Sports Nut

If You Build It, Will They Shut Up?

They knocked down the Vet. Philadelphia’s culture of losing should go with it.

Whether Philadelphia fans are the worst in sports because their teams are so bad or Philly teams are so bad because the fans are so cynical is a fascinating and utterly fruitless debate. Right now, and maybe for the first time in the memory of most area fans, cynicism is on the wane. Even more surprising, it’s because the city’s sad-sack baseball team has moved to a posh new stadium—and finally started acting like the big-market monster the city deserves.

Philadelphia is one of the few cities in the United States where, at least in recent years, baseball ranks behind both football and basketball in fan interest, and it may be the only city in North America without French street signs where it has slipped behind hockey. Though high-school kids stare at you blankly when you mention it, Philadelphia was once a baseball town. A friend of mine who used to be an editor at the Philadelphia Daily News is fond of saying that only two events in history ever brought the city together: the Continental Congress of 1776 and the Phillies’ victory in the 1980 World Series (their only World Series win, by the way, and about time, as they were the last non-expansion team to do so).

The Phillies’$2 1993 pennant run almost succeeded in pulling the town together, but the memory of their dismal collapse in Game 4 of the World Series—blowing a five-run lead at home with just six outs to go—and Game 6—ending with Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams’ batting-practice fastball to Joe Carter—just added to Philadelphia’s long list of bitter memories. How many World Series might the “Whiz Kids” have won had they found one or two more players to complement the 1950 pennant-winning team? The ‘64 Phillies might have won the pennant had Gene Mauch not panicked and pitched his aces, Jim Bunning and Chris Short, on two days’ rest. Might the Phillies have won the pennant in 1977 if, in a crucial playoff game with the Dodgers, dumb-dumb Danny Ozark had thought to put a defensive replacement in left field for Greg Luzinski?

How much can a new ballpark—any new ballpark—do to assuage such memories?

Nobody in Philadelphia really misses the recently departed Veterans Stadium, which had all the personality of a strip mall; as one new season-ticket holder told me, “This is my first exhibition game here, and I already feel more at home than I did in 20 years at the Vet.” To build a retro-flavored ballpark in Philadelphia, though, is to tread on dangerous ground: There’s so much of the past that no one is anxious to recall. Citizens Bank Park, then, gets points for courage by placing Philadelphia’s baseball history right up front.

Let’s start at the top: 300 bleacher seats above the center-field bullpens offer views reminiscent, say older fans, of the sight lines from the rooftops across the street from the Philadelphia A’s Connie Mack Stadium. Connie Mack, the A’s legendary skinflint owner-manager, once sued the buildings’ owners in an attempt to have the seats removed; when he lost, he built what locals called a “spite” fence to block their view. The fans are taking the new wall-less view as a concession that a kinder, gentler era has arrived.

Moving inside, there’s “Memory Lane,” an illustrated history of Philadelphia baseball, sort of a coffee-table book on walls that includes photos of the A’s and Philadelphia’s Negro League stars. Bull’s BBQ is not owned by but is named for Greg Luzinski, whose listed playing weight, 225, looked more like 260 from the left-field bleachers. Bull’s beef and pork comes with really gooey sauce, and they serve cheese fries of the kind that no doubt graced Luzinski’s training table. My favorite feature is Ashburn Alley, an expanse between right and left field named for Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn, who for 12 years as a player and more than 30 as a broadcaster often seemed like the only class act connected with the Phillies organization. You can sit at picnic tables and eat cheese steaks, pretzels, and other traditional Philly food with a full view of the game. (Hope they remember to include Tastykake, Ashburn’s own favorite snack for more than 30 years in the Phillies press box.)

And did I mention that the field is grass—real grass—not the knee-buckling green plastic on concrete the Vet was known for?

Still, combine a handsome new ballpark and a dumb front office, and you’ve got a National League version of the Texas Rangers. The Phils’ shrewd general manager, Ed Wade, and equally canny assistant GM, Mike Arbuckle, seem determined to fill the vacuum created by the sudden decision of the Atlanta Braves to become a small-market team. After years of whining about declining revenues, the Phillies seem to have realized that they are the biggest single-market team in baseball, located in one of the country’s densest population areas with no second team to siphon off fans.

The Phillies new brass showed it was willing to spend, shelling out big money to acquire slugger Jim Thome and to re-sign their best starter, Kevin Millwood, before the new park was built. More than that, though, Phillies executives have acknowledged the existence of stats like on-base percentage. Last year’s Phillies, for example, struck out a mind-boggling 1,155 times. GM Wade determined to do something about that by having leadoff hitter and centerfielder Marlon Byrd and Jimmy Rollins work out over the winter with Tony Gwynn, rebuilding their at-bat mechanics from the ground up with the intention of learning how to work the count and make contact.

This is also the first Phillies front office in years to find a team weakness and attack it. By trading for star closer Billy Wagner and signing set-up man Tim Worrell, Wade sent the message that contending isn’t good enough anymore. The Phils may well have the deepest bullpen in team history, which will go a long way toward erasing memories of the horrible denouement of the ‘93 Series.

The improvement in the bullpen should make the Phils at least 5-6 games better than last year’s 86-76. They might even win 100 games for the first time since the fans were searching for reasons to heckle Mike Schmidt, which would give them the NL East and home-field advantage in the playoffs in their beautiful new home.

Phillies fans, it is said, would boo cancer patients, but that’s because rooting for the Phillies has so often seemed like rooting against cancer. I don’t know how far a new stadium and a winning team can go toward relieving a 100-year inferiority complex, but this century is sure starting off better than the last one.