Time Machine: 1977 - They Should Have Been Champs

They could have been champs! They should have been champs! In the over 100 years of Philadelphia Phillies baseball history, there have been some outstanding teams, and one world championship. Yet for sheer talent, depth and dominance the 1977 team was the greatest in Phil's history. That they fell short of a World Series birth is a source of consternation among Phillie fans even today. This is their story.

The numbers border on the staggering. Not only the 101 victories in a 162 game schedule but also a 70-33 record once all the pieces were in place. A 13 game winning streak in mid-August that captured the power and strength of this team in all its glory. One hundred and eighty six home runs! Seven players hit more than ten home runs, led by Greg Luzinski's 39 and Mike Schmidt's 38.

On the hill, ace lefty Steve Carlton won a Cy Young Award and finished 23-10.  Larry Christenson started the season at 4-5, then went 15-1 the rest of the season to finish 19-6.  Veteran Jim Lonborg was 11-4 and rookie Randy Lerch finished 10-6.  The Phils bullpen foursome of Gene Garber, Tug McGraw, Ron Reed and Warren Brusstar combined for a record of 29-16 with 46 saves. Veteran lefty Jim Kaat provided depth and wisdom.

Need more proof about the staggering elegance of this team?  How about this amazing thought? The Phils could field a very decent lineup. Tim McCarver, Tommy Hutton and Dave Johnson all hit over .300.  Terry Harmon was once considered a better shortstop prospect than Larry Bowa. Ollie Brown had the best arm in baseball from right field. Jay Johnstone was a hitting machine and contributed 15 home runs. Barry Foote and Jerry Martin were solid players who later went on to good careers in Chicago.

This was a very decent eight-man lineup. On the 1977 team… this unit comprised the Phil's bench! To truly understand how deep and talented this team was is to understand that their eight-man bench could have formed a very competitive lineup on another team.

The lineup was pure solid gold. In fact, a case can be made that all eight regulars were at the prime of their careers, and several had career seasons. As mentioned Luzinski and Schmidt formed a tremendous 1-2 punch with 77 home runs and over 230 RB

Catcher Bob Boone was young, healthy and durable and the double play combination of Larry Bowa and Ted Sizemore provided the perfect compliment to all the power guys. Center fielder Garry Maddox was swift, sure and graceful in the outfield, and first baseman Richie Hebner waxed poetic with his assurance that he would provide a healthy protection as the number five hitter, behind Luzinski and Schmidt.

For all its talent, the team started very slowly and did not reach .500 for good until a 7-4 win against the Astros raised their record to 18-17 in late May. Pitcher Jim Lonborg was injured and the Phils, for all their talent, were sorely in need of a lead off hitter.

Then on June 15, at the trading deadline, the Phils made the move that would change the history of the franchise. GM Paul Owens negotiated a late night deal with the St. Louis Cardinals for speedy outfielder Bake McBride.  The price was steep, as the Phils had to part with sterling young southpaw Tom Underwood, a 14 game winner as a rookie.

However, Owens felt that with Lonborg coming back, the Phils could part with a starting pitcher in order to solidify the one weak link in the lineup.  The move provided almost instant results. On the morning of June 16, the Phils stood 31-28, a full eight games behind the upstart Chicago Cubs.

McBride made his first start on June 19, and the Phils began to play a bit better. McBride was an instant success on the base paths and combined with Larry Bowa to form a great top of the order duo.  Yet, on June 25, the Phils found themselves 8.5 games behind the Cubs with a record of 36-31.

From this point until the end of the season, there was no better team in baseball.  Perhaps the turning point of the season came in a Friday night game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although the Cubs were in first place, most baseball experts felt that the top two teams in the NL East were the Phils and Pirates.

After Carlton had masterfully defeated the Bucs 8-1 in the opener of a 4 game series at the Vet, the Phils and Pirates played a game for the ages. The Phils grabbed an early lead before the Bucs took a 3-2 lead into the 7th.  The Phils tied the game, only to have the Pirates regain the lead at 4-3 entering the bottom of the 8th inning.

Once again the Phils tied the game, and from there the game went to the 14th inning tied at 4. When the Pirates broke through for two runs in the top of the 14th inning, the Phils seemed beaten, but key hits by Schmidt, Luzinski, Hebner and Sizemore gave the Phils a thrilling, and season altering 7-6 victory.

The Phils went on to sweep the Pirates four straight and then set their sights on the Cubs. Finally on August 5, they caught the Cubs with identical 62-44 records. From there to the end of the season, they never looked back. To chronicle all the season highlights would take pages but here are a few to demonstrate how dominant this team had become.

They had a three game lead as they entered Wrigley Field in mid August for a crucial four game series with the Cubs. Pennant fever in Chicago was high, and Cub fans were ready to cheer their heroes. When the Phils left town days later, the lead was now 7 games. The Phils had swept the Cubs to the tune of 10-3, 10-7, 10-2 and 4-2. In fact, in the game preceding the Cub series the Phils had pasted the Montreal Expos 10-5.

This team had scored 10 runs in four straight games. The victories continued until the Phils had won 13 straight games, and made a mockery of whatever pennant hopes the Cubs and Pirates had held on to. It was clear that this team was headed for the playoffs, and probably the World Series.

Winning at home became almost a guarantee as the Phils finished 60-21 at home. The Phils clinched the division with an overpowering 15-9 victory at Wrigley Field in lat September. With all hands healthy, and a team at the top of its game, the Phils prepared to meet the Los Angeles Dodgers in a 5 game series.

The Phils fully expected to win this series. Although the Dodgers were talented and deep, led by new manager Tommy Lasorda, the Phils felt they were the better team. A glance at the Dodgers roster showed a lineup with four 30 Home run hitters in Steve Garvey, Dusty Baker, Ron Cey and Reggie Smith.

They also had a solid double play combination in Davy Lopes and Bill Russell and good starting pitching in Tommy John, Don Sutton, Burt Hooten and Rick Rhoden.  However, their bullpen was suspect and they could not begin to match the Phil's bench strength.

Opening with two games in LA, the Phils felt sure that if they could split the first two games, they would easily handle the Dodgers at the Vet.  Good fortune seemed to smile on the Phils almost immediately as they won Game One on ninth inning hits by Bowa and Schmidt, 7-5. Although Sutton tamed the Phils 7-1 in Game Two, the Phils felt supremely confident as they prepared for three weekend games at the Vet.

Truth be told, the Phils felt the series would end in four games and in fact, it did! However, they could never have anticipated the nightmarish events that would forever cloud their season during the final two games of the season.

Game Three will forever be known as Black Friday, a day when the Phils lost a game, and a series, in less than 10 minutes of action. Four hitters changed the course of events and haunt Phil's fans even to this day.

The game is remembered for the microcosm of events that turned a year around. It is remembered for the safe call at home plate when Steve Garvey never touched home plate. It is remembered for the deafening noise that Phil's fans made in the bottom of the 2nd inning so unnerving Hooten that he walked in three runs before exiting for good.

It is remembered for the eight straight ground balls that ace reliever Gene Garber induced from the 7th inning until there was but one out left to go in the 9th. And it is remembered for the sterling and exciting two run rally in the bottom of the 8th inning which broke a 3-3 tie and gave the Phils a seemingly safe and secure 5-3 lead entering the final inning.

Yet, even more painfully it is remembered for those four hitters, and the one out, the one strike, that came… too late to save a Phillie season for the ages. The events are frozen in time, beginning with a two out drag bunt by ageless Vic Davillio that seemed merely to prolong the game for one more batter.

But it would not, nor ever be, just one more batter, because of a mistake of omission that Manager Danny Ozark made in that fateful ninth. All season, with the Phils leading in the 9th inning, Ozark had faithfully replaced the slow-footed Luzinski in left field with the superb fielding Jerry Martin.

However, when it mattered most, with a season and World Series birth on the line, Ozark suddenly managed defensively by thinking offensively. Aware that Luzinski was scheduled to bat third in the bottom of the 9th, he was allowed to stay in the game. This was an astounding non-move! 

As fate would have it, the next hitter, pinch hitter Manny Mota hit an 0-2 sinkerball on a deep fly towards left field. The ball then got caught in the jet stream of Philadelphia winds. Luzinski took a step in, then froze, and dropped the ball as he hit the fence. His errant throw allowed Mota to reach third base and the score stood 5-4.

Suddenly Veterans Stadium was becoming a House of Horrors for the Phils. Lead off hitter Davy Lopes slashed a drive off the Vet carpet, and off Schmidt's leg. Incredibly it bounced straight to Bowa, who barehanded the ball in the air and made a heroic throw to first place.

Had the correct call been made, this play would be replayed in the annuals of Phillie history, right next to Schmidt's home runs and McGraw's strikeout. Replays clearly showed that Lopes was out, yet he was called safe, and the score was now tied at 5.

Unnerved by this bizarre turn of events, Garber threw the ball away as he attempted to pick Lopes off first base. When the dust settled Lopes was on third base, where he quickly scored on a ground ball single to center field by Bill Russell. Four batters, ten minutes, three runs, and countless nightmares later, the Phils had suffered a crushing 6-5 defeat. Black Friday, to be sure.

Predictably, the Phils were a beaten team, and they were finished off the following evening. On a cold rainy depressing evening, the Dodgers ended the Phil's season with a 4-1 victory. No one was fooled… the series had ended for the Phils the day before, during those most distressing 10 minutes in Philadelphia Phillies history.

Sadly, greatness would forever be clouded. A World Series that seemed so inevitable would have to wait three more years. And though the 1980 team ended their season more successfully, no student of the two teams would ever confuse the contrasts between the teams.

Debate still rages on in Philadelphia about the place in Phillie history reserved for the 1977 team. The 1950 team was younger, the '64 team more beloved. The '80 was more successful, the '93 team more zany. Yet for sheer power and will, for the unencumbered strength of a 25-man roster, it says here that no Phillie team has ever matched the talent of the 1977 team.

They could have been world champs. They should have been world champs. That they failed in this endeavor only adds to the charm, and pain of 10 minutes that changed this team forever.

Note from Author: Thank you for your continued patronage and the undying interest on our beloved Phillies. CD from the Left Coast at connectthedots@earthlink.net

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