March 23, 2010

The legacy of the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies.

I used to tell anyone willing to listen that a World Series victory would be more satisfying than winning the Super Bowl. I said that the drawn-out, never-ending intensity of a seven-game baseball playoff series, where so much rides on every pitch, was unmatched in sports. I thought that battling past three of the eight best teams in Major League Baseball, the only remaining sport in which earning a postseason berth is a true accomplishment, would confirm my team’s superiority. I just felt that a World Series involving the Philadelphia Phillies would be a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

And, of course, I was proven right.

Not through direct comparison, unfortunately. I imagine that if the Eagles had won a championship sometime during the early Andy Reid era, I’d have happily eaten my words and called the joy of a Super Bowl win "indescribable."

But that’s not what happened. The Phillies won the World Series in 2008, showing unbelievable resilience every time they faced adversity. And unlike a surprising NFL team that pulls off three quick wins en route to an unexpected Super Bowl title, the kind of championship that often goes into the record books with an implied asterisk attached (see the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers), the Phillies won 11 grueling games against above-average teams, cementing their status as deserving champions.

They may not have taken down the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox, but I’ve heard very few people doubt the validity of knocking off the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays. They weren’t world-beaters, but they were all worthy opponents. And although at the time no one cared how we won, in retrospect it's nice to see that baseball’s exclusionary playoff system and double-digit championship win requirement makes even an unexpected title merited and justifiable.

And by winning, they took over the city. Last year’s repeat appearance in the Series, unsuccessful as it was, only reaffirmed that the Eagles have been usurped as kings of Philadelphia. We now expect great things from the Phillies.

But we haven’t gotten cocky. I’d say far from it.

From the mid-1980s on, Philadelphia teams simply weren’t good enough. The Flyers ran into juggernauts like the Islanders and Oilers and then couldn’t find a goalie, the Sixers made a series of boneheaded moves that included giving away the number one overall pick in 1986 and two of the top 50 players of all time (Moses and Barkley) and the Eagles just plain couldn’t get over the hump. There were no curses, the fix was never in – other teams were just consistently better.

The Phillies changed that to a certain extent – we’ve seen that winning is possible, especially at Citizens Bank Park. But we aren’t filled with a newfound sense of hope. We still attach stigmas of loserdom to players like Donovan McNabb, deciding that the odds of a McNabb-led Eagles team winning it all are zero.

Hell, I do this myself. I want McNabb sold off to the highest bidder, and I want Kevin Kolb behind center in 2010. Is this wise? Possibly not, but Kolb has a sense of newness around him; he could still be somebody in this city. McNabb is the guy who quarterbacked all those teams that couldn’t get the job done.

Is that fair? No. But it’s kind of reassuring. It’s heartening to see that Philadelphia fans haven’t gone through a large-scale metamorphosis, that our ability to pick apart underachievers remains intact. A lot of the time, bitching about how your team sucks is as entertaining as winning, and it certainly lasts longer. I’ve written a bunch about the 2008 World Series, but I’m sure I’ve written a lot more about how Move X or Play Y blew up in the Eagles’ face.

Obviously, some people who do things like endlessly rip Donovan McNabb are missing the big picture: that he’s one of the top four or five quarterbacks of the last decade. Those don’t grow on trees. But at the same time, it’s important to be realistic – McNabb honestly probably won’t win a title as an Eagle, and it won’t be for lack of opportunities.

Again, granted, few quarterbacks ever do. Hell, Peyton Manning may be the most talented quarterback ever, and he cost his team a second Super Bowl two months ago. His playoff record is .500.

But that’s not the point I’m trying to make. I’m trying to say that while the Eagles have settled into their role as "frustrating losers," the Phillies took advantage of a giant gap in the city’s collective heart. For one month of playoff baseball, they were defiantly better than everyone in their path, and in turn, they have risen to a higher plane of consciousness. They’ve reached Philadelphia sports nirvana.

They have the immeasurable intangibles that we like to pretend are discernible. They have giant rings on their fingers; they’re World Fucking Champions. And it all happened so fast, in such an enjoyable fashion, that I don’t even remember having time to be pessimistic. I remember being nervous, sure, but I don’t recall thinking that any other team was better. I thought we had as good a chance as anyone, and it turned out that we did.

That added something to everyone associated with the 2008 squad, something McNabb will never get (even if the Eagles somehow win in 2010, which won’t happen when fucking Marlin Jackson and Darryl Tapp are your big acquisitions). They haven’t changed our psyche as sports fans; they’ve changed how we perceive them, how they are judged by fans and the media.

People always say players on a winning sports team will "never have to pay for a drink in this city again." Well, I don’t know if I could even buy a member of the 2008 Phillies a drink. They’re otherworldly creatures. I live in awe of them and the joy they brought to everyone who watched them. They took a beleaguered city and turned it on its ear for a few quick weeks, won a title, led a parade down Broad Street, and now live on forever in our collective consciousness.

Like everyone else, I’m salivating at the promise of Roy Halladay in 2010. And I love Raul Ibanez and pray that he can stay healthy for at least one more full season. But they weren’t there in 2008, so until they prove it, they’re still question marks. That's probably why we miss Cliff Lee so much – even though we know Halladay is better, we’ve seen Cliff on the big stage. He was arguably the only Phillie in last year’s Series with a 2008-level of mystique, and he wasn’t even around in 2008. We respected the hell out of that.

But as long as Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are in the clubhouse, we'll know the possibility of ultimate success is there. When Cole Hamels walks out to the mound, even if he’s in a 2009-like slump, we know what he’s capable of, and we wait for it to emerge once again. And even when Matt Stairs came to the plate last year, a shell of his former self, we remembered the time that he launched one into the night against Jonathan Broxton, and we believed that he could do it again.

That’s what winning a World Series did -- it turned ordinary men into legends. It wasn’t Donovan McNabb finally breaking through after years of failure, extinguishing so many demons. That would be satisfying in its own way, but like I always said, winning the World Series was so much better. I just didn’t realize exactly what about it would be oh so sweet.

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