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'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?
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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?

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Thank goodness. A red light at Washington Avenue. Look right, Cliff: a vast vacant lot, a calamity of cracked concrete and weeds. No, don't look right—look left: Oh, God, exact same thing! Yep. This is what heaven looks like.

Keep looking east on Washington, to where all those Laotian supermarkets and Vietnamese cellphone joints and Cambodian hair salons and Buddhist apothecaries suddenly burst out. It's a neighborhood swarming with Asian immigrants over 50 who'll bet like crazy on the Fightin' Phils, says Vietnamese printer Hoang Tho, even though they haven't the faintest clue who Cliff Lee is ... and their kids, who can rattle off Cliff Lee's brain-blowing June and August stats—10--0 aggregate with an ERA of less than half a run. There's Vinh Su, a 24-year-old wearing a soul patch, a diamond earring and one of his six Phillies hats, a Chinese-American kid delivering pizza made by Mexicans in a joint owned by an Italian, who'll spend all evening bolting out of his blue Toyota with the Phils game blaring from the radio, running pepperoni-and-cheeses up row-house steps and staring over the shoulders of poor saps digging in their pockets for a 20 so he can see how Cole's pitching Chipper Jones on the living-room TV, then bolting back to his car to catch Cole corkscrewing Brian McCann. Vinh's a Cole Guy. "Cole's underrated, and he's from our system," he says.

Hold on. This can't be the South Philly that Cliff has seen Rocky Balboa jog through in movies. Mexicans too? Fanning out to work evening shifts in restaurants across the city, their numbers nearly tripling in the last decade. Philly actually growing for the first time in 60 years, according to the 2010 census, much of it due to this influx of Mexicans and Asians. Becoming an immigrant gateway again for the first time since the Irish and Italian waves of a century or more ago, a black-and-white quilt finally going Technicolor, held together by tight red thread.

Check out the lid on Luis Gustavo, one of those mexicano cooks, a Cliff Guy. He took scissors to the crown of his Phillies hat and slashed a big hole so he could stay in the kitchen, stand the heat and keep wearing his new town's colors. Because, says Luis, the Phils are all everyone in his new town talks about. "We are going to win everything this year," he says in Spanish. "We are very proud of this team. Everyone on the streets is so happy. I have bought the hats for my son and daughter also."

It's the damnedest thing. He's from just outside San Mateo Ozolco, this tiny town at the foot of an active volcano, over half of whose population of 4,500 has ended up as busboys, line chefs and dishwashers in Philly restaurants, turning the Italian Market on 9th Street—which claims to be the oldest outdoor one in the U.S.—into a riot of Mexican record shops and produce stands and taquerias and florists and throbbing fiesta music. Half the campesinos from that one dusty cinder-block pueblo with no restaurants and no baseball, now 2,400 miles away craning their necks as they napkin-wrap silverware, checking their restaurants' wall-mounted TVs to see if Los Phillies can pad their lead in the eighth.

C'mon. One block, another bloody red light? Take a long, slow breath, Cliff, and actually notice that breath. The way you learned to do on the mound just before the 2008 season, changing everything. The only way anyone will ever realize he's in heaven.

There he was, reeling from the worst season of his life—6.29 ERA, banishment to the minors—when he finally listened to the spiel that sports psychologist Charles Maher had been giving to the Indians every spring. The one about finding your breath, returning to this moment, every moment, so the moments don't dogpile and bury you. All his life, without knowing it, he'd been afflicted by attention deficit disorder, eyes and mind racing to the next thing, leg always jiggling, unable to get through more than a few pages without forgetting what he'd just read—"Never read a book in my life," he says—but at last he'd been humbled enough to change, at least on the mound. He finally relented to taking Adderall and began reminding himself over and over to come back to his breath. Presto: 22--3 in 2008, a 2.54 ERA, American League Cy Young Award.

But can he do it right here, at the corner of Broad and Ellsworth? Look over your right shoulder, Cliff. That's Point Breeze, a mostly African-American neighborhood, the last place you'd have found a Phillies fan a decade ago, or even a quarter century back. The older ones were raised on Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers, the middle-aged ones on Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and the '80s Mets. The Phillies? The team that taunted Jackie unmercifully in '47, the last National League team to integrate, with a 30-year-old sure-to-fizzle nobody named John Kennedy in '57, and no quality black player until Dick Allen in '64? Don't need that noise.

So what's occurring five blocks down Ellsworth, at 19th Street? Why is Diane Brown, a 58-year-old African-American woman with multiple sclerosis, jumping off her front step in a Phillies' NL championship T-shirt, peering in for her sign, rearing back and whipping her right arm to an imaginary Carlos Ruiz behind the plate? Sorry, Cliff. She's a Doc Girl. "I just love Doc's pose!" she howls. "Yes, yes, yes, I go wild! Tear 'em up!"

She drops back onto her front step overlooking Chew Playground, breathing hard. Here comes a 14-year-old black kid on a bike, Javaun Parris. He's wearing the red Phillies shirt of a white guy, outfielder Hunter Pence—who has been on the team for all of a week—because he got tired of seeing Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard T-shirts in his hood. Javaun's a Cliff Guy. Here comes Turtle Thomason, a 29-year-old black man in a wheelchair and a Phillies hat. Turtle's a Doc Guy.

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