Seeing your team represented on the national stage is a luxurious experience as a fan. You don’t have to talk yourself into rooting for a guy or a team you hate, and you don’t have to wonder how long it will be until someone wearing your team’s colors is the focus of the eveningomeone wear. Finally, there’s a guy out there with the right hat on.
The Phillies were not a nationally recognized team when I was young in the late nineties and early aughts. Well, they were, but for narratives like “Larry Bowa screamed at Scott Rolen in front of everybody again,” and “Mike Lieberthal’s knees are 80% bone dust.” To see the Phillies, any number of them, playing on a league-wide platform was always a thrill, which was why watching the All-Star Game was such a requirement for me as a young fan. I loved the idea that there couldn’t not be a Phillies player on the team, per the rules, and whether that was a weird group that included Tyler Green and Heathcliff Slocumb or just Ricky Bottalico all by himself, I would always be sure to monopolize the television until they appeared on screen.
I didn’t really understand what had happened to the 1993 Phillies. To me, a child, they were the pinnacle of the sport, a bunch of pals who had for no reason been the best team in the league. After 1993, there was a weird, shortened season, and then the Phillies pretty much sucked for ten years. Sure, we could examine that period with thousands of words and parse out some of the moments they showed some life, or we could just accept my child brain’s understanding of the events. When the team came back from the 1994 strike, I was ready to get excited about the players again, only this time, they weren’t as good. The familiar faces disappeared over time and were replaced by less familiar, less friendly ones.
It wasn’t until Scott Rolen, Jim Thome, and Bobby Abreu were around that it felt like there were some legitimately thrilling players on this team. Then, the 2005 home run derby happened, and Abreu not only participated wearing a Phillies hat, he won the whole thing and broke a record doing it. It was the first win for the Phillies on the national stage in over ten years. Why do I like this team?
More importantly, in his powerful dominance over baseballs, Abreu was also representing his home of Venezuela, a small country that has produced some of the most frighteningly powerful sluggers across generations. Representing his homeland is a thrill visible in this picture of Abreu’s fellow countrymen Miguel Cabrera, whose home run record Abreu broke at the 2005 derby.
The 2005 All-Star Game in Detroit happened to occur during the first year the World Baseball Classic was announced, and MLB had decided that in the derby, each player would represent their home country as well as their current team. Venezuela is a nation bursting with pride in its ball players, making Abreu’s appearance—and thunderous victory—all the more impactful. In 2006, a Venezuelan reporter named Alfredo Villasmil told the Inquirer,
“I tell people, ‘In my country, there is 90 percent Catholicism and 100 percent Baseballian. It is our religion.’ Miguel Cabrera is a god. Omar Vizquel and Bobby Abreu are demigods. Andres Galarraga is a patron of our country. For these fans, every player is a superstar.”
Now, it’s the Phillies turn.
Plucking from the post-1993 era of Phillies baseball for the Wall of Fame is a foreseeable challenge. They already did Mike Lieberthal. They’re not quite ready to start with the 2007-11 squads. But there are some disappointing, underperforming, self-involved, or outwardly hostile players on those teams, and none of them really won anything of note. Abreu’s home run derby win was a rare victory on a baseball diamond for Philadelphia at the time, so as the candidates are selected for the Wall in the years to come, we may see a guy or two who falls under the category of “underappreciated.”
Abreu is certainly one of those guys. His play style clashed with the fictional teeth-clenching toughness that Philadelphians believe they are born with—Have you heard the one about Abreu being too afraid of walls to be honored on one—but he gave the Phillies at least 20 home runs and a .900+ OPS every year from 1999-2005 (Except inn 2003, when his OPS dropped to .877). In the years since he was traded out of town to the Yankees, a lot of fans have grown into an appreciation for his talent that wasn’t as detectable among the fans when he was here. Some people still think he’s lazy. This should not surprise you.
So now, after representing his team and his country in one of the two greatest Phillies home run derby performances of all time, it is Abreu who will be represented by the Phillies, alongside the best to ever wear their hat; a satisfying conclusion to a tired narrative, wrapped up quite neatly in Abreu’s own words after an evening of hoisting baseballs into the sky over Michigan at a record-breaking pace:
“I’m tired,” Abreu said after an evening of mind-shattering taters. “This is a beautiful night.”