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Sunday, April 14, 2024
The Observer

'A-O-K' again: The song and story that ended the Phillies' 11-year wait

The first time the song blasted out of the speakers at Citizens Bank Park was in the bottom of the second inning on April 8, 2022. It had been 3,836 days since the last time the Philadelphia Phillies had played in the postseason. The world had changed countless times since. Every other team in the National League had made at least one postseason trip in the interim.

It wasn't enough to just hope things would be different this time. Sure, Kyle Schwarber homered on the first at-bat of the year in his Phillies debut, but that wasn't enough. After all, Andrew McCutchen did the same thing in 2019 and the season still ended in sadness. A clearer sign was needed.

"Livin' in this big blue world, with my head up in outer space, I know I'll be A-O, A-O-K. I know I'll be A-O, A-O-K," were the words dancing in the background as rookie infielder Bryson Stott stepped to the plate for his first Major League at-bat. "When I see trouble come my way," the 2021 tune by Tai Verdes continued, "I be makin' lemonade."

"I know I'll be A-O, A-O-K. I know I'll be A-O, A-O-K."

There is no denying that is what the Phillies are right now. On Monday, they clinched their first postseason berth in 11 years in magical fashion. Kyle Schwarber launched the first pitch of the game 394 feet to start the wire-to-wire win, then smoked another in the eighth for good measure. Aaron Nola, maligned for his September struggles of years past, retired the first 20 Houston Astros hitters he faced. José Alvarado and Zach Eflin came out of the bullpen and did not allow a base-runner.

But perhaps the moment that made it truly inevitable came from the kid. The Phillies could have clinched Monday not just by winning, but with a loss from the Milwaukee Brewers as well. The latter looked inevitable as the Brewers trailed the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-1 in the ninth inning. But then, Hunter Renfroe homered to spur a remarkable comeback. Milwaukee won 6-5. The type of momentum that a team could ride, especially in competition against a club that had bombed the final month of the season the last four years.

But less than 60 seconds after Renfroe homered, Stott laced a laser over the right field wall to double Philadelphia's lead. There were plenty of "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days" for Stott between his introduction and that exclamation point. He struggled to start the season and spent most of May in Triple-A. After a strong summer, he tired in September, sporting a poor .610 OPS. But October has been different. Stott drove in the game-winning run Sunday with a two-run double in a crucial 8-1 victory over the Nationals that set the stage for Monday.

In Philadelphia's first postseason clinch since 2011, Stott went 3-3 with a walk. He made a diving play in the second inning to rob Alex Bregman of a base hit. He finished a triple shy of the cycle.

It would have meant a lot to any team, but it was especially fitting for the Phillies. After the team missed the 2020 postseason by just one game, owner John Middleton said, "I think the problem the Phillies have had for a hundred years is they don't evaluate talent well." From 2002-2017, only one Phillies first-round pick (Aaron Nola, taken No. 7 in 2014) played at least 100 games for the franchise.

The Phillies have always spent money, and they have hit on high-end free agents at a remarkable clip. But it has meant nothing without the depth. This year, however, is different. The stars once again largely lived up to the hype, but their impact was limited. Bryce Harper missed two months with a broken thumb. Jean Segura missed six weeks with the same injury. Zack Wheeler was sidelined for a month. Seranthony Domínguez and Nick Castellanos missed three and a half weeks each. The road back was as steep as ever.

This time, though, they had more help pushing them up the hill. Help that either didn't know or didn't care about the scars of the past. Twelve of the 28 players on Philadelphia's active roster were drafted by the team, and the contributions they account for are significant.

There have been big swings from Harper and Schwarber and J.T. Realmuto. But there have also been ones from Alec Bohm and Dalton Guthrie and Darick Hall and Notre Dame's own Matt Vierling. Nola, Wheeler and David Robertson have thrown masterpieces. So have Bailey Falter, Connor Brogdon and Ranger Suárez. The team picked up José Alvardo, Garrett Stubbs and Andrew Bellatti off the scrap heap. There wasn't always a next man up in years past. This season, there was always someone to not only answer the bell, but ring it.

It all finally came full circle. The Phillies had turned one of their greatest weaknesses into a true strength. The incredible success they achieved from 2007-2011 — five consecutive NL East titles, two World Series appearances, and a championship in 2008 — were finally bookended with something other than heartbreak. The Phillies had been present for clinching celebrations in past seasons, but they were the ones sitting in the other dugout wondering what went wrong. This time, they jumped for joy.

It means so much because of how much has happened in the 4,017 days since the Phillies last played in a postseason game for everyone who held back tears or let them flow on Monday night. Any Phillies fan would be "lyin' if they said they knew the way" back to a Red October would be the one that has transpired over the last eleven years. It was so difficult for so long.

This is the story of a franchise that held onto the glory days until they were anything but. A rebuild became inevitable, and the Phillies sunk to the bottom of the sport. From 2018-2021, the Phillies had their spurts and their chances. They were 63-48 in early August 2018 ,only to finish 17-34. They started 2019 33-22, but on their sixth straight loss immediately after, Andrew McCutchen tore his ACL and everything went south from there.

The 2020 team struggled early, but after Bryce Harper said they needed to win nine of ten to get back in it, they won 10 of 11. Then, they finished 1-6 when even 2-5 would have been enough to clinch. An incredible eight-game winning streak to start August 2021 vaulted them to first place in the NL East with 50 games to play. For the second time in four years, they were swept out of Atlanta near season's end, and in doing so forced to watch the Braves celebrate the division title that was so close to being theirs.

But it was a different feeling sitting in room 248 in Siegfried Hall on Monday. A different tune — "Kilby Girl" by the Backseat Lovers, the entrance song of starter turned tragic figure turned renaissance reliever Zach Eflin, on for the first save opportunity of his Major League career — blasted through my speaker as the end neared. If it was easy, it would not have meant as much.

The view has changed so much since the last time. I watched the Phillies' last postseason game as a fourth grader in the house of a friend I have not seen in person since 2015. A year and a half later, I started middle school, and he and my other best friend, also in attendance that fateful night in 2011, moved away. Three years later, high school began, and new, amazing friendships were eventually made. On March 20, 2020, a week after the world shut down, I found out I was going to attend my dream school. I watched the drought from all of these places and countless more. Agonized by the shortcomings and anxious to learn what it would take to end it.

In 2022, I watched Schwarber hit lead-off bombs from two different Siegfried quads and back home in Haddonfield, New Jersey. I watched from the stands at Citizens Bank Park and in the tucked away, almost invisible office within it as an intern in the Phillies' ticket sales department, finding out just how special this organization is. One last stark reminder of all of the good the Phillies have brought about over the last 11 years in spite of all of the sadness that has happened on the diamond in that same time.

There have always been happy memories. But they felt a bit hollow without a happy conclusion to pair them with. Therefore, the ending was always going to be special. There are so many things to look back on now that the wait is over. The friendships that were and are. The growth from an energetic nine-year-old to a passionate but calculated college upper-classman. All of the feels — the good, the bad, the ugly and everything else.

All of those memories are all still here. Thanks to Bryson Stott and the 2022 Phillies, there is now another: sitting in ballpark seats in this big blue world, singing with new friends about makin' Minute Maid. And fittingly, after the Phillies punched their postseason ticket, Minute Maid Park appeared to play "A-O-K" from its speakers, making the moment that much more special.

It is, as the third line of the most beautiful song in this "big blue world" says, "so sweet."

Contact Andrew McGuinness

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.