example. They usually sign a ton of autographs on the first- and third-base lines, and there’s always some montage of the previous season’s most exciting moments on the Jumbotron.
Then there’s the first time in a season you get to hear the players announced. When I was a kid I loved this. My favorite player was Mickey Morandini, strictly because I like the sound of his name when Phillies PA Announcer Dan Baker said it.
Only, it feels like a few players are missing this season.
— Tim Kelly (@TimKellySports) April 3, 2017
I don’t mean to sound pessimistic.
But, the Phillies are projected by almost everybody to lose more games than they win this season. The playoffs are probably a pipe dream. Baseball is hard to watch when your team gets pummeled most of the time.
That’s not the point, or at least, it shouldn’t be.
Each new season brings with it the hope that we can cull together our next round of gamers.
We’re going to look for flashes from guys who might one day step to the plate in a Game 7 ninth inning when we’re down a run. We might look at Aaron Nola and think, “Can that dude carry us through two games of a playoff series?”
We have the luxury of thinking that way, because we’ve been there.
Let’s put this in perspective: The Mariners haven’t been to the playoffs in 15 seasons. The Marlins haven’t made it since winning the World Series in 2003.
The Phillies haven’t been to the playoffs since 2011, but there’s a path in place to getting back there.
Through three games, it’s hard to say anything profound about the on-field play, but we can speculate. Outpace projections for this season and get close, and who knows, maybe next season they make the jump to the playoffs.
Even that might be a slim chance, but that’s the beauty of a new season at Citizen’s Bank Ballpark. The records always reset. The box scores always start blank. The season is long as hell.
Opening Day is a reminder that the Phillies can get back there, even if it takes some time.