Spring training is a time of blooming optimism, a six-week prelude to the long season when every player is in the best shape of his life and every team is a threat to win it all. The Phillies are reporting to sunny Clearwater, but I see clouds on the horizon.
The cold reality is that the Phils have already peaked in this unprecedented era of prosperity. They are not as good as they were last season, with an inevitable further decline looming ahead. Fans aren’t trading in their Phillies hats and shirts for Sixers stuff yet, but they know.
At last count — one day after single-game tickets went on sale last Thursday — the Phils had sold 3.1 million tickets for the season, an extraordinary number until it was revealed that 3.3 million were gone at the same point in 2011. Thank you, Cliff Lee, who giveth with that big free-agent deal a year ago and then taketh away by blowing Game 2 of the divisional playoffs.
The fans are too smart in Philadelphia to buy into the hype of the 2012 Phillies. Too smart to believe that Chase Utley will blossom back into elite status after three down years. Too smart to expect old players to appear young again, and way too smart to think that three aces are somehow better than four.
So how can the Phils defy age and win another World Series? Ironically, it all starts with the oldest man in uniform, 68-year-old Charlie Manuel, whose plodding managerial style must change. If Manuel spends another year playing for three-run innings when one is enough, the Phillies will fail again. If his batters remain impatient and addicted to the long ball, they will lose.
Even after the loss of Roy Oswalt, the Phillies have the best starting pitching in the game, and they need to play to that strength. They need to outpitch improved NL East teams like the Marlins and Nationals, neither of whom has a starting arsenal — nor a closer like Jonathan Papelbon — that matches theirs. Can Manuel adapt his style to small ball? That’s the biggest question of 2012.
The other issues are harder to control. Can Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz avoid major injuries for a change — and Ryan Howard, too, when he comes back from his season-ending torn Achilles? Can young setup guys Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes perform at a high level again? Can the Phillies overcome a hot playoff team like the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals?
Philadelphia knows better than to think it’s going to be easy this time around. Those 200,000 fewer tickets sold are speaking loudly and clearly. Time is running out on this era of success, and one championship isn’t enough.
Welcome to spring training 2012, the start of a season that offers our best — and maybe last — chance to win it all.
Banner ruins it
As part of the PR strategy after a disappointing season, Eagles president Joe Banner has taken a step back, allowing owner Jeff Lurie and coach Andy Reid to do most of the public spinning. This is a wise choice, given Banner’s tone-deaf style.
Still, Banner couldn’t help himself when it came time to announce the Eagles would not be raising season-ticket prices. It was an honorable gesture, though understandable given the nightmarish exploits of the Dream Team. But Banner couldn’t just let the decision speak for itself. No, he had to go and ruin it.
“This is something we’re thrilled to be able to do,” said Banner in a letter to fans. “There aren’t many teams who are selling out their stadiums and have a waiting list of more than 40,000 who are doing that. In fact, I would say there aren’t any teams like that who haven’t raised prices for four years.”
Banner felt compelled to remind everyone just how honorable he was being, and then crowned the Eagles champions of NFL fan fairness. Is there any other way to interpret that?
Andy Reid is an arrogant, paranoid man, but as long as Banner is around, Reid will never be the team’s worst spokesman.
Bryz can’t take heat
Ilya Bryzgalov is a generous man. On the ice, the Flyers goaltender has been helping the confidence of every opponent during a horrific first season in Philadelphia. Off the ice, he has invited us into a sports nightmare, his tortured adjustment to a city whose passion is proving fatal to his game.
After a 6-4 loss to Pittsburgh, the outspoken Russian called himself a “scapegoat” for the decline of the Flyers, and then he said something that was stunning in its honesty.
“I’m just trying to find peace in my soul to play in this city,” he said.
In the macho world of sports, this kind of comment is never uttered, though often pondered. How many times have we heard speculation that a sensitive player cannot perform in the demanding Northeast, where fans from Boston to Philadelphia have made sports a lifestyle.
The most vivid example of this phenomenon is Bryzgalov, who was a superstar in Russia, a Stanley Cup winner in Anaheim and enough of a standout in Phoenix to earn a $51 million contract with the Flyers. He has never faced the kind of adversity he is dealing with this season — nor apparently, the pressure.
Will he ever adjust to our demands? Will he ever fill a Flyers goaltending void now in its second decade since Ron Hextall’s heyday? Will Bryzgalov ever find the peace in his soul to play well in Philadelphia?
According to his contract, he has eight more years to find answers to those questions. Eight more years. Wow.
– Angelo Cataldi is the host of 94 WIP’s Morning Show, which airs weekdays 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Metro does not endorse the opinions of the author, or any opinions expressed on its pages.
Opposing viewpoints are welcome. Send submissions to lettersmetro.us.