MILWAUKEE – Before we get to Elvis the Bulldog or the plea to the big man upstairs or any of the other reasons the Philadelphia Phillies advanced to the National League Championship Series on Sunday afternoon, let's go back to the beginning, when Jimmy Rollins absolutely fleeced Pat Burrell in a game of dice.
Long before either played for Philadelphia, they met at the 1994 Area Code Games, a California showcase for young baseball talent. Rollins was a junior from Oakland, Burrell a senior from San Jose. To extend some Bay Area love, Rollins invited Burrell into his room. Well, that and so he could make some money.
Rollins and a couple friends taught Burrell and a buddy the rules. Sevens and 11s and side bets and the like. Burrell understood and threw down his cash.
"Three rolls later, they're both sitting on the bed watching us," Rollins said. "And that's how I met Pat."
Now they're both millionaires many times over, both All-Stars and, yes, both integral in Phillies hosting Game 1 of the NLCS for the first time since 1993. Rollins' leadoff home run and two subsequent Burrell homers lifted the Phillies to a 6-2 victory against the Milwaukee Brewers that wrapped up their National League Division Series in a tidy four games.
The Phillies – the first franchise to lose 10,000 games, the team with one championship in 125 tries, the pits of baseball, dating back to the first incarnation, the 1883 Philadelphia Quakers, who finished 17-81 – are an ousting of the Los Angeles Dodgers away from the World Series, and perhaps no one wearing the uniform appreciated it more than their two longest-tenured players.
Burrell joined Philadelphia in 2000, Rollins sticking for good a year later, and they've played runner-up enough times that Miss Congeniality never was an option. The Phillies, tired of playing second fiddle, developed a hardened edge, Rollins their sharpening steel. Burrell kept to himself, seemingly never leaving that spot on the bed, silent and observant and cognizant that a clubhouse was like a can of soda. Too much action inside and the thing explodes.
"You need the perfect match," Phillies ace Cole Hamels said. "You can't have all outgoing people or all reserved guys. The organization does a good job seeking that out and putting the pieces together."
General manager Pat Gillick and his lieutenants, Ruben Amaro Jr. and Mike Arbuckle, assembled a dangerous team, one that matches up well with the Dodgers unit that ambushed the favored Chicago Cubs in a three-game sweep. There's Ryan Howard, the potential MVP and monster home run hitter, and Chase Utley, the game's best second baseman, and Joe Blanton, the starter who shut down Milwaukee in Game 4, and Brad Lidge, who finished the season perfect in save situations and the game Sunday with an easy ninth.
Yet they defer to Rollins, whose vocal gymnastics denigrate and infuriate and titillate, and Burrell, who may be an amateur linguist but knows Philadelphia, good and bad. Both have been booed, Burrell more often, because his $50 million contract seemed, at times, excessive.
Then there were others, like Sunday, when the Phillies couldn't pay Burrell enough. He entered the game 0 for 8 in the series, a bad back hampering his swing. With only 14 hours between Games 3 and 4, Burrell loosened up enough that he started walking around the Phillies' clubhouse with a pep in his step and parroting Rollins' swagger.
"Today's my day," he told Rollins
"I really feel good today," he told to Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson.
Before Burrell went onto the field, he taped a miniature cardboard cutout of his English bulldog, Elvis, outside the door leading to the field. He gave faux Elvis a high five twice before he left the building.
The first home run, off Brewers starter Jeff Suppan, came in the third inning with two runners on base. Burrell had nubbed a single down the first-base line in the first inning, so his comfort level was returning, and Milwaukee interim manager Dale Sveum intentionally walked Howard with two outs to face Burrell. Suppan left a 2-2 pitch in the strike zone, Burrell tattooed it over the left-field fence and a spate of fans at Miller Park ascended the walkways toward the concourses. The Brewers' season was teetering, and beers were calling.
"It was so quiet," Burrell said, "I knew something good was happening."
Such a feeling pervaded from the game's opening moments, when Rollins lifted a 3-2 Suppan pitch over the fence for a 1-0 lead. It was his first home run to lead off a game since April 7.
"This morning," Rollins said, "when I was getting dressed, I said, 'You know what? It's been a long time since I hit a leadoff home run.' I looked up to the sky and was like, 'God, this would be a great time for it.' "
Whatever – or whoever – caused the ball to leap off Rollins' bat, he wasn't arguing. While Burrell mixed a huge first half with a disappointing second, Rollins hadn't been himself all year, certainly not like his 2007 MVP season.
To see him hit .375 in the division series and play like the Rollins Philadelphia loves – the one with boundless energy and the one who backs it up when he talks junk – was edifying for all.
"It's kind of what we expect," Hamels said.
"He's got some lightning in that stick," infielder Greg Dobbs said.
"He's a red-light player," Thompson said. "When the camera goes on, he goes on."
Burrell, in his succinct manner, put it best.
"You can't give enough credit to Jimmy for being the catalyst of the team," he said. "When he goes, we go."
So on the Phillies go to the NLCS, the Brewers and CC Sabathia silenced, the Cubs vanquished, Manny Ramirez and His Merry Band of Kids waiting. Milwaukee handed out Thunderstix on Sunday, though they were not terribly thunderous, not close to Rollins' and Burrell's.
"They've been the figureheads," Dobbs said. "Not only because they had the tenure and came through the organization. They've been huge players. Everybody gravitates to them. They've seen this organization go through changes, and yet they remained confident."
Because they saw something worth building within Philadelphia. When they moved out of Veterans Stadium and into Citizens Bank Park, Rollins said, these Phillies wanted to turn a proud franchise into a successful one.
Fourteen years after they met, they're rolling the dice once again. And so far, neither Rollins nor Burrell nor any of the other Phillies has come up craps.