By Benjamin Hill / Special to MLB.comReading, Pa., is only about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, so the region's baseball fans naturally align themselves -- for better or for worse, over the years -- with the Fightin' Phils.
The intensity of this built-in relationship between town and team is magnified exponentially by the fact that Reading has hosted Philadelphia's Double-A farm club since 1967. Rob Hackash has served as the Reading Phillies director of communications since 1996, and in that time he's gained an appreciation for one of the Minor Leagues' most knowledgeable and loyal fan bases.
"Winning's nice, but the people who come out to the games here really get it," he said. "So much of the experience is about watching the players get better. The fans will show just as much of an appreciation for a can't-miss guy like Pat Burrell as they will for someone like [catcher] Carlos Ruiz, who came here as an unknown and turned himself into a prospect."
Over the past four-plus decades, fans in Reading have enjoyed the chance to watch a wide range of notable players. Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt passed through Reading in 1971, one year before he launched the first of his 548 big league home runs. Philly mainstays Darren Daulton and Juan Samuel also suited up for the R-Phils in the early '80s, while the likes of Scott Rolen and Mike Lieberthal took the field at Reading Memorial-Municipal Stadium the following decade.
Philadelphia's postseason teams from past seasons weren't exactly stacked with prominent Reading alumni, but 2008 was a different story.
The following season, a brash 20-year-old right-hander by the name of Brett Myers came on board.
"Myers really established himself as a big-game pitcher here," said Hackash. "You could see that he craved the spotlight, and that he wanted that responsibility of taking the mound when it really mattered."
Future stars of the big league club continued to roll through Reading in the years to follow. Ryan Madson anchored the bullpen in 2002, while the mighty Ryan Howard foreshadowed his predilection for the long ball by blasting 37 in a four-month span in 2004. Current Phillies ace Cole Hamels touched down in Reading and dominated the following season, although injuries limited his time with the ballclub.
Truly, the road to Philadelphia baseball stardom runs through Reading. Rollins, Howard and Burrell are icons in the City of Brotherly Love, but before the people of Philly proudly called them "our Phils," they were simply "R-Phils".
"Maybe if you're a fan of [Boston Red Sox affiliate] the Portland Sea Dogs, you're used to seeing former players in the World Series," said Hackash. "But in Reading, this is not something that we've been used to. I think everyone here would like things to get to the point where this is routine."
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.