Is it a curse? Is all of this suffering the result of letting the wrong team leave town?
Maybe we just need to bring back the Athletics. Someone in Chestnut Hill with a few billon dollars should give Oakland a call and make a bid. They could buy out the Camden Riversharks and have the Athletics play at Campbell's Field, which offers a spectacular view of the Philadelphia skyline from the other side of the Ben Franklin bridge. They could easily sell out all 6,425 seats every night starting at $100 a head. Exclusivity could be a valuable thing since operations costs would be drastically reduced and profit margins high. Most people would go to one game a year but they wouldn't have to deal with the crowds and it would be a way to get closer and see baseball as it was meant to be seen. To make room for the Athletics, the Toronto Blue Jays could shift to the AL Central and the Kansas City Royals would move to the AL West. Think of the thrill of Philadelphia joining the AL East! New York and Boston fans would add demand for tickets and inject huge amounts of cash into the local economies. The TV money alone would be worth it. If the NY Giants can play in east Rutherford all those years, who cares if the Philadelphia Athletics play in Camden?
Ah, if it were only that simple. For now, the Phillies are the only MLB game in town. There's enough blame to go around for the Phillies troubles, but as they lick their wounds over the all-star break, there are still a few reasons for optimism. Between now and the season finale a lot will happen. Sometime after the July 31 trading deadline the New Phillies will emerge, hopefully a more unified, passionate, competitive bunch.
The fact that the Phillies melted down early makes Pat Gillick's job much easier. It would have been great if the Phillies contended in Pat Gillick's first season as GM, but the Phillies were an organization in trouble when he took the job and a change in leadership takes time to reach the field. Now that the Phillies are effectively out of the 2006 race, Gillick can push the 2007 agenda with a half-season to experiment and answer a number of pressing questions.
The five most important questions for Gillick to ponder in the second half are:
1. Who wants to be here?
These Phillies rarely play inspired baseball. To make the playoffs, something special has to happen to a team. You have to be inspired by your teammates. You have to jell. Winning has to become contagious. And when times are tough, you have to dig deeper within yourself than you ever thought you could, not just for yourself, but for your teammates.
Aaron Rowand is the centerpiece of the New Phillies. From a character standpoint, the Phillies need to find a core of guys, like Rowand, who will do anything to get each other a win. Since these fragmented Phillies can't play as a team, manager Charlie Manuel has to help Gillick prune the roster. Will Manuel protect and coddle his players or will he make them stand to account for their clubhouse behavior? Which guys put in extra work? Which guys don't mind losing? Who are the leaders? Which guys go along and get along and which ones disturb the peace? Does Brett Myers belong on this team? Which guys want to be part of the New Phillies?
2. Are players in their proper roles?
Jon Lieber can still be part of a strong rotation, he just shouldn't be the ace. Jimmy Rollins, unless he gets hot, should hit at the bottom of the order. Rollins is a spectacular shortstop and an offensive threat, but outside of his remarkable hitting streak, he hasn't been an adequate leadoff hitter. Shane Victorino should audition for the leadoff hole with Bobby Abreu batting second and Chase Utley batting third. Abraham Nunez should play out the season at third base and David Bell should be one of the bench dogs. Carlos Ruiz needs to prove he is a big league catcher and should start over Sal Fasano. Is Ryan Madson a starter or reliever? Is Cole Hamels a future ace? Is Shane Victorino a future star? Can Chris Coste become a super-sub? Which young pitchers are ready for the Show?
3. Who should be the manager?
Charlie Manuel probably won't be fired until the season is over. The off-season is a better time to hire a manager and Gillick isn't called "Stand Pat" for nothing. But Manuel hasn't had an answer to most of the Phillies problems. As ill prepared as the Phillies were to open the season and as poorly as they have played fundamentally, it shouldn't be too difficult to find a better skipper. Pat Gillick now has half a season to find his man. Too bad it wasn't Jim Leyland who replaced Larry Bowa.
4. Does the organization do enough to help players succeed?
You get the feeling the Phillies are losing the games within the game. Teams seem to know us better than we know them. Are the Phillies using top technology to help players succeed? Do they have the best statistical analysis in the dugout for lineup and game-flow decisions? Would better video analysis help pitchers stop telegraphing pitches? Are the Phillies scouting reports as effective as they can be? Other organizations, like the Athletics, Cardinals and Red Sox, are known for their high-tech approach. It's time for the Phillies to upgrade. The countrified, folksy wisdom the Phillies rely upon simply hasn't gotten it done.
5. Can Gillick make Philadelphia a desirable destination for baseball players?
Let's face it. Philly fans have a reputation for being less than supportive. But as much as the fans boo, it isn't the fans fault that baseball players rarely waive a no-trade clause to come to Philadelphia. As the rest of the league looks at attracting free agents and players with no-trade clauses, the Phillies don't have a reputation as a team you'd like to join. Think John Smoltz wants to lead the Phillies staff? Not a chance, even though he'd be a fit. The Phillies could afford him, he simply doesn't want to be here. He's not alone in his thinking. Had Tom Glavine opted for the Phillies instead of the Mets, perhaps the 2006 race would be closer.
This problem used to be an issue for the Eagles when they played at the Vet, but once the Eagles got new facilities, including state of the art medical and training facilities, Philadelphia became a hot spot for footballers. The same fans who boo the Phillies boo the Eagles, but that didn't stop the Eagles from making Philadelphia a top destination city.
The Phillies hoped they could do the same with their beautiful new Citizen's Bank Park. The signing of Jim Thome was a tremendous achievement and it seemed the Phillies were on their way. But the short porch and pop-fly home run balls at CB Park led to a negative reaction by pitchers throughout baseball. Moving back the fence at CB Park was a great move, but now the Phillies need to create a winning atmosphere. Sure, the booing fans don't help, but when a Phillies team finally comes together, Philly fans become the best in the world. Philadelphia can become a desirable destination for baseball players, the question is, will Gillick be able to make it so in time for 2007?