Gonzo: Fans rewarded with a gem for all time

There was a time in this city - not long ago, and not forgotten, either - when the idea of the Phillies simply reaching the baseball playoffs was a romantic notion, a fantasy you sometimes entertained in private but never uttered aloud when company was present. It would have sounded silly, like an earnest child who says he'll become an astronaut but has no appreciation or understanding of how far away he really is from the moon.

Philadelphians were put-upon for so long, a lump of beaten and battered fans rendered disconsolate by savage sports gods that had no trouble kicking the lot of us while we were down. And we were down a lot.

No longer. Consternation has been replaced by confidence. The Fightin's have morphed from not-so-loveable losers - from a franchise that pretty recently set an ignominious record for the most losses by an organization masquerading as a professional outfit - into a crew that won a World Series and reached another in consecutive seasons. They are beasts and they are feared and they play here. It is staggering and surreal.

And now, as though the last few seasons haven't been enough, there's Roy Halladay.

Philadelphians, once sports paupers, grew rich beyond anyone's imagination on Wednesday. In full view of an envious nation, Halladay threw one of the great games in baseball's long history, a masterful outing that was just one meddlesome fifth inning Jay Bruce walk away from being a perfect performance. Instead, Halladay settled for being just the second man ever to throw a postseason no-hitter.

"I've been in baseball 50 years," Charlie Manuel said after the Phils won Game 1, 4-0. "This is the first time I've seen a guy throw two no-hitters in a year. Absolutely unreal."

Manuel shook his head in disbelief. Then the outlines of a smirk formed in the corner of his mouth.

"It was great managing," he deadpanned.

Like Manuel, the opposing manager has been in baseball for a long time. After the game, Dusty Baker sat in front of a microphone at Citizens Bank Park and tried to explain what had just happened. He looked drained and dejected.

"It still counts as a loss, but that was a very dramatic loss," Baker said. "That is the best pitched game I've seen since I've been going to the playoffs and the World Series."

The Phils were the heavy favorites heading into the National League division series, but no one - not the Phils or the fans or anyone who considers himself remotely sane - could have anticipated Halladay administering such a historic, brutal beating in the first game. Someone asked Baker about that, if he ever imagined things crumbling in such a quick, cruel manner.

"If I was thinking of this scenario, it would be like a nightmare, and I don't like having nightmares," Baker said. "This is the last thing on my mind. . . . You know, last time I think we hit him pretty good in Cincinnati. He made the proper adjustments. He was working very quickly. No, like I said, you don't want to get beat, number one. And you hate getting shutout, number two. And even worse, no hits."

Baker's agony was raw and real, the necessary byproduct of Philadelphia's unbridled elation. There were 46,411 people at the park Wednesday night. Years from now, when the story of Halladay's first postseason game is retold around kitchen tables and bar counters all across the region, many times that number will swear they saw it unfold in person. It will be remembered like the evening Wilt Chamberlain dropped 100 points, after which the entire East Coast and parts of Europe pretended to be witnesses.

Those who actually saw Halladay's masterpiece in person let him know they were present. They stood and smiled and cheered him together - a choreographed mass that couldn't possibly believe its good fortune and needed to express its happiness in unison. Good times, after all, are made that much better when shared.

"I thought especially the last three innings, it seemed like it got louder every inning," Halladay said. "It's obviously one of the most electric atmospheres I've ever been in. It was pretty neat."

Neat seemed like a strange word to use give the circumstances - but then these are strange times in Philadelphia. The fans endured decades of despair - season after season of bad baseball played in a concrete wasteland. It isn't that way any longer. The suffering has ebbed, and our patience has been rewarded.

That's pretty much how it's gone for Halladay, too. He spent years wondering if he'd ever reach the postseason. Now he's here. Now things are different.

"It's been really everything that I hoped it would be," Halladay said.

A grateful town knows exactly what he means.


Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or gonzalez@phillynews.com

Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gonzophilly