In Phillies, Nats see the future

As hopeless as things seem for baseball lovers in Washington, a look at the NLCS can show you that the future can be as sunny as the present is currently bleak.

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There's hope for the Nationals, and the Phillies are an example of what's possible.

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The Nationals don't have to travel far -- about 100 minutes, on any train heading north out of Union Station -- to see what's possible, in a jewel of a ballpark, Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park.

The Phillies are an example of what's possible in a major market when a new stadium, smart drafting and development, good fortune, fan support, patience, and most importantly, ownership dollars, combine to build a colossus, in Philly's case, one that is trying to reach its third straight World Series and win its second in three years. There's no guarantee it will work out that way for the Nats. But it's possible, if the Lerner Family does what the equally reticent Phillies ownership group has done in the past decade. There are people in Philadelphia who say the team's success happened in spite of the owners, not because of them. Maybe. But it still happened.

"Any team can be this team, eventually," Brian Schneider, the Phillies' backup catcher and former National, said last week, as the Phillies were dispatching the Reds in the Division Series. "But the success this team's had the last couple of years, there's a reason why it doesn't happen very often. This is a special team, it really is. Any team can piece the right guys together, but it's not that easy."

A decade ago, the Phillies were in a relatively similar position to where the Nationals are now: playing in an NL East with a dynasty (the Braves were in the middle of their 14 straight division titles), a Mets team that spent lavishly, if not correctly, and a Marlins team always re-arming itself with good prospects. Okay, the Phils were an 80+ win team then, something the Nats can only dream of. But they weren't going anywhere.

"When Ed (Wade, the former general manager) hired me in '98, our mantra was to try to get good and stay good," said current GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. "And the only way you can do that is through player development and scouting. And we had to do it by drafting right and developing right. Our core players are the guys that are home grown. That was the kind of the beginning, the genesis of where we are today."

In 2001, the Phillies' payroll was a little more than $41 million, and the team's star players were guys like Bobby Abreu, Scott Rolen, Marlon Anderson, Pat Burrell and Johnny Estrada. (Jimmy Rollins was in his second season with the big club.) The team drew 1.78 million fans to dilapidated, cookie cutter Veterans Stadium, 14th overall in the National League. The Phils were eight years removed from their last postseason appearance, the '93 World Series coughed up by Mitch Williams. And the team's owners were viewed as cheap, lacking in vision, unwilling to make hard choice or to open the purse strings, as evidenced by their inability and/or unwillingness to pay what it took to sign J.D. Drew, the second pick overall in the 1997 amateur draft.

This sounds familiar, unless you've managed to put the unfortunate business with Aaron Crow out of your mind, which would be understandable.

But with $260 million in taxpayer money helping to build what would become Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies' owners started to dust the cobwebs off of their collective checkbook.

In late 2002 -- supposedly at the urging of minority partner John Middleton -- the Phillies, who had finished 80-81 that year, surprised many in baseball by signing free agent slugger Jim Thome to a six-year, $85 million deal that made him the highest-paid player in club history. That followed a four-year, $17 million deal the team made with All-Star third baseman David Bell. In 2003, Philly acquired closer Billy Wagner from the Astros. But Citizens didn't open until 2004, and even then, there was no guarantee it would produce the kind of revenue necessary to compete with the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox.

Yet the Phillies did some deficit spending. They spent for veterans who could help them win enough until their young guys -- Rollins, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Ryan Madsen and Ryan Howard -- were ready to win big. They built a bridge from their desultory present to the potential of their future. They made a commitment to their fan base.

It didn't make them into a title contender (Philly finished second again in the NL East in 2004), but it showed their fans they were willing to go all in, and seriously. The fans responded with a gate of 3.25 million, good for second in the National League. And the fans have been coming ever since.

"Obviously, we knew when we got in this ballpark, our revenues would be different," Amaro said. "And as we told our fans, we work off of the revenues that we can create here, and our payroll ... would justify that. And that's what's happened. The fans have been so loyal, so extraordinary, to the point where we've been able to do these things. We've been able to get Roy Oswalt. We've been able to get Roy Halladay. We were able to make certain trades that we certainly wouldn't have been able to do without the support of the fans."

The Phils plucked Shane Victorino from the Dodgers in the 2005 Rule 5 draft, offered him back to the Dodgers when he didn't make the big club, but had to keep him when L.A. declined to re-acquire him. (See? Luck.) By 2006, the kids were ready to take over. Philadelphia traded Thome to make room for Howard at first base. Utley and Rollins were set up the middle. Carlos Ruiz, a near afterthought of a draft pick, blossomed into a top-flight catcher. Philly gambled that Jayson Werth could stay healthy enough to get through a full season in right field. (He has. Lucky, again. Why is it that the teams who work at it the hardest seem to have all the luck?)

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