Tuesday night began a two-week trek of incredible importance to the present and future of this organization. My beloved Phillies, "Do you hear the knocking, are you paying attention to the ringing?" Because, if you are, you have an opportunity (there is that word again) to win back a Philadelphia fan base that has basically been in a deep sleep for ten years. Not since the Wild Bunch captured the imagination of the city in '93 have the Phils been front-page news, lead sports story of the day type stuff!
Timing is everything in sport, and it has been the Phils unfortunate fate to fall victim to baseball strikes at the most inopportune time. Two Phils World Series teams - the 1980 World Champs and the ‘93 crew, were followed by bitter strikes the following year. The fans were somewhat forgiving in 1981 but the 1994 strike left a bitter taste that lasted ten long years. Philadelphia fans basically hardened their hearts to the team and refused to embrace an organization that appeared to abandon them.
Now opportunity knocks again after ten long years. Beginning with the crucial three game series against the upstart Florida Marlins and continuing through next weekend's sendoff at the Vet, the Phils can once again capture a city's fancy! Oh, I know the Florida Marlins are currently the darlings of the baseball world, fresh new faces on a billboard covered with old news. Yes, yes, Dontrelle Willis has seemingly come out of nowhere to provide salvation to a club bent on repeating the heroics of their last champs, the 1997 crew.
But, seriously, friends, has any fan base been more abused over the last ten years than the Phils fans? Has the word turmoil been more synonymous with any club since '94 than the Phillies? It started with Joe Carter's home run, and has been a non-stop rerun movie ever since! And we all know what movie has been on replay since 1994… "Groundhog Day".
Need proof? Inquiring minds want to know? Remember how we were just beginning to enjoy the sound of Philadelphia Phillies, 1993 National League Champs when the news came that ace lefty Terry Mulholland had been swapped to the New York Yankees for three prospects. Oh, the Phils swung a tail of the talents of Bobby Munoz, Ryan Karp and Kevin Jordan but Phils fans knew better. This was strictly a financial move and perhaps no player has greater represented the ten years of frustration for Phils fans than Kevin Jordan. Decent player, always played hard, but certainly not of championship quality.
No sooner do our Phils prepare for Spring Training in '94 than the news of both John Kruk and Darren Daulton having cancerous growths, shocked and concerned us. Though, happily, both recovered completely, this news set the tone for a year that would set the stage for a Rip Van Winkle-like ten year sleep.
Perhaps no city in America took the baseball strike of 1994 harder than Philadelphia. In a town of hard workers and blue-collar types, a strike was unconscionable. Even though baseball came back in 1995 and fans in cities as diverse as Cleveland and Los Angeles fully embraced the return of the National Pastime, it was shunned in the City of brotherly Love.
It certainly didn't help that during these ten years, the two most recognizable and talented players, Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen, were traded for lesser talent. Phil's fans were not only apathetic, but also genuinely angry, at an organization that was viewed as more interested in the bottom line of the financial statements than the top line of the NL East standings.
Now, it appears that the Phils organization has put out a hand of friendship to the fans. With a beautiful new stadium in the 2004 offing, and recognizable names like Jim Thome, Pat Burrell and Randy Wolf wearing red Phillie pinstripes for the foreseeable future, the time is NOW! It starts with the Marlins.
The importance of this three game set cannot be minimized. Anything less than two wins will leave the Phils dangling too far off the precipice, with too little room for error and too little time for regrouping. This Phils team has been many things this year, but the word that probably most defines them is resilient. They have withstood the Dog Days of August and a grueling 13 game road trip. They weathered a 1-9 start to that trip that left them bickering and divided. They recently completed a stretch of 27 games in 27 days, a feat unheard of in the annuals of modern day baseball.
They have survived Burrell's slumps and Mesa's meltdowns. They barely blinked when third baseman David Bell suffered with a mysterious back injury in July and refused to wilt when their steadiest regular, infielder Placido Polanco, left the lineup to a painful thigh bruise in late August. They have withstood a schedule that saw them play inter-league games with American league heavyweights Boston, Oakland, Seattle and reigning World Series champion Anaheim Angels.
They are unfazed by Kevin Millwood's impending free agency, and are unbothered by the rookie mistakes of youngsters Chase Utley, Nick Punto, Brett Myers and Marlon Byrd. Rather, they gather daily strength from the Herculean exploits of MVP candidate Jim Thome and daily consistency of Bobby Abreu and Mike Lieberthal. A solid and willng bench, led by catcher Todd Pratt, infielder Tomas Perez, and outfielder Jason Michaels, has buoyed them.
They have ridden the dependability of starting pitchers Millwood, Wolf, Myers and Vicente Padilla. They have coaxed solid years out of ancient lefties Rheal Cormier and Dan Plesac and received decent help from righties Terry Adams and Turk Wendell. Through it all, they have remained resolute in their belief that they were as strong as any team in the National league and that a playoff birth was theirs for the taking.
Well, my friends, the time for "taking" has arrived. Someone's knockin' at the door, somebody's ringin' the bell, someone's knockin' at the door, somebody's ringin' the bell…do me a favor, open the door and let opportunity in! Ah, yes, let ‘em in!
Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond! CD