February 13, 2007

Philadelphia Waits to Shine Its Light on the Phillies

Cleveland was an especially fantastic baseball city in which to live in the late 1990s. The Indians dominated the American League Central division. They won 100 games in 1995 and finished in first-place every year through 1999. They sold out every game at Jacobs Field from mid-1995 through April 4, 2001. It was a city for which sports and being a fan meant the Cleveland Indians. The Philadelphia Phillies now have the opportunity, under different circumstances, to capture the loyalty of its city. It is a wonderful feeling to stand at the center of a region’s devotion - the opportunity for which is rare.

The Indians in the late-1990s were one of best teams in baseball and they sat in a vacuum created by the absence of other Cleveland sports teams. Who else was competing for fan attention? There was no professional football between the 1995 departure of the Browns for Baltimore, and the team's 1999 rebirth. The Cavaliers missed the National Basketball Association playoffs in 1997 and suffered through losing seasons from 1998 through 2004. Hockey? The American Hockey League’s Lumberjacks did not draw at Gund Arena. Cleveland State, even with coach Rollie Massimino, was never a big player in NCAA basketball. The Indians owned Cleveland sports.

The Phillies will open their 2007 Spring Training on Thursday, February 15, when pitchers and catchers report to work in Clearwater, Florida. This is a good team with the potential to be a very good team. Ryan Howard is the reigning National League Most Valuable Player. Chase Utley is already one of the top second-baseman in the League. Jimmy Rollins may not be the best candidate to lead-off and he is a spark-plug on base and in the field. The Phillies have six legitimate starting pitchers. This is a good team and it is a good team with diminished local competition.

Local competition is critical. The Sacramento Kings have one of the most loyal and vocal fan bases in the NBA. They are a strong club with savvy owners who have capitalized on being the only game in town. Yes, there is the Sacramento River Cats AAA baseball team which plays in the Pacific Coast League. Their ballpark even seats 14,680 (a decent crowd for NBA games in some cities). But minor league franchises play at the behest of the parent organization. The players never quite belong to the team, and by extension, to the city. The Kings belong to Sacramento.

The National Football League’s Saints captured the embrace of New Orleans this season in large part due to their on-field success following their return to the city after Hurricane Katrina. It was a near-perfect season for a city crying for light. Even my sister-in-law, a disavowed sports fan and long time NOLA resident, was rooting for the Saints by season’s end – this is how much they pulled together the city. They did well and there was no other team. There is no major league baseball team or hockey team. New Orleans kind of has a NBA team although the Hornets started wearing “Oklahoma City” on their white home jerseys this year. So much for civic pride.

The Philadelphia Eagles have owned Philadelphia sports the past five years. The Eagles went to the NFC Championship game in 2002, 2003, and 2004, and surprised the city by reaching the second-round of the playoffs this year behind Jeff Garcia. But there is uncertainty now in Birdland. There are questions about whether quarterback Donovan McNabb and coach Andy Reid are capable of taking the organization through the playoffs and into a Super Bowl victory. Wins are no longer sufficient for this club and it enters the 2007 off-season with many question-marks.

The Philadelphia 76ers have the lowest attendance in the NBA this season. “Official” attendance numbers exceed the true number of fans in the seats; television cameras show swaths of empty red chairs. The organization is in transition between the Allen Iverson-era and a future which may be bright with a young core of players, but which is still a couple seasons away. In the mean time, the club is entirely mediocre and fans have tuned-out.

The Philadelphia Flyers? The Flyers have the fewest points in the National Hockey League, the fewest wins, and the most number of losses. The team has a loyal fan base and is ranked fifth in the League in attendance. But the team has not captured anything of the public’s imagination.

Even college basketball is a non-starter in Philadelphia this winter. The University of Pennsylvania has a shot at the NCAA tournament by virtue of their first-place standing in the Ivy League. And this is a good but not great Quakers team that has made a late run at first by knocking off Ivy League competition and is facing Princeton tonight. Villanova is good, ranking just out of the top-25, and Temple always has a shot with a strong performance in the Atlantic 10 tournament. But there is no NCAA powerhouse this year - certainly nothing like St. Joseph’s University was in when they almost went undefeated.

Baseball teams compete not only with other baseball teams but they compete with the other local teams for fans and media attention. On Friday morning, the local television stations and newspapers will report on the opening of the Phillies training camp. Will they devote an entire newspaper page to the story and push-out the Sixers and Flyers? Come May, will a local fan choose to go to a Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park and purchase a red Phillies baseball cap rather than head across the street to the Wachovia Center and watch the Sixers or Flyers lose? Will the newspaper print commemorative mini-posters of Sixers guard Kyle Korver or of Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels?

As the NBA rolls into Las Vegas for its All-Star weekend, there is talk of which league will be the first to plant a franchise in Clark County. There will soon be a franchise there be it NBA or NHL and they will have the first-movers advantage of capturing the affection of resident sports fans.

The Phillies will open Spring Training this week with a good team. This in itself is exciting. It is even more exciting that they have the chance to succeed and do so with the stage all to themselves. This is when it can be really fun to be a baseball fan.


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