Sitting in the dugout moments before Roy Halladay would go out and no-hit the Reds in Game 1 of the 2010 NLCS, Aaron Harang got a taste of what Citizens Bank Park could be like.
"The intensity level even before the game started was insane," recalled Harang, probably never dreaming that day he’d wind up a Phil four years later. "The whole day and night as Doc was pitching it became more intense. Towels were flying constantly. Everybody was into it."
"As a visitor it was tough to come in here," agreed another Phils’ newcomer, Chad Billingsley, who as a Dodger was rocked for all eight runs in an 8-5 loss in Game 2 of the 2008 LCS, then surrendered two runs in a 2009 LCS relief stint in Game 3. "The crowd was always into it. It’s nice to be on the other side and not getting yelled out. Sitting in the dugout you’d hear the fans really into the game."
That was then — back when the Phillies were in the midst of their five-year run of N.L. East titles. Back when filling the ballpark to capacity was the norm,, no matter who the opponent, no matter what the weather, no matter what else was happening around town.
My, how times have changed. The place that once sold out a National League record 257 games in a row from July 7, 2009 to August 5, 2012, now is routinely little more than half-filled. Not only have the 2015 Phillies plummeted in the standings, their rabid fan base has pretty much disappeared.
Take away the 45,549 who sold out the place Opening Day — many of whom likely were there to cheer on the Red Sox — and the average attendance through Monday is just 24,819. And while it’s still nice to bring the family to the ballpark or hang out with friends — especially now that you can get discounted tickets on Groupon — the fervor that made Citizens Park Bank so intimidating for visitors and so welcoming for the home team simply no longer exists.
After all, when management says the earliest the team can expect to contend is 2017, many figure why show up to support a lost cause?
"I’ve played in a lot of places and Philly fans expect a lot from their players," said the 37-year-old Harang, now with his eighth team in 14 years. "They expect to win all the time. They’ve had a couple of tough years, but they expect what they had before. It’s tough when your organization goes through a rebuild and isn’t up to past standards. You understand it as a player, but when you’re a fan and your team’s had success it’s hard."
Especially if you’ve lived through all those highs before the lows started bringing them down.
"The fans have been behind us a long time," said Carlos Ruiz, who along with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels are the lone survivors from the 2008 World Champions. "They want to see good baseball. Hopefully at some point it will change and we’ll start playing better baseball and win some games and make everybody happy. But definitely it’s different from before."
Because playing here never used to be much fun for visiting players.
"When they started winning it was tough to play here, especially with these fans," said current Phil Jeff Francoeur, who spent his first 4 ½ seasons with the Braves. "They love all their teams up here and are gonna get behind you. But you have to go out and perform.’’
Players will argue that it’s no different here than anywhere else. Win and they’ll love you and come out. Lose and they’ll stay away. Still, it’s shocking to see all those empty rows of blue seats and hear the silence reverberate around the same yard where you sometimes thought they might blow the roof off.
"It’s loud and it used to be intimidating for a lot of teams coming in," said 2008 LCS hero turned broadcaster, Matt Stairs. "You do see a lot of empty seats now, but it’s expected They have to basically earn the respect of getting fans back by putting a competitive team on the field."
Until then, for the most part, Citizens Bank Park will rest in peace.