Rich Hofmann: You can't say boo about Phillies fans after Cliff Lee deal

Fans cheer on Cliff Lee during NLDS game vs. Colorado in 2009. He says he loves their passion.
Fans cheer on Cliff Lee during NLDS game vs. Colorado in 2009. He says he loves their passion.
Posted: December 16, 2010

THEY GATHERED at Citizens Bank Park for the final time in 2010 - club executives, rows of media, Cliff Lee and his family. The ostensible purpose was the announcement of Lee's return to the Phillies and the assembly of the greatest pitching rotation in the history of the franchise, and one of the greatest in the recent history of the game.

It was an organizational celebration, their pride and their anticipation simulcast on all manner of television and Internet outlets. But it was more than that, for anyone who has lived here for any period of time. Because if the hopes of the 2011 season were born on this day, something else passed away at the same time.

It was the death of a stereotype.

The Philadelphia fan - edgier than most, oftentimes outrageous, sometimes obnoxious - has been defined for decades by the times when he strayed over the line. Well, that ended yesterday.

The next time someone brings up snowballs and Santa Claus, there now is only one proper reply:

Cliff Lee.

Booing Michael Irvin?

Cliff Lee.

Shooting off a flare gun?

Cliff Lee.

Jail cells at the Vet?

Cliff Lee.

Tasers in the outfield?

Cliff Lee.

Besides joining this starting rotation, Lee has slain the Philadelphia albatross. He said it and so did Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phillies' general manager; that is, that both financially and atmospherically, it was the paying customers who brought Lee back to Philadelphia, spurning more money and more years offered by the New York Yankees.

They could not have made it more plain.

"For me, we wouldn't be here if we didn't have the fans supporting us the way they supported us," Amaro said. "It's really plain and simple: we don't sell out games, we don't give ourselves a chance to be even in this stratosphere.

"The support we've gotten with our fans, the support I've gotten from David [Montgomery, the club president] and our ownership group to be able to kind of go past where we would typically be comfortable doing, and the fact that this can put together a pretty darn special rotation, I think those are the kind of things that pushed things forward for us."

It was the fans. It was their decision to fill the ballpark to capacity, now year after year. It was the money they spent and it was more than that. Everybody who goes there knows that it can be such a vibrant place on so many nights. It is a long year, and it isn't as if people are howling for nine innings for 81 games, but the place has an uncommon pulse, and it drew Lee back.

"I think the - how do you put it? - intensity that you can feel when you get in the game," Lee said, trying to explain. "You can feel the volume. Every game has got an elevated feel to it compared to everywhere else. It's completely different. I don't know what the fans do to create that much more volume and excitement in the stadium, but it's definitely something extra here. I don't know what it is, but it's something they're doing.

"They get excited. They're passionate fans. They understand what's going on. They don't need a teleprompter to tell them to get up and cheer, to do that. No, it's exciting. It's an historic town. I didn't realize until I got here how interesting the city is. My family really liked it. I mean, that played a big part in it.

"Yeah, you know, the feeling of playing on the field feels different than anywhere else," he said. "I don't know how to explain it other than you can feel the volume that's created by the fans and their intensity."

And it drew him here.

There was a time, not very long ago, when, Amaro said, "I didn't think we had a snowball's chance in hell of bringing him back." It seems clear that Lee's family had a lot to do with the decision. They did not grow up as city people but they have been drawn to this particular city, to this team and its work ethic and its manager and its ballpark and its environs.

It is the kind of thing that never happened - except maybe in hockey, where players have long been drawn to the Flyers' franchise and to a big city with a passionate but not smothering fan base. But now the Phillies have accomplished the same kind of a feeling - but with a group of players who can be far more mercenary than hockey players, on average. First, Roy Halladay came for less, then Roy Oswalt waived a no-trade clause, now Lee.

"The fan, somehow, is heard more in this environment," Montgomery said. He was talking about it being a city of neighborhoods, a big city that isn't quite so imposing because of that, a place where individual connections amid the maelstrom still somehow seem possible.

He says the franchise is the conduit between the fans and the players and between the players and the fans. He sees his job as nurturing that connection - which takes bringing in the right people and showing off the kind of bankroll it takes to keep the majority of them in place.

That the Phillies have busted their budget to bring in Lee goes without saying. Montgomery doesn't exactly admit that, but he acknowledges that he hopes the payoff comes in prolonging this era of good feelings that began with the opening of the ballpark. He always talks about the tough decisions in the future.

But that is for then - along with the World Series-or-bust expectations. The only certainty is that a caricature, born in truth but exaggerated beyond recognition, has now been re-drawn - or, at the very least, seen from a different perspective.

Before he has thrown a pitch in his return engagement, Cliff Lee already has notched that victory.

Send e-mail to

hofmanr@phillynews.com, or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at

http://go.philly.com/theidlerich. For recent columns go to

http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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