Oh, there are theories from bad weather to pressure to perform. Both are possible, but neither is likely. For though the weather was bad in the East, the Phils have not hit even when they have played in the South, Mid West or West. And the pressure to perform would seem less this season for stalwarts like Burrell and Abreu; after all, they now have the menacing bat of Thome and a revitalized Lieberthal to protect them. No, these explanations will not do and should probably be outright dismissed. The unfortunate but true reality of the situation is that perhaps this will be one of those inexplicable seasons when several key players suddenly go into long slumps. Though rare, they are not unheard of in Philly lore...lets examine past examples.
In all the years of Phillie baseball there were few seasons when a pitcher so dominated his opponents as Steve Carlton did the entire National League in 1972. Playing on an absolutely abysmal team that would win only 59 games all year, Carlton went an incredible 27-10. Better yet, after a 5-6 beginning he went 22-4. Willie Stargell said of Carlton that year....."hitting against Carlton was like drinking coffee with a fork." Rarely did one player so elevate his teammates as when Carlton pitched. On the other three nights (still a four man rotation in those days!) the Phils lost nearly 70% of the time. However, in 1973, pitching with a much improved Phillies team, Carlton went an inexplicable 13-20.....yes, the great Steve Carlton lost 20 games. In fact, his poor performance possibly cost the Phils a division title; the race was that tight in 1973. No one could ever completely explain Carlton's strange season. Fortunately he returned to his Hall of Fame form shortly after.
In 1981 the Phillies acquired a very solid hitting outfielder named Gary "Sarge" Mathews from the Braves. Mathews had been a solid hitter his entire career and hit over .300 in ‘81 and had another banner year in 1982. Gary Mathews could flat out hit! Until 1983, that is. Suddenly, Mathews seemed to lose all confidence in his hitting ability and remained in a slump all year.... until the 1983 playoffs against the Los Angeles Dodgers when Mathews regained his hitting touch. Fortunately, this rediscovery of his batting eye led the Phils to a World Series birth. Although traded to the Cubs in 1984, Mathews continued to hit with authority thereafter. Even the greatest Phillie of all time was not immune to the inexplicable slump that seems to have saturated almost an entire Phillie team this season.
Grab a quick book on Phils history and find Mike Schmidt's seasonal home run totals. It is an impressive site to behold....36, 38, 38, 38, 21, 45, 48, 31 (strike shortened season) 35, 40, 36, 33, 37, 35. Notice anything strange about those numbers. I do! The 21 home run season in 1978 literally begs for explanation. Oh, Schmidt had some lingering injuries that year, but nothing that he wasn't used to playing with. The simple truth of the matter was that Schmidt had a season that was incapable of being explained....an inexplicable season!
So......now that we have established that - like the song, "anything you can do, I can do better!" - it is very possible that Messrs. Burrell, Bell and Thome are having season long slumps. If that is so, where do we go from here? Do we just throw up our hands and say, bench them, trade them...or in the case of Burrell, send him back to Triple A. No, this would be very short sighted, and frankly, fruitless. The fact remains that these are the guys we are counting on to deliver us our first playoff birth in 10 years. And if they fail, we fail. The famous proverb "you finish the dance with the guy who brought you" is certainly applicable here.
We have in Burrell a young man who has hit everywhere he has played, and just last year slugged 37 home runs and knocked in nearly 120 runs. It is highly unlikely that this was an aberration. In Thome we have a guy who has been a consistent high average, high walk, high home run total hitter for nearly his whole career. It is unlikely that Thome just woke up one morning in 2003 and suddenly lost the ability to hit. And in Bell, we have the consummate pro, the guy who has consistently hit in the .260 range, with decent power and a penchant for driving in big runs. It also seems unlikely that Bell would suddenly lose forever 60 points on his batting average.
Patience seems the point here...and patience is something in short supply here in Phillie Fan Land! Too many seasons of Travis Lee, Marlon Anderson and Doug Glanville have left us hungering for offense.... hungering for an offensive explosion not seen since the days of the Wild Bunch of 93. Will it come? Will Burrell suddenly lay off the curve on the outside corner of the plate and begin crushing the fastball? Will Thome regain his high average propensity while maintaining his power stroke? Will Bell rediscover the touch that made him so valuable in Seattle and San Francisco? Probably so... and hopefully, soon! But if not, we may look back to the 2003 season as one of those unproductive offensive seasons that are…inexplicable!
Oh, and by the way, if you are ever in North Carolina, be sure to make your way to a tiny town called Williamston. Seems they have a cemetery with a very strangely shaped headstone. Story (and this is a true one) tells that a man named James W. Huff died in a carriage accident and his beloved horse, which pulled the carriage, disappeared and was never found. Over the course of a few months people began noticing the headstone changing shape. On closer scrutiny, there were no cracks, chips, nor marks to point to any vandalism-taking place. Today, it is clearly the shape of the head of Huff's beloved horse. No one has ever been able to explain this seemingly strange phenomenon, nor do they even try. They merely accept it as Inexplicable!
Columnist's Note: Mail, I get mail, and it is always appreciated. Comments, questions, or suggestions regarding the preceding article are welcome. Kindly e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond! CD