July 18, 1983. The Phillies were in first place in the National League East, percentage points ahead of the Chicago Cubs. John Denny was in the midst of a career season, on his way to winning the Cy Young Award. Steve Carlton was the reigning Cy Young winner, coming off his then-record fourth. Al Holland, the inimitable Mr. T, would win the Rolaids Relief Man Award. The "Wheeze Kids," a veteran group combining Phillie stalwarts like Mike Schmidt and Garry Maddox with the aging nucleus of the 70's Big Red Machine dynasty, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, was peppered with exciting youngsters like Bob Dernier and Von Hayes.
But the team, along with the rest of the division, was underachieving. They were only a game above .500. Schmidt, Rose, shortstop Ivan DeJesus, catcher Bo Diaz and leftfielder Gary Matthews were all hitting around .250 or below. Morgan was flirting with the Mendoza line. Carlton would post an identical ERA (3.11) to his previous year's, but, due to lack of run support, would end up with a record of 15-16. Team president Bill Giles and General Manager Paul Owens decided the team was not being properly motivated and fired manager Pat Corrales. Owens took over in the dugout and guided the Phils to the World Series.
Corrales' axing was the direct result of unmet expectations. With no team taking charge in the division, an experienced team like the Phillies should have been running away with it. Instead, they were languishing in a sea of mediocrity. How else to explain firing the manager of a first-place team?
This year, manager Larry Bowa will face similar expectations to the ones before Corrales. The team is as solid as it has ever been. There are no glaring weaknesses. The team's Achilles' heel, the bullpen, has been revamped. Instead of the flammable Jose Mesa, there is the elite Billy Wagner. The starting pitching is among the best in the league. The starting eight is etched in stone. Even the bench is overstocked.
While the Phillies have had arguably the best off-season in baseball, the rest of the division is substantially weaker. Greg Maddux, Ivan Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, Derrick Lee, Javier Vazquez, Mark Redman, Javy Lopez, Vinny Castilla. All gone. Not to disparage their replacements, but are we really that afraid of John Thompson and Hee Seop Choi?
Of course there are question marks (David Bell's back, Pat Burrell's stroke, Jimmy Rollins' focus). But isn't the mark of a top-shelf manager the ability to overcome adversity? Look what Jack McKeon did with the Marlins last year. He lost his ace, A.J. Burnett, for the year in April. He went without his All-Star third baseman, Mike Lowell, for two months. His closer, Braden Looper, lost his job. And look what happened to that team.
Bowa now has the horses. The division is ripe for the plucking. The Phillies will open the season as the consensus favorite to unseat the Braves and win the division. Anything less than a division title will be considered a major disappointment.
Is Bowa the right man to lead the charge? That's very hard to say. Bowa is old school, a fire-and-brimstone preacher in an age of soothsayers. When the Phillies hired him, the team was trying to go in a different direction than the laconic Terry Francona. Francona was popular in the clubhouse, loved by his players. Look no further than Curt Schilling's change of heart about heading to Boston once Francona was hired. But Francona posted four losing seasons in as many years. Was Francona responsible? Didn't matter. Earl Weaver would have been fired with a record like that.
But Francona didn't have near the talent Bowa has. In 2000, Francona's last year here, Randy Wolf led the team in wins with 11, and was the only pitcher in double digits. Jeff Brantley, with 23 saves and a 5.86 ERA, was the closer. Desi Relaford was the starting shortstop and hit .221.
So the Phils fired the laid-back Francona and hired his polar opposite, Bowa. Initially, Bowa's hiring was a success, as he guided the team from a 65-97 record in 2000 to 86-76 record in 2001, keeping the team in contention until the final week of the season. The Phils regressed in 2002 to an 80-81 mark. Last year, of course, the team was back up to 86 wins, but with the additions of Bell, Kevin Millwood and Jim Thome, expectations were up. The 86 wins that were a pleasant surprise in 2001 were a letdown in 2003.
One thing that strikes you about the overachievers of 2001 and the underachievers of 2003 is the fact that both teams were in contention until late September, then fizzled. Some fans point to the fact that last year's bullpen's self-destruction was responsible for the collapse. But the two relievers who had outstanding seasons and who would have been late-season closers, Rheal Cormier and Terry Adams, never got the chance to try. The team as a whole seemed to lose its will to win.
Bowa is easily the most volatile manager in baseball. Even the Devil Rays' Lou Pinella is a fluffy kitten in comparison. He is a throwback to the days of fire-breathing managers like Weaver, Leo Durocher, John McGraw, Billy Martin. But he is an oddity in this age of let-the-players-play managers like McKeon and Joe Torre.
The Phillies certainly have options if Bowa were to be replaced. Former manager Charlie Manuel is on the payroll and is a mentor to team leader Thome. John Vukovich has been a manager-in-waiting for going on twenty years now. Darren Daulton, despite having never been a manager at any level, is immensely popular in Philadelphia and demonstrated his leadership with both the 1993 Phillies (managed, incidentally, by the Torre-like Jim Fregosi) and the 1997 Marlins. Gary Varsho is an outstanding baseball man, as is Greg Gross.
General Manager Ed Wade demonstrated his confidence in Bowa by extending his contract through the 2005 season. Bowa remains a popular icon in Philadelphia and a link to the team's sole World Championship. But if Memorial Day comes around and the Phillies are floundering, expect someone else to be filling out the lineup card.