Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Wary Approach of a Philadelphian to the 2012 Baseball Season


1964 Topps Baseball Card of the First Philadelphia Team to Break My Heart


Today's Philadelphia Inquirer has an interesting article by Frank Fitzpatrick, in which he articulates the unease he, as a baby-boomer Philadelphian, has when looking ahead to the upcoming baseball season. Could the Phillies' forthcoming "heading south" to Clearwater for Spring Training be a metaphor describing the fortunes that the coming season will have in store for the club? Fitzpatrick, ever the "realist," knows that the good times will inevitably end. Might they not end sooner rather than later? And would that be a bad thing, seeing as how such could jump-start a future renaissance? Fitzpatrick writes thus:
Sorry, that's just how I'm built. I'm a Baby Boom Philadelphian, incapable of enjoying sustained success. Even on the sunniest days, I'm scanning the horizon for storm clouds. 
I've seen too many landmarks and late-season leads disappear, observed the dismantling of too many preseason dreams and urban-renewal fantasies, watched too many sports heroes and jobs leave town. 
So for me, with the 2012 Phillies on the brink of spring training, I don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing. 
If, like me, your 32-ounce Wawa cup is always half-empty, it's not hard to envision a perfect storm of calamities impacting this Phillies season. 
Ryan Howard's Achilles. Chase Utley's decline. Placido Polanco's back. Joe Blanton's elbow. Cole Hamels' contract. Vance Worley's sophomore season. Jonathan Papelbon's fly ball penchant. The holes in John Mayberry Jr.'s swing. And, maybe most significantly, the team's age. 
Plenty of clouds on that Doppler radar in my head. 
I realize that not everyone here shares my inherent pessimism. Five straight NL East titles, two pennants and a World Series trophy have created a new breed of upbeat Phillies fan. 
That's just not me.
As a fellow baby-boomer Philadelphian, I have noticed a curious phenomenon over the past few years. Today's Philadelphia sports fans, particularly those under the age of 30, are most definitely not your daddy's Philadelphia fans. After all, the Phillies haven't had a losing season in a decade, have won five straight division titles, two pennants, and a World Series. Andy Reid's Eagles, despite never having taken home the Lombardi trophy, have nevertheless been fairly regular playoff participants and, at one point, captured five straight division titles. Optimism appears to run rampant in southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey.

I, however, have a different history. The first season I followed baseball in earnest was 1964, the year Gene Mauch's Phils managed to blow a 6.5 game lead with 12 to play by losing ten straight. When they finally managed to put together a great team in the mid-70s, they managed to get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs two straight years despite winning 101 games each season. By the time the team finally won their first World Series (in their 97th year as a franchise), I was already grown and pursuing graduate studies in Dallas. The Eagles of my youth were so bad that they managed to lose five consecutive games to the hated Cowboys by the scores of 38-17, 45-13, 34-14, 38-7, and 49-14. Yet in 1968 they managed, despite losing their first 11 games, to win two in a row to fall out of the O.J. Simpson sweepstakes ("Joe must go" indeed).

The Phillies once traded future Hall-of-Famer Ferguson Jenkins for Bob Buhl and Dick Ellsworth. Even worse, they traded Larry Bowa and future Hall-of-Famer Ryne Sandberg for Ivan DeJesus. The Eagles traded future Hall-of-Famer Sonny Jurgenson for Norm Snead. Classic Sixers trades included the following: Wilt Chamberlain for Archie Clark, Moses Malone for Jeff Ruland, and Charles Barkley for Jeff Hornacek.

Philadelphia sports fans' infamous cynicism and negativity, you see, are entirely explicable by their shared history—a history that goes back a century to the days of Connie Mack, who dismantled, not one, but two Philadelphia Athletics dynasties (1910-14, 1929-31) for cash in order to enhance his profit margins. This history, and the often bitter disappointments it engendered, is part and parcel of the worldview I developed in my youth. Rare triumphs (the '67 Sixers, the '74-'75 Flyers, the '80 Phillies) were to be cherished, but in the back of my mind was the always-nagging feeling that disaster was already afoot on the horizon.

This brings me to the present. I at times fancy myself to be one who can look at matters as "objectively" as possible. Thus I can look at the Phillies' recent history and acknowledge that they still should be viewed as the division favorite and contender for the National League pennant. The primary reason for this is the celebrated mound trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, who by themselves should guarantee a season of 90+ wins.

But I am a Philadelphian of a certain age, and worldviews are difficult to dislodge. The glass, as always, is half empty from my vantage point. I see the threat from the resurgent Marlins, the Braves, and even the Nationals. These clubs may not be the Phils' equals now, but they are closer now than they have been for some time. I see the consistent erosion of Chase Utley's abilities due to apparently irreversible injuries, which has now progressed to the point where I regretfully must consider him to be this generation's Don Mattingly. Jimmy Rollins is nowhere close to the player he used to be, and always seems to be just a 90-foot sprint away from the disabled list because of hamstring issues. Ryan Howard, even before his Achilles injury, had regressed considerably from the days where he was the game's most feared power hitter. When will he return to the lineup? And, when he does, will he be able to plant that left foot sufficiently to drive the ball as in the past? Shane Victorino, despite his massive talent, has always been too undisciplined to be included among the game's elite players. What scares me most is the creeping age of the team's two transcendent mound aces, Halladay and Lee, now 35 and 34 years old, respectively. How long can we count on them to pitch as if they were Koufax and Drysdale?

My head still tells me to relax, that the likelihood remains that the Phils are the class of the division at least in the short term. The Philadelphian in my heart warns me, however, to be afraid, very afraid indeed. Critical realist though I am, I have not yet been able to extricate myself from the horror story that has indelibly left its imprint on my personal narrative. That being said, it's only 16 days till pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater. May that day arrive swiftly!

3 comments:

  1. Offense needs to return, that's for darn sure. I haven't heard much at all regarding Chase Utley's health. Will he be 100% come opening day? Who's going to start at first until Howard is ready? Mayberry? Thome?

    I agree the age of the pitchers is cause for concern, only a few years left until time to rebuild. We'll have to see what kinds of tricks RAJ has up his sleeve.

    The new breed of "phans" need to feel some pain, a few years of sub-.500 ball would harden them, or maybe kick em off the wagon.

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  2. btw, one month and one day until 1st game of spring training against your other team...

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