If the Phillies turn out to be electrifying this season, some credit should go to Electrical Workers Local 98. On Nov. 7, as free agent Jim Thome was leaving a dog and pony show of the new ballpark being built in South Philly, he was greeted by 50 or so Local 98 members with signs and hats that read PHILADELPHIA WANTS JIM THOME. The stunned Thome walked over to the group, accepted a hat and pressed the flesh. "That caught me off guard," says Thome, who has had at least 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, 100 walks and 100 runs in six of the past seven seasons. "Their generosity was great. It's something I'll never forget."
Thome comes from blue-collar stock—his father, Chuck, worked as a foreman for Caterpillar in Peoria, Ill., for more than 30 years—and has a commoner's touch, which has already made him a popular clubhouse figure. The electricians' show of affection helped tilt Thome toward leaving Cleveland after 12 seasons—that, and a sixth year that Philadelphia gave him on a contract worth $85 million.
For a franchise with a decade of buzzard's luck, the confluence of happy events last winter was startling. Having seen how quickly the charm of new ballparks has worn off in other cities, the often parsimonious Phillies took an advance on the added revenue that will come with the opening of their new stadium next year and waded into an oatmeal-soft free-agent market to sign Thome and third baseman David Bell. Their good fortune was compounded when 18-game winner Kevin Millwood landed in their laps, as the Braves shockingly traded a potential ace for a spare catcher within their division. Millwood, who signed a one-year, $9.9 million deal with his new team, is a free agent after the season. "In the past we always felt limited," lefthander Randy Wolf says. "Now we have all the components to do something special."
The optimism is palpable, a vivid contrast to dirges of recent years when marquee players—first righthander Curt Schilling, later third baseman Scott Rolen—were at odds with the organization. Not to paint it with too broad a brush, but the feud between Rolen and the team last spring was six weeks' worth of Jerry Springer. The 8-18 start under combustible manager Larry Bowa (Rolen would be traded to St. Louis in July) sabotaged the season. These Phillies will be ready to play from Day One. "We're ready to win now, but it takes getting off to a really good start and getting pitching," catcher Mike Lieberthal says. "I wish I could say our pitching was like our lineup. We'll be near the top of the league in runs. But our pitching staff isn't like Atlanta's, where they can say, 'O.K., [Greg] Maddux, we can pencil him in for so many wins.' "
Though it lacks the proven track record of the Braves' staff, the Phillies' rotation has shown signs of excellence. Millwood is supported in the rotation by the energetic Wolf, against whom teams hit .196 after the All-Star break, and intriguing Vicente Padilla, 25, who wore down in the second half but should be fresh after skipping winter ball. Padilla throws explosive two-seam and four-seam fast-balls, a biting curve and a change, but is dropping the slider from his repertoire at the urging of Joe Kerrigan, the new pitching coach. Kerrigan was a dervish in camp, strapping on shin pads to catch his pitchers, lecturing them on situational pitching, instructing catchers on how he wants them to frame pitches.
With a robust middle of the order ( Thome, MVP-in-training Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu) the Phillies likely won't repeat the dubious distinction of leading the majors in runners left on base. The catalyst will be shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who worked on his line drive stroke with Tony Gwynn in the off-season and should improve his .309 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot. The lineup will put on a show, one that will be seen by an additional 5,000 season-ticket holders. Also, on the first day of single-game ticket sales, the Phillies eclipsed the previous record of 8,400 by nearly sixfold—a combination of the Thome Effect and the Veterans Stadium finale. As Local 98 knows, Philly is amped.