As a Phillies fan, these are the best of times. These are not the worst of times. Not even close. Thinking otherwise requires either an incredible lack of perspective or a sense of entitlement that no sports fan anywhere in the country (even a Yankees, Lakers, or Patriots fan) should have.
If you judged by the collective sense of the Phillies fanbase this March, the franchise is doomed. Ryan Howard, who clearly couldn't even hit when healthy (as we witnessed on the last two team at-bats of the past two seasons), will never recover his power (and he's at the start of his $25M per year contract). Chase Utley, if he ever plays again, will be lucky to be as good as Wilson Valdez if he returns. Jimmy Rollins is not getting any younger. Placido Polanco can't hit and only sporadically graces the lineup with his presence. Our outfield is either too unproven or is just one year away from leaving the team (minus the great savior, Hunter Pence, of course). Our bullpen is shaky and injured. And we only have three aces, godammit! We'll be watching the team lose games 2-1 or 1-0 all year. What fun is that?
We have this sorry state of affairs despite the owners spending more money than almost every team in baseball, so we can't expect them to spend much more to patch the team up. And the minor leagues have been decimated by years of plundering to obtain major league talent. The big league team is going downhill, and there's no hope in sight.
Michael Baumann over at Crashburn Alley summed up this sentiment perfectly:
I put far too much energy and emotional investment into watching and writing about baseball for this to be an acceptable state of affairs. I’m tired of being unable to think about the Phillies without being overcome with rage. It’s exhausting. I want to feel other things, like joy or empathy or excitement. Baseball used to make me feel that way. But now the Phillies are in decline, and I get the feeling there isn’t going to be anything quick, easy, painless, or unexpected about it.
I’d just as soon get it over with.
Now, I don't want to unfairly single out Michael. By all accounts he's a good guy, so I want to be clear that this isn't directed at him. It's directed at the ideas he puts forth, ideas he is not alone in having.
But here's my response - are you fucking kidding me?
The Phillies are in the midst of the greatest run in franchise history. They have won 5 straight NL East titles. They've been to the post-season five straight years. They've been in the World Series two of those years. They were the 2008 World Fucking Champions.
And now, without playing a single game in 2012, there's some sense of collective panic or depression out there? Sure the team is going to start the season off without two of its best hitters. But they suffered through long injury issues last year as well, and you know what happened then? They won 102 games, the best in the league and a franchise record.
Moreover, last I checked, the team still has Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. I hope people haven't gotten jaded about the three of them, because they are undeniably the best top-of-the-rotation combination this franchise has ever seen, and one of the greatest in baseball history for any franchise. Maybe watching them pitch three out of every five games last year spoiled people, but if you fall into that category, take a step back and re-assess because "special" doesn't begin to capture what it is to have the three of them pitching for this team.
And that's not even mentioning that the Phillies have two of the best fourth and fifth starters in the league in Vance Worley and Joe Blanton. Games will be finished off by one of the premier closers in baseball, Jonathan Papelbon. Maybe the team won't score the same number of runs as it did in 2008, but I seem to recall a rule in baseball (rule 1.02 to be exact) that you win games by scoring more runs than your opponent, which doesn't require scoring any particular number of runs, just more than you give up. And with this pitching staff, the Phillies aren't going to be giving up many runs this year.
Are we at a point in our franchise's history that we expect the team to win 102 games every year? Baumann writes, before the quoted part above, that "there’s no reason to expect them to be better than (or even as good as) they were last year." If the team added Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano in the off-season to replace the injured Howard and Utley, there'd be no reason to expect them to be better than (or even as good as) last year, the best season in franchise history. Baseball doesn't work that way.
A smidgeon of perspective is in order. The Phillies have never been to the playoffs five years in a row before. They have never won this many games over five years before. They have never been to the World Series in back-to-back years before. They've only won one other World Series - in 129 seasons!
Not only is the quality of baseball higher than at any point in Phillies history, but we get to watch baseball played in one of the most beautiful and enjoyable parks in existence. If you don't get joy out of watching a Phillies game played at Citizens Bank Park (where, I feel like I must remind you, you have a 60% chance of watching an ace pitch), then you should stop going to sporting events because nothing is going to please you.
Not to get too old-farty on you, but you don't even have to go back to 1928 (.283 winning percentage) or 1969 (.389) to see how amazing our current state of affairs is. In 1988, when at least some of the readers of this blog were alive and following the team, the Phillies had a .404 winning percentage. The team fielded Lance Parrish, Steve Jeltz, Phil Bradley, and Chris James. The starting pitchers included Don Carman, David Palmer, and Marvin Freeman.
Or take 2000, when even more of our readers were alive and following the team. That year, the team won 65 games (.401 winning percentage). Jeff Brantley was our closer. Andy Ashby was in the starting rotation. Chris Brock, Omar Daal, Cliff Politte, Kent Bottenfeld, Dave Coggin, and Amaury Telemaco combined to start almost 25% of the team's games. Almost 1/3 of the team's plate appearances went to Kevin Jordan, Rob Ducey, Travis Lee, Alex Arias, Marlon Anderson, Kevin Sefcik, Brian Hunter, Tomas Perez, Tom Prince, and Rico Brogna. And that doesn't count the over 1300 plate appearances that went to that gruesome up-the-middle combination of Mickey Morandini, Desi Relaford, and Doug Glanville.
Not only is there a perspective problem here, but there's also a more fundamental issue. There's no denying our attitude as Phillies fans has changed. We used to sit through losing season after losing season, with games played in a concrete pit filled with empty yellow and brown seats, chomping at the bit for some semblance, any semblance, of a winning team. When Jim Thome signed with the Phillies in December 2002, we started dreaming of something different. And lucky us, BaseBa'al smiled upon us. The owners' wallets loosened up to bring in real quality free agents, minor league talent turned into major league stars, and our beautiful brand new stadium became a destination that printed cash, with its "sell-outs" every night. We now not only want a winning team, but we have one.
But that cannot turn us into an unappreciative fanbase. It cannot turn us into an stuck-up entitled fanbase. In other words, it cannot turn us into fans who see a problem or two and turn that into a fear, or worse, an anger, that armageddon will come because, the horror, the team won't win 102 games this year.
Just like every fan, I want this team to win this year. And, just like every fan, I expect this team to win this year. But, if the team doesn't win as many games this year as last year or there are problems along the way, I'll be damned if I stop enjoying what this team is doing, where it's playing, and who it's putting on the field.
These are still the best of times. And I can't wait for the season to start.