Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Balance Sheets and Bottom Lines

This year's Phillies team had the best chance in a generation to return baseball to the forefront of the Philadelphia sporting scene. With a gleaming new ballpark and a roster stocked with talented veterans, the 2004 Phils should have reclaimed some of the ground lost over the last two to three decades to the Eagles. Make no mistake -- Philadelphia has long ceased being a baseball town, but with a big season, the Phillies might have avoided their usual status as annual speed bump between basketball and football seasons and been able to spark some long-term interest.

That chance is gone, a conclusion I reached last night during another sleepy loss at the Park. Eric Milton managed to hang in without his best stuff, but the Phillies' offense generated only two hits through the first eight innings. They scratched out a couple of runs off John Smoltz, pitching in a nonsave situation, in the ninth, but it wasn't enough. Even without Atlanta's fan-aided tater, the Phils would have found a way to lose.

The damaging effects of the Phils' seasonlong futility are starting to show. On an absolutely beautiful night, with the first-place Braves in town, only 36,000 and change were at the Park; there were large swaths of empty seats in the outfield upper decks, and three uncreative fans in the section next to ours spent the entire game with paper bags over their heads. Pedestrian traffic flowed through Ashburn Alley with ease, and I was able to snare a decent parking spot 15 minutes before game time. Even the booing of J.D. Drew was halfhearted, as if fans realized the absurdity of abusing a guy whose team is a dozen games ahead of theirs.

Bill Conlin, just back from vacation, observes today:

The club president, David Montgomery, still seems oblivious to the massive slippage this lost season represents at all levels. And even schoolchildren know the next manager will operate with whatever payroll slashes are made after the Phils are slapped with their first-ever luxury tax. Very sad...

Indeed, if the Phillies think that they'll draw as many fans next season as this, they're fooling themselves. Unlike other cities, Philadelphia will not pack a stadium simply because it loves its team -- that train left 30th Street Station a long time ago. As former Philadelphia sportswriter and current New York Times scribe Jere Longman noted Sunday:

There is no sense here of lovable losers like in Chicago with the Cubs, or of intellectual resignation like in Boston with the Red Sox. Losing is always raw in Philadelphia, which has gone longer than any other city -- 21 years -- without a championship in the four major professional sports. About 3.2 million fans are expected this season at Citizens Bank Park, but hope has fallen to recrimination.

The Phillies likely will still draw over the next couple of years, but at nowhere near a level that a successful 2004 would have guaranteed. The result will be a reduced revenue stream -- certainly one below the team's projections. That means less scratch available to pursue free agents and to retain homegrown talent. Sil Campusano, where have you gone?


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