IT WAS 6:15 on the evening of Jan. 18, and were this any other year, the couple of hundred sports fans who had gathered in the Diamond Club inside Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park might have been consumed by despair. Less than an hour before, Donovan McNabb and the Eagles had lost the NFC Championship Game for the fourth time this decade, in typically mystifying fashion. And yet, aside from occasional mutters of "Frickin' Eagles!" by a few middle-aged men with the quarterback's last name and number screen-printed on their backs, the mood in the Diamond Club was positively ebullient. People were actually laughing. That was due to the lanky, square-jawed young man with the dark, center-parted hair who was stationed near the back wall, separated from the fans only by a nightclub-style rope. The young man was Cole Hamels, the lefthanded ace who last fall, at age 24, led the Phillies to their first World Series title since 1980 and Philadelphia's first championship of any kind since '83. In so doing he made the city a winner again, which no Eagles flameout could take away.
Hamels had been contracted to appear at the Diamond Club for two hours, from six to eight, to help introduce a series of prints officially described as "a limited edition giclée-on-canvas of Cole Hamels hand-embellished by world renowned sports artist Bill Lopa," any of which could be purchased for the special New Year's price of $1,950. Though this event was not exactly as glamorous as The Late Show with David Letterman, on which Hamels appeared immediately after the World Series, his comportment suggested that the Diamond Club was the only place on earth he wanted to be.
To start, he signed a stack of prints as thick as the Bible. The pitcher inscribed each one Cole Hamels, W.S. MVP '08, gripping the pen up high so as not to smudge the silver ink.
Then it was picture time. Hamels offered a handshake and a toothy smile to each purchaser, who as part of the transaction was entitled to a photograph with him. The buyers strode up and slapped him on the back, and he deftly engaged them in a few seconds of small talk and laughter before wheeling toward the camera. He put a comforting arm around the shoulders of the shy boys in Little League uniforms who couldn't bring themselves to establish eye contact, gently guiding them into the proper position just before the flash went off. There was, in fact, only one moment in which Hamels displayed any uncertainty.
"Could you say a few words for my daughter, Arden Rose?" asked a woman with a video camera. She had purchased a pair of prints.
"I'd be happy to," Hamels said.
"Her bat mitzvah's coming up, so could you congratulate her on that? We're making a video for the party."
Hamels looked perplexed, and he glanced toward his wife, Heidi, who was perched on a high chair off to the side, sipping from a cup of water. She shrugged.
"How do you say it?" Hamels asked. "A what mitzvah? I know a bar mitzvah—"
"You know, Cole, like a bat," interjected his agent, John Boggs, as he pantomimed a swing. "Sort of."