Still, things seemed to turn the following year when the Phils were blessed to have their first superstar, pitcher Charlie Ferguson, a player who would have been in the Hall of Fame had he continued his career. In his first four seasons of action, Ferguson's record was a brilliant 99-64 and at a mere 25 years of age was Philadelphia's first legitimate baseball hero. It seemed the sky was the limit for both the city's finest player and its popular baseball team.
Perhaps it was a sign of storm clouds ahead when Ferguson was struck down by typhoid fever at 25 years of age and died suddenly in the spring of 1888. The city and organization went into a deep funk that has lasted off and on for almost 120 seasons, with each sunny day soiled by the prospect of an impending thunderstorm of bitter defeat and frustration. It has often been thought that this franchise had somehow brought on an ancient curse with the location of its first baseball park and the curse has withstood the moving from the Baker Bowl to Connie Mack Stadium and on to Veterans Stadium and now Citizens Bank Park.
It is vividly with this in mind that we as phans look upon the current predicament of our latest baseball heroes and conclude, not without precedent, that if anything should happen during these final tense final days, they are not likely to cover the Phils in glory but rather in defeat. Perhaps it was this that Payne had in mind when he referred to "the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot" as people who would shrink from the service of their team at the first sign of crisis.
And make no mistake about it, as this piece is being written, the Phils find themselves one game down in the loss column with but four games left to play, all of them in enemy territory and with the knowledge that a race that was theirs to lose is now looking more and more like another season lost. Oh, the brave talk in the clubhouse is of a team that could easily finish with five wins in a row and quickly turn this around. The speculation is that the Dodgers are an older and nfinitely inferior team and will surely return to sea level with several losses in Colorado and San Francisco.
Yet, for the hardened and historically minded Philadelphia phan, this latest group, while certainly more resilient, and easily more likeable than some of the past Phillies clubs, will undoubtedly perish in yet the latest of teams that came oh so close, but smoke no cigar when the dust had settled. Too many seasons of frustration and too many close calls that went against this franchise has left most phans prepared, yes almost expecting the latest pratfall after once again teasing us with some of the finest and most inspiring baseball the city has seen in the past 20 years.
In fact, a strong case can be made that from August till now, this team has played better than any since the Glorious Decade of 1974-83, excluding the lightning in a bottle team of 1993 which so captured the hearts and minds of sports fans everywhere. Naysayers may scoff at this declaration, but if numbers mean anything, this group has played at a withering .667 pace since July 26, and no one in baseball has played this well except for the New York Yankees.
Oh, and do not for a minute think this surreal pace has been in any way a mirage. This club has been solid from stem to stern, not only giving the phans hope of a brighter future, but hope that this year might just be different than all the rest. Different in that games lost would somehow be won, different in than balls bouncing foul would instead bounce fair, different in that calls that normally would paralyze the team into defeat would instead inspire them into victory.
It was with this as a backdrop that the club entered the final week of the 2006 season firmly in control of its own destiny. Win and no one could even threaten the team's ultimate destiny of an unlikely but well earned wild card berth after being a season low eight games under .500 as late as the final week of July. From there, anything was possible and not only was there a precedent for the wild card entry becoming a World Series contestant, but a feeling from San Diego to New York that this was a Phillie team no one wanted any part of in a playoff series.
Word began filtering throughout the National League that suddenly this was a team to be reckoned with, this was a dangerous team to be feared. Not only did it suddenly have a stable of playoff tested veterans in Jeff Conine, Jamie Moyer, Jon Lieber, Tom Gordon, David Dellucci and Aaron Rowand but also had possibly three of the best young players in the entire game...slugger Ryan Howard, rock steady Chase Utley and super lefty Cole Hamels. Added to this Who's Who List of baseball giants were such solid players as Brett Myers, Jimmy Rollins, Mike Lieberthal, Randy Wolf, Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino, Abraham Nunez, Geoff Geary and Ryan Madson.
In short, this was a team on the move, a team headed for the post-season, a team expecting to be playing for the World Championship come late October. After Sunday's scintillating and heart stopping 10-7 comeback win against the Florida Marlins, the team stood 82-73 and with a half game lead on the up and down Los Angeles Dodgers. With a game in hand against the Houston Astros on Monday night, the team and its phans were counting on the momentum of a five game winning streak, the probability of yet another loud and boisterous sold out crowd and a favorable pitching match-up to elevate them to a season high one game lead in the wildcard race heading into the regular season ending six game road trip to Washington and Florida.
Playoff tickets went on sale, phans fully expected this to be merely a prelude to bigger wins in October and there was a definite festive attitude in The City of Brotherly Love as the season entered its final seven games. Certainly this club would put to rest the ghosts of seasons past...of the collapse of 1964, and Black Friday in 1977. No more hauntings of the dropped fly balls from Greg Luzinski and Garry Maddox or the wildly ineffective fastballs of Mitch Williams in 1993. Surely, it would all end differently this year than in 2003, 2004 and 2005 when the team went into the final days with opportunities to win the wild card but instead suffer humiliating and difficult to take defeat after defeat.
However, a quickening sense of panic set in throughout the city as the team lost not just one but two consecutive one-run balls games in a fashion that only a true Phillie phan could imagine or expect. It was as if Murphy's Law had once again set up shop in the Philadelphia clubhouse and for the beleaguered and almost always despairing Phil phanatic, it seemed more a case of "business as usual". Once again the team appeared to stand at the precipice of baseball history, only to once again fall at the exact moment when glory was nearly assured.
With this in mind, the Phillie phan has once again been asked to make a choice. Will they, as Payne so aptly put it back in 1776, remember that "what we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly" and that "the harder the conflict , the more glorious the triumph." Or rather, will "the summer soldier" suddenly flee from the contest, content in the knowledge that while the run was exciting, the final results will still be the same...with the Phils on the outside looking in?
The choice is a difficult one, and history will record that most Phillie phans have already given up the ship. They fully expect a collapse of "Philadelphia like" proportions and that yet again, this will be a team that could not rise to the level of its competition and ultimately never made it over the hump. I say "fair enough" and those with such presupposed assumptions of failure most assuredly have history on their side. In fact, if history is to be our guide, it is a most chilling one indeed for phans in PhillieLand. Never, I repeat, never has a team overcome a one game deficit with five games remaining and won a wildcard race.
This is an absolutely astounding statistic, but to be sure, true. Now, many teams have lost division races during the final heart throbbing, pulsating days of a pennant race, but never has a team surrendered its wild card aspirations with a lead of one game or more and a mere five games to play. This provides Phillie phans with ample ammunition and the team with daunting prospects. The "summer soldier" has probably just enlisted many more recruits with this staggering statistic for if the Phils have been anything over the course of their 124 year history, it has been terrible when it mattered most.
Still, if you have not yet decided that the cause is now lost, listen for a moment to the voice in the wilderness, the voice that continues to remind that this group is different, and that this season is not over and that year is not doomed to end as most others have. Listen to the reasons for optimism and then decide what type of soldier you choose to become. Allow the voice in the wilderness to counter the pessimism
For one thing, resilient thy name is Phillies, and this has been the case all season. Countless times, this club has seemingly been down for the count, only to bounce up at the eight count and resume the fight. Expect nothing less from them this final week of the season, for the character of this club was molded and tested long ago and is unlikely to fail them now. The heart of the warrior can often overcome odds that seem to the average person as insurmountable.
Another cause for positive reflection is the fact that veterans like Randy Wolf and Mike Lieberthal are facing what could be their final days in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform and offer a solid reason for their teammates to "fight on" no matter the circumstances. These two Phillie mainstays, who have only known one professional organization in their careers, have mentioned repeatedly how special a playoff berth would be for both of them and should help inspire the younger players to give all they have to achieve such long sought playoff success.
The final reason for optimism is one that is much tougher to measure, but is nonetheless something to consider. If there be such a thing as the "baseball gods", it is a given fact that they have rarely smiled on the Phillies at such a time as this, with so much at stake and so little time to overcome adversity. Oh, 1980 offered more than its share of "thing gone wrong turning right" at the most opportune time, but that year pales in comparison to the adversity that this franchise has suffered since its inception.
The time is at hand for things to change, for the saying "it all evens out" to finally show its truth, and for this team and this city to finally have its just due. Long starved for victory, Philadelphia is long overdue for a team to win when losing is expected, and for victory when defeat is nearly assured. This is seemingly what faces this 2006 group as they enter the final days of what has been an unforgettable campaign.
There is little question that this team will play hard, and in Thomas Payne's own words, "I see no cause for fear. I know our situation well, and can see the way out of it." Rather than flounder, I expect this team to "flourish" as the week turns to games, and the games turn to innings and the innings turn to outs. This team will not quit, and the greater the difficulty, the more enjoyable will be the victory.
Yet, perhaps the greater question remains...whither the often hostile but always fiercely devoted Philadelphia Phillie phans? Has the impending firestorm of possible retreat and defeat left them once again feeling bitter and betrayed? Or rather, can they gather from the dire present tense the continuing faith that history need not be doomed to repeat itself unless one fails to learn from said history. This sense of doom and gloom should instead be replaced by a feeling that the season is far from over, that this group will somehow win the day, and that a phan for all seasons is far more admirable than...the summer soldier.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to email@example.com and I will attempt to respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast