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The Pope Passes
2003-12-29 12:49
by Mike Carminati

…And die of nothing but a rage to live.

—Alexander "The" Pope

The Phillies have had one golden period in their 121-year history. It stretched from the mid-Seventies to the mid-Eighties and covered the team's only World Series victory, two of its five World Series appearances, its only 100-win seasons, and six of its nine postseason appearances. It was also a time that witnessed the team's greatest position player (Mike Schmidt) and arguably its best pitcher (Steve Carlton—Pete Alexander played only seven seasons in Philly).

And yet there was one man who loomed over the period for the Phils. No, I don't mean Danny "Half this game is ninety percent mental" Ozark. I mean, of course, Paul "The Pope" Owens. Owens passed away this weekend at the age of 79.

As the Phils' farm director in the early Seventies, he oversaw the development of the core of the great Phillies teams of that era: Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Bob Boone, Larry Bowa, Dick Ruthven, and Larry Christenson .As GM of the Phillies, Owens brought Pete Rose, Garry Maddox, Bake McBride, Joe Morgan, Manny Trillo, Jim Kaat, Tug McGraw, Jim Lonborg, John Denny, and Al Holland.

Everyone remembers that he relieved Pat Corrales of the manager job in 1983 with the Phils in first. But no one seems to remember that they were just one game over .500 at the time and had just lost 17 of their last 324, and that under Owens the Phils recorded a .610 winning percentage en route to their second World Series appearance in four years.

Legend has it that Owens got a bit tipsy at the 1974 winter meetings and traded Boone and Christenson to Detroit for Bill Freehan and Jim Northrup. The next day he couldn't remember a thing about the trade much to the chagrin of Tiger GM Jim Campbell.

Owens started to lose his legendary GM magic soon after the Phils' first World Series victory in 1980. First, he traded Larry Bowa and then-youngster Ryne Sandberg to the Cubs for Ivan DeJesus. DeJesus was supposed to be Bowa's replacement at short. He was supposedly seven years younger than Bowa, but given his rapid decline and the dubious birth dates of Latin players of that era, the difference was probably much less. Whatever the reason, both DeJesus and Bowa lost their starting shortstop gigs after the 1984 season, the year that Sandberg won the NL MVP award. DeJesus also had a very poor performance in the '83 Series, committing an error that allowed the winning run in game three. DeJesus was probably selected because of his friendship and experience with then Phils' second baseman Manny Trillo. But throwing in Sandberg was at best ill-advised and at worst disastrous for a rapidly aging club (Trillo was 31 in 1982 and had just come off a season in which he missed almost 70 games). By the way, the Cubs became a Phils Midwest in the Eighties, acquiring any and every ex-Phil player apparently in attempt to duplicate the success of the Sandberg trade.

Next, was the infamous 5-for-1 trade brought newly appointed team savior Von Hayes from the Indians for Julio Franco, Trillo, George Vukovich, Jerry Willard, and Jay Baller, all of whom played for some time in the majors. Now, Hayes became a good, if not great, player for the Phils and of the players traded only Julio Franco had much of a career ahead of him. Trillo kicked around for another six seasons though he played only 83 games in Cleveland. Willard started one season at catcher and then became a journeyman for a handful more. Vukovich was the starting right fielder in Cleveland for a few years and had a good season in 1984 but quickly vanished form the scene. Baller was nothing more than a journeyman reliever. Franco, of course, is still playing at the age of 85. He will play first for the Braves until he decomposes into a mound of dust. He's also collected 2358 hits and 155 homers—not bad for a guy who came up as a shortstop.

Hayes never shook the "Five-for-one" tag even though he had many quality seasons in Philly. I guess his poor 1983 campaign set the tone. He did give the Phils seven solid to very good seasons thereafter however.

The "savior" tag didn't help either nor was it fair. Looking back at his early stats, there's no reason to think that Hayes would have been any better than he turned out to be—actually I'm surprised he was as good as he was. Despite his five-tool-edness, Hayes didn't draw too many walks as a youngster (42 walks and .310 OBP as a rookie n 1982) and didn't slug a ton (.389 in 1982). Although he had good speed, he was often caught stealing (20 stolen bases and 12 caught stealing in 1983, 32 and 13 in 1982) and grounded into a bunch of doubleplays (at least 10 a year for five of the six seasons from 1982 to 1987), doubly odd because he was a left-handed bat. Anyway, I would have doubted that he would never have received 100 walks in a season as he did twice (1987 and '89) nor had an OBP over .400 (1987).

In the final assessment, Hayes though a good player was never the franchise player that he was expected to be and the amount of young talent given up to get him was excessive. This was of course, pre-Moneyball GM'ing.

Lastly, Owens tenure as manager in 1983-84 was when the crest broke for the Phils' "Golden Age". The '83 club dubbed the "Wheeze Kids" was stocked with aging players. The 1984 club passed the baton to younger players like Hayes, Juan Samuel, Lenny Matuszek, Glenn-Bo Wilson, Ozzie Virgil, Marty Bystrom, Kevin Gross, and Charlie Hudson. Other youngsters like Don Carman, Rick Schu, Jeff Stone, John Russell, Steve Jeltz, and Mike LaValliere waited in the wings. It was the same formula that used to great success a decade earlier, they just didn't have the right players. They also didn't have Owens building the minor-league system to feed the right players.

Whatever the reason, that team ended up 81-81. Owens stepped down, turned the manager's job over to John Felske, and returned to the front office though not as GM. Aside from the lightning-in-a-bottle season of 1993, the Phils haven't been much more than a mediocre team ever since, and they have been for worse than that at times. Owens' passing comes as the Phils prepare to move into a new stadium and as they build a team that will probably be favored to win the NL East in 2004. It's too bad Owens won't be a part of it.

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