Baseball historians will tell you that the Phillies have been playing baseball for an awfully long time, 126 years to be exact. They are, to be sure and to their everlasting credit, one of the few franchises that has not changed city addresses, never changed leagues nor never changed names, and has for the most part maintained a conservative dignity that has caused very few ripples on the baseball landscape. A heritage to be proud of and one that the team carries well and with pride.
Yet, if consistency has been their calling card it has also been their curse. For all the steadiness of the franchise within the confines of the National League, there has also been one basis of consistency that has always caused a sense of consternation with the Phillie phaithful. That consistency has been losing, and no team in baseball has done a better job of it since May 1, 1883. Not surprisingly, that Phillie team led 3-0 after 7 innings, only to blow it 4-3. That loss was only the beginning of what was to be an absolutely ugly 17-81 season.
Truth be told, it almost seems unlikely that the Phillies ever lived long enough to reach 10,000 losses, a number that is still unmatched in team sports history! The 1884 team finished 39-73 and these were to be the jump starts for a franchise that has won only one World Series in 126 seasons of operation, another staggering number unmatched in team sports history.
Not surprisingly, that one World Series triumph in 1980 was orchestrated in what is widely considered to be the greatest era of Phillie baseball history, the core group that basically played and won together from 1975-1981. Oh, the '82 and '83 clubs were solid and the '83 team even made it to the World Series but the core group of Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Steve Carlton, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone, Tug McGraw, Larry Christenson and Garry Maddox began winning consistently in 1975, and continued their success through the strike-shortened 1981 season.
For all intents and purposes, when the '81 team lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Montreal Expos this "golden era" of Philadelphia baseball was coming to and end, but oh what an era it was and oh how those players are still glorified whenever Phillie baseball history is dissected and discussed. And with good reason. Not only did that group win the cities only National League World Series title but also produced some of the organizations greatest players.
Mike Schmidt is widely considered the greatest third baseman in BASEBALL history and his rank with the Phils in unquestioned. Steve Carlton is the greatest left-hander in Phillie history and one of top five of all time in baseball rankings. Arguments can be made that up to now shortstop Larry Bowa, relief pitcher Tug McGraw, second baseman Manny Trillo and catcher Bob Boone were also among the greatest Phillie players at their position of all time.
Indeed, those teams and these group of players have earned their place in history unlike any before or since. Yes, the 1915 team was a solid team that made it to the World Series. led by the great right-hander Grover Cleveland Alexander. And certainly the Whiz Kids of 1950, led by pitcher Robin Roberts and center fielder Richie Ashburn, have carved out their niche in Philadelphia lore with their surprising defeat of the Brooklyn Dodgers and berth in that seasons World Series.
Who will ever forget the near miss in 1964, when that magical team had a 6.5 game lead with 12 games to play before the famous collapse that saw them lose 10 straight games? The 1983 Wheeze Kids brought some excitement to the city for one season as did the 1993 team, certainly one of the most talented and entertaining Phillie teams of all time.
However, in the end, those clubs were able to capture lightning in a bottle only for one brief moment and once that moment was gone, the bright light that shown so brightly for Phillie phans was quickly dimmed once again. In fact, for all but the 1915 crew, the following seasons clubs were among the least popular teams ever. The 1965 team was selfish and unimaginative, the '84 club old and undisciplined. The 1994 team suffered several injuries and also saw the season shortened and ultimately ended by an unpopular strike.
Yes, only the Schmidt-Luzinski-Carlton group of 1975-'81 has had the staying power which separates the true historic from the meteoric. Up to now, that is the only group that Philadelphia phans could look back on with pride and passion.
Up to now.
When Cole Hamels takes the mound for Game Five of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers he will be pitching to begin that quest for this clubs' place in Philadelphia history. Yes, that is where we have come with this team, from a time that probably began on July 29, 2006 when the organization officially turned the team over to the likes of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard, Brett Myers and Cole Hamels and away from the likes of Bobby Abreu, David Bell, Mike Lieberthal and Randy Wolf.
When the team began play that day, their record was 46-54, a distant 14 games out of first place and seemingly headed for another season of mediocrity and despair. Not coincidentally, it was during this three-day weekend of July 29-31 that the team was transformed with the trades that sent Bobby Abreu, David Bell and pitchers Rheal Cormier and Cory Lidle away and also gave leadership roles to youngsters like Rollins, Utley, Howard and Hamels.
With lefty Hamels pitching well, the Phils beat the Florida Marlins on July 29 by a score of 12-3 and won a double-header the next day, 11-5 and 9-2. Almost incredibly, given the fact that when General Manager Pat Gillick had seemingly waved the white flag on the '06 season with his trades, the Phils began to win and win consistently. They won so consistently that only a final week slump kept them from winning the National League wild card berth that year. Still, their final 39-23 push through the final two months of the season gave the team a very satisfying 85-77 record and installed in them a sense that they were now going to be a team to be reckoned with.
Indeed, that reckoning continuing in 2007 when the team won 13 of their final 17 games to win the National League Eastern crown with a final record of 89-73. Still, the ensuing three-game sweep in the playoffs at the hands of the red hot Colorado Rockies only served to make the 2008 club even more determined to establish their place in history.
Admittedly, for much of the '08 campaign the team seemed to be playing as if their feet were planted firmly in the mud. On June 13 the Phillies pummeled the St. Louis Cardinals 20-2 in the arch way city. Not only where they solidly in first place but looked every bit the powerhouse that many projected them to be. Then a funny thing happened to them on the way to greatest...they began to lose and lose with alarming consistency.
This losing was not a small sample size deal either, it lasted for nearly three long months. From that night in St. Louis when they looked nearly invincible until the night on September 10 when they lost to the Florida Marlins in a dismal performance at home, the team had played at a below .500 pace [38-39] for nearly three months. The team looked beaten, bedraggled and without hope of a playoff berth for the '08 season.
It was then, with their entire season clearly on the line, that this club took off. An improbable four game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers catapulted the team back into the wild card race and a solid 5-1 road trip through Atlanta and Florida moved the team back into the Eastern Division lead with but one week to play. After struggling against the Braves at home, the Phils swept the Washington Nationals before raucous and enthusiastic crowds at Citizens Bank Park to culminate a 13-3 finish and a second straight Eastern crown.
Not surprisingly the turnaround was led by some of the teams cornerstone players. First baseman Ryan Howard was white hot in September and played himself into a serious candidate for his second straight NL Most Valuable Player award. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, healthy again after several months of ankle pain, was dynamic both at the plate and in the field and completed what may end up becoming one of the greatest defensive plays in Philadelphia history by turning a game ending double play against Washington on the final Saturday of the season. Incidentally, this play clinched the title for the Phillies, which made it even more memorable in Phillie lore.
Starting pitchers Cole Hamels and Brett Myers lead a starting staff which pitched effectively down the stretch and closer Brad Lidge was always there to save every game he attempted to close [41-41]. Second baseman Chase Utley and left fielder Pat Burrell also contributed key hits down the stretch, much as they had done during the '07 rush to the finish.
Perhaps most impressive was the atmosphere centering around the club. There was always a quiet confidence in the clubhouse, very reminiscent of those powerhouse Phillie teams of the late 70s and early 80s. No matter how dismal the circumstances seemed, the team insisted that when the dust settled the Phillies would still be standing. Rudyard Kipling once captured this feeling in his famous poem IF when he contemplated that "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing their and blaming it on you", a near perfect description of what was going on around the team throughout the sometimes fractured '08 campaign.
Make no mistake, the phans had more than a little frustration with the team throughout that dismal three month stretch when the club seemed to be playing with little passion and even less direction. Yet, through it all there has been a quiet confidence born of talent and the knowledge that in the end talent usually wins out.
And my, how this team oozes talent. Legendary third baseman Mike Schmidt has been a frequent visitor to the Phillies this season and looks every bit as fit as he did when he was regularly leading the National League in home runs. If he could for just one day don his old Phillie uniform and take his place with the infield of first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins everyone would be watching what is widely considered the "greatest infield in Phillie history" position by position.
Yes, this gives a glimpse of just how skilled this team might be. Howard, Utley and Rollins are not merely among the best at their position in the game today but merely the greatest players at their positions in the entire 126 year history of the Philadelphia Phillie franchise. This is what phans are not witnessing and hopefully appreciating.
Still, it does not stop there. Left-hander Cole Hamels, with apologizes to past southpaw greats Chris Short and Curt Simmons, is probably the greatest left-hander ever produced within the system and he has not yet turned 25 years of age. A strong case can be made that reliever Brad Lidge has had the greatest season a closer ever had in Philadelphia, again with apologizes to legends like Tug McGraw, Steve Bedrosian and Jim Konstanty. Lidge can certainly cement his case if he should continue his perfect closer record throughout the remainder of the '08 playoffs and possible World Series.
Left fielder Pat Burrell, despite all his slumps and imperfections, is quietly moving up the list of all time Phillie slugging greats and should the team choose to re-sign Burrell following the season he will probably end his career behind only Schmidt in a few lifetime power numbers. He is poised to move into second place behind Schmidt in life time home runs next season when he hits his ninth home run. Burrell currently stands behind former slugger Del Ennis [259 home runs] with 251. More than Richie Allen. More than Chuck Klein. More than Greg Luzinski.
Should Burrell be fortunate to play in Philadelphia for four more seasons he will pass the great Richie Ashburn for second place in all time games played by a Phillie, again second only to Schmidt. The Phillie left fielder only this week turned 32 years of age, so four more seasons is certainly not out of the question. He is also likely to move near the top of the team charts in extra base hits, total bases, at bats, doubles and runs batted in. Again, heady territory.
Veteran lefty Jamie Moyer, at 45 years of age, is now entering the stratospheric heights of pitching longevity that even the greats like Carlton, Nolan Ryan and Warren Spahn never imagined. He might end up being the oldest pitcher to win a playoff or World Series game before his career if over and with 16 wins this year is already one of the oldest winning pitchers in the history of the game.
Health is always an issue when discussing the future greatness of a player but it is not inconceivable that this team could someday produce four Hall of Fame players in Howard, Utley, Rollins and Hamels. Probable? No. Possible? Yes. Not to mention the expected maturation process of such lesser lights like pitchers Brett Myers and Kyle Kendrick and outfielders Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth. In fact, Victorino is already placing his name along former playoff behemoths like Lenny Dykstra, Mike Schmidt, Gary Mathews and Manny Trillo with his clutch hits in this years center stage.
Added to that is a stellar crop of not quite ready for prime time players like starting pitchers J.A. Happ and Carlos Carrasco, catcher Lou Marson, third baseman Jason Donald and outfielder Greg Golson. All five of these talented youngsters should play some role in whatever success the 2009 Phillies may have and might well soon place their names along side the likes of Howard, Utley, Rollins, Hamels, Burrell, Myers and Lidge.
Suffice it to say, there is still much to be done before any discussion about the greatest of this group can take place. There is still one more win needed against the Manny Ramirez led Los Angeles Dodgers and then at least a strong performance in the following World Series. Admittedly, the Phillies would probably be heavy favorites should their opponents be the upstart Tampa Bay Rays but it is still seems likely that the Boston Red Sox will represent the American League. Should this happen they would be favored over the Phils, and justifiably so.
However, a victory over the Rays or a strong showing against the Red Sox would go a long ways towards this team's continued path towards eventual historic greatness. It will also help in seasons future if the team can somehow find a way to bridge the expected gap between just what Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels will feel they are worth and what the Phils deem as reasonable. Re-signing Pat Burrell will also be important if not equally so. Reasonable health for players like Rollins, Utley, Victorino, Lidge and Myers will also necessary.
A less discussed but perhaps equally important issue to be resolved soon is just who replaces retiring GM Pat Gillick. Should the Phils make it to the World Series, Gillick's place in Phillie history will already be assured but the continued success of the team will then rest of the shoulders of either Ruben Amaro or Mike Arbuckle, the two most likely candidates for the job. They will need to build on the success of Gillick while maintaining their own identities for the long haul, no easy task in this day and age of free agency and long term contracts.
Yet, these are mostly questions left better answered on another day. It is the present that is of immediate concern now, a present that could very well begin to define the assembled group of 2008 Philadelphia Phillies. John W. Gardner once remarked that "history never looks like history when you are living it. It always looks confusing and messy, and is always uncomfortable." Indeed, the '08 season has at times been confusing, messy and uncomfortable.
Make no mistake, however. The baseball world and the entire phandom in PhillieLand may well be witnessing the beginning of an era of success known only to a small group of players fortunate enough to be playing in Philadelphia between the years 1975-1981. Mike Schmidt. Steve Carlton. Greg Luzinski. Larry Bowa. Bob Boone. Garry Maddox. Tug McGraw. Larry Christenson. Phillie giants all, and up to now clamoring for another group to join them in the rarefied air of continual baseball success.
It is with this in mind that we now claim witness to the upcoming storyline that could define the eventual greatness of this group. It begins on Wednesday night in Los Angeles and may well include a return to Philadelphia for some unfinished business. The Philadelphia baseball world expectantly awaits the outcome for the 2008 squad in anticipation of defining...their place in history.
Columnist's Note: Please e-mail all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast