After weeks of promotion and hype, NBC Sports Philadelphia aired Sunday night its highly anticipated look back at the 2008 Phillies, entitled “World Champions: The Story of the ’08 Phillies.”
As the 10-year anniversary of the 2008 Phillies’ triumph approaches, now seems like the perfect time to chronicle the team that delivered the city of Philadelphia its first major professional sports championship in 25 years. With a natural narrative arc provided by a championship season backdrop that is supported by a beloved cast of eclectic characters given a decade’s time to grow, change, reflect, and gain perspective on their tremendous accomplishments, the program had what I felt were the perfect contextual ingredients for compelling storytelling.
What’s more, I found it encouraging that NBC Sports Philadelphia, a network that has undergone significant changes in personnel and programming in recent years, committed to such an ambitious project. I firmly believe this is the precise type of programming the network should both dedicate itself to and feature. Philadelphia sports fans want to immerse themselves in their teams and feel a connection to the players they come to love (or loathe). Insightful, smart, and anecdotal documentary-style television provides that opportunity, plus it’s a welcomed deviation from the mindless and manufactured quick-hit debate programming that plagues modern sports television.
And that’s why I was a bit underwhelmed by what I watched last night. It felt under-budgeted, underdeveloped, and incomplete.
Let’s start with the program’s production elements. I was hopeful given the network’s recent rebrand as an NBC Sports entity that producers would be given more resources, but this program lacks the polish and visual appeal such a product deserves. The typical graphics packages, interview backdrops, and edits didn’t do anything to differentiate the program from the rest of NBC Sports Philadelphia’s offerings. Frankly, it felt like a blend of an extended Phillies Clubhouse segment and one of the team’s video yearbooks. I also question the decision to use NBCSP’s Amy Fadool Kane as the program’s narrator. That’s not a knock on Fadool, who I think is talented and does a good job in handling a variety of duties at the network, but using an unfamiliar narrator, even a B-list Philly celeb or just someone else, would have been an easy way to give the program an element of distinctiveness.
The other issue I had with the production was the lack of game footage. I suspect there were financial restraints that held back producers on a few different fronts, this being the most damaging. It’s difficult to capture a true feel for a team without highlights of the games. To be fair, memorable plays like the spectacular division-clinching double play turned by Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, Shane Victorino’s grand slam off CC Sabathia in Game 2 of the NLDS, Matt Stairs’ pinch-hit home run in Game 4 of the NLCS, and Utley’s heads-up throw to the plate in Game 5 of the World Series were included, but only a handful of additional plays were shown. The lack of game action was obvious, and it created what felt like an overreliance on still photography and B-roll footage that wasn’t particularly gripping. I thought the program missed an opportunity to show viewers important but forgotten or less celebrated plays which are often one of the most fascinating elements of a sports documentary. I suspect had the producers been given a greater budget that they almost certainly would have elected to add more game footage.
WORLD CHAMPIONS OF BASEBALL!
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) July 16, 2018
Beyond production value, I felt the storytelling also left a bit to be desired. Despite its billing as “The Story of the ’08 Phillies,” the program almost entirely ignored the regular season. The 2008 Phillies were a 92-win team that used a strong finish to win the NL East for a second-straight season. It was a team that featured a closer who was a perfect 41 for 41 in save opportunities, a first baseman that hit 48 home runs, a former MVP and a sparkplug shortstop who memorably called the fans “front-runners,” and a franchise icon at second base who posted a .915 OPS in 707 plate appearances. It was a never-say-die team that came from behind for wild wins, one that erased a 3.5-game deficit on September 10 of that season with a furious 13-3 finish. There was plenty of intrigue and drama in what was an up-and-down regular season, but the show failed, nor did it even attempt, to capture it.
My hope was that there would be fun clubhouse anecdotes, or previously unheard stories about that season, but those were few and far between. Ed Wade’s revelation that he almost dealt Brad Lidge to the Indians in exchange for Cliff Lee was awesome. Jayson Werth’s story about how he persuaded Charlie Manuel into giving him playing time by showing him a DVD compilation of his highlights with the Dodgers was great stuff. There needed to be more of that.
While I did appreciate those brief anecdotes as well as the quantity of interviews conducted and the brief look at how the team was built in the opening moments, I came away feeling like a lot was left on the table here. My hope is that NBC Sports Philadelphia continues to commit itself to documentary-style programming, but that it also goes all-in to deliver a program that fully encapsulates the essence of the subject, as opposed to what felt to me more like a cursory (and tightly budgeted) trip down memory lane.