There is a different feeling in the air then there was at this time last year or the year before that or the year before that. People are excited, but there isn’t the giddiness or the (yes) smugness that marked the start of spring training the last few seasons. Everyone is still excited about the Phillies’ prospects and they anticipate another fun season of baseball, but the swagger is gone.
And that creaking sound you just heard was either the window of opportunity starting to close on the Phillies or the aging and aching joints of their core players.
This time last year, Phillies fans were planning a parade down Broad Street, but that parade ended up winding through the streets of St. Louis instead, just like it did in San Francisco the year before that and in New York the year before that.
Phillies fans now know that having a great pitching staff isn’t enough to guarantee a World Series championship. They know that no matter how many games their team wins in the regular season — even if it’s a record number of wins — all that matters is the post-season and their team has fallen short the last three years. And that’s why Phillies fans aren’t bouncing off the walls like they did last year or the year before that or the year before that.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of excitement and anticipation as another baseball season gets underway. Pitchers and catchers reported this weekend and the rest of the players report this week and pretty soon they’ll be heading north for the start of the season. And no matter what happens in late October, that’s a good thing to hear in late February.
Especially around here, where the Phillies have enjoyed a run of success unparalleled in their history and fans have been just a tad spoiled because their heroes have been so good and so much fun to watch. Every year, it seems, there has been a fresh reason for that excitement and anticipation, whether it was defending a World Series championship or trading for Roy Halladay or signing Cliff Lee.
This year is no different – hello, Jonathan Papelbon – and there’s no question the 2012 Phillies will be good. But will good be good enough? It wasn’t in 2009, when the Phillies won 93 games and lost in the World Series. It wasn’t in 2010, when they won 97 games and lost in the NL Championship Series. It wasn’t in 2011, when they won a team-record 102 games and then got bounced in the first round by the Cardinals, who barely squeaked into the playoffs and then won it all.
There’s a definite pattern there, in case you didn’t notice it – the Phillies have progressively done worse in the playoffs every year since they won the World Series in 2008, even though they’ve added an All-Star pitcher every season since then. This is not news, of course, but the heart of the Phillies order, the three men who have done more than anybody else to elevate this franchise to elite status, aren’t the same players they were in 2007 and 2008 and even 2009. They’re older and in the last couple of seasons they’ve been more brittle. And now Ryan Howard will miss the first part of the season as he rehabs a torn Achillies tendon and Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are coming off terrible seasons, at least by their All-Star standards.
Utley and Rollins have had an offseason to heal now, but nobody knows which Utley and Rollins we’ll see in 2012. Was last season a fluke or the future?
The Phillies have overhauled their bullpen and tweaked their bench and they still have three of the best starting pitchers in the game. They will be good and even though they won’t win 102 games again, they should win the division again. And that’s pretty good.
But this team is supposed to be more than that. It’s supposed to win the World Series, not just another division title. And that’s why the fans will ho-hum their way through the regular season, no matter how many games the Phillies win in June or July or even September. Instead of waving their fingers in the air and shouting “We’re number one!” the fans will keep their fingers crossed and hope that the team that has dominated the regular season the last few years can once again dominate the postseason.