By Thomas Boswell
Monday, October 1, 2007
The champagne soaked Jamie Moyer's hair. His 4-year-old son McCabe sat crooked in his right arm, the one he doesn't need for pitching. His father listened from a distance as celebrations exploded throughout the Philadelphia Phillies' locker room. Slowly, Moyer began to talk. He didn't boast about his 6-1 victory over the Washington Nationals on Sunday, even though that victory, coupled with the New York Mets' 8-1 loss to Florida, gave his Phillies the National League East title on the dramatic final afternoon of the regular season. Instead, Moyer talked about what it meant to be a Phillies fan, wedded to a team famed for failure.
As the 44-year-old southpaw headed to Citizens Bank Park on Sunday morning, preparing to pitch the most important game of his life, he drove past a Little League field near the park.
"There were kids playing. If I hadn't been pitching, I might have stopped. It brought up a lot of childhood memories for me, growing up less than an hour from here, rooting for Steve Carlton, going to the Phillies' parade after they won the World Series" in 1980, Moyer said. "I got those warm and fuzzy feelings. It made me appreciate what I was going to have a chance to do.
"To be able to win in this city where I grew up, to be able to stand in this clubhouse now, I'm at a loss for words," said Moyer, who fell silent and calmly, as he does everything, started to cry. McCabe seemed surprised but quite proud.
Of course, that's how all Phillies fans feel now -- surprised, proud and near tears. What has so often befallen them -- a historic late-season collapse -- has now happened to others. The '64 Pholdin' Phillies, who blew a 6 1/2 -game lead with 12 to play, now have company. And not just any company, but the wealthy Mets, who squandered a seven-game lead with 17 games to play, the largest blown lead in September in history. What Boston felt in October 2004 at the Yankees' expense has now arrived in Philly. Baseball has a new record: biggest chokes, both leagues -- New York.
Conversely, what has happened to others -- a glamorous late-season rush to a division title, with perfectly reasonable hopes of a trip to the World Series -- has now delighted Philadelphia. One team in the NL has won 90 games and that ballclub, the Arizona Diamondbacks, has been outscored this season. "I don't know whether you want to call it parity or mediocrity," Phils General Manager Pat Gillick said.
Few understand the life of the Phillies fan, linked to a franchise that, this season, actually celebrated its 10,000th loss. Decades of frustration, all the way back to 1883, are interspersed with rare seasons -- like this one -- of precious but perishable opportunity. Maybe no one understands better than Moyer, the third-oldest player in the game, his history tangled with Philly's baseball fatalism -- expect the worst, hope for anything else. Phils fans don't call themselves a Nation or wear their disappointments on their sleeves. And they boo a lot, and with cause, since 97 years is quite a while to wait for one World Series win. No wonder Moyer played hooky from high school to see that parade.
However, this season certainly feels different. And Moyer's day symbolized it perfectly. As he prepared to throw the first pitch of the game, an enormous roar burst from the crowd of 44,865. On the right field scoreboard an almost unimaginable number -- "7" -- was posted for the Marlins in the top of the first inning. How could that be possible? Wasn't Tom Glavine, a 303-game winner, starting for the petrified Mets?
Yet it was true. The 41-year-old Glavine, the one pitcher who most resembles Moyer -- if Moyer were better, luckier, richer and more famous -- had been knocked out in just one ignominious third of an inning after walking two, making a wild throw and, finally, plunking the opposing pitcher to force in a run and drive himself out of the game.
That lucky "7" stood up most of the afternoon as the Mets hardly fogged the mirror. What gave the Fish such spunk? Perhaps the sight of the Mets' Jose Reyes and Lastings Milledge doing a home run celebration in the midst of a 13-0 rout on Saturday. That showboating led to a bench-clearing fracas and bad feelings. Instead of letting the Marlins pack up for vacation, the Mets, on top of all their other sins, woke a sleeping last-place opponent and got a whipping.
"That little brouhaha in New York yesterday helped us a little bit," Gillick said with a wry look.
Nevertheless, he sympathizes, recalling his own '87 Toronto team that lost six in a row in the last week and was passed by the Tigers. "When you start sliding and you get on a slippery slope," he said, "it seems like there's never a rock or a tree limb to grab onto."
What helped the Phils most, however, was the calming presence of Moyer. What Glavine couldn't do, Moyer did, anesthetizing the Nats with his soft-tossing for 5 1/3 innings -- a long day's work for a middle-aged man -- allowing one unearned run while striking out six in the 230th win of an often overlooked but remarkable career with two 20-win seasons after age 38.
Perhaps, for the Phils and Moyer, the scales are finally evening up a bit at last. Moyer and Glavine, in their 21st seasons, are slim, intelligent, gentlemanly finesse pitchers. Yet Glavine has reached the playoffs 12 times, won a world title and knows his bust will reside in Cooperstown someday. In contrast, all Moyer said he wanted when he came back to Philly from Seattle last season was one good, clean shot to reach a World Series.
Many players have little sense of the history of the game they play. But Moyer studies the plaques outside the locker room with the accomplishments of past Phils. This spring, he spent time with Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, who won the pennant-clinching game for the '50 Whiz Kids.
"Sometimes, you wish you could snap your fingers, go back in time, and play a game against them or be their teammate," Moyer said. "But, in a way, you don't, because you are extending who they are into the present. It's kind of cool to be one of the steppingstones in that progression."
Among baseball's memorable final days to a regular season, Sunday afternoon will rank high. The sport needs new themes. Eternal recurrence, especially if you're on the wrong side of it, can be a bore. Perhaps, on Friday night, when the Cubs and Red Sox both clinched first place on the same night, we should have known that something different was about to arrive.
Now, the Phillies join them, the beneficiaries, not the victims, of a historic comeback and collapse. Finally, for Phils fans like Moyer, the more things change, the more they don't always have to stay the same.