After finishing the ‘first half’ (technically first 96 games) of the regular season on a high note, riding a walk-off victory against the White Sox to reach .500, the Phillies entered the All-Star break solidly in the mix for the National League playoff mix. While most of the team will use the days off to rest and recover from a hard-fought season to this point, the Phillies did send two players to the midsummer classic to represent the team behind enemy lines at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets.
It came as no surprise that starter Cliff Lee (10-3, 2.86 ERA, 125 K) was selected to his fourth All-Star game, as his success has been a welcome development after his struggles last year. Lee has once again established himself as one of the top left-handed pitchers in the game and arguably the coolest customer on the mound an opposition is likely to face. When it was announced that the Phillies’ other representative to the All-Star game would be outfielder Domonic Brown, it felt as if years of angst and disappointment had been lifted off the young man’s wiry shoulders and the organization’s insistence on holding onto Brown had paid off. While many can argue that the franchise had been too hesitant to give Brown a chance to lock down a spot as a mainstay in the lineup during the team’s heyday, Tuesday night in Queens was not a night to speculate, but celebrate just how far Brown has come along.
His month of May essentially kept the team afloat when they were playing their worst baseball, and his presence in the middle of the lineup, while it does not touch mid 2000s Ryan Howard-level, has made the lineup much more formidable than it seemed at the beginning of the season. While his 12 home runs in May was remarkable, what has made Brown’s season more impressive is that, despite his power numbers tailing off, he remains a constant RBI threat and a handful to deal with at the plate, as his compact swing and keen eye have made him valuable even when he is not pumping the ball out of the yard.
While neither Lee nor Brown was slated to start for the National League squad, there was still plenty to keep Phillie fans captivated from the start of the broadcast. While the player introductions for the All-Star game is usually an opportunity for the participants to flash some fan-fare and show their appreciation for the fans, Cliff Lee stole the show with an icy-cold stare into the camera that, if translated into a verbal cue, might sound something like, “Thanks, but last time I checked, this is still New York.”
Following player introductions, game action was underway. Easily the main attraction for the droves of Mets fans in attendance was the announcement of their staff ace, the 24-year old flamethrower Matt Harvey, as the starter for the NL squad. As the confident Harvey took the mound, Citi Field erupted with applause, as the hard-throwing righty represents the hopes of a new era of Mets’ baseball. Standing 90 feet from Harvey, a phenom in his own right, was Angels’ outfielder and American League leadoff hitter Mike Trout. While the bumbling broadcast tandem of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver set the table for the matchup, and McCarver attempted to quip about the struggle posed to Trout on his rooting interest as a youth between the Mets and Phillies. Seemingly halfway through McCarver’s faulty geography lesson on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, the well-documented Phillies fan Trout took Harvey’s first pitch, a high-90s fastball down the line and just as McCarver was finished saying Millville, Trout was diving headfirst into second, much to the dismay of the Mets fans.
Cliff Lee says “oh you don’t like me you say? This is how much I care.” pic.twitter.com/tpOfDuPIiP
— Broad Street Beat (@BroadStBeat) July 17, 2013
While I acknowledge that Trout is a member of a team that is not the Phillies, its hard not to root for a native of the area who, despite living 3000 miles away, remains a dedicated Philadelphia-area supporter through and through.
It wasn’t until the fifth inning that one of the two Phillies’ representatives made their appearance in the game, as NL team manager Bruce Bochy elected to have Cliff Lee pitch the top of the fifth inning. Cliff did not start off strong in his inning, surrendering a double to Orioles OF Adam Jones. Things did not get any easier for Cliff as Joe Mauer, arguably the best hitter in baseball, stepped up with a runner on. Lee managed to get two strikes on the Twins catcher before he hit a grounder in the hole to shortstop. Troy Tulowitzki made an effort, but the ball dribbled under his glove and, all the sudden, Lee had surrendered hits to the first two batters he faced. Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy stepped up and punched one to second that looked like a double play ball. The tandem of Brandon Phillips and Tulowitzki were unable to turn the twin-killing in time and, Jones scored from third. Perhaps the most daunting task of the night for Lee, a match-up with the aforementioned Mike Trout, was the easiest task for Cliff, as he forced the speedy Trout into a double play, thus ending the evening for the southpaw on a high note.
With the National League trailing in the game, 2-0 after five innings, the next member of the Phillies all-star duo entered the game, as Bochy elected to put Domonic Brown in at left field. Unfortunately, Brown did not fare much better than Lee in his first all-star game appearance. The lanky lefty stepped up in the bottom of 7th representing the tying run in the 2-0 game. The AL elected to switch in lefty reliever Brett Cecil who proceeded to strike out Brown on three pitches. Brown’s adventurous night continued in the field, where in the top of the 8th inning, Indians infielder and noted Phillie-killer Jason Kipnis skied a double over Brown’s head to plate the third run for the American League. While Brown’s defense hasn’t necessarily been a weakness, we’ve all grown to know, and cringe at the sight of him tracking a well-hit ball in the outfield in a big spot. It is tough to say whether or not Brown could have made a play on the ball, but his clumsy approach did not help the young man improve his image on a national scale.
All in all, save Cliff Lee’s death stare in pre-game announcements, this was a forgettable evening and all-star weekend from a Phillies perspective.
One of the more memorable moments in my life as a baseball fan did occur in the bottom of the 8th inning, where Jim Leyland, following up on his promise to make sure the soon-to-be-retired closer Mariano Rivera would have a chance to pitch in his last All-Star game, turned the stage over to the consensus ‘best closer in MLB history. Following Neil Diamond’s performance of ‘Sweet Caroline’ (because why not?) the usually haunting, now inviting cadence of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ started blasting through the Citi Field speakers and, over the next few minutes, everyone in America was a Yankees fan.
One of the unique aspects of team sports is the inability to latch on to players of team’s one does not follow. With regional rivalries the way they are, the increase of player turnover in both trades and free agency, and the general arrogance of professional athletes, it is next to impossible to bring oneself to admitting their admiration to a member of an opposition. The case of the New York Yankees in baseball is perhaps the most appropriate case of this. An organization that, for the better part of the 21st century, has made their mark by outbidding other teams for free agents and embodying the ‘Evil Empire’ moniker to a tee. For a Phillies fan, it stings even more, as the Yankees lone World Series title since 2000 came at the expense of the Phillies, and it has been a steady decline since then.
However, a few times in every generation, there is that transcendent talent that spends his entire career on one team. The player who, due to longevity alone, becomes the living embodiment of all the positive aspects of a franchise, leaving the ignorance of the naysayers in his wake. If that player is able to maintain a performance level above his peers, fans will praise him. Yet if that player is able to be the best at what he does, without question, over the course of his career, with the same team, that is something truly special. For nearly two decades, Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees has been, with zero doubt, the best relief pitcher and most-feared closer in the game.
What makes the league’s love affair with Rivera particularly interesting is his role in the grand scheme of the game. As a closer, Rivera’s performance was not always essential to a Yankees win. If the team was going well, and they were winning games by five runs, Rivera could relax on the bench and go multiple games without even throwing a pitch. Yet it was the presence of Rivera, perhaps more so than any of their power bats and clutch performers over the years, that have made the Yankees feared. Opponents knew that if they were trailing after eight innings, chances are they were going to lose. In a game of uncertainty and imperfection, Rivera was as close to a guarantee as there was in the game.
My most memorable moment in baseball, unfortunately at the expense of the future Hall of Famer, was actually seeing him blow a save in the playoffs. In the 2001 World Series, facing the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Yankees carried a one-run lead into the bottom of the 9th, poised to capture their second straight title. While I was livid at the fact that Curt Schilling was about to lose a World Series after the Phillies had traded him years before, I could not help but be on the edge of my seat seeing the great Mariano Rivera come up in the biggest possible spot for a baseball player and carry the fate of his team on his back. While it has become the stuff of lore what proceeded to happen in the 2001 World Series, with Luis Gonzalez jumping for joy following his walk-off single, I could not help and marvel at the universal shock surrounding the world that the near-mythical closer for the team that had dominated the previous decade finally had an opponent get the better of him.
Fast forward over a decade and, in the park of his cross-city rivals, the cheers and respect for Rivera was no less evident than it was on that mound in Arizona in 2001. Seeing players who were barely toddlers when he started his career applaud him as he took his trip to the mound was moving, and witnessing the admiration of countless players that had been left befuddled by Rivera’s career-long dominance was something that I will never forget.
While it was a shame that Rivera did not officially close out the game, which the American League won 3-0 (the National League making the last out with Domonic Brown on deck), it would have been a crime for Rivera not to pitch on the grandest of stages where alliances went out the window for one night and everyone got to pay homage to the world’s greatest.
While the focus of this article was to cater toward Phillies fans, I found it important, as a baseball, and a sports fan, to acknowledge the greatness of something we may never have the privilege of seeing again. Once upon a time, we witnessed Brad Lidge pitch the perfect season for a closer. It wasn’t always easy with ‘Lights-Out Lidge’ but at the end of the day, his fairytale 2008 season was the perfect bow on what was a magical season for Phillies fans. While not infallible, Mariano’s career, as a whole, can be considered the perfect career. He had his hiccups along the way and there were those who had their doubts as he continued to age. At the end of the though, when Rivera hangs up his #42 jersey for the last time (the last time anyone will ever hang up the number 42) he will be universally lauded as the best there is, the best there was, and the best that there ever will be.