by Clark Groome
The Phillies just got home from a disastrous nine-game road trip. After winning the first game against the Mets, 13-8, they lost the next eight by a combined 52-14.
In addition: The bullpen’s a mess. Ryan Howard has had knee surgery. Domonick Brown is on the seven-day concussion disabled list. Ben Revere is recovering from a broken ankle. Roy Halladay is just beginning to throw on a mound after shoulder surgery. Chase Utley missed 29 games, and was on the DL with a strained right oblique. Cole Hamels can’t get his teammates to give him any offense.
Jonathan Papelbon has lost some of his effectiveness and is no longer the lights-out closer he was a couple of years ago. Carlos Ruiz, thanks to a 25-game season-starting drug suspension and some time on the disabled list after rejoining the team, is a pale version of the dominant player he was last year.
All of that gives credence to the widely held belief that Philadelphia’s sports teams are the quintessential example of Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.
The disappointing season that is unfolding as baseball’s July 31 trade deadline approaches is nothing new to Philadelphia sports fans. The 1964 Phillies is probably the most notoriously disappointing team of the many that have let the fans down. Leading the National League by six-and-a-half games with 12 left, they then lost 10 straight, allowing the St. Louis Cardinals to snatch the pennant from the Phils. It’s still hard to talk about almost 50 years later.
There have been many other teams that caused heartburn and heartbreak. But on some memorable occasions, the hometown team has pulled off a pleasant surprise.
So while we wait to see what the Phillies powers-that-be decide to do this week, I thought it might be fun to look at a couple of teams that, rather than being a disappointment, were a pleasant and exciting surprise. They didn’t win it all, but they both were a delight to watch, and brought this tough city together as only a successful sports team can.
There were several to choose from, but the two selected are, in addition to being fairly recent, emblematic of how much fun sports can be when we least expect it.
On Sept. 12, 2007, the New York Mets led the Phillies by seven games in the National League East. Then, reminiscent of the Phillies great ’64 flop, the Mets tanked. They lost 12 of their last 17 games while the Phillies rallied and clinched the NL East title on the last day of the season.
As exciting as that was, the Phils didn’t make it out of the first playoff round, losing to the surging Colorado Rockies three games to none in the NL Division Series.
What made this so exciting, aside from the end-of-the-year reversal of fortunes, was what it said about the boys in pinstripes. This was the first of a five-year run as NL East champions and the year before the Phillies won their second World Series.
Three years later, the 2009-2010 Flyers were a team that struggled for the entire season. It all came down to the last game of the season. Whoever won the Flyers-Rangers game April 11 would move on to the playoffs. The loser would go home.
The score was tied 1-1 at the end of regulation. Nobody scored in the five-minute overtime period. The Flyers finally won it on Claude Giroux’s goal in the shoot-out.
From there the Orange and Black beat the New Jersey Devils four games to one and advanced to play the highly-touted Boston Bruins. After going down three games to none, it looked like the season was done. But wait, for only the fourth time in any sport’s seven-game playoff series, the Flyers came back and beat the Bs in the next four games. In game seven they were down 3-0 when Coach Peter Laviolette called time out. Whatever he said worked. The Flyers came back and won the contest, and the series, 4-3.
They then topped the Montreal Canadiens four games to one to advance to their first Stanley Cup Finals since 1997. Alas the Finals against the Chicago Black Hawks ended on a very strange goal in the sixth game, giving the Black Hawks the Cup.
Both those teams were heroes to Philadelphians. They not only created excitement, they brought hope to a long-starved city, a city that hadn’t won a championship since the 76ers did it in 1983.
This may be cold comfort for those wanting to see this year’s Phils return to the post-season. It does, however, give hope that the surprising and seemingly impossible are possible.
I doubt that this year’s Phillies’ edition will make it to the playoffs (the statistical likelihood is 2 percent) but perhaps what the team does this week will give some optimism about 2014 and beyond.
And then there’s this: The Eagles, under new head coach Chip Kelly, have got to be better and more fun to watch than the team was the last two seasons. The Flyers are improved over the 2013 squad, especially in goal now that the would-be Cosmonaut Ilya Bryzgalov is gone. And the 76ers … Oh, never mind, they don’t even have a head coach yet.