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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

We Won't Get Fooled Again

Two years ago, the Phillies opened Citizens Bank Park and drew roughly 3.25 million fans. Last year, that number dropped to 2.6 million fans. That's a lot of lost revenue, not only from ticket sales but from sales of things that Phanatic Build-a-Bears and $6.25 beers, to name two items.

Many pundits have espoused about the reasons for the decline in ticket sales -- even when the team made a serious run at both Atlanta for the Division title and Houston for the wild card. One, GM Ed Wade rivaled only Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort as the worst vilains in Philadelphia. Two, Wade had fired popular manager Larry Bowa the season before. Three, Wade had replaced Bowa with Charlie Manuel, when he had the chance to hire Jim Leyland. Four, he had signed too many players to no-trade contracts, meaning he was stuck with the likes of David Bell and Mike Lieberthal. Fifth, the dimensions of the park proved to be more intimate than the backseat of a '57 Chevy, leaving fans to believe that you can't be a serious contender in such a cozy park. After all, Gasoline Alley is for NASCAR, not Major League Baseball. Sixth, Jim Thome missed most of the season.

Heck, there were tons of reasons, but even then, it was still curious that a team in the hunt had trouble drawing fans. Especially in its second season in the new park.

After all, there were players to cheer for. Now-former closer Billy Wagner was touted as a potential Hall of Famer. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins had a thirty-six game hitting streak at season's end, and second baseman Chase Utley proved to be one of the best in the National League. And then there was Ryan Howard, who in about half a season hit well enough to win the Rookie-of-the-Year Award. The latter three form a formidable nucleus by anyone's standards.

So, you would think that there is some hope going into this year.

Think again.

It's not so much that the Phillies haven't spent money the way former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski spent corporate funds on his wife's birthday party. Or even like the Mets. It's just that, well, their lineup, particularly their starting rotation, look weak. I like Jon Lieber, think Cory Lidle is middle-of-the-road and believe that Brett Myers could be one magical season away from becoming a #1 starter. But they don't have a #1 starter, and their #4 and #5 starters will come from the likes of Ryan Madson (an excellent long reliever last year who got shelled beyond recognition in his one start), Gaving Floyd (a high first-round pick who looked more like Steve Blass at Scranton-Wilkes Barre last year than Steve Carlton), Eude Brito (a lefty who had a decent month last season) and Robinson Tejeda) no more than a #3).

While that rotation could scare the Marlins and perhaps the Nationals, I doubt it will do much to thwack the Mets or the Braves. The Phillies say that they've been looking for pitching help, but it doesn't appear that they have the money to sign the lead starting pitcher they so desperately need. It was smart that they didn't overpay for Billy Wagner, and Tom Gordon might not be as bad as you think, even if he isn't Wagner. Regardless of whether the closer would be Mariano Rivera or Mariano Duncan, however, the key issue is who can get them to the closer?

And the Phillies management hasn't answered that question. They haven't come close.

Two seasons ago, when the stadium was new, they drew 3.25 million fans.

Last season, roughly 2.6 million.

What will this year's number be?

Yes, they are lengthening the dimensions in left field so that a pop-up from a tiny shortstop doesn't carry over the wall. The last time I checked, though, hard-throwing pitchers who know what they're doing out there pose a better defense than fences. Come August, though, when Eude Brito is pitching against a team like the Reds with the Phillies 15 1/2 games out and only 11,231 in the stands, the owners shouldn't get befuddled and offer excuses.

Because they'll have earned that perch in the standings on merit.

As for the fans, the incumbent owners have done them a disservice. After a sizable drought, the fans deserve a harmonic convergence of a cool ballpark and a team that gets fans excited. It's not too much to ask. Here's to hoping that the owners, if they don't sell their team (which would be the best present they could give Phillies fans), don't give out goofy contracts with no-trade clauses to average-to-above-average players who don't deserve them (Mike Lieberthal) or to players who haven't done enough to warrant that treatment (Pat Burrell) again. They did do a good job dealing JimThome and not having to eat more of his salary than they did, and that's a good start.

But it's just not enough.

No pitching, no winning season.

No fans.

And that sound that you hear in the Philadelphia area won't be booing, no, because the fans, you see, are pretty smart. They won't pay money to show up and boo.

That sound will be the collective sound of another 500,000 pairs of feet, taking their entertainment dollars to the minor league parks in the region, to municipal recreation areas or to the South Jersey shore.

And who could blame them?


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