SHANE VICTORINO had been replaced in centerfield during a home exhibition game.
A bunch of kids were frolicking in the grass outside the leftfield players' entrance to the ballpark. One of the kids was a lot bigger than the others.
It was the Flyin' Hawaiian, rolling in the grass with the kids . . . They were having a blast, a Gold Glove outfielder and a half-dozen boys and girls of various ages, laughing and tumbling.
A few days earlier, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley were gathered around a fan in a wheelchair. The fan had opened his Phillies jersey to display the letters tattooed on his chest: ALS. The letters were there to alert emergency responders of his Lou Gehrig's disease affliction in case he should need treatment.
"They were with the gentleman for quite some time," Phillies president David Montgomery said after observing the interaction of three star players with a fan who represented the ALS charity the Phillies have supported for decades. "It was a special thing to see. It was nothing planned or set up. They were just there talking to the man."
I was having dinner with friends one night. The owner came over and pointed to a couple across the dining room.
"They're the owners of the Mayfair Diner in Philly," he said. "They want to buy you a glass of wine for all the Clearwater recommendations that helped them have a great time during their stay."
Hey, I have done a column before spring training advising fans planning a visit to the Clearwater area on the best restaurants along the beaches and other tidbits I have picked up during 45 spring trainings. No big deal. It's what I do each year. I think the Gulf beaches of Pinellas County are Florida at its best and the New Age Phillies are part of that excellence.
Frank Chivas owns five enormously popular restaurants in the area and has been involved in some Phillies charities.
"I was talking to Frank and he said not a night goes by without a large number of Phillies fans in his restaurants," Montgomery said. "He's never seen anything like it."
On four consecutive home dates as spring training counted down, the Red Sea - it was a Green Sea on St. Patrick's Day - overwashed the low-rise, 8,500-seat ballpark that features the same walk-around ambience as Citizens Bank Park. The attendance record of 10,902 for the final Yankees game was topped by two berm-sunning fans the next day against the Red Sox.
The Phillies' best-of-days period has set the bar so high the ticket-sales people might have to turn the calendar page to 2012 before a home game starts without a standing-room crowd.
In the best of times, it is hard for me to believe there were the worst of times. They included the end years in Connie Mack Stadium, when 15,000 was enough to make owner Bob Carpenter giddy, when a sellout converged on the old dump on the final night of the 1970 season and became a milling, human wrecking ball. Fans were lugging urinals into the night, whole rows of seats, anything unable to withstand a crowbar. A helicopter hovered over doomed Mack, ready to transport home plate to the Veterans Stadium construction site - if only they could locate the fans who dug it out of the dirt seconds after the Phillies fled from the field like world-class sprinters.
There have been other levitations in baseball history, where deadbeat ballclubs turned around their fortunes. But those turnarounds typically involved a franchise relocation. The Boston Braves were a shambles of a franchise when they moved to Milwaukee. Their rise to the top of the National League attendance chart coincided with an infusion of talent that included future Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn. They were buttressed by mashers like Wes Covington and Joe Adcock, speedsters like Billy Bruton and solid everyday regulars like Del Crandall and Johnny Logan.
The Dodgers set attendance records once they had moved from the gargantuan and baseball-lopsided Los Angeles Coliseum to state-of-the-art Dodger Stadium. That swell of fan support has rarely flagged - even with the historic franchise currently being run by clowns better suited for a reality show.
"I really believe the 1970s through early '80s [Phillies] created a similar buzz, but we had nothing in place that could match what we now have in Citizens Bank Park or Bright House Field," Montgomery said.
The good times Part II started rolling before Charlie Manuel replaced Larry Bowa and Pat Gillick replaced Ed Wade, of course.
Wade did some good things. Bowa's old-school disdain and inability to hide his distemper from the TV cameras was abetted by the hypersensitive man-children in his care.
I still find it hard to believe Scott Rolen's get-me-out-of-here pique was triggered by his manager saying, "The middle of our order is killing us." The cleanup hitter is "killing us."
This was not a seasonlong indictment. It was a localized remark uttered after the Phillies were cuffed around in Boston and Rolen stranded more runners than a blizzard breaking out during the Boston Marathon. Truth was, Sir Falter Scott just didn't want to be in a city he perceived as more abrasive than Smallville aka St. Louis, where a No. 1 crime rate is apparently forgiven because it is such a wonderful baseball town.
Wade and his general manager predecessor, Lee Thomas, acquired many of the latter-day wimps by draft or trade and there was probably enough talent there to win a division had a little more heart accompanied it. Wade dispatched Dallas Green to spearhead a massive evaluation of the degraded minor league system. And that slippage included the administration, managing and instructional base of the organization. The byproduct was a number of heads quietly rolling and a fat organizational primer edited by Wade that spelled out the Phillies' way of doing things that was long overdue.
"I think what you're seeing now started when we moved Bobby Abreu, Curt Schilling and no longer had Scott Rolen and some other guys," Charlie Manuel responded when I asked him this question: "How the hell did all this take root? How did you go from 'Elmer B. Fuddled' to a rock star?"
They were fine ballplayers. But they lacked the current "it" factor that has become a magnet to so many fans. Think Rolen would be frolicking in the grass outside the ballpark with a half-dozen kids? Would Monty have come upon Rolen, Abreu and Vicente Padilla hanging out with an ALS patient on their time?
"Take a look out there," Manuel said, waving expansively at his team stretching before batting practice. "There ain't a player in baseball - I don't give a damn who he is - who could come in and disrupt this team. I had heard all kind of negative things about Pedro Martinez when we picked him up in 2009. He not only blended right in with our guys, turned out he's one of the smartest ballplayers I've ever been around. Pedro really knows the game.
"I think a big part of this whole deal, these crowds at home, here, even on the road where we got thousands following us, is Pat Gillick, then Ruben Amaro did a helluva job changing the culture. There ain't a lot of holler guys in that clubhouse, nobody who really stands out as a leader. A lot of our guys have their own personality, you know. But they really get along and they can play."
Montgomery and Manuel agree the seminal acquisition of free agent Jim Thome on Dec. 3, 2002, a day that will live in Phillies " 'famy," signaled a major sea change.
"Signing a player of Thome's stature sent the message that our ownership was willing to raise the payroll in order to build on the pretty good team we had become by then," Montgomery said.
After Thome, the pieces fell into place like tumblers in a bank-vault lock. And the organizational ambience went from planned obsolescence to "Holy bleep, can you get me tickets?"
"Now, with this group of players who are so generous in backing our charities, interacting with our fans and winning on the field, what has happened with the Phillies exceeds anything most of us ever imagined," Montgomery said.
And, the beauty part, everything has always been in place. Neither Philly nor Clearwater has moved an inch since the Phillies were careening through the final convulsions of being first to 10,000 losses. The Gulf of Mexico, the Delaware and Schuylkill are still there.
"We train in a wonderful area and in a resort city that is just 2 1/2 hours from Philly by air," Montgomery said. "I personally believe we have the best spring-training arrangement in baseball. After last season, the City of Clearwater put a second floor on our Complex building that gave us badly needed office space. Our facilities here and at Bright House Field are second to none."
The culture change was well under way when Manuel became a manager who would be accorded standing ovations before exhibitions as he bounced jovially down the leftfield line toward the dugout.
"Our minor league people did a tremendous job of drafting, signing and developing the core group we have now," Montgomery said. "It's hard to believe, but Jimmy Rollins has been with the big club 10 years. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, all veterans now . . . And we have had the depth in the organization to assemble the pitching staff that I hope we can back up considering all the injuries we have had."
Major league baseball is one town where it always gets late early, to paraphrase Yogi Berra.
Monty knows the prom doesn't last forever, not even when a minority partner like John Middleton has stepped forward and induced the rest of the group it was time to go all-in. Not when the careers of stars like Utley and Brad Lidge, who made the 2008 parade the time of our lives, are visibly on the cusp - MRIs and radar-gun readings serving as irrefutable proof.
So, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
For these Phillies, the good times have rolled most of this decade. Laizzez le bon temps rouler . . .
Trouble is, Fat Tuesday is always followed by Ash Wednesday. Penance. Lent. Deprivation.
One supposes the road-tripping legions of the CEA - Charlie's Expeditionary Army - will cross that bridge when they come to it.
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