The Sonoran desert is not the most welcoming biome. The plants are pointy and the teeth are sharp. But despite its heat and hostility, people moved in and built cities on top of it. Soon enough, Arizonans began naming their professional sports franchises after the wildlife paved under their bubbling roads.
In 1995, the MLB was making its move.
“It’s no longer a field of dreams,” read the headline on an ad about the new ballclub that might be coming to Phoenix. This was a bold lead-in, given the lack of both dreams and fields in the southwestern U.S..
“Arizona is rounding third and heading for home,” it continued, adding a gratuitous sexual tinge. “Sometime next month, it is hoped that Major League Baseball will award Arizona its very own baseball franchise.”
Yes, the sport America hadn’t loved the most since 1960 would be played in front of sun-bleached cattle skulls and dream catchers dancing in the hot, occasional breeze. Mind you, this was when the sport’s fanbase had entered one of its more bitter phases, as MLB returned from two straight labor-strife shortened seasons. Apparently, the league felt nothing would bring people back to the game more than putting a new baseball team in the middle of 200 highly manufactured golf courses.
Phoenix’s reputation as a sports town had exploded as fans visited for the NBA All-Star Game in 1995 and discovered what the local paper called a “matured” city. It was a lively town full of indoor people breathing recirculated air, rather than a crater big enough to hold a million people, like everyone had thought.
“There are, like, tall buildings now,” said one impressed out-of-towner, according to a February 1995 issue of the Arizona Republic.
People? Buildings?? In the same place? No wonder Arizona was making the same request of any thriving metropolis: Baseball team, please!
And why not? Truly, they had every base covered; every feature refined. “Except one,” read the ad. “We need a name. That’s where we need your help.”
The choices were four types of animals and the name of the state capital, showing that the local leaders resided in a desert of creativity as well.
In the end, as we know, they went with the extremely poisonous Western diamondback as a namesake, likely given its fun local history as a reason people did not want to be there.
The proper response to a diamondback in Arizona — prior to Andy Benes throwing the first pitch in franchise history in 1998 — was to kill it, or at least use it to kill someone else.
There are countless old stories of diamondbacks getting their heads stomped off or being milked for their sweet, sweet venom throughout state history. One 1936 murder case saw an Arizona “reptile fancier” on trial for using a pair of diamondbacks to kill his wife, according to the Arizona Republic at the time. And when meat was rationed during World War II, one writer suggested people try catching and eating their local serpent, which according to the Arizona Republic in 1943 was “very tasty; like a cross between chicken and frog legs.”
In 1950, a couple of young lovers hitchhiked into Arizona, arriving too late in the day for lodging. A kind policeman took pity on them and guided them to the finest accommodations in town: an old cot in the local powerhouse.
The couple thanked him and, once he’d left, decided the floor was likely more comfortable than the soiled narrow bunk. Yanking up the mattress, they found that this place, too, was no longer accepting guests, as a pair of diamondbacks had curled up under the bedding.
They rudely killed one of the snakes, left it with the cop, and drove out of town. “Visitors Refuse Free Bedding,” read the headline in the June 1950 issue of the Tucson Citizen.
But the days of these snakes exclusively being causes of death and/or murder weapons in Arizona were coming to an end. The Diamondbacks played their first season in 1998. By 2001, they were already beating the Yankees to win the World Series.
Their early history is full of names you’ll recognize: Recently dismissed Mets manager Buck Showalter was their inaugural skipper; Randy Johnson and certain-kind-of-World-War-II-memorabilia enthusiast Curt Schilling was one of their early stars; cantankerous early 2000s Phillies first baseman Travis Lee was one of their first signings for $10 million.
The Diamondbacks and Phillies have a short history leading up to their matchup in the 2023 NLCS, which starts Monday. Here’s a look back at the milestones connecting these two franchises — and all the poison they’ve exchanged.
April 2, 1998
The first Diamondbacks batter ever faced by a Phillies pitcher was Devon White. White had been the lead-off hitter for the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays, as well, which was a fun way for Phillies fans to remember losing to that team in the World Series.
But Diamondbacks starter Andy Benes gave up two runs to the Phils on Bobby Abreu’s home run and a triple from Doug Glanville, then took a bat and smashed a plastic chair into hundreds of pieces.
The Phillies won, 4-1, and left everyone shocked at how little it took to get under the skin of the Arizona ace. The 1998 Phillies did not have the most dynamic lineup in the league, but they still made Benes have an Orlando Arcia-like meltdown.
That loss was the third of eight straight for the D-backs, and they would be swept by the Phillies, a team so hot they were only a single decade from their next World Series victory.
May 11, 2001
The Phillies played the Diamondbacks early in 2000, going out to Arizona for opening day and getting swept in their first series of the year. The D-backs came to Philadelphia in late April and took two of three as well, then took their fangs out of the Phillies and slithered back out west.
They were pretty juiced up that year in Arizona, to the point that the marketing team had guzzled enough energy drinks to come up with a mascot idea. The Diamondbacks were still pretty young as a franchise, only in Year 2, but it was time to start selling plush toys in the gift shop. Even children of the desert weren’t eager to cuddle up with a living tube full of poison, so the marketing team shifted their focus to less serpentine options.
Baxter the Bobcat was chosen when one of the player’s kids suggested they use that animal because the team played at the time in Bank One Ballpark (“BOB”).
With a bobcat on the prowl, the Phillies brought a Wolf to their first game after Baxter had been introduced — Randy Wolf, who held Arizona to one run in eight innings. Travis Lee, who’d been part of the trade that sent Schilling to the D-backs the previous year, homered for the Phillies twice, including once off Schilling. Philly won 5-1, but the Diamondbacks made themselves feel better about it by going on to win the World Series.
Per usual, Phillies fans are figuring out the best way to eat their opponent’s mascot in the NLCS. Unlike the Braves’ Blooper, Baxter seems less likely to try and tweet through it. It’s a shame; at least we already know what a diamondback tastes like.
July 29, 2009
The Phillies dropped game three of a series in Arizona, 4-0. But the news was good. They were in the middle of a season in which a single loss was not a complete undoing, especially when one could be distracted from the box score by rumors of the Phils acquiring Roy Halladay.
They were basically the same team that had won the World Series in 2008, so how much better did they need to be? One Hall of Fame ace better, it seemed, as word that Ruben Amaro, Jr. was in the preliminary phases of working out a deal with Toronto (calling them and hanging up every hour as an intimidation tactic).
In the foreground of all of this was a three-game set with the Diamondbacks, in which Jamie Moyer pitched six and two-thirds of shut-out ball, Cole Hamels struck out nine batters through eight innings, Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino crushed home runs, and not even a faulty Brad Lidge could entirely blow the ninth inning of game two.
They got aced in game three when the Phillies went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position, but nobody was reading that headline. The most disappointing news in late July that year was that the Phillies would have to wait five months to make a deal for Roy.
April 23, 2012
Down by a lot, the Phillies knew what they had to do in the bottom of the ninth. The problem was, they were the 2012 Phillies.
They didn’t know it yet, but their run of consecutive playoff appearances was over. The fans could sense it, too. There are always those cowardly defeatists who fetishize failure and expand every misstep into a forecast of eternal doom, but in this case, the early season shakiness of a once elite rotation and a lack of productivity from a once thundering offense had created a feeling that the group was nearing the end.
Nevertheless, there would be pockets of hope which seemed to indicate the Phillies could correct themselves — after all, it was only April. In a deficit with three outs left, the Phillies faced Diamondbacks pitcher Joe Paterson. They hit him with a single, double, single, and a pair of home runs from Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz to score five before recording a single out.
Of course, they had started the inning down by nine, since Kyle Kendrick had given away the store in the first. The Phillies lost 9-5, but at least their outburst sent Paterson back to the minors.
Two days later would be what is probably the most famous Phillies-Diamondbacks event of all time, in which the #GoDbacks debacle unfolded in the Diamondbacks social media department, which in 2012 was a single intern struggling to describe the issue at hand to a room full of supervisors.
Phillies fans co-opted the hashtag, the usage of which could get your tweet displayed on the big screen at Chase Field in Arizona.
Soon, instead of corporate-approved pro-Diamondbacks propaganda, the scoreboard in Arizona was full of classic mid-aughts internet humor (as well as, eventually, some confused zealotry from people believing the hashtag read #GodBacks), making this the kind of event Gen Z surely regrets not being alive for.
May 17, 2015
Sean O’Sullivan, a man most famous for getting hit in the throat with a return throw, allowed only five hits in six innings and won his first game in four years, despite getting hit in the throat with a return throw.
The win was the Phillies’ fifth in a row and completed a sweep of the Diamondbacks in Philadelphia. Since a victory at Yankee Stadium 13 starts ago, O’Sullivan had zero wins and a 7.19 ERA. His winless streak had been the longest in baseball since a guy on the Pirates had won his first game since 2008 the month before.
Not anymore. With a Maikel Franco-powered offense backing him up and a whistling sound every time he breathed out of his mouth, O’Sullivan was able to secure the 6-0 W.
“We’re playing really good baseball,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. One month later, he would quit his job.
Oct. 16, 2023
There are many other moments that have taken place between these two teams — they’ve been playing each other since 1998. But never has the vitriol between them reached anywhere close to what the Braves faced at Citizens Bank Park during the NLDS.
That means on Monday, as the NLCS gets underway between the Phillies and Diamondbacks, we will witness a new chapter begin. Next year, we will have a clutch of stories to remember about how Phillies fans dropped a live snake into the visiting bullpen or spent the whole game shrieking at Arizona star Corbin Carroll like Charlie Kelly uncovering a conspiracy. It may not feel safe to find diamondbacks sleeping under your bed, but at least they don’t chant your name or regrets or crimes at you.
This is a quiet dynamic awaiting its screams. The beauty of the playoffs is watching old rivals collide and seeing which ones will emerge victorious and which ones will crawl into a little ball and cry about playoff seeding.
But there is also beauty in new hate, and with the Braves gone, we can look forward to the next fanbase who will wander into Citizens Bank Park and wonder what the hell they’re stepping into.