The three-city, 10-game road trip that the Phillies are in the middle of is more than a test of how good they might actually be this season. It is also a chance for the Phillies' young players to perform in front of large crowds inside electric ballparks nightly.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, who have led the majors in attendance every year since 2013, drew an average of 41,601 for their four weekday games against the Phillies at beautiful Dodger Stadium. The San Francisco Giants, the Phillies' weekend host at scenic AT&T Park, are fourth in baseball in attendance and have not been any lower than that since 2010. The Phillies will complete their trip at Wrigley Field in Chicago, where the Cubs have the dual benefit of being a good team and playing in a landmark that is routinely filled these days.
That, of course, is the way things used to be down at One Citizens Bank Way in South Philadelphia. The Phillies were the hottest summer attraction in the city, and sellouts were a way of life. In fact, the Phillies were the last team other than the Dodgers to lead the majors in attendance. They did so in 2011 and 2012. But in a blink of an eye and a rupture of an Achilles tendon, the aging core came crumbling down and the capacity crowds all went away.
The Phillies failed to draw at least 2 million fans to Citizens Bank Park for the first time in 2015, when their attendance slipped from 16th to 25th, and they were 24th in 2016 and 2017 while remaining below the 2 million attendance mark.
This story is significant now because it appears at the very least as if the Phillies are beginning to turn a corner on the field. They have not been this far above .500 this late in a season since 2011, and they have a young core mixed with some free-agent additions that could keep the team in playoff contention deep into the season.
How will that impact attendance this season? It is still too early to tell. Through 28 home dates, there has been a slight uptick in attendance. The Phillies have averaged 25,153 fans, which ranks 18th in baseball.
"It has been a little tricky this year because of the cold and rainy weather," said John Weber, the team's senior vice president in charge of ticket operations. "I think we would have had another 10,000 [last] weekend [against Toronto] if not for the bad weather."
Still, it was disappointing that the Phillies averaged only 22,492 for the three-game, first-place showdown with the Atlanta Braves during their last homestand.
Weber said the Phillies' season-ticket base for this season is 9,500, a number similar to last year's. That might have grown higher if the Phillies had signed Jake Arrieta sooner, but then the team probably would not have gotten the star pitcher on the same terms. Regardless, if Arrieta keeps pitching the way he has been, he should sell more tickets.
How many more remains to be seen, and that's going to be a fascinating thing to watch this summer. Since the introduction of division play in 1969, no Phillies team has ever won the NL East without drawing at least 2.1 million fans. The last six division winners have all drawn more than 3 million.
This team might not win the division and it might not qualify for the postseason. But if it does, it will likely have the lowest per-game average attendance since the 1983 Wheeze Kids drew 26,276 per game.
Weber is an optimist by nature and believes the big crowds will return one day. He was in charge of ticket sales when the Phillies sold out 257 straight games and ranked in the top eight in attendance for seven straight years.
"We're most excited about the direction the team is going in with its young players," Weber said. "I think we can get back to the point where we're selling 40,000 per game. You saw it with the Sixers and the excitement in that building. These things come and go. I believe we are on an upswing that is going to continue as we head into the summer."
Perhaps he is right, but there is ample proof that attendance ebbs and flows are not quite as extreme in some places as they have been in Philadelphia.
The Giants, for example, have drawn more than 3 million fans in 16 of their 18 seasons since moving to AT&T Park in 2000, and they had a six-season stretch without reaching the postseason. Attendance never fell below 2.8 million.
The Los Angeles Angels have reached the postseason only once in the last eight years, but they still manage to draw 3 million every year. Even the New York Mets' attendance never slipped below 2.1 million despite a stretch of six straight losing seasons.
The scariest stories of all are in Baltimore and Cleveland. Oriole Park at Camden Yards was the pioneer for beautiful new retro ballparks, and from the time it opened in 1992 through the 2001 season, Baltimore routinely drew 3 million-plus per season. But then the team went bad, and even though the O's have made the playoffs three times in the last six years, they have never ranked higher than 13th in attendance in that period. They have been 18th or lower in five of those seasons.
Cleveland is an even greater enigma. The Indians sold out 455 straight games from June 12, 1995, through April 4, 2001. It helped that they were in a new stadium and in the midst of the best run in franchise history. But once those good times ended, the fans never returned in close to the same numbers. The Indians finished 22nd in attendance last season despite going to the World Series the year before and putting together an epic 22-game winning streak last season. Last year was the first season in nine years the Indians drew 2 million fans – and they barely did that – even though they twice reached the postseason.
Things like that make you wonder if the Phillies can ever recapture the magic they once had at Citizens Bank Park. When they return home Friday to face the Milwaukee Brewers, they will spend the weekend paying tribute to the 1993 National League-champion Phillies, a worst-to-first team that wrote the most remarkable attendance tale in franchise history.
"We had 1 million tickets sold before the season, and we sold 2 million during the season," Weber said. "We would have walk-ups of 8,000 to 9,000 a game."
It is hard to imagine a fan base falling in love that fast with a team again, but Weber is hopeful.