Analysis

The Greatest Expectations

[Dash Treyhorn, formerly of the now-defunct “TheFightins.com” penned this post. Look for his opinion from time to time in this spot on Phillies Nation.]

Take a walk back in time with me. The year was 2006. It was December, and I was at a Christmas party. A week or two earlier, the Phillies traded for White Sox pitcher Freddy Garcia, who was a good, but not great pitcher. Durable, sure; He tossed at least 200 innings in just about every season of his nine year career to that point, with a career ERA just north of 4.00 in the American League. For us fans, it was a coup by Pat Gillick, who traded away two prospects* for an Ace.

*Gavin Floyd, the “he’s the next big thing!” pitcher, who never really stepped up in Philly but had success in Chicago, and Gio Gonzalez, who is 24-year-old left hander who had a nice year for the Athletics. Five years later, and the trade somehow gets worse.

At least, that was our perception – that Garcia was an Ace to go along with what we thought we already had – An Ace in Brett Myers (coming into his prime after a fine 2006 campaign) and Cole Hamels, who was ready to break out as a starting pitcher after his solid rookie season. And that was it. Our “Big Three,” poised to compete in the National League, backed by an offense that boasted Rollins and Utley and Victorino and Burrell and Howard, who himself was fresh off his MVP award. It was a killer offense with a stable of young and dynamic arms in a rotation that was rounded out by the capable Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton.* It was the perfect mix for a Philadelphia team that has been starved for October action for a decade and a half after abysmal performances, near misses and disappointing September finishes.

*I remember now, having to talk myself into believing that Adam Eaton would be a good pitcher in the National League. Call it ignorance, call it a lack of understanding how the game of baseball is actually played, or call it lack of intelligent discourse about baseball, but I was firmly entrenched that Eaton was not  waste of 24 million dollars. Go ahead and laugh, you all thought it to. And that’s my point with this article: When you’ve only ever known failure, then the mediocre (or worse) things seem like really, really good ideas.

That was 2006, and we were ecstatic. Gone were the days of Omar Daal and Andy Ashby. Never again would we have to suffer through the Duckworths and Miltons. Looking back on it, it was ridiculous. Even without the benefit of hindsight, it was clear that Freddy Garcia was good, but not great, and that Brett Myers was good, but not great, and that Cole Hamels was a question mark heading into his sophomore season. Call it the folly of youth, call it a vain attempt at generating some hope for a team which there wasn’t much, or just call it “being a fan.” After all, even the most hardened fans have some modicum of hope heading into Spring Training.

Whatever you call it, it was there. The hope that the 2007 Phillies were the team to break the drought. Jimmy Rollins called them “the team to beat,” and everyone was on board. I was sold. I can’t remember being that excited for a season to begin in a while. I think we all were.

It was a silly notion. Not because we were excited about the Phillies, but because we got so caught up in it that we failed to see the forest for the trees: That this team was not as good as we thought. And the reason for that? Perspective. Simply put, we lacked it. It’s been ages since a really good baseball team played inPhilly that we forgot what one looked like.*

*For those keeping score at home, the 2007 Phillies prominently featured Wes Helms, Kyle Kendrick, Rod Barajas, J.D. Durbin, Jose Mesa, Antonio Alfonseca, Adam Eaton, Abraham Nunez and Jon Lieber, Just for kicks, also these guys: Pete LaForest, Chris Roberson, John Ennis, Francisco Rosario, Zack Segovia, Kane Davis, and Yoel Hernandez. All real players on that team.

When you look back at that team, the 2007 Phillies, the team that exceeded everyone’s expectations to win the National League East in a truly historic fashion, it makes you think. Probably something like “Wow, what a mess. Any team that signs Wes Helms and Adam Eaton and says “There, that should do it” surely cannot be that good.”

Any they really weren’t, at least not on paper. The offense was good enough to support the dismal pitching, and that crew got more good luck wins (and were the benefactors from the horrible, horrible Mets’ bullpen) than most teams that I’ve ever spent time watching. But that’s beside the point. We just didn’t know any better. We haven’t experienced that sort of embarrassment (and what an embarrassment it was, actually) of “riches” in nearly a decade, which made it easy to lose sight of the obvious. We were like a toddler pushing around cars going vroom vroom, thinking it’s the greatest thing ever, but not realizing that driving an actual car is so much better. We were spoiled by our failure.

Flash forward to the present, and my oh my, how things have changed. The 2007 Phillies did turn out to be the team that got over the hump, but it was in spite of Garcia (who appeared in 11 games before succumbing to a season ending injury), and not because of him. The Three Aces never really came to pass (despite a fine year from Hamels and a successful run as closer from Brett Myers). They pulled a doozy of a rabbit of their hat to reach October before being swept out by the eventual N.L. Champion Colorado Rockies.

In the three years since then, we’ve learned a thing or two about perspective relative to our expectations. That’s what happens when your team goes to back-to-back World Series, wins one of ‘em and morphs into the class of the National League. And this time, it isn’t just fan-rhetoric and empty hopes. It’s tangible, legit. Real.

These days, our Aces are just that – Aces. Garcia and Myers and Hamels were nice enough, but that’s it. Just nice. Their potential pales in comparison to that of Roy and Cliff and Roy and Cole, the best stable of pitchers that this town, and many others, have ever seen. By a long shot.

That’s why I like to take a look back at teams like the 2007 squad, because that perspective helps you appreciate more what you have in front of you. Then, it was a team that we believed could get the job done. Now? They may as well have been an afterthought, not fit to be spoken about in the same conversation as the teams that followed.

Like the transition between the 2007 team and the current team, so too, have the fans undergone a transformation. We are older, more experienced, more mature. We recognize the opportunity that is in front of us, and the fervor that accompanies it is genuine and real, and even better, justified.

That’s the added benefit of following a team like the Phillies at the height of its organizational apex, where the only acceptable outcome is a World Series title. I was talking to a friend of mine last week about the Cliff Lee trade, and how the wrongheaded media perception of him was summed up like so: He was afraid of the pressure of New York and of having to be “the man” in Texas. However, very few have mentioned the amount of pressure that is on Lee in Philadelphia, along with the rest of the team. Even if they win the division again, which they are expected to, and even if they advance to the NLCS, which again, they are expected to, is anyone going to talk about the 2011 team with such whimsy if they don’t win the team’s second title in four years? I don’t know the answer to that.

But it goes to show you how this team has helped the city and the fans evolve. In 2007, we accepted an overrated pitcher and touted him as our Ace. We hung the metaphorical banner of victory before the season even started and we clamored all throughout the winter about the hope that the spring would bring with it.

A few short years later, they have undergone a radical transition to a powerhouse and perennial contender with potentially the best Phillies team ever assembled. Now, anything but another parade is unacceptable.

I guess that’s a good problem to have.

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