SI Vault
 
'WE'RE IN BASEBALL HEAVEN'
GARY SMITH
October 03, 2011
For Phillies Nation, every game has felt like October since Cliff Lee's return. Now an ever-growing fan base wonders: Is it still O.K. to boo?
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 03, 2011

'we're In Baseball Heaven'

For Phillies Nation, every game has felt like October since Cliff Lee's return. Now an ever-growing fan base wonders: Is it still O.K. to boo?

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Surgeons slicing open abdomens in the hospital 22 blocks behind him, wearing Phillies scrub caps. Chihuahuas pattering the sidewalks, wearing Phillies sweater vests. Old homeless men, conversing furiously with themselves, wearing Phillies T-shirts. A sex-shop window mannequin with two black leather bondage belts across its chest—in the so-called Gayborhood, just a couple of blocks away from Cliff's red light—no longer wearing the Phillies jersey it used to because the proprietor grew sick and tired, even after posting a sign in the window saying WE DO NOT CARRY PHILLIES MERCHANDISE, of shoppers wandering through the sex toys and porn in search of Phillies merchandise. Look around, Cliff. This is what heaven looks like.

He looks left to the largest city hall in North America, at Broad and Market, crested by the 37-foot statue of William Penn. The founder of a city that he called a Holy Experiment and that he named, in Greek—no, don't do it!—the City of Brotherly Love. But a man toiling on the second floor there says he can feel it, the populace has been altered, has become more what Will had in mind ... because of, of all things, a baseball team, the losingest one in major league history. "The people have become happier, more supportive," says the mayor, Michael Nutter. "There's a sense of joy here, a feeling we can do big things. Everyone's together. Everyone knows who's pitching each night even more than who we're playing against. It's a Cliff Lee Night or a Cole Hamels Night or a Doc Halladay Night or a Roy Oswalt Night. The Phillies have taken this town by storm. It's the perfect storm."

The perfect mesh of blue-collar city and blue-collar team: a fan base that falls asleep feeling as if it has plenty in common with guys making $10 million, $15 million, $20 million a year. A roster full of players who write checks for the town's parks and schools and abandoned pets and never run afoul of the law. A pent-up city that finally climaxed, allowing it to finally, just maybe, actually enjoy the 162-game foreplay this year.

A place where, as it once was with the Beatles, everyone has his own guy, one of the aces on this history-making starting staff whose demeanor and habits stand best for who the fan is and what he or she thinks sports should be all about. Boo, the lawyer on the square, he's a Doc Guy: "Because he does his job and says nothing." Dick Clark, the old guy feeding birds, he's a Cliff Guy: "He has more determination than anybody out there. He's having more fun than anybody out there."

Cliff looks right, toward the three stadiums hunkered at the south end of Broad Street, the nexus of angst during those 25 years, those 100 seasons, when four big league teams went without a championship in a city that lived and died its sports more than any other because ball games were the only way it could possibly keep up with its two big brothers, New York City and Washington. "They should've done something to prepare me," says Charles Barkley of the day in 1984 that he joined the 76ers. "Like put me in prison for six months."

The black BMW turns right, away from the city's forefather, and heads down Broad, once dubbed the longest, straightest street in the world. No wonder. All those years, stretched taut between Penn's lovey-dovey vision of the world and the Sports Complex's angry disillusionment with it. Cliff Lee's going to work.

Imagine driving to work every day down the street where two million people will gather to drink and dance and climb trees and light poles to shower you with love if you succeed. Imagine reporting every day to a workplace where 45,000 people leap to their feet and roar for you for doing the smallest thing—writing a half-decent memo or bringing in a half-dozen doughnuts. That's what happens in baseball heaven every time Cliff Lee runs hard to first on a ground out or hits a pretty long fly ball to left.

He hits a wall of traffic. At 18 months he was hunting ducks with his firefighter father. At 10 he was yanking largemouth bass out of the Saline River, and at 15 getting fetched by his American Legion coach from the fishing hole in the quarry when it was time to practice. He'd never wanted any part of the subway and siren scream of a big city, heading straight for Cleveland's burbs when he broke in with the Indians in 2002; renting Jamie Moyer's house outside of Seattle as a Mariner; commuting from a hotel in suburban Las Colinas, Texas, during his three months with the Rangers. But something about Philly, gritty Philly... .

It was the littlest big city in the world, whittled into scores of neighborhoods that exuded none of the arrogance of its big-city brethren; seeping, on the contrary, from an old infested identity wound suffered when it tumbled off its pedestal as the capital and wealthiest city in the newborn nation, a wound that gangrened as factories and textile mills and sugar refineries began closing and crumbling during the decades after World War I in the burg once known as the Workshop of the World. Two thirds of Philly's industrial jobs vanishing like ... like a 6½-game lead with 12 left in the 1964 pennant race, or a two-run lead on Black Friday in the '77 playoffs with two outs and nobody on in the ninth, or a Mitch Williams 2--2 fastball hissing skyward off Joe Carter's bat in the ninth to send the '93 World Series up in soot.

Cliff never tasted that soot, never wallowed in the 10,000 losses that the losingest franchise in the history of pro sports had seared on Philly's forehead, never blackened in the baseball hell that third baseman Scott Rolen and pitcher Curt Schilling, the team's two lonely turn-of-the-millenium stars, fled a decade ago. He'd only known the homey shop owners and the out-of-this-Old-World Italian food and the every-night sellouts and the thunder at each display of leather and lumber during his three-month joyride here in 2009, and he and his wife, Kristen—undaunted that it ended in a World Series loss to the Yankees, sickened when they suddenly lost all of that in a shocking off-season trade to Seattle—wanted back in. Wanted more Philly, those two Arkansas kids who'd howled at the moon over bonfires in the woods off Highway 9, and wanted smack dab in its high-rise heart.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7