CD's Connect the Dots... Miracle, Once Removed

"Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" Anyone old enough to be a sports fan in the winter of 1980 remembers these famous words spoken by television sportscaster Al Michaels, after the incredible USA hockey victory over the unbeatable Soviet Union team in the Winter Olympics. With the sudden and tragic death of Herb Brooks, the coach and architect of that Miracle on Ice in a car accident last Monday, the mind couldn't help but drift back to that year, 1980.

Indeed, the USA had its miracle that year, and so, too, did the Philadelphia Phillies. In the long and sometimes tumultuous history of the Philadephia Phillies, they entered the 1980 season with exactly zero World Series titles. It's a known fact that it had been nearly 30 years since the Phils had even entered the fray as World Series combatants. The numbers for futility were almost too staggering to recite for public consumption. Yet, not a single World Series victory since 1915! Eight straight losses in series play. Exactly 15 runs scored total in World Series history. And a team with a habit of literally stealing defeat from the jaws of victory, at the most inopportune time. And there's more…..tales of the ‘64 collapse, the ‘77 meltdown and the '78 crash landing, would fill any Phillie fans memoirs.

After near misses in ‘77 and ‘78 and a disappointing fourth place finish in 1979, the Phils entered the Spring of 1980 without the stance of a champion. Oh, there were some positives from which to build on. Manager Dallas Green had taken over a bedraggled team in August of ‘79 and the team had displayed a crispness that was missing from Danny Ozark's previous regime. In third sacker Mike Schmidt, first baseman Pete Rose and lefty ace Steve Carlton, the Phils had their share of stars. Yet the team seemed particularly lacking in depth, had question marks throughout the rotation, and was counting on production from several rookies, always a risky proposition.

Frankly, for most of the 1980 season, it appeared that the Lake Placid hockey success would be the only sports miracle that year. The Phils were floundering badly, and did not have the charisma of a team destined for greatness. After being swept by the Pirates in four straight on the weekend of August 8-10 and barely winning two-of-three from the lowly Cubs, the Phillies crept into New York for a five-game series beginning on Aug 14...23 years ago! What transpired that weekend would transform the Phils from a seemingly dispirited club just playing out the season, to one that would ultimately inspire a crowd of over a million people to toast their winning heroes with an incredible victory parade.

In a stunning and seemingly overpowering display of hitting, pitching and defense, the Phillies swept the Mets in five straight games by a combined score of 40-12. Throughout the long history of the Phils, there have been memorable and important sweeps. The four game sweep of the Chicago Cubs in 1977 was a devastating gale wind blown in off Lake Michigan. A similar four game sweeps of the rival Pittsburgh Pirates in the mid ‘70's were pure beauty and grace. Yet, in sheer wonderment and surprise, this five game series was a masterpiece...and a tiny glimpse of what was to come during the following two months.

Though many point to that Met series as the Phils turning point of the 1980 season, this writer believes that while it may have been the springboard to a fantastic finish, there is little evidence that the Phils suddenly became world beaters. Actually, for the next 20 games, the Phils were once again a .500 club and few Phils fanatics held out much hope that the ‘89 season would end differently than all the others.

Truth be told, the few who felt optimistic were holding on to these seeming straws in the wind..... the power of Mike Schmidt, the grace of Steve Carlton, the leadership of Pete Rose, and the unbridled enthusiasm and ability of five rookies, Lonnie Smith, Keith Moreland, George Vukovich, Marty Bystrom and Bob Walk.

Sure enough, when the Montreal Expos recaptured first place by winning two-of-three at Veterans Stadium on the second to last weekend of the season, it appeared that the Phils storied history of failure would add another notch to their long litany sheet.

Ironically, the beginning of what was to become Philadelphia's own miracle in 1980 arrived at almost the stroke of midnight on Monday, September 29th. The Phils were playing host to the Cubs and a loss probably would have signaled midnight for the Phils chances that year. With an Expo win already in the books, the Phils battled the Cubs into the 15th inning of a 3-3 game. When the Cubs scored two runs in the top of the 15th off reliever Dickie Noles, it appeared as if the Phils had been polished off again.

Then the miracle began to take shape. Walks to Smith and Rose, a wild pitch and a groundout by Bake McBride, made the score 5-4 with the mighty Schmidt up. When he popped out meekly to second base, the air seemed almost out of the 1980 Phils season. But Gary Maddox, with literally the season on the line, singled sharply to center field to tie the game at five! Consecutive singles by rookie Moreland and Manny Trillo scored Maddox, and the Phils had come away with an improbable...and miraculous 6-5 win!

This win created an environment of bravado for the rest of the week. The Phils winning the following three games against the Cubs, 14-2, 5-0 and 4-2, while the Expos were winning twice more in St. Louis. This set up a winner take all 3 game series in Montreal with both teams tied at 89-70. With Mike Schmidt's home run and stellar pitching from starter Dick Ruthven carrying the Phils to a 2-1 lead heading into the eighth inning, the Phils turned the game, and possibly the season, over to relief ace Tug McGraw. In a dazzling display of clutch work, McGraw struck out five-of-six hitters and the Phils were now one win from the NL East crown. That win would come less than 24 hours later, though not without a titanic struggle.

As with the Monday night theatrics, Saturday's game again came down to the last out with the Phils trailing 4-3. This time it was Bob Boone, mired in a 2-25 slump, who would do the honors with a run scoring single to center field to tie the game at 4-4. The game would head into the 11th inning when Mike Schmidt would finally enter the true world of the superstar. Few athletes in modern history were blessed with more natural ability than Schmidt. Wonderful reflexes, quick wrists, tape measure power and gold glove prowess at 3rd base had made Schmidt a major force in the NL. Yet for all his God given talents, he had always been cursed with the unenviable rank of a player who became a non factor in the most important of games. This alone had kept him from his true place among the immortals. But this was about to change forever, when a Stan Bahnsen fastball met Schmidts lightning quick bat, and the resulting two-run home run gave the Phils the match, the set, the game and the NL East title!

That so few expected it to happen made it that much sweeter. That it would ultimately lead to even greater heroics made it that much more meaningful. If the world is a stage, then it is the baseball playoffs that move teams front and center onto that stage.

In the history of baseball's payoff round, there have been some wonderfully riveting five-game rounds. The Yankees-Royals struggles of the late 70's were monuments to the greatness of the game. However, for sheer drama, tension and heart stopping thrills, the Phils battle with the Houston Astros for the right to play in the 1980 World Series is unmatched. Unmatched…as in four extra inning struggles. Unmatched… in the sheer heroism of the combatants on both teams. Unmatched… as in five future Hall of Famers matching wits, skills and courage to the very last out. For the Phils, it was Schmidt, Rose and Carlton.

The Astros countered with ace righty Nolan Ryan and future Hall of Fame second sacker Joe Morgan. The who's who list of stars in this series reads like a litany of the great, the not so great and the formerly innocuous. If all men have their 15 minutes of fame, then players like Tery Puhl, Jose Cruz. Joe Niekro and Enos Cabell of the Astros and Gregg Gross, Keith Moreland, Warren Brusstar and Kevin Saucier of the Phils had theirs during this series.

When the dust finally settled, and the Phils had battled back from a 2-1 game series advantage for the ‘Stros, plus a 5-2 deficit in the eighth inning against Ryan in Game Five, the resulting victory would begin to bury some ghosts of past playoff defeat.

But the Phils miracle of 1980 would not be complete without a World Series triumph over the talented Kansas City Royals. That the Royals were favored was not a surprise. Led by .390 hitting George Brett and hurlers Dennis Leonard and Dan Quisenberry, they presented a formidable foe. In fact, almost before Phillies fans could take their seats at the Vet for Game One of the Series, the Royals had already a 4-0 lead.

But if Lake Placid had its Miracle on Ice, the Phils had their Miracle at the Vet. This was evident when Larry Bowa stole second base down four runs in the third inning… the Phils was sending a message that was loud and clear. This Phils team, unlike the 1915 and 1950 teams, would not be denied their chance to a win. As the Phils scored two runs in the ninth inning of Game Five to take a three-games-to-two lead in the series, Phils fans felt the miracle was nearly complete. Victory at the Vet in Game Six made it all the sweeter and when Tug McGraw struck out Willie Wilson with the bases loaded to save a 4-1 win for Carlton, all Phils ghosts had been exorcised.

Throughout the long and storied history of the Philadelphia Phillies, one thing always remained constant before 1980. The constant was THE loss at the end of a playoff or World Series, finishing the season in futility.

Perhaps in some small way, the Olympic hockey victory, the Miracle on Ice that brought in the 1980 year, was a portent of things to come for a Phillie team that knew nothing but defeat and disappointment in past encounters, and the bitter taste lingered year in, year out. Though the Phils triumph pales in comparison to the USA victory over the Soviet Union, it was no less important to a Phillie fan base that had waited patiently for this moment.

So as we ponder the greatness that was Herb Brooks, and the wonder of his 1980 accomplishment, remember that there was not one, but possibly two miracles during that enchanted year.

Rest in peace, Herb. Thank you for a job well done.

Columnist's Note: Suggestions, questions and comments welcome. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD


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