They've said this is the best Philadelphia Phillies team of all time. I can't vouch for that.
Some have even said it's the best Philadelphia sports team ever. I certainly can't vouch for that, either.
But I will say this -- I've never loved a sports team like I love these Philadelphia Phillies.
"These Philadelphia Phillies" are, of course, the Howard/Utley/Rollins/Werth/Victorino/Ruiz/Hamels/Madson core that has won three straight division titles, two straight National League Championships and one (and counting) World Series.
Other faces, such as Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee, Brett Myers, J.C. Romero, Chan Ho Park, Aaron Rowand, Brad Lidge and Pat Burrell have provided invaluable contributions. Davey Lopes has commanded the running game, Rich Dubee has handled the arms, Milt Thompson the bats, and Charlie Manuel has done the unthinkable: become the best manager in Phillies history.
There are a few faces I don't miss. Tom Gordon was money...until his arm fell off halfway through 2006, one-sixth of the way through his contract. Adam Eaton and Freddy Garcia would be wise never to show their faces in Philadelphia again. And despite my friend "Coach" Foran's constant chanting, Abraham Nunez was never quite the "M-V-P!"
But I love Ryan Howard's monster homeruns. I love Jayson Werth's good eye, Jimmy Rollins's defense and Chase Utley's everything. I love how no ball is out of Shane Victorino's reach, how no pitch escapes the glove, the chest, the something of Carlos Ruiz. I still love Cole Hamels's changeup, even though it's taking 2009 off. I love that Ryan Madson has embraced the bullpen.
Right now, in 2009, I love every member of this team. After seeing Miguel Cairo look beyond awkward in left field during the NLDS, I even re-love Eric Bruntlett. There's a place in my heart for Scott Eyre, for Ben Francisco, especially for the rejuvenated Chad Durbin.
Even when they were winning, sometimes by six or seven runs, 2008 was a nailbiter of a season. Until they finally did it, won it all, we didn't think it could be done. Hell, when asked for my prediction in every series until the 2009 NLCS (minus the NLDS's, of course), I picked the opposing team. Yes, I even picked the Rays. I was waiting for the fun to stop, the magic to run out. I thought it was inevitable.
But this last series, I said, "Phillies in six." And it turned out that even my newfound optimism ended up shortchanging the Phils, although this time in a much more acceptable way.
If you don't believe in the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies, you haven't been watching how this has all played out. Their development from "division winners" to "surprise World Champions" to "unbeatable, never-say-die defending champs" is something out of a movie, or a book. It's perfect; it's what all sports fans want their teams to be. To come together as a unit, to put aside personal goals (as much as baseball players, participants in the most individual of sports, can do so) and unite for a common goal; it doesn't happen anymore.
This team wasn't bought, except for Ibanez, Park and maybe, kinda, Cliff Lee. They were castoffs from other organization, homegrown minor leaguers, reclamation projects and role players. But they all found a home here, and while some have matured in line with expectations, others have blown even the loftiest projections out of the water.
But no matter where they came from or how they got here, they've become ours. In a city starved for winners, they've more than satisfied our hunger. They turned a diehard Eagles town into a passionate baseball haven, where standing room World Series tickets are $500 or more, and they've spread their seed throughout the land. Phillies hats have even been popping up on the streets of Brookline, Red Sox Central, where I now make my home.
But perhaps the most endearing moment took place last night. "Lackluster celebration," a friend said to me, in regards to the televised portion of the Phillies' NLCS victory party. But that's just what I wanted to see -- there's more work to be done. Getting back to the Series further ensures that we'll be treated like an elite team, but beating the Yankees, well, that would make us the unquestioned best. The best right now, possibly the best of the entire decade. That's the only level the Phillies haven't reached yet, and it's not far out of reach.
I could watch, write about, think about this Philadelphia Phillies team for hours. And I often do. They've already won our hearts, put themselves in the record books, become household names, achieved things most fans will never forget. But over the next two weeks, they can make all of America take notice; they can shove themselves down the country's throat. The Phillies are the best team in baseball, and in two weeks, I hope everyone knows it.