As Phillies go home, Clearwater’s King and Queen of cheesesteaks keep on grillin'

As Phillies go home, Clearwater’s King and Queen of cheesesteaks keep on grillin'

Ed Crowley arrived at the concession stand behind home plate at Spectrum Field around 8 a.m. Tuesday. He had his earbuds in and the radio app on his phone tuned to WIP. This is the way it is before every home Phillies spring training game. There's a lot of prep work to be done when you're serving up mouth-watering authenticity on a pillowy roll and when it's St. Patrick's Day, well, you'd better be on top of your game.

"It's the busiest day every year," Crowley said. "Everybody eats and everybody drinks. It's a no-brainer."

Crowley and his longtime girlfriend Cindi Bowers are co-owners of Delco's, the great, real-thing cheesesteak and hoagie shop in Dunedin, Fla., just a few miles up the road from the Phillies' spring training site in Clearwater.

They've sold cheesesteaks at Phillies spring training games since 2001 and their concession is not hard to find. Just follow your nose toward the sweet smell of grilled onions — and look for the longest line in the place.

St. Patrick's Day has long been the highlight of the Phillies' spring schedule. The players wear green jerseys, a tradition started by Tug McGraw in 1981 and now observed all over baseball, and fans flock down from Philadelphia for the festivities. They cover their noses with sunblock and fill their bellies with beer.

And when they need a taste of home, they visit Delco's behind home plate. 

One St. Paddy's Day a few years ago, Ed and Cindi and their staff served up a record 1,700 cheesesteaks. 

Not bad in a ballpark that maxes out a little over 10,000.

• • •

There weren't 10,000 people in Spectrum Field on Tuesday.

As Ed Crowley talked on the phone five hours before what would have been a 1 p.m. first pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays, there were just two people in the ballpark — himself and longtime groundskeeper Opie Cheek, who was mowing the grass.

The coronavirus health crisis forced Major League Baseball to shut down spring training last week. Crowley was in the ballpark Tuesday morning to pack up supplies and take them back to the shop in Dunedin.

"Yeah, it's sad," he said. "St. Patrick's Day is such a tradition here. We feel bad for the fans and all the stadium and concession workers and we just hope everyone stays safe."

Losing seven games at the peak of spring training isn't ideal for business, but Crowley and Bowers still have their day jobs.

And they are quite busy.

Their shop in Dunedin sits in the middle of a strip mall and all the big chain sub shops are nearby.

Delco's blows 'em all away.

Your trusty, hoagie-lovin' correspondent visited the shop late Saturday afternoon before leaving town. I probably picked a bad time to visit, about 4:30 in the afternoon, just as the dinner crowd was picking up and the line was beginning to stretch toward the door. Ed was working the grill and Cindi was taking orders. Seven other employees were hustling around, making hoagies — using Amoroso rolls and Dietz & Watson meats, of course — taking orders, cleaning tables and rushing deliveries out the door. The place was packed. Certainly, Ed and Cindi didn't need the distraction of a goofy baseball writer with no baseball to write about hanging around at the peak of their business day, but they fit me in.

Ed hails from Aston in Delaware County, Cindi from nearby Claymont, Delaware. Ed started making cheesesteaks at the original LaSpada's in Parkside when he was 15. Cindy had a background in the restaurant business. In 1998, the couple moved to the Clearwater area and brought a taste of Delaware County, of Philly, with them.

Right out of the gate, people loved Delco's. One of them was Dan McDonough, an executive in the Phillies' Florida operations department. The always gregarious McDonough grew up in Chester County and knows a thing or two about Philly and cheesesteaks. He finished getting a haircut one day in Dunedin when he spotted the Delco's sign in a nearby storefront. He wandered in, introduced himself to Cindi, slapped his business card on the counter and said, "If they're legit, we can do business." McDonough loved the cheesesteak and business was indeed done. For three years, Delco's had a small stand at old Jack Russell Stadium. They moved uptown when the Phils opened Spectrum Field in 2004 and have been a fixture at the ballpark ever since. Their blue double-wide ad, which also touts Ed's brother Rich's shop in Chadds Ford, is an icon on the outfield wall in front of the Phillies' bullpen.

• • •

Ed and Cindi credit a few folks for initially helping spread the word about their great cheesesteaks and hoagies.

The first was Steve Duemig.

"He was sort of the Howard Eskin of Tampa Bay," Ed said.

Duemig, who died last May, often talked about his Philly-area roots on his sports talk radio show. One day, Ed and Cindi sent him over some 'steaks and he couldn't stop talking about them.

The Delco's brand also gained big popularity through its affiliation with the Phillies.

"The exposure has been huge," Ed said. "Phillies fans find us. They need a cheesesteak, some Tastykakes, Herr's chips, they find us."

A trip to Delco's is like a sports-themed trip back to Philly. Main Street in Dunedin might as well be Oregon Ave. in South Philly or McDade Blvd. in Delaware County.

There's room for 46 customers in the dining room. The walls are lined with Philadelphia sports memorabilia from the front page of The Inquirer the day after the Phillies won the World Series in 1980 to dozens of bobbleheads. While you're waiting for your pickup order, you can sit in an old seat from Veterans Stadium, right under Allen Iverson's jersey. Scott Rolen discovered Delco's when he was playing for the Blue Jays, who train in Dunedin. There was a picture of him in a Phillies uniform on the wall. He signed it. Chris Wheeler is a regular. Jose Bautista was a regular when he played for the Jays. Fred McGriff and Dick Allen have been in. The golfer John Daly, too.

The signature piece of memorabilia is a 10-x-6½ foot flag that takes up most of the east-facing wall. The flag is faded orange and emblazoned with the Flyers' winged-P logo. Once upon a time, it flew outside The Spectrum.

"It showed up in a big box in the mail one day like 20 years ago," Ed said. "Two weeks after it arrives, this little old lady comes in, orders a 'steak and says, 'I see you got my gift.' She got it from someone she knew at The Spectrum and gave it to us."

Cindi loves the flag.

"I have more stuff in back that I could put up on the wall, but that's never coming down," she said.

My whole visit to Delco's was like a trip to Philadelphia. Authentic Philly 'steaks. Authentic Philly fans. (Memo to the office: Send these guys an NBC Sports Philadelphia banner for the wall.)

But the moment when everything felt totally Philly didn't come until I'd stepped outside and took a seat at one of the tables on the sidewalk. As I sat there going over my notes, Cindi popped her head out the door. She had her arm around a woman and she wore a big, you're-not-going-to-believe-this grin.

"Hey," Cindi said with a laugh. "This is Howard Eskin's stepmom!"

Sure enough, this nice woman was Cheryl Eskin, the widow of The King's late father, Donald. Cheryl, a Northeast Philly native who now lives in the area, explained that her husband loved Delco's and she still comes by for lunch or dinner at least once a month.

Cheryl asked me if I saw Howard Eskin's bobblehead on the shelf inside the shop. I sure did. Right next to Charlie Manuel's. Someone has a sense of humor.

"I did that," Ed said with a laugh from behind the grill full of sizzling steak and onions late Saturday afternoon.

• • •

Fast forward three days to Tuesday and Ed is behind the grill again, only this one is at the ballpark and it's as cold as a January sidewalk. No sizzling steak. No onions. No baseball. No Phillies. No fans. No St. Patrick's Day fun in the sun. Just a box of supplies to take back to the shop and one sincere hope for all the little people who work behind the scenes that are affected by this pause in the sports world.

"Safety first," Ed said over the phone. "Hopefully this will pass and things will be back to normal for everyone real soon."

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Only 3 teams gained more value than Phillies from 2019 to 2020

Only 3 teams gained more value than Phillies from 2019 to 2020

The valuation of the Phillies franchise is up to $2 billion, according to Forbes. It’s an 8 percent increase from last year.

The only teams in the majors to experience a higher percentage year-over-year increase than the Phillies are the Yankees, the World Champion Nationals and the Orioles. Seven teams saw no gain or lost value: the Marlins, Pirates, Royals, Athletics, Indians, Tigers and Diamondbacks.

The Yankees are valued at $5 billion, leading the league for the 22nd straight year.

At $2 billion, the Phils’ valuation is eighth-highest in the majors. They are behind, respectively, the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs, Giants, Mets and Cardinals.

The only team with a current valuation below $1 billion is the Marlins at $980 million. Miami was the only team to lose money in 2019, according to Forbes.

MLB’s total revenue in 2019 was $10.5 billion. More than 30 percent of that was from gate receipts, which baseball would not have in 2020 if games are played in empty stadiums. That was the largest chunk, followed by national TV deals, local TV deals and sponsorships.

The Phillies’ 13-year investment in Bryce Harper and the resulting increase in attendance and merchandise sales played an obvious role in the increase but the terms of rights deals are one of the biggest drivers of organizational values.

League-wide, profits have never been higher, which puts MLB in a position to at least withstand the pain of a shortened 2020 season. Forbes estimates that coronavirus concerns will cost U.S. pro sports leagues $5 billion.

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What must Scott Kingery do to make the next leap Phillies need?

What must Scott Kingery do to make the next leap Phillies need?

Scott Kingery hit his first major-league home run two years ago today, a solo shot to left-center at Citizens Bank Park against Reds left-hander Cody Reed.

Kingery's first two weeks in the majors went well but his rookie season was a slog after that. He expanded the strike zone a ton, struck out more than you'd like and barely got on base when the hits weren't falling.

Kingery took a big step forward last season at age 25. He missed a month between April 19 and May 19 with a hamstring injury but hit .347 from opening day through June 1. 

In the month of June, he was an extra-base hit machine with nine doubles, a triple and seven home runs in 114 plate appearances.

August was another productive month for Kingery. He hit .287 with 13 extra-base hits and an .825 OPS. 

All told, it was a solid second season from Kingery. His .788 OPS was exactly the league average, and his extra-base hit total increased from 33 to 57 in just 16 additional plate appearances. When you factor in the strong defense he has played at six different positions, the value is easy to see.

Kingery has started games at second base, third base, shortstop and all three outfield spots. No major-leaguer since 1958 has amassed as many plate appearances in his first two seasons (984) while playing all those positions. That's not just a random fact — it illustrates the rarity of a player being not just a super-utility player but a super-utility starter, and how doubly rare it is for a player to begin his career in that role. 

In 2020, whenever the season begins, Kingery will likely be at second base for the majority of the season. Things can change quickly, though. If Jean Segura suffers an injury, Kingery could shift to third base. If Didi Gregorius gets hurt, Kingery or Segura would slide over to short. If there are injuries in center field, Kingery would likely be the next man up after Roman Quinn and Adam Haseley.

Kingery's versatility is a good thing, not a bad thing, though it probably cost him some offensive effectiveness over his first two seasons. Kingery remarked this offseason that by preparing for so many different positions, there have been many nights in his first two big-league seasons that he felt spent by game time.

His biggest issue at the plate is his constant expansion of the strike zone. Kingery knows it. It's a goal of his to be better at laying off of pitches he has no chance of making good contact with.

Through two seasons, Kingery's strikeout-to-walk ratio is ugly. He's whiffed 273 times and taken 58 walks. No Phillie has struck out that many times in his first two seasons since Pat Burrell in 2001 — but Burrell also walked 75 more times than Kingery has.

Last season, 24% of the pitches Kingery saw were low and away off the plate. He swung at those low-and-away pitches nearly 30% of the time and hit just .127. Obviously, that is a zone a hitter would rather leave alone. 

Kingery's selectivity must improve for him to reach a higher offensive level. There are 118 players with as many plate appearances as him the last two seasons and Kingery ranks 108th in walks.

The Phillies are not relying on Kingery to be their offensive centerpiece or even their sixth-best hitter. However, they'd be so much stronger as a lineup if Kingery could maneuver his way closer to the top of the order and produce. If Kingery could provide consistency in the 2-hole, it would allow someone like J.T. Realmuto or Didi Gregorius to move into more of a run-producing role. And even if Kingery does stay in the 7-spot in the lineup for most of the season, he has a chance to lengthen the Phillies' lineup and turn it into one of the NL's best if he can build on his sophomore season.

Kingery had a .315 on-base percentage last season. The league average was .323. Had he reached base just 10 more times in his 500 plate appearances, he'd have been at .334, which is the same as Realmuto's OBP the last three seasons.

It's a realistic target for Kingery, who does not need to become the next Chase Utley to be valuable or to live up to the $24 million contract he signed before ever playing a major-league game.

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