Like some of you (I hope many), I was extremely excited that the Phillies were going to play in front of a national audience on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" and move on to a high profile week with series against the Yankees and the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. It was the team's first appearance on "Sunday Night Baseball" in five years. The Phillies entered Sunday's contest having won two in a row against the Nats, securing their fourth straight series win over opponents whose combined record by June 24 was 162-141 (.534). Despite a loss that night, the coverage was rather good. ESPN's Jessica Mendoza obsessed over Odubel Herrera throughout the game and twice declared that he is an All-Star while the broadcast team described the Phillies as "an exciting team to watch." The bullpen aside, the Phillies put together two weeks of solid baseball and displayed their potential to a national audience. What wasn't to like? The team was 41-33 and held the 2nd wild card spot in late June!
The Yankees arrived in south Philadelphia after being swept by the Tampa Bay Rays - a distant afterthought in the AL pennant chase. I told myself, "I have to go down and support the club against the Yankees." I knew the Yankees empire would turn out in droves at our fair red brick cathedral but I still wanted to experience the electric atmosphere. I bought a ticket for what I hoped would be a pitchers duel between Jake Arrieta, a Cy Young award winner, and Luis Severino, currently a Cy Young award favorite. The previous night, Phillies starter Vince Velasquez pitched a quirky good game; his pitches were all over the place but he only surrendered two runs on three its. Unfortunately the offense looked tired and failed to record a hit before the sixth inning. I hoped some rest and a big game pitcher on the hill would solve the problem.
As I expected, a swarm of blue enveloped Citizens Bank Park Tuesday night in a scene akin to the plague of locusts described in the Bible. (Parking at Citizens Bank Park is $22 cheaper than at Yankee Stadium and you get a free refill with the purchase of a souvenir soda, something unheard of in the Bronx). My seat was in section 432 but I hate nose bleeds so I found a spot to stand and broke out my score book. The game itself was a rout and the visiting fans let the entire world know what they thought of their club. The New York fans erupted whenever a Yankee hit safely and whenever Severino made the young Phillies lineup look like a AA lineup. Their "Let's go Yankees" chants drowned out concurrent boos from the Philly faithful. It was a Yankees home game and I was a stranger in my own home ballpark.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, budding slugger Rhys Hoskins stepped to the plate and worked a 2-2 count before mashing a ball into deep center field. It looked like a home run swing but soon appeared that the ball would stay in the park for extra bases. Yankees centerfielder Aaron Hicks came out of nowhere to make a phenomenal catch to send the Phils down in order. The stands erupted into a cacophony of cheers louder than anything experienced in recent memory at Citizens Bank Park. "There is no joy in Mudville," I murmured to myself as I penciled in an "F8" in the block in my score book.
The experience was utterly defeating. Not only had my beloved Phightin' Phils been completely outclassed on the diamond, but the stadium was turned into Yankee Stadium south. I couldn't figure out how Phillies fans could be overwhelmingly outnumbered at home against a very quality opponent and great draw. I've waited for this crop of young players to get called up for several years and they're finally here and winning at the big league level. Looking at attendance figures across Major League Baseball, the Phillies sit in 19th of 30 teams in home attendance, behind two cellar dwellers - the San Diego Padres (17th) and Texas Rangers (15th) - and the much maligned New York Mets (13th).
The attendance figures don't seem to make sense. How can the second youngest team in baseball be in playoff contention yet still suffer at the gate? The same situation presented itself 20 years ago. The 2000 Phillies under manager Terry Francona were 69-93 and ranked 13th of 16 NL teams in overall attendance per baseball-reference, drawing 1.6 million fans to the Vet. In 2001 under Larry Bowa, the club finished 2nd in the NL East at 86-76 yet dropped to 14th of 16 in NL attendance, drawing 1.7 million. The following year was much of the same, as the club regressed to 80-81 but still 14th in NL attendance, drawing 1.6 million. Things changed in 2003. The record was much the same as the club was 86-76 and 3rd in the NL East, but attendance exploded to 2.2 million (10th of 16).
The parallel between the 2018 Phillies and the 2001-2003 Phillies is not a total match. Today's club is laden with young talent and the organization's minor league system is still filled with quality prospects whereas the early 2000's Phillies was more limited. The Phillies made arguably the biggest splash in free agency both in the 2002 and 2017 off seasons but Carlos Santana, while an All-Star caliber player, is not in the same conversation as Jim Thome while Arrieta was signed to a big contract but at this stage of the season appears to be a David Bell-esque signing (hopefully this statement proves to be as ridiculous as it sounds by the end of the year). As an aside, the Phillies were among the final clubs in the running for future Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine the year they signed Thome but Glavine ultimately signed with the Mets.
There is no question that both the Santana and Arrieta signings accelerated the Phillies' rebuild schedule. But the true diamonds that will completely alter a franchise's future will be up for auction this off season: Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw and a slew of other plus players. The franchise's financial situation is different than it was in 2002 as well. The Phillies are expected to be big players in the Manny Machado sweepstakes and have been tied as a viable landing spot for Bryce Harper, too. Both players are still in their prime or are reaching their prime and can give the organization a stability at their positions for a long time. Phillies owner John Middleton has publicly declared that he wants the Commissioner's Trophy back in Philadelphia and money won't be a stumbling block. The Phillies are going to spend money and may spend both money and prospects to bring a big name to south Philly by the trade deadline if the right deal presents itself.
The current club make up is probably good enough to stay in the playoff conversation throughout the remainder of the season barring a catastrophic collapse. But signing a big name free agent or trading for one of the top players in the game would likely solidify the lineup and/or rotation and ultimately put Phillies fans in the seats at Citizens Bank Park. Such a signing would make the club more competitive to an extent. But where it will really show is in home attendance figures and jersey sales. A lineup that includes Machado and/or Harper will draw larger crowds and decrease the possibility of another New York invasion like we saw in this most recent series with the Yankees.
The old cliche rings true: winning ain't everything.