There was nothing all that memorable about the 2002 Phillies season for most fans. No great expectations going into the season, no real superstar on the team, and no magical playoff run.
The team was 80-81, good enough for third place in the NL East behind the Montreal Expos and Atlanta Braves. And though the 2002 Phillies will never be talked about like the 2008, 1993, and 1980 teams, this team was the most meaningful to me.
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I starting attending Phillies games in 1998—my dad had the Sunday partial season ticket plan. Each home Sunday game during the spring and summer felt like Christmas morning to me. I would wake up early, throw on my Phillies gear, and stare at the clock until it was time to make the half-hour drive down to Veterans Stadium.
There was no feeling quite like walking up the ramps into the turnstiles, settling into my seat, and anxiously waiting for the first pitch to be thrown. I was 8 years old in 2002, and it was the first year that I really began to understand the game of baseball. Lefty vs. lefty, double switches, defensive shifts—I tried to pick up on as much strategy and vocabulary as I could.
I didn’t keep score, because I didn’t want to miss anything. I watched players’ routines as they stepped into the box. I observed how they anticipated a play. I looked at the cleats they wore, and their batting gloves. I became an expert in memorizing uniform numbers. The little things that go unnoticed by many were so fascinating to me.
Rolen was an NL All-Star in 2002, but his dissatisfaction got him traded away.
In 2002, Larry Bowa was entering his second season as Phillies manager. Bowa had led the team to an 86-76 record in 2001, losing the division crown to Atlanta in that season scarred by the 9/11 terror attacks by just two games. The team was looking to build on that 2001 season’s success, and compete for the division title in ’02.
They had a solid group of veterans, including Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal, and Travis Lee, to go along with young talent in the form of Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Randy Wolf, and Vicente Padilla. The hope was that this mix of players would be in Phillies uniforms for a long time.
The season did not get off to the start that the Phillies and their fans had envisioned, and the team quickly found themselves in the cellar of the division. I didn’t care, I was a newly passionate fan who just wanted to see Phillies baseball.
Person drove in 7 runs with a pair of homers as a Phils pitcher on June 2nd, 2002
My fondest memory of that season came on June 2nd in a game against the Montreal Expos. Robert Person had started on the mound for the Phillies, and in an 18-3 win, the Phils righty hit a grand-slam as well as a 3-run homer for a 7-RBI day, just one shy of the franchise record. I never saw a pitcher look so locked-in at the plate the way Person did that day.
Though the team was off to a bad start, there were some bright spots. Padilla and Rolen were selected to their first All-Star games, while Rollins made his second consecutive Midsummer Classic.
Unfortunately, the losing continued after the All-Star break. After questioning management’s desire to win, Rolen, my favorite player on the team, was shipped off to the St. Louis Cardinals.
I was crushed. It’s hard as an 8-year-old to fathom that someone you were idolizing would be leaving your hometown team, and likely never play for them again. But it certainly began my own understanding of the business side of baseball.
Even with all the disappointment that 2002 season brought, it also brought excitement. Burrell and Abreu had monster seasons, with ‘Pat the Bat’ crushing 37 homers and driving in 116 runs, and Abreu hitting .308 with a .413 on-base percentage, cracking 20 homers and stealing 31 bags.
We fans got to see up-and-coming prospects Brett Myers and Marlon Byrd make their MLB debuts. For me, there was reason for optimism. Though I had no idea I’d soon experience the peak of Phillies baseball from 2007-2011, I sensed better times were not far ahead.
It was during this 2002 season that I learned how to “boo” like a true Philadelphian. I was introduced to the fun of fan groups like the “Wolf Pack,” and the “Padilla Flotilla.” I was a spectator for Larry Bowa‘s angry tirades towards umpires that drew cheers from the Phillies faithful, and began to recognize the familiar faces selling beer, peanuts, and cotton candy.
When I couldn’t be at the stadium, I watched the team religiously on TV and followed Harry Kalas on the radio. At an age when I was trying to discover the things I was really passionate about, I found the Phillies to be my constant in life.
While the 2002 Phillies may have been the only team from 2001-2012 with a losing record, and may not have meant a lot to most people, it was this season when my infatuation with a city, a team, and a game began.