By Justin Boylan
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – There isn’t a professional sports team in America that’s immune to pressure.
Pressure comes from every direction. Pressure from fans, pressure from the media, pressure from the big names in the big offices who make the big decisions and pressure from the teams that lurk in the standings. It’s always there, whether the players acknowledge it or not.
In Philadelphia, the spotlight always seems to be a little bit brighter, and the pressure a little more intense. 24/7 sports radio and a million different sports blogs fuel the fire, but ultimately it’s the fans that demand winning. The pressure to win rests on the Phillies, as the other three Philly teams either fell flat or are stumbling somewhere below the .500-mark.
The pressure, which was already high given their aging stars, unproven additions and shortcomings in 2012, has never been greater to be the team that comes through for the city.
Think back to the last time there was a meaningful Philadelphia sports game. Still thinking? Well, if you don’t count the Phillies season finale against Washington on October 3, a game where the only incentive was to finish a game above .500, you have to go all the way back to May 26 when the 76ers and Boston Celtics played game 7 at the Garden.
We are two and half months away from a calendar year gone by with the biggest sporting events being press conferences for a basketball player we haven’t seen play and a football coach we haven’t seen coach.
The Phillies are the one team that not only has consistently set the bar higher than its professional counterparts in recent years, but also reached those expectations as the “team to beat.” Yet as we inch closer to Opening Day, there are question marks, big or small, next to every name on the lineup card. Most have been shoved aside in favor of homerun over/unders and win total predictions, because there is more than enough negativity on the ice and hardwood to go around.
The injury bug that infested the Phillies a year ago was not something to be controlled. Still, guys like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, proven winners and leaders, are feeling the pressure and fielding questions about their ability to stay on the field for the long haul. Roy Halladay is a stone-cold stud that eats batters alive with an emotionless gaze, but needs to have a Kenny Powers-esque comeback to prove he’s got his pitch back. How will 25 games without Carlos Ruiz behind the plate affect the Phillies out of gate? And when Chooch does return is he still the reliable .300-hitter we saw last year? Four words: Jimmy, Rollins, leadoff, spot.
These are just few of the questions that can rightfully be asked. They will only get louder once the season begins, and the Phillies are the city’s focal point of attention.
This is all in addition to the beloved manager, who is potentially on his way out the door. The outfielders that need to translate terrific play in spring ball to daily, positive production and the bullpen that has repeatedly been the Achilles heel unable to bridge the gap between the aces and closer.
There’s also the general manager who, if the team is somewhere behind the Nationals and Braves come July, could blow the whole thing up with a couple phone calls.
In spite of the uncertainties, fans have embraced optimism, as spring training games have quickly become the only ones featuring Philadelphia teams that don’t make you want to pull your hair out. The national scope has estimated the Phillies as a distant second to the Nationals, but the local feeling, whether its being pushed by the head or the heart, is that the Phillies will be there to remind us what playoffs feel like.
So the city is more than ready to latch on like a Stage 5 Clinger to what has been the most reliable team in recent history, the Phillies. Sure things are going well under the sunny skies of Florida, but how this team will translate to the long summer nights in South Philly is yet to be seen. The scariest thing isn’t Howard’s strikeout numbers or Utley’s knees, but that uneasy feeling that this Philly sports cycle of mediocrity will continue, leaving us no choice but to count the days until Eagles training camp.
Justin Boylan is a producer at 94WIP and graduate of Temple University. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @justintboylan.