PHILADELPHIA >> That roughly 75,000 Yankees fans would crash Citizens Bank Park for three nights was as predictable as it was understandable. That 75,000 tickets were so available in the first place was a little tougher to understand.
A first-place team of powerful stars, with a logical marketing territory jutting to within an hour’s drive of South Philadelphia, the Yankees this week were certain to lure thousands to the ballpark’s sprawling, accessible parking lots. And wasn’t that part of Philadelphia’s stadium-complex plan in the first place, to finance close to a billion dollars’ worth of new projects to attract out-of-town visitors and their wallets, to coax them into nearby hotels and restaurants, to hope that someday they would return to spend even more?
Geography fever … catch it.
But why were all those seats available in the first place? And why have the ballpark’s upper decks been so empty all season that they can be cleaned with one whisk-broom after a weekend series? Aren’t the Phillies pretty good too? What are they missing?
“I don’t know,” Gabe Kapler shrugged Wednesday, before Phillies-Yankees 3-point-0. “People look at baseball in various ways. I can’t speak for anyone else. I can speak for me and what I am seeing from our baseball team. And what I’ve seen from our baseball team since spring training is a young, talented, developing baseball team that was good a month ago, has shown that it can go through a very tough stretch of the season and still be in a good spot, and is developing and getting better every day.”
A mouthful. But reasonable. The Phillies, who entered the game Wednesday at 41-36, had played mostly entertaining baseball, were immensely improved over last season and were playing hard enough to make Kapler an early Manager of the Year candidate. But no matter how much the manager tries to sell the product, the fans are not buying.
An optimistic man, and one who purchased a home near downtown Philadelphia with the intent to immerse himself and his family into the region’s culture, Kapler is on the right scent. He has made his club more watchable. But until he realizes that 75 games of above-average results is insufficient to reverse a five-year fan tend, his Philadelphia education will be incomplete.
To reduce the apathy of Phillies fans to one source is futile. There are plenty. There hadn’t seemed to be three innings all season without the need for an umbrella. Schools only recently closed for the summer. Gas prices are up. Ballpark fees for tickets, parking and snacks are repulsive. Citizens Bank Park, while still inviting, is no longer tourist-attraction new. The manager is new. The players are young. The pricey free agents, Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, have been fine but haven’t made the instant impact of, say, Jim Thome.
The Phils have been too inconsistent to keep enthusiasm inflated. Attendance, industry-wide, is down, with games lasting too long and being vandalized by too many strikeouts. The Eagles won the Super Bowl, diverting some lingering attention across the street. The Sixers were interesting for two playoff rounds. The Flyers were in the playoffs. A generation of fan is being conditioned to follow sports from a cell phone, not a field box. Every one of those issues is in the mix.
But there is one issue upon which all the others rest. And it must be Lesson No. 1 for Kapler or anyone seeking to understand the mentality of the Philadelphia fan: The customers, not so long ago, were told to stop caring. As marketing ideas go, that pip was the equivalent of the mascot hitting a fan in the face with a flying frankfurter.
It was Pat Gillick who tried to hoist that one up a pole that hasn’t added a flag since 2011. Emboldened because he’d once before demanded patience and, soon after, helped reward the fans with the 2008 world championship, the Phillies’ acting boss did so again in 2014. The Phils would be reimagined, he said. And it would take a while. At one point, he was quoted as saying that it might not be until 2017 before the Phils could contend again. Later, there was a mention of 2018. But it was said. And not long after it was said, there was a vapor trail from customers stampeding to the exits.
The No. 1 truth about Philadelphia sports fans is that they are not going to be told they are seeing one thing when they know they are seeing another. Kapler, well intentioned or not, has not grasped that. Even Wednesday, after two losses to them, he was trying to spin the Phillies into something at least resembling the Yankees.
“What we try to do for our players is shine a light on the talent because from a talent perspective I think we can go toe to toe with everybody,” he said. “From an experience standpoint, we certainly can’t. But do we have a catcher with the best arm in baseball and one of the most athletic catchers in the game? Of course we do. So from a talent standpoint, is he as good, just by way of example, and as athletic and talented as Gary Sanchez is? Does he have the same level of experience and track record of success? Perhaps he doesn’t. Does Seranthony Dominguez have an arm like Aroldis Chapman, and does he have an arm like Dellin Betances? Sure. Does he have the experience and track record of success? Not yet. But we’re just showing them that they’re the developing versions of the players that are over there.”
So that’s the pitch: That the Phillies are developing into something like the Yankees. This week, though, they learned a lession: Until they are at that level, that’s a pitch doomed to sail high and wide.
Contact Jack McCaffery @email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery