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We Could Have Had It All: A Eulogy for the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies

Oct 8, 2011, 2:16 AM EDT

A look back at the expectations that smothered the Phillies in the post-season.

I’ve never dreaded a baseball game so much as the one I watched tonight.

No
matter what happened, there was no joy to be had in tonight’s baseball
game for me. The best I could hope for was relief, and even if that
came, it probably wouldn’t come until the 27th out. No series I can
remember a Philly team taking part in has better illustrated the
difference between wanting to win and fearing to lose. Winning would be
nice, sure. Losing would mean the end of the world. I didn’t want to
watch this game, I just wanted it to be over. And despite the animated
crowd at CBP tonight, I don’t think I was alone in this feeling—it
seemed to me like most Phillies fans were approaching Game Five with the
same kind of angst and general discomfort.

The reasons for this feeling, I believe, were threefold. The first
one is the most obvious one: The burden of expectation. In 2007 and
2008, the Phillies were scrappy underdogs who battled the big-boy teams
to the last day of the season just to get into the playoffs. In 2009 and
2010, the franchise started to act like they’ve been there before
(because for the first time in ages, they actually had), and as the
attendance, payroll and win totals began to swell, so naturally did the
sense of arrogance and entitlement surrounding the team and its fans. In
2011, there wasn’t all that much separating us from the American
League team 90 miles north of Philadelphia that also just lost a
Division Series at home in a one-run decision game.

That might not sound like a pejorative statement—reflexively,
getting compared to the Yankees feels like an insult—but really, it’s
not.  It just means that the Phillies are now looked at as one of the
league’s benchmarks, the team that all other teams circle the games
against on their schedules, the team that looms large in any
conversation of post-season contenders. And while it’s always more
romantic and exciting to be the kids coming up from behind, let’s be
honest—it’s also been damn fun to be the bullies on the block, to smack
down the unworthy teams and flaunt our wealth (both figurative and
literal) over the have-nots. Hey, it took nearly 130 years for the Phils
to finally get there, nobody can blame us for enjoying it now that it’s
actually happened.

Best of all is the fact that we’ve gotten to play a part in it. Over
the last five seasons, Phillies fans have helped their team accomplish
something most fanbases can only dream of—expanding from a
middle-of-the-pack market to one of the marquee teams of the league. In
2006, the Phillies’ budget was $88 million, good for eighth in the NL.
In 2011, it was nearly twice that, easily leading the NL at $172
million. And reductively speaking, that’s our doing—unlike in Tampa,
where the team’s made the playoffs three out of four years and still
can’t sell out playoff games, CBP has sold out over 200 regular season
games in a row, helping to fund the Phils’ acquisitions of high-priced
players like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Hunter Pence and countless others
who have helped turn the team into one of baseball’s superpowers.

But, of course, there’s a price to paid for all this upward
mobility. When we got swept by the Rockies in the 2007 NLDS, it hurt,
but just getting there was fun enough that the wounds healed relatively
easily. There’s no fun in just getting there in 2011. In 2011, getting
there isn’t just expected, it’s accomplished weeks ahead of schedule. In
2011, the season basically begins with getting there. When you have a
team with a $172 mil payroll and 102 wins, you go all the way or you go home
crying. That’s the expectation the league has of the Phils, that’s the
expectation that we have of the Phils, and that’s the expectation that
the Phils have of themselves. Nothing else is OK. Losing in the Division
Series to the Cardinals—a team that wasn’t even part of the post-season
discussion a month ago—would definitely not be OK.

The second reason for the dread surrounding this game, for me at
least, is the fact that there were no excuses to be made for this team.
Everything was set up for the Phillies going into this post-season. We
were healthy. We were well rested, but not so well rested that we should
have been rusty. We had our pitching rotation in order. We had our
lineup the way we like it. We had home-field advantage. Unless we got
stuck with a Don Denkinger-type situation, chances were that if we ended
up losing this series, we’d lose it because the other team played
better than we did.

And that’s why it really sucked that through four games, it wasn’t
totally clear who the better team was. I’ll always believe that the
Phils were the better team against the Giants in 2010, that a couple hot
bats and a pop-up that somehow ended up being a home run in Game Six
made a difference that, objectively (subjectively) speaking, shouldn’t
have been made. Here, I wasn’t so sure. Andy Greenwald called the
Cardinals “by far the hardest opponent these actually good, Nü Phillies
have ever faced in the postseason,” and I’m not sure I disagree—they
never seemed to make easy outs or give us free bases. We would need to
beat them tonight by actually beating them, and if we didn’t—even with
our best pitcher on the mound—there’d be nothing to say for the Phillies
except that they didn’t get the job done.

This ties the third reason this game was so miserable: The sense
that this might be it for the Phillies. That’s not to say that this will
be the last post-season for this group of players—with a rotation core
of Halladay, Lee and Hamels for next year and possibly longer, they’ll
certainly be expected to make it back to the playoffs. But when or why
will they have a better team than this? Everyone gets a year older next
year, a bunch of ‘em get a year more expensive too, and a couple of them
might not even be back at all. The pitching should still be good for a while, but the offense let us down last post-season, was even less reliable this post-season, and might only get worse as the years advance.

Not to say there’s not potential for improvement, or at least
reinforcement. Maybe over the next few years, Domonic Brown emerges into
the star outfielder we all thought (think?) he could be. Maybe the
offensive explosion John Mayberry Jr. showed in the second half of the
season turns out to be legit, and he becomes a core guy. Maybe Chase’s
subpar year ends up more due to injury recovery than getting old, and he
has a bounceback year—maybe Polanco too. Maybe Reuben goes out and gets
us a spare bat or two in the off-season. And maybe next post-season, a
couple of the guys who came up short this time around come up bigger. 

It’s all possible, but a lot of it isn’t probable and none of it is
definite. You know what is definite, though? Ryan Howard, the guy who
needed help getting off the field after making the last of his 15
consecutive outs to end the game (and may now have a torn achilles), getting paid $125 million over the
next five years. Luckily, this is baseball, not the NBA, so a contract
that’s as miserable as Ryan’s should end up being isn’t impossible to
work around. But it’s symbolic of a team whose payroll (and really, its
identity) is largely tied up in players whose best days are already
behind them, who might start missing more and more games due to injury
as the years advance, and who might end up struggling to meet even the
modest offensive totals that some of them put up this season and/or
post-season.

102-win seasons don’t come around every year, and they’re
awful tough to replicate. Flawed though it may have ultimately been,
it’s hard not to feel like this was the best team the Phils have had or
will have in this era, and to not even get past the DS with them…well,
it’s not exactly encouraging for future incarnations, which may end up
being significantly more flawed. Though then again, considering that the
team has increased their win total each of the last four seasons, but
done worse in the post-season each time, maybe the correlation between
regular season success and post-season success isn’t all that pronounced
after all—perhaps if we only win 90 games next year, we’ll have better
chances again.

And really, that’s the frustrating thing with this sport, isn’t it?
You grind for 162 games, and then everything resets to best of fives and
sevens. Only twice since the year 2000 has the team with the best
overall record ended up winning the World Series. When you really got
down to it, the Phillies’ chances of winning it all were only marginally
better than those of the Cardinals, or the Rays, Diamondbacks, Yankees
or any other team in the post-season. But because of the pre-season
hype, and the fact that the Phils’ regular season actually lived up to
it, they were dubbed prohibitive post-season favorites in a sport where
such a concept barely even exists, and certainly didn’t apply here. You
can’t fault them for that.

One thing some might say you can fault them for, though, is allowing
the Cards to edge their way into the playoff picture at all, when by
merely dropping a game or two to the Braves at the end of the season,
they could have assured themselves a more favorable first-round matchup
against the Diamondbacks. And that, I really don’t want to hear at all.
Maybe the D’backs would have been easier—though since they pushed the
Brewers to extra innings in a game five, you can’t exactly expect that
they’d have been pushovers—but in my opinion, faulting a team for trying
to win ballgames is never OK. Besides, losing to a team whose back-door
playoff access you enabled is embarrassing, sure, but if they’d let the
Braves creep in and then lost to them down the line, that would be
downright shameful. Of all the things the Phils may end up kicking
themselves for over the course of the off-season, I sincerely hope that
eliminating the Braves from playoff contention is not one of them.

And personally, I hope the Phils rest easy this winter in general.
This is disappointing end to the season—crushingly so, some would
justifiably argue—but it was a hell of a season just the same. The
arrival of Hunter Pence. The emergence of John Mayberry Jr. The career
year for Shane Victorino. The ROY campaign from Vance Worley. The inning
of scoreless relief from Wilson Valdez. The 30 innings of scoreless
pitching in a row from Cliff Lee—twice! And the winning. My god, the
winning. I loved it. I never wanted it to stop. At times it seemed like
it never would stop. Even after nine shutout innings from Chris
Carpenter stopped the winning for good tonight, the memories still make
me smile.

There’s a lot of questions to be asked in the off-season, and a lot
of hard decisions that are going to have to be made—starting, of course,
with what to do about Ryan Madson, Roy Oswalt and Jimmy Rollins, all of
whom conceivably could have just played their last game in a Phillies
uniform. Tonight, though, let’s just try to be glad that that game five
is done with. The outcome certainly wasn’t what we wanted, and a lot of
us won’t be able to even think about baseball again for weeks or months,
but part of me is definitely elated that I don’t have to feel that
dread anymore. I’ll miss it soon enough, but at least I’m safe from
walking into traffic to avoid having to watch baseball games for the
time being.