CD's Connect the Dots..Champion Phils is Nice Ring

This weekend is a very special weekend for the Florida Marlins, and while no one in baseball will acknowledge it for public consumption, the timing is too obvious to ignore. Yes, Phillie fans, it is our very own Phils who will help celebrate Championship Weekend, when they venture into South Florida to take on the World Champion Florida Marlins. And, truth be told, no team in baseball had more to do with anointing the Marlins as champs than did our very own Phightins.

Yes, friends, it's true.  This weekend, while the Philadelphia Phillies do battle with the Florida Marlins, the team affectionately known as "The Fish," will receive their World Series rings in honor of the 2003 championship that shocked the baseball nation. And even though they beat the Giants, Cubs and Yankees along the way, most Phillie fans know that it was the 12 of 14 that the Marlins won from the Phils that turned the tide on the season.

Think not?  Then ask yourself this.  If it is true that a head to head victory is actually worth two games in the standings, then the Marlins 12 wins in their last 14 meetings with the Phils constitutes a 20 game swing in the standings for the two teams.  As difficult as this might be to believe, it's true. 

What makes this even more painful to recall was the gut wrenching way that many of these games turned out.  Remember, the night of July 4, 2003?  This is still the game that Marlin players say was the evening that their season turned around.  Entering play the Phils had a 47-35 record while the Marlins stood 6 games behind at 43-43.

Certainly, as the Marlins came to Veterans Stadium, there was a sense that the Phils could put the Marlins away for good with a sweep.  Even two of three might have ended the Fish hopes of a playoff run.  At that time, there were no talks of pennant contention or wild card births.  Instead the talk was of dismantling the team, starting with third baseman, Mike Lowell, and including players like Derek Lee, Carl Pavano and Brad Penny.

Oh, there was wild card talk that evening, but it emanated the Phils dugout, where the team was hot and playing well.  A sweep would finish off the pesky Marlins, and Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf seemed up for the task.  And, there was a sweep that weekend, but it was the Marlins pulling out the brooms, and what seemed like a lost cause suddenly became a wild ride.  Perhaps the most painful loss for the Phils was the opener, when a Millwood 1-hitter could not be transformed into a win.

Rather, the Marlins kept the score at 1-1, and forced the removal of Millwood after 7 innings. Then with two outs and no one on in the top of the ninth, a walk and two singles off Jose Mesa game the Marlins a 2-1 lead, and eventual triumph.  The following night, a 5-4 win for the Fish, when Pat Burrell got thrown out at second base late, and the Sunday 6-3 win against Wolf completed the unlikely…and season saving sweep for Florida.

Suffice it to say, the final 9 games between the two clubs produced many more painful games for our Phils, and 7 more losses.  When the dust settled, it was the Marlins going to the playoffs, and the Phils going home.  A particularly poignant picture of World Series hero Josh Beckett leaping into the arms of first baseman, Derek Lee, after the final game against the Yankees had to be bittersweet for Phillie fans.

The sight of the jubilant Beckett and his leap had to remind Phillie phanatics of a more pleasant time, when an equally jubilant Millwood was seen leaping into the arms of first baseman, Jim Thome, after his no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants in late April.

It was not lost on Phillie fans or players that the very same leap by Millwood in April might have been repeated in October had the team handled the Marlins with greater care.  Thus, we fast-forward to this weekend and the crowning of the champs.  Yes, friends, it will all be there for our Phils to see, from the honors, to the announcements… and to the rings.

A World Series ring.  Frankly, any ballplayer will tell you that deep down inside this is what they play for.  Oh, the fame is nice, and the salary is otherworldly.  Yet, Jim Thome came to Philadelphia in quest of a ring, as did David Bell, Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez.  Ask Millwood why he chose to stay in Philadelphia and he will mention the ring.

Pat Burrell, Mike Lieberthal and Bobby Abreu will say the same thing.  They love the glory, hope for the individual honors, but thirst for the ring.  Without it, a player ends his career strangely lacking.  Barry Bonds, for all his individual awards, may end his career without a ring, and he will lament this for the rest of his life.

The list of great players without the ring to certify their greatness reads like a Who's Who of Hall of Fame talent.  Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and Nomar Garciaparra.  Alex Rodgriguez, Pedro Martinez and Fred McGriff.  Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Frank Thomas.  And, yes, Jim Thome.

So, it is hoped that the Phils will be watching this Saturday night when the Marlins receive their 2003 World Series rings.  By all accounts, owner Jeff Loria has spared no expense in ordering these rings.  They are lasting momentos of an unlikely championship, with unlikely heroes.  Players like Juan Pierre, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis were unknown gems until October.

Now they are known throughout the baseball universe, all because of their October heroics.  All because of the unique way that they owned our Phillies during the course of their final 14 meetings. No doubt, this fact has not been lost on the Phils.  If it was, then this weekend will bring back unwelcome memories of a championship lost…and won.

Yet, that was then, and this is now.  Both teams went through some remodeling over the winter and it was the Phils who dressed up for the 2004 Ball. Armed with new revenue streams and a brand new ballpark to fill, the team added talent and verve to a team that was already solid.

Added to an already strong pitching staff were the likes of All-Star reliever Billy Wagner, and bullpen bulwarks Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez.  Meanwhile, the Phils bolstered an already strong starting rotation with the Mills Boys, Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton.  One brought along in a surprise trade, while the other was kept in an equally surprising arbitration move.

Be that as it may, the Phils seem armed and dangerous as the '04 summer beckons.  Their philosophy was to spend money in hopes that a championship run would more than recoup the expenses.  Not so, the Florida Marlins, who are still strong, though not as menacing as the champs of last year.  Gone is Playoff MVP, catcher Pudge Rodriguez.  Gone is solid hitting first sacker, Derrek Lee.

Absent from the bullpen are relief aces Ugueth Urbina and Braden Looper, as well as reliable lefty starter, Mark Redman.  Also included in the list of the missing are right fielder Juan Encarnacion and reliever Rick Heiling. Clearly, the Marlins, while still talented, have many question marks as they begin the '04 season.

However, it is the Marlins who will be receiving the rings this weekend, not the Phils. It is the Marlins who will have their faces up on the screen for their late season heroics last year. Perhaps, some of those highlights will include late season victories over the Phils, possibly even the wild card clinching victory.

Yes, friends, this weekend will be thick with irony.  Two talented squads will be in Miami to do battle in the first meaningful weekend of the 2004 baseball season.  Two teams, each with their own hopes and dreams of future championship glory.  Yet only one will be honored for their accomplishments of last season.

The Philadelphia Phillies would do well to watch the ceremonies unfold.  It would be to their advantage to feel the moment, and sense the excitement.  For it is a baseball truism that for all the love that Florida will give their Marlins this weekend, it pales in comparison to a Philadelphia lovefest.

The Marlins are a passing fancy, certainly entertaining, and enjoyable to watch.  But for most South Floridians, it is the football Dolphins that feed their passions, and quench their sports thirsts.  The Marlins, while popular enough, still only occupy the space between football seasons. This is a fact even the Marlin players would admit.

Not so, a Philadelphia fan base starved for a baseball winner.  For it is the Philadelphia Phillies, our Philadelphia Phillies, who occupy the hearts and minds of the people from the City of Brotherly Love.  The expectations are high for this ball club, and the lessons learned this weekend could serve the Phils well throughout this season.

While the Marlins are worthy champs and deserving of their rings this weekend, it is the team that sits in the other dugout that has the most to gain from observing these ceremonies.  Watch well, my team, and learn for the simple fact remains that "Champion Phillies" does, indeed, have a nice "ring" to it!

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


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