CD's Connect the Dots... The Stretch Run

It is the time of the race that most excites the rabid fan. It is the point of a season that separates the pretenders from the contenders. It is that most glorious of times when hero's are made and frauds are exposed. It is September of a baseball season. It is the stretch run.

September…a month the Yankees know well. September…the Dodgers, Braves and Red Sox are veterans of this pressure-cooked insanity. September…the Mariners, Cardinals and Giants are becoming seasoned pros at this sweaty palmed month. But for our Philadelphia Phillies, playing meaningful games in September is a rarity, an occurrence that lately has been reappearing every ten years.

The 1983 wheeze kids rode a hot September all the way to the World Series. The 1993 wild bunch merely refined their skills in September, on the way to a scintillating playoff win over the Atlanta Braves and a birth in the World Series.

Yet, much like a comet that reappears in the night skies every decade, the Phils find themselves in an unfamiliar yet meaningful situation in 2003… a quest for a wild card birth in this years NL playoffs. That they are still alive after a less than dominating 13 game road trip is nearly incomprehensible. That they are entering September as the most dysfunctional contender left is undeniable. How this all plays out should make September stargazing more fun than just watching the "Mars Comes Close to Earth Show". For if the Phils are to survive this splintered season, it will be the stars that will have to lead the way.

September is meaningful in more ways than one for the Phillies. Yes, there is the playoff tussle with no less than eight teams laying claim to a hoped for wild card birth. Yes, a playoff birth could restore some of the luster to what is quickly becoming a very off-white shade of gray season, which held such hopes in the Spring. And, yes, this team could still bounce off the proverbial deck and astonish everyone by not only claiming a wild card birth, but also then dismantling the Barry Bonds-led San Francisco Giants and the equally powerful Atlanta Braves.

Certainly a team with the likes of a Jim Thome, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and Mike Lieberthal is capable of great things. Surely a team with a pitching staff led by Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers is capable of stringing together several well-pitched games in a row. The reality of this team is that on their best days they are capable of beating any team in baseball but these days come few and far between.

September will be equally meaningful for the futures of several players, coaches, and quite possibly, even a manager. The fact remains that this Phils team has rarely shown the consistent play of a team that appears better on paper than it does on the field. September can change all that. That is what makes September the stretch run. It is a career-changing month. It is the month that made Marty Bystrom famous and Gene Mauch infamous. It is the month of Tug McGraw pitching almost everyday and Jim Bunning pitching almost every other day. It is Mike Schmidt home runs out of a park and Richie Allen home runs inside the park. It is Joe Morgan with one last hurrah and Steve Carlton with one last good bye. It is names we never knew but know now…Chico Ruiz, Len Matusak and Kim Batiste. It is names that touched us only for a season but the season was September…Sparky Lyle, Vic Power and Sixto Lezcano.

It is a month that can resurrect the managerial career of Larry Bowa, or bury it forever. It is a month that can help Pat Burrell wash away five months full of futility or a month that would add an exclamation point to his already frustrating season. It is a month that may justify the millions spent on Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood and David Bell. September may allow the youngsters like Marlon Byrd, Brett Myers and Chase Utley to prove that the faith vested in them was well deserved. And it is a month that could wash away some of the pain from a team in dire need of a painkiller.

Sugar coating what ails the Phils would serve no purpose since the dirty laundry has already been aired for all to see. It is not the ideal way to enter the September stretch though far more dysfunctional teams have survived. The 1972-74 Oakland Athletics fought anything that moved, from teammates, to managers to mascots! Yet history shows that they were the last baseball dynasty, a team that understood that you could fight with teammates and still win with them. The 1978 Yankees, managed by Billy Martin, were not the friendliest of bunches and probably spent little time socializing during off hours. Between the white lines, however, they were a baseball-killing machine and overcame an absolutely wonderful Red Sox team to eventually win a playoff game…and a World Championship. Of course, one needs look no further than our one and only World Championship club, the equally dysfunctional 1980 club. They battled the manager, the press and even the fans, yet won when it counted most, in September, to forever capture the hearts of Phillies fans everywhere!

In a brilliant movie currently at theaters throughout the country is the true story of a horse named Seabiscuit. Certainly, no super horse was he, yet he won in convincing fashion with one noticeable trait. It seems he would allow his competition to run neck and neck with him down the stretch. It was then, and only then, that Seabiscuit would look straight into the eyes of his competitor and the competition knew it had lost.

Let us hope that as the September stretch run starts its course this week, the Phils, having allowed their competitors to run neck and neck with them, will have a similar look in their eyes.

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


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