The day Cole Hamels announced he’d signed the contract of a lifetime, I said goodbye to the biggest Phillies fan I know. Bianca Lombardo was 86 years old when she died this past Sunday. She was the last survivor of her six siblings, and since her sister, Elsie—my grandmother—passed away nearly two decades ago, she was my link to my father’s extended family, the connection to my Italian heritage. She was my dad’s aunt, but to me, my cousins and many others, she was Aunt Babs.
I didn’t see her much in recent years. She’d come by for a birthday party here or a barbeque there, but almost always to our family Christmas dinner, where she often wore tall black leather boots. That made me chuckle, since Aunt Babs was a devout Catholic who prayed daily and rarely, if ever, missed Sunday mass. It wasn’t the kind of footwear you’d expect to see on a senior citizen who says the Rosary on a regular basis. After the small talk about health and work came the inevitable conversation about the only thing she loved nearly as much as her family and her faith: the Phillies, her Phillies.
A lot of people say they watch every game. Aunt Babs did so, literally. She wasn’t a baseball fan, though; she was a Phillies fan. That’s an important distinction. As much as she knew about the game, all that mattered was her boys in red pinstripes. She endured the lean years and rejoiced in 2008. One of the reasons that World Series championship meant so much to me was knowing that however long my Aunt Babs would be with us, she saw her Phillies win it all one more time.
At her funeral on Wednesday morning in South Jersey, the Phillies came up more than once. Her children said they knew it was pointless to call her during games, since she wouldn’t bother to answer the phone. After the service, we drove down the White Horse Pike to the cemetery where my grandmother and her mother are buried, and I helped carry my Aunt Babs’s casket to a patch of freshly dug earth. Even in that somber moment, she had me laughing again. The gravestone next to hers was marked “#1 Phillies Fan.” She’ll be in good company, I thought, even if she disagrees with her neighbor’s claim to that title.
As I drove back into the city, I heard Hamels on the radio, talking about why he decided to stay in Philadelphia, rather than test the waters of free agency and possibly leave town. The glitz of Los Angeles surely called to the native Californian, as did Texas, where the Rangers are serious World Series contenders. The clincher, Hamels said, was the Phillies fans. He confirmed what we all hope, deep down—that our cheers and devotion make a difference somehow. It was surprising to hear Hamels say it in such plain language, to give these fans, who so often get a bad rap, a share of the credit in keeping him here. Aunt Babs would have loved that (and would have said a prayer for his good health over the next six years, with an option for additional Hail Marys in the seventh year).
At her service, someone said the team’s win streak—which began the day she died—was no coincidence, that they were doing it for her. With three victories in a row in their final at-bat, it seemed as good an explanation as any for this sudden surge in an otherwise miserable season. That afternoon, the team blew a 5-1 lead and it appeared their luck had run out. Then the improbable happened—the winning run in the 10th inning was knocked in by Jimmy Rollins, one of the few players who remembers those final Vet years, when a lot of fans gave up on baseball in this town. Aunt Babs was not among them. Once again, on a cloudless summer afternoon that was perfect for Phillies baseball, her patience was rewarded.