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Phillies are hottest draw in town

To Francesca Green and Augusta Harris, both 17 and from Berwyn, attending a Phillies game means an overflowing ballpark with a view of Center City, a nose-pleasing aroma of Bull's BBQ and Tony Luke's cheesesteaks in Ashburn Alley, and a perpetually contending team of all-stars.

Phillies fans have been filling Citizens Bank Park to capacity for 99 consecutive games. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Phillies fans have been filling Citizens Bank Park to capacity for 99 consecutive games. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)Read more

To Francesca Green and Augusta Harris, both 17 and from Berwyn, attending a Phillies game means an overflowing ballpark with a view of Center City, a nose-pleasing aroma of Bull's BBQ and Tony Luke's cheesesteaks in Ashburn Alley, and a perpetually contending team of all-stars.

Both girls said they had no recollection of Veterans Stadium, where the Phillies played before they moved in 2004 to the new Citizens Bank Park, which has become a major destination for baseball fans, including young people such as Green and Harris.

"Our friends have some seats from the Vet," Harris said, sounding as if she was talking about some 19th-century antiques.

The Phillies are expected to reach a milestone Thursday night with their 100th straight home sellout, an unthinkable occurrence in the days of the Vet. While the Phillies sold out only 47 regular-season games in 33 years at the large and unfriendly Vet, they already have 271 regular-season sellouts in less than seven years at Citizens Bank Park.

"The Vet was bad," said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. "You'd look up and see something like 20,000 on the official attendance and you'd look in the stands and it was like 12,000. There were times you could hear someone whisper."

The Phillies have sold out just over half of their 539 regular-season dates since the current ballpark opened. The last game the Phillies did not sell out was July 6 of last season when they drew 41,548 for a game against the Cincinnati Reds. It was among only eight games that did not sell out a year ago, as the team drew a record 3,600,693 fans in 81 regular-season games.

This season, the Phillies are averaging more than 45,000 fans per game and rank first in the National League and second in baseball to the New York Yankees in average attendance.

In order to qualify as a sellout, Weber said, the Phillies must attract between 42,900 and 43,100 paid spectators.

"If we hit that number, we would consider it a sellout," said John Weber, the Phillies' vice president of sales and ticket operations.

Capacity at the ballpark is listed as 43,651, which means more than 1,000 fans on a typical night watch the game in standing-room only areas. Many of those hang out in Ashburn Alley, a wide-open corridor beyond the outfield walls that typically attracts the Phillies' younger fans.

Michael Harris, the Phillies' director of marketing and special projects, said the team does demographic studies, but said that it is team policy to not release that information. He said when the new ballpark was built the Phillies had a younger clientele in mind.

"There was a rebranding at the facility," Harris said. "Suddenly there was a cool factor that did not exist before. The openness of the ballpark creates a natural social atmosphere."

Sam Earhart, 28, and Parker Rickert, 26, are among the 20-somethings hooked on the team and the ballpark. Both men are partial season-ticket holders who attended Wednesday night's game.

"It's a great place to watch a game, and having this team doesn't hurt," Earhart said.

Rickert added, "The more times you go, the better it is. It's the building, the experience. There is just something special about the ballpark."

Weber, who joined the team's ticket department in 1987 when the Phillies' modest goal was to reach 2 million in attendance at the Vet, says he is amazed when he looks out into a sea of red as the Phillies record sellout after sellout.

"Absolutely," he said. "To draw 2.7 million or 2.8 million is a great year. Having over 3 million is off the charts."

It's also great for the revenue stream that has allowed the Phillies to go from a bottom-third payroll to the top five in the last decade.

"It's the key reason we're able to go get someone like Roy Oswalt," Weber said.

Phillies president David Montgomery would not specifically say that the streak of sellouts allowed the team to acquire Oswalt in a trade deadline deal with Houston, but he said fan support has taken this team's player payroll to its current record level of more than $140 million.

"Our fan support has clearly led us to do things we couldn't have done otherwise," Montgomery said. "I don't want to get into individual decisions or numbers. Everybody thinks there is a hard [payroll] number. There is a range where if we get this kind of support we can do these kinds of things."

Montgomery believes three things have happened to lead to the current fan support.

"Obviously the success the team has had," he said. "Also what I call the likability of the team. They like the players for their talent and as people. The other factor is the ballpark. I'm not sure my guess is any more educated as any other as to what percentage each one plays. But I do know being in the World Series in consecutive years is what has driven us to the precipice of 100 consecutive sellouts."

Jeff Morrison, 54, said the current collection of Phillies players is the major attraction for him. The Berwyn resident said he is happy that the only hot dogs are at the concession stand.

"Unlike a lot of other sports, there are no hot dogs on this team," he said. "There are no T.O.s or Allen Iversons on this team. Everybody is a team player and nobody thinks that is all about me. You have to love these guys."

Al Buly, a 44-year-old Wayne resident, said he enjoys the skyline view from the upper deck and is a big fan of the roast turkey and the ambience at Bull's BBQ. "Greg Luzinski sits there every game and doesn't mind saying hi to folks," Buly said. "That's pretty neat."

This will be the fourth straight year the Phillies have drawn more than 3 million fans and the fifth time in seven seasons at Citizens Bank Park. They have averaged 3.2 million fans during the seven seasons. The 1993 National League championship season was the only year the Phillies drew more than 3 million at Veterans Stadium.

Harris said one of his marketing objectives is to attract more African American fans among the record numbers invading the ballpark. He said there has been "a modest increase" in recent years.

Darin Heckendorn celebrated his 38th birthday Wednesday by taking his wife, Dana, 37, and three children (Dylan, 9; Bryce, 8; and Connor, 4) to the ballpark.

"This place is a much different feel than the old stadium," Heckendorn said. "I remember being here when it first opened and you could go in and get tickets, and now it's impossible to get tickets."

Weber said one of the most important things about his job these days is making sure that people understand that there are still tickets available. The Phillies capped their season-ticket sales at 28,750 this season because they wanted to make sure that single-game tickets were available.

"We didn't want to shut people out," Weber said. "If you went online right now, you could find tickets for 21 of our 23 remaining games. We want to make sure people keep that focus and realize that every game is not already sold out."

As of Wednesday, tickets ranging in price from $70 for field level seats and $17 for standing room remained available on the Phillies' website. Secondary ticket brokers such as StubHub, a Major League Baseball business partner, also have tickets available on a daily basis. As of Wednesday, the prices on StubHub ranged from $19 to $156. Those tickets, however, have already been sold by the Phillies and count as part of the attendance whether they are sold by StubHub or not.

Montgomery said the Phillies are also fortunate because they have one of the lowest percentage of no-show rates in the league. A baseball source said the Major League Baseball average is around 10 percent for no-shows and the Phillies are around 7 or 8 percent.

Weber is optimistic that the Phillies can sell out every home game for the first time in franchise history, but he said there are four questionable dates. The first one is Wednesday against Houston. The others are a Sept. 6 day-night doubleheader with Florida and the Sept. 7 game with the Marlins.

"Those four games right now are our biggest challenge," he said.

The longest sellout streak in baseball is still active. The Boston Red Sox have filled Fenway Park for 609 straight games, a streak that started May 15, 2003. The Red Sox broke the Cleveland Indians' record of 455 straight sellouts at Jacobs Field that ended in 2001.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel worked as both a hitting instructor and manager for the Indians during that streak and he is certainly appreciative of what he sees every night in his current home ballpark.

"To us, it makes all the difference in the world," Manuel said. "This is our home field, and the fact that we fill it up, I think the fans have a lot to do with the noise, electricity and atmosphere. It definitely sets a tone. I think it definitely helps us. It's a push. It gives us more energy. It gives us more everything. It's kind of what baseball is about."

There is a cautionary tale provided by the Indians' streak. These days, the ballpark in Cleveland is still lovely, but the Indians are last in the major leagues in attendance, averaging 17,827 per game.

"I know it's not going to go forever," Montgomery said. "It's amazing it has reached a number like this. I hope we don't have a situation where fans take either the club or ballpark for granted.

"At the same time, I've heard people say that if we win this year we're set for X number of years. I don't believe that, either. I think you have to refresh the product. Our challenge now is to continue the success and infuse younger players in there. We're starting eight players who are all around 30 years of age or above. It's important that we continue to get good and stay good, and now we have to stay good longer."

For now, Montgomery has a message for all those people in red shirts who keep filing into the ballpark: "What we're about to do on Thursday deserves a large thank-you from us to the fans. It causes you to pinch yourself."