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April 04, 2015

The silver linings summer

How to enjoy watching a bad team

As I sat in a half-empty (that's a generous assessment) Citizens Bank Park Friday night watching the Phillies play the Pittsburgh Pirates in one of the team's final spring training games this season, I started to think about an October night I spent in the same seat six years ago.

It was game 3 of the 2008 World Series, and after spending about 2 hours sipping overpriced coffee and patiently waiting for the rain delay to end, I got to witness what is my greatest sports memory I've seen in person. I'll spare you the details, as I'm sure you're familiar, but here's a quick reminder:

Back to Friday night. By the time the bottom of the ninth inning rolled around, large sections of the park were completely empty. That's understandable, since it's a meaningless game. However, if last season was any indicator, there will be plenty of nights in July that won't look much different.

The slow decay of a championship core, accelerated by a certain general manager's questionable decision making, has turned what used to be a time of year bursting with hope and promise in to a formal precursor to inevitable dread. That formality, Opening Day against the Red Sox at Citizens Bank Park on Monday, is the first game of what figures to be a very long season. The Phillies will probably be bad this year. They were bad last year. And there isn't a whole lot of promise that they'll be anywhere near a contender next year.

For some reason though, none of that mattered Friday night after Ceasar Hernandez scored on a throwing error. As Ben Revere walked to the plate with two outs and a tie score, I was on my feet. When his line drive just barely cleared the right field fence, I was jumping up and down, cheering and high-fiving everyone within reach. How could you not love it? As Tom McCarthy appropriately screamed, it was, "Ben Revere, of all people!"

The ending, just like the whole game, was a lot of fun. Not because it meant anything, or because it was an indicator of any real success to come this season, but just because I was enjoying the moment. 

The obvious beauty of lowered expectations is that they're easier to meet. Following sports can be exhausting, and back in the heydays of that late 2000's squad, every game meant checking the standings. It decided whether I could enjoy the rest of my night or not. A win meant three subsequent hours of playing "MLB The Show" on Playstation 2, while a loss meant carefully avoiding sports television for the next 24 hours.

That anxiety is gone when you're just watching for the fun of it. It's also a welcome reminder as to why I love baseball in the first place. The Phillies - or "Sillies," as I was raised to call them - are a reason for me to spend three hours with my dad, something that's becoming increasingly harder to do as I get older. They're a reason for my old high school buddy, a Mets fan, to drive an hour and a half from Reading for a night of friendly ribbing and recalling fond memories. They're an excuse to get on the subway with my roommates to go scarf down our weight in processed meat for dollar dog night.

In this current sports atmosphere of non-stop analysis and constant coverage, it's really, really easy to become a pessimist. The Phillies will most likely only fuel that mindset this year. Yet if you take a different approach to 2015, it might not be as painful as expected.

There are plenty of distractions to aid diehard Phillies fan this year. You can get liquor at the ballpark. Tickets will be cheaper. The bandwagon fans will continue to dwindle. 

But above all, it's an opportunity to sit back and just enjoy baseball. If you're anything like me, following the Phillies has deeper roots than just wins and losses. While that's not the best solace for a losing team, it's better than measuring your own enjoyment by team success this year.

Plus, who knows, maybe this rag-tag band of misfits can actually make a run.

Yeah, probably not.