While searching for words to describe Phillies fans early in this baseball season, one word kept popping up: Giddy.
Not just happy or excited or satisfied – giddy. The way the Phillies started the season and the manner in which Bryce Harper was accepted into the pantheon of Philadelphia sports heroes in less than a week had people talking about baseball in early April like it was late October.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the giddiness is the fact that nobody really knew what to expect from this team. On paper, it was greatly improved, especially with the late addition of Harper to their outfield, but there were still question marks, mainly because this team was basically filled with strangers when spring training began.
That’s the biggest difference between this Phillies team and the last one that captured the fans’ hearts like this, the group that won the 2008 World Series and dominated National League East for years. That team was filled with players that had come up through the Phillies farm system and they were gradually worked into the lineup. We knew Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins before they melded into one of the best teams in baseball.
Not this group. Phillies fans were certainly familiar with Harper, but they didn’t know what to expect from J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen and they had no idea what they were like as people.
Now, of course, they love them, because all three played well in the early going when the Phillies steamrolled to a 5-0 start. The Phils have cooled off some recently, mostly because of some shaky relief pitching, but they’re still in first place and the fans are still coming out in droves to watch them play.
However, the biggest surprise so far has been the play of the bottom of the order, even though it shouldn’t have been. Those three players – Odubel Herrera, Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco – didn’t even know if they would be on the Phillies this year, and so far that has been the most productive part of the batting order.
Still, despite the contributions from the new players and the old players, it’s been the play and personality of Harper that has everybody talking. He has made a point to ingratiate himself with the fans and done his best to identify with them and they, in turn, have embraced him like they have few athletes who just came to town.
The irony to that is if you were to ask those fans, many and maybe even most of them will admit they disliked Harper when he played for Washington. The same brashness and flair they love now, they hated then.
It was that way when the Eagles traded for wide receiver Terrell Owens in 2004. Owens was even more controversial and outlandish than Harper, the kind of athlete than fans love to hate. But when he came to Philadelphia, those same fans packed training camp at Lehigh University to get a glimpse of him and no player got more adulation than T.O.
Of course, Owens was with the Eagles for just one-and-a-half seasons and Harper is signed, sealed and delivered for 13 years, but as far as first impressions go, both of those talented and temperamental stars were immediate hits with the fans, on and off the field.
After the Phillies went to 4-0 with their series-opening victory over the Nationals, Elias Sports Bureau came up with this interesting statistic – this was the first time the Phils started 4-0 since 1915 (when they lost to the Red Sox in the World Series) and that 103-year streak without going 4-0 is the longest in baseball history – and NFL history and NBA history and NHL history.
The Phils needed to get off to that quick start to ensure that their bandwagon would be filled early in the season. Now they have to prove that they’re in it for the long haul and show the fans that their giddiness isn’t misplaced. National League East is a tough division and it won’t be easy, but the Phillies are relevant again for the first time in a decade, and with their mostly-young roster, the team that lost 96 games just two years ago should be relevant for the next decade.
It’s hard to stay giddy for that long and Phillies fans will eventually come back to earth. But for now, they should just enjoy the ride and see where it takes them.