Don't let last night's snow fall in the Northeast fool you. Today is Opening Day for the 2011 MLB season. This is the moment when 30 teams get a fresh start which means high hopes for up-and-comers, and high expectations for contenders. This is the day when singing "Take me out to the ball game" is refreshing rather than a tedious formality.
The Philadelphia Phillies are the favorites to come out of the National League and for good reason. Even with injuries to second baseman Chase Utley and closer Brad Lidge, one of the greatest pitching staff's ever assembled should be able to weather the storm until these key players return to the lineup.
Looking back over the past few seasons, it's hard not to marvel at how the Phillies have gotten to this place, the land of consistent contenders, of favorites and front runners. The Phillies look to make their third World Series appearance in four years tomorrow when they face the Houston Astros. It's strange enough to say, let alone write that the Phillies are picked to go back to the World Series. A place foreign to most clubs have become a second home for the Phils, a familiar destination where landing anywhere else would seem like they jumped on the wrong flight.
But, I remember a time when the Phillies weren't the talk of ESPN or a top every analyst's power rankings. After the 1993 World Series heart breaker to the Toronto Blue Jays, the seasons that followed were ones to forget. Fans suffered through the seven consecutive years of finishing under 80 wins and 13 straight seasons without a post-season appearance. We had our franchise player Scott Rolen say we weren't committed to winning (he eats crow now every day), and fiery manager Larry Bowa who got us close, but not over the hump.
We experienced Ex-General Manager Ed Wade, although loathed by fans, drafting All Star second baseman Chase Utley, MVP first baseman Ryan Howard and World Series MVP Cole Hamels. He also hired manager Charlie Manuel. He set in motion the new positive direction for the Phillies which Pat Gillick continued and Ruben Amaro Jr carries out today.
Winter baseball talk was dominated by superstar free-agent potential destinations, but none bigger than playoff powerhouse pitcher, Cliff Lee. He had just carried the Texas Rangers to the World Series, a feat he did with the Phillies the year prior, pitching close to perfect in both postseasons. Lee had become not only a great pitcher, but a clutch one, throwing with a cool and calm demeanor as if playing catch in a friend's back yard.
When the Phillies traded him to Seattle, all Philly fans thought they had seen the last of the prolific left-handed flamethrower. Lee never wanted to leave, that was obvious. His family loved the community, fans treated him with respect, and his son got superb treatment at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for acute myelitis leukemia. However, after their championship run, Lee was shipped off so the Phillies would be able to afford another ace, Roy Halladay.
So, Lee had to pack up his family and he quickly became a nomadic ballplayer. When Lee heard the news you could see the heartbreak in his face. Leaving the Phillies was much more than just leaving a great team, but it meant departing from a winning culture. The Phillies went on, acquiring the two Roys in Halladay and Oswalt eventually meeting the San Francisco Giants in the National League championship series, falling four games to two.
In the offseason, every baseball expert from New York to Los Angeles thought Lee would go to either the Yankees or stay in Texas. The Yankees offered more money and years while the Rangers pitching legend turned front-office executive Nolan Ryan attempted to sell their World Series appearance and helicopter distance away from Arlington to Lee's Arkansas hometown. But, to everyone's surprise, he returned to the team that shipped him off a year earlier.
After the dust settled, Lee was holding a press conference at Citizens Bank Park with a Phillies No. 33 jersey in hand. He picked Philadelphia for the chance to be on a contender, but more than that, he felt like he was home. Philadelphia has become the place that marquee players who want to win want to go. They are willing to sacrifice money and years on their contract to have a chance at a World Series ring.
Perception is not Reality
Philadelphia fans are always portrayed as ignorant and disrespectful, while living on the edge of impatience, but the fan's culture has changed with the organizations. A mirror-image, the organization and fans have evolved and grown up to become the gold standard of the league. Now, joining the Phillies has become comparable to winning a Caribbean cruise or chomping on a juicy cheese steak from Pat's or Gino's, (wiz wit for me, please).
The Phillies strategic maneuver of bringing Cliff Lee back has joined a long list of tactical moves the front office has made to make the club a perennial contender. GM Ruben Amaro Jr knows like any good cocktail, you need the right ratio of alcohol to fruit juice. The organization's ability to keep their farm system growing strong while bringing in the right high character free agents is down to a science.
As I wrote last week in my 10 bold predictions article, second baseman Luis Castillo wouldn't fit into the culture of the club house and would be cut in a week. Yesterday, six days with the team and he is gone. These are the small decisions that make a big difference between the teams that go to the World Series and the ones who watch it from their living rooms.
Charlie Manuel deserves enormous credit because athletes want to play for a good manager, a manager who will have his player's backs without having to be best friends. Manuel is the man who will get ejected for something his player did wrong on the field and discuss it covertly in house after the game.
There are a handful of teams in the league this year that have the talent to go deep in the playoffs, but what gives the Phillies the edge is their mental fortitude. It was never more apparent then last year when injuries to star players like Utley, Howard, and Rollins plagued the club for the first half of the season. They ended up with baseball's best record.
The free agents that come to Philadelphia now are a microcosm of the people in it; gritty, lunch-pale, hard-hat, fall and get back uppers, and grinders. If a player can't handle that, Philly fans can do without them. The Phillies are not a bunch of prima donnas, but are dedicated to the one goal that really matters: winning another World Championship.