In point of fact however, change has been in the air since Gillick took office late last October and his many moves can no longer be termed mere "tinkering."
Gillick is in the midst of a complete and utter overhaul of the vehicle and when the product is finished, he hopes to produce a newer swifter and mobile engine, with more horse power and less wear and tear on the parts.
Out, it appears, are the days of the "super cool" efforts of players like Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu and yes, even Pat Burrell and Mike Lieberthal. In are the peripatetic efforts of such youngsters as Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, centerfielder Aaron Rowand and hurlers Brett Myers, Cole Hamels and Scott Mathieson. Out are the attitudes of the "win some, lose some because there is always a game to be played tomorrow" syndrome that has cast Philadelphia among the netherworlds of major league baseball. In is the "never say die" attitude that has been put on display almost nightly since the 7.5 Richter Scale moves near the trade deadline gave the team a different look, a different feel and most importantly, a different leader.
Almost since the day that veteran Placido Polanco was traded to the Detroit Tigers last June, second baseman Chase Utley has been slowly moving to the top of the leadership class quickly and easily. And now, with Abreu moved, along with David Bell and a few other veterans, this has become Utley's team, for better or worse and if early indications are any barometer, this team will be quite enjoyable to watch over the next several years.
Plainly put, teams reflect the drive and ambition of their leader and while Rolen, Abreu and Burrell were great and productive players, they failed to inspire the masses with their energy and their skills were often lost in the day to day "lunchbox" attitudes of their performance. In fact, leadership can not be taught, nor derived from anointing, it must be born of the spirit and earned by the merits of the deeds. Talent alone is not enough to earn the metal and many players eagerly avoid the title and prefer to let their actions speak louder than words.
During the great decade of the mid 70's and early 80's when Philadelphia was at or near the center of the entire baseball universe, the greatest Phillie who ever lived, third baseman Mike Schmidt struggled with exactly this dilemma. Cool, almost super cool, Schmidt rarely showed emotion and never let on that the demons in his head were extracting a toll on his performance. Ultimately, he needed the encouragement, nay, the leadership of first Dave Cash and then Pete Rose to achieve the superstardom that his skills suggested should have come easily.
It is no coincidence that it took the "Yes We Can" arrival of second baseman Dave Cash to turn the Phillies from paupers into princes and, finally the arrival of Pete Rose to turn the team from princes into kings. Leaders do that, especially enthusiastic ones. With the emergence of Cash and Rose in leadership roles, the franchise took on a new look both in attitude and in performance. That group went through a complete and successful...culture shock.
This brief history lesson is certainly educational and may even interest the ancient historians who remember that "Golden Era" ever so fondly. Still, the recent moves and changes beg the question, "Can this group hope to achieve the sustained success of that past group." Of course, this remains an open question as it is entirely too soon to tell, though the early returns suggest the team is on the right track. In less than one complete season the entire face of the team has changed and with it, the demoralizing attitude that often came with it seems gone forever.
Yes, it seems almost impossible to believe that for the past five seasons, from 2001 through the 2005 campaign, the Phils have been a winning and solid team on the field. Oh, not playoff berth successful, but winning at a steady pace successful and the list of stars to pass through The City of Brotherly Love reads like a Who's Who of solid big league talent.
Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood, Eric Milton, Billy Wagner, Kenny Lofton, David Bell, Ugueth Urbina, Placido Polanco, Jose Mesa and Mike Timlin are but a few of the higher ranked stars who have called Philadelphia home since the turn of the century. Some, like Thome and Polanco were respected and loved for their day-to-day performance and class by which they represented their team and city.
Others like Timlin and Wagner made it clear that by leaving Philly, they were being released from a baseball probation that constantly stifled their production and personal happiness. Still others like Bell, Mesa and Milton had more than their share of solid moments but in the end left the masses unfulfilled and hoping for more. Through it all, the team continued to muddle its way around, with no real sense of direction and no clear path to the roads that lead to the Yankees, Red Sox and Cardinals of the baseball world.
Not even a brand new stadium could shake the nagging suspicion from the true Phillie phan that the team needed a new direction, a new leader and a new face. It now seems obvious that this was not readily apparent to Gillick when he bravely talked of finding a way to give this team "five more wins" in 2006 which would hopefully catapult them into the Octoberfest of Baseball known as the Major League Playofffs. After all, it has been over 15 years since the good city of Philadelphia had hosted a baseball playoff game and even worse yet, had only hosted one season's worth in the last 22 seasons.
To his credit, Gillick patiently let the season unfold on it's due course and if, in fact, he had suspected the worst from the beginning, on one is quite sure. This much is certain; at some point in probably early June, Gillick knew he would have to make changes, not the cosmetic ones that were so often employed by former GM, Ed Wade, but the massive ones that divide a city and cause consternation among the masses. Truth be told, these latest moves did just that, and more than one formerly faithful Phillie phanatic vowed to never again attend a home game at Citizens Bank Park.
Yet, a funny thing happened on the way to last place, a spot that many baseball "experts" were convinced that the team was headed without Abreu, Bell, Rheal Cormier, Cory Lidle and even earlier Vicente Padilla, Kenny Lofton and Jason Michaels. The team went out and won games at an almost two-to-one pace and showed signs of becoming the future darlings of the city known for it's blue collar ethics and hard nosed play.
Undoubtedly, the inspired play of Utley was the major driving force, along with the clutch hitting of Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and the steady hurling of Myers, Hamels and veterans Randy Wolf and Jon Lieber. Yet, the heroes were everywhere, from the power exploits of outfielders David Dellucci and Aaron Rowand to the solid defense and steady play of third baseman Abraham Nunez and relief pitchers Geoff Geary and Arthur Rhodes.
Add to this surprising work of rookies Chris Coste and Shane Victorino as well as the potential of rookie hurlers Scott Mathieson and Fabio Castro and the team had almost overnight taken on a whole new wardrobe, one that promised to make PhillieLand a much more presentable option for upcoming free agents who might consider calling Philadelphia home in the future.
How important has the emergence of Utley and Howard been to the resurgence of the club, and indeed, the entire organization? Not since the early days of Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski has the team had a dynamic duo to match the hardball exploits of this lefty twosome. Although they have been together barely a year now and have not yet acquired a legitimate nickname, it will be no surprise if the name Thunder and Lightning are deemed appropriate and settle in comfortably.
Ryan Howard is the Thunder, the terrifying noise that announces the coming power and electrical storm. His exploits are already reaching legendary stature, and if he stays healthy he could easily achieve 500 home runs the hard way, as a player who did not achieve stardom till nearly his twenty sixth birthday. Not that people weren't noticing him as early as three years ago, but with incumbent slugger Jim Thome firmly entrenched at first base, the thoughts of Howard turned to left field or to Pittsburgh.
At first, the team tried to make Howard into an outfielder but this was like trying to turn Picasso into a sumo wrestler, the beauty and artistry of his work demanded a single position, and a single aim...to make him a starting major league first baseman. This ultimately lead to rumors of a deal with the Pirates for pitcher Kip Wells last June but someone in the upper reaches of Phillie management put an end to these shenanigans and announced Howard as "off limits" in all trade talks.
For once, the baseball gods were smiling on Philly as soon thereafter Thome was injured, Howard was placed at first base and when the dust had settled, Howard had parlayed 22 home runs in barely half a season into the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Still, the doubting Thomas's were out in full force this spring, questioning Howard's ability to hit lefties and wondering if the infamous Sophomore Jinx would strike him with full force.
As the name Thunder implies, there was little chance of this happening, and at his current pace, Howard will easily eclipse Schmidt's single season record of 48 home runs and could challenge for the mid 50s with a closing burst. This, mind you, from a guy who was in the minor leagues as recently as June of last season. My, how the culture has changed in Philadelphia?
Still, if Howard is the Thunder, then Chase Utley is undoubtedly the Lightning, the rod that shocks the senses and carries the team on a nightly basis. In sheer baseball terms, Utley is a throwback player, a guy who plays at only one speed, fifth gear, on a nightly basis. This is mightily important as it is widely acknowledged that a team will take on the personality of its most engaging stars, and with Utley and Howard as it's role models, the entire character of the team has been transposed.
To watch the team in action is to easily see this transformation taking place. Immediately after the trading deadline the team left for a grueling nine game road trip to unfriendly places like St. Louis, New York and Atlanta. Not only were the Cardinals, Mets and Braves formidable foes, but few would dare venture a guess as to how the team might respond to the changes that had taken place. Clearly, Utley was being placed in the position of leadership as befits his new role in the number three spot in the batting order, a place formerly reserved solely for Abreu.
Utley has taken to this role like a duck takes to water and the team played inspired and winning baseball on the trip, winning six of nine and looking good in all but one game. Since the team has returned home, the pace has continued and although the team lost two of three in an incredibly exciting and interesting weekend series with the Cincinnati Reds, there is a distinctively different feel to this team, one that is likely to grow and bloom with time.
For better or worse, the new faces of this team are the faces of Utley and Howard, Hamels and Myers, Rollins and Rowand, Mathieson and Coste. Of course, many of the veterans have quickly bought into the program, so much so that veterans like Randy Wolf, Jon Lieber and Mike Lieberthal have professed a strong desire to remain in Philadelphia though they will all have chances to leave by season's end.
Wolf and Lieberthal are free agents, able to test the market for richer contracts, yet both have said that all things being equal, like W.C. Fields, they would rather be in Philadelphia. In fact, Lieberthal has even said he would take a huge home town discount to stay with the Phillies, an offer that Gillick is said to be considering. Lieber is still likely to be moved, but if he continues to pitch well, he could prove, along with Wolf, to be a stabilizing force in the 2007 rotation that should feature at some point youngsters Myers, Hamels, Mathieson, Ryan Madson, Gavin Floyd, Giovany Gonzalez, Zack Segovia and J.A. Happ.
Left undecided is the ultimate fate of outfielders Pat Burrell and David Dellucci. In an ironic twist that would be poetic if it were not so confounding, the Phils prefer to move Burrell and keep Dellucci while the players have decidedly different views...Burrell loves Philly and wants to stay, while Dellucci prefers the Southwest and will probably end up back in Texas.
Look for the Phils to try hard to keep Dellucci, as he has become a fixture in the outfield, especially against right-handed pitching, but in the end, he will still probably leave, much to the chagrin of the team. Still, expect the Phils to offer arbitration to him to insure two top draft picks as compensation should he leave.
The fate of Pat Burrell is an even more perplexing one at the moment and is one that is likely to bedevil Gillick throughout the winter months. Admittedly, Burrell's right-handed power bat is a plus for the team but his achy foot has made him a defensive liability, one that only a move to first base or to designated hitter is likely to solve, thus indicating a trade to the American League. The problem is Burrell's no-trade clause, an item that he used to remain in Philadelphia at the trading deadline.
Perhaps the best case scenario for the team is that a healthy Burrell shows up at spring training in 2007, with an attitude that he will blend in with this group to help form a most formidable middle of the order for the season. Sore foot and all, Burrell will probably finish the season with 30 home runs and 100 RBI, numbers that are difficult to replace in the fifth slot in the batting order.
Still, those are questions left for another day, there are still games to be played this year and the team appears fully equipped to excite the burgeoning bandwagon of newfound Phillie phans, be they win or lose. Youth will play with all the consistency of the young, and it might take a real stretch of optimistic imagination to see this team making the playoffs in 2006. Yet, as the Cincinnati series so aptly showed, the team has newfound zest in the form of leaders Howard and Utley aka Thunder and Lightning.
Phillie phans are quickly learning that to leave a game before the final out is to tempt the fates of missing another heart throbbing finish. This team, reshaped under the watchful eye of Gillick, has confounded the experts and confused the critics with it's inspiring play of late and it should be no surprise that this in no aberration but a sign of good things to come. In fact, it is all part of a master plan guaranteed to give Philadelphia it's very own...culture shock.
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Philliestalk.com and e-mail me there and I will attempt to respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast