Friday's home opener for the Philadelphia Phillies was an awkward homecoming for me.
I grew up a short car ride from Veterans Stadium, and attended my first baseball game, and many subsequent ones there. Dan Baker, the longtime Phillies' public address announcer, is the voice I hear say the names on my 1987 Topps cards with the wood borders. But, raised by a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, I was a Mets fan.
Accordingly, the decades of goodwill the Phillies organization has banked with me -- and they have always been remarkably fan-friendly within the stadium, whatever kind of team they put on the field --felt like accepting gifts under false pretenses, or having a friendly conversation at a family party with a black sheep relative.
I was far from the only fan of another team enjoying the Phillies' ability to master the stadium giveaway, employ ushers who actually make you feel welcome at the ballgame (please take note, Mets), and do everything possible to make you want to return. In the late 1980s, the Phillies hovered around the middle of the pack in attendance; Mets blue and orange often outnumbered Phillies maroon.
Truth be told, the Philadelphia of my childhood was an Eagles town. Silver Linings Playbook got this exactly right; set those same scenes in the parking lot prior to a Phillies game, and they wouldn't have made any sense. It was an Eagles town when the Phillies were winning, though that didn't happen much, and even if the Eagles were losing; it was certainly an Eagles town when the Phillies were losing.
I vividly remember hearing Brad Goebel's forgettable debut as an Eagles quarterback on radios throughout Veterans Stadium on the Phillies' Fan Appreciation Day in 1991, the day David Cone struck out 19. To listen to 610 AM WIP was to hear fans, come summer or winter, pining for the perfect running back to complement Randall Cunningham between commercials for F.C. Kerbeck and Tastykake. Upgrading Dickie Thon at shortstop was an afterthought.
Imagine my surprise when I streamed WIP (now on FM) on my drive down the New Jersey Turnpike, and listened to fans impatiently considering replacing Ben Revere as leadoff hitter (he'd hit just .214 over his first three games) or describing the way Ryan Howard needed to approach low, inside pitches.
Though I live in New York now, I knew intellectually that things had changed. I'd attended a few games each year at Citizens Bank Park with my wife and daughter, dressed in Mets orange and blue; the Phillies still treated them both better than the Mets do. My childhood friends had, helpfully, sent pictures and video from the World Series parade. But to actually experience a full day and evening of it, viscerally, was altogether different.
This town has absolutely fallen in love with the Philadelphia Phillies. In 2002, the Phillies were 14th in the National League in attendance, drawing 1.6 million fans. Even after opening Citizens Bank Ballpark in 2004, they still managed to draw only 2.6 million in 2005 for a team that won 88 games, and their 3.1 million for the National League East champs ranked sixth in the N.L.
But in 2008, the year the Phillies won the World Series, that jumped to 3.4 million. In 2009, 3.6 million watched the Phillies, and their 257-game sellout streak began. They ranked top in the National League in attendance each of the past three years.
Those fans have been rewarded. The Phillies reached the postseason five straight years from 2007-2011, winning the World Series in 2008 and the National League pennant in 2009. The team essentially doubled payroll over six years, from $88 million in 2006 to $174 million in 2012.
And they've done this on the back of their attendance revenue. While other teams have been cashing in their local television deals worth $150 million per season or more to pay for new players, the Phillies have been playing out a local deal paying them $24 million in 2010, and little more than that each season since.
That deal is up in 2015. Combine the boom in television deals with the fact that the Phillies enjoy tremendous local television ratings in the largest unshared baseball market, and it certainly appears the team is about to cash in.
Their fan base is not merely present now. The level of satisfaction in the air was disorienting for anyone who grew up around the rightfully pessimistic fans of Steve Jeltz, Wes Chamberlain and Mickey Morandini. The passion matches the red you see everywhere; the Phillies ditched their maroon color scheme years ago.
I'm a Mets fan, but I'm also a baseball fan with a continuing loyalty to Philadelphia, if not its teams. So while much of the Phillies' success has come at the expense of the Mets, I was, at least, pleased to see the city finally embrace its ballclub.
I asked a couple happily sharing a cup of ice cream near the Robin Roberts statue how often they'd been to Opening Day. They replied it was their first. Why?
"We finally won the lottery," the man, dressed in a Cliff Lee jersey and jeans, explained.
I found a large group of season ticket holders waiting patiently in a tunnel underneath the outfield stands. Their task was to form a welcome path of friendly greetings and high fives as the official Phillies Opening Day parade concluded with a triumphant march through the Citizens Bank Park outfield.
They all had stories about how they'd become season ticket holders. Nearly everyone cited winning as part of the reason; but none of them seemed particularly surprised that they were getting the chance to participate in the ceremony, either.
"Every single person who works here is nice to you," said a Phillies fan dating back to the 1970s, at the game with his 15-year-old daughter. "Even when we don't deserve it."
Still, a pair of longtime Phillies season ticket holders, who also are Eagles season ticket holders, who also are Flyers season ticket holders, agreed that this love for the Phillies is novel, as if the city of Philadelphia, in a predictable romcom, finally found the nice guy who'd been pursuing them all along. I asked the pair of them, with Andy Reid mustaches and guts, if they were optimistic about the Phillies' season.
"I'm always optimistic about the Phillies, now," one said. "Now that they gave me reason to be."
A little boy of ten from Horsham Township, fully decked out in Phillies hat and Cole Hamels jersey under Phillies windbreaker, was most excited, believe it or not, to greet "Ben Revere and Michael Young."
"They're going to be great," he said to me. "They're Phillies now." No arrogance to his certainty; it was simply all he knew.
But the Phillies weren't great last season. They were 81-81, the essence of mediocrity. Their core talent is getting older; the farm system was largely stripped to add players for now, and there isn't a ton in the pipeline.
I spent the middle innings with my friend Dave in the left field stands, enjoying cheesesteaks from Tony Luke's. When I'd met Dave in high school he'd been the consummate Eagles fan; only significant restraint on Dave's part kept him from punching my mother, who was taunting him during a playoff loss to the Giants that we watched at my house. He'd been consistent, but intermittently passionate Phillies fan.
But the Eagles had faded a bit for Dave as the Phillies ascended over the past few years. He's at roughly 15-20 games per year, watches all of them on television, and casually mentioned to me at one point "both my fantasy teams."
We watched as outfielder Domonic Brown, a onetime elite prospect whose progress has stalled, launched a long home run into the right-field seats. For the Phillies to, as the great Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford put it, "bridge the gap between their yesterdays and their tomorrows," Brown needs to become an offensive force.
Truthfully, they need much more than just Dom Brown. How they get it from an organization Baseball America ranked 24th in overall talent remains unclear. The path followed by general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., cashing in all of his tomorrows for today, is precisely how the other great team in Phillies history, the 1976-83 run of of six playoff appearances, two National League pennants and one World Series, fell into disrepair.
Still, the sun was shining, and the Phillies took a 4-0 lead over the Kansas City Royals, the very team they'd vanquished to win a World Series back in 1980. The sellout crowd was deliriously happy. It was, in other words, a Phillies game from virtually any of the past six seasons.
Then starter Kyle Kendrick faded, and a bullpen that helped doom the 2012 Phillies to mediocrity imploded. The Phillies gave up the most unanswered runs they'd allowed at a home opener in 90 years, and lost, 13-4. But maybe most telling: in Philadelphia, land of the boo, the crowd didn't voice its displeasure until the Royals extended their lead from 6-4 to 9-4 on a bases-clearing triple from Chris Getz. Brown didn't help matters; his ill-timed dive made the triple possible.
After the game, a group of reporters waited patiently by Brown's locker. The group dwindled to a precious few; finally, a member of the Phillies' media relations staff informed us he'd started eating dinner, and likely wouldn't be available in time to help us.
By Sunday, the Phillies were 2-4. And Sunday's attendance was a solid, but decidedly un-Phillies 39,451, roughly 2,000 fans fewer than attended last August's 6-1 loss to the Braves which ended the team's sellout streak, and 4,000 below capacity.
There's no parallel in Phillies history with this kind of adoration. To be sure, the Phillies drew well during their run from 1976-1983. But those Phillies never led the National League in attendance, and topped out at 2.7 million in 1979 in a stadium that held many more people than Citizens Bank Park does.
This time was different. The entire city and surrounding suburbs bought in. The fans got to experience exactly how wonderful life could be with an organization that treats them well. The coming television deal can keep them competitive financially -- but that deal plus a sold out stadium will make the Phillies a financial juggernaut in the National League.
Will the fans keep coming? Have the Phillies, around since 1883, finally taken root in this city?
No one knows. But in the meantime, the Phillies will keep on being the Phillies. I saw Dan Baker on the field, just minutes before he began narrating Opening Day festivities. I had to tell him how his voice still resonated in my head whenever I thought of childhood nights at Veterans Stadium, and how honored I was to meet him.
He could have brushed me off, or been pro forma. Instead, he took an extra moment, shook my hand, grabbed my arm with his other hand, and looked me in the eye.
"We're glad you're here," he said, smiling at me.
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Howard Megdal is Writer-at-Large for Capital New York, covers the Mets and Knicks for The Journal News, and is the author of "The Baseball Talmud," "Taking the Field" and "Wilpon's Folly."