Yet, when all seemed lost, when almost every member of the team came face to face with the view from the edge, they performed a remarkable about face and saved a season on the brink. Though the season is not totally rescued and much work needs still to be done, how they overcame their troubles is a story in professionalism, pride and teamwork. If this rescue effort should somehow end in a successful playoff run it will be story that reverberates throughout Phillie baseball lore for years to come.
Professional baseball teams are like finely tuned engines, working in unison to keep the engine purring and the car running in peak form. However, when one part of the engine begins to malfunction, it often puts greater strain on the other parts and they begin to wear down until the engine breaks down completely. This was precisely what was beginning to happen to the Phillies. This team is built on solid starting pitching, consistent defense and just enough offense to be deemed efficient. The long road trip was where the parts of the engine began breaking down, with nearly disastrous results.
The first part to break down was the starting pitching staff. Bulwarks all year, Randy Wolf, Brett Myers, Vicente Padilla and even Kevin Millwood began to display signs of wear and tear. This in turn put a greater strain on an already overworked bullpen and the results were predictable. Terry Adams went down with an injury, Turk Wendell and Mike Williams were hit with alarming regularity and even leftie stalwarts Rheal Cormier and Dan Plesac began to suffer the ill effects of the engine meltdown.
With the pitching in tatters, the next part of the engine to break down was the defense. Stalwarts like Jimmy Rollins and Jim Thome, solid and dependable all year, began to make errors of omission and commission. Add to this the lengthy absence of third sacker David Bell, forcing rookie Chase Utley into a primary role as a starter, with predictable results. Although an outstanding prospect and a solid contributor, Utley is often defensively challenged, and the dominoes of this move began to fall with alarming regularity.
The third part of this trifecta was the offense…or lack of it. Though a source of consternation all year, the offense hit rock bottom during this ten game slide as the Phils not only ceased to hit, but also displayed a remarkable inability to deliver the clutch blow when they did hit. This troika of events reached its zenith in the infamous Larry Bowa explosion that occurred on Thursday afternoon, August 28, 2003. History will record that players familiar with past Bowa tirades rated this one a ten on the Richter scale, a remarkably tumultuous explosion even for the ever-smoldering Bowa. Debates will rage for quite some time about the effect of this angry outburst.
Fact is - that after Bowa's histrionics, the players called a meeting on the team bus. Several team leaders spoke of recapturing what was lost and possibly reviving what was apparently in dying embers. Whether it was Bowa's loud message or the player's softer tone that revved the engine, this much is clear. All involved, from Bowa to the coaches to the 25-man roster had seen the view from the edge, and decided this was not a view they enjoyed seeing. From a team primed for post season success, the Phils were suddenly viewing the possibility of becoming a fourth place team in their own division, a scenario that was not only unappealing, but outright embarrassing.
The view they saw was of a team that not only might not make the playoffs, but also could easily fall behind no less than nine teams. There is no shame in fighting the good fight and still failing to make the playoffs. But, to have a roster of such stars as Thome, Millwood, Wolf, Burrell, Lieberthal and Abreu - and still come in tenth in a race of 15 teams - was unacceptable to all involved. The players, both individually and collectively, decided a revival was necessary. It began the very next evening in New York, home of the Mets.
Historians will duly note that it was in this exact location that the 1980 Phillies began their retreat from the edge and culminated with their only World Series triumph. Long time Phillie faithful will recall a twelve game road in 1980 that began with a disastrous four game sweep by the rival Pittsburgh Pirates. It was after this sweep that then Manager Dallas Green had his Bowa-like tirade about a team on the edge.
After this "unfriendly encounter with an unfriendly host," the Phils took two of three at Wrigley Field against the woeful Cubs and then went to Shea Stadium for a crucial mid-August five game series with the Mets. When the dust settled, the Phils had swept the five game series to the tune of 8-1, 8-0, 12-5, 9-4 and 4-2, and had reestablished themselves as contenders.
That team had seen the view from the edge in Pittsburgh and lived to tell about it. Should the current group of Phils live to tell about this years view from the edge, they will also point to a three game sweep of the Mets as the beginning of the resuscitation. It must be noted that even though the Phils have once again made September a meaningful and perhaps memorable month, there is still much work to be done.
While true that the skies are clearer now and the view is again peaceful, there are still storm clouds awaiting our Phightins. Seven games with the powerful Atlanta Braves and six more games, home and home, with the Florida Marlins, will no doubt decide the fate of the Phils. Both teams will be primed to deliver knockout blows to a Phils team once again standing, albeit susceptible to the knockout punch. How the Phils handle these thirteen games will decide whether the Phils go to San Francisco to meet the Giants in October, or go home for the winter to contemplate their lost opportunity.
Regardless of the ultimate fate of the Phils, one thing seems sure enough. This team will benefit in years to come from an experience that left them shaken and nearly distraught, the climactic moment when they all collectively came face-to-face with the view from the edge.
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