The '79 Phillies: A House of Cards

In 1980 as the Philadelphia Phillies season began, they were made aware of their fate if that season did not bring success. The team would be broken up, if in fact they could not pull together as a unit, and make something big happen. The Phillies of 1979 had finished fourth, and though they'd shown some promise at times, they were prone to mind-numbing losing streaks followed by long winning streaks...followed by another long losing streak, and the pattern was frustrating for fans.

"...And time waits for no man, and it won't wait for me."
The Rolling Stones

The 1980 World Championship might never have happened. The team was on the verge of being completely disassembled.

Paul Owens liked the lineup he had for 1980...then word came that Pete Rose was having some trouble in Cincinnati.

The team that would eventually win the World Series in Philadelphia had been slowly coming together for sometime, and while the lineup was strong and there was some future Hall of Fame talent on the roster, there was something lacking. Certainly it was not confidence. Larry Bowa, Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski were known for their competitiveness not just on the field, but with each other. They cared deeply about individual stats, and got a lot of mileage out of whose were better. That attitude would prompt Dallas Green to make an infamous "statement" upon his hiring mid-season 1979; a statement that was received with fury and resentment. And a statement that fueled the team to work harder than they ever had before.

It was in1975 that then General Manager Paul Owens acquired pitcher Tug McGraw from the Mets and centerfielder Gary Maddox from the San Francisco Giants. One year later, the Phillies would set a franchise record with 103 victories and would win the N.L. East title.

In a game in late April of ‘76, the Phillies played one of the more memorable games in team history at Wrigley field. Schmidt would hit four homeruns in the game leading the Phillies to an 18-6 victory, and the Phillies would enjoy a long run of tremendous baseball. Late in August, the team led the Pirates by 15 and ½ games; two weeks later they had squandered it to five and ½ games. Though the Phillies went on to finally clinch the division, the almighty Cincinnati Reds would sweep the Phils in the NLCS. Postseason record? It was now a losing streak of 11.

Pete Rose was watching the Phillies one day from across the field, and commented to teammate Joe Morgan, "That team's got a lot of talent. They just need a leader."

Later that year, Danny Ozark was named Manager of the Year by The Sporting News. Not a popular man with the team (McGraw once called him, "Inactive.") the Phillies were not thrilled and not shocked, when he was signed to a two year extension.

In 1977 the Phillies recorded 101 victories for the second straight season Luzinski and Schmidt were on fire. Greg "The Bull" Luzinski hit a career-best 39 homeruns and 130 RBI. Schmidt had 38 homeruns and 114 runs scored. They led the league in average hitting .279, and Steve "Lefty" Carlton led the major leagues with 23 victories, carried a 2.64 ERA and won another of what would eventually be four Cy Young Awards. While there was no question the 1977 team was the best in baseball, the Phillies still could not take it far in the post season.

The Phillies split the first two games of the NLCS with Los Angeles. For game five they flew back to Philadelphia, where what is called "Black Friday" occurred.

In the ninth inning of that game, the Phils were in the lead 5-3. Gene Garber retired the first two batters, but then the inning completely fell apart. Pinch hitter Manny Mota hit an inside fastball to deep left, Luzinski bobbled the already tough play at the wall, and it allowed Vic Davalillo to score as Mota raced to third. Davey Lopes was up next and in a hotly contested play made by Bowa, Lopes was declared safe by the first base umpire. Ozark's argument was to no avail. The Phillies had lost it all again.

1978 would knock Mike Schmidt out offensively, when he suffered several leg injuries; he would go on to hit just 21 homeruns and drove in only 78. For an average player those numbers are fine, but for Schmidt that was not what the fans or he expected. The Phillies made it to the NLCS again, and Steve Carlton got a victory in game three, but the series would end when Maddox dropped a Dusty Baker line drive with two outs in the tenth inning.

Paul Owens was at the end of his rope. He went into 1979 wanting a second baseman. Bowa and Schmidt were vocal about who they thought Owens should pursue. Pete Rose already knew the Phillies needed a leader, and his contract negotiations were not going his way in Cincinnati. Rose had the respect of the hard-shelled Bowa, and Bowa believed the Phillies could really finally do something if they could pry Rose away from the Big Red Machine.

The Phillies were not Rose's first choice. "I'm not bragging", Pete would say. "but I was exactly what that team needed. They needed a leader."

Ruly Carpenter was a willing man when it came to spending whatever he had to if it meant progress. He took his chances and rolled the dice; when he heard there might be a chance at getting Pete Rose, he invited him to his Delaware estate for a meeting over lunch.

Bill Giles also had a hand in the courting of Rose by telling him, "Stay in our league and you'll break Stan Musial's National League hit record in a couple of years." The Phillies offered Rose $800,000 a season for four years. Rose declined the offer. He knew David Thompson of the NBA's Denver Nuggets, earned that exact amount and Rose wanted to be the highest paid player in sports. "Make it $805,000, and I'm there." The deal was made and the clubhouse leader the team needed had arrived.

While Mike Schmidt had always been great, he has repeatedly acknowledged the fact that without Rose he wouldn't have become the player we now remember. Paul Owens has also chimed in on this. "If Mike Schmidt had one shortcoming, it was he didn't realize how good he is. Pete had a lot to do with changing that."

1979 began as a promising year for the Phillies and the city was certain a championship was awaiting them. They had an exciting start going 24-10 with a four game lead in their division. In April they went on a six game winning streak and finished that month with a winning percentage of .737. The injuries would catch up to them though. Pitcher Larry Christenson was banged up for most of the year, and in 19 games he went 5-10 with a 4.50 ERA.

They played right at .500 in May and June, but in August they played a dismal .400 baseball. If this was the lineup that was going to win the Championship, they sure weren't showing it.

After a great road trip, they came home only to get swept by the Montreal Expos. They were unable to win more than two games in a row until the first week of July, and by then they were in fifth place.

At the same time, Danny Ozark's popularity with fans kept slipping as Pete Rose's...rose. In his first season with the Phillies, Rose was a dominant force on the team. He was playing his fourth career position at first and doing it with finesse. He was also hitting .331 and would go on to collect 208 hits, and steal a career high 20 bases. But Rose's personal life was a complete wreck as his marriage fell apart when he was photographed in public with an Eagles cheerleader on his arm. He also admitted in Playboy magazine to taking, "greenies" or amphetamines. He was no choir boy outside the lines, but he was fast becoming one of the best to play the game.

Schmidt was benefiting from the presence of Pete Rose and also from great health, and went on to hit a record 45 homeruns. Though Bowa only made a major league leading six errors, he wasn't given a Gold Glove award. Manny Trillo, catcher Bob Boone, Gary Maddox and Schmidt did get gold. The Phillies defense was solid, and could go up against anyone's in the majors.

But despite the obvious fire igniting on the team, injuries would be the thing. Trillo missed 46 games with a broken arm. Boone missed 23 with a broken finger and a bad knee that required surgery. Luzinski missed 26 with several leg ailments. Bowa sat out with a thumb injury for 16 games.

The starting pitching that they say is more important than anything would suffer terribly, too. Dick Ruthven joined Christenson on the DL; Randy Lerch got mugged in Philadelphia, suffering a broken right wrist in the incident. It was a field of nightmares.

And manager Danny Ozark had a bull's eye on his head, after scoffing that the Phillies were playing, "Class D baseball." It did not go over well with the fans or the team.

These Phillies were the highest-paid in baseball at the time, and it was not acceptable to be this unsuccessful. Ozark no longer had his team, specifically the pitchers who lacked respect for the manager. Things got very tense in a public way when Carlton threw the ball at Ozark's feet, when he took him out of a June 30th game against the Cardinals. Ozark fined the star pitcher.

It could have gotten worse, but Owens wouldn't let it. The season was looking all but lost, yet it didn't matter. Owens knew he had to let Ozark go.

On August 31st, when the team was in Atlanta Owens asked Ozark to come to his hotel room for a discussion. Owens simply told Ozark, "We're going to make a change." For all the dissention with the team and the furious disgust the fans expressed toward Ozark at games, Ozark said he was stunned by the news.

It would be hard not to empathize with him though. Danny Ozark had a seven year record of 594-510 and he'd won three division titles. But the fans looked at him with little respect. The popular belief was that he was losing with a team that was too good not to win a World Series. Ozark simply never got the best out of the team he'd been given.

If the Phillies were relieved, they didn't have long to throw a party and celebrate. A man by the name of Dallas Green would come into their lives like rolling thunder, and he was not going to go easy on this bunch of highly paid, ego-driven tough guys.

Ruly Carpenter and Paul Owens told Green he was not to handle them with kid gloves, and Green had no intention of doing so. Green infamously told the team, "You guys fired Danny Ozark."

Green wanted to see who was really tough, who really had the potential for greatness and who was willing to work harder than they ever had before.

Owens had been a second year manager in the Phillies organization in 1956, and was in Clearwater when he walked past the batting cage. He heard a booming, angered voice and it made him stop. The largely built, young pitcher was yelling at someone from the mound. "I stopped because you don't often hear a voice like that," Owens recalled, "I just hung around and watched him for awhile." Dallas Green was then 21 years old; he was a hard thrower finishing his first year with Salt Lake City.

Green's career never caught fire though, and he never won more than seven games in the majors. He played for the Senators in 1965, the Mets in 1966, and back to the Phillies for a few games in 1967. But Owens only gave him that last shot so Green could retire with a pension. Owens had other plans in mind for him, and believed Green had a future in the Phillies organization.

Green eventually wound up in scouting and development, when managing seemed too much for his volatile temper. When Owens told Green he wanted him to replace Ozark, Green was unsure he wanted to take that team on. But he decided to give it a shot with the thought, "How hard could it be?"

The building blocks were there and the ultimatums had been issued. A change in the guard went down and Dallas Green had a mission. This team may have despised the Dallas Green approach, but their talent and drive was now on high. In 1979 they finished 84-78. But in 1980 the fighters would emerge. It was do or die...do or die.


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