Bill Lyon | You know they will break your heart, but ...

Year after year, the flame is rekindled, your step is lighter, and you throw caution to the wind, screaming: "Go, Phillies!"

Posted: April 01, 2007

Bill Lyon is a former sports columnist for The Inquirer

James Calvin Rollins, a shortstop in the employ of the Major League Baseball franchise of Philadelphia, has proclaimed the Phillies "the team to beat."

Jimmy Rollins is correct, at least in one sense. For 124 mostly forlorn seasons, the Phillies have, indeed, been the team to beat . . .

And just about everyone has. Repeatedly. Gleefully. Unrepentantly.

When it comes to losing, the Fightin's have no equal. At one point in this season - which begins for the Phillies tomorrow afternoon against the Braves- they will post their 10,000th defeat. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the über-CPA of sports stats, no franchise in any sport has lost more games.

Ever.

Their 1961 ancestors still hold the record for most consecutive defeats: 23. The 1964 team suffered a meltdown - 6½ games ahead with 12 to play - cited still when conversation turns to inglorious all-time collapses. Their total of world championship rings is one fewer than two. That's fewer than the Boston Red Sox (who actually have won six Series), and fewer even than the Chicago Cubs (whose rings came in 1907 and 1908). Yet these two teams have been the two most celebrated of the frustrated. Those two franchises have been portrayed, ad nauseam, sympathetically, even heroically. The Phils have been accorded no such gentle, forgiving sentiment.

If young master Rollins is correct in his bold assessment, the Phillies will reach the postseason for the first time since 1993. Mostly, there has been numbingly consistent frustration, generation after generation after . . .

And yet . . .

And yet, I confess, the Fightin's have a way of seducing you. The people keep coming back for more. For all the civic slurs, for all the unsavory things said of the Philadelphia fans, also say this: They could teach loyalty to a dog. Their capacity for pain is without limit.

In recent seasons, the Phillies have teased the faithful with late-season rushes, holding out the tantalizing promise of making the playoffs. If nothing else, there was at least meaningful baseball in September. Of course, had the team started those seasons as they ended them, they would have been playing meaningful baseball in October.

April has been their cruelest month. They stumble from the starting gate, and by the time they find their stride they are discouragingly behind. Last year, their recovery and closing sprint still left them a dozen behind the division-winning Mets.

So when Rollins labeled the Phillies "the team to beat" this winter, there were smirks and snickers, much rolling of the eyes, and from New York at least, chest-puffing how-dare-you defiance. Frankly, the outrage was gross overreaction at best, amusing at worst.

An athlete suggested his team was the team to beat. Would you rather he had said, "We have no shot. Not a chance"?

For far too many years there has been little forthcoming other than meek four-paws-in-the-air acceptance and surrender. So it was refreshing to hear optimism and confidence.

Now all that's left is the little matter of backing it up.

For the first time since the early 1970s, you have the feeling that the Phillies have at last put down a foundation built to last. And to do more than make a cosmetic run at contention.

Ryan Howard will club those intergalactic home runs.

Chase "Pig Pen" Utley will lead the league in grime and hustle.

Rollins will at last learn patience and selectivity at the plate, and Pat Burrell will absolutely refuse to take a called third strike.

Brett Myers will inspire the others by throwing inside (what a quaint concept); and Cole Hamels will paralyze them with that leg-buckling change-up; and Tom "Flash" Gordon will not just close the door but double-lock it.

And everything else will fall in line.

And the longest, most tortured drought will end at long last. No other city with teams in the four major sports has gone longer without a championship than Philadelphia. The last parade was 23 years ago, courtesy of the 76ers.

This winter has been especially bleak. The Sixers are assured of a losing record and of late have been winning just enough to lower their position in the draft. The Flyers, now in their 40th season, are celebrating with the worst record in the entire league. And even with their success under Andy Reid, the Eagles, for their existence, still have more losses than wins.

The lament of the Eagles fan is achingly familiar by now: "I still bleed Eagles green . . . I just wish I didn't have to bleed so much."

It is April. Time for rebirth. Time for deliverance. Time to be seduced once more.


Contact Bill Lyon at lyon1964@comcast.net.

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