The wind blows gently to right. The workmen scald the old lettering off the dugout roofs with acetylene torches. A drill echoes from beneath the new high-def scoreboard in left. Another overflow off-season tour group mills in the clubhouse, peppering the guide with the same question as the last group: Where will the starting pitchers dress? A fantasy is about to unfold in front of 81 straight sell-out crowds. Of all the ballparks in America, here.
The Legion of Arms—on paper, one of the best starting staffs in the history of the game—has chosen their city, their team, their ballpark. Into the belly of the beast walk The Four.
HERE'S THE DIRT HILL. Here's the circle of clay where the drama will play out, where The Four will do battle. A group you dare to imagine only when you're a boy, conjuring up superheroes swooping in to save the day and forming a foursome to crush forces of evil too toxic for a single crusader. An 11-year-old boy such as Cole Hamels once was, spreading out his newest pack of X-Men cards in his San Diego bedroom years before he stumbled upon his special powers, never dreaming that one day, on a dirt hill 2,700 miles away....
First: Tunnelman. A 33-year-old character named Roy Halladay—debut issue: September 1998—who was cocreated by a pair of pitching coaches, a sports psychologist and a father who groomed him in a Colorado basement 60 feet, six inches long with a batting cage and pitcher's mound. He appears to be right in front of you, but no, he's actually alone in the invisible tunnel he's relentlessly burrowing—a tube with no sound or distractions to compromise his preparation or focus, into which he lures his enemies and dismantles them. He's an old-school superhero—empty speech bubbles, 13-hour workdays—who goes to sleep at 8 p.m. so he can arise at 4 a.m. and report for duty an hour and a half before sunrise. Secondary special powers: a Death Stare so searing that even his manager is hesitant to disturb it—"I sort of black out out there," confesses Tunnelman—and a supernatural sense of smell. No one can scent a finish line like him, his 27 complete games over the last three seasons totaling more than every other team's entire staff combined, twice as many as 14 teams' staffs and three times as many as six teams'.
Loose Laser is next. The 32-year-old crusader who nearly saved this metropolis single-handedly in an episode two years ago and whose subsequent banishment and shocking return in December has the populace in a fever of anticipation surpassing any it has ever known. Civilian name: Cliff Lee, a wild and loose-limbed country kid who suddenly discovered, at age 29, that he could hurl a white sphere wherever he fixed his eyes. Somehow his laser control—an infinitesimal 18 walks allowed in 212 1/3 innings last year—and his nonchalance only increase in crises; why, marvels a former rotation mate named Jamie Moyer, in the postseason it's as if he doesn't have a pulse! A guy flinging darts into his rival's heart for the sheer hell of it and murmuring, No sweat for me, howzabout you? Yes, Tunnelman did indeed throw a perfect game and a no-hitter last year, but were the future of this planet at stake, you might consider giving Loose Laser the nod.
Meet the third member of The Legion: Late Riser. He's the smallest, most low-key and inscrutable of The Four, a half-foot shorter than Tunnelman, and yet this 33-year-old character—formerly a scrawny boy named Roy Oswalt, raised by a logging family in a Mississippi pine forest—can actually hurl a missile faster than any of them, one that abruptly elevates and explodes at the last instant, startling his foes and spawning his name. "He's kind of invisible," says Moyer, "you don't even notice him, you can't read his face... ." and then, kaboom! Late in the season, of course, is when Late Riser rises most. His lifetime record after July, 68--17, is better than that of any moundsman in the game.
Last, but hardly last... . Kid Quantum, the youth who alters Newtonian laws of physics. At 27 he's the greenest and handsomest of The Four, the tall, skinny collector of superhero cards and a self-professed geek in adolescence ... until the day 10 years ago that Cole Hamels ran full-speed into a parked car playing street football and suffered, unbeknownst to him, a stress fracture of the humerus in his left arm. The long bone snapped like a pine branch in mid-pitch during his next summer league game, dropping him to the dirt in pain and seeming to extinguish his big league dreams. Only for him to discover, upon his recovery a year later, that that left arm now could bend time and distance, could launch a white pellet that left his hand looking exactly like his 93-mile-an-hour sizzler but then screeched to a halt and began to bend, leaving his foes swinging at something that had not even reached them yet, coiling them in knots.
Of course, as with most superhero legions, The Four have a mortal sidekick who accompanies them on their adventures and provides that human touch that the audience can relate to. Meet Joe B—30-year-old Big Joe Blanton—the stout Kentucky righthander perfect for the role. Quiet, easygoing, never raising a ripple and capable, in stretches, of performing nearly as well as The Four, all of whom were hasty, of course, to insist he be part of any Legion portrait, to reject all the quartet nicknames and to dismiss all the Internet images with the heads of The Four superimposed upon Mount Rushmore or the Four Horsemen or the Beatles crossing Abbey Road, because: What about Joe?
What a moment it was when The Legion first appeared, elbow to elbow, on the opening day of spring training. Sixty reporters and cameramen crammed into a small cafeteria to record their every twitch and utterance, a live feed capturing it all on television and online. Chris Wheeler, the Phillies' TV voice, kept grinning and shaking his head: "Oh, my God! All those guys ... in our uniform! How did this happen? It used to be cool to have one of those kind of guys on our staff—and there are four of them! It's shocking! It's like coming out of a tunnel into the daylight. Is this the Phillies?"
Yes, a franchise abandoned only a decade ago by its two lonely heroes—Schilling and third baseman Scott Rolen—who insisted that ownership lacked the hunger or cash commitment to triumph. What happened in that decade? What created this portal into an alternate universe where superheroes long for Philadelphia and yearn to hurl in this Haunted Hurlers' House?