When I was a young kid, maybe eight or nine years old, I attended a Southern Baptist church in South Jersey that doesn’t exist anymore. I remember some stuff about it, but after 15 years, the memory is getting hazy. But there’s one story that I think relates to the state of our collective groupthink as Phillies fans. And I’d like to share it with you.
The pastor there was the sort of florid orator that one doesn’t find much at the pulpit these days, particularly north of the Mason-Dixon. He was too nice a guy to be much of a fire-and-brimstone character, but he had the booming baritone and expansive vocabulary that I think ought to be prerequisites for entering seminary.
His “City on a Hill” sermon was not titled “The Downward Spiral of Sinful Disbelief,” but that was the line he repeated, the concept he referred to throughout. The title was “How to Boil a Frog.”
The idea was that sin doesn’t take over one’s life all at once, but gradually, much in the same way that one boils a frog. If you toss a frog in a pot of hot water, he’ll jump out. But if you put him in a pot of cold water and gradually turn up the heat to boiling, he won’t notice the danger until it’s too late.
Why, exactly, someone would want to boil a frog was lost on my eight-year-old mind, but it was the pastor’s metaphor, not mine, so I didn’t say anything.
The reason I bring this up is because we, as Phillies fans, are frogs. And over the past 10 years, we’ve been boiled.
In July 2000, I was about to start 8th grade. The World Trade Center still stood, Bill Clinton was still the president, and Eric Lindros was still a Flyer.
I was just as big a Phillies fan then as I am now, but it was a different team. Curt Schilling would be traded by the end of the month, Terry Francona was in his fourth season as manager, and the team’s best reliever was something called Chris Brock, who could muster only a 4.34 ERA and a1.35 WHIP in 93 innings. The Francona era was my formative experience as a baseball fan, once I finally got old enough to make my own observations and once the team was rid of the Macho Row crew of my very early childhood.
Terry Francona, as the manager of the Phillies, never led the team to more than 77 wins and a third-place finish, and he twice lost 94 games or more—the first allowed the team to get the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft (Pat Burrell) and the second got him and everyone he knew fired. The turn-of-the-century Phillies were laughably bad. They’d trade away detritus like Garrett Stephenson and watch him win 16 games for the Cardinals. This was a team where the big free-agent acquisition was an over-the-hill Danny Tartabull who inflicted a career-ending injury on himself in his third game with the team. Management was too cheap to spend the money it took to contend and too stupid to do anything positive with it if they did. All this while three of the other four teams in the division, the Mets, Braves, and Marlins, combined for five pennants and two World Series titles in six seasons between 1995 and 2000.
This is the Phillies team I grew up with, this laughingstock, this Keystone Kops organization. But in 2001, Larry Bowa took over, and the team started a run of contention. The first year, I didn’t think much of it (hell, the Royals would put together a similar run a couple years later), but then, they started to draft well. Like, really well. Between 1999 and 2002, they spent high draft picks on Brett Myers, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, and Ryan Howard–the backbone of the team that would win three straight division titles, two pennants and a World Series.
For the entirety of the Larry Bowa era and the beginnings of the Charlie Manuel era, that team was just about always one one big move away from reaching that hallowed ground: the playoffs. From 2000 to 2006, it seemed like the only thing that changed was that the team went from habitually missing the playoffs by 25 games to habitually missing them by three or four, and they went from failing to make the big trade for Roger Pavlik or something to not making the big trade for Andy Pettitte. It was frustration, all right, but it was a different kind of frustration.
Now we’re in a place where the team’s had eight winning seasons in nine years, three straight division titles and two straight pennants. We’re in a place where the team could field 13 current or former All-Stars (that’s more than half the Opening Day roster), a Cy Young winner, two former National League MVPs, and one of the top five or so position players in baseball. For the past four seasons, the Phillies have been considered one of the best teams in the NL, and one of the favorites to go to the World Series every year. They’re on ESPN and in the national press all the time. For a fan, this should be the best of times; we have finally arrived.
But this is also a time where the average fan is upset that the Phils, already with three former All-Star starting pitchers, couldn’t keep a fourth this past offseason. Or that there’s a potential that the team could lose one of its three All-Star outfielders this coming winter. Cole Hamels is crap, the bullpen is crap, Ryan Howard is crap, and so on.
If I had gone back to talk to that 13-year-old version of me, the one who was watching Terry Francona manage the 2000 Phillies to 97 losses, what would he have said? Well, I’d imagine that 13-year-old me would start by ridiculing my beard and telling me how disappointed he is at how fat I’d become. Then, he’d probably make some remark about the sheer lunacy of having anything to complain about when the Phillies are this good.
Because to someone who grew up on the 1990s Phillies, seeing the Vet only a third full night in and night out, this crop of Phillies fans would seem as strange as an invasion from Mars. It seems like, year by year, we’ve been boiled like the frog in my former pastor’s sermon. We’ve turned, bit by bit, into those Yankee fans we all grew up hating, so accustomed to winning, and a team committed to winning, that we take it as some sort of affront when the team slips up. We’ve become spoiled, not to put too fine a point on it. So with the team 4 1/2 games out at the break, coming off a thrilling four-game sweep of the first-place Reds, it would seem preposterous to a Francona-era Phillies fan that we’d all be so upset.
We’ve been transformed, Nation, as a fan base, by these past 10 years. Not that winning, and the heightened expectations that come with it, are bad–they quite clearly aren’t, and as someone who cares far too much about a baseball team, I wouldn’t trade these past 10 seasons for anything.
I just look around and from time to time I feel like this team, these fans, this culture of winning, is strange, like tomorrow I’ll wake up and Chase Utley will be Marlon Anderson again. But then I look at the standings, when even after a bad couple months, the Phillies are still in the thick of the pennant race, with as good a team as any in the league and their best baseball ahead of them. And thinking back to those awful 1990s, when it wasn’t a matter of if they’d lose but how, and I appreciate this team, and what they’ve done all the more.
I really have no idea what the past 10 years, and the impact they’ve had on us, as Phillies fans and our culture, have to do with winning at Wrigley on Thursday, or overhauling the Mets and Braves over the remainder of the season. What I do know is that it’s worth it, from time to time, to look back at where we’ve come from. And wonder how in the world we ever got here.