A Night to Remember by Anthony Gargano
PHILADELPHIA _ Late in the third period of the fourth game of the Stanley Cup Finals, the building fell hushed and a gleeful crowd clad in deep orange that partied like it was 1974 for much of the night grew tense. Those people, who had once appeared as a blur of flesh, fusing as one in celebration, generating the noise of an airport tarmac, suddenly became a series of still shots.
A man gnawed on his fingernails. A woman flattened her palms together, the proposition of prayer. A boy’s eyes widened quizzically.
What in the name of Kate Smith had just happened?
The Flyers’ three-goal lead had shrunk to one in an instant, and now the reborn Blackhawks were buzzing. They felt the surge of tipped momentum. Everyone did. The Flyers – who had controlled this game for a good 55 minutes – moved to survival mode. They could not blow this lead, not here, on their ice, already down 2-1 in the series. Lord Stanley knows, if the Blackhawks tie it, riding that kind of wave, they win it in overtime.
Just the thought of overtime elicits a cold shudder down the spine. Nothing is more terrifying in sports than playoff hockey in overtime. In football, more often than not, there is a progression to the winning score. In hockey, it just ends.
Back on the ice, Chicago pushed the puck into the Flyers’ end, and goalie Antti Niemi skated toward the bench in favor of the extra attacker. Lou Nolan, the public address announcer at the Wachovia Center, noted evenly, “Last minute of play in the third period.”
The puck slid to the corner behind the Flyers net, and goalie Michael Leighton craned his neck to see around the jostling bodies in front of him.
But we’re way ahead of ourselves.
The day began with the gift of the night, the promise of two games, one hockey, one baseball, side by side in South Philadelphia, the perfect Friday reward for a town that cares so deeply about the games.
And they really do here. You hear solely about their transgressions, regularly, especially when one of the local teams makes a championship appearance, and the town becomes a subplot, because, let’s face it, every story needs an antagonist. So across the country, especially in the opposing city, the broad strokes of stereotype batter Broad Street, like the story that appeared this week in a Chicago newspaper that presented a timeline of Phooliganism, beginning with a founding Quaker who once littered. Offering the originality of a Karate Kid remake, the piece was accompanied by a photo-shopped Santa Claus holding a cheesesteak, and failed to juxtapose the sins of the home city, like that beatdown of the Cleveland first base coach by those South Side Wal-Bartmans and that bleacher double creature who doused Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino with a beer on the North Side.
You don’t often hear about their unbridled enthusiasm for a night like this, as genuine as the rapture that hummed through hymn by the Gasper River during the second Great Awakening.
Close to 65,000 people trekked to the city’s sports complex on this sultry evening that featured Phillies-Padres at 7:05 p.m., with Roy Halladay making his first start since the perfect game, and Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Flyers and Blackhawks at 8:15 p.m.
They started gathering shortly after the Friday work whistle, slogging their way through doubly-choked highways, the confluence of rush hour, the games and the Jersey Shore weekenders.
Some parked nearby at FDR Park, a wholly city park located on Pattison Avenue, west of Broad Street, known to the locals as The Lakes, where there are ballfields and benches and barbecues, a public golf course and the Swedish Museum, a history of Swedes in America. In the center, a walking/jogging path encircles a large manmade lake, home to a creature called the Frankenfish, a toothy snakehead fish rooted in Asian that spawned two B horror movies.
Across the street to the north stands the sprawling team headquarters of the Philadelphia Eagles, punctuated by a tall wrought-iron gated entry way, complete with guard-shack. Tucked inside plush, manicured shrubbery, for shielding purposes, the practice fields of the Nova Care Complex extend all the way to the intersection of Broad and Pattison.
Cross Broad Street, and herein lies the old home of Sports Philadelphia, once flanked by the Spectrum arena and Veterans Stadium, a brickless, colorless, impersonal multipurpose monolith. The buildings, without enough suites, signage and savoir-faire, outlived their usefulness. The Spectrum awaits demolition, surrounding footsteps away to the Wachovia Center, and the Vet became an extra parking lot and fueled the separation of the baseball and football teams. Separated by Pattison Avenue, Lincoln Financial Field is the ultra mod Eagles stadium, with two monster video screens and a Mercedes Lounge Club, completely Orwellian-swanky.
Meanwhile, offers a modern take on a lovely throwback baseball park, one of those lyrical little knockoffs that combines the charm of the past and the revenue-generators of today.
The cops at the intersection waved forward the throng on foot at the wide intersection with a thumbs-up, meant for winning. Which one? Both, likely, since they ride with their teams four-for-four here, following the seasons of the four major sports religiously, and orderly, with favorites, yes, by love or by winning, but certainly for all. So there’s no such thing as just a Phillies fan.
A Phillies fan must root for the Flyers, for instance, with violators punished by excommunication.
Walking through the mouth of the main gate of Citizen’s Bank Park well before first pitch, they intermittently broke out into chants.
“Let’s … Go … Fly … ers!”
The ballpark crowd, normally clad in Phillies red, was dotted in orange in that show of solidarity.
Philadelphia is very much a tribal city.
And it is very much alive right now in the revelry of pregame. I’ve always loved the energy of Game Day in America, a wholly positive vibe. Because it brims with anticipation and hope. It’s why I prefer pregame to postgame, regardless of the result, even if accompanied by the joy of winning.
Pregame is about celebrating the journey. It’s about having that something ahead, between vacation and personal milestones. That little carrot during the work week, because maybe, just maybe, tonight something historic will happen involving your team.
Down the way from Bull’s Barbecue, the stand operated by former Phillie slugger, Bull Luzsinki, someone is wearing a goalie mask.
“I think they win tonight,” he says through it.
He will watch the Flyers on his cell phone, or, who knows, he says, maybe he’ll leave early and watch them at the bar.
By the time, Roy Halladay finished his warmup pitches, the subject switches to baseball. The Phillies return home mired in an epic slump. They lost 8 of 9 on a recent road trip, getting swept by the division Mets and Braves to fall three games out of first for the first time since April 2008. Their only win came on Halladay’s perfect performance against the Marlins, and veiled in it was the bleary bats managed only one unearned run in the game.
The one truism about the Phillies this season was supposed to be their lineup, anchored Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, and buoyed by the addition of a true second-hole hitter in Placido Polanco. But they were shut out five times in less than two weeks, and silenced the talk of maybe this lineup was better than the lineup Charlie Manuel had in Cleveland.
Sports Philadelphia’s true sin is that it can overreact and overstate. It can be medieval manic, prone to irrational emotional highs and lows.
Consider the conversation overheard at the game between two college-aged fans wearing matching Ryan Howard jerseys:
“Shoulda never given him all that money.”
“Yea. Rather keep Werth.”
“Werth sucks now, too.”
But they were up standing the first inning, cheering wildly, when Halladay delivered his first pitch. The first two hitters go down like cold beer, the man next to me says. Will Venable of the Padres grounds out weakly to the start game and then David Eckstein – a good contact hitter – swings over a Halladay sinker. That extends perfection to 29 batters, and his stuff looks especially sharp.
And now people are trying to remember that guy who did it two times in a row.
“Vander Meer,” a man says. “Johnny Vander Meer.”
“Right … but he didn’t throw back to back perfect games? They were no hitters, right?”
But it’s moot anyway when Adrian Gonzalez shoots a 2-2 pitch into right-center for a single.
The time is 7:14 p.m., and the crowd at Citizen’s Bank Park gives Halladay a standing ovation.
The Padres nick Halladay for a run in the top of the second and that crowd grows a bit restless, especially when Howard strikes out on three pitches in the bottom of the inning. Fears of this slump continuing start to mount.
It’s the beginning of June.
By a quarter to 8, the crowd outside flows back west toward Broad Street. They move hurriedly from their cars and the nearby block party to the turnstiles that lead into the Wachovia Center
A sign proclaims outside the west entrance:
“RELENTLESS AND RESILIENT”
They are chanting in line.
“Let’s … Go … Fly … ers!”
It’s especially cool inside the building, the perfect haven for a steamy early summer night.
The buzz of anticipation reverberates strong inside the arena, adorned with an orange glow from the fans wearing the sponsored giveaway T-shirts. The noise grows incrementally louder in anticipation for the opening faceoff, peaking at the sight of anthem singer Lauren Hart, daughter of the late Gene Hart, the beloved broadcaster and voice of the Flyers.
Lauren Hart will perform a duet of “God Bless America” with the late Kate Smith up on the big screen. Kate Smith’s version of the song became a Flyers’ tradition during their only Stanley Cup championships in the 70s. What began as a goof became a dear good luck charm to the franchise and continues to this day with a tingling rendition, half performed by the pretty and demure Hart. It’s the perfect symmetry, as Smith, an extra large woman with a booming voice, hammers away on the big screen.
“From the mountains …”
The din continues long after the first faceoff, becoming a collective gasp when Jonathan Toews finds himself alone behind the defense, breathing close to Flyers goalie Michael Leighton. Toews – who has been oddly silent during these Cup finals – tries to lift one over Leighton’s left shoulder but he swats it away with his blocker and the crowd roars.
The Flyers come back moments later. Mike Richards, their captain who reminds everyone here of former Flyer great Bobby Clarke, bangs one home. The boat horn blares.
Flyers 1, Blackhawks 0.
The crowd cheers louder when Lou Nolan announces, “Flyers goal scored by number 18 … Mike Richards!”
“You never doubt this team,” a woman screams after Matt Carle scores to make it 2-0.
At 8:54 p.m., with the first period waning, Patrick Sharp, the ex-Flyer, rips a bullet by Leighton and the mood grows momentarily tense. They knew it couldn’t be that easy. They knew it couldn’t be a blowout.
But maybe it’s pond hockey, just like Game 1, only in favor of the Flyers, because in the final minute of the period, Claude Giroux is left wide open on the side of the net to the left Chicago netminder Antti Niemi.
Across the street, the Phillies continue to struggle at the plate. Locked in a 2-2 tie with the Padres, managing only a two-run homer by Victorino against young Mat Latos, they finally load the bases with one out and Howard at the plate.
The fans sense it.
“Here’s your moment big fella.”
But Howard whiffs on three straight pitches. Again.
A smattering of boos rang out, as the crowd grew restless.
“What’s the score of the Flyers?” someone asked.
“Up 3-1 after one.”
On the field, there were two outs now and the count was full to Werth. The pitch sails low and forces home the go-ahead run.
By 9:20 p.m., the Flyers and Hawks are back on the ice.
Another bad penalty by Chicago. They’re calling here for Peco Power Play, and though they don’t score, the Flyers continue to control play.
At 9:47 p.m., with the Phillies still clinging to a one-run lead, the Padres load the bases against J.C. Romero. But the reliever gets Chris Denorfia to hit a topper to third. Polanco takes the big hop, steps on the bag and fires to first for the 5-3 double play.
Back inside the Wachovia Center, the fans are feeling good. Peter Laviolette uses his timeout with six minutes and change left in the second period prior to another Flyers power play.
He knows. Next goal is huge.
Next goal probably wins it.
The Flyers don’t score and so it seems the perfect time just as the second period comes to a close to check back on the Phillies. Stepping out of the arena, the warm night air feels good now. A wanderer outside the ballpark asks for an update on the Flyers.
“I feel it … another parade.”
“Don’t say that,” another man scolds. “That’s a violation.”
Back inside Citizen’s Bank Park, closer Brad Lidge trots in from the outfield bullpen. Following a disastrous 2009, Lidge has been injured for much of the seasno, and only this current funk at the plate has kept Phillies fans from pining over the closer situation.
Phillies had a chance to blow it open in the bottom of the eighth, I’m informed.
“Bases sacked again. Ross Gload gave it a ride the opposite way. Caught at the wall. They’re gonna regret that. Keep blowing opportunities.”
It’s 10:05 p.m., and the crowd is nervous about seeing Lidge out there.
Epstein is the closer’s first batter. He grounds the second pitch harmlessly to shortstop.
Up came the always dangerous Adrian Gonzalez, and Lidge falls behind 2-0 in the count. But Lidge comes back with two sliders and then fans the Padres’ cleanup hitter on a fastball away.
Two outs on seven pitches.
Feeling confident now, the crowd rises to its feet. Lidge greets Chase Headley with a dancing slider down and in. Headley chases it for strike one. Lidge offers the same pitch that Headley takes for a ball. The third pitch, Lidge gets over a backdoor slider, a good sign for when the closer is right.
The fans grow louder with two strikes, and Lidge gets the punch-out with that breaking ball down and in again, Headley waving feebly at the pitch and the Phillies hold on for a 3-2 victory. It’s Lidge’s first save since May 9.
A mini celebration ensues. It’s early June.
After wins, the Phillies answer to the Yankees’ closing anthem, “New York, New York,” is Sinatra’s “High Hopes,” sung by the late, great Phillies broadcaster, Harry Kalas. Fans file out of the ballpark to the tune, their hopes now squarely turned to the Flyers.
Back at the Center, the Zamboni makes its way off the ice for the start of the third period.
Earlier it was Twister Sister.
The 80s live strong in hockey.
The chant begins again.
“Let’s … Go … Fly … ers!”
Midway through the period, Ville Leino, a highly-skilled reclamation project who giving the Red Wings high regret right now, gives the Flyers a 4-1 lead.
And that brings us back to the beginning of the story, right about to when the party ended and a hockey game began.
With a minute left, the Blackhawks with six skaters and no goalie. They pepper Leighton and the Flyers somehow clear the puck for an icing. With 35 seconds left, the faceoff is at the right of Leighton. The puck gets pushed out to the point. But Jeff Carter – playing on two broken feet – lifts the stick of Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith, and escorts the puck all the way down the ice and bangs it into the empty net.
Confirmation, finally, of a Flyer win. And a tied series.
At 11:02 p.m., the boat horn blares. It’s goes on abnormally long, signifying that there will be another game in the Stanley Cup Finals here in Philadelphia.
The fans remain on their feet cheering, waiting for the three stars of the game.
Richards is the top star. He skates a quick circle before them, offering an appreciative nod.
A woman holds up a sign: “TOEWS THE BLACKHAWKS.”
A man follows flash his: “DEFY ALL ODDS.”
On the way out, a man wearing a Flyers jersey, accompanied by a group of people all in Flyers jerseys, asks about the Phillies.
“So 2 for 2 tonight?” he said.
Yes, 2 for 2.
They turned the corner, head toward Broad Street, where people in cars lined in traffic happily saluted the revelers on foot, pressing down hard on their horns.
Still chanting some more, the final sounds of Game Day in America.