GUY WALKS into a bar, sidles up to a writer who covers the Phillies. Guy says, "Can't believe you have to sit there and watch that crap every night." There's no punchline. It's reality these days. Wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, the gig inspired envy. Can't believe you get paid for that, people would say. Watchin' baseball every night? That ain't a job.
The reactions began to change a couple of months ago. Now, the bulk of them involve pity. That might sound like hyperbole. It isn't. Happened again Saturday night. Outdoor patio, beautiful summer night, a flat-screen television hanging above the bar, the Phillies on their way to their 45th loss. Sean O'Sullivan was the starting pitcher. This was after Roberto Hernandez and Kyle Kendrick and before David Buchanan. Anybody need a drink?
En route to the ballpark yesterday, writer calls up a friend.
"You guys headed down today?"
"I don't know, man. We just got back from Disney. Wife's sleeping. The other guys aren't going. They're tough to watch, man."
Small sample size, sure. From the looks of it, the vast majority of Sunday season ticketholders showed up to Citizens Bank Park yesterday. But the collapse of an economy does not happen over night. You need to watch the folks on the ground floor. They sense it first. It starts with individual microeconomic decisions: Baseball or sleep? If you believe in the universality of human behavior, those individual microeconomic decisions eventually coalesce into a consensus. Sunday ticket plan or extra weekend at the shore? Single-game tickets go on sale today, but so do Springsteen tickets. So it goes.
Once the contraction begins, only a dramatic stimulus reverses it. That's how it usually works. Look at this Phillies roster. Look at the ages of the players. Look at the direction their health is trending. Look at the direction their production is trending. Look at the options the front office will have to complement those players in the offseason. Where is the stimulus? The Phillies entered yesterday averaging 30,374 fans per home game. Last year, that number was 37,190. The year before: 44,021.
The Phillies still rank in the top half of the National League in attendance. Earlier this week, club president David Montgomery told the Bucks County Courier Times that he worries about the impact that a dramatic rebuilding process would have at the gate.
"Some people say that the Phillies worry too much about attendance," Montgomery said, according to the newspaper. "Yes, we do. When you are low in attendance, the risk is only on the upside. When you are [drawing well], the risk is dropping any further. And that's what we're trying to avoid."
But "trying" suggests an active process. What the Phillies have been doing for the past calendar year looks a lot more like "hoping." At Citizens Bank Park, attendance dropped 15.5 percent last year, and it is on pace to drop 18.3 percent this year. Maybe their demand curve says that the precipitous decline in attendance will stabilize, that 30,000 per night is equilibrium for a 72-win team. If so, it contradicts the macroeconomic behavior exhibited by other big-market fan bases in recent years. In 2008, the Mets finished first in the NL in attendance, drawing 4,042,045 fans. In 2009, when they won 70 games, attendance declined 21.6 percent. In 2010, when they won 79 games, it declined 19.2 percent.
The Mets did not acknowledge that they were in a rebuilding phase until after the 2010 season, when they fired general manager Omar Minaya and replaced him with Sandy Alderson. The following season, they traded Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez. They won 77 games. Attendance declined 8.1 percent. That offseason, they allowed Jose Reyes to leave via free agency and received two draft picks as compensation. They won 74 games. Attendance declined 4.7 percent. After the 2012 season, they traded Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey. Attendance declined 4.8 percent in 2013. They won 74 games.
Montgomery's concern is a legitimate one, particularly with regard to season ticketholders. A club can sell "Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Jimmy Rollins and the kids" much easier than it can sell "the journeymen and the kids."
But let's look at things over the aggregate. Let's say the Phillies hold onto their most valuable assets and average 30,000 per game for the next 4 years. That's 120,000. Now let's say they trade everybody and average 15,000 for 2 years, and then 45,000 for 2 years. That's 120,000. The purpose of rebuilding is to maximize attendance over the long run, and while the aforementioned scenario is too simplistic, the point is that plenty of businesses have been knocked out of the game entirely by employing a philosophy that says, "We can't do X because it will hurt our short-term bottom line, where X is a decision that will end up recouping its losses over the long-term."
Of course, there is no guarantee that the Phillies have an X. In the Dickey trade, the Mets received righthander Noah Syndergaard, who was ranked by Baseball America as the 11th-best prospect in the game heading into this season. They also received top catching prospect - and former Phillie - Travis d'Arnaud, whose career is off to a slow start at the plate. The Beltran trade netted them Zack Wheeler, one of the more promising young starters in the game. But those moves have yet to pay dividends. One of their Reyes draft picks landed them catcher Kevin Plawecki, who is currently among their Top 10 prospects. But those have yet to pay dividends, and the Mets are 3 full years into their rebuild.
On the flip side, there is no guarantee that people will stop showing up at a slower rate just because Utley et al are in uniform for debacles like the one that unfolded on this recent homestand, which ended yesterday with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Braves. Utley received a nice standing ovation for notching the 1,500th hit of his career, but the Phillies still lost for the sixth time in eight games to fall to 10 games under .500. If the allure of attending a game is the chance to cheer for a round number, you can probably count a lot of fans out.
Nobody is suggesting that it will be easy to divine the proper course of action. That's precisely the reason the Phillies should seriously consider hiring a personnel man who has the kind of macroeconomic acumen that such a challenge requires. Who to hire, who to replace and who to make those decisions is another discussion for another day. Another day that people will choose to spend money on something other than bad baseball.