It's official. Somewhere along the way, Philly shifted into some bizarro alternate universe. That's the only possible explanation for what's going on with the baseball team. Up is down and left is right and the Phillies - once mocked as one of the worst franchises in pro sports - are envied.
In the past, the Fightin's would press their noses up against the championship store window and look inside, but they rarely shopped there. The locals were always told hope was too expensive and well out of reach. It was for other teams with other fans. No longer. The meek have become mighty.
In the last three seasons the Phils won a World Series and reached another. They played in three straight National League Championship Series and acquired three of the best pitchers in baseball - Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt. Even more remarkable: The Fightin's somehow obtained one of those guys twice.
Lee is back. It's stunning and wonderful and embarrassing in a way. How can Philly be so fortunate? This is a town that was conditioned to expect the worst. That's changed. The Phils have joined the Yankees and the Red Sox as baseball's premier organizations. They are elite. It is a fact and it is staggering.
Nearly one year to the day after Lee was traded to the Mariners to restock the farm system or save money or whatever reason/excuse you actually believe, the Phils have returned him to the Fightin's flock. As if that wasn't enough to make the fans strut, Lee's new contract - reported to be a five-year deal worth $120 million guaranteed - is supposedly less than what was offered by the Rangers and Yankees.
Money can buy you a lot in Texas - most natives opt for the homogenous McMansion/plastic trophy-wife starter kit - but it can't buy you a team that's the odds-on favorite in Las Vegas to win it all next season (9-5 odds). As for New York, Yanks fans might not want to spit on anyone else's wife. People tend to remember that sort of thing.
Ruben Amaro Jr. took a lot of heat for trading Lee. The general manager has atoned for that perceived sin against the city by pulling off a genuine coup. After he was shipped to Seattle, Lee said he was in "shock" and added, "I was thinking I was going to sign an extension with the Phillies." He sounded betrayed. A year ago, the idea of the two sides reconciling seemed implausible. Even a few days ago it felt improbable. The reunion came out of nowhere.
Earlier this week, the Phils sent out an electronic holiday greeting. At the time, there wasn't any real reason for the fans to be merry. Jayson Werth walked. The winter meetings were uneventful. There were rumors about a Zach Greinke trade, but that turned out to be a Twitter prank started by someone impersonating Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman.
It got to the point where some people were genuinely disappointed when Jeff Francoeur didn't sign here. That's how low the expectations were for a little while. It was as though the Phils hung stockings for the fans, only they did so without care and without bothering to place anything substantial inside.
Until now. Lee has been wrapped in a nice new contract and delivered to Fightin's fans just in time for the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Clark Griswold's boss was abducted.
Philly has wasted no time rejoicing. Less than 24 hours after the news broke, six of the top 10 Twitter trends in the United States were Phillies related. The old H2O staff nickname has already been replaced by countless candidates submitted from various, giddy fans: R2C2, Mount Whiffmore, Phantastic Four (via phlsportsfan.com), and my personal favorite, courtesy of the incomparable zoowithroy.com, Phour Loko.
One overjoyed Phils fan passed along a Photoshopped portrait. It featured what appeared to be a reimagined nativity scene. The usual cast of characters was replaced by Amaro, Lee, Halladay, Oswalt, and Cole Hamels. The Internet also buzzed with new holiday greetings like Merry Cliffmas and reworked song lyrics. The best of the latter was dreamed up by Mister Tug from TheFightins.com, may the site rest in peace: "Wake me up bephour you no, no."
One town's pleasure is another's pain. Not far from here, the City that Never Sleeps is restless for reasons the Chairman of the Board never envisioned. This off-season, the Yankees - once without peer - were beaten to Werth and Carl Crawford. Then Lee took less money to sign with a franchise barely 100 miles south of the Bronx. The cruel lesson for New Yorkers is that the Evil Empire can't buy every player it wants. Not anymore.
That has to be tough for Yankees fans to accept. Trading pride for jealousy can't be easy.