Forty years ago, an upstart team in 1964 forever captured the hearts of Phillie fans with a stirring, yet ultimately unsuccessful run at the National League pennant. With the passing of time, young fans have heard little about this team other than the countless tales of the "greatest collapse in baseball history." While this fact remains true even today, few fans realize what a marvelous job Manager Gene Mauch did in constructing a near champion with no fewer than six rookies on the twenty four man roster.
It is almost staggering to imagine a club getting that close with a roster made up of 25% rookies, yet that was the case with the '64 Phils. In order of importance, they were Richie Allen, the NL Rookie of the Year, Alex Johnson, John Herrnstein, Danny Cater, Rick Wise and John Briggs. Add to that the occasional contributions from rookie Costen Shockley and it is a minor miracle that this team won 92 games.
Of course, Allen was brilliant and consistent, still possibly the greatest talent ever to wear a Philadelphia Phillies uniform. Still, the steady and daily contributions of Johnson, Herrnstein and Cater cannot be minimized and first year bonus babies Wise and Briggs also helped out on occasion. Far from being a detriment to the team's chances, these hustling half dozen helped make that team so memorable, albeit cursed.
The very successful squads of 1975-1978 were assisted by several youngsters, many of them hurlers from the Philadelphia farm system. Larry Christensen, Randy Lerch, Warren Brusstar and second baseman Jim Morrison all had their moments during this four year period which saw the Phils win almost 380 games. In fact, Christensen, Lerch and Brusstar were all important parts of the pitching staff that won the only World Series in Phillies history in 1980.
Perhaps no successful team in Phil's history has had greater contributions from rookies than the 1980 squad. No less than five players played key roles in forging the Phil's first and only championship run. Who will ever forget the daring-do of left fielder Lonnie Smith, and his .330 average? Or the clutch hits of catcher Keith Moreland?
The 1980 team would have been lost without the 5-0 September push of one month wunderkind Marty Bystrom. And the opening night starter and winner in that unforgettable World Series was none other than Bob "Whirlybird" Walk, ironically in his last appearance as a Phillie.
Less well remembered, but still important, were the contributions of outfielder George Vukovich, and even Luis Aguayo and Ramon Aviles performed occasional acts of brilliance. It is safe to say that the Phillies would still be without a championship banner if not for the contributions of the Fabulous Five.
No successful Phillie team is perhaps less recognized than the 1983 team that made a stirring run to the pennant before bowing unceremoniously to the Baltimore Orioles in five games. Yet, during that wonderful September dash to the pennant, the stunning talents of second baseman Juan Samuel were put on full display.
Platooning with the veteran Joe Morgan in the middle infield spot, Samuel made several key plays that helped the team cement their victory. Indeed, more than a few Phillie fanatics still insist that had the 1983 team been able to take Samuel with them to the Series this organization would have not one but two World Series banners to hang from the rafters.
After the '83 season the team went back into its proverbial "dark ages," with only a tiny blip on the radar screen in 1993 to "lighten" the period. Ah, 1993! Few Phillie fans had more fun than in that year when a wild and wooly bunch of madcap players stole the hearts of every Philadelphia baseball diehard with their inspired play. Veterans like Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Darren Daulton and Terry Mulholland combined with young veterans like Curt Schilling, Tommy Greene and Dave Hollins to forge an unforgettable season.
Still, a rosy-cheeked rookie from Washington State burst on the scene in late June to cement the pennant run. Shortstop was a daily problem for the 1993 club until young Kevin Stocker was installed as the everyday player and from then till then end of the season, his consistent defense and surprising offense - he hit over .300 that year - made this team as formidable as any in the National League.
On a club of grizzled veterans and upstart youngsters, it was probably Stocker that transformed the 1993 Phillies from "possibles" to "probables" during that year. Unlike more than a few of the aforementioned Phillie rookies, Stocker maintained his play until traded for Bobby Abreu after the 1997 season.
So, with history as a guide, it seems quite problematical that any successful run to at least a playoff birth in 2005 will consist of at least one rookie as a linchpin. And, truth be told, there are more than a few candidates, some very well-known household names.
Pitcher Gavin Floyd is by now a household name among Phillie faithful, especially after his impressive September audition this past year. Not only did he win 2 games, but he displayed poise, athleticism and a dazzling curveball in his repertoire. Although Floyd is not expected to make the April roster and will undoubtedly open the 2005 season in Scranton, watch for him to surface in the rotation by the All-Star break.
To this writer, it seems inconceivable that a rotation of Jon Leiber, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, Brett Myers and Cory Lidle will make the distance run from April to October without at least a minor breakdown. In point of fact, the Phils are more than a bit concerned about the physical or mental health of pitchers like Wolf, Padilla and Myers.
It will be no surprise if the Phils make their annual Dog Days of August road trip with Floyd fully in command of a rotation spot. Much the same scenario involves slugger Ryan Howard, who is now more popular in Philadelphia than Ben Franklin. It is amazing what a 48 homerun season will do for a player's popularity.
In Howard's case, it has transformed him from the Who's Who list to the Most Wanted pages, and Wade has made it clear to all inquiring teams that Howard will not easily be pried from the Phillie's roster. This is a good thing too, as it seems likely that Howard's booming bat will someday combine forces with youngsters like Jake Blalock and Michael Bourn to form a scintillating top of the order at Citizen's Bank Park.
One other name to remember is reliever Keith Bucktrot, who has now been mentioned as a possible candidate for bullpen duty with the current squad. Although this seems highly unlikely given Wade's propensity for stashing veteran relievers, it does show that Bucktrot's outstanding performance in the Arizona Fall League has elevated him from "suspect" to "prospect" in the organizations long term plan.
It behooves Bucktrot to pitch well in the spring so when he is optioned to Scranton, he will have left a lasting impression in the mind of current manager Charlie Manuel. As the acquisition of Kenny Lofton and near signing of Sandy Alomar has shown, Manuel's input will be much valued in the 2005 makeup of the squad. An impressive spring will do nothing but add Bucktrot's name to Manuel's rolodex file of players needed for a run at the playoffs in '05.
One more name should be noted, though this player is currently unknown. This Monday, December 14 is baseball's annual Rule 5 Draft of minor league players and unlike past years, the Phils may be buyers instead of sellers. GM Wade has been coy about his plans in this regard, but with a Wanted List that includes another reliever, preferably left-handed, as well as possibly a left-handed hitting outfielder and third baseman it seems likely that the Phils will have another player on their roster by Monday night.
If this occurs, the player must stay with the major league squad all year or be offered back to it's original club. Chances are more than 50-50 that if the Phils draft a player on Monday, he will be a player they feel can help them this season and chances are excellent that this player will be a rookie.
From Allen to Lerch, and Samuel to Stocker, the Philadelphia Phillie success stories are filled with talented rookies who burst on the scene to give the team a solid finishing kick. Some like Allen shined brightly for years to come and carved out long and memorable careers. Others like Bystrom shown bright like an oncoming comet, only to dim and flame out in a short time.
The question of which Phillie rookie will join this ever growing list of Phillie "minors" success stories is one that will cast a fascinating and revealing look on this year's club. Who that player may be, and the impact he makes may well determine the ultimate fate of this talented but often troubled Philadelphia team.
Columnist's Note: Please send comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thanks! Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast