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      The Decline of the Philadelphia Phillies
      Photo via Flickr user zach_cohen
      June 17, 2014

      The Decline of the Philadelphia Phillies

      I've been going to see the Phillies with my uncle my whole life. A retired ironworker from Northeast Philly, he's a huge baseball fan. He probably attends 20-plus games a year. When I was little, we used to pay a worker in the bowels of Veterans Stadium five bucks to sneak us in. Since the Phillies moved to Citizens Bank Park, a stadium that may not even have bowels, we've had to pay quite a bit more—but we still go.

      My uncle's the kind of loud-mouth sports fan that—I think, and I hope—tends to come off as more lovable than your usual sports talk radio caller. (When he was younger, he and his buddies used to prank call WIP, a Philly sports talk radio station, and I'm pretty sure he still has the recordings.) And he was in a mood that Monday, as the Phillies prepared to end a five-game series against the New York Mets. We stepped into an elevator at the stadium. My uncle had a bit to try out.

      "Where you headed?" the elevator operator asked us.

      "To the general manager's office!" my uncle replied.

      The worker smiled. "I wish I could take you there."

      My uncle had a whole plan, were he actually able to get to GM Ruben Amaro's office. "I'm going to tell Ruben what to do, and save his job for him."

      "Save his job?" she said, almost incredulously. "Why in the world would you want to save his job?"

      "I just want to pull the strings behind the scenes," my uncle said. I'm not even sure, in this scenario, that my uncle wanted payment for his plan to rescue the Phillies. He just wanted them to get better.

      "I don't think anyone's going to be able to save Ruben's job," the elevator operator replied. "He's still going to screw up." The Phillies have lost even the faith of their own employees.

      After back-to-back losses in extra innings over the weekend, the Phillies lost that Monday night game to the Mets, 11-2. The Mets took four of five from the Phillies, dropping the team to 24-31. By the time Phillippe Aumont gave up a grand slam in the top of the ninth—"He's been so bad I've started calling him Phil," my uncle helpfully noted—we were on the road. Not that we needed to leave early. Just 26,302 fans had showed up for the game, an incredibly low total for a Phillies-Mets series, even if it was a makeup of an April game.

      But we had to leave, it was just such a downer. There was no energy in the stadium. There weren't that many fans and a bunch of concession stands closed early. Even the Mets fans at CBP could barely do more than golf clap when their team scored. Beating the Phillies—make that routing the Phillies—was no longer interesting.

      When fans of your team's chief rival can't muster up the courage to be obnoxious during an 11-2 win in your own place, you know your team is a joke. It's going to be a long summer in South Philadelphia.

      ***

      You can forgive Philadelphia sports fans for forgetting that terrible baseball is the natural order of things for Philadelphia's National League ball club. From 2007 to 2011, the Phillies won at least 89 games each year. They went to the playoffs those five years, only the second sustained period of success in the team's history. The other was the late 70s and early 80s, where the Phillies won two National League pennants and one World Series in 1980, the team's first. Save for a flukey, 'roided-up National League pennant in 1993, the Phils slipped back into mediocrity in the 80s and 90s. Between 1988 and 2000, they lost more than 90 games six times with the only winning season coming in 1993.

      But while the late 70s and early 80s success didn't translate into a winning ballclub, this run was supposed to be different. The Phillies had started spending lavishly on free agents in the years preceding the opening of Citizens Bank Park, landing Jim Thome in the winter of 2003. They improved in the first years of the decade and while they didn't qualify for the playoffs from 2000 to 2006, they won at least 80 games a year each season. They, like the Boston Red Sox, were going to turn things around permanently.

      In 2011, right before the Phillies dominated the NL to a team-record 102-win season, Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci named them part of a baseball's new power triumvirate, along with the Yankees and Red Sox. "But that's because most teams bubble to the surface for one year and sink back," he wrote, "while the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox are virtually unsinkable." 

      Once a laughingstock playing in a toilet bowl of a stadium, the team had become the hottest in baseball. They sold out every night. Yes, the 257-consecutive sellouts at Citizens Bank Park was an inflated number, but the place was still packed each night, in turn attracting free agents (Cliff Lee spurned the Yanks to return to Philly) and signed players to club-friendly deals.

      "Nobody is winning the World Series without getting through The Corridor—the 309 miles between Citizens Bank Park and Fenway Park, home to baseball's superpowers," Verducci added in August of that year. Turns out he was right about one thing: The St. Louis Cardinals upset the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Division Series, 3 games to 2, with the series ending on a Ryan Howard groundout that saw the slugger rupturing his Achilles tendon busting out of the box. The Phillies had become the Crassus of this triumvirate.

      The reasons for the decline aren't all that complicated. Chasing another World Series win after 2008, the Phillies kept trading prospects for major-league talent. They made trades for Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Hunter Pence. They never restocked the farm system. But it's not that the prospects the Phillies traded would have all become superstars—though several of the players in the Hunter Pence deal are already contributing for the Astros—it's that the Phillies never bothered to try to rebuild and get younger. While Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have rebounded this season to post decent numbers, the rest of the lineup is nowhere near what it's been. Halladay and Oswalt are retired. Lee is hurt. Even Cole Hamels, the 2008 World Series MVP, is in his second consecutive slightly-above average season.

      It's as if the front office never thought the players would age. It's unlikely the Phillies would have been able to blow up the team and win a World Series the next year like the Red Sox did, but as the team skids to a 25-36 record, worst in the National League, their future looks barren and depressingly bleak. 

      At that 11-2 loss to the Mets, my uncle asked me who from the current lineup I thought would be contributing to this team in three years. After a prolonged pause, I said "Dom Brown?" Brown, an All-Star last year, is hitting .218. His slugging percentage is .322, lower than that of Ben Revere, a light-hitting centerfielder who just hit his first career home run last month.

      The signs of this decline were coming. Grantland's Rany Jazayerli discussed the Phillies' bleak future during their incredible 2011 run. But put yourself in the place of your average Phillies fan, or even just your casual Philadelphia sports fan. How did this look like it was ever going to end? The team kept winning more games each year. The stadium was never empty. The team kept adding new star players each offseason. Sports Illustrated was not only anointing them one of baseball's power franchises, it was running three cover stories from legendary sportswriter Gary Smith on how amazing the team was. Smith described riding with Cliff Lee through Rittenhouse Square, and all the fans in Phillies gear. "Scores of them are dressed like [Lee's] workmates, down to the very names on the backs of their shirts—why, there's HALLADAY and ROLLINS and HOWARD and UTLEY and look, even two of him, two Lees," Smith wrote. 

      The city simply could not get enough of the Phillies, baseball's best team. Three years later, they are quite possibly its worst.

      On May 25, 2011, the Phillies played a six-hour, 19-minute, 19-inning game against the Reds. In the top of the 19th, utility infielder Wilson Valdez came in to pitch. It was his first and only appearance on the mound in the big leagues. And he pitched great! He got Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to fly out. He even hit ex-Phillie Scott Rolen, to make things even funnier. And when Raul Ibanez hit a sacrifice fly to give the Phillies a 5-4, 19-inning win, Phillies fans felt like anything was possible.

      Exactly three years later, the Phillies played the Los Angeles Dodgers at Citizens Bank Park. They had beaten really solid Dodgers teams in five games in both the 2008 and 2009 NLCS. On May 25, 2014, the Phillies went to the plate 30 times. They managed just three walks. So three years after one of the most memorable games in team history, we watched Josh Beckett no-hit the Phillies. 

      A fire sale may be coming. All the stars of the recent run—Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Cliff Lee—could be sold to the highest bidder.

      "Winston Churchill and Knute Rockne could double-ear bang this team with the greatest pep talk ever and it ain't gonna work," Phillies beat writer Dennis Deitch tweeted last month after bench coach Larry Bowa attempted to inspire the team with a clubhouse reaming. 

      Sadly, the team is lifeless. The stadium is lifeless. Even the t-shirt salesmen outside CBP have been selling Veterans Stadium shirts, the current team just too uninspiring to warrant any bootleg shirts. And there's no reason to think it's going to be any different any time soon.

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