Thursday October 4th, 2007

PHILADELPHIA -- You wondered if we'd be out of practice. When we -- Philadelphians over the age of 14 years, three weeks -- last gathered at the home field for October playoff baseball, the leadoff hitter was Lenny Dykstra, the first baseman was John Kruk, the starting pitcher (Game 5, 1993 World Series) was Curt Schilling.

Fourteen years later, Dykstra is now on CNBC, pushing stocks. Kruk is on ESPN, analyzing the modern game with decided nonchalance. Schilling is on FOX, still pitching in October baseball games.

In '93, the Vet was cracking and leaking -- and shaking. Wednesday marked the playoff baptismal of the new place, Citizens Bank Park. This report comes to you from Section 130, Row 20, Seat 4. Two Dominican men are to the left of your correspondent. Two kids who took an after-lunch slide from middle school are on the other side. A white-haired gent one row up wearing a 1980 World Series ring was once the team doctor. Now he's another fan in his seat for a 3:05 start, an ideal time to begin a baseball game. Nothing says October like shadows creeping across a diamond, in this case from third to first. The temperature for the game hovered between 80 and perfect.

The '07 Phils have a core that should mean they will not be what the '93 Phils were: a one-hit wonder. Looking at the trio of Ryan Howard (in the Kruk role, first baseman), Jimmy Rollins (in the Dykstra role, leadoff hitter) and Cole Hamels (in the Schilling role, ace pitcher), it's conceivable -- not going crazy here and not saying anything more that that, conceivable -- that all three could have Hall of Fame careers. It's also possible that all three could be playing 14 years from now, in which case they won't be looking to get work on TV. They'll be looking to buy a club.

The Phillies get no respect from the baseball poets -- well, from Ken Burns, anyhow --and it's so unfair. The club averages one World Series win per century, endured 10,000 losses faster than anybody, and yet where are the odes? The Red Sox? They're always a "storied franchise." The Cubs? "Lovable." The Phillies are just ... there, showing up at the appointed time for their games.

The loyalty of the fan base, though often overstated locally, is remarkable, all things considered. In Section 132 on Wednesday, every fourth male adult -- one grown man after another -- was wearing a team jersey. You saw the names Hamels, Carlton, Schmidt, Rollins, Rose, Utley, Luzinski, Howard, Kruk. Your correspondent didn't see a single Schilling. He left of his own volition. That don't fly here.

As for the new place, on its baptismal: 45,000 in the house, with no leaking, no cracking and some honest-to-God shaking. The outfield dimensions are bizarre, by traditional National League standards, which are all but dead anyhow. The summery breeze was blowing straight out to centerfield Wednesday afternoon. The game featured the two biggest run-scoring teams in the National League. The result: Something resembling a pitchers' duel, good control, an under-three-hour game and a 4-2 Rockies win. A first-game victory might have been more than Philly could take right now, what with the Eagles, Sixers and Flyers all either in the morgue or heading there.

The Phillies' only runs came on back-to-back homers in the fifth, Aaron Rowand followed by Pat Burrell. That got the score to 3-2 and the house was literally heaving up and down, up and down, like the manager's chest after the mound-to-dugout run. All the first homer did was interrupt a Section 132 serenade of the Rockies starter, Jeff Francis.

FRAN-cis; FRAN-cis; FRAN-cis. You SUCK.

A compliment, of course, Philly-style.

It was the same thing 14 years ago, with different names. This is an old city, resistant to change, although a winner would be welcome, right about now.

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