In 2004, as part of a promotional way to christen the soon-to-be opened Citizen’s Bank Park, the Philadelphia Phillies created an on-deck series, taking two would-be spring training games and instead of playing them down at Clearwater, played them right here, in front of the home town fans. The idea was well-received as it gave fans a chance to get a preview of the new park as well as catch a game at a much more modest price. Attendance turned out to be pretty good for this first series, a two-game set against the Cleveland Indians.
In the ensuing years, the on-deck series would seem to lose a lot of its appeal due to lackluster match-ups and just a general “these games don’t matter” feel. In 2009, the Phillies tried to re-invigorate the annual two-game set by building off of World Series momentum and welcoming in the Tampa Bay Rays for a rematch of sorts. It was a nice addition, but a gimmick nonetheless, and one that didn’t really have the desired affect. Attendance continued to dwindle and in the windblown, rain soaked, dark and damp nights, no one wanted to watch preseason baseball.
In 2011, in the midst of a three-year on-deck series rotation with the cross-state rival Pittsburgh Pirates, the Phillies again tried to breathe some life into the dying series. The games were billed as mini fan appreciation days, with the opportunities for fans to meet and greet with select alumni, get pictures with the World Series trophy and take advantage of special discounts and giveaways. Oh and who could forget, this was the year the new HD board was unveiled, so added bonus was that those in attendance got to be among the first to see it live and in person. And yes, the team actually did cite this as a reason to attend the series.
Most fans didn’t exactly see this as motivation to go and tickets, which could be had at the low cost of one U.S. dollar at Stubhub, up to 16 quarters if you wanted to sit in the real good seats, largely went unsold. In 2011, the Phillies had yet to get to the point where they are today of having an attendance problem, but the on-deck series just never quite caught on the way the team had hoped.
So in 2016, over 10 seasons of on-deck matchups being put in the rearview mirror, the Phillies finally, finally, have decided to change things up and for the better. Because instead of a meaningless series where less than top guys play a final spring tune-up, the Phillies have announced this year will kick-off the inaugural Phillies vs Futures series.
Pitting the current team against a team made up of guys from Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley, fans will have the opportunity to see a version of a franchise all-star game. And instead of both games being at CBP, it will work as a home and home series with one game being played in Philadelphia, the other in Reading, home of the Fightin Phils of the Eastern League. There’s no doubt that second game sells out and no doubt the first one draws better than the on-deck series of late.
Imagine if the team had come up with this idea years sooner, heck even just last year. We could have seen Cole Hamels taking on Aaron Nola in a blockbuster pitching duel, while Chase Utley and Ryan Howard played against JP Crawford and Maikel Franco and the other young guys who were ready to take over their jobs. We could have seen Aaron Altherr show Domonic Brown and company how it’s done. We would have gotten a glimpse at the future and a reason to be excited about the players who would soon be playing in a Phillies vs Futures game, only this time on the side of the Phillies.
In 2016, we’re going to get a taste of that and it’s going to be fantastic. At the very least, it’s better than what the team had in the on-deck series, so once again, kudos to the new president for improving the Phillies, even if he did so in a way no one probably even considered. The on-deck series might as well be dead and buried and if this Phillies vs Futures turns out to be as big a success as it profiles to be, I can’t think of a better way for the team to start its season.
Besides, even if the big league club loses to the prospect team, it can’t be worse than losing to NCAA D-II University of Tampa.