The Post-9/11 Phillies Renaissance

Brad Lidge and the Phillies won the 2008 World Series. (Jerry Lodriguss/Staff File Photo)

 In baseball time, 10 years is an eye-blink.

 The old ballgame, overloaded with tradition, moves determinedly yet ploddingly, like Carlos Ruiz going first-to-third.

 That’s why the post-millennial transformation of the Phillies from a meek to mighty franchise is so astonishing.

 Just 10 years ago this week, Larry Bowa’s club played its final series before 9/11 grounded the game for a week, a dismal four-game set in Montreal that drew a total – TOTAL – of 18,987 fans.

 The franchise, spiraling downward since Joe Carter ended the magic of ’93, was burdened by numerous vexing problems -- a tiny payroll, a badly outdated stadium, an angry fan base, persistent public-relations headaches, and a star who wanted to play somewhere else. 

  No one, not even Tony LaRussa, could have foreseen the changes that the subsequent 10 years have wrought. On Opening Day 2011, the Phillies, long derided as big-market penny-pinchers, had baseball’s second highest payroll. With fewer than 30 games remaining in the season, they also own baseball’s best record and highest attendance. Their gem of a ballpark is packed every night. Their TV ratings are through the roof. An entire city, it sometimes seems, proudly wears their colors. And the franchise, according to Forbes magazine, is the game’s sixth most valuable, worth an estimated $609 million.

 The crucial turnaround came suddenly for a team that is now 128 years old, in a narrow window of time between June 2000 and December 2002. In that 30-month span, they would draft three bedrock stars, sign an A-list free-agent who reawakened their fans’ passions, and, most importantly, start work on a new ballpark where the dollars would flow as rapidly as the beer.

 But on the night of Sept. 7, 2001, this Phillies juggernaut was unimaginable. That night, in the sepulchral atmosphere of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, Philadelphia’s Brandon Duckworth dropped a 4-2 decision to the Expos, as the Phils fell further behind the division-leading Braves.


  The key development in the Phillies renaissance, of course, was the move a little further east on Pattison Avenue to the handsome cash-register that is Citizens Bank Park.

  Earlier in the summer of 2001, after years of the political and social haggling that had accompanied Veterans Stadium’s decline from state-of-the-art to seedy, the long-discussed new ballpark finally became a reality.

 At a June 28 ceremony, the Phillies unveiled a scale-model and promised that groundbreaking on the project that was a private-public partnership would take place in November.  

 Bowa, looking at the model, sensed the changes that were coming. “Nothing but good things are going to happen here," he predicted.

  Curiously, despite a surprisingly successful first four months, the ‘01 Phillies closely resembled their much-maligned home. Like the Vet, they  were a tattered mix of new and old, out-of-date and hopelessly unappealing.

  The Vet by then was a national joke. The last laugh had come just 25 days before the unveiling ceremony. A Ravens-Eagles preseason game there had to be canceled because of problems with the newly installed NexTurf.

 Coming off a 2000 season in which manager Terry Francona’s final team had finished last, 32 games under .500, generating any kind of enthusiasm about the team was next to impossible, especiallybafter Curt SChiiling was dealt to Arizona in July. The offseason hiring of the popular Bowa as Francona’s replacement and some unexpectedly good play early in 2001 helped some. But even if you never listened to sports-talk radio, it was clear that Philadelphia was sour on the Phillies.

 Ever since the surprise pennant in 1993, the Phillies had regressed. The ’93 stars were all gone by 2001. One, Schilling, would help the  Diamondbacks win a World Series that November, in just their fourth season.  The minor-leagues were devoid of talent. A big-market club, the revenue-deprived Phillies actions seemed decidedly small-minded. A frustrated fan base, inflamed by the growing power of ill-tempered radio hosts, grew ever more alienated.

 The Phillies had drawn 1.6 million fans in 2000, their worst attendance showing since 1973. A year later, that figure  would inch up slightly, to 1.78 million, a total only five teams – White Sox, Marlins, Devil Rays, Royals and Expos – failed to surpass.

  While the 2011 Phils have played to nothing but sellouts at home, in 2001 3,226,257 seats went unsold at the 61,831-seat Vet.

 Their Opening Day payroll was $41 million, $6 million less than in 2000. That ranked them 24th among baseball’s 30 clubs, lower than such traditional tightwads as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay. Atlanta, the team the Phillies would have to catch if they ever wanted to win another NL East title, spent $97 million in 2001, the Yankees $109 million.

 Their highest-paid player, catcher Mike Lieberthal ($6.3 million), played in just 34 games that season. Their second highest-paid player, third-baseman Scott Rolen ($5.5 million) wanted out and midway through the following season was accommodated. Their third highest-paid player, rightfielder Bobby Abreu ($4.9 million), performed with a laid-back demeanor that won him few fans here.

  There were, however, some glimmers of roster hope. The Sept. 7 lineup that faced Montreal’s Javier Vazquez included rookie shortstop Jimmy Rollins, whom Bowa had installed at the position and in the leadoff spot. Second-year leftfielder Pat Burrell hit sixth.

  Rollins’ enthusiasm, in particular, was a welcome tonic for a team whose bland personality mirrored that of Abreu, Lieberthal, Randy Wolf, moribund first-baseman Travis Lee and even Burrell.

 But more importantly, the Phils had begun to draft well. They selected Chase Utley with their No. 1 pick in 2000 and made Ryan Howard a fifth-rounder just three months before that ’01 game in Montreal. A year later, their top choice would be a California lefthander, Cole Hamels.

 Bowa’s presence helped too, certainly in renewing fan interest in his old team. A somewhat feistier Phils led the division throughout the first half of 2001. Even after the loss to Montreal, they were a surprising 3.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves.

 Their lineup scored runs. But without Schilling, an ace-less rotation of Wolf, Omar Daal, Robert Person, and a mix of Duckworth, David Coggin and Amaury Telemaco wasn’t good enough to push them into the postseason.

 Though improved, the ’01 Phils finished at 86-76, two games behind the division-winning Braves and well back of the wild-card Cardinals.

 The lineup and rotation changed very little in 2002, when Hamels was drafted, but the Phils slipped back to sub-.500, 80-81. Their attendance declined to 1.6 million.

 Then in the first week of December came the John the Baptist move that would signal the rebirth to come.

 In what was the Phillies’ biggest free-agent acquisition since Pete Rose nearly a quarter-century earlier, they signed slugger Jim Thome to a six-year $85 million deal, making the first-baseman the highest-paid Phillie in history.

  Philadelphia loved Thome, who returned the affection by hitting 47 home runs. There was a buzz about the Phils again and attendance in the Vet’s final season jumped 600,000 to 2.2 million.

 The crowds and the Thome home runs continued when the team moved across the parking lot to Citizens Bank Park for the 2004 season.

 And ever since, like one of Thome’s signature home runs, this once-forlorn franchise has seen its fortunes arc continually upward