Sunday, March 24, 2019

Opening Day approaches

Kim went to get the mail from the front porch Saturday afternoon.

Then she walked into the den, underhanded the curled up magazine to me and said, "Your boys are on the cover."

Huh? I had no idea what she was talking about. I was half-heartedly watching an NCAA tournament basketball game at the time between two teams I could not give a flip about, so I unfolded the magazine.

There they were: four Philadelphia Phillies, gracing the cover of the baseball preview issue of my bi-monthly Sports Illustrated. I must have been smiling hard because Rhys Hoskins, Bryce Harper, Aaron Nola and J.T. Realmuto were smiling back at me, like cats that each had a canary for dessert.

The only time I smile that big when I get my SI is when the swimsuit issue arrives.

And usually, when something is plastered on the cover of a magazine, it means there's a big feature story inside. So I paged through, waiting to see a 10-page piece on the up-and-coming Phillies.

But I couldn't find it. What I got instead was a feature on Houston's Alex Bergman. What? He wasn't even on the cover.

The piece on the Phillies turned out to be a one-page scouting report about the team, giving little snippets here and there about strengths and weaknesses. One page? Really? I thought that was odd, given that Sports Illustrated has predicted the Phillies to win the National League pennant this year before losing to the Astros in the World Series.

Wait. Slow down, Bucky.

I've been a Phillies fan since 1964, which was the year we moved back down to Pennsylvania after five years in New England so that Dad could go to Moravian Theological Seminary to become a minister. I was 13 years old and immediately switched my allegiance from Yankees to Phillies because Philadelphia was now just 60 miles away.

But it's been a difficult slog. That very year, 1964, was the year of the great collapse when the Phillies blew a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 games remaining. Ouch. That one still hurts. Since then, the Phillies have appeared in four World Series (about one every 15 years since 1964), winning one in 1980 and another in 2008. So-so.

Phillies fans have been long suffering, so signing Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract was something new. Philadelphia traditionally doesn't throw big money at players, but this acquisition signaled a major turn in team philosophy. In addition to Harper, the Phillies also have picked up shortstop Jean Seugura from Seattle, catcher Realmuto from Florida, and outfielder Andrew McCutchen from Pittsburgh during the off season.

And while the Phillies are now instant contenders, I'm not ready to put them in the World Series. Not yet. Let's get a year in to let the chemistry mix, bubble and simmer. We'll see.

In the meantime, look for pitching rich Los Angeles to win the NL pennant, while Houston wins the AL title. This time, I'm giving the nod to the Dodgers to win the World Series.

But I'd be more than happy to be proven wrong.

•   •   •

On a side note, I have no idea what a Phillie is, even though I've been a fan for 55 years. As far as I know, the Philadelphia team nickname is the only inanimate (and unknown) object in sports. Ever.

I know that you can buy cigars called Phillies blunts (going back to 1910), with the brand name in red and in baseball-type block letters. It leads you to believe there is an affiliation with the baseball team, but there's not. They're more closely related to Hav-A-Tampa.

A filly, of course, is a female horse four years old or younger, but that has nothing to do with baseball. Or Philadelphia, for that matter.

I guess they could be called the Hoagies. Nah.

The best that I've come up with is that a professional baseball team called the Philadelphia Quakers played there in 1883. The following year, they changed their name to the Philadelphia Philadelphias (Go figure). Here's the key: "Philly" was/is a contraction for the city, while a "Phillie" was a person from Philadelphia.

By 1884, the team was referred to by sports writers as the Phillies – or residents of Philadelphia. The name stuck, more or less.

And now, except for a two-year hiatus in 1944-45, when they were oddly named the Blue Jays for no apparent reason (blame it on World War II), "Phillies" is now the longest running sustained nickname by any one team in professional sports.

•   •   •

Opening Day is Wednesday, March 28, for most teams. It's the earliest Opening Day ever. Bring earmuffs.

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