Play ball!

Phillies Spring Training. February 2013.

Should Opening Day be a national holiday? Of course! When I pulled a salary working in the corporate world, I burned one personal day every year to sit on my couch and enjoy game after game. When we lived in the Pacific Time Zone, this became even better: games started at 10 a.m. and carried throughout the day until bedtime. Go Phillies!

RP for the win!

This is about RP, whom I’ve mentioned before. It’s also about how attitude–sometimes called “clubhouse culture” in baseball–affects the championship possibilities of a team. Thus, it’s also a little bit about the 2022 Phillies.

RP nearly always had a smile on his face. You could call it RSF: Resting Smiling Face. He provided everyone with an example of how to be childlike–not childish but taking a delight in whatever life had to offer. He joined the district where I taught in 1983, the same year I did. I taught English to 13-year-olds. He taught Social Studies to these same students, which in most Washington school districts back then meant they received a healthy dose of United States history. I wish I could’ve taken it from him or at least sat in for a few sessions. It must have been entertaining, because he always entertained. When he didn’t find things entertaining enough he raised the entertainment level. To wit:

Toward the end of one school year our school held its annual Open House. Teachers prepped for Open Houses by putting their best visual foot forward–bulletin boards were spruced up, posters and other motivational aids adorned walls, and where possible certain subject matter teachers were allowed to create displays in our cafeteria (the only gathering space in the main building). These displays were typically science, home economics, or art related subjects, those which naturally produce something to look at.

This year our art teacher planned to display collages. Nearing retirement, he mostly mailed it in when it came to teaching. He had issues with his home life, also, which probably affected his abilities in the classroom. This apparently led to his lack of judgment when he allowed a couple of his students to make collages of photos torn from magazines, all of which featured naked women. None showed those “absolutely forbidden areas”, but they were torn from women’s magazines and primarily advertised such products as bath oils, shaving, and other products which would display a lot of skin.

Our staff learned about this one day as we lounged about the  faculty room immediately after students had been dismissed. Two of the younger teachers, both women and both outspoken feminists, marched in brandishing two questionable collages and demanded, “What the hell, B—-! You can’t put up stuff like this!” Turning to our principal they implored her to “do something”. Most of us stood there, seeking the mild entertainment level or clucking a bit disapprovingly to stay on the Right Side of Things. Not RP. Not enough entertainment for him. He and I were standing in the doorway to the faculty room when he took a half step back so that I obscured him from the others. Leaning closer to me, he whispered, “watch this.” He wiped the ever-present smile from his face to look serious and stepped into the room.

“Well, really, I mean, I don’t see what’s so bad about it.” That’s all he said. It was like throwing a match onto a pool of gasoline. The two young women turned around so fast I’m surprised they didn’t pull a muscle. They raised their already loud voices to screeching level. “What’s wrong with you! You can’t see how inappropriate this is? I can’t believe it! We can’t display this to the parents.” One of them went so far as to impugn him because he was a coach: “Well I guess coaching all the time you wouldn’t understand!”

Sure it was momentary, but it provided both him and me a great deal of entertainment. More importantly, RP didn’t care what they thought of him at that moment, nor that he immediately wound up on the wrong side of a couple of the more conservative members of the staff. Heck, even I thought it was inappropriate to display something like that to parents because we were sure to be attacked for letting their precious little children be exposed to that…never mind that 13-year-olds are about the most oversexed beings on the face of the planet.

RP encountered several of us in the faculty room another time as April 15th neared. All Americans know this day better as Tax Day since that is the deadline for submitting our annual tax returns detailing how accurate our tax withholding had been during the previous calendar year. Many people play with their withholding levels, artificially lowering them to have more money in each paycheck, or artificially raising them to guarantee a refund. As Tax Day nears, the latter like to provoke the former by asking the former things like, “I’m only getting back a thousand dollars this year–how ’bout you?” 

Both strategies are short-sighted. Over-withholding means letting the government hold onto your money, interest-free for up to a year. Under-withholding represents the epicurean approach, living large in the present, and ignoring the bill which comes due in the future. RP shared my belief that one shouldn’t seek either a large refund or pay a large tax bill, but instead should seek to pay a very small amount: this guaranteed that an appropriate level of your own money stayed in your pocket paycheck to paycheck, the government didn’t get to hold onto it any longer than legally necessary, and your tax bill remained easily affordable.

RP, however, had his own twist to taxes. He listened a bit to a couple co-workers complain about how much they owed, and said, “I never pay very much. I just decide how much I think is fair for me to pay and just work my taxes backward from there.” For a moment you could hear the ticking of the clock on the wall. Several jaws hung slack. Soon several rushed to educate him about how wrong he was. By this time I had learned more about RP and just leaned against the wall, amused. Did he really do his taxes that way? I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. He had highjacked the conversation from its annual woe-is-you-and-I’m-so-great theme. He yet again provided entertainment.

Perhaps RP just felt one should envision what one wants and then go get it. He certainly encountered this every year when he coached high school sports. In the fall he played his part on the coaching staff for the football team. (American-style.) He must have chafed under someone else’s coaching style, because I knew his philosophy and that it diametrically opposed the current head coach’s. Our district had the lowest student population of all the districts in our athletic league. This is a serious thing for football: the team fields 11 players at a time, and one usually trots out different players for defense than for offense. When special situations come up (extra point attempts, kickoffs, etc.), one would like to send out at least a few special teams players. Small districts just don’t have the turnout to field teams of this size. Some players play both offense and defense. They tire. The team can’t perform by the final minutes in a game. They lose.

Come basketball season our district should have excelled. Basketball lends itself to small schools as Gonzaga University, Creighton, Xavier and others can attest. RP helped coach football, a boys sport, but in the basketball season he took over as head coach for the girls basketball team. Those girls teams did quite well under his guidance. Our boys? Not so much. RP got most of those boys when he served as the head coach for baseball season in the spring.

“Pilcher, it just sucks,” he said to me enough times it’s been burned into my memory cells. “Our district is so small we’ve got the same boys playing football, basketball, and baseball. By the time I get them, they’re convinced they’re losers. Hell, this year they didn’t win any games in football and only one in basketball. They actually started chanting on the bus after a football loss ‘WE SUCK!’

“I get them and spend the first half of the season convincing them they can win. Teach them the right way to play. We play twenty games each season. This year we went oh-and-ten the first half of the season and ten-and-oh the second half. If I could just get those boys before they’re convinced they’re losers!”

In professional sports, but particularly in baseball, there’s a term thrown about by fans, sportswriters, players, just about everyone: clubhouse culture. It’s indefinable and unmeasurable which means the statisticians don’t like it. It’s difficult to discount, though. Teams such as the 2003 Florida Marlins, the 1993 Phillies, the 2004 Boston Red Sox, and yes, the 2022 Phillies will attest to what it means when it seems they captured lightning in a bottle. Repeatedly they cite the team camaraderie and other factors which allowed them to play relaxed, to the best of their abilities. RP would be saying, “hell yeah!”

In 2018 the Phillies–I told you this would be about them sooner or later–were supposed to be “better”. In the parlance of fans, that means “we’re going to have a winning season and maybe contend for the playoffs.” Up and comer Aaron Nola had been pitching for three years for a cumulative Earned Run Average of 3.94, and Rhys Hoskins had debuted in 2017, hitting 18 home runs in just 212 plate appearances. The team boasted a number of stars-in-the-making: catcher Jorge Alfaro, third baseman Maikel Franco, centerfielder Odubel Herrera, and rightfielder Aaron Altherr. Several other players looked promising, as did the pitching staff, and the team had a proven first baseman (Carlos Santana…no, not that one). Things looked bright. Hoskins, a natural first baseman was shoved into left field where hitters go to watch balls die somewhere not near to where they’re standing. Things looked good on paper, but the games are played on grass, and the Phillies finished 80-82. This vastly bettered 2017’s record of 66-96, but wasn’t the winning season everyone expected.

In 2019, therefore, when the team signed superstar Bryce Harper to a contract whose value would allow more than two hundred families to retire comfortably, fans got hopeful. They traded that young stud catcher Alfaro for a proven commodity, J. T. Realmuto. They ditched Santana and put Hoskins at first. They snagged Andrew McCutchen, a five-time All-Star and National League Most Valuable Player in 2013, and they traded a surefire prospective shortstop (J. P. Crawford) to the Seattle Mariners for Jean Segura. Sure the new manager from 2017, Gabe Kapler, seemed to be an idiot, but he got better during 2017, didn’t he? This team looked like it was “going places”. Where it went was one win better than 2018, 81-81. Kapler got fired because …you have to blame somebody or it’s going to be your fault isn’t it Mister General Manager (Matt Klentak). Former Yankee great as both player and manager, Joe Girardi, took over managing the team.

Everyone got a pass in 2020. Well, everyone but Matt Klentak.  To fill in a better option at shortstop, the Phillies had signed Did Gregorius, hoping he could regain the star statistics he had displayed through 2018. Segura moved to second base. A rookie third baseman, Alec Bohm, showed up and hit a bunch. The team finished 28-32 in the pandemic-shortened season, two games under .500, a backwards direction from the previous year. Worse, the postseason field was expanded to reflect that the 60-game season couldn’t sort out teams like a 162-game would. The Phillies, had they just played to .500 ball as they did in 2019, would have been in the postseason. GM Klentak had no one left to blame, and out the door he went.

Enter Dave Dombrowski. He exhibited patience. He pushed a few prospects to manager Joe Girardi’s dugout but spent 2021 figuring things out. A lot of “stupid money” had been spent but the team had underachieved by a lot. Players arrived to the major league team unprepared to fit in. Worse, Girardi seemed to have a short leash with these players, seemingly saying, “hey, the minors are supposed to prepare these guys!” At the end of 2021 the Phillies tried to make the most out of the fact they went 82-80, the first actual winning season since the juggernaut 2011 team won 102 games. But c’mon–one more win than the dissatisfying 2019 team? Really?

Let’s bring it back to RP and clubhouse culture. Here’s the point: Dombrowski made sweeping moves regarding the scouting and player development systems, changes which will eventually prove to be more important than his signings and trades for 2022. Most impressively he signed Kyle Schwarber, not just because he smacks a lot of home runs but because he walks into a clubhouse and pulls it together into a cohesive unit. The Phillies aren’t in the World Series this year without him. And they aren’t in the World Series if Dombrowski doesn’t fire Girardi on June 3rd. Yankee Joe remains an admirable player/manager, but he wasn’t the right fit for this baseball club. Looking back at it, no one ever wanted to mold the franchise into the Yankees, and that’s all Joe really knew. He expected certain things his players could not, would not deliver.

Ultimately clubhouse culture, attitude, atmosphere–whatever you want to call it–rests with the guy at the top. For the players in the clubhouse, that’s the manager in the dugout. Dombrowski’s most important move was putting even-keeled Rob Thomson in charge. (RP, anybody?) Secondly, putting Kyle Schwarber in the clubhouse. His batting drove in 94 runs; the team scored 747 runs in the season. That means Schwarber was responsible for 12.5% of the runs scored. It would take more math than I want to perform to compare his plate appearances against total plate appearances for the Phillies, but considering all the “extra” guys who play because of substitutions, filling in for injured players, and giving guys a breather, it’s significant Schwarber could manage one-eighth of all the team’s runs. But remember, it’s the clubhouse attitude which sets Schwarber apart.

As RP would say, “Hell, Pilcher, Schwarbs thinks the team can win on any given day! It’s like having a second manager in the clubhouse!” (By the way: it was RP who nicknamed me “Pilchbo” which has stuck for these 40 years.)

Against the baseball fanboys

It’s October 29, 2022, and I’m weary of reading comments from fans that the Phillies don’t belong in the World Series (or perhaps even the postseason) because they won “only” 87 games to Houston’s 106. I’m getting numb to one sportswriter after another say “it isn’t about the best team, it’s about  the team that gets hot.” And I could be channeling a bit of guilt because I’ve been on the other end of those comments. I’ve gnashed my teeth when a team with a record that’s barely above “losing” was in the postseason. I’ve hurled insults at the teams which in essence bought their way into the Series and the Championship (looking at you, Wayne Huizenga).  But I think there’s a difference this year, and I think I’ve come to understand the game more.

Ironically in 1997 this same Houston team got into the postseason with a record (84-78) that was only four decisions away from being a losing season and worse than this year’s Phillies! Houston managed to win its division that year, the National League Central. Based on season records, the second-best team in the NL, the Florida Marlins, got in only because of that relatively new concept, the Wild Card, because the Braves placed first in the NL East. Houston lost in its very first round. Even though the Atlanta Braves won nine more games during the season, the Marlins beat them in the NL Championship Series and then beat the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. The Indians (now Guardians) finished the regular season 86-75, only two wins (but three losses) better than the Astros…and the Indians were in the World Series. Wait, what? We’ve got people complaining about the Phillies’ record of 87-75? Where were they in 1997? Maybe they weren’t born yet?

I would like to let these baseball fans off the hook–after all, it takes a bit of time to look up records from 25 years ago, and it takes age to remember them, and I have both. However, you’re just being lazy when you ignore what happened in this season! Consider:

  • With hindsight, no intelligent baseball fan can dispute the Phillies were finding their way as a team in the first 8 weeks of the season. Their two biggest offseason acquisitions, Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, signed on March 20th and March 22nd, respectively. Games began to count less than three weeks later on April 8th. Did other teams sign marquee players that late? I don’t know without looking it up, and I don’t care. If there were others, those players and those teams also started with a handicap. The Phillies’ signings were BIG. Every fan should be aware of them.
  • In addition to starting with a bit of a handicap to integrate the star players, when manager Joe Girardi received his walking papers before the June 3 game, nearly every major baseball writer made it clear he lacked patience with younger players. The Phillies had a number of experienced veterans–Bryce Harper, Castellanos, Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, Zach Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Jean Segura, Didi Gregorius–but it takes eight to play the positions and Alec Bohm, Bryson Stott, Matt Vierling, Mickey Moniak all needed more than Girardi gave them. (Ironically, Girardi lobbied for some of those guys to be on the roster!)
  • Since the beginning of June, less than eight weeks into the season, the Phillies posted a 66-46 record, a winning percentage of .589, while the teams they faced in the postseason did this: Cardinals 65-48 (.575), Braves 75-34 (.688), and Padres 59-54 (.541). Obviously, only Braves fans should feel shocked by watching the Phillies dispatch their team…if we’re really saying that a few wins one way or the other makes a big difference in the postseason. And those same Braves fans might want to recall their reigning World Champions went four months last year without a winning record! Somehow they got to the postseason with an 88-73 record that was (wait while the author does some heavy math) only one win more than the Phillies this season? Seriously? Where were the whiners last year? Oh, I see–because the Braves won the division with that record it’s all okay?
  • More importantly the head-to-head records show something interesting. Of the NL teams in the postseason, the Phillies bested the Cardinals 4 games to 3 and beat the Padres 4-3. Only the Braves have a right to complain a bit since they beat the Phillies 11 out of 19 meetings. Some games against the Braves were lopsided, some were close, i.e., a typical series. What if the Phillies had played the two teams they didn’t meet in the postseason? Well, they beat the Dodgers 4-3 (including a sweep in Los Angeles). The Mets? Funny thing: some crazy scheduling decisions were made by a back-office dweeb when assembling the schedule this year (and maybe that explains many a team’s record). The Phillies encountered the Mets 12 times during those first eight weeks when things were just coming together, April 8-May 31. And Philadelphia got thumped, winning only three of those games. And you know what? When they met the Mets in August for seven more games? They got thumped some more! I don’t think I was only Phillies Phan hoping the team would not encounter the Mets in the postseason. My point? If you consider the seven-game series against non-divisional opponents (Cards, Dodgers, Padres) as if they were postseason contests, the Phillies were victorious in all of them. The Phillies played the Braves tight in quite a few games, so their fans shouldn’t be super-surprised the Phillies managed to beat them this fall. And thank the good lord we didn’t play the Mets. (Now, the Mets fans have a good complaint against the Padres, but that’s for their fanbase, not this one.)

The only thing left is to comment on the first game of the World Series where the Phillies shocked the Astros fanbase by somehow winning the first game. One should note that in the very first meeting of these two teams, the Phillies backed Aaron Nola with a 3-2 win, clinching the Phillies’ trip to the postseason. The two losses after that? Did you see the champagne-soaked party in the visitor’s locker room? Not to mention the “who cares?” aspect of those final two games? Note that the Phillies beat the Astros on Oct 3rd and when they met on Oct 28…the Astros lost again.

In just a few games, even a seven-game series, luck and weirdness play a bigger part than in the regular season. Here is where we have to give some serious consideration to the folks who object to the Phillies being here at all. The argument is that teams with a “better” W-L record deserve to be beneficiaries of that luck aspect. Well, how would the Milwaukee Brewers have fared? They only finished one win behind the Phillies. They also beat the Cards head to head, 9-8. They lost to San Diego 3-4. They split with the Braves, 3-3 (I thought these things were always odd numbers?). Given that they traded their closer to San Diego, couldn’t muster much offense, and added little at the trade deadline, I doubt they would’ve gotten past the Padres assuming they could have bested the Cards.

These same persons who don’t seem to understand baseball in either its long season or its postseason, would argue that somehow teams such as the Phillies just not be let into the postseason at all. The argument is vaguely similar to when I graded papers as a teacher and there was a clear break between the A and B students for a particular assignment. The problem is, it’s not just one assignment. It’s a 162-game season. Those who manage to show they’re capable of participating in the postseason have by definition earned their place. Would any team with a record worst than the Phillies have fared as well? Extremely doubtful. Therefore the argument against the Phillies is that given their record, they just shouldn’t have been  granted a seat at the table. Were the Padres more worthy? They managed, over 162 games, to have won just two more games. Wow–a .549 winning percentage against the Phillies’ .537 percentage. Or would these same complainers be also upset at the Padres? Where is the line between “okay, they’re worthy” and “who the F are these guys”? As a teacher, I would draw a line between the Dodgers, Mets, and Braves, all of whom won more than 100 games, and the Padres, Cards, and Phillies who won 89, 93, and 87 games, respectively. But MLB has, rightly in my opinion, decided that teams who ‘right the ship’ two to three months through the season and have fought well head-to-head against the top three teams, all have a right to be vying for the title. Look again at the 100+ winners. These erstwhile Fanboys who think that record is everything, what do they have to say that the Mets would have been out of the postseason if not for the Wild Card format? You can’t complain about a format which lets the Mets in, but also lets the Phillies in.

There isn’t a formula for fairness. Baseball recognizes that no team’s performance over the regular season guarantees its success in the postseason. If it did, we wouldn’t have the postseason at all, except for the top NL team meeting the top AL team. (And even that is going to become less meaningful next year when schedules become more balanced.) The regular season exists to establish which teams have ‘grinders’ who will, day in and day out, make sure their team wins more than they lose. It’s up to the managers to make sure these grinders are playing. It’s up to upper management to make sure there are enough grinders on the team. These teams earn their ticket to the postseason. But the postseason is different.

Billy Beane famously said that the postseason is a crap-shoot. Lately though, pundits have wondered why a head honcho (president? general manager?) can’t craft a plan for the postseason. The two purposes, winning in the regular season and winning in the postseason, are at odds. I would argue that Dombrowski has started to manage that conundrum. He correctly realized the addition of the DH to the NL meant that offense meant more than defense (especially in the Phillies home ballpark). Did he realize that the defense would gel a bit? I don’t think so. He didn’t care; he just lucked out. He trusted his own ability to make moves mid-season. He added incrementally and skillfully, the way that Pat Gillick did when the Phillies went to the postseason in 2008 and won the World Series: he grabbed Edmundo Sosa from the Cardinals for a pitcher who pitched only 14.1 innings and wasn’t any good by any metric. Meanwhile, Sosa played in 25 games (out of the approximately 50+ games left in the season) and batted .315, with a nearly perfect record by defensive metrics. Dombrowski snagged a defensive gem of a player but struggling at the plate, Brandon Marsh, from the LA Angels and gave up a catcher who will likely play a solid career as a backup and occasional starting catcher (Logan O’Hoppe). He tapped the Angels again for Noah Syndergaard sending failed project Mickey Moniak and a pitcher who’s never pitched above low-A baseball. Seriously? Who makes trades like this? And to ice the cake, Dombrowski got David Robertson from the Cubs, parting with a promising, but again only-in-high-A ball pitcher.

Additionally, Dombrowski made a few additions by subtraction. He parted ways with Didi Gregorius, a .210 hitter on the season with a fairly crappy defensive record. Would Girardi have continue to play him, had he been around after June 3rd. Hell yeah! They both hailed from the all-wonderful Yankees! Never mind that Gregorius became available to the Phillies because the Yankees correctly recognized his best days were past. Dombrowski also said a not-so-fond farewell to Odubel Herrera, the maddeningly promising but never quite fulfilling the promise outfielder who had laid at least partial claim to the centerfielder’s position. And the final addition-by-subtraction? Designating Jeurys Familia for assignment. Three days later he latched on to the Red Sox. Over those two months he pitched only 10.1 innings and compiled a 6.10 ERA. Enough said about that.

And Dombrowski recognized that having adequate pitching, adequate fielding, and batters who could turn a game with a swing of the bat would be more valuable in the postseason. Multiple pundits have put forth that the team which has good pitching and hits home runs will win in the postseason. Maybe Dombrowski is onto something? Construct your team to score multiple runs when it can, and hope they do so in the postseason?

Philadelphia belongs in the postseason. The haphazard and perplexing schedule of 2022 made many a team a victim. The Phillies ‘hangover’ from its last General Manager left Dave Dombrowski with a mess prior to 2021. That he managed to correct it enough by June 3rd of this year and by August 2nd adjusted enough to get a team into the postseason is a testament to expert roster construction and an intimate knowledge of what the postseason is all about.

And it’s not all about who wins how many, contrary to the shallow fans who think the Phillies shouldn’t be here. The 19-game margin between the Astros and the Phillies represents less than 10 games which could have been won but were lost. In other words, 5.9% of the season. These fans would be well advised to consider the only other time that such a large margin occurred in the World Series: in the fourth year of the World Series, 1906, the Chicago White Sox finished the season with 93 wins (respectable) versus the Chicago Cubs’ record of 116 wins: a discrepancy of 23 wins (i.e., more than this year, folks). The White Sox won the championship, four games to two.  Think about that, Houston, and all of you who think the Phillies don’t deserve to be in the postseason.

Reading into fandom

Opening Day 2012, Philadelphia vs Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh. Phillies win 1-0. One of 81 unsatisfactory wins that season.

[Part three of my Baseball Fan Trilogy. Parts one and two detail the general world of Phillies Phandom and then my development into one, respectively. All hyperlinks to Wikipedia will go instead to mirror site Wikiwand. Be forewarned.]

What does one do when he finds himself obsessed with a sport? How did this happen? How can a non-athletic sort explain to himself, let alone others, how he’s accepted the cognitive dissonance caused when his obsession for a sport coexists with his disdain for the jocks he’s encountered throughout his life? (And how much does this explain other such dissonant aspects of his reality?)

I wish I could tell you. Others have found themselves in similar traps: the accommodations are acceptable but one realizes escape remains impossible. We therefore tell our fellow captives what wonders our trap displays, how surely it transcends all other traps, about the beauty it exhibits and instills, how ultimately this trap must be an allegory for heaven…anything to justify dancing around our living rooms (with or without audience) when our chosen team sends a little white ball a few hundred feet and ignites an improbable run to a championship meaningless to anyone outside of the trap.

One of our more prominent captives, George F. Will, took a shot at explaining what the basic participants–managers, pitchers, batters, fielders–think about when they apply their talents to the game. His words continue to be quoted by the obsessed, one to another.

One of the best baseball wordsmiths, Thomas Boswell, wrote How Life Imitates The World Series in 1982, although in truth it collects columns he wrote prior to that for The Washington Post. If George Will is a dry-as-dust baseball intellectual (who also wrote for The Post but as a political pundit), then what are we to make of his quote on the cover of Boswell’s book? “The thinking person’s writer about the thinking person’s sport.” Those words set a high bar. Boswell clears it. His very first entry in the book is “This Ain’t a Football Game. We Do This Every Day.” Deeply down the rabbit-hole by the time I read the book, you will have to pretend to understand my thrill at its first sentences:

“Conversation is the blood of baseball. It flows through the game, an invigorating system of anecdotes. Ballplayers are tale tellers who have polished their malarky and winnowed their wisdom for years. The Homeric knack has nothing to do with hitting the long ball.

“Ride the bush-league buses with the Reading Phillies or the Spokane Brewers or the Chattanooga Lookouts, and suddenly it is easy to understand why a major league dugout is a place of such addictive conversational pleasures.”

He had me with that last sentence. I’ve watched the Reading Phillies, the Double-A affiliate for the Philadelphia Phillies. I grew up in Spokane. I’ve been unable to confirm Boswell’s contention that a team there ever bore the name “Brewers” since the Spokane Indians were founded for the 1903 season and have been the Indians ever since. But look what just happened. Boswell and I now have a conversation going on, even though he doesn’t know I exist. It starts with a common love for baseball.

Boswell in his column announcing he wouldn’t cover the 2020 World Series due to worries about Covid-19–he was 72 at the time–wrote that he decided to remain a journalist with The Post due to covering the dramatic game six of the 1975 World Series where Carlton Fisk hit an historic home run. “Where would I be today if Fisk’s ball had gone foul?”

Where indeed? We understand, Mr. Boswell, those of us down this same rabbit-hole of a trap. I started digging ever deeper into the tunnels about 20 years ago when I read Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. Though entertaining, the movie does little justice to the deeper tropes of the book. In the book, Lewis expertly relates how eventual Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane attempts for years to explain to himself how he could have had such promise that the New York Mets drafted him in the 1st round (23rd overall), yet he flamed out with little to show for all those predictions of greatness: he played regularly only one year in the majors (1986) with a few plate appearances in five other years 1984-1989. His career batting average was .219 with a fielding percentage to match.

During that same time he played with Darryl Strawberry who the Mets drafted #1 overall in the same year they took Beane at #23. Theoretically the two should have enjoyed a friendly rivalry, spurring each other on to the big leagues. In actuality, Strawberry got there a year earlier than Beane. Strawberry played regularly as soon as he entered the majors, and played from 1983-1999 with eight appearances in the All-Star game. Beane had his one “good” year in 1986, when Strawberry earned his third trip to the All-Star game.

Beane deduces that the scouts basically screwed up when they thought he possessed talents anywhere near Strawberry’s. He learned of the nascent movement to quantify baseball more with advanced statistics when Sandy Alderson, Sr., handed him a pamphlet from Bill James one of if not THE pioneer of sabermetrics. And then he…ah, but there I go down the rabbit-hole again. Sorry.

Early in my baseball initiation I read Prophet of the Sandlots: Journeys with a Major League Scout by Mark Winegardner. Winegardner follows Anthony “Tony” Lucadello who scouted for over 50 years, first for the Chicago Cubs and then for the Philadelphia Phillies and–wait what? The Phillies? Okay, I’m in. A great piece of irony occurs when the book details Lucadello’s pursuit and signing of Mickey Morandini, but the book’s appendix doesn’t list him on its list of Lucadello signees who played in the majors. Why? Because Morandini, who starred at second base for the 1993 National League Champion team, didn’t make the Phillies until 1990, the same year the book was published. Lucadello signed 52 players who made it to the majors including Ferguson Jenkins and Mike Schmidt. The description about how he finds, nurtures, and convinces Morandini to sign with the Phillies justifies the cost of the book.

Most baseball books do one of two things: they explain the aspects of the game or they serve to record for posterity’s sake the great teams and individuals of the game. A few overlap between the two, such as Men At Work mentioned previously. A few, though, do neither. They illuminate the soul. I purchased Baseball As A Road To God: Seeing Beyond The Game by John Sexton in hopes of illumination. I left the book educated, provoked, but ultimately unsatisfied. I mention it here to show the lengths to which baseball fans who are also erudite readers find themselves pursuing to satisfy their urges. Sexton taught (still teaches?) a course at New York University on the same subject as the book. He writes about the shared aspects between baseball and religion. I saw the similarities. I didn’t see how baseball gave me a road to God in the Buddhist sense of many paths/one goal. But the 4.5 star rating on Amazon indicates many have found the book worthy.

More often baseball aficionados like to read about the nooks and crannies of the sport. One such book is Dan Barry’s Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game. For those who know little of baseball, a regulation game is nine innings long. Both teams get a chance to bat against the other, the visiting team going first in the top half of the inning. The home team follows in the bottom half. If, however, the score is tied at the end of nine innings, the two teams keep playing. Baseball does not tolerate ties (except when it does, albeit rarely). A Triple-A game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings started on a Saturday prior to Easter Sunday 1981, and it seemed neither could score on the other–wait that’s not true! Both teams scored one run in the 21st inning! Baseball’s participants adhere to the game’s rules with the same religious fervor as those attending Easter Sunday services. Because no one could raise the league’s commissioner–the only person allowed to suspend the game–they played on. And on. And on. When it ended around dawn the next day, the teams had played nearly four games’ worth of innings. Future stars Cal Ripken, Jr., and Wade Boggs were players in the game. Future manager Bruce Bochy also was there.

Since Jim Bolton’s Ball Four, baseball books written by former or active players tend to be much more jocular and comically entertaining. Former relief pitcher Dirk Hayhurst has written four such books. The first, The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran, remains the best from the standpoint of providing both entertainment and insight. In it, Hayhurst gives us his anecdotal account of being part of a Triple-A bullpen, hoping one day to play in the majors. I constantly think about his description of a sudden, late-season callup from the Portland Beavers to the San Diego Padres–not for his description of the play but for his Oh-My-God reaction to all the perks major league players get. Hayhurst spent all of 39 and one third innings in the majors, or approximately six innings longer than that Triple-A game in Pawtucket a quarter century prior. Somehow he managed to parley his constant conversation into a commentary role on several broadcasts.

In the same vein but more parochial lies The 33-Year-Old Rookie: How I Finally Made It to the Big Leagues After 11 Years in the Minors by Chris Coste. The novelty of a player languishing in the minors for over a decade yet never appearing in the majors at any time seems unbelievable to anyone who follows the sport. Few would stick it out that long, for one. However Coste played catcher, a coveted position making him instantly more valuable than just about anyone else on that Triple-A team. Relief pitchers with any promise have been called up long before their 33rd birthday. Starting pitchers have been converted to relief pitchers (see last sentence). Position players have been let go to clear the way for younger, more promising players. Coste pigheadedly played in independent leagues from 1995-1999, which is just crazy. To the best of my knowledge no one has ever made it into the Major League Baseball system of minor leagues by spending five years in independent ball right out of high school or college. Coste, however, managed to get signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1999, briefly, but wound up playing independent ball again that year. In 2000 he latched onto the Cleveland system, playing AA and AAA. In 2003 he moved to the Boston system, in 2004 to the Milwaukee system. In 2005 he signed with the Phillies, playing AAA in Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Scranton-Wilkes Barre now hosts the Yankees’ AAA club but was affiliated with Philadelphia at the time. And in 2006 he got “the call”.

Adding to the book’s value, Coste just didn’t make it to the majors at age 33, but when he got there he stuck there. This never happens for a backup player called to fill a minor gap at age 33, yet alone for a player who spent 1995-2005 just scratching his way toward yet another AAA assignment. Adding an extra layer of enjoyment: when Coste joined the major league club, he backed up starting catcher Mike Lieberthal the long-time symbol for futility for the Phillies. Lieberthal was the backup catcher for 1994-1996 right after the team went to the World Series, and then guided the pitching staff through 2007, the first year the team again tasted the postseason. Coste continued with the team in 2007 and 2008 when Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz solidified his claim to the dirt behind home plate (edging out the unlucky Lieberthal who retired). In 2008 Chooch helped lead the Phillies to their first Championship in 28 years. For a Phillies fan, this book is like being told you’re getting a triple-fudge chocolate cake and then seeing it’s iced with the richest frosting imaginable AND IT HAS ALCOHOL-INFUSED BON BONS ON TOP! (Well, at least for this Phillies fan.) Coste was traded to Houston in mid-2009 and that year was the end of his major league appearances. Want some extra ganache on top, Phillies Phan? Coste attended Concordia College in Morehead, MN, just across the river from Fargo, ND. My father had many close relatives living in or near Fargo, and his mother graduated from Concordia. My best friend in high school attended Concordia. Ah, sweet serendipity!

If we spend time going through my entire bookshelf of baseball books, it will be like those times you got stuck in a promising bar only to allow the bar’s resident know-it-all bore you tears because he promises you free drinks: a terrible price to pay for only mild enjoyment. Let’s just mention one more. My most recent baseball read occurred this year and takes its place alongside some of the best I’ve read: The Baseball Whisperer: A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams by Michael Tackett. The subject matter nearly overpowers the author’s skills to tell it, but transports nonetheless. The book profiles Merl Eberly who coached a summer college league in Clarinda, Iowa. College summer leagues serve two purposes: (1) young players getting ready to enter college or just beginning their college baseball careers often need some extra work–or to showcase their abilities; and (2) college leagues use wooden bats where the colleges (and high schools prior to them) have provided only metal bats for their players. Metal’s makes getting hits easy; wood…not so much. In the middle of cornfields and nowhere, Eberly guided and developed many young players. Among them were future stars Ozzie Smith (15-time All-Star and Hall of Famer) and Von Hayes (1989 All-Star and a Phillie when the team went to the World Series in 1983). Tackett’s ticket into the story occurred when his son wanted to play for Eberly. The Iowan coach may resemble a small-town John Wayne–and Clarinda is only a 90-minute drive from John Wayne’s hometown of Winterset–but his compassion tempers his strict, disciplinarian approach. There were moments I wiped tears from my face, but I will not spoil it for you. As stated, “Field of Dreams was only superficially about baseball. It was really about life. So is The Baseball Whisperer… with the added advantage of being all true.”

I’ve failed to capture the elusive spiritual, pulse-of-life truth baseball holds forth for the seeker willing to dive deeper than comparing statistics or reading yesterday’s scores. To those such as myself, joy may be found on Little League and high school diamonds; pulses will quicken when we hear a horsehide-covered hardball strike a leather glove at 90-some miles per hour or hear that same ball meet a loosely swung round piece of wood; irrespective of having watched a game, we will dive delightedly into someone’s scorebook of it which bears esoteric notations known only to initiates; or our anticipation will leap when we hear our team’s signature sound bite of music blare from the TV, announcing another game getting ready to begin. These things remain elusive. Lao Tzu describes it best in the opening to the Tao:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

This inability to fully communicate our forays into the mystic joy of baseball lies at the heart of one of my fellow captives in this rabbit-hole trap, and one of Major League Baseball’s commissioners. Professor of English Renaissance literature, president of Yale University, and seventh Commissioner of Major League Baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti explained it this way:

[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then, just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

 [translation of Tao Te Ching by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, copyright 1972. Giamatti’s quote from “Take time For Paradise: Americans and Their Games”]

When your team loses…

…you head somewhere else. Why watch the team that beat yours? In 2007 the Phillies were swept in the NL Division Series by the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies went all the way to the World Series, so at least we took solace that the near-champions (they were beaten by the Boston Red Sox) had beaten us. On the flip side, the Rockies tied with the San Diego Padres for the Wild Card that year which forced an extra playoff game between them. San Diego lost and went home. Until that playoff game the Rockies and Padres also had identical records with the Phillies, and no NL team had more than 90 wins that year (the Diamondbacks).

Regardless. We headed to the southern shore of North Carolina and the Fort Fisher Aquarium.

Spiny lobster, Fort Fisher Aquarium, North Carolina. October 2007.

Development of a Phan

[Warning: hyperlinks to Wikipedia articles actually go to Wikiwand which mirrors the site and provides a much lovelier interface. If you don’t want to go there–don’t click the hyperlink.]

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.

How it began

In their penultimate Spring Training game this year, the 2022 Phillies traveled a few miles to the Yankees’ ballpark in Tampa. We were there. This weekend the Phillies’ ride through the postseason could very well end after one more Spring Training game, 162 regular season games, and six postseason games. A good ride.

Part two of my baseball odyssey and paean is drafted but not ready. This photo will have to suffice.

Phillies-Yankees, Spring Training at George Steinbrenner Ballpark in Tampa, FL. April 2022.

About baseball…and the Phillies

Philadelphia Citizens Bank Park, September 2019.

The Philadelphia Phillies just won Game 1 of the National League Division Series for Major League Baseball. A bowl of peanuts in their shells sat in my lap and a cool (not cold) Yuengling Traditional Lager beside me was refilled many times. This piece of writing appears to be too long for a comfortable read, so I will break it into three parts. (I think; it’s still in progress.) Even then this writing won’t get very close to touching the central mystery of why a non-sports fan wholeheartedly follows a sports team which plays 162 games each year hoping to qualify for a championship playoff season which can contain as many as 22 more games (in this year’s format). This piece of pieces can only address that topic in a roundabout way.

Being a baseball fan is a beautiful thing. Being a Phillies fan (or Phan as we say) is exquisite torture. Philadelphia is one of the oldest clubs in Major League Baseball, having entered MLB in 1883. People may claim various ages for the older teams based on the club’s creation versus when it joined what has become Major League Baseball. When it comes to heartbreak, “loveable losers”, and futility, Philadelphia stands shoulder to shoulder with the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, two kindred fanbases to the Phillies’. Philadelphia won its first World Series Championship in 1980, 97 years after it started competing. Though seven to nine years older (depending on how you count it), the Cubs won its first championship in 1907, a scant 33 years after club inception. Boston won a championship only two years after it was founded in 1901! By 1918 the club had won five championships, so we have to take all that crying about “a World Series drought” from 1918 to 2004 with a grain a salt. Sure, it was 86 years which is absolutely a long time, but let me again state: the Phillies went 97 years without EVER winning the championship! Fans who were children when the club was formed grew up, had children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, and DIED without ever knowing the joy of watching their team win a championship! Additionally, the Phillies competed in the World Series only twice (1915 and 1950) before finally winning it. Between 1918 and 2004, Boston’s Red Sox competed four times (1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986). The Cubs, who won the World Series in 1908 and not again until 2016 (108 years, longer than the Phillies’ drought) nevertheless competed in the Series in 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, and 1945, all after winning it, as noted, in 1907.

Countless writers have chronicled the beauties of baseball, and many others have extolled how wonderful it can be to follow the Phillies. Phillies fans are as knowledgeable about the sport as those in Cincinnati and St. Louis, as passionate as those in any city, as long-suffering more than any other fans, and at times as boorish as those in Boston and New York City. Unlike the latter two cities, however, Philly fans do not hate with impunity but for cause. The aged and now threadbare tale that Philly fans booed Santa Claus–which no doubt will be resurrected once again on Friday when the NLDS moves to Philadelphia–neglects to mention that the original actor hired to play Santa Claus got so drunk he couldn’t perform, so a fan in the stands was talked into playing the part. He was skinny, didn’t have a suitable beard and was given no padding to make him look appropriate. Just as they are savvy sports fans, Philadelphia fans also can evaluate a cheap substitute Santa when they see one: they booed. Booing Santa is a far cry from the Mets fans who hurled D-batteries at the Phillies one year. (This paragraph may have offended some fans from different cities. Kindly read the Rules of Engagement about unsuitable comments.)

Philadelphia’s Phillies passed 10,000 losses a few years ago. As of October 11, 2022, the team’s historical record in the regular season is 10,022 wins and 11,187 losses. A large chunk of those losses occurred in the first half of the 20th century when the team set a club record once with 111 losses for a season which held only 154 games. Most recently the team has struggled to be relevant despite fielding teams from 2018-2021 which promised more than they delivered. It couldn’t win more games than it lost until 2021 when it won one game that set its record at 82-80 instead of 81-81. This year (2022) it won only five more games than last year, 87-75, but with an expanded field for the postseason this qualified them to play in the wild card round. In the 11 years since the Phillies last appeared in the postseason, the club has jettisoned: five managers, two mid-season; two general managers; and one president of baseball operations, a position which didn’t exist when the 11 years started.

Losing is an integral component to being a Phillies fan. Despite that, let’s focus on winning. In a somewhat surprising showing, the Phillies won the best-of-three Wild Card round this year, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in two games. We use the word “somewhat” because the Phillies did beat the Cardinals four times in the six games matchups these teams had this year. Now they take on the Atlanta Braves and have just won the first game of that five-game division series. The Braves are last year’s World Series champions, look as good or better this year, stack up much better against the Phillies, and have the theoretical advantage that they didn’t have to compete last weekend. They are more rested and thus started the series with their two best pitchers lined up for the first two games. This means at least one of them will be able to come back in the fifth and final game should there be one in the best-of-five series. Philadelphia started its #3 pitcher, Ranger Suarez today. He was overmatched but somehow held things together.

And somehow…the Phillies won. Yet the feeling of futility lingers.

A quote I cannot find right now says this: “Most define the glass as being half full or half empty. In Philadelphia the glass is not only half empty, but it has a cigarette butt in it and a lipstick stain on the rim.” You who have lived in Philly appreciate the truthfulness of this. Victory not only never seems imminent, a six-run lead (as we had today) seemed to be not enough to my Philly-born wife. Was she right? The Phillies bled five runs and won the game 7-6, not what would be expected when the score was 7-1. Pessimists exist in every fanbase, but not all fanbases are built of pessimists. (Reference any team based in Seattle, the home of hopefulness.)

Being a Phillies fan brings certain pluses. No mascot in baseball or any sport rivals the Philly Phanatic. A civic pride, displaced for those who have relocated, invests in the Phanatic. We savor our relationship with the Phanatic as we savor the hometown band who “makes it”. (Don’t talk to me about Grunge from the ’90s. It obviously reflected the Pacific Northwest’s take on modern music.) To appreciate the Phanatic, one needs to see video of the Tommy Lasorda encounters, the multiple appearances of the Phanatic’s mother, the short-length feature of the Phanatic this year saving the Fourth of July, and singular encounters that are too specific to recount. Any club affectation which can take the fans’ minds off of the losing season deserves commendation.

To be a Phillies fan, however, means to accept all sorts of craziness. As the country approached the 2000’s, the Pennsylvania legislature granted both the Pirates and the Phillies a guarantee of matching funds to build a ballpark in the vein of the Oriole’s Camden Yards. The Pittsburgh Pirates accomplished their process in quick time, opening the current PNC Park for the 2001 season. In Philadelphia, meanwhile, the city council carped about this and that, attempted to assuage all constituents and constituent ethnicities, and finally managed to locate a site–oh miraculous of coincidences!–near the old site in South Philly. Their ballpark opened only THREE years after Pittsburgh managed to open theirs.

In Philadelphia, loyalty means something. The Phillies’ organization values loyalty. It’s both commendable and stupid. From the Bill Giles era, starting 1984, the Phillies have done some things extraordinarily well and others things extraordinarily stupidly. If one uses the “loyalty” yardstick, some of these things become more easily understandable. From that time through 2020, the Phillies, though partly giving control to people like Matt Klentak, held the reins of loyalty close. GM’s and presidents were not fired, they were “reassigned” to advisory roles.

This has been a far more detailed dive into baseball and the Phillies than many readers would’ve wished. If you’re still here at his point, you might just be a baseball fan. Tomorrow the Phillies take on the Braves for the second game of the NLDS this year. If the Phillies win (it’s a coin toss), then there will be only one game (maybe) in Philly before they again hit the road for the NL Championship Series, likely in Los Angeles. It’s entirely conceivable that the Phillies, who are completing two weeks of road games on October 12th, could drop into Philadelphia for only one game in front of the fans, not to return until the third, fourth, and (maybe) fifth games for the seven-game National League Championship series. If the Phillies are swept in four, Phillies fans, who last saw their team on September 25th, will have seen their team only three times in the postseason before their team is washed out of it. Three games from a postseason, championship contender between September 25th and October 22nd–four weeks.

And they will say, “It figures.”