I was far too young to remember the Philadelphia Phillies of the late ’70’s. Those teams were mythical to me. They only existed in baseball cards and stories from my father. From 1976 to 1978, the Phillies racked up three National League East titles, including two 100-plus win seasons, a feat that had never been achieved by the franchise. They were offensive machines, led by Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski, scoring runs and hitting the ball at will. They were fast. They were young. They were in their primes. They were pure excitement. They brought baseball back to a city incredibly desperate for their local nine to erase 93 years of futility.
Unfortunately, the ghosts of the past came back to haunt the club every single one of those seasons. Three trips to the National League Championship Series. Three Series losses. No tickets to the World Series. Just more chapters in the never-ending tome that was the story of the Phillies‘ failures and disappointments, punctuated by Game 3 of the 1977 NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, also known as “Black Friday”.
This quasi-dynasty would be avenged two years later by the 1980 squad, who finally brought a World Series championship to Philadelphia. They would return to the Fall Classic in 1983 with the “Wheeze Kids” and the wildly popular “Macho Row” of 1993, but even they didn’t have the awesome swagger of those AM Gold-era teams.
When centerfielder Shane Victorino caught the final out from the bat of the Dodgers’ Ronnie Belliard last Wednesday night, the Phillies not only secured themselves a return trip to the World Series, they officially christened the late ’00’s as the greatest era of Philadelphia baseball. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming Series is, these teams have been far more successful than their late ’70’s counterparts. Just like the Afro Squad, they have three consecutive NL East titles. These guys however, have a beautiful red, white and blue flag flying majestically above Citizens Bank Park, emblazoned with “2008”, telling all the world, “we are THE best”. With their 10 – 4 dispatching of the Dodgers, the Phillies became the first NL team to make back-to-back appearances in the World Series since the ’95-’96 Atlanta Braves. They will try to be the first NL team since the ’75-’76 “Big Red Machine” Cincinnati Reds to repeat as World Champions.
What is making this team tick like a precision Swiss watch? The Phillies laid the groundwork back in the early part of the decade, drafting amazing talent and making commitments to develop their skills and make them important parts of their future… Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Pat Burrell, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Madson. They have all grown together and have successfully matured into a well-seasoned and experienced machine. Along with key free agent signings, trades and the hiring of a highly intellectual coaching staff, management has fine-tuned this team with the perfect mix of talent and chemistry, on and off the field.
It’s not only Phillies fans who’ve come to love and appreciate this team. The national media, baseball experts and critics, and fans of other teams, even bitter rivals, have all come to accept and embrace what this team is accomplishing on the field. Their American League-style, high-powered offense, is coupled with blazing speed on the base paths, impeccable defense and a solid pitching staff. There is their big, off-season free agent, Raul Ibanez. The 37-year old veteran sets an amazing example with his work horse attitude and incredible baseball smarts. As for the other two outfielders, you really couldn’t ask for better players to patrol the green plains than Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth. The Flyin’ Hawaiian’s high-octane play and boyish attitude excites fans and energizes his teammates. Werth is, without a doubt, the rock star of the team. He’s big, he’s fast, he has a gun for an arm, he puts up power hitter numbers and he looks like he should be playing a bass guitar on stage.
The infield gets even better.
The hot corner is manned by arguably the most underrated defensive third-baseman in all of baseball, veteran Pedro Feliz. His offense has slipped since coming over from the San Francisco Giants, but he has given the Phillies an impenetrable wall at third base. All-Stars Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley own the middle of the infield. These two do everything… absolutely everything. Rollins has struggled this year at the plate but has more than made up for it with his Gold Glove defense and leadership. The 2007 MVP has come though this postseason with clutch, timely hitting, including a two-run walk-off double in Game 4 of the NLCS which will most likely go down as one of the greatest Phillies victory ever. Utley is calm, cool and takes playing the game extremely serious. He is a future MVP and will go down as the best second-basemen in Phillies history. At first base? The Big Piece. Ryan Howard is Mike Schmidt AND Greg Luzinski. In only six seasons, Howard has put up offensive numbers of biblical proportion. He already owns a rookie of the year and MVP award, a home run derby championship and a World Series ring… and he’s only getting better. He lost weight in the off-season, worked on his defense, increased his speed and hit more for average, all while still putting up his usual monstrous power numbers.
If these teams have any holes, it would be in their pitching. Injuries and inconsistencies have caused some headaches for skipper Charlie Manuel and gnawed fingernails for fans. Still, the Phillies have been able to work around the issues and the pitching staff have stepped up at the best possible time. With a mix of young, home-grown talent in Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson and rookie J.A. Happ, and experienced pitchers in 2008 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, Joe Blanton, Chan Ho Park, Pedro Martinez, Scott Eyre and closer Brad Lidge, they have all put themselves “in the now”, have stayed focus and put together solid performances.
We can not forget the man catching these arms. It’s players like Carlos Ruiz that make a very good team, a great team… a championship team. During the regular season, he quietly provides top-notch game-calling and solid defense. When October rolls around, he becomes Johnny Bench. His game becomes elevated. He provides run-producing, clutch hits, creating havoc for the opposing teams, hoping for an easy out from that lowly eighth position. Every championship team in history has had a Carlos Ruiz.
And the man at the helm, Uncle Charlie. Manuel has overcome the criticisms from his first couple seasons in Philadelphia and has transformed and shaped this team into what they are today. His brutal honestly, fiery passion, yet warm, father-like personality has created the perfect atmosphere for this clubhouse… relaxed, comfortable, yet passionate and hard-working.
The bad news for the rest of the National League? After this season, the majority of this team will still be intact for the next couple years. The Phillies have all their big guns signed to long-term contracts. With this core, a deep, talented farm system and continued chess-like roster moves, the Phillies could be setting themselves up for an Atlanta Braves-like dynasty.
Philadelphia fans, take it all in. This is the best it has ever been. All the hopes and dreams of the past 126 years are coming true. Kids will be dreaming about these guys in the future, just like I did for those ’70’s teams. This is truly a great time to be a Phillies fan.
About the Author
Written by Bryan Sargent
Bryan Sargent is a lifelong Phillies fan, currently residing in the least hospitable city for such a person as himself, New York City. This coming January he will be attending Phillies Phantasy Camp in Clearwater, FL. He is currently documenting the entire process on his blog (http://www.bryansargent.com). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @BTSargent.