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September 16, 2019

Paul Hagen: Why don't Phillies fans seem to care about a team in the thick of a playoff race?

So the Braves rolled into Citizens Bank Park last week and all the ingredients for some September drama were in place. A first-place division rival. A home team desperately needing wins to keep its postseason chances alive.

The only thing missing, as it turned out, was spectators. Three of the four smallest home crowds of the year were announced, including a season-low 23,243 tickets sold on Wednesday. And even that doesn’t fully illustrate the apathy. The turnstile counts appeared much smaller, meaning thousands who had tickets didn’t bother to show up.

That, in turn, rekindled a debate that flared periodically since the Phillies were in first place as late as August 12 but didn’t attract the sort of crowds that might have been expected. Why haven’t the fans more fully embraced this team?

Glad you asked.

Nobody gives a hoot about the second wild card.

Expanding the playoff field in 2012 was a good idea, but not for the reason Major League Baseball suggested at the time. It was supposed to add excitement for teams that otherwise would have already been planning for next year by now. On paper, maybe. In the real world, getting a chance to play a sudden death game on the road, probably against a team that had a better chance to set up its rotation, doesn’t nudge the needle much.

(The real advantage is that it puts a greater premium on winning the division, which is only fair after playing 162 games.)

Anyway, that was likely the biggest explanation for last week. Although it doesn’t fully explain why the Philadelphia fan base hasn’t been more engaged over the last two years.

Expectations were unrealistically high after adding Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura so anything short of a wire-to-wire domination of the division was bound to be a disappointment.

That almost surely plays a role. But, again, it doesn’t apply to 2018 when the Phillies out-performed most predictions for the first three-quarters of the schedule.

With so many new faces in the lineup, it takes some time to develop a connection.

Maybe. But Harper was a sensation from the moment he signed and McCutchen quickly became one of the most popular players on the team. Not to mention that back in the day the region fell in love with a ’93 team that was constructed largely of spare pieces from other organizations.

That ’93 club had a roster full of marketable personalities, though. Krukker, Dutch, Dude, Wild Thing, Inky, L.A. and the rest.

There’s some truth to that. Realmuto may be the best catcher in baseball, but he wouldn’t say boo if it was Halloween. Same with Aaron Nola, Segura and even Rhys Hoskins to an extent. Cesar Hernandez, Hector Neris and Maikel Franco are good guys, but the language barrier keeps them from being go-to players for the media. And McCutchen suffered a season-ending injury in May.

It’s kind of like last year when Commissioner Rob Manfred ruefully suggested that Mike Trout would be an even bigger star if he was more conscious of marketing himself.

Three words: Hustle, hustle, hustle.

When Lee Thomas was the Phillies general manager, he told all new players the same thing. That they’ve probably heard a lot about how difficult it is to play in Philadelphia, but that all the fans want is on honest effort. Always run out ground balls, he told them, and you’ll be fine.

When Charlie Manuel was the manager, he famously benched Jimmy Rollins twice for not going all out, all the time.

The reality is that it’s a really long season and few players, if any, bust it on each and every play. But there have been well-chronicled instances this year when Segura, Hernandez and Franco have been called out for lack of hustle. And, too, often, there have been no apparent consequences. Which brings us to...

The manager.

Gabe Kapler said earlier this year that he’s “no (bleeping) Dallas Green.” He meant that he wasn’t going to publicly rip into his players the way Big D used to. In reality, no manager does that anymore, but some fans still yearn for the good old days.

Kapler comes across as new age in a lunch pail city. Honestly, though, it’s long been accepted that fans don’t buy tickets to watch the manager. It follows, then, that they don’t stay away because of the guy standing at the top step of the dugout, either.

And while his in-game decisions can draw a lot of scrutiny, that’s also true for 29 other managers. There’s nothing negative about second-guessing. If anything, it increases fan involvement.   

It’s the analytics, stupid.

No doubt there are some who are turned off by the modern emphasis on statistical formulas that can cause unpleasant flashbacks to high school algebra, extreme defensive shifts, openers instead of starters and all the rest.

At the same time, ya gotta believe that the sabermetric revolution that has swept through baseball over the past several years has also created a whole new generation of fans who love digging into innovative ways to try to unlock the game’s mysteries.

Unless, of course, this isn’t really a thing.

The Phillies project to draw over 2.725 million this year. That’s an increase of about 570,000 from last year. They rank sixth in the National League with an average of just under 34,000 per home opening. That doesn’t stink.

The most recent series against Atlanta was an outlier. Weeknight games with school back in session. The Eagles are back. Phillies fans could also have been dealing with memories of last year’s end-of-the-season collapse or reacting to this season’s inconsistencies. A killer 11-game stretch against the Braves, Indians and Nationals starts Tuesday.

Nobody is obligated to buy tickets. There were reasons to doubt that this team would put together the kind of streak it would take to make the playoffs.

And they still averaged around 24,000 for each date, which is more than three NL teams (Marlins, Pirates, Reds) have for the season. Then had near sellouts for the Red Sox over the weekend even as they fell 4.5 games out of the second wild card spot. 

Sure, the Phillies would like to fill more seats. And they will. If they win. That’s always been the most reliable explanation for attendance. And it always will be.

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