Eight Years That Changed Everything

It's sometimes hard to explain just what it is that makes you a fan of a particular team. Sometimes, it's the upbringing by a father or other relative. Sometimes, it's the players or just the fact that they're the "home" team. For some fans, there may be more behind why they became a fan of a particular team and even unlikely heroes can emerge.

The man who made me a Phillies fan died last week. I never met him, yet he had a profound impact on my life. Paul "Pope" Owens was the architect of the greatest Phillies teams of all time. The eight-year period from 1976 through 1983 represents the most prolific era of Philadelphia Phillies baseball. During that time, the Phillies won the Eastern Division five times, the National League pennant twice, and the only World Series in their history. Paul Owens was the Phillies general manager for all of those teams and the field manager for the 1983 club. He brought me along for the ride.

I don't mean that I was physically there, partaking in the champagne and merriment, but I may as well have been. I became enthralled with the Phillies during the 1976 playoffs against the Cincinnati Reds. Being a twelve-year-old boy who was born and raised on the west coast, I had absolutely no connection to the city of Philadelphia, or the Phillies, except that I wanted the defending world champion Reds to lose. Even though the Reds swept the Phils three games to none, that playoff series led to a lifelong love affair with the Fightin's and an eventual move to the east coast. When I tell people that I became a Phillies fan in 1976, they usually make some comment about getting wrapped up in the whole bicentennial celebration (hey, who didn't get wrapped up in the bicentennial celebration?) But the truth is that there was just something about that 1976 team that spoke to my young heart.

I really believe that I became a Phillies fan at just the right time. Through pure serendipity I started rooting for the Phillies at the beginning of those halcyon days. In reflecting on the life of Paul Owens, I began to wonder what it would have been like to begin rooting for the Phillies during some other time period. I'm not sure my loyalty to the Phillies would have lasted if it hadn't started in 1976, yet I can't imagine my life as anything but a Phillies fan.

The Phillies were a dreadful, moribund franchise prior to 1976. The last time they had been to the postseason was 1950 when the "Whiz Kids" team, led by Richie Ashburn, went to the World Series only to be swept in four straight games by the Yankees. They made a push for the postseason again in 1964, the year of the infamous collapse and also (coincidentally, I'm sure) the year of my birth. It wouldn't have been easy for a twelve-year-old boy to commit to the team during that 26-year period. Bless those of you who did become, ahem…committed…during those years.

Now consider the years after the "great eight" period. In 1983 you would have had to first commit to a team that included aging stars Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez. Add Gary Mathews, Ivan DeJesus, and Garry Maddox, and you quickly understand why they were called the "Wheeze Kids." No twelve-year-old would have been able to commit to those old guys, especially not to be rewarded with the teams that took the field from 1984 -1992. Those teams featured such luminaries as Steve Jeltz, Rick Schu, Gary Redus, Phil Bradley, and Juan Bell. What father would have tortured his twelve-year-old by taking him to the Vet during that period? On the other hand, good seats were definitely available.

Nineteen Ninety-three would have been a great year to be a twelve-year-old; as a matter of fact it was just a great year to be a Phillies fan period. Dykstra, Kruk, Daulton, Hollins, Schilling, and "Wild Thing", need I say more? But alas, it wasn't meant to continue. A twelve-year-old during that time period would have had to endure an event that two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam could not do, but greed could: the canceling of the World Series.

If you were able to make it through that travesty, you would have been rewarded with teams that included starting line-ups that featured Desi Relaford, Ricky Otero, and Midre Cummings. Two years removed from the World Series, the 1995 team was so inept offensively as to be offensive. Gregg Jefferies, Mark Whiten, and Charlie Hayes tied for the team lead in Home Runs with 11. Let me spell that out for you—E-L-E-V-E-N--for the year! The three of them combined still didn't equal the 43 that National League leader Matt Williams hit all on his own. No twelve-year-old would have stuck with a team that didn't have a slugger who could hit at least one home run for every year of the fan's short life. Chicks aren't the only ones who dig the long ball.

That pretty much clinches it. While other twelve-year-olds would have suffered with those teams, I got to root for Schmidt, Carlton, Bowa, Boone, Luzinski, Maddox, McBride, McGraw, Trillo…and, uh…some guy named Rose. Paul Owens built those teams and made my baseball life beginning at twelve, rich and eventful. I can't imagine becoming a fan at any other time in Phillies history. In fact, I think I'll pop open a bottle of champagne and propose a toast to those eight years that began by capturing the imagination of a twelve-year-old fan. Here's to you Pope, thanks for the ride. Cheers.

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