NEW YORK - Bobby Abreu, gone but never to be forgotten, will forever be the itch Phillies fans cannot scratch.
The former Phillies rightfielder is headed for his first fully realized postseason, but not with the organization that groomed him into being an all-star.
Abreu may finally get his first sip of championship bubbly. But not with the franchise for which he wound up ranked in the top 10 in, among many categories, career extra-base hits, stolen bases, RBIs, runs scored and slugging percentage.
The team that traded him to the New York Yankees on July 30 fell just short of winning the National League wild-card berth.
"That's a tough one," Abreu said Saturday after learning that the Phillies had been eliminated on the next-to-last day of the regular season.
"I know those guys; they play hard. They go for it every day. And for this to be the second time it happened in a row, to get this close, then get eliminated, it's tough."
In a perfect world, Abreu believed, both he and the Phillies would have advanced and - who knows? - restaged the 1950 World Series.
Since that won't happen, he gladly will live with the alternative - returning to the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season in 1997, when he went 0 for 3 for Houston in the National League division series.
"Yeah," he said with a smile, "when they made the trade, they told me it was an opportunity for me to be in the playoffs. So I will take it."
And Phillies fans? Learning that the player they couldn't win with proved to be the player they also could not win without just provided another slice of unappetizing reality to chew on.
Especially since the 32-year-old Abreu turned out to be the last multimillion-dollar piece of the puzzle for the Yankees. Call it overkill, but he was the addition the well-heeled American League team apparently thought it needed to secure a tie for the majors' best regular-season record. And it worked.
Yet from the day Abreu was swapped along with pitcher Cory Lidle for four minor-leaguers, the Phillies appeared more than capable of living with the consequences. After all, they too enjoyed a rebirth after general manager Pat Gillick's series of trade-deadline moves transformed the team into a younger, swifter, more defensively sound version of its former self.
But the Phillies turned out to be wanting at the plate and on the mound just often enough to miss the postseason by a hair. Again.
For some, the reasons for failure 80 miles south of New York likely will include the player who so pleased yet puzzled fans before leaving Philadelphia.
"But," cautioned Larry Bowa, ex-Phillies manager-turned-Yankees third-base coach, "Bobby is not the reason the Phillies don't win.
"I was there with him for four years, and we came in second place three of the four - and it sure wasn't Bobby Abreu's fault."
Where does the fault fall on Pattison Avenue?
You know Bowa has his theories.
"The season is 162 games, and you have to have an attitude - from day one of spring training till the end - an attitude that never goes away," he said. "You don't just wait until August and say it's time to click it in. And it happened to me, too, but there's no way that team should have been under .500 earlier in the year."
Phillies obituaries aside, Abreu obviously changed the Yankees for the better. The question is, did the Phillies' only 30-30 man and one of its most prolific home-run hitters (197) change, too?
"Not at all," Bowa contended. "And his making the postseason is great because of the perception of him that he doesn't care. He does care."
Without a doubt, Abreu excelled, hitting .330 in 209 at-bats in 58 games with the Bombers, with seven home runs, 37 runs scored and 42 RBIs.
"He's done everything; I mean he's fit in perfectly," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "He flat-out plays - can hit, can steal bases, has been playing good defense, has a strong arm that has been shutting down a lot of teams."
Pretty much like the blueprint Philadelphia originally saw in the veteran who wound up batting .277 with eight homers, 61 runs scored and 65 RBIs in his final 98 Phillies games. The player who left behind vocal fans among his former teammates.
"I wish him the best," said pitcher and longtime Abreu teammate Randy Wolf. "I am excited for him. I am happy about what he brought to that team. I like the way he's been taken in by the Yankees fans. He's done a great job. I hope he gets himself a ring."
Said Pat Burrell: "Good for him, man. Good for him. Ultimately, [the postseason] is what you play for. I know it was hard for him to leave here, but he got the opportunity to move on and he got into a situation where he had a chance to help that team."
Abreu perennially was asked to carry Phillies teams off the field as well as on; he just didn't have the kind of personality to convince people that he could. Again, Bowa said, that should not be an indictable offense.
"He just doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve," Bowa said. "That doesn't mean he don't care. Mike Schmidt didn't wear his emotions on his sleeve, either. He cared."
Now it doesn't matter whether Philadelphia believes that or not. The languid Venezuelan with the ever-present, often-inscrutable Mona Lisa smile is about to enjoy the last laugh.
"I am right where I want to be, in the playoffs, and happy about it," said Abreu, his smile devoid of mystery at last.