RIP: This Era of Successful Phillies Baseball
The second-greatest era in Phillies history ended Sunday in a fashion that has been typical of the desultory 2012 season that brought its demise. Faced with a gut-check game on the road against a team it was chasing in the standings, the Phils fell behind early, mounted a meager rally and then self-destructed down the stretch. Now, it’s on to Washington, where beginning Tuesday, the first-place Nationals have the chance to stomp on the locals’ collective larynx and render the final two months of this awful season absolutely meaningless.
Worse, the horizon looks quite ominous for the Phillies, whose high-water mark of 2008 was never again reached, despite a spending spree and live-for-today attitude that has drained the farm system of prospects and bloated the payroll. The Phils are 16 ½ games out of first in the NL East and 12 ½ away from the second wild card spot. Let Major League Baseball add three more provisional wild-card positions, and it still won’t matter. The Phils are finished, and no amount of shilling by Tom McCarthy (and that’s some big-time salesmanship) will be able to create a bit of excitement on the way to the regular-season’s merciful early-October conclusion.
And don’t expect to see a much different scenario next year. Even after he sells off Shane Victorino for pennies on the dollar in the next two days and tries to convince someone to take on Hunter Pence’s expected $15 million arbitration award, GM Ruben Amaro still faces the prospect that he hasn’t built a winner, despite learning at the feet of Pat Gillick. Now, with a farm system bereft of available talent and a collection of high-priced holdovers who aren’t too attractive to other teams, Amaro must try to keep interest high for a team that is losing fans and creating hostility with continued inability to overcome deficits and/or hold leads.
The real fear for Phillies fans should be that the team’s gigantic financial commitment to a small number of players (about $155 mil for 11 if Pence is retained) could lead to another disappointing season. But that’s a problem for another day. Right now, it’s about mourning the end of a remarkably prosperous time that grew out of a frustrating collection of near-misses and resulted in the ultimate prize, the ’08 World Series win. Next to the 1976-83 stretch, which included 5 ½ division titles (the 1981 season was split due to a players’ strike), a World Series championship and a Fall Classic loss, this was the most successful period in Phillies history. The Phillies grew from a team that didn’t know how to win from one that anticipated doing that every night. That is worth celebrating.
Fans should remember the successes and the excitement generated during that long stretch that lifted the Phils into the area’s most favored franchise position. They should never forget what it was like to have 162 days of great expectations and the sense that no matter how bad things looked on any given night, there was always hope.
It was a time of road trips to enemy cities, knowing that the red invaders were backing a juggernaut that could break the spirits of the home team, and cheers for the Phillies were often louder than those from fans of their hosts. Merchandise flew off the shelves, and practically every Christmas stocking and birthday party featured something with a white “P” against a rubied background. It was a time when February seemed a little warmer, and October always featured a reason to stay up a little later (or in the case of those wins over Los Angeles, a lot later) on school nights.
It is so tempting to regard this year’s hideous performance as part of the magical time. Don’t do it. This stands alone as one of the greatest disappointments in Phillies history–and there have been a lot of them–but nothing good ever lasts. Fans must not let the stench of 2012 spoil their memories of the previous five seasons. That would be unfair to the players, coaches and management who created the good times and would lessen the memory for fans. The era is over, yes, but there are so many great moments to be celebrated. Just because this team lacked the talent, depth and heart to add to the legacy is no reason to consider the time period anything less than remarkable.
As the good times recede, and the highlights remain embedded in fans’ brains, the real work begins. It is time to see whether Amaro is a worthy successor to Gillick or more in line with the man who hired him, Ed Wade. He must prove he can receive value in return for established players. He must show he can sign significant contributors for reasonable salaries and not bid against himself in an exercise that yields contracts that are above market value and for more years than are reasonable. He has already said that the Phillies aren’t willing to go over the luxury tax threshold, and that means he must populate half the roster with winning players for cut-rate prices.
We’ll have plenty of time to analyze Amaro’s efforts and wring our hands about the 2013 season and the Phils’ efforts to sell us on a big rebound. For now, mourn the end of the era and turn your attention to Eagles training camp but remember how great the previous five years were.
All good things come to a close. Think about the good times, not the ugly end.
• Can anybody remember a happier beginning to an Eagles’ training camp? No holdouts. No petulant stars. Few key injuries. It’s almost as if it’s too good. A lot can happen between now and the season’s start, but the Birds are in excellent shape now to make good on their promise. All they have to do is, well, do it.
• NBC is pulling in big ratings with its prime-time Olympic shows, but the Peacock should make the big events available live on TV, rather than simply online. Trying to hide results from viewers by leaving out the big stuff on the five networks broadcasting the Games brings the country back to the 1970s. I know NBC has paid a lot of money for the Olympics, but forcing viewers to hunt for events online is a bit old-fashioned for the modern age.
• Ryan Lochte’s anchor-leg choke job that allowed the French (the French!) to come from behind to win Sunday’s 400-meter relay shows the difference between being a great swimmer and a great winner. Lochte was given a lead and lost it over the final 25 meters of his swim. Legends don’t fade. They hang on and win. Lochte may win other individual medals in London, but his inability to carry the team to victory could well be his enduring ’12 legacy.