The Phlying Phillies

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper launches his seventh-inning blast off the Miller Park scoreboard behind the center field fence Thursday. Would you have predicted a seven-game winning streak for the Phillies  including six straight since Joe Girardi’s execution?

Don’t look now, but that’s a seven-game winning streak the Phillies have now posted, six of which—including Thursday’s 8-3 demolition of the Brewers in Milwaukee—have happened since Joe Girardi was thrown off the bridge in favour of his bench coach and longtime associate Rob Thomson.

From the moment they took down the Giants in what proved Girardi’s final game on the bridge, the Phillies’ thought-formidable offense went from sputtering to out-scoring the opposition 53-19. Living up at last to their preseason billing as a threshing machine at the plate, they posted an .877 team OPS entering Thursday’s game largely by way of hitting eighteen home runs during the streak.

They’ve also pitched above and beyond enough to make it matter. Entering Thursday, the Phillie streak showed a team 3.00 ERA and—better, yet, by far enough—a 2.38 team fielding-independent pitching (FIP) rate.

They even helped take another manager down while they were at it, sweeping the Angels last weekend and thus putting Joe Maddon into a guillotine that may have been built for him before the season began. Sweeping the National League Central-leading Brewers doesn’t measure their skipper Craig Counsell for beheading just yet. But still.

Before they beat the Giants last week the Phillies looked so lost, so unable to shake the late-inning deflations and bullpen arsons, that calling them by their ancient Phutile Phillies nickname seemed more than an exercise in phutility. Since beating those Giants, it looks as though it’s phun to be a Phillie again.

Even being out-hit by the Brewers 11-9 on Thursday, and opening by Brewers starter/defending Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes striking them out in order, the Phillies still found a way to turn a measly one-run lead after six full innings into a five-run margin of triumph.

It only began with Bryce Harper, whose UCL injury limits him to designated hitting, leading off the Philadelphia seventh with a parabolic home run banging off the scoreboard well behind the center field fence. Giving him three bombs in his past four games.

Then with outfielder Mickey Moniak aboard on a two-out walk in the top of the eighth, Kyle Schwarber hit a hanging 2-1 sinker 432 feet over the right center field fence. And in the top of the ninth, Harper set the table with a first-pitch base hit to right center and Odubel Herrera dined on a hovering changeup—after fouling off four straight—to prove practise makes perfect, sending it into the right field seats.

A first-inning blast from former Ray Willy Adames and a leadoff bomb in the sixth by Hunter Renfroe were the only damage the Brewers could do until former Phillie (and former longtime Pirate standout) Andrew McCutcheon singled Christian Yelich home with two outs, before Phillies reliever James Norwood got the game-ending ground out from Brewers third baseman Jace Peterson.

“Someone put the fear of God into them,” says a lady of my acquaintance regarding the suddenly Phlying Phillies. Considering Girardi’s reputation as a by-the-book, nuclear-intense martinet, perhaps it was more as though someone removed the fear of God from them. Most of it, anyway.

When they finished sweeping the Angels this past Sunday, the big blows were Harper’s grand slam and rookie third baseman Bryson Stott, Stott walking it off with a three-run blast against the Angels’ own wavering bullpen arsonists. Harper was almost beside himself over Stott’s blast.

“I’m so happy for the kid, man,” the defending National League Most Valuable Player crowed after that 9-7 win.

What an at-bat. What a situation for him. Being able to put our trust in our young guys the last couple days, and really let them just play . . . it’s been great. And it paid off today. The thing about Bryson is he’s got to play. He’s used to playing every day. From high school, to college, to minor league baseball, to now. He’s used to playing every day, and that’s what we’ve got to do for our young guys . . .

Our young guys have got to play. When you want your young guys to have success, they have to play everyday. And when they have those opportunities, I think they’re going to take full advantage of that. If that’s Bryson, if that’s [Nick] Maton, if that’s [Alec] Bohm-er or anybody else . . .

From Girardi’s difficulty in trusting his youth to Thomson’s apparent fearlessness in trusting the young guys to just play. There were those taking Harper’s commentary as a veiled shot at Girardi, and you can understand why to a small extent. On the other hand . . .

“We needed to get going,” Harper said after the Phillies finished sweeping the Brewers. “Everybody knew that. It’s just a different vibe. I think we’re just playing good ball right now.”

Maybe a change of managers doesn’t always ramp up into immediate winning streaks. But remember the 2009 Rockies pinking Clint Hurdle and installing former Dodger manager Jim Tracy on the bridge. Tracy took the gig with the Rockies when they were 18-28. They started 2-4 under him but then hit an eleven-game winning streak that turned into fourteen of fifteen and launched them toward the National League wild-card game.

Ironically enough, Hurdle took the Rockies bridge after Buddy Bell was executed in 2002 . . . and they won six straight to begin the Hurdle era. And, 107 years ago, Pat Moran took the Phillies bridge to open the season, went 8-0 out of the chute, and ended up in the World Series, where they lost to the Red Sox who featured a kid pitcher named Babe Ruth.

On the other hand, there were 81 mid-season manager switches from 1987-2010, eighty of which came courtesy of executions. Only nineteen of those teams changing skippers mid-season finished those seasons with .500 or better records for the year, and out of those nineteen only five—Tracy’s Rockies, the 2004 Astros, the 2003 Marlins, the 1989 Blue Jays, and the 1988 Red Sox—reached the postseason, with one (the ’03 Fish) going all the way to win the World Series.

Nobody wants to spoil the Phillies’ party now. But the precedents don’t favour them entirely, either. Savour it while you have it, Phillieppine Island. For however long it proves to last. And if the currently Phlying Phillies manage to make the postseason at all, count your blessings and your miracles. They don’t happen as often as we’d like.

So what’s in a name?

This is about to spring forth in Milwaukee . . .

The Milwaukee Brewers have unveiled the logo for their home field’s name change as of 2021. From Miller Park to American Family Field. From a brewer to an insurer. Social media shows so far that Brewers fans are rather less than amused, though not yet ready for war over it.

For one thing, as one such fan tweeted, “Miller actually cared about the logo, the team and the branding of both. American Family is only interested in their own product.

Presumably, the Brewers’ administration cares greatly about the $4 million a year American Family Insurance will pay for the next fifteen years in return for the park bearing their name. It’s buzzard feed compared even to the Brewers’ actual $1.2 billion worth, but it’s income regardless.

American Family’s apparent concession to the Brewers involves that part of the intended logo that references Miller Park’s unique retractable roof, a stylising of the five curved sections that open and close above the field like a hand-held fan, more or less. One Twitter wag suggested American Family really wanted to show the launch angles of the home runs the adjacent Chicago Cubs tend to hit all over the place in the place. (Last year, the Cubs hit twenty out in ten games there.) Serious Brewer fans suggested, plausibly enough, that they’ll never think of the place as other than Miller Park for time immemorial.

. . . from this.

They’re not necessarily wrong about that, and not just because Miller Park’s official logo marries both the brewery’s logo and two baseballs on either end in a rather handsome badging.

Some of the world’s most famous structures remain referenced by their birth names no matter how often their actual names are changed. You may or may not know the Met Life building in New York City, but New Yorkers still refer to it as the Pan Am building—never mind that Pan American World Airways went cease and desist 28 years ago.

Ask a Chicagolander about Willis Tower and he or she will rejoin, “That’s the Sears Tower to you, fool.” Willis Group Holdings of London owns the naming rights until 2024. The name might change twenty times over the century to follow and Chicago children will be taught to call it the Sears Tower.

Baseball’s ballpark names have been a goulash of sorts. Some have borne or still bear the team name: Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, Nationals Park, Tiger Stadium, Colt Stadium (Houston), Braves Field (Boston). Some have borne the names of team owners: Baker Bowl (William Baker, the Philadelphia Phillies), Comiskey Park (Charles Comiskey, the Chicago White Sox), Ebbets Field (Charles Ebbets, the Brooklyn Dodgers), Griffith Stadium (Clark Griffith, the Washington Senators), Navin Field (Frank Navin, the Detroit Tigers) . . .

Oops. Some parks have born the name of more than one owner. Wrigley Field (William, then Philip K.) was born as Weeghman Field. (Charles, who bought the Cubs after the Federal League collapsed. Wasn’t it kind of the Tribune Company to leave the name intact after buying the Cubs from the Wrigleys in the first place?) It remains the only baseball park known to wear the name of a chewing gum maker.

Navin Field eventually became Briggs Stadium during the Tigers’ ownership of Spike Briggs. Shibe Park (Ben Shibe, the Philadelphia Athletics until his death in 1922) eventually became Connie Mack Stadium (Shibe’s successor owner), though the main entrance bore both park names in due course. Sportsman’s Park (the St. Louis Cardinals) eventually became the first of three Busch stadiums. Two were named concurrently for the team’s principal owner and the brewery whose name is half theirs; the third’s such name nods kindly to history.

Busch Stadiums, Miller Park, and Coors Field (Colorado) have been the only major league stadiums named after breweries, which seems amiss considering that baseball and beer have been married longer and more successfully than most human marriages today. I still remember some whisperings in the early 1960s, when I was boy just beginning to embrace baseball, that the forthcoming home of my New York Mets might be named for its principal broadcasting sponsor. Now, there was a thought.

Alas, the playpen into which the Mets moved in 1964 wasn’t named for Rheingold beer.  (My beer is Rheingold the dry beer!) It was named for the corporate attorney (William A. Shea) who had a major hand in stirring the late 1950s pot (the proposed Continental League) that eventually brewed the National League’s return to New York. Who said we could have everything? (Or, why didn’t they name it for Branch Rickey, once the Dodgers’ chieftain, whose brainchild the Continental League actually was?)

Two ballparks, one of which has some nerve thinking of itself as a park, are named for orange juice: Tropicana Field (Tampa Bay) and Minute Maid Park (Houston). Three guesses which refreshment out-sells orange juice there. The most prominent sight in San Francisco’s PacBell/SBC/AT&T/Oracle Park, other than the Giants playing baseball, is a large, stylised soda pop bottle behind the left field bleachers, making you wonder why—when it came to the place’s naming rights—Coke wasn’t it.

When Shea Stadium’s life was to expire at last, the Mets’ new home—designed deliberately with references to the Brooklyn Dodgers whom ancient, autocratic city and state planning czar Robert Moses tried to strong-arm into what became Shea (If we play in Queens, we won’t be the Brooklyn Dodgers anymore—Walter O’Malley)—stirred hope (mine, mostly) that they might name the place for someone prominent in Mets history. (Stengel Field? Seaver Park?) Hope sprang infernal when the Mets sold the naming rights to a bank.

That wasn’t exactly going against the grain incumbent or to be, as fans who’ve spent time in such financially-named parks as Bank One Ballpark (Arizona, now known as Chase Field), Comerica Park (Detroit), SunTrust/Truist Park (Atlanta), PNC Park (Pittsburgh) or Guaranteed Rate Field—oops! Real Chicagolanders will never cease to call the place Comiskey Park.

At least one major league ballpark bore a name having nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with capturing Fort Duquesne from the French in 1758. Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss named Forbes Field in honour of the colonial general who led the capture. When Dreyfuss died, his family resisted entreaties to re-name the Old Lady of Schenley Park (one of the joint’s colloquial nicknames) in his honour.

Enough major league ballparks have had boring utilitarian names, though depending upon their locations and conditions they’ve been handed delightful colloquial nicknames: the Mistake on the Lake (Municipal Stadium, Cleveland), the Old Gray Lady of 33rd Street (Memorial Stadium, Baltimore).

Speaking of old ladies, once upon a time, Tiger Stadium bore the colloquial nickname “the Old Girl.” It caused havoc enough in the Florida household of ancient Tigers pitcher Elden Auker, who’d attended the park’s closing ceremonies. Auker’s local newspaper, the Vero Beach Press Journal, headlined that attendance: “Auker Says Good-bye to Old Girl.” As he wrote in his memoir (Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms), it created a ticklish situation for the wife he loved for sixty-seven years until his death:

The headline . . . jumped off the page . . . and grabbed the attention of our housekeeper. She waited until I left the room and sidled up to Mildred with an expression made up of part sympathy and part admiration of Mildred’s strength. She wanted Mildred to know she had a friend in her time of need.

“Who was she?” Darlene whispered, and then braced herself for an explanation of the apparent scandal. Darlene thought the “old girl” in the headline was some old flame of mine.

Auker may have been more than a little wistful about Tiger Stadium’s demise, but he drew the line between wistful and unrealistic. “Who am I to complain about progress?” he wrote in the memoir. “After all, I’m on my fourth pacemaker.”

In Baltimore, of course, the Old Gray Lady of 33rd Street was succeeded delightfully by Oriole Park at Camden Yards, officially. Unofficially, of course, it’s Camden Yards. Nobody’s even thought of selling naming rights afresh there yet, so far as I know. Better stop there. We don’t want to give them any more bright ideas.

If you think re-naming a ballpark for an insurance company is a little off balance, consider: The longtime home of the New York Giants was the third structure on that site to be known as the Polo Grounds. Many things happened at those Polo Grounds, shaped in fact like a horseshoe, up to and including the two maiden absurdist seasons of the Mets. Polo wasn’t one of them.