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THE PHILLIES ALREADY HAVE A WIN: THIS IS WHAT SPORTS SHOULD FEEL LIKE
When least expected, Philadelphia has delivered a stirring experience — a melding of impassioned fandom and committed ownership with a team inspired by the love-in — that transcends the World Series
If alien beings dropped in for an American takeover — and why wouldn’t they, given our current condition? — I’d usher them to a square-shaped fun house deep in the generational roots of South Philly. Here, I’d tell them on a raucous November night, is what a sports experience should be. I would have to yell, amid noise loud enough to burst eardrums and char larynxes, and I might need eye drops after exposure to a three-hour sea of red.
Too many cities don’t get it right. Too many franchise owners aren’t in it for the proper reasons. Too many superstars don’t earn their nine figures and two commas. Too many managers and coaches suck. Too many teams manufacture woe and soul-crushing futility.
But what’s happening in Philadelphia, long known nationally as the city of boo-birds and battery-throwers, is a communal love-in not seen since a pandemic muddled our relationship with balls and bats and other athletic endeavors. They are immensely proud of their city, a place where people grow up and never leave, even when they do. Rather than feel inferior to a massive metropolis 100 miles northeastward, they gather as one in a parochial cocoon, channeling their passion into sports. The Phillies hadn’t played a World Series game at Citizens Bank Park in 4,747 days before this week. The drought made their fans very mad, and you don’t want to do that in an inferno where even a Pennsylvania son named Joe Biden knows how to characterize the locals.
“Phillies fans are the most virulent, obnoxious fans in the world,” said the President, using words he never directs toward Vladimir Putin, poking fun at wife Jill as “a Philly girl” who “like every Philly fan, is convinced she knows more about sports than anybody else.”
The beauty of anger is that it can be released into unbridled joy, almost making it worth the painful wait. The Phillies don’t have to win a trophy to validate their 2022 story. They’ve already become the exemplar of how a professional sports team should connect with a high-expectations fan base — by pouring profits into the payroll and not an owner’s portfolio, by having the gumption to hire a baseball boss who spends liberally and might win a World Series with his third different franchise, by showing no fear in firing a championship manager on June 1 and replacing him with a neophyte lifer.
And here they are, owned by native savior John Middleton and generally managed by Dave Dombrowski and skippered by Rob Thomson and stoked by Bryce Harper and inspired by fans who’d rather blow kisses than hurl vitriol. Here are the Phillies, nearing a championship as a wild-card orphan after nearly missing the playoffs altogether. If you call them a fortunate beneficiary of an expanded postseason system, you’re missing the point. They are why a team never should give up on a 162-game season, especially in the nation’s seventh-largest market. The Phillies could have tanked when they started 21-29. Instead, they fired Joe Girardi and let a Canadian named Thomson show them the way, in his first whirl as a major-league manager. They might build a ballpark statue for him after he took control of Game 1 in Houston, with an aggressive approach to a 5-0 deficit. The plan led to a shelling of Justin Verlander and historic 6-5 victory, setting an agenda for an assignment against an ongoing Houston dynasty trying to demonstrate why it can win cleanly five years after a drum-banging cheat scheme.
The agenda: Philly against the world.
Philly is winning. I mean, kicking ass, heading into Game 4 with an 11-3 record against the Cardinals, Braves, Padres and Astros. This was supposed to be the greatest World Series mismatch since 1906: the 106-win beasts against the 87-win Phillies. What we’re getting is another episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
“I’ve never personally seen a club come together like this in my life from what it was to what it is,” Middleton told reporters. “It’s just astonishing. It’s breathtaking. It’s literally night and day.”
“It gives you goosebumps, seeing the expressions and emotions, and how happy everyone is in this city,” said Dombrowski, hired by Middleton when the Red Sox foolishly fired him after winning the Series in 2018.
Tempting as it is to paint the Phillies as a Rocky-esque underdog story, that’s a stretch. They’re supposed to be in this position after Middleton, who committed to a whopper payroll and said he might “even be a little stupid about it,” spent $742.5 million for five integral cogs: Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Zach Wheeler, Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos. He veered into luxury-tax territory, blowing up the $230 million threshold. Why, when so many owners are tanking and rebuilding? He’s a Philly guy who sold his family’s tobacco business for $2.9 billion, increased his ownership stake in the Phillies and became a man of the people, wandering into the upper deck during leaner years to greet fans and gift them tickets closer to the field.
This is where the story is so stirring, so uplifting. Unlike the Mets and Yankees up the highway in New York, and the Dodgers in Los Angeles, the Phillies maximized their investment by tapping into their biggest resource: the fans. Through every milestone moment — Rhys Hoskins’ home run and bat spike, Harper’s homer that won the National League pennant, and the five home runs off Lance McCullers in a 7-0 masterpiece in Game 3 — the romance has swelled into a rabid civic obsession. All they want is to win. They’re rude and crude when their team isn’t winning, but when a title is in sight, ask athletes if they’d rather play anywhere else.
“Just being back home, I think, is such a momentum swing for us, just for the pure fact of our fan base,” Harper said. “This whole city is so excited to be in this moment, and we’re just thrilled to be able to play in front of them and have this opportunity.”
“They get better every game,” Thomson said.
“It’s hard to play in Philly, man,” Castellanos said.
The Astros are spooked. They’ve heard every insult and slur imaginable since the electronic sign-stealing scandal, but the Philly abuse seems to have shaken them. When Jose Altuve comes to bat, they chant, “Cheater! Cheater!” loud enough to be heard in Texas. When it’s Martin Maldonado’s turn, they chant, “Check the bat! Check the bat!” after an innocuous Game 1 interlude when he used a old bat gifted by Albert Pujols, not knowing maple bats were banned years ago for safety reasons. He wasn’t cheating, but the fans convicted him anyway.
Meanwhile, as Thomson manages like he’s been running a ballclub for decades, the ancient Dusty Baker looks like the rookie. Why did he entrust McCullers with the ball long enough for the Phillies to rip five homers, the most allowed by a pitcher in a Series game? The balls traveled a combined 1,950 feet. Hadn’t Baker, 73, become complacent in Game 1 by relying on Verlander too long? Of McCullers, he explained: “The thought process was the fact that he had had two good innings, two real good innings. Then they hit a blooper, a homer, and then I couldn’t get anybody loose. It was my decision.”
If the Astros lose another Series, as they did in 2019 and last year, the costly decisions might prompt owner Jim Crane to seek another manager, which would leave Baker without a World Series triumph in his otherwise illustrious 25 years as a big-league skipper. As it is, Crane is unsure about the future of general manager James Click, who hasn’t clicked with the owner philosophically. McCullers insists he wasn’t tipping pitches, saying, “I got whupped. End of story.” But after Harper launched the bashfest Tuesday night with a two-run homer, he called out to teammate Alec Bohm in the on-deck circle — the same Alec Bohm who was so miserable in April after committing three errors in three innings and hearing boos that he said, “I f—ing hate this place.” Bohm homered, followed later by homers by Brandon Marsh, Schwarber and Hoskins. Harper spotted something, feeding the all-Philly, all-day narrative.
“It's pretty evident what kind of threat they pose. They can hit the ball out of the ballpark,” Baker said.
They won’t admit it. But the Astros, who play home games in a climate-controlled dome, weren’t prepared for Philadelphia in November. It doesn’t speak well for Major League Baseball — and its lockout-driven disregard of the postseason schedule — that it could have snowed on the East Coast this week. The rainout postponement of Game 3 served the Phillies and their pitching staff, with Ranger Suarez taking advantage.
From the moment Verlander flipped his middle finger at a few fans Monday, even if he said it was in jest, the Astros have been “Philly-ied.” If they haven’t realized it every moment they’re in the ballpark, they knew when the team tried to outsource catering services at their hotel.
They tried Angelo’s Pizzeria. Strike one. “If you think I’d cook for the Astros, you’re out of your mind. We said no to them,” a representative said in a video on the store’s website.
They tried Mike’s BBQ. Strike two. “I’m not feeding them … lol,” came the reply.
The ultimate third strike awaits.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.