Constructing a winner

Phillies: A franchise accustomed to failure builds up expectations with a new ballpark and retooled roster.

National League Focus

April 02, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The Philadelphia Phillies may be one of the oldest franchises in baseball, but the 2004 season will be all about newness.

New stadium.

New attitude.

New era.

That should be obvious to anyone who ventures up Interstate 95 this spring. Stolid Veterans Stadium, a dominant characteristic of the Philly skyline for more than 30 years, has been replaced by sparkling Citizens Bank Park - the third jewel in the nation's newest, brightest multi-sport complex.

Talk about an organizational renaissance. The Phillies also moved into a beautiful new spring training complex this year and have put together a team that is expected to end the Atlanta Braves' longstanding dynasty in the National League East.

"Even the atmosphere here [in Florida] is different," said shortstop Jimmy Rollins. "It just gives you something else to look forward to, and it's going to breathe new life into baseball in Philadelphia."

It's about time. The Phillies haven't reached the postseason since 1993. They have not won a world title since fiery manager Larry Bowa was the starting shortstop.

This is the year it is all supposed to change. Philadelphia sports fans have grown tired of watching the Phillies fizzle in September and the Eagles exit before late January.

From the ground up

The new facilities are great, but it really isn't an issue of brick and mortar. Citizens Bank Park, the latest architectural reincarnation of Camden Yards, is a symbol of the baseball revival that really has been in the works for the better part of a decade.

"From a baseball standpoint, we started back in 1996 and '97 to get our minor league system straightened out," general manager Ed Wade said. "The continuation of that commitment and the revenue that our new ballpark should produce hopefully should put us in position to be competitive this year and for a long time to come."

The new park is located just east of where The Vet stood until it was imploded two weeks ago to make room for an additional 5,000 parking spaces. The red brick and dark green steel are more than reminiscent of Oriole Park, and the similarities don't stop there. There's even a "Bull's BBQ" on the outfield concourse, where stocky former Phillies star Greg Luzinski will greet customers and sign autographs.

Ticket sales, not surprisingly, have been brisk. The ballpark opens for the regular season April 12 (though there are a pair of exhibition games there this weekend) and the club already has sold about 2.3 million tickets.

"We're seeing a level of excitement that we haven't seen in some time," Wade said.

And why not? The Phillies are going from a stark, cookie-cutter '70s throwback to a cozy, new-age facility with every imaginable amenity for both the fans and players.

"It's great," said big-swinging first baseman Jim Thome. "It gets everybody excited. It just revitalizes everybody. They've also done some things [to upgrade the team], and that just adds to that excitement."

Thome is something of a symbol himself. The Phillies telegraphed their intention to put a big-time contender into their new park when they signed him to a huge contract before the 2003 season.

Pitching a cornerstone

The club added three more key pieces this past winter with the acquisitions of premier closer Billy Wagner from the Houston Astros and starting pitcher Eric Milton from the Minnesota Twins and the signing of free-agent reliever Tim Worrell.

Milton fleshes out a solid rotation that already included No. 1 starter Kevin Millwood and three other pitchers who won at least 14 games last year, but Wagner - who saved 44 games last year and had a tiny 1.78 ERA in 78 appearances - clearly was the most important offseason arrival.

Worrell was a bonus. The Phillies didn't even have him on their offseason wish list because he saved 38 games for the San Francisco Giants last year, but he was open to pitching in setup relief alongside veteran Rheal Cormier.

"I think out of all the closers in baseball, the top three are [Eric] Gagne, [John] Smoltz and Billy Wagner," Bowa said. "To have one of them is obviously a feather in our cap. Then to have Worrell to go with Cormier in the setup roles, as a manager, you know that there's nobody out there saying, `How am I going to handle this?' I don't think there's any situation that these guys haven't been in."

The bullpen was a major weakness last year, when the Phillies tried to get by with veteran Jose Mesa and ranked 15th in the National League with 33 saves. Mesa saved just 24 games and his seven losses loomed large when the team finished five games behind the wild-card world-champion Florida Marlins.

The top four starting pitchers still put up very representative numbers, which only raises the level of expectation for this year's rotation.

"On paper, we've got a very good starting rotation, but paper doesn't win ballgames," Millwood said. "I think everybody expects to do very well this year. If we don't, it's going to be a huge disappointment."

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