New group of Phillies put stamp on franchise

LOS ANGELES -- They've spent their whole careers hearing about the Phillies of Carlton and Schmidt, the Phillies of Kruk and Dykstra, even the Phillies of Ashburn and Roberts.

But now it's their turn.

Now it's Jimmy Rollins' Phillies. And Chase Utley's Phillies. And Cole Hamels' Phillies.

Now it's Ryan Howard's Phillies. And Shane Victorino's Phillies. And even Matt Stairs' Phillies.

They play for a franchise that has witnessed more heartbreak than glory years. But now they've written their own story -- a story they were determined to write, a story that is leading them to a World Series all their own.

"Now," said Rollins, on one of the most fulfilling nights of his baseball life, "we've finally got a chance to make our own mark."

They sent Manny Ramirez and that team from L.A. home Wednesday night, finishing off a five-game NLCS blitzkrieg with a 5-1 win, a Game 5 victory they led for all but seven pitches.

Fittingly, it was Rollins who started it, waving that magic, start-me-up wand of his with a stunning leadoff homer -- the second time he's kicked off a series-clinching win with a home-run trot in this postseason alone.

And fittingly, it was the Phillies' impeccable closer, Brad Lidge, who finished it, snapping off one last bat-chomping slider that Nomar Garciaparra lofted into the California night.

And as that baseball floated through the sky, a soft-spoken catcher from Panama settled under it, asking himself for what seemed like an hour: Is this thing EVER going to come down?

"I know that ball was not a tough play, but it took a long time," Carlos Ruiz said after history had finally settled in his glove. "I was saying, 'Come on, baby. Let's go. Come down already.' "

But fortunately for him and that team he plays for, gravity was on their side. Eventually, that baseball returned to Earth. And the Phillies are now headed for a place they've spent most of their lives watching everybody else go but them.

"I don't know if I understand what's really taken place here," said Jamie Moyer, the only member of this team who actually attended the parade of the one World Series championship in Phillies history. "I don't know if it's really sunk in. I know we're going to the World Series, but it hasn't sunk in."

With eyes watering, Moyer began to tell the story of what it was like to be a kid in high school in October 1980, skipping school to watch the champs parade down Broad Street.

"I remember people hanging from the street lights and the trees, and toilet paper all over," Moyer said. "And everybody was your friend. A half a million people were all friends."

And then somehow, in 2006, the world spun and brought him back to his hometown, to a team that was still trying to figure out how to win these kinds of games. And a couple of weeks later, he found himself in the middle of a team meeting, telling his new friends about that parade -- and laying out a dream for all of them, to reach a parade of their own someday.

"And now we're one series away from being on the floats in that parade," Moyer said. "It's amazing."

But for most of these men, nights like this have always been for all those other teams. For most of their careers, all they heard about themselves was that they couldn't win, wouldn't win, didn't know how to win.

They were the team that always chased somebody -- the Braves, the Astros, the Mets, the Marlins -- to the finish line but never broke that tape. Somebody else always did the celebrating. They were the ones trying to explain what happened.

"We always had good players, but we just couldn't seem to put it together," said Rollins. "There was always a piece missing."

But as the pieces began to fit together, in the winter of 2006-07, it was Jimmy Rollins who stepped forward to change everything. He did it with one little quotation:

"We ARE the team to beat."

The reverberations that erupted that day are still rumbling all these months later. And as the Moet & Chandon dripped down his face Wednesday night, Jimmy Rollins thought back to the moment those prophetic words flowed from his vocal cords. If he hadn't said them, he honestly believes this World Series journey might never have arrived.

"People thought I was crazy. Put it that way," Rollins said. "Even some of my teammates. That's the way it always is. People believe, but no one ever wants to say it. No one ever wants to make a statement and put himself out there. So I knew, when I answered the question, it was going to resonate in this clubhouse. And that's what I wanted. I really wanted to catch these guys' attention.

"This was an organization that wasn't used to winning. So saying things like that was definitely out of the ordinary. … But no one ever really said anything to catch guys' attention. And I thought maybe we need to change that a little bit."

People thought at the time he uttered those words to throw a lightning bolt at the Mets. But what he really intended was to throw a jolt into another clubhouse -- his own. To raise the bar. To change the mindset. To transform the brain waves when it came time to play The Big Games.

"That's what we had to do -- change the way we approached the game, changed the way we thought about it," Rollins said. "We were always a team with talent. We were always a team of underdogs. We were always a team that ran the bases well. But I wanted to be known as a team that WINS well."

We know now how last year turned out for The Team To Beat. We know about the miracle finish to catch the Mets. We know about the painful first-round sweep by the Rockies. But what we couldn't know until now was how that sweep led them to this place. How it gave them a different sense of purpose than any Phillies team in many, many years.

It's a sense of purpose that reminds reliever Chad Durbin of the 2006 Tigers World Series team he played for -- except here, he said, "there's even more purpose. In Detroit, those guys were only together a little while. Here, the core of this team has been together for a lot of years."

Rollins and Pat Burrell arrived in 2000. Brett Myers checked in in 2002. Utley showed up in 2003. Howard and Victorino joined the mix in 2005, followed by ace of the future Cole Hamels in 2006.

Every year, they seemed to add another piece, move just a little closer. And that brought them to this year. To a year in which they roared out of the gates, took a 7½-game lead over the Mets in mid-June, kicked away all 7½ games of that lead in not much more than a month, and then, just when everyone else had kissed their chances goodbye, fired up their September magic carpet for the second straight year.

They went 13-3 down the stretch, blew by the Mets, wiped out the Brewers in the NLDS and kept on charging -- until they were one win from the World Series on a gorgeous October evening in Chavez Ravine.

And that was when the shortstop stalked up to home plate in the first inning and did exactly what he'd done a week-and-a-half earlier in Milwaukee. He'd been thinking about this at-bat since Tuesday night, he said, thinking about how he could get this party started.

"I always do," Rollins said. "The night before, I always sit in bed and think. I stand in front of the mirror and practice my swing. A lot of things go through your mind. You know what people are going to throw. You know the way they pitch you. And you try to figure out a way to get it started."

As he worked the count to 2-2 off Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley, Rollins stepped out of the box and let his mind race some more. If he could just get that count to 3-2, he thought, "I know he'll have to throw me a fastball."

He "thought about what happened in Milwaukee" and backed off the plate an inch or two. Sure enough, Billingsley launched that full-count fastball. As it began to tail over the middle of the plate, Rollins' eyes popped, his bat flashed and the baseball disappeared over the right-field fence. It was 1-0, eight pitches into the game. And the World Series Express was rolling.

Soon that lead grew to 2-0. And 3-0. And then there was Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal conjuring up his inner Enzo Hernandez, becoming only the second player in postseason history to commit three errors in one inning. (Another Dodger, Willie Davis, was the other, back in 1966.)

Suddenly, it was Phillies 5, Dodgers 0, in the fifth. And with Hamels on the mound, spinning off zeroes, these men knew what that meant. They were about to win the biggest baseball game of their lives.

Ryan Madson -- the set-up man who has given up exactly two earned runs over his past 21 trips to the mound -- arrived to pitch the eighth. And the men in the dugout began counting down the outs.

"We had six outs to go, and I had the utmost confidence in our bullpen," Moyer said. "But those were six big outs, the six biggest outs of our season."

Turned out, however, that they were no problem. Madson blitzed through the eighth. Then Lidge burst through the bullpen gates in the bottom of the ninth.

James Loney blooped a leadoff single. But down went Casey Blake for one out. Down went Matt Kemp for two outs. And then there was Garciaparra, flailing at one last slider. And there was that final pop-up hanging in the ozone, as one very nervous catcher waited for it to return to planet earth.

As a boy in Panama, Ruiz once watched these scenes on his television. Watched other catchers gather up these final outs in the defining games of their lives. Watched those other catchers land in frozen October moments, preserved through the magic of digital photography.

And then, he said Wednesday night, finding this hard to believe, "it happened to me."

He stuffed that baseball into his back pocket, ran right at Lidge and leaped into his arms. Then he dissolved into a sea of grown men hugging each other for what seemed like a week.

These men play baseball in a town where, for 25 excruciating years, the only excuse to hold a parade has involved a bunch of banjo-strumming folks in feathers celebrating the new year (possibly because it had to beat the heck out of the old year where, once again, not one stinking team had won anything).

And so, as the drought dragged ever onward, the images of the Phillies teams that HAD won something, or at least came close, grew bigger and brighter than they'd even seemed at the time when they won.

"We've been hearing about that 1993 team and that 1980 team over and over again," said Rollins.

"Every time we get in a rain delay," Durbin laughed, "it's on six channels."

But now, everything's different. Now THEY'RE one of those teams. Now they're the team bound for a Rain Delay Theater highlight-film presentation on some rainy Thursday evening in 2016. And as the champagne flowed and the smiles glittered in the L.A. night, there was nothing harder for these men to comprehend than that.

"You know what? It hasn't hit me yet," Rollins said. "We still have a lot of work to do. We've got to find a way to win four more games. That's our goal. Our goal is to win the World Series. The goal was not just to win the National League. The goal was not just to get to the World Series. We qualified. That's all we did. So we've still got work to do.

"But when it's all said and done, and my career's over, and hopefully we win the World Series, then that legend of the Phillies in 2008 will be a great story. But until then, we've still got four games to win."

They might be the hardest four games they've ever tried to win. But even as they celebrated in the middle of a ball field 3,000 miles from home, the 2008 Phillies were still clinging as hard as ever to the sense of purpose that has made them what they are.

"We've gone this far," Moyer said. "So why stop here?"

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.