Phillies Deserve Scrutiny

After years of cultivating a trustworthy reputation, the franchise is acting cagey toward reporters. What are they hiding from the fans?

It’s a good thing that Major League Baseball allows teams to announce game attendance figures in terms of tickets sold, rather than backsides in the seats, because the Phillies wouldn’t be able to crow about their streak of packed houses were the latter practice in vogue.

Anybody who chose to attend Sunday’s desultory 5-1 loss to the Red Sox experienced a bland afternoon at the ballpark. The Phils seemed uninspired, and the fans certainly had no juice, something that happens when the hometown club tumbles into a 5-0 third-inning hole. Even the Phanatic’s set piece, which involved cavemen and Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll,” seemed perfunctory. And unless about 5,000 people showed up wearing blue outfits the exact same color as the Citizens Bank Park seats, there were a lot of no-shows on a pristine baseball Sunday.

After years of playing the part of Philadelphia’s sporting grandparent, getting nothing but love and a gigantic benefit of the doubt, the Phillies are beginning to come under some deserved scrutiny for their personnel decisions, their secretive management practices and their drab play this season. Yet to come is the fan base’s realization that ticket prices continue to climb, with the excuse for annual increases the large contracts given to the likes of Jimmy Rollins (three years, $33 million, .229/.295/.285 in ‘12).

Sunday, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran two stories that revealed plenty about the Phillies and their practices. Both were about Ryan Howard. One was veteran baseball writer Bob Brookover’s often humorous description of his futile attempts to find out how and what Howard is doing while sequestered in Clearwater and the team’s at times aggressive attempts to prevent him from learning anything. The other, by Frank Fitzpatrick, looked into the wisdom of the Phillies’ decision to inject Howard’s balky heel with cortisone last September, in light of evidence that such a procedure can compromise the Achilles tendon and lead to a tear, like the one Howard suffered a few weeks later.

Both were excellent examples of reporting. More importantly, they showed that the Phillies are not the fuzzy franchise they would like fans to believe they are. Since moving into CBP in 2004, the Phils have steadily gained favor among the region’s fans, who look at the ballpark experience as almost more important to the game itself and don’t seem to mind forking over $7.75 for a beer, so long as they can brag to their friends that they “were at the ballpark last night.” A trip to the stadium confers a special social status on fans, and that cachet is worth practically any price the team charges. It’s almost as if the Phillies adhere to Terence Mann’s explanation about why people will come to Ray Kinsella’s farm. “They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack.”

This year, things are different. From Opening Day against the Marlins, when the atmosphere was almost funereal–and the team looked as if it indeed belonged on ice–through to Sunday’s loss, the Phils have been losing their mojo. It’s bad enough that they are in last place in the NL East. It’s worse that the club is giving fans reason to doubt its veracity. Did the Phillies really think Chase Utley’s knee was going to heal over the winter, or were all the happy reports designed to sell tickets? When will Howard be coming back, and what is he able to do right now? Politburo members were more forthcoming than the Phils have been regarding the first baseman’s condition. Could they be hiding a late (or perhaps no) return to keep hopeful fans coming out to the games to spend, spend, spend for the home team? And what about the Cole Hamels situation? The way he’s pitching now, he could end up being the NL’s All-Star starter. With each win, the price tag on his new contract rises, like a taxi meter on steroids. Instead of signing him during the spring, the Phillies now risk losing him in free agency, or at best re-signing him for five or six million more a year than they would have paid had they completed the deal in March.

It’s funny, but the Phils used to be the anti-Eagles. They were fun and never seemed like they were hiding anything from the fans. Of course, they were just as cagey as any sports franchise, but they gave the impression that they were the team you could trust, while the Eagles were stonewalling the press and seemed hopelessly out of touch with fans, from the top down. The Phillies spent lavishly on players, made dramatic trading-deadline moves and convinced people like Cliff Lee to join the fun for less dough than the other guys were offering. See what winning a championship will do for you?

But 2008 seems a long way off. Indeed, there are only eight players left on the roster from that year. And fans are no longer so willing to accept anything the team throws their way. They aren’t coming out the way they once did. Not only are there empty seats at the park (last Tuesday’s game against the Astros, which I also attended, featured thousands of no-shows, too), but also the secondary market is soft. Tickets for the Red Sox were available on StubHub for well below the prices for which the ducats went a few years ago. Interest is flagging, and Sunday’s articles show the team is trying to prevent fans from getting good information about its remaining star position player.

There is still a lot of baseball remaining, so the Phils could well turn things around and take over the NL East lead. But there is no denying the franchise is no longer bulletproof. The cracks are small and almost imperceptible, but if the Phillies don’t start winning soon, fans will be able to focus on things other than the big fun to be had at the ballpark.

And that won’t be very good for business.


  • Okay, so last week I dealt with the chuckleheads who must wave every time the camera turns their way during a game. Now, it’s time to address those who boo when an opposing pitcher throws to first in an attempt to keep a Phillies baserunner close. Knock it off. Philadelphia fans insist that they are knowledgeable, but jeering a perfectly sensible strategic move at a time hen baserunning is more important than ever doesn’t convey a high level of baseball erudition. Focus your ire on more deserving targets, like umpire Bob Davidson.
  • Cretinous. Despicable. Horrific. Those are just few of the words to describe the people who directed death threats via Twitter at the family of Lakers guard Steve Blake, after he missed a three-pointer in L.A.’s game two loss to Oklahoma City. It’s one thing to be a passionate fan and another to be a criminal and a blight on society. If you don’t know the difference, please stay away from sports.
  • It was fun to watch the Sixers come back against Boston Friday night, but let’s hope the team’s post-season success doesn’t convince management and ownership that all is fine. The team has many needs, and hanging tough with Boston (and perhaps even beating the hated Celtics) after beating a depleted Chicago team doesn’t change that.