Gonzo: Phillies good (but not great) year ends with loss

Posted: November 05, 2009

NEW YORK - When the last out was recorded, Yankee Stadium shook from the energy. A deep, primal howl reverberated from the stands. It was the sound of victory, of ultimate triumph - sweet music to the locals, pure pain to Philadelphians.

The Yankees won their 27th championship last night and celebrated in full view of thousands of sickeningly happy New Yorkers. It was a difficult thing to watch.

Back in Philly, after the Fightin's won Game 5, I had a conversation with a stadium worker at Citizen's Bank Park. The guy is a loyal Phils fan, and he hoped they would pull off the two-game sweep in the Bronx. But he also knew it would be difficult, and he acknowledged the possibility of failure. In so doing, he summed up how a lot of people probably feel today.

"It would be tough - not calling them 'the World Champs' anymore," he whispered.

Like the Roots famously said, "It don't feel right."

The Phils were the best team in all of baseball last year, and this season only one club was better. That's an astounding feat.

But as good as the Phils were - and they were truly terrific, even though things didn't ultimately work out the way any of us wanted - this season didn't carry quite the same vibe that saturated the city last year. Something was just . . . off.

Forget about the regular season record - 2009 wasn't nearly as smooth as 2008. Brad Lidge struggled, and so did much of the bullpen. Cole Hamels wasn't the same dominant pitcher that crushed the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series and dismissed the Rays in the World Series. Charlie had to tinker more. And Harry Kalas, may he rest in peace, left us.

It felt as though almost everything went right a year ago - while, this season, it was more like the Phils kept pushing toward their final destination even though the road they traveled was lousy with potholes. When the series was tied at a game apiece in Tampa last year, there was a sense of inevitability. When the series was tied at a game apiece in the Bronx, the outcome seemed less certain.

A few days ago, I had the same conversation with two different people - Wax and another friend from our sister paper - about how the Yankees-Phillies clash felt a bit like the Lakers-76ers NBA Finals from 2001. Like the Sixers, the Phils were the underdogs in the minds of most pundits (not to mention the Vegas odds makers). Like the Sixers, the Phils faced a historic franchise with a mouthy, aggravating fan base. Like the Sixers, the Phils took Game 1 on the road, then failed to seize countless opportunities as the series continued. And, like the Sixers, the Phils looked like a great team that was unfortunately pitted against a squad that was simply better. The Phils ultimately held on a little longer than the Sixers, but the eventual outcome was sadly the same.

Because New Yorkers are endlessly smug and annoying, the impulse will be smack them over the head with your cap instead of tip it to them. Try to fight that instinct. As much as it stings, the Yankees deserve a good deal of credit. The Phils lost but, more than that, the Bombers won. They capitalized on mistakes and played exceedingly well and earned their forthcoming parade.

But as heartbreaking as that is, this really wasn't about the Yankees, and it wasn't about Philly's never-ending rivalry with Gotham, either. This year wasn't about losing to New York any more than last year was about beating Tampa. The run we've witnessed over the last two seasons was about this town and this team. It was about a special group and the connection those players made with our city. It was about a club that helped a notoriously surly and pessimistic town change the way we think. It was about bringing us together and making us smile. It was about hope and happiness. It was about burying 25 years of abject disappointment. It was about being reborn.

This space frequently serves as a reminder that sports are a distraction and not to be taken too seriously. But there are instances, rare and wonderful, when sports become something more - something meaningful and real and indelible. It might happen once in a generation - or not at all. The Phillies gave us that extraordinary gift - a present only a select, fortunate few ever receive - and it should be cherished.

The Yankees are the new World Champions of baseball. The trophy that made its home in Philly for a year will move to New York now. That's the sad, inalterable truth. New York cannot take your memories, though. Those are yours to keep. They are the ultimate souvenirs, and they will last a lifetime.

Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or gonzalez@phillynews.com.

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