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The 2020 Phillies' biggest hit might just be those cardboard cutouts in the stands

The Phillies and other major-league teams were looking for a way to make TV broadcasts more appealing. And it gave the announcers a few stories to tell.

The Phillie Phanatic pretends to hype up an empty crowd of cardboard cutouts during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Citizens Bank Park in August.
The Phillie Phanatic pretends to hype up an empty crowd of cardboard cutouts during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Citizens Bank Park in August.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

They are undersize, immobile, and, for the most part, inexperienced, but when this strange 2020 baseball season has concluded, they likely will be remembered as some of the best role players in Phillies history.

Enlisted to provide a visual and spiritual boost to Phillies telecasts during a COVID-19 pandemic that has shut out live fans, the cardboard-cutout crowd that silently inhabits Citizens Bank Park has, unlike the team itself, exceeded expectations.

Colorful, whimsical, and, maybe most common of all, sentimental, the 10,000 photographs that fill most of the ballpark’s lower bowl and spots in the upper have added a welcome dimension to what otherwise would have been a cold and dismal baseball atmosphere.

“I love it,” said Phillies broadcaster Tom McCarthy. “When I walk in from the upper deck and look down at it, I get overwhelmed.”

Phillies officials said they’d heard nothing but positive reviews from TV viewers, players, even umpires, all of whom insist the faux fans have made difficult circumstances a little more palatable.

“The other night I went up into the right-field seats,” said Scott Brandreth, the team’s director of merchandising. “The cutouts make for a really colorful scene, a cool color palette. It’s much better than seeing nothing but plain blue seats.”

The concept of these muted mobs has caught on throughout baseball, with clubs charging fees of between $25 and $300 for each photographic representation. And while the Phillies themselves are nowhere near the top of the standings, they might be leading the league in the number and variety of cutouts.

“I was nervous that people really wouldn’t be that interested,” said Carolyn Saveri, the team’s brand-management manager. “What if we only sold 500? There were some sleepless nights. But the minute they went on sale … I knew it would be a huge success.”

With their truncated regular season nearing a close, the Phillies recently cut off sales, though they’re still adding a few pop-ups to highlight special events. This weekend, for example, in conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month, several will be installed to honor former Latin stars like Tony Taylor, Manny Trillo, and Carlos Ruiz.

“Ruben Amaro got three, one for him, one for Ruben Sr., and one for his grandfather, who was a baseball legend in Cuba,” said Brandreth.

Roam the ballpark and you’ll find row after row of red-clad fans, their children, their dogs. Many reference recently deceased fans.

The medical personnel who occupy a Diamond Club section reside adjacent to the gold-rimmed photos of cancer-stricken children. There are former Phillies stars, former Phillies broadcasters, former Phillies executives.

The world-champion 1980 Phils observe from an outfield upper deck. Ben Franklin sits in a prominent spot. So do Connie Mack and Walt Whitman. You can even find Chewbacca of Star Wars fame and all the Big 5 mascots.

Not all the thousands of photographic candidates were accepted. Among those rejected was one of a Dallas Cowboys fan.

“This all just came about organically,” said Brandreth. “The broadcasts were looking for things to talk about. The Phanatic was looking for things to do. And it’s a great visual for the broadcasters to zoom in on these people and talk about them.”

The cutouts are more than seat-fillers. They’ve helped celebrate promotions like those honoring the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues or Childhood Cancer Awareness Night.

The Phillies have employed them lightheartedly. Their two world-champion general managers, for example, Pat Gillick and Paul Owens, sit next to each other. Bob Uecker has a familiar spot in the last row. Ryan Howard rests in right-field’s upper deck, at the spot one of his longest home runs landed. And the wives of Larry Bowa and Charlie Manuel requested that their husbands be placed side-by-side.

Their presence has allowed broadcasters to digress from game action. A Dick Allen cutout appeared in camera range days before the team retired his number, sparking conversation about the former Phillies slugger’s Hall of Fame chances. McCarthy bought one on which the head of his former TV partner, Chris Wheeler, a rabid Penn State fan, was playfully superimposed atop a Nittany Lions uniform.

The Phanatic, without a live audience to entertain, uses them as foils. During a recent Mets game, he poured popcorn over the photo of a man in a Mets cap. When Baltimore was in town, he escorted the cutout of an Orioles fan to the remote top of the stadium and abandoned it there.

Almost none of that could have been anticipated this spring when Phillies marketing officials, desperate to compensate for an empty ballpark, stumbled on the concept.

German soccer gets the ball rolling

The idea was born with a German soccer fan who, in March, unable to attend his favorite Bundesliga team’s games, sent in a cardboard photo of himself to be placed in the stands. He then set up a website that allowed others to do the same.

“We took a look at what they’d done in Germany and just started down that road,” said Brandreth. “We had no idea how many we’d get or what it would look like.”

The Phillies contracted with a Seattle tech firm to establish a website, then solicited participants. Fans were charged $40 per cutout, $25 if they were season-ticket holders. The proceeds will benefit Phillies-related charities.

The photos fans submitted were transformed into 18-inch-by-36 inch cardboard cutouts by a Philadelphia printer, Color Reflections. The first batch, doctors and nurses who worked with COVID patients, appeared during the season’s first week.

Soon the vanity and whimsy that initially drove the public’s interest gave way to sentiment and nostalgia.

“There are a lot of cool stories out there,” said Brandreth. “Just walking around you can see that there’s something behind a lot of them.”

Greg Stever, for example, paid tribute to his father, Robert, a longtime season-ticket holder who passed away last October at 67.

“The last game my father went to, we had traded in a couple of our games for Hall Of Fame-level tickets,” said Stever, a Northeast Philadelphia resident whose family has had outfield seats since Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004. “We all went down and got pictures of my father. One was of him in his wheelchair holding his 2-year-old granddaughter in his lap. She had a pretzel in one hand and the other hand in his popcorn. That’s the one I sent in.”

Stever’s two-person cutout landed in a prime spot, a Diamond Club seat right behind home plate. When he saw the location during a telecast, he “was flabbergasted.”

“It’s been such a positive for us,” said Stever. “Family and friends are contacting us all the time saying, `Did you just see them on television?'”

Coleen Leahy of Collegeville created one for her grandmother, Edith Byrnes, a devoted Phillies fan who died at 93 in early 2009, just weeks after the team she loved won the World Series.

“When we were watching the game and saw the promotion, we thought it would be really awesome to honor her,” said Leahy." She was such a fan that she kept statistics in a little notebook. So it was cool for all of us to see her back in the stands, on the third-base side, which is where she liked to sit."

Actor Miles Teller, a Downingtown native, purchased two, one for him and one for his late grandmother, who introduced him to Phillies baseball.

Some cutouts were struck by foul balls or home runs. At some point, the team decided that any dented by a Phillies homer would be replaced by one of the hitter. Now they’re contemplating gathering all those who were bumped into one location.

Where will they go next?

Once 2020 the season wraps up, and assuming normalcy returns in 2021, the Phillies will have a decision to make: What to do with the cutouts, many of which have now developed a fan base of their own?

“We haven’t quite figured all that out yet,” Brandreth said. “We’ll take them down at some point, but we’re not sure what we’re going to do. We hope to get them to fans, but we’ll have to see how that would work logistically.”

Until then, the lifeless cardboard collection will continue to provide a vivid backdrop in a ballpark where several dozen live players try to deal with an unimaginable situation.

“Sometimes when we do a high first-base or third-base shot with the camera and you look out and see all the faces in the background,” said McCarthy, “it’s a bit overwhelming.”