Don’t poke the sleeping bear. It’s an old adage that’s generally applicable to everyday life — don’t needlessly aggravate someone, as they may be more powerful than you know. Major League Baseball, however, is nothing like our everyday lives. It’s a cruel and cut-throat world, one in which morals such as these hold no bearing. In the last week alone, a certain sleeping bear has been poked three different times.
It first happened on April 28th, when Bryce Harper was felled by a 97 mph fastball to the face, only to have Didi Gregorius suffer a similar fate on the very next pitch. The second jab occurred on May 2nd, when Andrew McCutchen was erroneously called out for baserunner’s interference in the 7th inning of a game tied 4-4 against the division rival New York Mets. The final blow came the very next night, when Rhys Hoskins’ game tying 3-run home run was called back on a video review, resulting in yet another loss to the Mets, this time on national television.
The Philadelphia Phillies have been poked one too many times. It’s high time this bear flashed its fangs.
At 13-15, the Phillies may not seem like such a beast — dormant or not. Their record, however, belies an attitude that appears to be emerging within the team. An attitude that the Phillies, just 1.0 game back from the division lead, must embrace as they head into Monday night’s series against the 17-11 Milwaukee Brewers. The Phillies are angry — and they should be. They’ve failed to live up to expectations, their offense has been anemic, and their bullpen has spiraled back into its 2020 form. They have also been thrown at, screwed over by poor officiating, and embarrassed on national television. Some of this anger is directed at themselves. Some of it is towards the world. But no matter where it stems from, it’s there. It can’t be avoided. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
To understand how this anger can aid the Phillies, it’s important to examine the team through the broader context of professional sports. Major League Baseball is not representative of the sport in its name — at least not in the truest sense of the game. In the real world, thousands of games are played everyday, unseen by the masses and away from the spotlight, on dirt fields in the Dominican Republic and corn field cut-aways in South Jersey.
No, the MLB isn’t baseball, but rather a form of public entertainment, no different from any other television show that airs on prime time. The 2021 season is a story, each franchise replete with characters and story arcs of their own, put into constant conflict in their race for a division title. Each season works as a story not just through the action on the field, but in how it establishes its heroes and its villains.
It is the villain that drives the action of the story — without him there would be nothing for the protagonist to overcome. A well-crafted villain, however, is more than just an oppositional force — he is the hero of his own story. He justifies his wrongdoings as a reaction to a suffering he once endured. He is embittered. He is angry. He is everything this Phillies team needs to become.
The MLB, after all, already has its heroes. There’s no room for a new media darling, particularly in the N.L. East. Look no further than their Instagram page to discover their love affair with the Atlanta Braves — especially with Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman. Their selected other heroes of the 2021 season include Fernando Tatis of the San Diego Padres, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Toronto Blue Jays, the New York Mets, and any player on the New York Yankees that does the bare minimum. Seriously.
While it’s understandable to market young stars such as Acuna, or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Blue Jays, it is clearly apparent that the Phillies must play extraordinarily well to be featured, but teams like the Braves don’t have to do anything out of the ordinary to be put into the spotlight. The MLB’s Instagram posted 97 times between last night’s obligatory Sunday Night Baseball posts and the last time they posted a Phillies highlight. 14 of those 97 posts were highlights of the Atlanta Braves. This bias is further evidenced in their Power Rankings of the top 10 teams in baseball. Atlanta, at 12-16, is slotted in at 10th place — with the Phillies, Nationals, and Mets nowhere to be found inside of the top 10.
No, the Phillies will never be the darlings of the MLB. They won’t be given priority on social media as a de facto “ambassador” team to the next generation of tech savvy fans. Despite playing in a city that ranks in the top 5 in both population and media-market size in the country, the Phillies don’t receive top 5 level exposure from the national media. Philadelphia is not cool or different enough from the other major cities — perhaps to many we’re just a model-sized mockery of New York or Los Angeles. In fact, it’s one of the rare cities in which the rabidity of its fanbase is perceived in a negative light.
And you know what? That’s just fine. It’s preferred even. This city has long found its identity in being the underdog. But underdogs are loved and easy to root for. The Phillies don’t need to be loved. They need to be nasty. They need to be feared.
This summer’s race for the N.L. East title is bound to be particularly ugly, as the current leading team only has a .500 record. The division won’t be won by a single team’s sweeping surge in July, but instead decided in the final battles of September. No, the Phillies are not the strongest or most popular team in the division. They don’t have Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman, and a host of young stars on their bench. They don’t have a shutdown bullpen, a deep starting rotation, or the support of the national media. But what they do have is a pissed-off Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto, a bullpen full of unproven relievers — the tempers of whom run about as high as their fastballs — and a burning desire to prove everybody wrong.
To have a chance at the division title, the Phillies must lean into their anger and fight doggedly for every at-bat, in every inning. When hit in the face they must lick their lips and grin — then swing back harder. Joe Girardi will need to be ejected a few more times, the benches must be cleared more often, and glee must be taken in ousting the national media’s precious Mets and Braves. For the Phillies to finally be the hero of their own story, they must first become the villain of everybody else’s.
Featured Image: New York Post