Friday, September 22, 2006

Wild for the Phils?

By Claire Smith,
For The Inquirer

There's an adage in baseball that while players crave long-term contracts, endorsements, home-run records and the like, what they really want is to still be around when the leaves turn brown.

With 152 games down and only 10 regular-season games to go, the Phillies are very much still around.

Nine wins in 13 games - leaving them a half-game behind the National League wild-card leading Los Angeles Dodgers - ensured that.

Now, the Phillies enter the final weekend of their final regular-season homestand tantalizingly close to their first postseason since 1993.

Four games. And every single one will mean something, beginning with Florida tonight and ending Monday night with a makeup game against Houston.

Florida, desperately clinging to its own wild-card dream, threw crucial defeats at the playoff-hungry 2005 Phillies.

The Astros? They filleted the 2005 Phils, winning six of six, then won the wild card by one game over, yep, Philly.

Fish vs. Phils. Ryan Howard's power vs. an old nemesis.

What Phillies fan, what Phillies player, could have asked for more?

"It's huge, just what you want," Pat Burrell said. "We've had a kind of inconsistent year, but we've somehow managed to stay in this thing, and now is the time when guys have got to get hot and do their thing. And, hopefully, that will happen."

Indeed, when the Phils get to Fan Appreciation Day on Sunday, they pray they will have given away something more precious than prizes by then.

The real prize fans crave is hope.

Hope that the "no game today" postings that follow homestands won't stand until April but rather only until October.

Hope that the baby-faced home-run basher, Howard, gathers enough strength to return to being, as catcher Mike Lieberthal dubbed him, "the X-factor." In the wild-card chase. In the MVP race. Heck, even in the spirited debate about true home-run records (the purists' 61 hit by Roger Maris or Barry Bonds' unbeloved 73).

Finally, the Phillies are holding hope that at long last the fans who cautiously have been driving up the box-office numbers and TV ratings placed their faith in the right pews.

"It definitely feels different. At this time of the year, in the past, we'd draw about 20,000 fans," said Lieberthal, a veteran of 12 Phillies seasons - some of which played out in Septembers so somber and devoid of meaning that barren, old Veterans Stadium resembled Siberia.

"But it just seems like fans are more into it now," Lieberthal said. "Games may not be sold out, and school is back in, but it seems like the fans are more into it now. There's definitely more excitement."

That can be measured among TV viewers, who drove the Phillies' audience share to double digits five times in the last eight broadcasts. That included an 11 share, or 11 percent of those watching television at the time, for Wednesday's game.

The 6-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs drew a 6.7 rating on CSN - the third such 6-plus rating in eight games. (Each ratings point in the region represents about 30,000 homes.)

As for the box office sales, the Phillies have yet to sell out a game during the homestand that began Monday. Attendance did edge up from 31,100 to 31,500 to 35,000 as the now-completed three-game series against the Cubs progressed.

Initially, the team expected similar crowds for the games tonight and tomorrow at Citizens Bank Park, then 40,000-plus for Fan Appreciation Day.

No more.

"We've moved our projections up," John Weber, the Phillies' director of ticket sales, said yesterday. "We're now hoping to get above 40,000 [tonight], in the mid- to high 30s on Saturday. We are expecting to sell out our game Sunday.

"Monday is still up in the air," Weber said. "It is our last home game... and, hopefully, Howard will be going for a little higher of a number. But the low 30s would be our projection right now."

When walk-up ticket sales projections become as riveting as actual wins and losses, you know there's pennant fever in the air.

Home-run fever could be an added lure, thanks to Howard, a likable, larger-than-life figure who has given this city its first truly Ruthian home-run king.

Howard will enter play tonight against Florida righthander Ricky Nolasco (11-9, 4.56 ERA) with 57 homers.

But having gone without one since Sunday, Howard was very much looking ahead - to the needed off-day yesterday.

"I'm trying to be more comfortable at the plate - and trying to go into this day off not thinking about anything," said Howard, who is sitting on major-league-leading totals in home runs and RBIs (140). "I'm just going to try to forget everything. That's definitely, definitely important."

Getting one's mind right and rested is critical, agreed lefthander Jamie Moyer, a veteran brought in late-season to lend the value of stretch-drive experience to a young team. And, said Moyer, "since I've been here, I've seen guys that are hungry and who want to play the game.

"Some are still learning how - and that's a process that can go on for a long time. But it's important to stay in character, to bring [something] every single day to the ballpark that will help you win games."

Veterans Burrell, Randy Wolf and Lieberthal know that these four games might represent the final times they appear in Phillies home uniforms.

"But when we finally leave here [Monday], I don't think anybody's going to be too emotional thinking this could be their last game played here," Lieberthal said, "because I think everybody believes we're going to be in the playoffs, and that we're going to be back."


Bob Groves said...

We can hope, but just not believe until they actually do it. Not only have the Phils not been in the playoffs since 1993, but they have been there ONLY ONCE SINCE 1983!!

One appearance in the last 22 years is a record that inspires little confidence. As a life-long Phillies fan since 1956, I have seen more than my share of mediocrity (other than the golden years of 1977-83).

So, only hope is in order until they actually get there. As a Philly sports fan, one must protect oneself from getting too excited.

Marty Minnich said...

I continue to be amazed, though not surprised, that the Phils' problems at CBP remain a mystery to so many. I've written about it to most of the writers who cover the Phils, and to the public-response sites I occasionally post to (where I always get summarily "dissed"). I've only seen the reason discussed ONCE in the Inky (by Mr. Fitzpatrick). I suspect he got such a ration of negative responses, that he decided continuing on that tack would be career-limiting. I've posted to Mr. Zolecki's response column on the reason, and he's come CLOSE to agreeing with me, but I don't believe I would be inaccurate in saying he did not totally and wholeheartedly support my observation.

The biggest problem is the Phans. The Phils have by FAR the MOST VOCAL and CRITICAL fan base in all of MLB, if not all of professional sports. Consider the booing of Burrell, which has taken place not just last night but all year. TOTALLY unjustified. The man's playing hurt, and playing as good as he can possibly play. And apparently, few Phans have noticed that, until the latest slump, ALL his offensive numbers were BETTER than Abreu's! Even now, he has more HR, more RBI, and OPS only 20 points lower (it was higher the whole time Abreu was in Philly). Yet Abreu didn't get NEARLY the booing that Burrell has gotten and continues to get.

This booing is consistent throughout the Phils' history. They've tried changing EVERYTHING: players, managers, coaches, BALLPARKS, even OWNERS. There is only ONE thing that they haven't changed, and that's because they CAN'T; the PHANS.

NO one can perform at their best level when constantly being criticized, and with that level of vitriol. How well do you think YOU could do if your boss did nothing but criticize YOU? You would of course do your best, but your mood would keep that from being your highest performance level. It is the same with the Phillies' players. I think you implied as much in your column when discussing Burrell: "Increasingly targeted by boo birds waiting to jump on what goes wrong, Burrell could not respond."

I would estimate that the Phans cost the team about 5 games a year. If I'm right, then one only has to look back at the standings for the last few years to see how many divisions the Phils would have taken since 2000.

Note that the Phils were the LAST team to be eliminated last year, from both the division AND the wild card (on the last day of the season; in fact, they actually finished play for the season not knowing whether they would be in the postseason or not). They finished with the fourth-best record in the NL, acing out the winners of the parity-laden Western division. Yet they received NOTHING from the Phans but booing, obscenities, and rejection.

This year, they were again the last team eliminated in the NL East, stand to be the last team eliminated from the wild card again, and currently have the 5th-best record in the league. Those kinds of 2-year results would have all but a small handful of other MLB cities (I can only think of NY off the top of my head) thrilled at the competitiveness of the local franchise with at worst only a mild disappointment that the team couldn't have one JUST one more game. Not so in Philly. The Phans act as if the Phils should win the whole shebang every year, and anything less is no different from total failure. It is little wonder so few free-agents are willing to come to Philadelphia, that draft picks do everything possible to obtain another option than the Phils, and that players play SO much better both before coming to the team and after leaving it, than they played DURING their time in town (consider the latest example: Abreu's Philly OPS was .861; it is .924 with the Yankees!).

Phans totally tore Scott Rolen a new one for calling St. Louis "baseball heaven", and continue to do so. But from what I can see, the players only need take one look at the Phans to conclude that Rolen was incorrect. It is not that anywhere else is "baseball heaven", but that Philly is "baseball HELL".

In your article, you state "the Phillies needed to act as if they understood that there were only 12 games remaining in their season". I would suggest that could be rewritten "the Phans need to act as if they understand that there are only 12 games remaining in the season, and support the team the way it deserves". If that occurs, I think that just MIGHT be enough for the Phils to win one or two close games that they will otherwise lose, and THAT could be the difference between making the postseason and JUST missing it once again. However, this of course is a forlorn hope. Even if YOU should publish such an imploration, it is inconceivable that the Phans would stop trying to take the speck out of the team's eye long enough to pull the log from their own.