The Great Phall: The Decline of the Philadelphia Phillies

It had all come down to this. Citizens Bank Park leaned forward in anticipation as their six-foot-four, 250-pound cleanup hitter lumbered to the plate, the entire city of Philadelphia pressing on his broad shoulders. Chris Carpenter, the opposing pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, hadn’t issued a walk all day—and with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, there was no way he was going to now. Ryan Howard had put the ball into the seats 33 times during the regular season, but everyone wearing pinstripes that night would’ve traded all of those—and every one of theirs—for just one, right now. The count was 2–2, and Howard took a decisive, mighty swing at a looping curveball. The camera cut to first base, where Albert Pujols fielded the harmless grounder and flipped to the covering Carpenter.

Just like that, the Phillies season was over. The Cardinals, the team of destiny after squeaking into the postseason in the closing hours of the last day of the season, had conquered the 102-win titans of Broad Street. They began celebrating on the visitors field.

Just a few feet from their dogpile, the man who had taken that last, mighty swing lay crumpled on the ground halfway up the first base side, surrounded by trainers. It was insult to (literal) injury, and the Philly faithful began spilling on to Pattison Avenue in a state of shock and dismay after witnessing such a violent end to their season.

The Cardinals would go on to face the Texas Rangers in the World Series that year in what may go down as one of the greatest fall classics of recent memory, eventually winning in seven games—thanks to a Herculean effort from their third baseman, David Freese. They would go on to appear in the 2013 World Series (albeit swept by the Red Sox), and come just a Travis Ishikawa home run away from a trip to the 2014 World Series, as well.

The Phillies, however, took a different path; it seems their fate was pinned to the heel of their powerful cleanup hitter. When it broke, so did they. The core of the team that had come just a run away from another postseason series win, and assembled three straight 100 (total) win seasons, began to fade away: scattered between retirement, free agency, or “dump” trades. As times came to famine, the franchise rid itself of salaries promised during times of feast. Some of those core players included:

Ryan Howard

The big man never quite recovered from his injury, eventually hitting free agency a shadow of the player he was and drawing the ire of the Philadelphia faithful. He gave them a Rookie of the Year season in 2005, and a MVP the following year, but it was apparent that after his injury that night, he couldn’t quite get it back together:

YEARSGPHRBAOBPSLGOPS+
2007-2011761204.266.358.539133
2012-201654596.226.292.42795

Jimmy Rollins

Another former MVP (2007), J-Roll was considered by many to be one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle that made those teams so great. His intensity on the field and overall joy of playing the game made him an emotional centerpiece and fan favorite, but he backed up his performance as well. Age caught up with Rollins quickly after the 2011 season, and he was eventually traded to the Dodgers for a couple of prospects after the 2013 season. He appeared in 44 games with the White Sox in 2016, but never seemed to catch on again after those big years in Philly.

YEARSGPHRBAOBPSLGOPS+
2007-201168486.269.330.442101
2012-201663961.242.310.38090

Chase Utley

Few players embodied the blue collar, competitive spirit of Philadelphia more than Phillies second baseman Chase Utley. He was a hard-nosed player with a knack for taking one for the team (leading the league in HBP for three consecutive seasons), but also for stepping on an opponent’s neck when needed. His decline was swift, and he was eventually traded to the Dodgers during the 2015 season, as the team was destined for its worst season in recent memory. He never quite managed to catch on after that, and was released by the Dodgers during the 2018 offseason.

YEARSGPHRBAOBPSLGOPS+
2007-2011665113.290.386.503132
2012-201661462.257.331.411104

Other players, like pitchers Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Roy Halladay, who had been acquired through various means of trade and free agency to comprise the league’s most feared pitching rotation, eventually left the team or retired in the coming years. Players like Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino would find some success with other teams, even winning World Series titles along the way (2013 for Victorino, 2012 and 2014 for Pence). The roster would be torn down and rebuilt with new faces again and again, but with little success. The franchise, like their big first baseman that night, never seemed to recover.

As I write this, in the year 2020, the Phillies have yet to reach a postseason to avenge that night, and almost every Phillies player that took the field that night has left the game.

The team looks to the next generation of stars, like Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler, to lead them back to October baseball; to avenge that night when an era ended so suddenly and so violently. They have to compete with a tougher division, among other external factors, but the team is determined to do it.

As we enter a new decade, the team is looking to shake the disappointments of the past and re-emerge the competitor it once was.

It’s time to Phight Back.

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