It’s been a long time since I watched professional wrestling. We’re talking like riding your bike to your friends house to watch the monthly Pay-Per-View because they had a “black box” and could get it for free (that friend shall STILL remain nameless because i’m not sure how vindictive the cable companies REALLY are), on pins and needles to find out what was going to happen to Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Degeneration X and whatever the latest incarnation of the NWO was up to. The WWF and WCW were still separate circuits and no matter what they tried to do in terms of crossovers, allegiances were as hard as the ring they landed on. It was captivating, and although it’s overall presence has wained since it’s prime years in the ’90s and into the 2000’s, it still maintains a hold on people of all ages. The fans know it’s fake, that’s no longer news. They don’t care. It’s the drama, the story, the physical opera playing out before them. It’s the emotional investment in the story that unfolds that keeps people glued to it, and the grease that makes that wheel turn?
The bad guys.
It’s the entrance music you hate to hear but know all the words. Suddenly what was supposed to be a triumphant moment is thrown into turmoil, an easy win now a robbery before your eyes. The whole thing is brilliant entertainment, creating the type of conflict that keeps eyes glued on the product, and away from all distractions that can drag a sport down.
Between ugly labor disputes, the questioning of how teams operate and a myriad of other off field issues, fans need somewhere to put this energy that’s been building. They need something that can grab their attention and put their heart and souls into loving… or, ya know, hate. That’s what these villains do, after all. They’re engaging but relatable, devious and methodical, and overall good enough performers to be formidable and make you think they can win, and maybe even sometimes, they do.
Out of the box? There’s not an easy candidate. The Yankees aren’t “The Evil Empire” anymore, and don’t have the success to be as hatable as they were in the ’90s. The Dodgers roster features some of the most likable players in the game, and their analytical approach coupled with their ability to spend money to field a competitive team garners more respect than hatred..
An easy choice could be the Houston Astros, but the type of vitriol they have garnered isn’t the same thing as what the game needs. The malice directed towards them comes from their deliberate intent to cheat the game, and the subsequent handling off it afterwards. To be fair too, even that seems to have grown both too toxic and too tired, all while the roster has changed over almost all of the team members in question (along with it’s GM, manager, and bench coach). They certainly have the backside of the villain origin story together. What that groups lacks, however, is the cracks of redemption in the facade of the characters they play (well, for the most part.. more on that later). Any engaging villain has a sort of universal appeal that keeps your eyes glued to them, even if their purpose is to make you turn away. They check some of the boxes, but don’t complete the arc.
What you need here, is a franchise that maybe had some success at some point. Close enough in time that there’s some memory of it, but far enough away that the shine has gone away. After all, that’s every bad guy has that “I was good but the world changed me” type of vibe right? You need one that isn’t going to follow the rules, do things “by the book”, introduce some chaos to the system, in the name of beating it. It has to already have some pieces in place to make this work, but they just need that extra player that can push the team on the field, and the buttons off of it. Oh, and maybe even most importantly, you need a fanbase that is both starved for success, and rabid enough to eat it up when it comes.
What you need, is the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Back Story:
In 2007, The Phillies began a run of division titles that wouldn’t be broken until the 2011 season, winning no less than 89 games over that span. They became a powerhouse in the National League, making back-to-back World Series apperances in 2008 and 2009, winning the former and losing the latter. Their roster consisted of a who’s who of top talent, and a complement of homegrown contributors as well. It had tones of the reveared Yankees franchises from the 1990’s, and a 102 win season in 2011 seemed like business as usual.
The last memory the Phillies have of meaningful October baseball isn’t… great.
Since then, they’ve drifted from one of the most feared opponents in the National League to a middling, directionless team. Any lead seems to be fleeting, any success littered with caveats, and the results have consistently been uninspiring. The team has shuffled management positions all the way from the dugout to the owners box, all to the same results. Attempts have been made over the years, most notably the signing of superstar outfielder Bryce Harper and the acquisition of catcher J.T. Realmuto, but still even a winning record has evaded them except for this past year, where they managed to squeeze out an 82-80 second place finish. They’ve watched almost helplessly as the Braves completed a rebuild, emerging with a perennial contender, the Mets shook their incompetent ownership for the single richest man in baseball, and the Washington Nationals shocked the baseball world and took home a World Series title in 2019.
The Suit Pulling the Strings
Dave Dombrowski is what many would consider an old-school manager in a new school world. You want to build for the future? You want to be the darling of Baseball America and Fangraphs? David is not the hire for you. Dombrowski goes where he’s needed, raids the proverbial fridge, then is run out of town when the food goes bad. This, of course, is why the Phillies hired him in the first place though. His win-at-all-cost mentality is what makes him an ideal fit in Philly after a dissapointing rebuild and declarations of “Stupid Money” seeming more the former and less the latter. While the signature “Dave Bomb” hasn’t dropped just yet, there is a prime opportunity for one key free agent signing that would fit just so perfectly…
Carlos Correa: The Villian
It’s hard to find any single player that embodies the mold of what I described earlier in this post than Astros shortstop Carlos Correa. During the aftermath the sign stealing scandal, while his teammates looked defensively dickish or cowered away from the fallout, Correa ran out to meet it head on with a type of defiance that you don’t have to like to respect. He became the object of derision for fans across the game off the field, while on it, he posted a 7.2 rWAR season, won a Gold Glove, and led his team back to the World Series again. Now, after refusing to bow the pressure of the baseball world, he enters free agency as the top prize in a market loaded with short stop talent, and a plethora of teams ready to sign him to a lucrative contract (ya know, after the whole lockout business). Let’s be honest though, this guy can’t just sign anywhere. It’s clear, if you want the most out of Correa, you need to put him under the lights, when and where it matters most. If your team has something to prove, and wants to get (back) into the headlines, is there anyone more suited for that than him?
Now, pair him with a now 2-time MVP who also had his time as baseball’s villain, and then put them in a ferociously devoted city desperate to rekindle glory years that seem so far away. Now you have two superstar players with the swagger and ego to bring their city to life after a decade of forgettable mediocrity. It’s a tantalizing story isn’t it?
Now, place this team in a division with the defending National Champions (that, by the way, defeated Correa’s Astros in the World Series), and what many deem as the “team to watch” this year in the New York Mets, and in the immortal words of Carl Weathers “Baby, you got a stew goin’!”.
There’s other moves than just signing Correa to improve the Phils, but even just starting there could deliver the desired result. The truth is, baseball needs exactly what a Correa injected Phillies team could bring. A team the game loves to hate and is forced to respect. A team so engaging that we can’t take our eyes off them, even if they make us mad. Fans need that music to start playing and get us excited about baseball again. Think about it, after all… Who doesn’t love a good villain origin story?