By Michelle O’Malley (@M_OMalley)
Notice the two Nationals fans? Yeah that’s all I could find, too.
The Phillies could have opened the 2010 season in San Diego and their fans still would have found a way to pack the stadium just to witness Roy Halladay’s first official start for Philadelphia.
If giving high fives to a thousand strangers to make them seem like your closest friends wasn’t enough to set the tone for the day, once we got into the park there was an energy I certainly had never felt before — especially as a visitor to another club’s stadium.
The atmosphere was nothing short of electric — it almost felt like a home game. Fans were on their feet for practically every at-bat. Jimmy Rollins lays off the first pitch? A standing ovation. Chase Utley walks three times? Three standing ovations. Halladay gets a hit? Another ovation. Placido Polanco hits a grand slam giving him a career-high six RBIs in one game? The crowd goes ballistic.
Phillies fans (perhaps 25,000 or 30,000 of them) were witnessing something special, and not just Halladay’s big debut — which went as smooth as butter after he settled in.
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Hours earlier, about 1,500 Phillies fans had departed Citizens Bank Park in 27 charter buses. About the same time, I was beginning my drive north on I-95 from Virginia Beach, Va. Thousands more made their own way to Nationals Park.
The streets of D.C. near the ballpark soon were a sea of Phillies red — and even a few Nationals fans showed up. The Navy Yard lot filled up with one of the most familiar and comforting sounds a Philadelphia native can hear — music of a Mummers string band.
Phillies fans marched up N Street, finding a way to kick off the 2010 season with the only thing that was missing for Philly at the end of 2009 — a parade.
The area near the park became so congested that security opened the gates early, at 9:30, attempting to keep the entrance lines manageable. Considering that President Obama was set to toss out the first pitch in 3 1/2 hours, Nationals security and the Secret Service should pat themselves on the back. It could have been a much worse situation.
* * *
As the Phillies piled up runs, the crowd started to taper off (mostly Nationals fans that had little faith in their rally caps). But Nationals Park was still over half-full in the late innings, with mostly Phillies fans hanging around.
All-Star outfielders Raul Ibañez, Shane Victorino & Jayson Werth seemed to get a kick out of the fans’ enthusiasm and rewarded a section by waving or tipping their cap on more than one occasion. Little things like that get people to spend half of their day in a car (or a bus, or a train, or a plane) just to go to a baseball game.
* * *
Once the game ended, we expected the usual D.C. rush-hour traffic to be awaiting us outside, but we weren’t expecting this:
It was like watching another parade, and it reminded me of why I took time off work, made the three-hour drive into the city, suffered the sunburn, battled the limited view around a foul pole and made the 4 1/2-hour return crawl to southeastern Virginia. These fans keep me going.
It’s easy to love a team like the Phillies — they are no doubt a group of very classy guys, have fantastic characters and that they’re among the best at what they do sure doesn’t hurt. But Phillies fans are a subculture all of their own.
By the end of the ninth inning, I had a whole new family — one that shared my obsession enthusiasm for doing crazy things such as traveling 200 miles to watch a baseball game with a bunch of people they had never met before.
Phillies fans have every reason to believe there will be a parade into Citizens Bank Park this fall — and they can talk to you about it intelligently and at length (as the phenomenon known as “The Phield” has recently shown).
* * *
There is no more looking back on 2009. This year’s focus is clear: the Phillies have unfinished business and the fans are going to be at their side every step of the way — even if that means planning a road trip to San Diego if they have to.
In fact, I already am.
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