Red October is Back
This is a love story between Bryce Harper and Phillies fans. It’s been a roller coaster ride as Phillies fans over the last 20 years. To understand true love, one must revisit the love and the pain from the past.
The year was 2002, and Jim Thome decided to make a Free Agency tour around the City of Brotherly Love. No one worked that day. Everyone sat around the radio and hoped to God that Jim would flip that switch and hear the immense love, intensity, and emotion from the Phillies faithful. Jim Thome met with construction workers on the side of the road. It was pure bliss. I was getting ready for my senior year in high school and starving.
The Phillies Becoming a Major Market
When it was announced that Thome signed a 6-year deal with the Phillies, a buffet of emotions emerged that I thought had been buried forever. I kept thinking: This is a football town, why would a top tier free agent sign with us? In seven of the previous nine seasons, the Phillies hadn’t won more than 80 games. They missed the postseason for the ninth straight season and had several young stars ready to grab the city of Philadelphia by the grip of their palms. The amount of love Jim Thome received that day from Philly Sports talk radio was something I had never seen before.
2003 was an incredibly emotional time, and I was at ground zero for all of it. I was a freshman at Temple University and witnessed the last season at Veterans Stadium. Many of my fondest childhood memories took place at the Vet with my family as a young fan. On a cold night in September, I was amongst thousands of fans on the field to watch fireworks after the last game against the Atlanta Braves. There were Phillies fans all around me carving up the turf in order to take a piece home with them. It was a truly unforgettable moment.
The Golden Years: 2004-2011
It was my first weekend on campus as a Temple student in early September 2004. There were parties and concerts all around the Philadelphia area being promoted by Temple. A great time to be had for sure, but I wanted none of it. As the social outcast that I am, I instead decided to stay in my dorm room and watch Ryan Howard’s debut with the Philadelphia Phillies on my 15-inch TV that I got from Walmart.
Citizens Bank Park had opened in April of 2004 and was the place to be as a cheap, college student. For 10 bucks as part of their college student promotion, I could get a train token, a Phillies ticket, and a hot dog. For the majority of my college career, tailgating at a Phillies game was the place to be during the spring and summer.
Similar to most of you, I didn’t miss a single pitch between the years of 2004 and 2011. Watching home grown guys like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard rise to fame was an unforgettable experience. I grew up with these guys in Reading, and now they were stars in Philadelphia. There was a deep connection between these Phillies players and the fans.
Watching Ryan Howard hobble down the first base line after tearing his Achilles in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS was a pure nightmare. It felt like watching your own son fail as a red knife tore through my heart. It felt like breaking up with a long-term girlfriend for the very first time. In some ways, I am still very much recovering from this.
The Muck Years: 2012-2018
A dark cloud hovered above Philadelphia in 2012 when the Phillies had signed RHP Jonathan Papelbon to a 4-year deal. From the beginning, the Phillies didn’t seem to have that edge like in years past. Jayson Werth was in Washington, Halladay required surgery, and Blanton and Victorino were later traded. It just didn’t feel the same. The Phillies finished 3rd in the NL East and the writing was on the wall that it was time to move on. Or was it?
The next six years of Phillies baseball were a necessary evil. Between 2013 and 2017, Phillies won an average of 71 games. Fan attendance went from best in the MLB to among the worst. Gabe Kapler and the 2018 Phillies shocked everyone by leading the NL East and being 10+ games over .500 for the majority of the season. As expected, the Phillies didn’t have enough to get into the playoffs. However, excitement slowly began to creep back up with the emergence of Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins.
A Sleeping Giant Emerges
This is a love story, and any love story requires a certain amount of drama. The dreadful 2.5 months of agony while waiting for Bryce Harper to sign feels like ages ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t on social media like Twitter during the previous playoff runs. I knew our fans traveled well, because I was one of them who made countless Phillies trips to Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Boston.
Taking an hour off of work to watch Bryce Harper stretch and take BP during Spring Training was eerily similar to watching Dario Saric walk through an airport when he had first arrived in Philadelphia. This is when I knew that the Red March was officially here.
After a somewhat forgettable Spring Training for Bryce Harper and some chatter that he wasn’t ready for live pitching, the season opener was finally here. Harper jerseys were everywhere. There was a buzz around the stadium that hadn’t been seen since the 2011 run. Baseball was officially back in Philadelphia.
Bryce Harper made his debut with the Philadelphia Phillies on March 28th, 2019. While he was hitless, the amount of love shared between Harper and his fans was something that couldn’t be missed. The electricity was not only felt between Bryce and Phillies fans. Bryce Harper had a clear connection with Rhys Hoskins and the rest of the team. Harper finished his debut going 0-3 with a walk, but the Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves 10-4.
“MVP” Chants Echoing Through CBP
It only took two games of Bryce Harper as a Phillie to hear “MVP” chants echoing off the walls of Citizens Bank Park. Hitless in his first 5 at bats, Bryce Harper walked up to the plate in the 7th inning and a 6-4 Phillies lead. To the delight of Phillies fans everywhere, a 465-foot bomb soared into the upper deck. It was the home run heard around baseball and a moment I will never forget.
Similar to the first game, Bryce Harper found himself in the 7th inning and a 3-1 Phillies lead the next day. Bryce had the jaws of Phillies fans touching the ground after hitting his second home run in three games. This one was a 398-foot shot to right field.
Igniting a Fan Base
For years, Citizens Bank Park South could be found in Washington D.C. During the Phillies’ run in between 2004-2011, 80% of fans at Nationals Park were Phillies fans whenever Philadelphia was in town. What I saw from Phillies fans during a recent Phillies series in Washington was something I hope to never forget. Here are some of my favorite moments from Phillies fans in Washington.
The Golden Age: 2019-???
Bryce Harper is batting .500 (8/13) with 3 home runs and 5 RBIs. Most importantly, opposing pitchers cannot keep Bryce off the basepaths. Harper has a ridiculous .652 on base percentage and has already drawn 7 walks. Are you kidding me?
In only five games, I’ve never seen a professional athlete ignite a fanbase like Bryce Harper has done in Philadelphia. The excitement level for the Phillies is on a level that hasn’t been seen since the deep playoff runs between 2008 and 2011. Bryce Harper is must see TV every time he steps into the on-deck circle.
First and foremost, this is a love story. The past week has made us quickly forget that 6-year void of baseball with Phillies fans across the nation. Like any partnership, there will be peaks and there will be valleys. There will surely be drop-offs and difficult moments over these next 13 years. At least so far this season, our heads are in the clouds. Just promise me that you won’t let me touch ground until the start of Red October.