One of my first baseball memories is of the Phillies' 1980 World Series season. I remember going to a few games, although I think I've mixed up which ones with highlight reels. I definitely remember watching the final outs sitting in my family room. And then I remember everything going downhill from there. Other than a blip in 1983 and 1993, my existence as a Phillies fan has been all doom and gloom. And for good reason -- the product on the field had been pretty atrocious and the management was worse.
But things are different now. For the Phillies, it seems that everything's coming up aces. And if you have any memory of the last thirty years, I'm sure you're like me and occasionally find yourself asking in joyous disbelief - who is this franchise I'm rooting for?
What am I talking about? Every facet of the game. Take a look at this quick summary:
Stadium: After years of being behind the curve with the old Vet Stadium, the Phillies built Citizens Bank Park which opened in 2004. It is a beautiful park that's also great for watching games. Other than Inga Saffron complaining about the faux brick facade and every Braves pitcher complaining about giving up home runs, I haven't really heard anyone say anything but glowing things about the place.
Attendance: Last night the Phillies had their 53rd sellout of the year. Only 8 games have not been sellouts so far, and chances are the remaining 20 games are going to be mostly, if not completely, sold out as well. The Phillies have the third highest attendance total and attendance average in the majors (behind the Dodgers and Yankees in both, the two largest markets in the country). They're on pace to top 3.5 million fans at the park this year.
Manager: The team is managed by an old hick who no one can understand at press conferences. Yet, he seems to be able to manage players perfectly. Combined with Milt Thompson, he's a hitting instructor extraordinaire. He lets others perform the tasks he's not great at, like coaching the pitching staff. Yes, he has difficulties with in-game management sometimes, but the proof is in the pudding here: he has a .552 winning percentage with the Phillies and has won the most games in the NL since he was hired in 2005.
Management: After years of penny pinching and gut-based pursuits of hustle and character, the Phillies management finally seems to know what it's doing. They have a payroll that a major metropolitan area deserves. And they know how to evaluate talent and attract and/or keep it in Philadelphia. No, they're not the most forward-thinking front office in terms of modern-day talent evaluation, but as much as they preach old-school scouting, they somehow put a team on the field year-in, year-out that does what modern day analysts preach: take pitches, get on base, and rake. And we can't ignore that the front office really gets it with contracts these days. It locks up its young stars and is finally understanding sunk costs (see, e.g., Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins).
Minor Leagues: Relatedly, the team actually has a minor league system to be proud of. As a Phillies fan of years past, could you ever imagine them trading top prospects for a pitcher like Cliff Lee and not damaging their system for a decade in the process? Yet, they were able to do just that and still keep Kyle Drabek, Dominic Brown, and Michael Taylor, let alone other interesting prospects like Travis D'Arnaud, Joe Savery, and Anthony Gose. And they did a pretty good job signing talented players from this year's draft as well.
Home Grown Talent: Building off the great minor league system currently in place, the Phillies have an amazing crop of home grown talent in the majors right now. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, Ryan Madson, and even Carlos Ruiz defensively -- almost this entire list is award-winning caliber. Almost every other team in the majors would kill to have this level of home-grown talent playing for its major league team.
Outfield From the Ashes: The Phillies outfield should amaze you every night. Not just in their performance, but in the way that they have performed after almost being left for dead by their prior teams. Raul Ibanez doesn't exactly fit in this mold, although his performance before his injury certainly seemed like an amazing turn of events. But Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth, both 2009 All-Stars, were pretty much jettisoned by the Dodgers because they weren't developing. Yet, Victorino might be the team's all-around MVP this year, and Jayson Werth is putting up leader-board numbers at the plate.
Mid-Season Pitching Gold: For the fourth year in a row, the Phillies have made a mid-season pitching acquisition that has turned into gold. In 2006, they traded for Jamie Moyer, who went 5-2 down the stretch with a 1.09 WHIP And 116 ERA+. In 2007, they signed JC Romero who posted a 1.24 ERA in 51 games out of the pen for the Phils, combining with Madson and Wagner to form a great back of the bullpen. In 2008, they traded for Joe Blanton, who went 4-0 down the stretch, won 2 games in the playoffs, and is now having a superb 2009. And then there is Cliff Lee. No, he's not Roy Halladay. He's better. He has a 0.82 ERA, 4 wins, and a .923 OPS as a hitter (his .538 SLG is fourth on the team, behind only Raul Ibanez, Ben Francisco, and Ryan Howard).
Injuries: The team is healthy. Yes, Brett Myers has been out for most of the season, and Raul Ibanez suffered an injury from which he still might not have fully recovered. But, otherwise, injuries haven't been a problem for this team. I haven't studied it, but I'd venture a guess that the Phillies' starters have, comparatively, a very high percentage of the team's total plate appearances. And this isn't a new thing. Star Phillies just don't get hurt for long stretches of time. Certainly some injuries are fluky, but staying healthy is often a skill in itself. And the Phillies have it.
Results: Then there are the results. The Phillies have won the NL East two years in a row. They won their second World Series ever last year. This year, they lead the NL East by 6.5 games, and have the second-best record in the entire NL.
No, the team isn't perfect. Brad Lidge is giving everyone nightmares this year. There are salary issues looming for next year. Ruben Amaro is still new at his job and could just be getting lucky so far. They're very vulnerable to injury, as they don't have much depth at some key positions.
But that's quibbling at this point. The franchise is firing on all cylinders right now. And this is an entirely new and incredibly welcome feeling for me as a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies.