Thursday October 22nd, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- The Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992 and 1993, but it was not until their final act that they earned true acceptance and appreciation. They had 96 wins one year, 95 the next, a very good team that fell just short of great. Then Joe Carter came to the batter's box in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, sent a moonbeam over the left-field foul pole, and took his delirious lap around the dirt cutout at Skydome. By the time he reached home plate, the Blue Jays were a dynasty or at least something close to it.

The team they vanquished, the Philadelphia Phillies, now find themselves in an almost identical position. They won 93 games this season, 92 a season ago, impressive but not overwhelming. They won the World Series last year, but it was the Rays they beat, not the Yankees or the Red Sox. As unfair as it may be, in order to establish a permanent legacy in this era, you have to unseat the Yankees or the Red Sox. It's practically a prerequisite.

The Phillies, National League champions for the second year running, are about to get their chance. The Yankees lead the Angels 3-1 in the ALCS, and even though the Phillies would not come out and say who they want to face, it is clear they yearn for the ultimate challenge.

"People here feel like we can do amazing things," Phillies closer Brad Lidge said. "If we have to do it over and over again we will."

The Yankees, who have not won the World Series since 2000, would be the popular pick. The Phillies, defending champions, would be easily dismissed. If it sounds like backward logic, maybe it is. The Phillies do not lose at home in the playoffs (they are 11-1 over the past two years), have a left-handed ace to counter C.C. Sabathia (Cliff Lee is 2-0 with an 0.74 ERA this postseason) and play like an American League team that just happens to be in the National League.

The Yankees led the majors in home runs this year, with 244, but nobody was closer than the Phillies, with 224. To emphasize the point, the Phillies hit four more homers in Game 5 of the NLCS, routing the Dodgers 10-4. When it was over the Phillies exchanged embraces, but there was no dog pile at Citizens Bank Park, a sign that a larger celebration looms.

"We are still in kill mode," said outfielder Jayson Werth, whose two homers Wednesday terminated the Dodgers season.

More than an hour after the game, Werth was reclining in a leather chair in the Phillies clubhouse, among a semicircle of teammates. They sipped wine, guzzled beer and told war stories. Laughter and cigar smoke filled the air. It felt more like poker night in a neighbor's basement than a big-league celebration. If there is one advantage that the Phillies could have over the Yankees, it is their down-home sense of camaraderie, forged over the past two years. "This team is a bunch of superstars," said outfielder Raul Ibanez, "who don't act like superstars."

The Phillies scored 36 runs in the four NLCS games they won, proving they can match muscle with the Yankees. They won in a shootout, a blowout and a shutout, with high drama (thanks to Jimmy Rollins' two-run double to win Game 4) and no drama (thanks to Shane Victorino's two-run homer to cinch Game 5). About the only anxious moment in Game 5 came when the Dodgers loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth inning against Phillies reliever Ryan Madson, down by five runs. Still, the Phillies would not let them score. Their bullpen, long considered a weakness, has so far been anything but.

The only area of real concern was starting pitcher Cole Hamels, who did not get out of the fifth inning and appears every bit as vulnerable as he did in the regular season. The Phillies are still waiting for the Hamels of October '08 and whether he emerges in the next two weeks could very well determine whether they repeat.

A second championship would be the ultimate validation, proof that this is not just a very good team, but a great one. The debate would begin as to whether the Phillies are a dynasty. Going back-to-back in baseball is much harder than in the NFL or the NBA. Over the past 30 years, six NBA teams have done it. Five NFL teams have followed. But only two baseball teams have won multiple titles in a row and both of them were in the American League -- the Yankees of 1998-2000 and the aforementioned Blue Jays. Around Philadelphia, those Blue Jays used to inspire bitterness, conjuring images of Mitch Williams and spawning theories that the local sports teams were hexed.

Now, the '93 Jays symbolize something different. They represent what the Phillies are trying to become.

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