Phillies Thanksgiving: Five Things for Which I Am Thankful

Phillies

Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

As a Philadelphia Phillies fan on Thanksgiving, there are a handful of things for which I am particularly thankful this year as the rebuilding continues.

I have been a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies ever since I became aware of their existence at around age nine in the 1971 season.

That year, Veteran’s Stadium opened virtually in my South Philly backyard. Over the decades since, I have attended hundreds of games as a paying customer between ‘The Vet’ and Citizens Bank Park, not to mention a few road trip excursions.

I watched the 1970’s team come to power and win the 1980 World Series championship. Even attended Game Two of that Fall Classic as an 18-year old.

I fell in love with the 1993 ‘Macho Row’ squad, still the most fun Phillies season from start to finish that I have ever enjoyed.

And I especially reveled in the greatness of the team from the last decade. The one that rose to power in the late-00’s, won the 2008 World Series, and captured five straight NL East crowns.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

But as we have all had to come to grips with here in the City of Brotherly Love, that time is over now. The Phillies have been losers on the field for the last four years, and are now in the midst of a major rebuilding program.

It is with all those memories in mind that I sit here on Thanksgiving Eve, putting down in words a handful of things that strike me as those for which I am thankful at this time in the club’s history.

Some of these are things that bring me joy regarding the Philadelphia Phillies, and which have little to do with the actual playing of the baseball games.

Others are vital to the team and the playing of those games, to the winning and losing. The decision-making and the moves that have been and still will be made to bring the club back to on-field contending status.

Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

PHILLIES THANKSGIVING 2016: THE PHILLIE PHANATIC

The team wins and the team loses. Since I began following the Philadelphia Phillies for the 1971 season there have been 21 winning campaigns, 23 losing seasons, and two .500 years.

But ever since he debuted for the 1978 season, whether the team won or lost that year, one thing has always been constant. The Phillie Phanatic has delivered high quality entertainment – every single time, without fail.

There has never once been a game among the hundreds that I have attended since he first took the field that I have been let down by the antics of the greatest mascot in sports history.

Jul 22, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; The Phillie Phanatic greets fans during a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies won 5-4 in the tenth inning. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Each year the club has celebrated his birthday. I remember attending the very first one. He was a hit almost from the moment he first strode on to the Astroturf at Veteran’s Stadium. Generations of kids and adults have come to love him ever since.

FUN WITH THE PHANATIC

Smashing an opposition team helmet in front of their dugout. Shooting hotdogs into the stands using a pneumatic gun attached to the ATV he rides around the ballpark. Dancing on the Phillies dugout roof with young fans. Using a position on that same dugout roof to put a hex on the opposing pitcher. Buffing bald heads in the crowd.

There have been literally thousands of these and other routines and impromptu moments on the field and in the stands, too numerous to count. The Phanatic involves players, coaches, umpires, celebrities, and just plain old fans.

No one is immune from his pratfalls and often witty performances. You may have caught the Phanatic’s act a time or two on TV. But there is nothing like following his act in person.

Take in a Phillies game some time at Citizens Bank Park. You will really get a flavor of what he adds to the ballpark experience. The Phillie Phanatic is quite simply a Philadelphia treasure.

Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

PHILLIES THANKSGIVING 2016: COMING ATTRACTIONS

The Philadelphia Phillies farm system is one of the most improved in all of Major League Baseball over the last couple of seasons.

That is not the statement of a wishful fan. It is a fact that has been recognized and publicized throughout the game by numerous resources that evaluate such things on a regular basis.

FARM SYSTEM IMPROVEMENTS RECOGNIZED

Prior to the 2016 season, MLB.com ranked the Phillies farm system among the top eight in the game. In their mid-season rankings, the Phils were one of just four organizations still rated that highly.

Fantasy Pros ranked the Phillies system at #5 in mid-August. Bleacher Report put the Phils system at #7 in early August. Both of these came after not only the June MLB Draft, but also following the non-waiver trade deadline.

Over this past week, I have been producing a ‘Phillies Fall 2016 Top Ten Prospects’ countdown here at FanSided.

It is for prospects like these, many of whom should be debuting in the big leagues soon if they haven’t already, for whom I am especially grateful.

HOT PROSPECTS ON THE WAY

Here we are talking about players such as shortstop J.P. Crawford, corner outfielder Nick Williams, pitcher Ben Lively, and slugging corner outfielder Dylan Cozens.

In the longer run, outfielders Mickey Moniak and Cornelius Randolph, and pitchers such as Franklyn Kilome and Kevin Gowdy are exciting prospects.

Every Phillies fan should feel thankful that we have kids like these to look forward to in the not-too-distant future.

And that doesn’t even factor in youngsters like Roman Quinn and Jorge Alfaro, each of whom has already received a September 2016 cup of coffee in the big leagues.

Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

PHILLIES THANKSGIVING 2016: YOUNG PITCHING

Over the last two seasons the Phillies have introduced some top young pitching to their rotation and bullpen, and there is more to come on the horizon.

In 2015 it was the big league debut of their 2014 top draft pick, right-hander Aaron Nola. In 33 starts since his June 2015 promotion, Nola has gone 12-11 with a 4.29 ERA and 1.261 WHIP.

The now 23-year old Nola has allowed 190 hits over 188.2 innings with a 189/48 K:BB ratio. He was shut down at the end of July with elbow problems, and the team is hopeful that he can avoid surgery.

SURPRISING ARM BECOMES MOST RELIABLE

Also debuting later that same summer was Jerad Eickhoff, obtained as part of the big Hamels trade with the Texas Rangers. In 41 starts, the righty has gone 14-17 with a 3.44 ERA and 1.136 WHIP.

Eickhoff has now allowed just 227 hits over his first 248.1 innings with a 216/55 K:BB ratio. He was perhaps the club’s most reliable starting pitcher in 2016, and is firmly entrenched in the rotation for now.

Vincent Velasquez came in the Giles trade from the Houston Astros. The 24-year old righty seized a rotation spot in spring training and never let go, producing an 8-6 record with a 4.12 ERA and 1.328 WHIP. He allowed 129 hits over 131 innings in making 24 starts, and had a dominating 152/45 K:BB ratio.

NEW ARMS DEBUT IN 2016

This past season the Phillies gave a first big league opportunity to another righty, Zach Eflin. The now 22-year old came to the club in the Rollins deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers almost two years ago.

Over his first 11 starts in Major League Baseball, Eflin went 3-5 with a 5.54 ERA and 1.326 WHIP. He also allowed 67 hits over 63.1 innings with a 31/17 K:BB ratio.

Eflin’s numbers may not seem impressive. However, there are extenuating circumstances built into them. He was rocked in his big league debut, and was clearly pitching at less than 100% over his final three starts It turned out that chronically bad knees had finally caught up with the youngster.

Jun 16, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Nola (27) pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays at Citizens Bank Park. The Toronto Blue Jays won 13-2. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In between those four outings, Eflin was fabulous. Six of his seven starts were of the Quality Start variety, and he tossed a pair of complete games. One of those was a complete game shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates on the road.

TOP PITCHING PROSPECT DEBUTS

Jake Thompson was the Phillies top pitching prospect as the summer of 2016 rolled along. Obtained in that same Hamels deal that brought Eflin to the team, he made his big league debut in early August.

Thompson, who turns 23 years old in January, went 3-6 with a 5.70 ERA and 1.509 WHIP. He allowed 53 hits over 53.2 innings with a 32/28 K:BB ratio, obviously struggling with his command.

But he also registered three Quality Starts, and was able to stay in the rotation until late September. Thompson will enter spring training with an inside track on a Phillies 2017 rotation spot.

FUTURE OF THE ROTATION AND BULLPEN

The injury recoveries of Nola and Eflin will be vital to the Phillies success in the short-term. But no matter what happens, they are each likely solid long-term contributors. Thompson and Eickhoff will surely be part of that rotation going forward.

In the bullpen, pitchers such as 23-year old Edubray Ramos and 24-year old Joely Rodriguez have a shot to contribute in key roles. Alec Asher could help in both the rotation and pen. He just turned 25 years old. Even potential closer Hector Neris is just 27-years of age.

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

PHILLIES THANKSGIVING 2016: UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT

As with many fans in recent years, I had grown tired of the Philadelphia Phillies ‘old boy network’ of Bill Giles, Dave Montgomery, Pat Gillick, and Ruben Amaro.

As a group, they seemed incapable of making the right decisions at the right times to effectively transition the ball club from the previous contending years to a new generation.

The Phillies slipped slowly but inexorably toward mediocrity. Early attempts to prop up the homegrown core that had led the 2008 World Series winners were largely successful.

PHILLIES SLOW DECLINE

But as those attempts failed to yield another title, the core continued to age. After winning that 2008 Fall Classic the Phils returned in 2009, only to lose in six games to the New York Yankees.

The Phillies then lost in the NLCS to the San Francisco Giants in 2010, in the NLDS to the Saint Louis Cardinals in 2011, and then dropped to the .500 mark in 2012.

From there it was a losing record in 2013, a last place finish in the NL East in 2014, and finally to baseball’s worst overall record in the 2015 season.

MANAGEMENT CHANGES COME

In the summer of 2015, a press conference signaled that major changes were coming to the management structure.

That presser was led by a member of the team’s ownership group, John Middleton, who had largely remained in the background to that point. He was announcing the hiring of Andy MacPhail to what would eventually become the role of president of baseball operations.

MacPhail would subsequently fire Amaro, and then hire 35-year old Matt Klentak as the new Phillies general manager at the end of October 2015.

A few months later, Klentak brought on Matt Galdi, formerly of Google, to fill a new position as the club’s first-ever director of research and development. The Phillies would create a baseball analytics department under Galdi that is second to none in the industry.

REAL OWNERSHIP CONTROL CHANGES

With 48% of the team, the 61-year old Middleton was formally approved just last week as the controlling owner of the franchise.

“I am both thrilled and honored to assume this important position,” Middleton said in a statement per Philly.com’s Matt Gelb. “I’m grateful that the Buck family, Major League Baseball and the other Major League clubs have confidence in my ability to lead our franchise into the future.”

“Our fans should know that the Phillies organization is committed to restoring the Phillies to its recent dominant past. We will approach the 2017 season and the years to follow with even greater intensity and determination, knowing our fans are eager to bring a championship back to Philadelphia. We intend to accomplish that goal.”

This change in ownership and management of the team is, for my money, the single most important development during this rebuilding process.

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

PHILLIES THANKSGIVING 2016: CITIZENS BANK PARK

“Take me out to the ball game. Take me out to the crowd. Buy me some peanuts and Crackerjack. I don’t care if I never get back.”

That is the feeling that I get every time that I walk into Citizens Bank Park. The beautiful open-air baseball mecca replaced Veteran’s Stadium for the 2004 season, and Phillies games have never been the same.

REPLACING ‘THE VET’

I was never one of those who disliked “The Vet”, which was my first baseball stadium. When it first opened, I was a little kid. Configured for baseball, The Vet had then state-of-the-art features such as an Astroturf field, twin massive scoreboards, a picnic area, and dancing fountains in center field.

But after a few decades, the old facility was literally crumbling. Three decades of almost year-round use for baseball and football games, concerts, and many more events were taking their toll.

Also, The Vet was not open-air. It was an enclosed “cookie cutter” stadium, built in the fashion that a number of other multi-use facilities in those days had been constructed. These included Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.

CITIZENS BANK PARK OPENS IN 2004

I attended the very first game at Citizens Bank Park, a preseason game before that formal 2004 season opened. It was stunning that such a true ballpark could exist right here in Philadelphia.

‘The Vet’ had a nice, short, catchy nickname. From the beginning, folks tried to hang one on the new ballpark. ‘The Bank’ and ‘CBP’ have probably been used the most, but the fact is that none is now needed.

In Philly, all you have to do is say that you are headed down to ‘the ballpark’, and everyone knows what you mean. Citizens Bank Park is not a multi-use facility (though it has played host to a number of concerts). It’s primary use is baseball. Phillies baseball, to be more precise.

A SOUTH PHILLY GEM

The aesthetic quality of the park itself is enough. A great seating layout, there are beautiful views of the not-too-distant Philly downtown skyline and the Walt Whitman Bridge from various angles.

The concourse is open as well, allowing fans to follow the action while walking around and checking out the various souvenir and novelty shops, restaurants, and food stands and kiosks.

The outfield is mostly dominated by Ashburn Alley, a walking area that includes iconic Philadelphia eateries and games for the whole family, .

Also out in Ashburn Alley you can find the team’s official Wall of Fame area with the historic moments timeline and plaques honoring the great players and other figures in Phillies history.

NEW BALLPARK DRAWS BIG NUMBERS

Despite the fact that ‘The Vet’ could hold in excess of 60,000 fans for a game, the Phillies drew more than three million fans in just one of its 33 seasons. That was for the incredibly popular 1993 National League champions.

In the 13 seasons of Citizens Bank Park’s existence, the Phillies have broken that three million mark on eight occasions.

Some of that is testament to a winning team filled with popular players for years. But it is also a testament to the ballpark itself.

I want a winning team. I am confident in the new ownership/management team’s ability to put one together. Those highly rated prospects and young pitchers noted earlier will be a big part of that.

But until that next winner comes along, any game where I can enjoy the antics of the Phillie Phanatic and a nice night of baseball at beautiful Citizens Bank Park is going to be a night well spent.

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