I think it’s really good for baseball. It’s not so good for my stomach. – Terry Francona
“I hear you’re a Cardinals fan,” a co-worker said to me the other day, as I retrieved my morning coffee. A slightly disdainful glare penetrated his raised eyebrow. He looked none too pleased.
“Uh, yeah,” I replied, resisting the need to explain myself. “Yes, I am, in fact.” There, I said it, what’s it to you? “Who told you?” I asked. If you’re surrounded by assassins, the first thing you need to know is where the sharpshooters are positioned.
It is a part of life to which I have become accustomed, rooting for a team that plays 1,500 miles away in a city to which I have no physical or familial connection. I journey through life in a baseball diaspora, wandering through the streets of Philadelphia in a permanent state of isolation, an outsider, a fan in perpetual exile. It can be a lonely journey indeed.
The hometown faithful in Philadelphia have had much to cheer about these past five years, their baseball team the dominant force, along with the Bronx Bombers, in Major League Baseball. It is not something Phillies’ fans have experienced much in the past half century. Nevertheless, here we are. For the first time in 80 years, Philadelphia and St. Louis are meeting in the postseason (in 1931, the Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Athletics in a best-of-seven World Series matchup), and the Phillies are the prohibitive favorites. They have one of the best starting rotations in recent baseball history, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt providing an excess of pitching talent that is the envy of every other team in the league. The Cardinals, by contrast, are lucky to be here, having overcome a 10 ½ game deficit in the Wild Card standings as of August 25th, surpassing the Atlanta Braves with a wild and wonderful September run and sneaking into the postseason with the help of a Braves late-season slide. It was a comeback of historic proportions in a season filled with monumental collapses and miraculous come-from-behind victories.
Four weeks ago, it appeared as if September would be uninspiring, merely a place setter until October baseball arrived, when the dominant teams could finally go head-to-head. But in baseball, as in life, expectations can easily be destroyed. Disappointment and despair once again hovered over the banks of the Charles River as the Red Sox faithful watched helplessly as their team lost 20 of its final 27 games, its lead steadily eroded by the advancing Tampa Bay Rays during the worst September downfall in baseball history. Boston’s playoff hopes still alive on the last game of the season, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was just one strike away from securing a 3-2 win over the Orioles. Then, in a flash, the Orioles ripped three consecutive hits, scoring two runs and beating the Sox 4-3. Three minutes later, Evan Longoria put the finishing touches on a 8-7 Rays victory with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the tenth against the Yankees, who just thirty minutes earlier had led 7-0 in the bottom of the eighth. It seems the Curse of the Bambino has not entirely vacated the spiritual descendants of Fenway Park.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Nation erupted in cheers as the Cardinals put the finishing touches on an 8-0 win in Houston, while the Braves, who had led the Cards by 8 ½ games on September 1st, were swept by the Phillies during the final three games, the last an extra-inning nail biter won by the Phillies in the 13th inning. The Braves had simply run out of gas.
In the movie Moneyball, Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager played by Brad Pitt, downplays the importance of a winning record, because history “only remembers the guy who wins the last game of the season.” Winning a lot of games in the regular season is fine, but only one team is left standing at the end. Thus, my exuberance and delight on Wednesday night quickly turned to nervous anxiety on Thursday, as I began listening to Philadelphia sports commentators discuss how the Phillies would manhandle the Redbirds, and as co-workers and “friends” started saying things like, “Your boys are going down!” and less publishable dispensations.
I am a modest, quiet fan (this is a general observation that, unfortunately for those around me, does not apply at game time). I believe that if I brag or boast or predict certain victory, the Baseball Gods will punish me with vengeful retribution. So, I take the potshots and ribbing offered by Phillies fans in stride, waving them off with a gentle laugh and an indecipherable, “Well, yeah, we’ll see.” After all, isn’t it always better to come into a series as The Underdog, the team expected to lose? It relieves the pressure; no one expects you to win anyway.
The Cardinals were not even expected to be in the playoffs this year. They did it with a final month of inspired play and come-from-behind victories, clutch hitting and good pitching that defied what I had witnessed during the dog days of summer, when their play was, at times, abysmal, full of blown saves, running mistakes, and fielding errors at the most inopportune times. Somehow this bandaged group of over-the-hill has beens and unproven youngsters put it all together in September, just when the Braves fell apart. So, here we are. It is why I love baseball so much. David beats Goliath more than is statistically likely, and the slow, steady rhythm of three-hour games, filled with balls and strikes and foul tips, suddenly transforms into bottom of the ninth walk-off wins and come-from-behind miracles.
The Cardinals somehow succeeded this year, despite a slew of injuries to key players, including the loss of Adam Wainwright, their best pitcher and a 20-game winner in 2010, before Spring Training even started. They will have to compete now with a hobbling Rafael Furcal and an ailing Matt Holliday. The Phillies, naturally, are speaking confidently, noting how healthy they are as a team, with no injuries presently ailing their key players. Such is my luck, of course. But I am used to it. A life selflessly devoted to one baseball team is a life filled with failed expectations and disappointing finishes, the occasional moments of sheer exuberance making it all worthwhile.
But it is October now, and the team that plays the best baseball over the next three weeks will become the World Champions. As the Cardinals discovered in 2006, when they limped into the postseason with a mere 83 wins, once you get to this part of the season, miracles really can happen.
Last night, for a wonderful sixty minutes or so, it looked like 2006 could be happening all over again. Lance Berkman crushed a three-run homer off of Roy Halladay in the top of the first and Kyle Lohse set down the first eleven Phillies batters he faced. The Cards held a 3-1 lead into the sixth. But then it all fell apart, as the Phillies erupted for ten runs over three innings. Despite a late gasp from the Cards’ bats in the ninth, game one ended with an 11-6 drubbing by the Phils, my dream of a miracle deferred for another night.
Regardless of what happens from here, however, I will savor every moment of this desperate season and dream of a miracle. I will watch every pitch and second guess Tony La Russa’s managerial calls, get my hopes up when the Cardinals do well and wither in anger and disappointment when they fail. But mostly I will be doing what I have been doing for the past five decades, anticipating an extraordinary finish, trying to will a Cardinals victory against all odds, hoping that this is all part of a real-life fantasy, when the expectant dreams of youth overcome the rational anxieties of age. Until the Cardinals are forced to pack their bags and descend into the night, when my dreams of winning the last game of the season confronts the cold, dark winter, I will continue to believe in miracles.