To a casual Phillies fan, it was Jimmy Rollins’ mouth that ignited the seismic shift in the team’s cultural landscape. But, like Pearl Harbor and the Boston Tea Party before it, Rollins’ prophetic 2007 “team to beat” proclamation was the poster moment in an ascension that was boiling beneath the surface for almost a decade.
The exact starting point is hard to put a finger on. Some point to the hiring of Charlie Manuel in 2005. Others to the firing of Ed Wade in 2005. A select few will point to the opening of Citizens Bank Park in 2004.
A prominent majority point to the ascension of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard into once-in-a-generation centerpieces of a championship core.
In reality, the ascension began long before Manuel could even locate Philadelphia on a map. Long before Wade became the John Stockton of deadline deals. And long before Utley and Howard had ever stepped on a big league field.
In 16 of 17 seasons between 1984 and 2000, the Phillies never came within 15 (yes, 15!) games of making the playoffs.
Between 2001 and 2006, the Phillies teased their fans with annual September playoff pushes that fell tantalizingly short.
In 2003, they lost seven of their final eight games to turn a half-game Wild Card lead over the Marlins on September 19 into a six-game deficit when the regular season dust had settled. In 2005, the Phils closed the season on a four-game winning streak to fall just a game shy of the Wild Card winning Astros.
The kicker? Charlie Manuel’s club went 0-6 against Houston including a momentum-shifting three-game sweep at the beginning of September marked by a pair of Billy Wagner blown saves. In 2006, a 36-22 finish wasn’t enough to overcome a 49-55 start.
The Phils fell three games shy of the LA Dodgers, who happened to be the only team with a batter record over the final two months, which was three games better (39-19) for that matter. In total, the Phillies finished second in the division four times and second in the Wild Card race three times, missing the playoffs by three games or fewer on three separate occasions.
By the mid 2000s, it became clear Ed Wade, Mike Arbuckle and co. had developed one of the most talented homegrown rosters in baseball. The Phils just never had the collective gumption to do more than just compete for a playoff spot and hope for the best. That is until Rollins grew tired of the hollow expectations.
But everyone knows about the five-year ascension from playoff contender (2006) to championship contender (2008) to unbridled powerhouse (present day). Heck, even Mark Grace is on the Phillies' bandwagon at this point.
People just forget about the first half of that ascension. The half that saw the Phillies develop into an on-the-brink playoff contender in the first place. The half that began in the NL East cellar before cavernous crowds at a beaten-to-shreds football stadium.
To say the Phillies have come a long way is an understatement. There rise to power is an intriguing baseball tale that falls somewhere between Moneyball (cheap franchise that makes it big) and the modern day Red Sox (big market team that realizes they’re in a big market).
Casual fans simply don’t realize how they got there and where they came from. But even casual fans deserve an education. So hop off the bandwagon for a second, kids, and get your pencils and notebooks out.
The die-hards are about to give a history lesson. As the Phillies get set to embark on another thrill ride of a post-season, let's take a look back at the 12 most important steps in there perfect-storm ascension from also-ran to powerhouse.