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Happy feeling surrounding Phillies

PHILADELPHIA -- It seems like something that should be happening someplace else, someplace where they haven't witnessed 17 losing seasons in the last 21 years.

The headlines keep on coming, one after another, filled with way too much good news for a franchise that seemed to fall off the planet one day in the summer of 1984:

PHILLIES SIGN JIM THOME.

PHILLIES TRADE FOR BILLY WAGNER.

PHILLIES SHOW OFF NEW BALLPARK.

PHILLIES COULD TAKE CONTROL IN NL EAST.

All around them, in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and Milwaukee and Detroit, people are driving by their gleaming new baseball palaces, wondering what went wrong. But at least there's still one town and one team out there that appears to be proving it's still actually possible to open a new ballpark and do things right.

If you'd stood on a corner in South Philadelphia about five years ago and suggested that come 2004, that town would be Philadelphia and that team would be the Phillies, we can think of some words that Philadelphians would have had for you. But none of them would be "visionary." Now, though, it all appears to be happening.

A decade ago, the Indians were in the midst of laying down a blueprint the rest of baseball was about to try to duplicate. After nearly four decades of misery, they did more than just build themselves a new park in Cleveland. They built their team around it.

In Detroit and Milwaukee these days, they couldn't tell that blueprint from a bluefish. But in Philadelphia, even as the grass is busy taking root inside Citizens Bank Park, it's beginning to look suspiciously like Cleveland in 1994.

"I think the Phillies are very close to doing what we did in Cleveland," says Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd, who was an assistant GM with the Indians in the early '90s. "They have a chance now to be really good for five, six years."

"They've done a masterful job," says current Indians GM Mark Shapiro, "of maximizing the timing of the maturization of their ballclub with the infusion of revenues that a new ballpark can provide. Their patience and consistency has paid off -- and will continue to pay off."

But as he sits in his soon-to-be-obliterated office inside soon-to-be-annihilated Veterans Stadium, GM Ed Wade is as wary of those kind words as he is grateful for them.

"The fact is," he says, "we haven't won anything yet. And we clearly recognize that. We think we've got a good club. And we've re-energized our fans. But now we've got to go win."

Well, they might. But this is not the time to assess their chances of winning. This is a time to look at how they got here. It's a time to ask what they did right when so many other teams were dancing to their New Ballpark Boogie so wrong.

The Blueprint
They didn't set out to be the Indians.

No, the team the Phillies actually tried to be was the Braves.

"We were very aware of what the Braves did," Wade says. "Build a solid foundation from within. Then go out and fill in the pieces you weren't able to develop."

But before there were the Braves, there was another model the Phillies aspired to follow -- the model of the Phillies themselves. ... eh, the 1976-83 Phillies, that is.

"We actually had a model to follow right here in Philadelphia," Wade says. "Some people might have had to blow some dust off of it to see it. But it was there."

It was a model built by legendary former GM Paul Owens. A model constructed around a player-development system that cranked out All-Stars like Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Greg Luzinski and Bob Boone who all arrived around the same time. A model designed to take the farm-system pieces that didn't fit and trade them for the Steve Carltons and Tug McGraws who did.

It was far from coincidence that Wade brought back Owens and his former assistant, Dallas Green, as trusted advisors. And right about then, the Phillies finally stopped doing what Owens once called "constantly patching the roof."

"We tried to build off the remnants of the 1993 club for a number of years," Wade says. "And it finally became apparent that we wouldn't be successful doing that. The reality, which we all became aware of, was that we had to do things different. We had to build around development and scouting."

This is what all teams say, of course, when the losses pile up and the players get old and the boos get louder. But the Phillies actually pulled it off.

From the moment former GM Lee Thomas hired Mike Arbuckle as scouting director, the Phillies' farm system began to shake off its cobwebs.

Arbuckle overhauled both his scouts and the entire scouting process. The Phillies made a major push in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. And Arbuckle's magical touch for recognizing talent produced a stunning succession of excellent No. 1 and No. 2 draft picks -- Scott Rolen, Pat Burrell, Randy Wolf, Jimmy Rollins, Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Gavin Floyd, Adam Eaton, David Coggin, Chase Utley.

And as that talent started showing up in Philadelphia, the ugliness that was Phillies baseball gradually began to subside. But maybe a little too gradually.

The Patience
To say that people in Philadelphia weren't too inspired by the Phillies' loonnnngg rebuilding mode is kind of like saying the turkeys down at the old turkey farm aren't too inspired by Thanksgiving.

"We knew we had to take a step back," Wade says. "But when you do, you know you're going to take a hit in a town like Philadelphia, where people don't want to hear the word, 'rebuild.' "

The Phillies did more than take a hit, though. They took a five-alarm pounding. In just four years, from the time the strike hit in '94 to the day another miserable season ended in 1998, they lost nearly 20,000 fans a game.

They didn't just drop at the turnstiles. They practically dropped off the radar screen. What fans they had left mostly groused about how cheap they were. And everyone else seemed to conclude that football season lasted 12 months a year.

In the five seasons from 1996 through 2000, the Phillies averaged 92 losses a year, lost more games than any team in baseball except the Tigers and Twins, and finished an average of 30 games out of first place. So suffice it to say nobody much cared that the nucleus of this team was assembling in front of their eyes.

"It's hard taking your lumps," Wade says now. "And I understand that the frustrations of the fans were very real. We certainly weren't turning our back on that aspect. But we wanted to run a parade down Broad Street. And we wanted to run it sooner rather than later. And we just weren't going to get there doing it the way we were doing it."

The Timing
It would be just about impossible to summarize, in 25 words or less, why similar plans didn't work in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Milwaukee or Cincinnati. In some cases, they over-evaluated their young talent. In others -- primarily Cincinnati -- the young hitters arrived, but the pitchers never did.

Whatever happened, one of the great lessons of the metamorphosis in Cleveland was that this only works if the timing is perfect, if the hitters and pitchers get to the big leagues about the same time. And the Phillies managed to have that happen.

"It's not enough to say you have talent in your system," Shapiro says. "You've got to have talent. And you have to get it to arrive together. And you have to have depth of young talent behind it. And then the ultimate challenge is to have that new revenue source, from the new stadium, coming along at just the right time.

"That influx of $10-15-20 million in new, discretionary revenue is not enough to build a championship team," Shapiro says. "But it is enough to supplement a championship nucleus."

We don't know yet that Burrell, Rollins, Myers, Wolf, Mike Lieberthal and Bobby Abreu really do comprise a championship nucleus. But thanks to a plan that was implemented long before Citizens Bank Park was even a hole in the ground, all those players were in place before the Phillies went out last winter and signed Jim Thome.

"Four years ago, it would have made zero sense for us to go out and try to get a Jim Thome," Wade says, "because we were still rebuilding, and we wouldn't have been an attractive landing spot for a guy like him in the first place."

But the pursuit -- and signing -- of Thome did more than merely signal that the Phillies finally were an attractive landing spot again. It was a signal that the Phillies understood that just because they were building around their arrival in the new park, they didn't have to wait until they opened the new park.

"The discussion that went on," Wade says, "was: Did we have the ability to back some of that revenue up to 2003 and use '03 as a bridge to the new park? And the answer was: We did."

Of course, they also felt they were ready to win. And had the season ended nine days sooner, they would have made the playoffs. But despite their collapse in the final week, in the big picture, they also saw 2003 as just the first step.

So this offseason, with the new ballpark staring at them from across the parking lot, they've stepped up their efforts to become the team in the NL East -- by trading for Wagner, by pursuing a No. 1 starter, by ratcheting up their payroll even higher. They could wind up somewhere in the neighborhood of $85 million by Opening Day.

That doesn't assure them of winning, obviously. But if they don't, it won't be for lack of talent -- or dollars spent.

The Luck
It ain't all brains. It ain't all strategy. It ain't all in The Master Plan.

"What's that old saying?" Wade laughs. "We make plans -- and God smiles?"

If they'd followed The Plan, Rolen would still be the third baseman. If they'd followed The Plan, Curt Schilling never would have thrown a pitch in Arizona. If they'd followed The Plan, Ricky Bottalico would be the closer, and Brandon Duckworth would be Josh Beckett, and a faded megaprospect named Brad Baisley would be Mark Prior.

"Everyone sits down and tries to project rosters two or three years in advance," Wade says. "And one of the great things about baseball is going back to those projections two or three years later and seeing how much you missed by."

But sometimes, even when you miss, you don't. The money the Phillies didn't spend on Rolen allowed them to sign Thome and trade for Kevin Millwood. The Schilling trade brought them Vicente Padilla, who already has made an All-Star team. And even though Duckworth was a disappointment in Philadelphia, they were able to include him in the Wagner trade.

So they've been as lucky as they've been smart. But they'll need to keep on being both if they're going to turn this into The Braves North.

While most teams are gravitating toward tying up fewer and fewer players to long-term deals, the Phillies have $59 million committed to six players as far out as 2006 -- and $44.5 million committed to Thome, Abreu and Burrell alone in 2007.

"We've got stability," Wade says. "But along with that comes (financial) inflexibility. So we'd better be right on the guys we've committed to."

That, however, is a worry for another time, one they hope is way beyond the horizon. For now, the Phillies appear to have learned the big lessons -- the lessons of what went right in Cleveland and what went wrong in Milwaukee and Detroit.

"We don't feel smarter and we don't feel luckier," Wade says. "What we are is hopeful that we can sustain some measure of success going into the new place. We all understand now that the allure and attraction of the new ballparks hasn't diminished -- but the shelf life has. You'll get a bump in revenue and a surge of excitement for a year or so. But after that, you'd better be competitive."

In the end, it turns out, that's still the only model that really works: Develop. Rebuild. Get smart. Get lucky. But when you reach the new-ballpark finish line, the motto is: If you don't win, nobody cares what the heck your Master Plan was. Especially in a compassionate place like Philadelphia.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.