Saturday, February 1, 2014

April 10, 2000: Phillies vs. New York Mets

My support of the Phillies renewed, I eagerly counted down the days to the 2000 season.

I even bought a magazine that previewed the new season in the form of one-page breakdowns for all 30 major league teams, and I read it cover to cover. I was aware that despite my great knowledge of baseball, I still didn’t know it well enough to converse about it at length with my peers at school. My window on that potential boost to my popularity was nearly closed, with high school graduation just two months away, but my recent acceptance to Penn State University earned me a new and much bigger group to impress.

My dad still came first as far as attending games was concerned, and we crossed off another wish list item when we acquired tickets for the Phillies home opener, my first game at the Vet in nearly five years. We didn’t know quite what we were in for.

In my eyes, the Phillies’ biggest rivals were the Atlanta Braves, but that probably stemmed from my own hatred of the perennial division winners, and their fans’ insufferable and racially offensive Tomahawk Chop. I know now that the Mets are the main foe by simple proximity. Philadelphia, Boston and basically the entire state of New Jersey constantly deal with living in New York City’s shadow.

We entered a fog of tension that engulfed all of Veterans Stadium. Thousands of Met fans made the trip down the New Jersey Turnpike, and Philly fans expressed extreme displeasure of their presence in a variety of ways. My dad and I could hear the noisy taunts all around us, and more than once, we saw security guards leading the worst offenders out of sight.

The guards couldn’t respond fast enough to two different groups of Phillies and Mets idiots (they don’t deserve the label of fan) who leapt onto the field between the sixth and seventh innings to pummel each other into the Astroturf, an effective weapon against any enemy as I learned the previous December. It was impossible to believe in that moment that my dad and I shared anything in common with those mindless barbarians.

This was the first time I felt ashamed to be a Philadelphia fan, and given our general reputation, I knew it wouldn’t be the last. I admit that I get a little too critical and worked up at times, but I feel fortunate that on the whole, my dad raised me to be a respectful fan. If given the opportunity, we would have both personally apologized to the Phillies for the selfish acts of those brawlers, who not only behaved without regard to the people around them, but also disrupted the game.

The contest on the field was pretty wild as well, though it only got physical once when Phillies bench player Kevin Sefcik collided with the Mets’ Mike Piazza at home plate. A total of 16 runs crossed the plate in the game, all before the sixth inning.

New York scored four times off Paul Byrd in the first (the exact opposite of what occurred at the previous Phillies game I attended, also against the Mets), but Philly batted around in the bottom of the second, taking a 5-4 lead. The Phillies rebounded a second time in the fifth after the Mets retook the lead with three runs in the top half. Philly had already knotted the game at 7 when catcher Mike Lieberthal stepped to the plate with two outs and a man on. As he had done so many times the year before, Lieby launched a two-run shot to put his team in front to stay. It was his first bomb of the season, and the only one in the game.

I still wrestle with deciding between Bobby Abreu and Lieberthal as my favorite player from this era. Lieberthal was the new Darren Daulton, and he had proven as much in 1999 with an All-Star performance. He played a career-high 145 games behind the dish (earning his only Gold Glove award) and hit .300 with 31 home runs and 96 RBI. He would never achieve that kind of production again, but he remained a presence in the lineup and behind the plate for several more years, and contrary to Abreu, he was well liked by the fans.

The Phillies’ win jump-started a week full of excitement for me. I attended my senior prom, as well as a Boys and Girls Club scholarship award presentation. That organization, which my dad helped me join to avoid the dangerous streets of our neighborhood, played a pivotal role in my development as a youth, even on the baseball diamond with two years of T-ball.

The Phillies, meanwhile, beat the Mets again the following night to reach .500 (4-4) for the only time during the 2000 season. I eventually allowed my social life and preparations for college to occupy my time, as it was clear the Phillies were going down, not up. Their two newest recruits failed to deliver. In fact, Mike Jackson didn’t throw a single pitch in 2000 due to a bad shoulder. In the lineup and the starting rotation as a whole, only Abreu, Doug Glanville, Robert Person and Randy Wolf avoided serious injury or trade in 2000, and the Phillies languished in last place for all but 10 games.

Realizing their fate, the Phils traded away their last tie to the 1993 team, Curt Schilling*, at the end of July. He was finally rewarded for his great talent by winning the World Series, once with the Arizona Diamondbacks and twice with the Boston Red Sox. He joined ’93 teammates Mariano Duncan (’96 Yankees) and Daulton and Jim Eisenreich (both ’97 Florida Marlins) as the only players to get a ring after leaving the Phillies. Given how much joy and excitement they brought their fan base, they all deserved a taste of ultimate glory.

*Mickey Morandini also played for the Phillies in 2000, but he spent the previous two seasons with the Chicago Cubs. After being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in early August, Morandini retired at the end of the season. I saw the writing on the wall in this game. During the eighth inning, I ventured down to the 200 level of Veterans Stadium to get a closer look at the action. I arrived just in time to see Morandini get picked off first base. The look of panic on his face as the first baseman's glove swiped across his diving hand seemed to say, "Oh man. I think I'm getting too old for this."

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