CLEARWATER — Bags were already packed and buses were ready to roll before the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 3-2, on Monday, March 25 in the final Grapefruit League game of 2019.
After the win, the team broke camp and headed north to prepare for the season opener against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park following a spring training that featured record crowds and a large amount of buzz, thanks in part to the Feb. 28 signing of free agent outfielder Bryce Harper.
But many fans that packed the Spectrum Field stands throughout the 2019 Grapefruit League season didn’t care about record contracts or even the regular season; they came to Clearwater for three things — fun, sun and spring training baseball.
“It’s the last game of the spring, they’re playing the Rays and it’s a beautiful day!” Largo’s Doug Money said as he enjoyed the action from his seats along the first base line with several family members.
According to Phillies officials, the team experienced a robust spring that featured single game and three-day attendance records, thanks to the combination of Harper’s signing and ideal baseball weather.
“It’s always great, but this year there was an extra bit of buzz in the air with all the free agent signings, and then the Harper signing put us over the top,” John Timberlake, the Phillies’ director of Florida operations, said as he watched the last game from Spectrum Field’s upper deck.
Timberlake, who also serves as the GM of the Clearwater Threshers, the Phillies’ Florida State League affiliate, said the team sold out 10 games in a row in March, including a three-day stretch that featured the highest single-game attendance in team history when 11,340 fans packed the park for the annual St. Patrick’s Day game.
“It was kind of the perfect storm this spring,” Timberlake explained. “We’ve been really fortunate with the weather, nothing too hot or rainy, and we were able to draw more than 132,000 fans despite playing just 15 home games and having the season begin in February before most spring breaks started.”
As he stated earlier this spring, Timberlake likened the heightened euphoria surrounding the club to the atmosphere that followed the Phillies’ winning the World Series in 2008, and he said he hopes the signings of Harper as well as fellow All Stars Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura and JT Realmuto, help keep the good vibes flowing for years to come.
“People are coming here just like the period from 2008-2012, to see the Phillies players, because there’s an excitement about the team. It shows the passion of Phillies fans,” he said. “Phillies fans love Clearwater and they look for any reason to come here, and the level of excitement has been heightened this year over several years past. Hopefully they make the postseason and hopefully win another World Series, because that just elevates everything.”