I grew up watching terrible Phillies teams — and terrible Phillies pitchers.
Sure, in the ‘90s I have some memories of pre-bloody sock Curt Schilling, who I mimicked throwing baseballs against the brick wall next to our garage (My mom was always angry at how often I’d kill parts of the vines she was trying to grow there. It was in the strike zone, mom!). And Randy Wolf and his loyal Wolfpack was a fun stretch.
But mostly, the Phillies just plain sucked for the better part of my childhood.
And growing up dreaming of being a pitcher — the dream is still very much alive, if wholly impossible now — I had no true idol on my favorite team (this column breaks all rules against bias and I will not apologize for that).
By the time Cole Hamels broke into the majors in 2006 as “Hollywood” Hamels, I had lost some of that glossy-eyed kid in me, the one who looks at his favorite athletes as superheroes. I was 15, and Hamels was some San Diego-born surfer dude who just happened to chuck a baseball in the low 90s and would surely burn out or get traded. It was inevitable.
The only thing I had to love was that changeup. That filthy, falls-off-a-cliff changeup.
Nine years later, he still has that changeup, with a much-improved curveball and two other quality pitches. And he didn’t burn out. And he wasn’t traded — at least, not for a long time.
For nine years Hamels was that surfer dude in the red and white pinstripes. For nine years Hamels chipped away at the cold, pessimistic Philadelphia heart in everyone, including myself. For nine years Hamels established himself as the type of Philadelphia athlete we crave, becoming the model of consistent dominance we rarely have the luxury to enjoy while bringing to the city a National League Championship Series MVP and three All-Star game nods.
But most importantly his deceptively deadly left arm gave Philly a desperately-needed World Series title (and a World Series MVP to boot). Nothing else will win a city over like that, especially a city like Philadelphia.
The writing was on the wall, but July 25 was Philly’s time to say goodbye to easily one of the greatest Phillies to ever wear the pinstripes. His 294th, and final, start wearing a grey road No. 35 was a site to behold.
And I was there to behold it.
What a way to bury the lead, huh?)
That’s right. While making my way back across the country on a road trip, I spent a few days in Chicago with a good friend, and I just had to go see my first game at Wrigley Field and watch my Phightin’s inevitably lose (eternal pessimist, not kidding). I was there to see a historic ballpark.
I wasn’t there to see history. Until I did.
Standing room only at Wrigley isn’t easy. A stadium built 100 years ago isn’t built for that, so after some moving around my friends and I settled on a concrete ramp behind the lower deck, behind the concourse behind the lower deck.
We could barely see to the outfield; any popup was lost to the concrete underneath the upper deck, the only clue to its destination the players on the field sprinting for it.
But we were in the shade on a muggy day watching some baseball on vacation. All was good in the world.
In the sixth, after countless jokes about Ryan Howard, Ruben Amaro Jr., and everything in between, I glanced at a scoreboard in left field with Hamels’ stats. I knew he had a bunch of strikeouts, but I couldn’t make out how many hits. After some digging — on Twitter, of course — I saw a big ol’ goose egg.
This game got interesting.
The seventh inning rolls along, Hamels sets three more batters down. The eighth inning rolls along, three more Cubs are sent back to the dugout. An Odubel Herrera diving (faceplanting?) snag in center, and comeback and yet another K did the trick this time, to raucous ovations from the Chicago faithful (and Philly diehards in attendance).
Then, the ninth.
Hamels walked out to the mound, and all I can remember was how loud the fans were, cheering against their own team. It was glorious and surreal. I felt chills, despite the heat. I don’t remember the first two outs of the final frame. A couple guys I don’t own on my fantasy team were retired quietly.
I do remember the final out, on pitch No. 129, that looked like a surefire homer by Kris Bryant (on my fantasy team) to center from our vantage point. I do remember Herrera stumbling, falling and mercifully catching that fly ball on the warning track, once again landing on his face. I do remember not believing I just saw a no-hitter, walking down to the first-base dugout after to document the proof of my existence at history on social media.
After the game, at a local bar, I met an alumnus in my fraternity who also covers sports in Philly. His vocabulary — mind you, he’s a very opinionated, vocal man — was reduced to variations of, “Man!” and “Holy hell!” He’s seen thousands of games. Never that.
I’ll never see it again. You don’t ever plan to see a no-hitter. You definitely don’t plan to see one at Wrigley Field, against a team that hadn’t been no-hit in decades.
CBS Philly ran a photo after Hamels was traded to the Texas Rangers — management’s late acknowledgement of the end of an era — late Wednesday night that had two simple words: “Just, thanks.”
Nothing else need be said to Hamels, who will surely have his plaque mounted in Ashburn Alley among the other Phillies greats sometime in the next decade or two.
I’ll say one more thing, though.
Thanks Hamels, for making this ever more pessimistic 20-something feel like that awe-struck kid one more time, staring up with wide eyes at his idol. Thank you for sending me back in time, if only for a few hours, to the days I’d imagine pitching in red and white while throwing against a brick wall in my driveway.