My sixth grade class gathered together for a picture out front of the church, next to the statue of St. John Neumann. We were there to take a photo to send to Mitch Williams. At that time, Williams wasn’t so popular in Philly. He’d just given up the game-winning home run to Joe Carter in the World Series, and some fans called the team to say they were going to murder him. He received police protection at his house, and that’s how the cops caught the two teens who egged Williams’ house.
I suppose the photo was supposed to teach us a lesson in forgiveness, or the importance of being kind to others in low moments. But it taught me a different one. We were told to dress in Phillies gear for the photo. I got a blank headband and wrote “NO FEAR” on it so that it looked like the one that Williams wore. I probably spent more time on it than I did preparing for my confirmation that year. And when I put it on for the photo, I was murdered myself. Kids made fun of me well into seventh grade. For all I know they’re still laughing at me. I blamed Mitch Williams for that, too.
Williams eventually earned forgiveness from more than just my sixth grade class. “Ain’t nobody gonna make me hide from what I’ve done,” he said, and people eventually appreciated his attitude. Later, Williams sued a website I worked at. (The website’s then-owner won summary judgment; a different former owner later deleted the articles.) Some time after that, somebody knocked off the head of the St. John Neumann statue at my childhood parish. The pastor blamed the devil’s music, but it was just some kid, of course.
That was the Phillies’ sole playoff appearance of my childhood (they won the pennant the year I was born, which doesn’t count). Most other years the Phils were bad enough that fans only showed up on opening day or bobblehead night. (Those Larry Bowa bobbleheads from 2001 are not the investment many of the 38,602 there that night had hoped they’d become.) At most games the upper deck of Veterans Stadium was empty enough that you could play tag in it, which we did. The excitement came from things like the time Jim Thome visited the construction site for the team’s new stadium and decided to sign with the team. (“Here are guys that work their you-know-whats off every day, and they want you to come here,” Thome later said. “That was special, man.”)
I remember where I was when the Phillies ended the playoff drought: I was there, baby! I bought a standing-room ticket for the final game of the 2007 season, when the Phillies won and the Mets lost and they won the division for the first time since the year I made that No Fear headband. As we walked to the subway, I wondered aloud to my friend Johnny Goodtimes whether we’d be able to buy bootleg shirts. A man sauntered up to us, pulled up his pant leg and unraveled several, still wet from printing. I paid $10 for a leg-shirt and immediately put it on. Later we joined, or possibly started, a crowd celebrating in the middle of Broad Street. Then-State Sen. Vince Fumo drove around several times; he’d later be convicted of all 137 counts in his corruption trial. I think I went to Locust Rendezvous afterward, a bar that later released at least two commercials about how people watched 9/11 happen on TVs in the bar.
The 2007 season began with coach and former Phillies outfielder Milt Thompson restraining Charlie Manuel from attacking longtime local radio blowhard Howard Eskin, who’d questioned when the Phillies would begin winning. “We’re gonna win!” Manuel screamed, and he made good on his word. That 2007 season began the longest stretch of sustained success in Philadelphia baseball history. They won five division titles, two pennants and a World Series. But most importantly the team was, for a brief blip, incredibly cool. They won all the time in their gorgeous new stadium. People wanted to go to games. Things were going so well that the Phillies primary owner, John Middleton, set his sights on a bigger project: Ending homelessness in Philadelphia.
There still aren’t enough homes in Philadelphia, and Middleton’s baseball team hadn’t been so hot for a while either. The Phillies won a record 102 games in 2011 and then didn’t have another winning season until last year. They were close to the playoffs a few times and couldn’t get it done. They lost seven of their last eight in 2020. Last year they zoomed into first in the NL East in August and then immediately skidded out of playoff contention. Their division rivals, the Nationals and Braves, each won a World Series, and the Mets even went to one in 2015. The Phillies were free-falling back to their late Veterans Stadium days; a recent highlight was a local electrician greeting Manny Machado in 2018 on his visit to the Phillies, before he went on to sign somewhere else. In the meantime, the son of one of my sixth grade teachers made the major leagues.
But a guy who actually did sign with the Phillies that offseason, Bryce Harper, has finally helped the Phillies back to the postseason. A win over the Astros yesterday clinched a wild card spot for the Phillies. I know, deep down, that the real hero here is MLB owners voting to add a sixth playoff team, but I am excited for the Phillies return to the postseason after such a long drought all the same. I celebrated alone last night, texting some friends about just how long it’d been. We all agreed that it felt really long.
I should not be greedy. Many Phillies fans throughout history—some of my ancestors, in fact—never saw the team win anything at all. They saw them make the postseason once, maybe twice. Things have been better over the last 40-plus years, and I was alive and young for their World Series win. I still have a pair of 2008 World Series commemorative pajama pants. Historically, the odds were very much against this.
But the Phillies recent stretch had been defined by this drought. It was not as long as the stretch between 1993 and 2007, but to me it felt longer. No doubt this is because during the previous drought I also had to deal with puberty and graduating high school and getting a job and such. But during the 2011–2022 stretch I got married! I moved to a house! I quit my job and founded a company! I have a cat now!
For the Baseball Prospectus annual this year I wrote about just how thrilling and interesting the 2021 Phillies were, and just how much fans seemed to hate that about them. There was just something persistently off about the team, right down to the presence of a fake Phanatic in the stands. The feeling persisted for me this year. Kyle Schwarber killed the ball. Bryce Harper was an MVP candidate before his injury. A trade acquisition, Edmundo Sosa, was electrifying for a bit. The pitching was even passable. There was a rookie call-up this season whose last name is my middle name who mashed the ball, and I still couldn’t get into the Phillies too much. Then the Phillies sent Darick Hall back to the minors anyway.
But now the Phillies are in the playoffs, and I think I’m starting to feel a little excited. I mean, look at those losers in the video: Waiting in the rain to purchase t-shirts that say the wearer is a fan of the team that was the third-best non-division winner in the National League this season. Ridiculous! And yet I want to join those losers. Why wasn’t I there?!
I can feel that excitement rising, not despite but because that feeling has been so rare. And I know I can only approach these playoffs with one attitude in mind: No fear.