CD's Connect the Dots... The Autumn Years

It was a song touching yet painful. Written possibly from a very real experience, though singer and songwriter Bobby Goldsboro never shared it with anyone. It proved popular just about the time when Larry Bowa was starting out his long career as a Phillie. The song was entitled "Autumn of My Life" and I heard it again this week, after years of absence. I couldn't help but see the correlation between the song and Larry Bowa, now probably entering his autumn years as a long time Phillie favorite.

Larry Bowa, I do not come to bury you, nor do I come to praise you. Rather, I come at what seems an appropriate time, to reflect on you, as you enter what is probably your last month as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, after a long and storied career as player, coach and manager of your beloved Phightins.

For those too young to remember Goldsboro or his songs, let it be said that his soft touching ballets left many admirers swooning during his peak years. As much as the melody was soothing, the words were piercing, and many a fan felt that Goldsboro was singing the exact words that the listener was experiencing in his or her life.

In his song, "Autumn of My Life', he speaks of a life exciting and vibrant in spring, content and purposeful in summer and painful yet reflective in autumn. He speaks of love found in spring cultivated in summer, then lost in autumn. Yet, through the whole song, a sense of purpose, of absolute resolution is apparent, and he ends his song with an admission that he is "content, in the autumn of my life."

In this three-part story, I will attempt to put some relevance and meaning to this story, and this man. It is a fascinating and revealing study of a complex and often difficult person, prone to temper tantrums and tiny acts of kindness. Yet, no one can ever question his love of the Phillies, and if indeed this is his final month, a fitting tribute is no doubt in order. This then is Part 1…the Spring Years.

Who will ever forget the spring years, when a tall, skinny shortstop was signed only after the objections of almost everyone in the Phillie organization? Only because of scout Eddie Bockman's credibility, and a video that he made of Bowa, did the Phils relent and sign this shortstop. Truth be told, they did this more as a reward for Bockman's loyalty and persistence than they did because they had any notion that Bowa would someday become the greatest shortstop in Phillie history.

Bowa's career as a Phil's player coincided with the greatest era in Phillie history, the so called "Golden Age" that really lasted from 1975-1983. He began as part of a rookie double play tandem of second baseman Denny Doyle and Bowa, and most baseball experts expected a greater career for Doyle. Yet, while Doyle was quiet and respectful, Bowa was pugnacious and confrontational.

These qualities served him well as a player, and on a team of generally quiet players like Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Garry Maddox and Steve Carlton, his loud voice could often be heard at the 600 level of Veteran's Stadium. Oh, what an era that was, a time that we Phillie fans thought would never end.

And Bowa was always right in the middle of every success, be it his almost flawless ability to make the routine play, or the way he would drive the opponents to distraction with his constant and irritating bench jockey style. In fact, Bowa was never afraid of riling up an opponent as his famous comment to fellow shortstop rival Davy Concepcion proves.

The Cincinnati Reds of the mid ‘70s were everything the Phils wanted to become, a lineup filled with stars, and a trophy case filled with trophies. Yet the Phils were not intimidated, and when Bowa met Concepcion one day at the batting cage before a game, he cried out, "Hey, Elmer Concepcion."

Concepcion looked at Bowa with a bemused grin and reminded Larry that his name was Davy. Bowa, without batting an eye replied that he thought his name must be Elmer because every time he studied a Red's box score, he saw E-Concepcion written at the bottom. Of course, E stood for error, and Bowa knew this, but the friendly baiting was as much a part of his nature as his ability to play with any second baseman he lined up with.

It is a baseball truism that a double play combination must be a poetic thing, two players who know each others nuisances and tendencies from the first day of spring training until the final day of the season. Many managers platoon players, but generally shy away from juggling the middle of the infield.

Yet, through Bowa's Spring Years as a Phillie player, he performed admirably with no less than five second basemen… Doyle, Dave Cash, Ted Sizemore, Jim Morrison and Manny Trillo. It is no coincidence that Cash, Sizemore and Trillo had their best years as members of the Philadelphia Phillies. Playing next to Larry Bowa gave them confidence that if a double play could be made, it would be.

In such a wonderful career as a player, it is hard to single out special moments, the mind becomes a cornucopia of flashes and highlights. Yet, in Bowa's career, two moments stand out for me…one that led to the team's finest moment, and the other that led to it's greatest despair.

The despair came in 1977, when the Phils had what many still believe was their greatest team ever. Bowa always felt that way. Fresh off a 101 win season, and with a lineup of no less than eight players with double figure totals in homeruns, the Phils were confident of victory as they took on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League playoffs.

The Phils split the first two games at Dodger Stadium, and came home to a raucous crowd of over 63,000 wildly enthusiastic Phillie supporters. Only two more wins to go, and certainly winning two of three at the Vet wouldn't prove difficult for a team that went 60-21 at home during the season.

Game Three is forever etched in any Phillie fans mind, a day now referred to as Black Friday. Yet, for 8 and 2/3 innings, everything was going exactly according to plan, as the Phils lead 5-3 and reliever Gene Garber had retired eight batters in a row, all on ground balls.

Still, the Dodgers refused to die, and when Vic Davillio beat out a bunt and then Manny Mota hit a fly ball that bounced off Luzinski's glove, the score stood 5-4 with Mota standing at third. Then came the moment where time stood still, as if the baseball gods forever wanted it printed in the very minds of every Phillie fan.

Speedy Davy Lopes hit a vicious one-hop ground ball off the dangerous seams of the stadium Astroturf and the ball took a wicked bounce off Mike Schmidt's glove. It bounced high in the air, towards shortstop Bowa and in a miraculous bare handed react, catch and throw, Bowa appeared to have thrown out Lopes at first base, ending the game.

However, the umpire, no doubt anticipating the speed of Lopes and the difficulty of the play, instinctively called Lopes safe, not only tying the game at five, but sending the Phils and their fans into a veritable circle of rage and anger. Only later would people recognize the true wonder of Bowa's play, a play almost lost forever in the ashes of what would ultimately be a crushing 6-5 defeat.

That the Phils were eliminated the next evening was pure afterthought, the pennant was lost the moment that Larry Bowa's phenomenal play had been seen, but not believed. It was a play that would haunt Phillie players and fans for two more years… or until the redemption year of 1980.

Ah, 1980, we remember it well. Dallas Green's tirade in a lonely Pirate clubhouse in mid-August. Mike Schmidt's booming homerun to seal the division on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Montreal. The five exhausting games against the Houston Astros, four of which went into extra innings, before Maddox clutched the ball and a pennant from the grasp of the pesky ‘Spos.

Yet, to this day, I recall a play by Larry Bowa, a play that announced to the world, as well as the World Series opponent Kansas City Royals that this was a team that would not die. Ironically, it came quite early, in the bottom of the third inning of game one, a game the Phils appeared to have surrendered after their titanic struggle with the Astros.

The Royals led early 4-0, and with ace righty Dennis Leonard on the hill, the game seemed well in hand. The Phils seemed to have waived a white flag for this game by pitching rookie Bob Walk, as much because there was no one else as because they thought he could win. In reality, this was a game the Phils figured to lose…perhaps every Phillie but Larry Bowa.

Oh, it seemed a harmless enough play, a looping single to open the bottom of the third, the Phils still down by four runs and barely breathing. Yet Bowa did not come to lose, and he was about to announce this in the best way he could…with arrogance and style.

To the amazement of almost everyone, Bowa immediately stole second base, an unheard of event given the circumstances. As Bowa pounded his fist into the air while standing on the second base bag, it was as if he was proclaiming… "Not this time, not this team!" History shows he was correct, as the Phils immediately rallied for five runs and an eventual 7-6 victory in Game One.

The Phils would go on to a six game triumph, still the only World Series title in Phillie history, and due largely to the efforts of the tall skinny shortstop, signed almost as an afterthought over a decade earlier. It was a signing they would never regret.

Yes, the Spring Years were wondrous years for Bowa, years of success, style and substance. Yet, spring never lasts forever, and when he became embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with then team president Bill Giles, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs in October of 1981. It was a move that would prove disastrous for the Phils, not only because the feisty Bowa still had several solid seasons left, but also because the other player traded with Bowa would be a second baseman of future Hall of Fame credentials, Ryne Sandberg.

Larry Bowa might not have known it but his spring years ended the day he was traded. Another suitor, the Chicago Cubs, had replaced the baseball love of his life, the Philadelphia Phils. The following years would prove eventful and exciting, and mostly in triumph. For Larry Bowa, the summer years were now beginning.

Part II … Summer Years will appear on Monday, September 6, 2004.

Columnist's Note: Please send any comments or suggestions to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thanks! Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast

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