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The Cruelest Season
2004-09-04 01:56
by Mike Carminati

No apologies ever need be made, I know you better than you fake it
To see that we don’t care to shake these zipper blues
And we don’t know just where our bones will rest
To dust I guess
Forgotten and absorbed into the earth below
The street heats the urgency of sound
As you can see there’s no one around

—"1979" by Billy Corgin and Smashing Pumpkins

The season wasn't supposed to end this way for the Philadelphia Phillies. It was supposed to end in the postseason, not a fourth-place finish. But after a late August sweep at the hands of the Braves, that's where the team was headed.

They had seemingly made the all the perquisite changes to finish in the money. There was the superstar former third baseman from Ohio who had been signed to for a long-term, highly lucrative contract to fill in at first base. The rotation wasn't set until the acquired a starter late in the offseason. And even though their deep staff, in both the rotation and the bullpen, was supposed to be a great asset, their team ERA was among the worst in the league all season. Their long-term manager was viewed as possibly the most intellectually challenged in the majors and had been embroiled in rumors for most of the season. And even though they were struggling to stay in contention at the trade break, they made no big moves. In fact the only changes to the team that they made all season long was to tweak the rotation and to pick up a veteran reliever or two who had been a complete disappointment.

It is the Phils' most disappointing season.

No, I don't mean this season as many, including Jabba Conlin, are saying. I mean 1979.

In 1979, the Phillies had just come off three straight division championships, all of which ended in failure in the League Championship Series. The Phils signed Pete Rose in the offseason, not knowing where he would play. He had been a third baseman the previous season, in which he had his 44-game hitting streak. The contract was historic. To quote Chico Escuela, "Beisbol be bery bery good to Pete Rose. Three point two milly-on dollars." Yes, back then in the early days of free agency, an $800 K salary was phenomenal. To my knowledge, this was the Phils' first foray into free agent.

The decision was made to place Rose at first, with the far superior defensive player already at third in Mike Schmidt. Incumbent first sacker Richie "The Hack" Hebner was shifted to the outfield in spring training but the writing was on the wall. He was shipped to the Mets for a pitcher that I remember a club rep calling "one of the top 50 pitchers in the National League." With that inauspicious introduction, Nino Espinosa went on to have a pretty good couple of years with the club.

The Phils also picked up a great defensive second baseman in Manny Trillo and reliable fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter in Greg Gross from the Cubs.

The Phils' only changes in 1979 were to acquire Jack Kucek and Doug Bird to provide help for the pen that never materialized and to coax out of retirement a bench player, Buddy Harrelson (who had lost his uniform number to former foe Rose). They also dropped two former stalwarts of their rotation in Jim Kaat and Gentleman Jim Lonborg. Manager Danny Ozark, a man who for whom Stengelese was his primary language, was finally let go after the team slipped to 65-67 and replaced by Dallas Green, for whom the Phils would win a World Series the next season.

Anyway, by adding Rose, the Phillies were supposed to finally take the postseason to the next level. After Rose, they were 2:1 favorites to win the National League. To quote Zander Hollander in The Complete Handbook of Baseball, 1979 Season, a sort of poor man's SNL Baseball Guide, "The Phillies didn't need to add anything, but when they added Rose, they added enthusiasm, team leadership, a relentless bat, and perhaps a world's championship…[Philadelphia's] where the National League pennant, and perhaps the World Series trophy, may reside after '79."

Unlike this year's club that started in a 1-6 hole, the 1979 edition was 14-5 and tied for first at the end of April. As late as May 17, the had the best record in baseball with a 24-10, .705 mark. They then lost a three-game series to the then-second-place Expos at home, giving up 10 runs, a remarkable amount in those days, in each of the last two games. They still remained in first but by only a half-game over Montreal.

They then proceeded to lose six out of their next nine (or nine of twelve if you include the home series against the Expos). On May 25, the Phils were shut out by the Cubs' Lynn McGlothen, 3-0 at home, fall into a tie with Montreal for first. They were a half-game behind the Expos on May 29 when they started a three-game series in Montreal. The Expos behind Steve Rogers, Bill "Spaceman" Lee, and Scott Sanderson shit the Phils offense completely down the entire series, outscoring the Phils 12-0. They ended the series 3.5 games out with the eventual division champs and World Champs, the Pirates, six games back in fourth.

On June 8, the Phils fell to fourth, where they would eventually wind up. They never got closer than two games out of first even as the Pirates supplanted the Expos late in July.

Yes, greater things were expected of the 2004 Phillies, but the 1979 edition was supposed to win it all. Given that this same team with very minor changes (i.e., gaining a couple of months of Lerrin LaGrow and two weeks in September of Sparky Lyle) that did indeed win the Series in 1980, those were valid expectations.

The lot of the 2005 Phils does not look quite so rosy. They will go into the offseason with major question marks at center field and in the leadoff position. They have big contracts devoted to David Bell and Pat Burrell, both of whom lost time to injury and were not unalloyed successes when healthy. They have an aging catcher in Mike Lieberthal with no viable backup. They have two qualified starting second baseman, but the organization cannot seem to make up its mind which to keep and which to trade and may pull another Ryne Sandberg by trading Chase Utley.

The entire staff, which has been atrocious for most of the year, will be in upheaval. Closer Billy Wagner has already openly discussed leaving (he has an option year but can somehow block returning). There are two free agents in the rotation (Millwood and Milton), and apparently at best, only one (hopefully Milton) will be back. The other three (Myers, Wolf, and Padilla) have basically lost a season to injury and/or ineffectiveness. Youngsters Ryan Howard and Gavin Floyd have joined the team, but it is uncertain what their future (esp. for Howard) with the club will be.

With the Expos probably getting real ownership and the Mets' young players potentially improving, the Phils could very quickly become the worst team in the division. Anything could happen especially with this division again looking wide open in the offseason, but given the cash invested in Thome, Abreu, Burrell, and Bell, the uncertainty in the front office, and their inability to make worthwhile trades, the Phils seem to be a longshot at best to improve considerably.

That is disappointing. The disappointment of '79 faded very quickly in limelight of '80. This year's disappointment may become legendary given the new stadium and the team's probable future flounderings. And that's saying something for this franchise.

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