- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2004

With more than 6 million people in the region, Phila-delphia is a teeming metropolis.But for the past decade, the Phillies have been a small-market team in nearly every sense of the word. Team revenues, payroll, wins and attendance were all down with the likes of Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. For 10 years, there were no postseason games, just one second-place finish in the NL East, and only occasionally a token All-Star to liven up the roster.

Not only was Veterans Stadium an aesthetically miserable place to play, a terrible lease situation with the city of Philadelphia made it impossible for the Phillies to compete economically with similar markets such as Houston, Chicago and San Francisco.

Those days of mediocrity, however, are now about as much rubble as the now-imploded Vet. Thanks to sparkling new Citizens Bank Park, located in the same south Philadelphia sports complex as Lincoln Financial Field and Wachovia Center, the Phillies finally are acting like a big-market team and clearly aiming to end the 12-year divisional dominance of the Atlanta Braves.

The team’s 2004 payroll of nearly $94 million is the highest in franchise history. More than 2.3 million tickets for the season have been sold already, with another million likely to sell by September. Team revenues are projected to reach $160 million, up from $81.5 million in 2001.

With that new windfall, General Manager Ed Wade assembled a star-studded roster that includes first baseman Jim Thome, closer Billy Wagner, and ace starters Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton.

“This stadium, already, has been absolutely huge for us,” Wade said. “We’ve got our farm system and scouting back in the right direction, and we’ve been able to go out and get top-tier talent. And that talent no longer sees us as a rebuilding project. These things are all clearly linked back to the stadium.”

The stadium itself, still not entirely finished, is getting raves from players and architecture critics. Citizens Bank Park doesn’t reinvent the retro-modern ballpark trend started with Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1992. But it does feature a clear view of downtown Philadelphia, a 50-foot neon liberty bell that lights up for Phillies home runs, a rooftop bleacher section, and a seating design that places less than a third of the 43,500-seat capacity in the upper deck.

An outfield entertainment and retail area, named Ashburn Alley in honor of Hall of Fame outfielder Richie Ashburn, seeks to replicate Baltimore’s highly popular Eutaw Street.

Citizens Bank Park cost $346 million to build, with the Phillies contributing $172 million of that sum and the responsibility for any cost overruns.

As owner and operator of the stadium, the Phillies also will receive a stern test of their operational and business acumen. Some industry critics feel the team’s long malaise is the result of much more than a Veterans Stadium lease that sent all parking and concession revenues, as well as a piece of virtually everything else, back to the City of Philadelphia. The team made its ill-fated deal with the city in the early 1970s after it received a replacement to Connie Mack Stadium. The Vet was built entirely with public dollars.

“The lease certainly contributed to their situation, but a lot of their problems stemmed from what was happening on the field. They didn’t make the best use of the resources they had,” said Doug Pappas, a New York attorney and author on baseball economics. “There was a lot of internal mismanagement. But they seem to be finding their way. They’re investing in players, which is what the fans want to see. They know this is their big opportunity to have a situation like Cleveland [during the 1990s].”

Phillies officials are also aware of the reduced honeymoon period that now accompanies new ballparks. For Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, the fat times in their new stadiums lasted not even a year. In Cincinnati, a roster purge was under way after just three months in the Great American Ball Park. Early adopters in the new stadium boom, including the Indians and Orioles, comparatively enjoyed more than five years of competitive and financial success.

Knowing strong first-year performance at Citizens Bank Park is crucial for long-term health, Wade started his roster roll-up early, landing Millwood and Thome before the 2003 season. After an unsuccessful push for the NL Wild Card slot last season, Wade went to work again on the hot stove league, signing Millwood for another season via arbitration, trading for Wagner and Milton and signing set-up reliever Tim Worrell as a free agent.

With few major holes in the 2004 roster, virtually everyone connected to baseball expects the Phillies to be good. The remaining question is whether they’re at last good enough to topple the Braves.

“We know this story. We heard they were getting weak a year ago, and by the time we looked up, we couldn’t see them they were so far ahead in the standings, and we were going just for the wild card,” Wade said. “We’re realistic enough to know Atlanta is still a strong club. That said, if we perform as we should, we’ll be right there.”

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