Outliers finding little reason to ride Phillies' bandwagon

Posted: June 13, 2014

MY BROTHER lived in Lancaster, Pa., until recently and this is what I used to see when I went there in the late 1990s.

Orioles hats. Lots and lots of them.

Pirates hats, too. Yankees for sure, and Braves, too, and every now and then someone would have a Phillies hat, although usually one that looked as if it had been through the wash a few dozen times, or, worse, found in the woods.

Lancaster isn't that far from Philadelphia and neither is Wilkes-Barre, where I once worked, or York, where I have friends, or even Harrisburg, which is twice as close to Philadelphia as it is to Pittsburgh. But these are the towns up for grabs when a neighboring franchise gets its act together, and so the dominant hats there are red and blue these days, often clean enough to have been purchased that day.

That is likely to change over the next few years. It probably has already begun. According to figures on Baseball-Reference.com, Phillies attendance was down by 261,127 before last night's game. Attendance for Pirates games, meanwhile, is up 157,368 from a season ago, and the Orioles are up slightly at 26,185.

Those numbers don't precisely offset the Phillies' ticket decline, nor am I suggesting that they represent solely fans from the above locales turning their cars in another direction. Neither the Pirates nor the Orioles are playing lights-out baseball this year, but, as any good ticket man will tell you, attendance bumps and bruises are largely the result of offseason sales, and based largely on expectations created from the season before.

The Orioles reached the playoffs in 2012 for the first time since 1997 and followed that up with an 85-win near-miss season. They have three players, Chris Davis, Matt Weiters and Adam Jones - all 28 years old - who combined for 108 home runs last season. While well off that pace this season, free-agent pickup Nelson Cruz had slugged 21 through Tuesday, giving Camden Yards a nightly electricity that has become a fading memory in these parts.

Similarly the Pirates reached the playoffs in 2013 for the first time since 1992, ending what had been the longest stretch of losing seasons in the four major pro sports. While there has been a palpable dip in performance this season, seven of the eight positional regulars are 28 or younger, and the town is abuzz this week over the much-anticipated arrival of 22-year-old slugging prospect Gregory Polanco.

People outside of Philadelphia are always asking me for comparisons, or making them. We're like Boston, they say. Or Oakland, maybe. Cleveland.

But it's all so futile. Because we are really like no other town, and it really has nothing to do with Santa Claus, cheesesteaks or soft pretzels. It is because we are surrounded, in ridiculous proximity, by sports-oriented cities to our north, south and west.

A friend from Vermont, a lifetime Red Sox fan, attended his first game at Fenway Park last year.

He drove 4 hours there, 4 hours back.

The Red Sox draw from six states and have close to exclusive rights to the fandom in at least four of them - Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island and, of course, Massachusetts. I have no doubt there are diehard Sox fans in Aroostook County, Maine, who have never stepped foot in Fenway. It's why, even in tough years, a Red Sox ticket is a piece of currency, not the overvalued stock dump that a Phillies ticket is these days on StubHub.

Which is why this slow march to irrelevancy is so painful to watch. Battered by the populace for decades over issues of cheapness and incompetency, the Phillies' thrill-filled run during much of the last decade flooded those toss-up municipalities. Their minor leagues finally bore fruits, they built a great park, they hired a folksy manager right out of central casting and the people came, and came, and came.

Today? Not so much.

There's already an outcry about the quality of players Ruben Amaro Jr. swapped to Houston to get Hunter Pence. But I will tell you that when Ed Wade was fired in Houston, that deal was among the ones questioned.

"Three years from now," MLB.com's Richard Justice wrote prophetically, "we may look back at Wade's four years and thank him for a job well done."

The same could be said about Wade when he left here, but we were all too ticked and tortured, me included, to see that. And I suspect Amaro might be working in some other capacity by the time Aaron Nola figures in the Cy Young voting or J.P. Crawford is standing where Jimmy Rollins once did, or Ken Giles is closing games, or people around here feel the same sort of anticipation the people in Houston are currently - and finally - feeling.

But make no mistake, that's several years away, even with a fire sale at this year's trade deadline. Your team is the Astros these days and the Astros are your team, and until that changes again, the cars in Lancaster, Wilkes-Barre and York will point away from here, and the red hats will either disappear, or get dog-eared and dirty.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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