It’s not usually supposed to work like this in baseball. The quirk, some would say the beauty, of the game is that the big at-bats can fall to anyone. They don’t always fall to a team’s star player, and in fact, they rarely do. Opponents spell out a strategy most of the time to make sure they don’t.
And it’s not that Bryce Harper needed this series to cement just how good he is, or how important he is to the Phillies. Even before he broke his thumb, he and all his supporters, could have easily stated that the Phitins wouldn’t have made the playoffs without him. And they wouldn’t. He was that good. Which is what the Phillies paid for, which is what their agreement promised.
Yet, when a team makes a free agent signing like Harper, or a trade like the one for Juan Soto that San Diego pulled the trigger on before the trade deadline this season, Sunday is the kind of day they dream of. Inside they’re not sure it’ll happen, perhaps even doubtful that they would get such a singular moment. You sign Bryce Harper for what you get over six months, year after year, and you sit back in November or December, look at the stats, and marvel at what he gave you. It’s hard to notice them in the middle of the season, or just how much they mean, as they accumulate. But there’s always that inextinguishable hope that it will all come to a head at some point in the fall. That baseball for once might just act like basketball.
But goddamn, isn’t it sweet to see something like the bottom of the 8th in Game 5 of the NLCS? A pristine moment that should make the fanbases, and especially the front offices and owners, of just about every other MLB team, save three or four riddled with jealousy and anger, because any team could have had him. All he would have cost is money. All he did cost was money, and the Phillies were the ones that paid for it.
And their fans get a memory that they will have forever. Even if they get pasted by the Astros in the World Series (and my hunch is they probably will, but baseball could still very easily baseball), Phillies fans will talk about Harper’s homer over beer and barbecues and at the end of wedding receptions and wakes and with their kids or neighbors or the weirdo on the SEPTA for the rest of their lives. Isn’t that the fucking point? Isn’t that why we do this? For memories and things that bring us together and something to share with the most random people we can think of? Fuck, I remember Brent Sutter’s goal against the Red Wings in Game 4 in 1992 of the Norris Division Finals and that was 30 fucking years ago the Hawks got absolutely smashed in the Final that year and I don’t really care. It’s why we’re here.
Imagine what the moment could have meant in Pittsburgh or Kansas City or Milwaukee or either side of Chicago or Arizona. We could do this forever. That’s all those fans what, and any of those teams could have provided it. Instead, they all chose to hang on to money their owners will never notice. That’s what baseball has come to mean, but it doesn’t mean that to us.
There will be multiple front offices that use the Phillies as an example of “all you have to do is get in.” But that’s not really what they are. They signed Harper and Castellanos and Schwarber and Wheeler. They probably thought they would run with the Mets and Braves all season. They certainly wanted to.
Even if the regular season turns into a six-month mosey waiting for the playoffs, and even if the playoffs become devalued in a way as more of us see them for what they are, it won’t dim moments like Harper’s homer. It’s sad that teams have used a World Series championship as a license to burn it down and simply watch the TV checks roll in.
The Cubs, the Royals, the Nationals, the latest Red Sox champion, all used a World Series title to justify their profiteering ways that came after. It’s almost as if creating those memories for their fans was a nuisance best to be gotten out of the way to get down to the real business.
The Phillies let the 2008 team run as far as they could, even with those around screaming it was time to give up. They tried a rebuild, it didn’t work, so they went another way instead of trying a whole new batch of schoolchildren via trade and drafts that might... might work in 2028. And they’ve already been rewarded. This is how it’s supposed to be.
Sign big players, let your fans dream. Sometimes, they actually come true.
I’d remarked on the stark difference between MLS’s regular season and playoffs, and how gratifying it is to see dramatic moments in the rare games that matter in the league. That is not only exclusive to them, as NWSL’s regular season can seem a bit pointless with their playoff system as well. Which also means their playoffs can produce grounding moments too:
There are so many layers to this, beyond sending the Thorns to the NWSL final. Dunn had only returned from maternity leave at the tail end of the season. Portland has pretty much been the epicenter of the outing of all the issues that NWSL and its players have gone through for its entire existence, its fans the most vocal about seeing change within the team they love. When Dunn crashed home this fairytale, the catharsis is palpable. Again, look at the undulation amongst the crowd that becomes one upon sight of this goal. It’s rare to see that in NWSL, and perhaps only possible in Portland, home to the sport’s most passionate fanbase. Which makes it heartbreaking that some of the league’s greatest crimes took place there. But this is moving on, in the most emphatic style.
Finally, it gives me a chuckle that this is what Tom Brady chose. He only retired and came back so he would watch the adulation flow to him twice in the offseason. He had to huff all the praise as he left, and then realized he felt like nothing without it and it would go away if he wasn’t playing anymore. He’s only here to serve himself, and he’s serving himself a big steaming turd as the Bucs stumble to a nondescript, if not outright bad, season. He did this to himself, it’s going to cost him so much more than the physical toll, and all because he just had to hear everyone talk about him some more. This is the only thing we’ll ever get over Tom Brady, so drink it in.