Yes, these were but the most famous of the ongoing saga of baseball failures for the Phillies and the city that so wished to embrace them. And embrace them they have, and in a way that very few thought possible as recently as Sept 10, 2008 when the team lost to the Florida Marlins 7-3 and saw their flickering playoff hopes seemingly almost dashed. Instead, the team made a complete turnaround, to the tune of 24 wins in their final 30 games, and made all the past pain manageable with an effort that won't soon be forgotten by anyone who witnessed it first hand.
Of course, there are those who will argue that in fact the 1980 World Series winning Philadelphia Phillies had already put many of the teams ghosts to rest, and a compelling case can be made that this did happen. After all, it was the clubs first, and up to now, only baseball championship and was done only three years after the infamous 1977 team's meltdown on Black Friday against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It also can be stated with authority that many of the same key components of the '77 squad were still in place three seasons later...Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Greg Luzinski, Gary Maddox, Bake Mcbride, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone, Ron Reed and Tug McGraw were all members of both clubs. True enough.
Yet anyone who recalls the 1980 season and the team that ultimately proved victorious must remember that there was very little to like about that team until the outcome was almost decided. For one thing, that team despised their manager, Dallas Green, and spent almost the entire summer reminding any and all who would listen about that fact. For another thing, the only two players who even faintly appeared to enjoy themselves that season were first baseman Pete Rose and relief ace, Tug McGraw. The team was for the most part surly and distrustful of a Philadelphia press that had become almost unforgiving in response to these seeming snipes.
It must also be remembered that there was an unfortunate and still bewildering story about a local doctor and his prescription of pills to the players, prescriptions that left more questions than it did answers. Undoubtedly, Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton were the face of the franchise then and neither was particularly inclined to be "phan friendly" after far too many insults, both real and imagined over the years.
In fact, even after the team had achieved their World Series championship against the Kansas City Royals, petty jealousies reared their ugly heads in the form of just who deserved the series Most Valuable Player award. Schmidt won the won, and few would have questioned that decision, but right fielder Bake Mcbride certainly did and was quite vocal about it. He felt that he might well have deserved the MVP award and was even talking about it on the day of the parade.
No, long time Phillie phaithful, while certainly appreciative never truly embraced that team and by the end of 1981 the love affair, if ever there was one, was gone for good. The strike of '81 and the lackluster way that the team returned after the strike left phans with bitter tastes and it did not help that then team owner, Ruly Carpenter, chose that year to sell the team to Bill Giles and his associates. Carpenter was without doubt the greatest owner the team has ever known and his frustrations with the state of the game and his team were felt by the entire populace as a whole.
Since then there has been almost only baseball darkness, with an occasional glimpse of sunshine to excite the masses. After all, the Wheeze Kids of 1983 did the improbable and won a National League championship before losing in the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles and the 1986 campaign was an interesting one with the likes of MVP Mike Schmidt, Von Hayes, Juan Samuel and Steve Bedrosian leading the way.
And of course the 1993 Wild Bunch captured the imagination of an entire nation with their zany antics and winning ways. A case can be made that up to now that well could have been the most popular team in Philadelphia history, but once again, the team failed to seal the deal with a championship. Toronto's Joe Carter saw to that with a series winning home run that continued to reverberate in the Philadelphia psyche for 15 years. Until now. Until this team. The ghost busters.
Make no mistake, there will be countless theories as just why the 2008 team succeeded while so many before them had failed. The teams resilience will be factored in, as well as the good health the club was fortunate enough to have. Certainly Manager Charlie Manuel was a steady master of the ship, almost always steering it in directions that avoided rocky cliffs and choppy waters. Retiring General Manager Pat Gillick deserves major kudos for his keen insight and understanding of just how to build a 25 man roster.
Gillick's acquisitions of players like Geoff Jenkins, Pedro Feliz, Joe Blanton, Scott Eyre, Matt Stairs and Brad Lidge were not universally applauded and many Phillie phans felt quite betrayed with every one of Gillick's deals. History has shown, however, that Pat Gillick is the master of building a 25 man roster and his entry into baseball's Hall of Fame became assured with his latest masterpiece, even as he turns over the club to another general manager.
Suddenly all knowing baseball "experts" were claim with a wink and a nod that they perused the Phillie roster and knew all along that this team was headed for baseball stardom. They will point to the talents of stars like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge and say that anything less than a World Championship would have been deemed a failure. Of course, this flies in the face of the reality that most baseball "experts" felt it was the New York Mets, post Johan Santana acquisition, who were the best team in the National League East and would represent the division in the NL playoffs.
Those same "experts" also felt that it was the Chicago Cubs who had the best chance of making it through the mine fields of the playoffs and culminate that challenge with a berth in the World Series. And Manny-mania made the Los Angeles Dodgers the chic choice to win the playoffs, especially after their dismantling of the powerful Cubs. Even the Milwaukee Brewers were considered by many to be worthy of the crown with CC Sabathia scheduled to face the Phillies if and when a Game 5 was played between the two teams.
It is also worth noting that even after the Phillies eliminated the Mets, Dodgers and Brewers they were still considered overwhelming underdogs against the American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays. Many of these "experts" felt such audacity for the efforts of the Phils that they predicted a four game sweep of the Phightins by the upstart and talented Rays.
Still others will choose to call it destiny, as if the Phillie victory were somehow preordained even before it had taken place. Perhaps, but there are many who do not believe destiny played any part in this victory. Destiny had nothing to do with Cole Hamel's October brilliance, or Shane Victorino's ebullient style of play. Destiny had nothing to do with Ryan Howard's historic September exploits or Brett Myers sudden hitting prowess against the Dodgers in the playoffs.
And destiny played no part in the Phillies incredible August rally from 7 runs down against the New York Mets to win a game that might very well have saved their season. That victory came against a Mets team that was performing very well and was confident of an eventual division title. They sauntered into Philadelphia for a 2 game series and proceeded to take a 7-0 lead against the faltering Phillies. That the Phils somehow rallied to win in extra innings 8-7 was if nothing else a portent of successful things to come.
No, it was not just the stewardship of Manuel or the gamesmanship of Gillick that accomplished the task, though both were indispensable to the ultimate result. No, it was not the overwhelming talent of the Phillie roster that made a championship possible even though history may someday record a team with no less than three worthy Hall of Fame candidates all playing together at the height of their talents. And no,the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies were not Destinies Darlings, a team somehow preordained to win a championship because of any outer worldly alignment of the stars or constellations.
Rather, it was a team that stayed completely focused on not only the job at hand on a daily basis but also the ability to "keep their eyes on the prize" even when their mid season struggles made a championship appear more pipe dream than dream come true. This was a team that truly enjoyed playing together and this was what the Philadelphia phan grew to so embrace. Not since 1977 had the city become so convinced that they could in fact truly affect the outcome of a game through the sheer volume of their collective efforts. And it showed.
The Phillies not only had a glowing [48-33] record at beautiful Citizens Bank Park but they expanded on that record with a 7-0 sprint to the finish line during the playoffs and World Series. The teams strengths [power, defense and power pitching] were designed to maximize their effectiveness at CBP and it showed throughout the campaign and on into the playoffs. Few will ever forget the stunned look on the face of Dodger ace hurler, Derek Lowe, after watching a 2-0 lead quickly evaporate when both Chase Utley and Pat Burrell hit home runs that might well have been long outs in spacious Dodger Stadium.
Unlike Phillie teams of the past, this club had the ability to forget mistakes and misfortune and regain focus very quickly. It is well worth noting that no less than 5 crucial calls or decisions went against the team during the course of the World Series, including the dubious decision to wait until after Tampa had tied Game 5 at 2 in the top of the sixth inning, yet the team never complained openly nor let it affect their play on the field. That ability to focus on the job at hand is what ultimately gave them the impetus to win the series in 5 games. It also allowed an entire city to release 25 years of frustration and angst since a Philadelphia team had last won a major sport championship [the 1983 Philadelphia 76'ers were the last team to do so.]
No sooner was the Halloween Day parade finished than did some Phillie phans begin reflecting not just on what they had recently witnessed but on what might happen to this team in the near future. Certainly the loss of Gillick to retirement leaves a vacuum in the General Manager's chair that is likely to be filled by Asst. GM Ruben Amaro. While Amaro is imminently qualified for the job after many years of on the job training at the hands of Gillick and former GM Ed Wade, his ascension to the throne brings to the forefront the question of just "whither Mike Arbuckle?" the teams other Asst. GM and the architect in the drafting, signing and grooming of home grown talent like Hamels, Utley, Howard, Rollins, Pat Burrell, Ryan Madson, Carlos Ruiz, Kyle Kendrick, JA Happ and Brett Myers.
Arbuckle is likely to look elsewhere for a Gm job unless the Phils compensate him generously for the job he has done and even then, he may choose to move on. This would have ramifications far beyond just losing the trusty talent evaluator as the Phils would likely lose his entire Rolodex file of aides and scouts if he were to move on.
The Phils also face several off season personnel decisions. No less than 10 players are eligible for arbitration, including key players like Howard, Hamels, Victorino, Madson, Joe Blanton, Jayson Werth, Chad Durbin and Greg Dobbs. Undoubtedly the Phils will try and negotiate multi year deals with the likes of Hamels, Howard and Victorino but are likely to find it difficult to navigate the cost of value judged versus value perceived. In particular, it could get quite nasty this winter between the team and Mssrs. Hamels and Howard.
The Phillies also must determine what to do with free agent pitchers Jamie Moyer and Scott Eyre as well as outfielder Pat Burrell. Both Moyer and Eyre have indicated a desire to remain with the club and it seems inconceivable that the Phils would allow such a local hero as Moyer, who grew up rooting for the team, to depart and Eyre seems an easy sign also. Not so Pat Burrell, who is held in such high esteem that he sat atop the first car in the parade, evidence of the standing he has developed with the club and his teammates over the course of nine seasons.
A few months ago the Phils quietly floated a two-year, 22 million dollar deal Burrell's way and it was quickly and equally quietly rejected out of hand. The feeling persists that the team will not budge on this offer and that Burrell, who still slugged 30 home runs during an inconsistent ride to the title, will find a better deal elsewhere. In particular, he might look good on an American League club where he could alternate as both an outfielder and designated hitter on a daily basis.
Should the Phils allow Burrell to depart, and that is the almost foregone conclusion, look for the club to explore ways to bring in All-Star left fielder Matt Holliday from Colorado. The Phils have long admired the skills of the Rockie right handed hitter and might be willing to settle for his expiring contract as a one year rental while they attempt to not only defend their crown but further develop youngster Greg Golson at the Triple-A level.
Rookie catcher Lou Marson will be given every opportunity to make the club out of spring training as the Phils have privately decided that utility man Chris Coste is best served not as a back stop but as a player capable of playing multiple positions rather than just one. It was no coincidence that the Phillies began their final push to the pennant when Manuel decided to use Carlos Ruiz on a regular basis behind the plate. The combination of Ruiz and Marson is likely to be an effective one for the 2009 Phillies.
Other youngsters who could command attention include hurlers Happ and Carlos Carrasco as well as third baseman Jason Donald. Again, it is careful planning rather than mere coincidence that in catcher Marson, third baseman Donald and starting pitchers Happ and Carrasco, the Phillies are prepared to promote players at precisely the positions where there appears to be the greatest need. This is due in no small part due to the organizational skills of Gillick and the teaching skills of Arbuckle and his staff.
Still, any discussions about the future of the organization are thoughts better left for another day. Today is a day for one part celebration, one part relief and one part unadulterated joy at the lifting of a collective fog that that has figuratively engulfed Philadelphia for far too many baseball seasons. Helen Keller once observed that "no pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an unchartered land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit."
For the long downtrodden Philadelphia Phillies phan the secrets of the stars have taken on new relevance, the discovery of new land seems undaunting, and the human spirit now possesses unlimited possibilities. This in no small measure is what was accomplished by this seasons championship run.
History can now record as mere footnotes the travails of 1964, the nightmare of 1977 and the heartache of 1993. The 2008 World Champion Phillies have provided the exclamation point to all the question marks of failed seasons past with their latest title as Philadelphia's most efficient...ghost busters.
Spring Training Announcement!!! What better way to celebrate the 2008 Champions than to attend Spring Training in Clearwater, Florida with Allen Ariza [aka CD from the Left Coast]. We will spend four days, March 20-23 at the Phillies spring site, watching the team prepare to defend their title while also visiting with the players in the sun and fun that only Florida can provide. The trip will include three nights stay at a three-star local hotel, bus transportation for the duration of the trip, several outstanding meals, many baseball related activities, and at least two spring training games. For more information on this once in a lifetime opportunity, please email me at email@example.com for more information and cost. See you in Clearwater!!!
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast