LAKEWOOD - Jesse Biddle watched Philadelphia Phillies reliever Brad Lidge strike out Eric Hinkse of the Tampa Bay Rays to win the 2008 World Series at Citizens Bank Park.

Biddle, 19, grew up a Phillies fan. Philadelphia drafted the 6-foot-5 pitcher from Mount Airy, Pa., with its first pick in last June's draft.

"I was there when they won the World Series," he said. "I didn't know what to do. You look around the stadium and everybody was so into it."

The joy carried into the streets around Citizens Bank Park.

"Everybody was so happy," he said. "It didn't really hit me about how much (Philadelphia) loves its baseball until that night."

Biddle, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and hitting coach Greg Gross came here to the Woodlake Country Club for a dinner to promote the upcoming season for not only the Phillies but the team's Class-A affiliate - the Lakewood Blue Claws.

Biddle, who will probably start the season with the BlueClaws, also remembers when the team wasn't so popular.

He attended games at Veterans Stadium during the Phillies' last days in that cavernous stadium.

Philadelphia finished no better than 10th in the National League in attendance from 1997-2003. The fans that did attend back then had more to boo than cheer. Philadelphia averaged 74.7 wins from 1995-2003.

"I remember going to games at the Vet and being a little scared of the fans," he said.

Those days are long gone and the change began with the opening of Citizen Bank Park in 2004.

"I went to Citizens Bank Park," Biddle said. "It's family-oriented park, a family-oriented environment. I said, 'This is where I want to play.'

"You take a diehard fan, and you put him on the team," Biddle said of what it's like for him to be in the Phillies' organization.

There are numerous signs of the Phillies' popularity.

They have sold out 123 straight games at Citizens Bank Park. They have made four consecutive playoff appearances. With the December free agent signing of pitcher Cliff Lee, anticipation for the 2011 season may be greater than any other season in Phillies history. Philadelphia pitchers and catchers will report to spring training in Clearwater, Fla., on Feb. 13 for physicals. The first workout is Feb. 14.

"The fans have been extraordinary," Amaro said. "Obviously, you have to win to get that support. But things came to a head with the new ballpark and the fact we had some great core players in the big three - (Chase) Utley, (Jimmy) Rollins and (Ryan) Howard."

Not only are the Phillies popular, but so are the team's minor league affiliates.

Lakewood drew 431,954 fans in 2010. It was the 10th straight year the BlueClaws led the South Atlantic League in attendance.

Amaro said playing before big crowds helps prepare players for major leagues.

"Anytime you have excitement and pressure to perform in your player development system it's a great situation," he said.

About 150 fans attended Tuesday's event. They got to meet Biddle and ask questions of Amaro and Gross.

Buster, the BlueClaws mascot, was on hand as well as the Phillie Phanatic.

Mike Fluck of Toms River brought his 12-year-old daughter Emily and his 9-year-old son Michael.

Like Biddle, Fluck can remember when the Phillies weren't so popular.

"I'm kind of frustrated," he said. "Now, everybody's jumping on board."

The one negative is that's it's tough to get tickets for games now. But Fluck doesn't want to go back to the old days when the Phillies were one of baseball's least popular franchises. The crowds are easier to do deal with than the losing.

"I've suffered," he said. "This is paradise."

Contact Michael McGarry: