No one will ever whisper 2007 in the same breathe with 1977, 1980 or 1993 in terms of talent. In fact, it is debatable that this is even the best Phillie team of the twenty first century, given the star studded roster of 2003-2004. Yet, someday when it is asked of a Philadelphia phan to list his favorite Phillie teams of the past, the odds are the list will not go far before the 2007 squad is mentioned.
Clearly, the often tough City of Brotherly Love has come to appreciate this team. Attendance is booming, and the recent Atlanta Braves series saw the team record its twentieth sellout of the campaign. Should the team stay in the playoff race through September the sellout total will undoubtedly swell to 30 games or above.
Simply put, the blue collar town of Philadelphia has adopted the blue collar ways of the Phillies as their very own. Oh, talk shows still stream with irate callers, angry at a Charlie Manuel misstep, or an Adam Eaton meltdown but in their hearts, where it matters the most, these same phans will eventually realize just how special this team is.
History is a strange and wondrous thing. Often times, people won't know they are part of something special until they have had time to look back on the events from a rear view mirror. Such is the pity of "life in the fast lane" with its general attitude of "immediate pleasure preferred." This attitude tends to diminish such qualities as determination, hard work and perseverance. Only in retrospect are those qualities recognized and appreciated and usually not until long after the final song has been sung.
Perhaps this is why now is as good a time as any to recognize just how special this '07 team truly is. Maybe not special enough to make it to the playoffs, and perhaps not special enough to make it to the World Series but certainly special enough to continue on when all logic and common sense dictate that this team should be done.
Done in by injury, done in by tough breaks, done in by circumstances that would have crushed less resilient teams. Yet, here they are in the middle of August and a reasonable argument can be made that this team has as good a chance as any in the National League to somehow survive the pitfalls that will undoubtedly open up and make it all the way to the Fall Classic.
Are they as good as the Braves team they just beat in a three game series? Please! Do they have the man for man talent of the New York Met team that they have been patiently chasing since the first day of the season? Not a chance! Without Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Michael Bourn, Freddy Garcia and Jon Lieber it is even doubtful that they have the day to day manpower of the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers or Chicago Cubs.
Still, the team has continued to defy all odds and stay in the hunt, and given reasonable health the rest of the year after Utley, Victorino and Bourn return, the chances are good that they will stay in the race throughout the remainder of the campaign.
This is not to say that the team is without its fair share of top notch stars. Ryan Howard is the reigning home run champion and Most Valuable Player in the National League. Jimmy Rollins may well be the best, most well rounded shortstop in baseball. When healthy, Chase Utley is easily one of the best half dozen players in the game. On any given day, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers are as difficult to hit as any pitchers in the game. Aaron Rowand has had an All-Star type year and was justifiably rewarded as such.
Yet, truth be told, the team has some seemingly fatal flaws. They have used three different third basemen on a regular basis this season and there is an old baseball adage that states if you have three third basemen, you have none. Never was this adage more apparent that in analyzing the strengths of the Phillies' three-headed monster.
At this stage of the race, Gregg Dobbs provides the bat, Abraham Nunez supplies the glove and Wes Helms offers the professional experience of a player with over ten years of major league experience. On their own, none supplies the day to day needs of a third baseman competent enough to play daily.
Left fielder Pat Burrell spent the first three months of the season hitting .201 from the fifth slot in the batting order and many baseball purists have spent more time deriding the lack of power from right fielder Shane Victorino than in marveling at his all-around diamond skills.
The starting rotation has been at best a puzzle with a few pieces missing due to the injuries to Garcia and Lieber and the move of Brett Myers to the bullpen. Of course, this move only led to the injury to Myers in the bullpen and this, coupled with injuries to relief mainstays Tom Gordon and Ryan Madson have made this area an occasional torch added to an already hotly burning fire.
Trade and free agent acquisitions like Freddy Garcia, Adam Eaton, Wes Helms and catcher Rod Barajas have been disappointing in their performance if not in their attitudes. Admittedly, these letdowns have been more than made up by surprise performances by such less well known players like Chris Coste, Greg Dobbs, J.D. Durbin and Kyle Kendrick. Nevertheless, they have not completely compensated for the failure to produce of high priced talent like Garcia, Eaton and Barajas.
Even management has been criticized and second guessed on a regular basis. Many have called for the firing of both Manager Charlie Manuel and General Manager Pat Gillick and most Phillie phanatics still feel the team is at an organizational disadvantage on a regular basis because of the mistakes made by Manuel and Gillick.
What then has kept this team afloat? How have they managed to survive the almost weekly alarm bells that have been ringing since spring training way back in February? The reasons may be subtle, and perhaps not readily apparent but with a closer look, they become quite obvious.
Ironically enough, the two people who have taken the most criticism for the failings of this franchise are probably the two main reasons the team continues to remain in the race. Yes, despite their seeming shortcomings, both Charlie Manuel and Pat Gillick deserve yeoman like credit for the success of this team and probably any future success the team may have in the next few months.
The foibles of Manager Charlie [Cholly] Manuel are more than well chronicled and categorized. Yes, he has problems managing a bullpen effectively and never saw a double switch he cared to make. Of course, he often converses in double speak and occasionally offers justifications for seemingly illogical moves.
Yet, through it all, it is Manuel who has kept the team focused, together and comfortable. By all accounts, the team genuinely likes and cares about each other and not since the days of Danny Ozark in the mid 70's has the team had a clubhouse where the players got along so well with so little controversy.
Recent past indicates just how important this can be over the course of a long marathon season. Just go back to the summers of 2003 and 2004 and recall the almost nightly clubhouse issues that involved then manager Larry Bowa and his players. At one time or another, he had issues with players such as Kevin Millwood, Pat Burrell, Tyler Houston and Jason Michaels and those were the more well publicized ones.
Clearly, those teams did not play with the passion and joy of this team, and Manuel is at the very center of this passion. He is not interested in being center stage as Bowa was, and instead allows the leadership qualities of players like Jimmy Rollins, Aaron Rowand, Chase Utley, Brett Myers and Ryan Howard to unfold.
Manuel is also the master of keeping potential problems within the clubhouse walls, no easy task in this day and age of almost instantaneous news sound bites. Players like Garcia, Eaton and Lieber could not have always remained happy with their circumstances yet if they voiced displeasure no one has been aware of it.
Even more impressive, Manuel is comfortable enough with himself to defer to veterans like Jamie Moyer and Tom Gordon when he realizes that a player's voice is often the best voice to hear as opposed to the constant chatter of the manager. The players may not always agree with Manuel's often strange in game moves, but they clearly like and respect him and his title. For this alone he should be applauded.
They say that a team often takes on the most visible qualities of its leader and if this be the case with the '07 Phillies, then the teams "never say die" attitude is a strong endorsement of Charlie Manuel's character.
Much has been made of the fact that Manuel is now in the final year of his three-year contract and speculation has run rampant that if the team doesn't make the playoffs, Manuel will be fired at season's end. Many Phillie phans, frustrated with what they deem to be poor in game decisions, would probably welcome this move. Perhaps it is time for them to reexamine their thoughts on this issue.
Management has shown that they will continually hire a manager whose style is completely dissimilar from the previous skipper. Jim Fregosi could be gruff and unapproachable and was replaced by Terry Francona, a players manager if ever there was one. When Francona was let go, he was replaced by the popular but highly irascible Bowa, who showed that never could winning be so unenjoyable as during his tenure.
When Bowa was let go after the '04 campaign, the kinder, gentler Manuel was brought in to calm the frayed nerves of a skittish clubhouse. He has done that well and even players as outspoken as reliever Billy Wagner have praised Manuel for the way he keeps the players focused on the game instead of the trivialities that often time ruin a clubhouse.
Perhaps Manuel's most impressive quality is something that is so difficult to quantify yet is obvious to anyone who studies the team with a non-judgmental eye. Under Manuel's astute ability to instruct hitting, almost every player who puts on a Philadelphia Phillie uniform eventually becomes a better hitter than he was before. This is not just coincidence.
In fact, one of the main reasons that Philadelphia can look forward to the future offensive exploits of such pharm hands as Mike Costanzo, Greg Golson and Jason Jaramillo is that if Manuel is still at the helm, they will benefit from his instruction. He is unquestionably the best hitting guru in the organization. For this alone, a ticket on The Good Ship Chollypop should be a hot one for at least another season or two.
Yet, if Manuel is the skipper of The Good Ship Chollypop, General Manager Pat Gillick is clearly the man who designed the fleet. Not with flair, not with fanfare and not without almost daily second guessing. Even now, many of the same people who criticize Manuel find equal fault with the Phillie GM.
However, the results are undeniably tangible if only a closer look is taken. Gillick made it clear when he took over the team in the fall of 2005 that his goal was to mold a team built on character as well as talent. He was unmistakable in his belief that over the course of 162 games both would be required to help a team win.
His moves since then have been scrutinized and dissected and on an individual basis, many have seemed almost foolhardy. He moved some very talented players along the way, none greater than Bobby Abreu, but always insisted that his tinkering had an overall purpose, a long term goal that might not be appreciated until the job was done.
He brought in good chemistry players like Aaron Rowand, Jamie Moyer and Tom Gordon and allowed youngsters like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to assume leadership qualities on the field. He resurrected the careers of veterans like Antonio Alfonseca and Jose Mesa and found minor league gems like Greg Dobbs, J.D. Durbin and Chris Coste along the way.
While it can be said that Manuel was the real reason for Coste's success, there is little doubt that Gillick is anything but intransient in his beliefs and Coste has won him over with his play. This has also been shown in the way that Gillick has been willing to acknowledge his mistakes and jettison them, as in the case of Ryan Franklin, Ricardo Rodriguez and Sal Fasano.
More than that, he has found a way to improve the team one move at a time, just as he said he would. Gillick is no master of the flashy move, and instead prefers to add a touch here and there, always with the goal of making the club just a bit better with every move.
Of course, this doesn't always happen, but it does happen more often than not, and this is why the team now plays with the purpose that it displays on a nightly basis. His latest move, the acquisition of slugging but inconsistent third baseman/outfielder Russell Branyan, might be the latest example of Gillick's touch.
Branyan is a player blessed with exceptional power but a large propensity to slump and strike out at the most inopportune times. He is also a player that Manuel knows well and admires greatly for his skills and assets. Watch for Branyan to supply the team with much needed left-handed power off the bench in the coming weeks. Plainly put, the acquisition of Branyan made the team probably two percent better than they were before the move.
Over the course of a season, several plus two percent moves often equals a playoff berth, something that Gillick has shown he understands well from his time in Toronto, Baltimore and Seattle. It cannot be understated how the seemingly small acquisitions or recalls of players like Coste, Dobbs, Durbin, Kendrick, and outfielders Jayson Werth and Chris Roberson have helped stabilize an injury depleted Phillie roster.
Before it is assumed that all Gillick moves are miniscule ones, please witness the rapid fire way in which he acquired standout second baseman Tadahito Iguchi when Utley went down with an injury on July 26. Iguchi has been such a daily sparkplug for the club that when Utley returns in early September, Iguchi may well spend some time at third base.
The feeling here is that Gillick has at least one more move in him before September, and it may entail the acquisition of a starting pitcher like Josh Tower of Toronto or Steve Trachsel of Baltimore. Both righties made it through waivers recently and the Phils had indicated a past interest in both hurlers. Still, be it Towers, Trachsel or even Jose Contreras, another hurler who made it through the waiver wire, watch for Gillick to bring in another starting pitcher before September 1.
As the season winds down to its precious final quarter mark, with a bit over 40 games to play, the news on the injury front is remarkably optimistic. Given the number of players involved, and the seriousness of many of the injuries, the outlook is decidedly positive.
Chase Utley had his cast removed and a more light weight split was placed on his broken hand. He is expected back in action on or about September 1. Outfielder Shane Victorino could be back in Pittsburgh this weekend, and Michael Bourn might be back in 10 days. Catcher Rod Barajas may or may not return before the rosters expand in September and the same can be said for hurlers Freddy Garcia and Ryan Madson.
Both Garcia and Madson are expected to pitch again this season and should Garcia be able to give the Phils three or four decent starts in September that might just give the team the added boost needed to overcome the Mets, Braves, Cubs and Padres. Youngster Scott Mathieson is also pitching again on a rehabilitation assignment and could add depth to what is now a very deep and impressive bullpen.
No less an authority than ESPN baseball analyst Dave Campbell recently remarked that the Phils bullpen crew of Mesa, Alfonseca, J.C. Romero, Gordon and Myers appeared the freshest in the National League. If Madson and Mathieson can assist with this group in September that will make it all the stronger.
The lineup, with Utley and Victorino back and producing, should continue to score runs in ample supply and give starters like Hamels, Moyer, Durbin, Kendrick and Kyle Lohse a decent chance to win every game they pitch. They will all be needed as the September push involves key divisional games against the Braves, Mets, Nationals and Marlins, as well as the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Still, those are games for another day. There is still much to play for in August and a roster that seems decidedly short-handed and ill-equipped for the task currently at hand. Yet, that is precisely why this team has become so endearing and popular with the Philadelphia masses. Indeed, they might not wish it any other way for the fruits of victory would taste all the better because of the difficulties in keeping the tree standing.
President Abraham Lincoln once observed that he never had a policy but rather "simply tried to do what seemed best each day, as each day came." For a Philadelphia Phillie team, their best may or may not be enough to overcome the obstacles that have often stood in their way on an almost daily basis.
Yet, in the end, this may matter less than the fact that their collective best was far more that most phans could have ever asked for, or expected. Win or lose, they can be assured of this until the wild, roller coaster ride of a season eventually runs its course. Until that day they know the team will play with heart, play with passion and play with unremitting...perseverance.
Columnist's Note: Please e-mail all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast