CD's Connect the Dots... Identity Crisis No More

Oh, the signs may only register a blip on the radar screen. Indeed, many long time followers of the Phillies will insist the whole suggestion borders on ludicrous. They will say that we have been fooled before, and any late season heroics are more tease than tangible. Perhaps they are right, and the Phils will return for the 2005 season, as unenthused and disappointing as they did this spring. Perhaps. Yet, something hints that this team may have finally established an identity,

Amid the start of football season, and another quest for the Super Bowl from the Philadelphia Eagles, the resident baseball team, our Phillies, have lately been ignored by the masses.  Even though the team put up a brave front, and waxed enthusiastic about a late playoff comeback bid, the fans were not fooled.

Too many seasons of losing tend to harden even the most optimistic of sorts to the fact that this year's Phillie team was just not that good.  Oh, the "on paper" variety certainly looks appealing and more than one intelligent baseball scout has looked at this team and admitted befuddlement.  In the case of the Phils, what you see on paper is not exactly what you get on the field.

Frankly, the reasons have been debated on far too many talk shows and Internet lines to revisit here now.  Suffice it to say that all the theories have merit, from too many injuries to too little fundamental play.  Add to this a touch of Bowa, a pinch of Kerrigan, with a little Wade and the players thrown in for seasoning, and the Phillie recipe for a failed year is complete.


Still, this writer says that for the first time since 1993 the Philadelphia Phillies are establishing an identity, and this can only mean good things for the future of the franchise.  What signs have I seen that have convinced me of this?  How can I be sure that the signs are real, and long lasting?


Well, the answer to the second question is that I can't be sure, only time will tell, though it should be apparent next spring.  Yet the answer to the first question has been obvious for some time if only an uninterested fan base was watching.


It could first be seen in the way that Pat Burrell came back from his wrist injury rather than submit to surgery and an early end to the season.  My theory is that he is learning to lead from the examples of such battle-tested warriors like Jim Thome and Billy Wagner.  It says here that Thome's thumb has never been right this year and that Wagner's countless injuries stem back to that finger numbness he experienced in March.

I believe both players played hurt all season, and the example they showed has finally rubbed off on others.  One thing is certain, no athlete is more respected than one who not only performs with injuries but does so heroically and quietly.  This is the stature Thome has brought to this club, and it may have won its first convert in the decision by Burrell to risk further injury in the hopes that his return to action might elevate the rest of the team.


In truth, Burrell has come back and played well, further endearing himself to his teammates.  This is how leaders are groomed, through example.  For far too long, the whispers were that Burrell's struggles were caused more by the imposing shadow of Thome than any down and away sliders that he suddenly had trouble reaching.  It was said that Burrell was so conscious of the powerful presence of Thome, both in the clubhouse and on the field that he stopped playing within his limits, with near disastrous results.

Yet, Thome's veteran leadership seems to have brought on a slow but steady maturation process for the powerful and talented Burrell, results of which may bare fruit next season. 


Though Burrell's toughness was an obvious sign of a developing Phillie identity of "never say die," it was not the only one.  It showed itself in the anger that right fielder Bobby Abreu displayed when he was called out on strikes early in the first game of a recent doubleheader in Atlanta.

At first glance, the games appeared meaningless, another "oh well, we will probably lose two more to the Braves" type of day.  Yet, Abreu displayed encouraging spirit, a spirit that may well have paid off that day.  For though Abreu was tossed from the game, he may have lost the battle but won the war, a two game sweep for the Phils that day.


We further saw this spirit of toughness a few days later in New York when reliever Billy Wagner was thrown out of a seemingly meaningless afternoon game with the Mets.  Instead of quietly exiting the scene and marking one more day off the long calendar, Wagner showed his meddle for the team with a dugout display not seen since the days of Lenny Dykstra and Mitch Williams.

Another example of this new found Phillie identity was seen the next day when pitcher Vicente Padilla volunteered to pitch on three days rest against the Mets when he found out the team was short of hurlers.  This " take one for the team" attitude is a welcome sight, even on a team just a few days from elimination.


It finally appears as if this group of players genuinely cares about each other, and the team.  They are no longer ex-Braves, or ex-Giants, but Phillies and this means something.  It can bind a team together through the tough times, as well as help lead a team to greater heights during the best of times.


No Phillie team in the past 40 years became outstanding without first establishing an identity.  The 1964 team was thought of as a group of overachieving role players.  The 1976-78 group was known for their mauling offensive might.  The 1980 team became known as the team that wouldn't die, and the last Phillie team with a real identity, the 1993 group was known as the Wild Bunch, with good reason.

Since the '93 season the Phils have searched for a true identity, and the search has largely been in vain.  Yet, when players like David Bell, Jim Thome, Eric Milton, Kevin Millwood and Billy Wagner came on board, they brought with them a sense of purpose and professionalism that seems to have caught hold of this club.

Though the 2004 season on whole will be deemed a bitter disappointment, and no doubt changes will be made at the manager and coaching levels, it says here that the year has not been a total disaster.  Much like the September finish in 1979, when the team played hard and well up to the final game, the 2004 squad seems equally capable of such a finish.

No less an authority than Dallas Green, who managed the September 1979 Phils and saw that spirit carry over into the 1980 World Champions, admitted that the championship run actually began the year before.  The seeds of the championship were sown by the group that battled together in September of 1979, when they had nothing to play for but pride in the uniform.


This group seems to be developing the same kind of pride.  Burrell could easily have bailed out, yet didn't.  Millwood felt the same way.  Randy Wolf talked of coming back to pitch in the playoffs, though that seemed for fancy than fact.  Nevertheless, he was preparing for it, and a championship is never won without preparation. 

Through all the injuries, Thome, Wagner and Lieberthal continued to play hard and play well.  The team never quit, and even though the finish line is but two weeks away, the team hasn't given in or up. This bodes well for youngsters like Chase Utley, Geoff Geary, Gavin Floyd and Ryan Howard, players who are seeing first hand what it means to be a professional.

Please do not misunderstand the intent of this piece.  Certainly, I am no Pollyanna, blindly ignorant to the failings of this team.  It still needs to hit better with runners in scoring position, and still has weaknesses in fundamentals. 


It still needs a leadoff hitter, and could use a staff ace.  The bullpen is overworked, and the starters have under performed. At the management level, better care of the minor league prospects is a must, and a position must be found for young Howard.


It wouldn't hurt if a manager more in line with the Bobby Cox style of leadership was hired, and a new hitting and pitching coach seems inevitable.  And finally, the specter of a left field fence that seems much too inviting for enemy hitters must someday be addressed.

Yet, through all the mist and fog, a tiny beacon of light shown through this September.  It wasn't bright enough to clear up the darkness that enveloped the '04 season, but it was bright enough to offer a hint of optimism heading into an uncertain off-season.  For Phillie fans, long accustomed to lights out rather than lights on, it might well keep the brightness of a better 2005 shining through the long, cold dark winter months that close out a forgettable 2004.


Columnist's Note:  Please send any comments or suggestions to and I will respond.  Thanks!  Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast

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