Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Great Teams I have Loved -- 1993 Phillies (first in an occasional series)

The 2006 Cardinals' championship, and my relative ambivalence toward the team, led me to reflect on what team really resonated with me for my 25 or so years of fandom in St. Louis and Philadelphia. In that time there have been two team I supported that won championshops -- the 1999 Rams, and last year's Cardinals, and one college team, the 1985 Villanova team, that have won championships, and several others have come close. So, I thought I'd start a series with my thoughts about those teams, starting with the 1993 Phillies.

One side thought before I get going -- it seems that Philadelphia teams have had to get rid of more than their share of star players while they were in what should be their prime. It seems like Philadelphia is almost always on the wrong end of a quarter for a dime and two nickels type trade. Off the top of my head, Charles Barkley, Scott Rolen, Terrel Owens, Bobby Abreu, Curt Schilling, and now Allen Iverson have all had to be dealt away with plenty left in the tank because of disputes with management. Maybe this explains why Philly hasn't had a championship since 1983.

Moving on...

The 1993 Phillies
The Phillies had stumbled around in mediocrity for most of the late 80's and early 90's. Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton hung around for a while, but they were not replaced, and the Von Hayes trade put a funk on the organization (even though Hayes turned out to be a decent player).

The Phils had made some good trades in the early 90's to build up their talent base. They sent Chris James to the Padres for Randy Ready and John Kruk. They sent aging closer Steve Bedrosian to the Giants for Terry Mulholland*, Dennis Cook, and Charlie Hayes. And, in a great move, they sent Juan Samuel to the Mets for Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell. They also managed to acquire a struggling right-handed power pitcher named Curt Schilling.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had won the NL East the previous three years, but they couldn't hold on to free agents Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, and their window was closed (and has remained so for the last fifteen years, in spite of a great new ballpark). The Expos had put together a solid group of talent, but they had not quite come into their own yet. So, the field was open.

And the Phillies took it -- this was a team of "characters." You had Dykstra, always with about five pounds of chew in his craw. Kruk was and still is liable to say anything. They had Jim Eisenreich recovering from Tourrette's syndrome. The catcher was Darren Daulton before he found Jesus. Their left field platoon was Milt Thompson, the picture of steadiness, and Pete Incavaviglia, a Three True Outcomes type guy. In the bullpen, you had Larry Andersen, always a source of good quotes, and closing was Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams.

Some teams just feel special from the git-go, and this was one of them. They won what Bill Simmons calls those games -- like staging five run rallies in the ninth inning. Or a 16 inning game on the back end of a double-header on a single by the closer. You always had the sense this team was going places. (unlike, for example, the 2006 Cardinals).

There were oddities, too. The Phillies had spent the previous ten years searching for a shortstop. Jayson Stark wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer back then, and a favorite gimmick of his was to run a list of the dozens of men who had played shortstop for the Phillies since 1982, along with the same list for the Orioles (Cal Ripken).

Anyway, one of the failed attempts was Kim Batiste. About the All-Star Break, the Phillies called up Kevin Stocker, who was to be the now and future shortstop. He did steady the position, but didn't prove to be the franchise shortstop (though the Phils did parlay him into Bobby Abreu). This left Batiste without a position, so manager Jim Fregosi started using him as a defensive replacement at third base. I have no memory of regular third baseman Dave Hollins being deficient defensively, or of Batiste being particulary adept, but for some reason we all kind of rolled with it. I'm sure if this happened today, Rob Neyer and Baseball Prospectus would have published lengthy charts about what a stupid idea this was.

Then, in the first game of the NLCS with the Braves (who were then in the NL West, and had made a furioous comeback to win the division over the Bonds-led Giants), Fregosi put Batiste in at third like he always did. Except the Braves tied the game, and it went to extra innings, and Batiste came up with the winning run on second. And what does Batiste do but smack a base hit over the third base bag to win the game..

This was the summer between my senior year in high school and my first year in college. I worked that summer delivering pizzas at a local pizza joint in South Jeresey. It was always fun to catch bits of the games while I was out making deliveries. I honestly don't remember if I watched any games at the Vet that year -- I think I caught one. Most of what I remember is through the speakers of the Grand Am I used to deliver pizzas.

As I was starting college in St. Louis, it was good to have that connection back to my home area through following the Phillies as they clinched the NL East, and progressed through the playoffs. My grandmother had a stroke shortly before I left, and dies shortly thereafter, so it was good for my father and I to have something to talk about besides that. The Phillies closed the regular season in St. Louis, and I went to the final game, and waited after the game to cheer them on before they started the playoffs.**

I remember jumping in my neighbor's dorm room (they had a color TV) when Mitch got the final strikeout to knock out the Braves.

That the Phils lost the Series to the Blue Jays made the season less than story-book, but doesn't sour it. I think that's why Mitch Williams isn't reviled in Philadelphia the way, say, Bill Buckner is (or was) reviled in Boston. We had all been on a wonderful, unexpected ride, and the car just ran out of gas. As much as Philly fans have a reputation for toughness, we love a team that puts out a full effort, and the 1993 Phillies did that for us.

*Mulholland is responsible for my best in-person fan expierience, as my dad and I watched him throw a no-hitter in August of 1990. So I will always be a Mulholland fan. I especially enjoyed his step-off pickoff move, which essentially shut down the running game when he was pitching.

**Ah, the first semester of college. When time is no object.


rundeep said...

Oh John. Don't hate Mitch Williams? How quickly they forget the death threats.

You make a nice point about star players. But there are significant differences in management among the teams here. Eagles since Lurie took over as the owner are all about winning. Diddles here and there, and some dumb Andy Reid playcalling, but for the most part, they've made the right player calls, TO absolutely included.

The Phillies are not interested in winning. That's not just skepticism, that's a realistic assessment of the ownership. Their expressed goal (privately expressed, that is) is to make a whole lot of cash, not to spend it. So the farm teams are about talent on the way down, not up, and superstars are expensive, so they get traded away. When I moved here in 1984 ticket demand was inelastic. Philly resident bought more pro sports tickets per capita than any city in the country. As prices have gone up and losers proliferated, that's changed a bit, but we are still nuts.

The Sixers have had too many ownership changes to have a consistent philosophy. Get Pat Croce back involved with the team, and attitude will follow. (News flash: Iverson claims now he never asked to be traded. Whaaaaah? Is he stupid?)

On the whole, I used to think highly of the Sniders, and thought maybe the Flyers recent string of ugly was just an ugly season or two we need to get through to the other side. I still love them for building an arena pretty much without any public money. So I'm more forgiving, perhaps wrongly.

JohnMcG said...

I realize now I missed Reggie White as well. Urgh...

I think Mitch actually lives in the Philadelphia are now. He weas asked to do more than he was able to do.