Rich Hofmann: This time, Phillies' party is missing something

100109-hofmann-400
Chase Utley offered a cigar to the spirit of Harry Kalas after the Phillies' win. (Elizabeth Robertson/Staff Photographer)

"Brad Lidge is on the hill and Lance Berkman is the batter. Here's the pitch. Swing and a bouncer to first. Howard's got it, takes it himself. One pitch and Lidge has finished it off! The Phillies have won the National League East for the third consecutive year. They pile around Lidge to the right of the mound. The bullpen has emptied. The dugouts have emptied, and the Phillies celebrate for the third year in a row."

- Scott Franzke,

Phillies radio broadcaster

 

THE CHASE BEGAN with a great and glorious hangover. It ended with Pedro Martinez starting the game, with Brad Lidge finishing it, with all of them wearing a black decal embroidered on the front of their uniforms bearing the letters "HK."

It seemed that it was always going to be about this mix of emotions. And so it has been, the story of the 2009 Phillies.

On the third time around, the familiar white towels snapped in the seats and the same joyous roar rose high. The Phillies beat the Astros, clinching the division again, and the fireworks and the champagne were the same. The picture that will remain, after everything, was the charge of Phillies players out to the sign on the leftfield wall.

It is the sign with the microphone and the big red letters, the omnipresent reminder of Harry Kalas, the voice and the soul of the franchise who died in April. They gathered around the sign, all of them, jumping and joyfully pounding against it, showering it and the nearby fans with every available beverage.

You do not script these kinds of moments. They just happen if the stars are aligned just right. You do not script life, either. And here we all are again.

So many people expected that it would get to this point, a third consecutive NL East title. No one saw the tortured route, though. No one saw starting pitching that would be dreadful for more than 2 months and then substantial after that. No one saw Lidge, the perfect closer of 2008, being smacked down so hard by the backswing of the sport's merciless pendulum.

No one saw the acquisitions of Cliff Lee and Martinez in the days leading up to the trade deadline. No one saw the Mets, their scorned and scarred rivals, descending into the abyss while strapped to a hospital gurney.

No one guessed that Kalas would die before an April game in the broadcast booth at Nationals Park in Washington.

No one could have imagined.

So it was easier this time but it was harder - for manager Charlie Manuel, for all of them. The division title was preordained for months but fretted over for days. Mixed emotions, then. They, and the Phillies, rule.

"This is what I came here for," said leftfielder Raul Ibanez, one of the handful who did not experience the World Series of 2008. "I came here because it's a great ballclub. But I didn't realize how special a club it is until I got here."

It was never going to be like last season. Everybody knew that if they listened for a second to their hearts. The drought had been so long before the 2008 championship, and the rush to the finish line had been so thrilling, and the parade had been, well, perfect. It was an all-senses experience that would not be repeated.

But there was a championship to defend, and a new set of realities for the people of this city to acknowledge. It was the first time in a quarter-century that Philadelphians were experiencing a championship afterglow - and you could sense a struggle at times with the emotions. They began the season bathed in a perpetual happiness. By September, that had morphed - through Lidge's struggles, mostly - into a cloud of perpetual concern.

Whatever the new normal for Phillies fans is, we really do not know. All we know is this, what happened last night.

"From Charlie, from the ownership group on down, for us to be able to keep this team together, to commit to keeping this club together, and for Charlie keeping this club as steady as possible mentally," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said, his thoughts racing as champagne dripped from his suit.

"It's really easy for clubs like this to kind of fall off and not concentrate and think things are going to go smoothly. It was not a smooth ride. We worked very hard to get where we were, and the guys stayed steady. The goal was to continue to win and try to get back to the playoffs and, hopefully, the World Series again."

It ended with Lidge on the mound to get the final out, a sentimental gesture by Manuel in a blowout game, a wonderful moment for a player who has struggled so much. And after it was over, Lidge would say, "I kind of felt locked in. You kind of see those white towels in your peripheral vision and then they kind of fade out and you get focused in. That's what it felt like. It felt like last year."

But it didn't feel like that until the last day of September. Then and only then, cocooned by the waving white towels, blanketed by the joyous roar, did it really seem like 2008 all over again. But even that came with a postscript that will always identify this 2009 Phillies season, with the now-familiar video of Harry Kalas singing "High Hopes" from the scoreboard above.

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com, or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at

http://go.philly.com/theidlerich.

For recent columns go to

http://go.philly.com/hofmann.