Big League Stew - MLB

Busloads of Phillies fans, some organized by Phillytailgate.com the blog Phillies Nation, made a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. on Monday. The phaithful wanted not only to see Roy Halladay's(notes) debut, but also to watch the Phils begin their quest to become the first NL team in 66 years to reach a third straight World Series. Michelle O'Malley, a Phillies fan transplated to southeastern Virginia, joined the group — comprised mostly of strangers — that tried to transform Nationals Park into a home away from home.

WASHINGTON — 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.

A "Phield Trip" to Washington, D.C. was easier — and it worked out just fine.

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(notes) lays off the first pitch? A standing ovation. Chase Utley(notes) walks three times? Three standing ovations. Halladay gets a hit? Another ovation. Placido Polanco(notes) 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. 

* * *

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(notes) & Jayson Werth(notes) 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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