BASEBALL IS A game of failure. This is a truism that has been repeated over and over until its edges are worn from use. Baseball is a humbling game. That's the mantra. Nobody can expect to survive the grind of the longest season without being tripped up. That's what we've been told.
What, then, do we make of what Brad Lidge did for the Phillies this season? How do we grasp it, understand it, place it in its proper spot in the sporting cosmos?
Forty-one times during the 2008 season, the lanky righthander with the paralyzing slider went to the mound to protect a late lead. Forty-one times the Phillies soon followed his arrival by tumbling out of the dugout to celebrate another win. It happened seven more times in the postseason, including the final out of the World Series when he got Eric Hinske of the Tampa Bay Rays swinging to preserve a 4-3 win, then dropped to his knees, arms spread in triumph. That's 48-for-48. Perfect.
For that, for going 2-0 with a 1.95 earned run average, for providing an image of joy that became an instant classic even as this venerable city exploded in celebration, and for doing it all with the same equanimity with which he dealt with the down times that helped convince the Astros to trade him to Philadelphia in the first place, Lidge has been voted the first Daily News Sportsperson of the Year by the paper's sports staff and other experts.
He received 13 of 35 first-place votes and 133 points in a list that, not surprisingly, was dominated by the Phillies. Manager Charlie Manuel (12 first-place votes, 100 points), lefthander Cole Hamels (7, 93) and first baseman Ryan Howard (26 points) rounded out the Top 4. The only other candidates to receive first-place votes were Jamie Moyer and Pat Burrell.
"It really is a big deal and very cool for me," the gracious 32-year-old closer said from his Colorado home. "I mean, our team is full of MVP-caliber players. And to be considered in terms of this vote to be at the top of that, it's quite an honor, for sure.
"So this is a great honor, because it helps me put the year in context, too. You feel like you've done some great things. You're not sure exactly where it stacks up. So this makes you feel like you've accomplished something really big."
Yes, Lidge accomplished something really big. And the whole idea of what he did - perfection! - is only now beginning to sink in. That blown save in the 15th inning of the All-Star Game, after warming up a half-dozen times, has long since been expunged.
"It's funny, because I absolutely refused to let myself think about it during the season," he said. "Now that it's over, my wife [Lindsay] will say something. Or one of my friends will be like, 'Dude, you were perfect.' And instead of having to cringe because of the jinx, now I can be like, 'Wow, I guess everything did go well and I got pretty lucky.' So now I'm kind of relishing what happened and thinking about it. And it's really fun because I didn't let myself think about it during the year."
When the Phillies sent Michael Bourn, Mike Costanzo and Geoff Geary to the Astros for Lidge and Eric Bruntlett in November 2007, Lidge was still on crutches following surgery on his right knee. On his first pitch off a mound at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater, Fla., he aggravated the injury and needed an arthroscopic procedure that caused him to miss the first week of the season.
So the sequence of events that happened after the Phillies clinched the team's first world championship since 1980 - and just the second in franchise history - took on an added significance.
After Hinske struck out, Lidge dropped to his knees, looked up into the frigid South Philadelphia sky and yelled, "Oh, my God."
Then catcher Carlos Ruiz arrived with a bearhug. Then Ryan Howard joined in.
And then, as the pile continued to grow, Lidge felt his knee start to give.
"It was pretty much gone a couple minutes after I stood up," he said with a laugh. "I remember thinking, 'They need to get off here.' Just for a second I was thinking, 'Well, if you're going to blow it out, this is the way to do it.' Then I thought, 'No, wait a minute, I don't want to do that. So people better get off.' "
He has passed on most opportunities to cash in on his celebrity this winter. He flew to South Bend, Ind., to be honored by his alma mater, Notre Dame, at halftime of the football game against Syracuse on Nov. 22.
For the most part, though, he stuck close to home. He narrated the Phillies' highlight film, but he did it out of a suburban Denver studio, taking about 2 hours to go through the 14-page script. He autographed some memorabilia when the dealers agreed to send the items to him. That's because Lindsay was due with their second child. She gave birth to their first son, Rowan Thomas, earlier this month.
That's part of the reason that Lidge has decided not to participate in the second World Baseball Classic this spring. Understandably he'd rather stay with his family than travel to Toronto and, possibly, Miami and Los Angeles if Team USA advances.
The other reason is superstition. He played in 2006 ... and never found his stride after that.
"To be honest, if I said that wasn't it at all, I'd be lying," he said. "But I wouldn't say superstition as much as that I got into some extremely bad habits. I feel like that might not happen again. Or it might. And I don't want to take that chance. I signed a deal with the Phillies [3-year, $37.5 million extension] and I want to perform at the highest level I can every single year now.
"I loved playing in the first [WBC], I really did. I think the experience of it was awesome. At the same time, the 2006 season [1-5, 5.28] was far and away my worst one. How I felt pitching, my mechanics, trying to repeat pitches. I just struggled the entire year. Obviously, a lot of that's my fault. We should be able to make adjustments at the major league level. But, for whatever reason, I had a tough time. And I don't want to get in a bad way and have to battle through that again."
This year, Lidge can't wait for the season to begin, even though he knows it means putting his streak back on the line.
"Inevitably it will end," he admitted. "There's no question about that."
Of course Lidge will be unable to hold a lead and the Phillies will lose as a result, someday. Baseball is a game of failure, after all.
The vote totals
The balloting for Daily News Sportsperson of the Year used a 5-4-3-2-1 system and was voted on by a panel of the Daily News sports staff and other experts (first-place votes in parenthesis).
1. Brad Lidge, 133 (13)
2. Charlie Manuel, 100 (12)
3. Cole Hamels, 93 (7)
4. Ryan Howard, 26
5. Bernard Hopkins, 22
6. Brian Dawkins, 19
- Paul Holmgren, 19
8. Chase Utley, 17
9. John Stevens, 12
10. Jamie Moyer, 11 (1)
- Pat Gillick, 11
11. Mike Richards, 10
12. Brian Westbrook, 9
- Curtis Drake, 9
13. Pat Burrell, 5 (1)
- Carli Lloyd, 5
- Jeff Carter, 5
16. Jay Wright, 3
17. Ed Stefanski, 2
- Maurice Cheeks, 2
- Fran Dunphy, 2
- R.J. Umberger, 2
- Dionte Christmas, 2
22. Shane Victorino, 1
- Matt D'Orazio, 1
- Tyreke Evans, 1
- Martin Biron, 1
- Steve Devlin, 1
- Gabriela Marginean, 1