You would think that after years of watching our Phillies fall far from making the playoffs, win only one pennant in 21 years and trade away players any team would hope to acquire (Hello, All-Star Scott Rolen!), that we as Phillies fans would learn to just let go of all hope. In many ways, during many years we did, and understandably so. It has been difficult at times to stand by and not give up completely, but it is like I always say, there are no more devoted baseball fans than Phillies fans. No team has been around longer and lost more in history. No fans have had to endure more and yet they've kept faith in their heart that our someday would come. Finally, last year, a new wave of hope came about.
The Phillies had an excellent shot at one point of making the playoffs as they battled the Florida Marlins for the wild-card and believe it or not, we actually beat them a few times! Those were the days, huh? But I digress.
Last season ended with Phillies fans sighing collectively as usual and giving in once again; we watched the Marlins win the World Series in magnificent fashion against none other than those New York Yankees. As a Phillies fan I admit I was rooting for them because the Marlins simply played brilliantly.
As the winter rolled in, General Manager Ed Wade got to work. Pitcher Billy Wagner was brought in as the closer to replace recently departed Jose Mesa and an excitement began to sweep over the city. The bullpen looked fantastic with rookie Ryan Madson and set up man Tim Worrell on board. While the bullpen looked solid, the starting rotation, bolstered by the addition of Eric Milton and the return of Kevin Millwood, looked strong. In fact, with Milton and Millwood teaming with Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers, it looked like one of the best around. Plus, on offense, we all figured Pat Burrell would return to form. Then, the buzz really got going and suddenly baseball managers, pundits, and players declared that the Phillies, on paper, were going to be the team to beat. There was electricity, a certainty that this team was going to knock off all of the competition. My God, did that mean the Braves too? Manager Larry Bowa would say that he felt that this team was like the World Series winning team of 1980 that he played on. Everyone felt that way. Were we playing with the fates and fooling ourselves or were these Phillies truly good enough to be contenders in the new baseball season?
When spring training began the news wasn't great as the Phillies suffered a rather disappointing record. But we weren't worried. Nope, we were sure that they would start the season off with great success. Then the season started and our newly anointed contenders dropped six of their first seven games, including the season opener at the brand new ballpark, Citizens Bank Park (A nickname yet people?). Pat Burrell did appear to have recovered from his former season slump but other that that, things didn't look quite right. They certainly weren't looking like the team to beat. And as the season went on it was hard to figure out how to feel. Yeah, they were doing well, they were in the race, but they were supposed to be a force to be reckoned with. A team similar to the 1980 powerhouse Phillies and the never say die 1993 Phillies, a team you'd have to battle hard to beat. It wasn't happening that way. While they plugged along they fell several games out of first and suffered various injuries, including Thome and Wagner of all people. Plus, their average with runners in scoring position was dismal and still is (they are currently 14th in the National League). For awhile there they were counting on the long ball for most of their scoring and hurting themselves with the inability to do the little things. They were not playing the kind of great baseball these Phillies were expected to play and people were getting frustrated. Then, the real storm hit.
Not since September of 2003 had the Phillies beat the Marlins and even though the fish were, to quote catcher Mike Leiberthal, "not playing good baseball", the Phillies couldn't really afford to turn their noses up at that team when they found themselves unable to beat them regardless of the Marlins own struggles. The Phillies would finally beat them; once in one two games series. Everyone thought that was a turnaround. Not so fast. The Marlins would take our Phillies down in a four game sweep and it was a horror to watch. Larry Bowa would create a field day for the press that enjoys nothing more than dirt and selling it, by saying he was "embarrassed". Though Kevin Millwood would agree (Perhaps you didn't hear about the one Phillie who actually agreed.) Rheal Cormier and Roberto Hernandez, two of the Phillies having less than stellar seasons, would refer to a negative, unrelaxed atmosphere that was affecting them. The press went insane and declared the end of Bowa's era. Fans revolted and wanted answers. Whose fault was this? Cries of outrage have even been heard to fire everyone on down the line: Bowa, Joe Kerrigan, Ed Wade. "Fire them all!", said the Daily News. I have heard every opinion passionately debated and as the hunt for the culprit continues I thought I would round up the possible list of suspects:
- Is it the so called heavy handed pitching coach Joe Kerrigan?
- Could it be the countless injuries to now seven of the Phillies pitching staff?
- Is there a lack of a strong clubhouse leader? (Paging Dr. Daulton….ahem.)
- Is it General Manager Ed Wade's reluctance to make big trades in July?
- Is it the fact that these Phillies are a "quiet" team as Comcast's Leslie Gudel speculated? No fire?
- Or, of course, could it be the media's favorite choice, the very fiery manager, Larry Bowa?
These particular Phillies however, are quiet. Aggressive as players, yes, but their personalities are subdued. Mix that with Bowa's explosive emotional nature and you have a conflicted atmosphere. Fire is something Phillies fans respond to and they want to see players mad and driven. The manager is more than making up for those on the team who don't express themselves that way. So then what is going on here?
I have my own opinion and it's probably not going to be a popular one but the truth is I think we set the expectations far too high. Mike Leiberthal was expected to come out and repeat last year's performance and that expectation was too high. Too many people also expect Jim Thome to carry this team and be some kind of homerun machine. Players of his caliber strike out often, and they also suffer slumps like any other player. And of course, the obvious problem has been their awful rash of injuries. Everyone can clearly see the way this team has been shaken and stirred by the countless injuries the pitching staff has suffered. It seems everyday you look up and someone new is on the DL.
You can make the easy assumption that Larry Bowa's style of management is pressing upon his team and creating an atmosphere where everyone feels uneasy and therefore are somehow unable to play up to their potential. But these are professionals. They come in to do a job. How can you explain the dominating but quiet presence of David Bell who, despite back troubles has had a phenomenal year batting .271 with 51 RBI? In the clutch you can always count on this guy. He plays with a quiet intensity and gives it everything he's got. And you don't get more solid all around than Bobby Abreu who's averaging .297. His consistency at the plate (78 RBI and 24 homeruns, just eight less than Thome) has been one of the major keys to the success the Phillies have had. And Tim Worrell has done a stand up job filling in for Billy Wagner getting 13 saves and holding a 3.72 ERA; Eric Milton and Jimmy Rollins also seem to be doing just fine under Bowa's tenure.
For me it all comes down to this. The Phillies are not doing that badly. It is the expectations that have affected this team, including the manager. Yes they should be able to make it to the playoffs with the talent they have. But they're not playing bad baseball. It is the long, loud rumbling of expectation that started as early as last winter that has caused the most problems. The hype was so enormous that it left people without a doubt in their minds that this was the time. But that's not baseball. No one can know that people are going to get injured and that some players will not have the same success as last year or will go through grueling slumps. Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter's slump was such big news it made the cover of Sports Illustrated as being some kind of modern mystery. It is the nature of this game. Expectations are what are truly frustrating this city and this team.
But this is Philadelphia and we have waited a long time. To feel that kind of hope again and not have it lead us to a World Series seems too painful to face. When all is said and done and the playoffs roll around, if the Phillies aren't there, I will sigh as usual and accept the facts. But if we make the mistake of pointing fingers at one individual or say that the team didn't try hard enough we are not respecting the game of baseball. It is meant to make you smile and cheer in the stands and in your living rooms. But it is designed to break your heart. And we in Philadelphia know a whole lot about that. It is possible that we will once again be left to wait for next year with the same hope in our hearts as always because that is what Phillies fans do. This team deserves to go to the playoffs and they are capable, but if they don't I will remember that, if nothing more, they played some really good baseball.