YOU KNOW your team has entered a newer, darker stage of its rebuilding process when, in the midst of a season destined to end with 100 losses or more, the mascot falls to the ground in distress. Before the game.
But that's what happened last night in South Philly, when one of the greatest athletes in the city's history returned to play his former team while wearing a different uniform for the first time.
Jimmy Rollins, the former National League MVP, franchise hit king, and World Series champ, arrived at Citizens Bank Park with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
About 10 minutes before the Phillies-Dodgers game, when Rollins' name was first announced by longtime public address announcer Dan Baker during pregame lineup introductions, the Phillie Phanatic stood in front of the visiting dugout prepared for his usual imitation game, pantomiming the opposing players when he hears their name read aloud.
But the Phanatic froze in confusion when he heard "Jimmy Rollins," shook his damn head in disbelief, and then collapsed to the grass in mascot tears.
The Phanatic eventually recovered and the game played on during an emotional night of tipped caps and standing ovations and curtain calls. And a game-winning grand slam.
The return of Rollins and his first-place Dodgers was spoiled when Maikel Franco jumped on a Joel Peralta curveball and deposited it into the seats beyond the leftfield fence for a go-ahead grand slam in the seventh inning of the Phillies' 6-2 win.
The victory was the Phillies 13th in 16 games since the All-Star break. They have yet to lose back-to-back games since the break. Before the break, the Phillies had won consecutive games only three times since May 19.
Franco, who has 12 home runs this season, is the first Phillies rookie to hit a grand slam in nearly a decade, since Ryan Howard did so on Sept. 21, 2005.
Ken Giles closed out the win with a four-out save, which began with Rollins staring at a 100-mph fastball with two on and two out in the eighth inning.
"Obviously, he's got good stuff," Rollins said. "I've been behind him . . . The last pitch, he hit his spot. I thought it was down, but the umpire didn't . . . Whatever it was, it was a good pitch. He won that battle."
With an off day in the Dodgers' schedule, Rollins, a West Coast native, arrived to his East Coast home in suburban New Jersey in the wee hours of Monday morning, following a red-eye flight. He spent a mostly quiet day with his family, grabbing dinner at a nearby favorite place and hanging with his wife, Johari, and their young daughters at the pool.
His family beat him to Philly by two weeks, arriving during the All-Star break.
"Although I did enjoy the week by myself to get some sleep, and my daughters wanted to see me earlier, so I got in and we were able to spend a day," said Rollins, who managed to go unnoticed in the Philadelphia area until he arrived at the ballpark. " great. I was able to sneak in everywhere, even in the airport I just put my hat down and walked fast."
It's fair to say Rollins was noticed everywhere he went at Citizens Bank Park. It began when the gates first opened after 5:30, when he was at his usual spot in the infield taking ground balls.
The just-arriving fans were clapping before they reached their seats. Between reps, Rollins waved his glove in appreciation.
They got loud again about 10 minutes before the game, when Rollins returned to the field for pregame stretching in shallow leftfield.
But the hearty crowd of 28,733 reached a crescendo as Eminem and 50 Cent's "Till I Collapse" blared over the ballpark's speakers and Jerome Williams threw his last few warmup pitches.
Even before Baker could read aloud the name of the game's first hitter, the crowd rose to its feet as Rollins walked toward the batter's box. He raised his helmet in appreciation.
But the fans didn't stop. The sound carried on for nearly a minute.
Cody Asche and Domonic Brown were among his former teammates on the top step of the home dugout who joined in on the applause. A few feet from Rollins, Carlos Ruiz clapped into his catcher's mitt and Ryan Howard did the same with his first-base glove.
"He was clapping?" Rollins said when told about Ruiz. "That's pretty cool."
Rollins finished his Phillies career as the franchise's all-time hit king.
But the cheers weren't for any one accomplishment. They were for all Rollins did in 15 years in red pinstripes, from his MVP win in 2007 that helped propel the team to its first playoff appearance in 14 years, to being a crucial piece to the World Series-winning team the next year, to providing Gold Glove defense at a premium position and production at the top of the lineup for more than a decade, too.
"It was cool," said Rollins, who had to step out and raise his helmet a second time. "It was greatly appreciated. It went longer than I thought . I came out, they clapped, I nodded and got back in the box. And they just kept going. I was like,'Geez, we do have a game to play.' But it was a great moment for them to show their appreciation. I'm glad it was that way."
The Phillies won the game. But Rollins owned the night.
"Jimmy is Philly," said Williams, who didn't at all mind waiting before throwing the game's first pitch. "The years he's been here, he's done amazing things. He's forever a Phillie."