PHILADELPHIA -- The City of Brotherly Love finally found a team tough enough to love it back.
The Phillies' World Series championship Wednesday night didn't end the longest title drought in sports, let alone baseball. But it sure seemed that way after the bottom fell out of an 84-mph slider that Brad Lidge uncorked and Rays pinch-hitter Eric Hinske waved at meekly and missed.
Lidge fell to his knees at the same moment a packed grandstand rose as one, howling and yowling and, at long last, shedding the frustration that had built up over a generation. Gone, too, was the uneasy 46-hour wait between the suspension and resumption of Game 5, not to mention the pain of all those times their teams came oh-so-close.
And not just the Phillies, but the Eagles, 76ers and Flyers, too -- a combined 100 years in all, including an 0-for-6 in championship series since Julius Erving brought home the NBA finals trophy in 1983.
Winning meant something different to everyone who played a part, or simply showed up night after night to cheer themselves hoarse in the wet and cold the past few nights, weather infinitely better suited for football than baseball. But to Series MVP Cole Hamels, the lefty from warm, sunny San Diego who went 4-0 in the postseason and waltzed off with the MVP trophy, it meant an accomplishment that even time couldn't tarnish.
"I think when we come back, when we're all old and retired and we come back, we'll get a standing ovation," he said. "Just like they did for the guys who won the 1980 Series."
The argument has already begun about when it all came together. In a town that lives and dies with superstitions, curses and unrequited love, some will point to that moment Saturday night, when the Series moved north from Tampa and country singer Tim McGraw took the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. His father, lock-down reliever and local hero Tug McGraw, struck out Kansas City's Willie Wilson with the final pitch of that 1980 Series. Tug was working for the club as a spring training instructor when he lost a battle with cancer in 2004.
Though few people saw the gesture at the time, Tim McGraw reached into his pocket and retrieved some of his father's ashes and sprinkled them around the mound. It was surely a coincidence, but the Phils proceeded to win the next three.
And either way, there will be no debate when the final piece of the puzzle slipped into place.
That was when Pat Gillick, the old-school architect of two title teams in Toronto -- including the 1993 Blue Jays squad that stopped the Phillies cold -- took over the general manager's seat from unpopular Ed Wade. The homegrown talent this team was built on, beginning with Hamels and the infield trio of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, were drafted on Wade's watch. But not long after Wade moved on to take the job in Houston, Gillick added to his Hall of Fame credentials with a series of shrewd trades, the best of which was fleecing his predecessor in a deal that brought Lidge from the Astros to the Phillies.
This past January, Gillick also made a nice free-agent pickup by the name of Pedro Feliz, whose looping, seventh-inning single in short center field scored the go-ahead run that Lidge so ably protected.
"It was just a matter of getting a few right pieces in the right spots," Gillick said, zooming down a back stairway from his executive suite to join the raucous celebration on the field.
Then he stopped in mid-stride and graciously added, "Make sure to give Eddie plenty of credit. He's the one who put the nucleus together."
Fittingly, it was one of the noisier parts of that nucleus who ran onto the field and handed manager Charlie Manuel a freshly printed copy of a newspaper that blared "Champs!" across the front page.
"It's been a long ride, I'll say that much, but we did it," Rollins said.
More than a few ballclubs passed on the switch-hitting high school shortstop from Oakland, Calif., because at 5-foot, 8-inches most of them believed he'd be overmatched by major league pitching. But not the Phils, who grabbed him in the 1996 draft. After a decade in the organization, he showed the same belief in the organization that it bestowed on him, boldly predicting a division championship in 2007 and winning the National League's MVP award.
The Phils made good on his promise a year ago, then proved this time around they were ready for that large, final leap.
"Establishing that winning attitude in this organization has come to fruition," Rollins said. "You start back with Ed Wade. Unfortunately, he wasn't here to see it out. But they did a great job in hiring Pat Gillick who knows how to win."
It was left, finally, to a hometown boy, Jamie Moyer, to complete the circle. As a kid, the 45-year-old left-hander cut school in 1980 to watch the championship parade float through downtown.
"This is a dream come true," he said. "Being at the parade in '80 and now being in a parade later this week. It's all worth it. We battled together all season long. We've had our ups and downs like every club has and we stayed healthy and battled through it."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org