CD's Connect.The.Dots: Back Up

The announcement on Sunday of the back spasms affecting right fielder Bobby Abreu and that back-up Jason Michaels might get some playing time caused me to reflect on past Phillie back-up artists. These are guys who could come in at a moment's notice and perform with confidence, talent and the assurance that not a beat would be skipped while the regular remained out of the lineup. Lets take a look at some past Phillie bench gems, and what made them so special.

One of the earliest memories I have of the splendor of an outstanding irregular was the always solid performance of one Cookie Rojas in 1964. Indeed, one of the reasons that this wonderful team nearly stole the pennant was that the Cookie refused to crumble, no matter what he was asked to do. In all, Rojas played eight different positions that year, yes, even an inning at catcher. And not in a blow out game either, but the crucial bottom of the ninth inning of a critical game against the Reds in Crosley Fileld in July.

The Phils were being pursued by the Reds and had lost the first game of a double-header that day. It appeared as if it might be a double dip loss as the Phils trailed 2-1 in the ninth inning when Johnny "on-the-spot" Callison hit a three-run homer to give the Phils a 4-2 lead. The Phils, fresh out of catchers, called on Rojas to protect the lead behind the plate, and protect it he did, as the Phils escaped with an important 4-3 win. Rojas hit .291 that season but his greatest value was his ability to come off the bench at a moment's notice and perform admirably. A solid back up, indeed!

A careful study of three of our more successful teams, the ‘77, ‘80 and ‘93 Phillies revealed that a solid bench was par for the course with all three teams.

The ‘77 team had a literal cornucopia of talent, from the slugging of Jay Johnstone to the defense of Jerry Martin. From the versatility of Terry Harmon to power of Davey Johnson; from the wisdom of Tim McCarver to the pinch-hitting skills of Tommy Hutton; this bench never had their backs to the wall.

Rookies Lonnie Smith and Keith Moreland, two youngsters with diverse skills but similar abilities to perform well and often, led the 1980 team. Both hit over .300 in their maiden voyage in the big leagues, and the Phils would not have won the World Series without their back-up bravos.

Of course, one cannot begin to discuss the 1980 bench without discussing the wonderful hitting skills of pinch-hit deluxes Gregg Gross and Del Unser. Both were solid contributors all summer that year and had very key hits during the playoff run. Gross had a particularly well-placed bunt in game five against Nolan Ryan and Unser scored the winning run in the tenth to vault the Phillies to the Promised Land.

In the World Series, it was Unser's bad hop double in the ninth inning of Game five against the Royals that truly set in motion the exciting 4-3 win that was the true turning point in the series. As solid as these back-ups were, there were few bench's more capable of causing consternation on a daily basis for opposing clubs than the bench assembled by GM Lee Thomas and Manager Jim Fregosi in 1993. Indeed, one could make a valid argument that a lineup consisting of Mariano Duncan, Ricky Jordan, Wes Chamberlain, Kim Batiste, and Todd Pratt would constitute a solid core of everyday players, but on the ‘93 team, this solid group formed the Bench Brigade, and an impressive group it was.

Need proof? How about 24 homeruns off the bat of Incaviglia? Or Duncan hitting .282 with 140 hits? Or Chamberlain's 12 homerun season? Yes, friends, as back-ups these guys were front row material and the Phils daily lineup looked powerful whenever one of them was called to perform. And that was often.

So after looking back, lets look forward. Does this 2003 version of the Phillies have the back-up strength to withstand potential back problems that seem to crop up occasionally with Jim Thome and now Abreu? Is there anything in the background of these players that might suggest we can rest at ease if they are called upon to perform? Lets take a quick look.

Michaels. His pedigree is solid. Does anyone realize it was Mr. Michaels and not Pat Burrell who batted clean up for the U. of Miami powerhouse that nearly won a college series? Michaels has a workman like attitude, and the temperament to perform well. He seems to be able to sit for long periods and yet deliver par excellence. One feels comfortable with Michaels steering the ship.

Tomas Perez has performed admirably at second, shortstop and third base over the past few seasons and his pesky bat and quick hands allow a certain comfort zone in performance. This is especially handy when the situation only calls for a few days. Perez is solid but probably could not be counted on to perform as a regular. As a backup, however, Perez provides the Phils with quality tools and a confident attitude. And not to forget his being one of the most popular players on the team.

It was not that many years ago that Ricky Ledee was spoken of in hushed tones in New York with Yankee fandom. I know, sitting at Yankee Stadium one afternoon, I heard the crowd extol the virtues of Ledee's talents. Oh, he was but a Triple A player then, still learning the trade. But to hear a Yankee fan talk, Ledee would soon take his place among the past greats of Yankee outfielders and would help lead the Yanks to continued domination of the AL East. Sadly, injuries, excessive expectations and a cruel inability to handle southpaws on a regular basis have led Ledee to change teams several times.

Now, as a Phillie he is not being asked to perform miracles, merely give the Phils a solid day's work in center field and come up with an occasional homerun or stolen base. Although Ledee's Legend is seemingly gone forever, he has performed well since he joined the Phils in 2002.

Perhaps the best of the bench bunch, Tyler Houston is now on the DL after breaking a finger. A former number one draft pick of the Braves, Houston has always suffered from injuries, and has never been able to display his considerable talents over a complete season. Before his injury, Houston was hitting over .300 and was contributing on an almost nightly basis to the Phils attack. He will be missed until his return in July.

As mentioned before, we must often look back to move forward and a look back takes us to where we are today behind the plate..... none other than Todd Pratt, he of the ‘93 back-up fame. Pratt has performed many services since rejoining the team last year with a solid bat, a strong work ethic, and a strong clubhouse presence. He is one of Larry Bowa's most trusted lieutenants and has earned his wings by always being ready to play at a moment's notice. Pratt is one of the bench's best bets.

So, from Rojas to Pratt and many players in between, the Kevin Sefciks and Alex Arias', the Wes Covington's and Bill Robinson's, the Ruben Amaro Jr.'s and Jose Cardenal's...they all had one thing in common…they were always Randy Ready to play and would be a solid Wally Backman off the bench.

If this current crop of players can perform like the benches of seasons yore, you can be sure that when a player cries out..."My Achin Back", Larry Bowa will be confident of his backup plan of attack.

Columnist's Note: Mail, I get mail, and it is always appreciated. If you have a comment, question or suggestion for a topic, kindly e-mail me at connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond!


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