Monday, July 27, 2015

Once and Future King: Colbert Michael Hamels and the Footnotes of History

On September 9th, 1965, Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs. He had become one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, and obliterating the hapless Cubs was one of his crown jewels. It was the last time the team from Chicago's North Side would go without a hit. For nearly fifty years, seasons came and went, each without a World Series title, but every game played saw the Cubs manage at least one safe base hit. That was, until Cole Hamels took the mound on Saturday afternoon.

The Sword in the Stone is the fictitious tale of young King Arthur. While under the tutelage of the wizard Merlin, he pulls the sword Excalibur from an anvil and becomes King of England. Well that's a super-short synopsis, but its the basic framework of the legend. The key is that Arthur was strong of heart. Other men had tried to pull the sword from its vice purely with their brawn, but they were not worthy. So can be said of the legend of the Cubs no-hitter. The list of pitchers to have faced the team since Koufax last completed the feat makes what Hamels did that much more impressive. Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, and many others tried and failed, at least to hold the Cubs without a hit. While I'm not sure it was anything in their character that prevented a no-hitter, or that there is anything morally virtuous about Cole Hamels, some of the strongest and best pitchers of all time were unable to do it.

The rise and fall of the Philadelphia Phillies is about as prominent as any other franchise roller coaster in MLB history. The team made back to back World Series in 2008 and 2009, defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in the former. The Philly offense was led by two former league MVPs in Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. Their games were closed out by Brad Lidge, whose forty-one saves were second-most in the National League. He might have had more, if it wasn't for how often the Phillies outscored their opponents beyond "save situation" qualification. They were the best team in baseball, but as with almost every team of their stature, the floor fell out. Star players received mammoth contract extensions, free agents were signed in attempt to make one last run to the top. It was all for naught. Their fall from grace was about as progressive as possible. A year after losing the World Series to New York in 2009, they fell in the National League Championship Series to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants. In 2011, despite winning a franchise record 102 games, it was even earlier, losing in five games to the eventual champion St. Louis Cardinals. The next year, they went 81-81 on the season. The descent continued as they only won seventy-three games over the next two years. In 2015, the Phillies are looking down the barrel of one of the worst seasons in recent franchise history. At 37-63, their season looks all but over. Mercifully, it will end at some point. From the beginning of the year, it was clear that moves needed to be made to rebuild the team. One such move was pretty clear- the Philadelphia Phillies had to trade one of their greatest players. They had to dump Cole Hamels.

Cole Hamels was born two days after Christmas 1983. By the time he was twenty-five, he was a World Series most valuable player. In his ten years with Philadelphia, Hamels was a three-time all star, receiving Cy Young Award votes four times, despite never winning the prize. He was a mainstay in the Phils' rotation, but he was never the scariest pitcher alive. Even as his team plunged into mediocrity, Hamels made thirty or more starts, avoiding serious injury and maintaining a solid career resume. So it fit that when he took the mound against a young and powerful Cubs offense on July 25th, a no-hitter was the last thing on anyone's mind.

A few innings fell away with no hits, and as usual, nothing was made of it. Ryan Howard hit a three-run home run off of Cubs junior-ace Jake Arrieta in the third inning. The Cubs had come back from that deficit a few times, and as early as it was, by the sixth or seventh inning, the thirty-one year old Hamels might tire or lose his touch and the team could catch his faults. That was not how this story goes. Inning after inning, the Cubs failed to hit safely. As a Cubs fan well aware of the hit streak, I was getting nervous. Cole Hamels was dealing, and none of the guys wearing pinstripes could seem to locate anything he was throwing. But I've seen that before. There had been plenty of instances in which the Cubs were held hitless through eight innings. Even when a pitcher made it to an out or two into the ninth, someone would always come up with a miraculous bloop single or a line shot up the middle. On Saturday, the Cubs' savior never came.

The Phillies added two runs in the eighth inning, bringing their lead to five runs. As the game turned to the bottom of the ninth, the home crowd understood they were witnessing history. Addison Russell forced a full count, but softly grounded to third baseman Maikel Franco. Dexter Fowler stayed alive for a few pitches, but soon watched a ninety-six miles per hour fastball speed right through the zone. Two away. It was as if the Cubs fans in attendance had reached the last stage- acceptance. As Kris Bryant stepped into the box, the crowd cheered for the opposition. Cole Hamels had been deemed worthy of the accomplishment, and it was time for him to pull Excalibur.

Foul ball. Strike one
Ball one.
Foul ball. Strike two.
Ball two.
Ball three.

Bryant forced a full count. The National League Rookie of the Year candidate took a practice swing and stared down his foe. With fifty years of history on his shoulders, Bryant made contact with Hamels' curveball. The fly ball drifted high to right-center field. Center Fielder Odubel Herrera, who had already made a spectacular running catch to maintain the no-hitter in the eighth inning, tracked it toward the deepest part of Wrigley Field. Herrera reached the outfield wall and realized he had gone too far. He took one leap-step back toward the infield, reached out his glove hand and fell onto his stomach. A cloud of dirt fumed up from his body. The ball was in the bottom of his glove. As he jumped to his feet, Herrera confirmed that he had made the catch, and the Phillies mobbed Hamels. He had done what no one had been able to do in nearly fifty years. Cole Hamels had no-hit the Chicago Cubs.

In what is likely his last start in a Phillies uniform, Cole Hamels gave his long time fans one final gift. The Phillies have a long and painful history. For most of their history, the Phillies were a losing team. They were the first franchise to reach ten thousand losses. On Saturday, in the midst of one of their worst seasons ever, none of that mattered. Their guy, their ace had given them something to hold on to this season. Cole Hamels had helped give the team its second World Series title. He had helped them to an era of unprecedented success in the team's history. Now, he has cemented himself in Philadelphia sports history and baseball history for all time.

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