Development of a Phan

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I love baseball.  Sure, I might catch a few games when Gonzaga University’s basketball teams (a hometown darling) tweak the noses of the big universities yet again in March Madness. I might watch the Kentucky Derby, just because my mother and her mother always did. There’s a chance I’ll watch 30 minutes of professional American football–and of course, the Super Bowl is a great excuse for culinary excess, beer, and oh, those commercials! But baseball has captured me with its elegance, mystery, nuance, precision, intelligence, definability, and history. It has mirrored my life, informing it. In return, Life has given me a greater appreciation for the game.

When you’re a fan….you buy merchandise!

Baseball transcends simple sport. It rewards fans who can appreciate nuance and bores fans who cannot. It combines the cerebral approach of chess with occasional, all-pieces-in-motion excitement like that of soccer (football), basketball, or hockey. But before a ball is put in play, baseball proceeds at a pace where the informed fan can appreciate where fielders position themselves for this pitch, how the batter might greet that selfsame pitch, and then allows one to thoroughly examine how the pitcher delivers that pitch from the windup through the catcher’s reception of it.

In childhood, I thought I liked following sports. Given the perspective of age, I realized sports photography grabbed me more than the sports themselves. The first years of the 70’s swept away these shallow roots. Sports, associated with conformism and militarism back then, fell from my favor. I read books about rockets, aliens, sexual revolution, wizards, hobbits, and crazed soldiers in various wars and psychiatric wards. We marched against The War, watched women burn bras, contemplated world peace–surely just around the corner once The Revolution occurred–and contemplated global annihilation “if we failed”. I indulged my enjoyment of competition by watching my brother run competitively. I stayed in touch with athletics when I volunteered to be a manager for the wrestling and track teams because it freed me from the otherwise compulsory attendance in physical education classes.

I attended no football games in college nor any other sport. I jumped into the Real World as a reporter/editor of a weekly newspaper, photographing the local high school’s various sports for a half hour or so, then leaving because my boss told me to: “Don’t let them get used to thinking you’re going to cover the whole of anything.”

I left newspapering, earned another degree, this time in English Education, and sought employment as a secondary teacher of English. Inexperienced teachers without the desire to coach a sport were not in high demand. It took nearly a year to get a steady job, and even then it occurred only because the principal of the junior high and its head teacher, both on the hiring committee, argued that my potential in the classroom outweighed my lack of interest in coaching.

At the same time I was hired, the school district also hired my (somewhat) opposite: a two-sport coach with no compunctions about taking on a third sport. He taught social studies (that would basically be history for you non-Americans). The district placed him at my junior high school; I taught beside him nearly all nine of my teaching years. This teacher, RP, opened my eyes to several things. First, he was intelligent, and frankly, that was not the stereotype of the typical small town sports coach. Many of the coaches did their best to perpetuate the stereotype of the dumb jock: I won’t relate all of the stories about GG because even reducing the name to initials doesn’t adequately hide who it was. Suffice to say he thought he looked good with all those gold chains hanging around his neck.

RP however perked up when I bragged about never being defeated at Trivial Pursuit and said, “Oh ho, Pilcher, I’ll take that bet!” It wasn’t a bet, but the next time we had a staff party, there we both were. I can’t remember his status, but I was three and half sheets to the wind–I played better drunk because then I didn’t overthink. I would guess he either was sober or had sampled just a few light beers. Oddly, I can’t remember who won, which means he probably did. We both acknowledged the other as a worthy intellectual opponent. RP was “a character” but that part of him will be a writing topic for another day. What he did for me occurred in 1989 when he touted the business advantage of investing in baseball cards. I can’t believe in persons not knowing what these are, but I can conceive it. Therefore for the ignorant: baseball cards are (to quote Wikipedia) “a type of trading card relating to baseball, usually printed on cardboard, silk, or plastic….Baseball card production peaked in the late 1980s.” (More about their history here.)

Oh, and did it peak. For a dollar or two one could buy a pack of cards which might have one card in it worth tens or even hundreds of dollars due to the crazed demand. Baseball cards were the Bitcoin of their time; it was like the lottery for little kids and speculators both.

Baseball cards with the magic of their beautiful photography capturing a moment of baseball prowess rekindled my love of sports photography. The cards also sparked an interest in the game. Soon I had purchased George F. Will’s just-published book Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball, still one of the finest books written for understanding the nuances of the game. I gobbled it up when a vicious virus laid me out for a few days at home.

Just three years later, I chucked teaching to indulge my fantasy of writing, and I moved to Philadelphia. I arrived at the right time to fan my beginning baseball interests, which could not be indulged in out-of-the-way Colville, Washington, tucked near the borders with Canada and Idaho. There I had no team to follow, to cheer on. Seattle’s team, the Mariners, established in 1977 while I still attended the University of Washington, played badly and in 1990-1992 it still played badly. Besides, 300 miles with an intervening mountain range dampens one’s feeling for “your local team”.

Ah, but Philadelphia possessed a major league baseball team, and not just that, one of the very first, established in 1883! It had a sad history of losing, mostly, including 1992, the year I arrived. But the year after I arrived in Philly, the team that finished 1992 in last place captured magic and found themselves in the playoffs. (Amphetamines are strongly suspected, but hey, let’s not besmirch some loveable characters.) I raced out to buy a new color TV to replace my 20-year-old one. I cheered. I shouted.  Macho Row rewarded me by playing all the way to the World Series…where a walk-off home run by Toronto’s Joe Carter in Game 6 clinched the championship for Toronto. It was a three-run homer served up by the closer, Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams. Sorry, non-baseball fans, but I’m not going to explain all the rules and terms–suffice to say a homer run (“homer”) is not good if the other team gets one. Ahead by one run at the time, the Phillies lost the game by two. There is no bigger gut-punch in sports than to be two outs away from winning a game only to serve up a home run which not only ends the game with a loss for your team but also wins the championship for your opponent. To this day, nearly 30 years later, just sit in the Phillies’ ballpark and mutter “that damn Joe Carter.” You will have instant friends, bonding over the shared pain.

I fell deeply in love with the Phillies that year. They burned their brand into my hide, injected their drug into my veins, played their Lucy-holding-the-football to my Charlie Brown. My journey to true fandom started there. I’m glad I didn’t know what a fluke that 1993 season was: the next year Macho Row reverted to its 1992 form, sitting fourth out of the five teams in the National League East when the Major League Baseball Players Association mercifully went on strike, ending the season in August.

From 1994 through 2000 I did what fans do: I followed games; I read about them in the Philadelphia press (aided by the newly introduced World Wide Web); I watched the few games I could, aided by satellite TV; and the Phillies slowly, slowly indoctrinated me about the customs and mores of fandom. One cannot usually make a living as a fan: I drifted into “real” work when the writing thing went bust, writing business reports in pharmaceutical manufacturing. Just as with the Phillies and baseball, I learned most of the basics and some the nuances about my new career.

By 2001 the Phillies had installed their third manager since the magic of 1993. From this lesson of sport, I learned life’s employment situations are ephemeral. In 1997, recently married, I had carted my bride back to my hometown in eastern Washington State. (You always have to add the word “state” for anyone born in the northeastern United States; otherwise they assume you mean the nation’s capital.) Now in 2001, I looked nationwide, found a job in upstate New York, and we moved back into the same time zone as our beloved Phillies.

Promises, promises: for four years the Phillies promised more than they delivered. Maybe I believed their press too much. A typical day started with me connecting the computer to the internet via a dial-up connection. (squeek, squarl, kweeeeeeeee-quchchchchchchchch) I would open each Phillies story in the Philadelphia Inquirer in a separate browser window. This would take time to load, so I’d start making the morning lattes. About the time I had steamed and frothed the milk, I would cycle through those browser windows, hitting “print” each time. This gave me time to pull the espresso and complete the lattes. Then my wife and I would settle before breakfast, me reading the latest stories about the Phillies.

By 2004 I realized I was a square peg in a round hole where I was working. I saw too that many in baseball might be the right guy but with the wrong team. I looked for a new job, and the Phillies looked for a new manager. They succeeded; I did not. In 2005 Charlie Manuel assumed control of those on-field decisions. After that season ended, I learned that my services were no longer needed where I worked–a layoff included me. Luckily I already had lined up an interview which led to a new state, a better job, etc., etc.

And in 2006 things looked up. My wife and I learned we should have been living in the South of the United States many years before we actually got there. The Phillies dumped their general manager at the same time and brought in Pat Gillick, a guy with a proven track record of winning. He predicted they would contend in 2008. He was right, although in 2007 the Phillies made every fan salivate when they managed to get to the postseason–only to get bounced immediately by the Colorado Rockies in a three-game sweep.

In 2007 my employment decision turned. The FDA responded to reports about our company site and showed up to perform a “for cause” inspection. These never end well. We received a Warning Letter to shape up or else. By 2008 a workforce of about 125 had experienced 17 firings and a half dozen more left voluntarily. I labored through this as the Phillies in 2008 trailed the Mets heading through August, just as they had in 2007. And just like 2007, the Mets graciously choked by playing 22-17 to the Phillies’ 27-12. It wasn’t as dramatic as 2007, but the teams had been close. By dropping six of their final nine games, the Mets finished three games behind the Phillies.

Then wonder of wonders, the Phillies rode that magic carpet all the way to the World Series and beat the Tampa Bay Rays for the championship…and in the middle of the Series, I accepted a new job to escape my own version of a losing season.

Pat Gillick resigned, mission accomplished. For the rest of my life as a corporate lackey–as a new, less-promising GM took over–the Phillies performed well but slid backward step by painful step. In 2009 they won more games than 2008 and returned to the World Series but lost to the New York Yankees. In 2010 they won even more games than 2009 and lost to the San Francisco Giants in the NL Championship Series–no World Series trip that year. In 2011 they assembled a wonder team and won 102 games. A troubling sign, however, occurred in early September. The team’s victories pointed to it setting a club record for total wins, but beginning on September 11th, the team finished 8-12. They played a spirited Division Series with the St. Louis Cardinal, going all five games, but in the final inning of the final Game 5, their star first baseman, Ryan Howard, sprinted toward first base and tore his Achilles tendon halfway there. You can’t run without an Achilles tendon. Just like that, the “run” was over. Philadelphia didn’t return to the postseason until this year (2022).

In 2012 the Phillies’ GM thought he could retool in a minor way and get further in the postseason. Unlike the Phillies, I realized retooling my career was not an option–I had cycled through three different roles for my current employer and none were good. My cog-in-the-machine job would get me nowhere.  Embarking on eight years of consulting, I learned to evaluate organizations by looking at various companies in stress. (Companies rarely call consultants when things are going well). I could see the same signs of dysfunction in the Phillies too. The team spent 2012 and 2013 denying they had a deep problem, similar to my clients who wanted the superficial blemishes covered up rather than healing the causes for them. By 2014 the well-meaning ineptitude of the Phillies (symbolized by the GM who had run the team since the beginning of 2009) became apparent. They were stuck in one gear, spinning their tires in the mud. I too was stuck in the mud of an absolutely terrible employment assignment. It convinced me at the beginning of 2015 to seek a different contract agency, just as the Phillies chose to dump their GM at the end of the 2015 season.

My career cycled through good and bad, but the bad beat the best days of “regular” employment. Consulting let me dive fulltime into analytics–clients loved it. And the Phillies dove into analytics too. Their new GM, Matt Klentak, hired around the same time, unfortunately didn’t know what the heck he was doing–a perfect example of having a good concept without knowing how to make it happen. After stumbling along with the manager he inherited (Pete Mackanin), he hired an analytics fanboy in Gabe Kapler for the 2017 season. Kapler also didn’t know what he was doing–he’d never managed a team before. As the team entered the spring training portion of the season, I completed a 15-month assignment which reinforced that I had the chops to hang with “the big boys” in my industry. I had learned novel approaches to problems can sometimes clear a logjam of we-can’t-do-that problems. Unfortunately for the Phillies, it worked for me but not for them. Kapler made amazingly boneheaded decisions, learning on the job so that he could move on to the San Francisco Giants and earn Manager of the Year in 2021.

Opening Day, 2021.

By that time, I had learned hiring solid performers and the occasional superstar would quickly pull a damaged company out of the spiral which led to the sewer of “thanks for trying”. Similarly, the Phillies signed Bryce Harper, Jean Segura, and J. T. Realmuto prior to the 2019 season. But the Phillies managed an 81-81 record, missing a winning season yet again, and Kapler was out.

Everything changed in 2020, and I don’t mean the pandemic. My mother died at the end of the 2019 postseason. The Phillies hired Joe Girardi the day she died. Less than two months later the Phillies hired a new GM, Dave Dombrowski. Saddled with a new manager, Dombrowski decided to figure it out before making wholesale changes. And then came 2020, the year everything was upside down.

I retired at the end of 2019. No need to work: my final years of work built a bit of financial comfort and my inheritance took care of the rest. Baseball might as well not have happened in 2020 (but we’re glad it did). In 2021, Dombrowski began to evaluate the team in earnest. At the end of that season he made sweeping changes, some of which will be felt for years. He dumped everyone in charge of player development. He reorganized things. He hired a new hitting coach, the same one who had been successful in Washington, D.C., where Bryce Harper had played.

And then he signed a slugging All-Star, Kyle Schwarber. And then he signed Nick Castellanos. Suddenly the Phillies looked (potentially) good. At the same time, the psychic blows of having the final parent die combined with the bunker mentality of the pandemic lessened. At the end of 2021 “free movement about the country” seemed even more possible. The few trips taken in 2021 seemed to be a promise of things to come. And then came 2022.

If anything, 2022 should go down as the unsatisfactory second act to 2021. Covid still scourges. Free movement about the country didn’t translate to free movement about the world. And the Phillies started the baseball season 22-27, a sad commentary on the talent assembled during the offseason by Dombrowski. And then came a “miracle” for Phillies fans. The Philadelphia had come to be known as a very loyal organization to its top employees over the past 50 years. Managers, GM’s, and presidents weren’t “fired”–they were “reassigned to special advisor” status. But on June 3rd of 2022, the Phillies fired manager Joe Girardi.

Seasons can transcend one’s existence. Throughout this piece I’ve attempted to draw a comparison to my personal life, just as all sports fans attempt to relate the performance of ‘their’ team to their own existence. There is no comparison in my life to what the Phillies have done this year. After firing Girardi less than a week before my birthday, they’ve played relaxed and more importantly, they’ve played winning. They’ve parleyed that from a barely-in-the-playoffs third wildcard seed to a berth in the National League Championship Series which starts tomorrow.

I don’t know if most persons can trace an arc to their lives through the ups and downs of a professional sports team. I do. But nothing compares to this year. This team shouldn’t have succeeded after being an afterthought one-third of the way through the season. Even after they played their way into serious consideration for a wildcard berth, no one with a modicum of sanity thought they would contend beyond the very first round. Instead they’ve quickly vanquished the St. Louis Cardinals in the Wild Card round, and dumped the Atlanta Braves with little difficulty.

All bets are off in retirement. You become a bystander without a distinct connection to society’s day-to-day rhythms. Though you have 40-50 years of experience, few value it. Thus, the Phillies and I part ways a little bit. Will I still thrill to their success? Absolutely! Will they do things which more and more mystify me? Very probably. My father-in-law remains a Phillies fan. He’s been one all of his 90-year-old life. He decries the “new” approach of taking walks instead of swinging (something which is now at least 25 years old). He complains about the superimposed box which shows the strike zone when a pitch comes in.

I look forward to being the recalcitrant fan he is.

Matt Vierling in Spring Training, 2022. Tampa, FL.

3 thoughts on “Development of a Phan

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