It is here. Finally.
The most eagerly anticipated ride in the history of Philadelphia sports starts now, as the 2011 Phillies start reporting to work (officially) in Clearwater, Fla. Never has a Philly team begun its season with as much positive energy and pure enthusiasm as this one.
If there's a trace of our historic sense of impending doom, good luck finding it. The city Murphy surely had in mind when formulating his infamous Law is all in with this club to an unprecedented degree. This unfamiliar sense of goodwill and well-being is the result of a remarkable series of events and circumstances - from the building of Citizens Bank Park to the 2008 World Series title; from the acquisitions of Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt to the acquisition of Lee again.
This may not happen again. After all, it hasn't happened before.
After previous Phillies high-water marks - 1980 and 1993 - labor strife ruined the ensuing seasons.
The Flyers? Fans were excited about the start of the 1974-75 season, with Reggie Leach added to a Stanley Cup-winning team. But that was a hockey team that had been in existence for less than a decade. This is one of the longest-running and most star-crossed franchises in American history, enjoying its most glorious era of sustained success.
The 1983 76ers? Yes, there was excitement about the addition of Moses Malone to an already loaded team, but it was leavened by a certain amount of skepticism. The team had already fallen short with its "We Owe You One" campaign.
The Eagles? Over the years, a bunch of teams started training camp with a chance to win it all. Usually, there has been some kind of off-season discontent or controversy that dampens enthusiasm a bit. The 2004 team, which boasted new additions Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse and reached the Super Bowl, may have been the closest thing in recent memory to these Phillies.
But even that team had the weight of a long championship drought weighing on it. These Phillies are riding a wave they started by ending that drought in 2008 and built on by continuing to acquire elite pitchers the way the Eagles stockpile fifth-round draft picks.
It wasn't so long ago that spring training opened with Kevin Millwood or Adam Eaton or Jon Lieber at the top of the starting rotation. It wasn't much longer ago that we were asked to get excited about Gregg Jefferies and Mike Lieberthal and Bobby Abreu.
Before you dash off an e-mail, those were some pretty good players, especially Abreu. But excited? Come on now.
The 2011 Phillies show up with two MVPs in the lineup, two Cy Young winners in the rotation, and a well-earned reputation as a team that knows how to win. These Phillies have a championship, two pennants, and four division titles on their collective resumé.
Some advice then: Enjoy this. Have fun. It doesn't come around too often.
That's advice for the fans, sure, but really it is advice for Charlie Manuel and his players. Normally, the stifling expectations for this team would be a source of smothering pressure. And pressure, as we've seen, can lead to some tightly gripped and too-heavy-to-swing bats. It is not unusual for a baseball team to produce more runs for lesser pitchers and struggle to scratch them out when its ace is on the mound. With this team, there will be an ace on the mound 80 percent of the time.
Except for injuries, the biggest obstacle this team faces is in its own collective psyche.
So Manuel, who has had a very good feel for the state of that psyche, should make it his top priority to keep his hitters loose and confident. That starts as soon as they report to Clearwater.
Make out goofy lineups for Grapefruit League games. As long as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and the crew get their at-bats, it doesn't matter where they hit. Let Howard lead off. Let Jimmy Rollins bat cleanup sometimes. Send the message that this is going to be fun.
Watching Domonic Brown develop into an everyday player will be fun. Watching Rollins and Howard set out to prove last year's numbers had more to do with injuries than skill will be fun. Watching the rotation turn a three-game series into a siege for opposing hitters will be fun.
For years, the best sports days of the year were Eagles Sundays. Get a group together, at the stadium or in front of a TV, make some food, and mix some drinks, and share the passion.
Now the Phillies give us 162 opportunities to share the passion, to watch games and debate moves and feel like part of this city. It is the most we can ask from a sports franchise. This sense of unbridled optimism is a bonus.
It is rare, so enjoy it. Starting now.