Bill Conlin: Phillies were in their element - wind and all

Fans salute Jimmy Rollins after what he called a 'routine' catch of wind-blown foul pop.
Fans salute Jimmy Rollins after what he called a 'routine' catch of wind-blown foul pop.
Posted: October 08, 2009

IT WAS THE DAY the ghost of Candlestick Park came to South Philly. The Hawk that rushed off the Pacific, funneling through a gap in the Coast Range and rushing downhill off a steep bluff buttressing the worst ballpark in major league history showed up in The Bank, helter-skelter hot-dog wrappers and all. The only thing missing was 50,000 empty seats.

The Phillies played the westerly gales that registered a 48-mph gust on The Linc's wind gauge across Pattison Avenue the way Bernie Madoff played investors.

The Giants of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal, who were sentenced to play in baseball's Alcatraz, never handled the tropical storm-force gusts that usually peaked in late afternoon better than the Phillies did yesterday in a first-blood, 5-1 victory over the Colorado Rockies.

When I saw how the wind was howling to right during batting practice, visions flashed of a vintage Wrigley Field daymare, where anything airborne past the infield had a chance to clear the bleachers.

I should have remembered what happened in Candlestick after the outfield was double-decked for the 49ers.

Everything changed. Back when there was nothing to stop the prevailing northwest wind until it reached Oakland, across the bay, the hot-dog wrappers were plastered against the cyclone fence like mustard-stained wallpaper. When McCovey or Mays launched one to right, the ball would fly into the parking lot as if drawn by a giant magnet. But once there was an upper deck in right, the hot-dog wrappers would tumble toward right, then dance back toward the infield, often passing each other at different levels - outgoing on the ground, incoming 20 feet above it.

And that was the scene unfolding when Cliff Lee inherited the wind. He could have been pitching on a windless afternoon in a vast ballpark while surrounded by eight Gold Glovers who read the gusts like Ted Turner at the helm of Courageous in the 1977 America's Cup.

With one out in the third, Dexter Fowler, the Rock's fleet centerfielder, curled a pop foul to left that was headed toward ballgirl territory. Jimmy Rollins went as fast and as far as I have ever seen him run to that area. J-Roll called it routine, more proof the game really does unfold in slow-motion for superstars.

There was nothing routine, however, about Todd Helton's shallow fly sliced toward No Man's Land well behind third to lead off the seventh inning. Pedro Feliz broke back. Rollins had the angle, darting onto the outfield grass from short.

But the baseball and a capricious swirl of wind had other ideas. On a normal afternoon it would have been Pedro's play - in fair territory. Whoa . . . The ball was not only blowing back but angling toward foul territory. Rollins did an amazing 180-degree turn. He looked like one of those short-track motorcyclists who take the turns almost laid out on the surface. And when he made an over-the-shoulder basket catch, Jimmy was not far from the spot that Feliz had vacated.

Rollins explained the defensive play of the Phillies' balanced victory in NFL-speak.

"Pedro and I both broke back like a wide receiver and DB. I saw the quarterback get hit - he didn't," Rollins said.

The numeric difference in a game that began as a taut duel between Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez, lights-out for four scoreless innings, and Lee, working out of trouble in the first and second innings, was the number 92.

When Jimenez threw his 92nd pitch with nobody out in the sixth, Jayson Werth hit it about as hard as he can hit a baseball. The triple scored Ryan Howard, whose RBI double off the fence in left also would have been long gone in normal weather. Suddenly, a 2-0 deficit that impelled manager Jim Tracy to let Jimenez bat for himself leading off the sixth had become 4-0. And Raul Ibanez, tremendous on both sides of the ball in his first postseason game, made it 5-0 with a single off lefthander Joe Beimel.

When Lee, also making his postseason debut, hit 92 on the pitch-count meter, he had recorded the final out of the eighth inning. Charlie Manuel's bullpen sat in two rows of red-jacketed ease like the stag line at a 1950s prom. When the lefthander finished a gem where he was in total command until briefly losing focus while savoring the moment when the record Bank mob was howling for the final out, Ryan Madson and J.A. Happ were tossing lightly - just in case the cherry somehow was blown off the sundae.

On a day when his howitzer throw burned a hole in the wind and gunned out - OK, the guy was clearly safe - trundling Yorvit Torrealba at third for an inning-ending doubleplay, Werth learned a valuable physics lesson.

Air is a liquid. And when it encounters a massive triple-tiered grandstand, for example, air splashes. It eddies. It swirls and can rise as well as sink. It can make a man watch what he thought was a long-gone homer that turned instead into a triple.

The Phils and Rocks will get to play Game 2 in normal weather today followed by a weekend with Old Man Winter on the Front Range of the Rockies.

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