In Philadelphia, the city of fraternal love and athletic disaster, there is a renaissance going on. Those lovable, laughable, incompetent Phillies are being reborn. With Director of Player Personnel Paul Owens wheeling and dealing and with Danny Ozark, a graduate of the Walter Alston school of baseball, playing the strong, silent manager, a combination of other teams' rejects and farm-system stars has been molded into a club with a future.
If you were a Phillie in recent years you had no hope; there was no sunshine. You put on a uniform, went out and got beat, then went home to a quiet evening away from the boos and the catcalls.
But today, with an unlikely trio of outfielders stepping to the front, the Phils are a team to be reckoned with. They believe in themselves and have others believing in them. Sparky Anderson, a man familiar with the makings of a pennant winner, having shaped two of them in his three years as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, found himself joining the ranks of new Phil fans just last week.
Two of the three Phillie outfield heroes—Greg Luzinski and Del Unser—hit doubles in a game against the Reds, contributing to two runs, and Jim Lonborg, the former Cy Young Award winner from Boston who is being rescued from baseball's scrap heap, stranded 13 Reds—four of them at third base—for a 2-1 win.
"They're not faraway from being able to win the Eastern Division," said Anderson. "By next year they could challenge."
The Phils have pulled themselves up on some fine young pitching by All-Star Wayne Twitchell and Ken Brett, a slugging lefthander who set a major league record by hitting four home runs in four consecutive starts. The pair has outshone the one true Philadelphia celebrity, Steve Carlton, who is struggling along at 9-10. In addition, the team has good speed and perhaps the best defense in the National League. And finally there is that outfield of Luzinski in left, Unser in center and Bill Robinson in right.
What these three have accomplished is extraordinary. It all began—or at least a third of it began—two years ago when Robinson, coming off a minor league year at Tucson and knowing that he was ticketed to play next at Eugene, Ore., thought he might retire. But Margaret entered his life and he gave her his hand. No, this is not a love story. Margaret reads palms.
"She told me I should stay in baseball," says Robinson. "She said she saw me and another person being the stars of the club. Joe Lis and I had spectacular years at Eugene and were the stars."
Margaret saw more. "A man with a lot of money will come into your life and take care of you," she predicted.
Surely she meant Bob Carpenter, then the owner of the Phils.
Bill Robinson looks back on that palmy day with awe and pleasure. He since has become the player everyone once thought he would be. Moved into the leadoff spot several weeks ago by Ozark, he responded with a three-for-five night. In 19 of the 20 games in which he has led off he has hit safely, for a .366 average. For the year he is among the top 10 hitters in the league with a .321 average. Robinson is not a bad fielder, either. Last Friday in Atlanta he saved a victory for the Phillies with a leaping, against-the-fence catch of what appeared to be a certain two-run homer hit by the Braves' Dusty Baker. "I'm not sure how I made it," said Robinson. "I guess it was my high school basketball training." At that point the fence was a six-foot-high padded gate. Said Ozark, "He hit that gate so hard he broke a hinge off."
This is the man who in 1966 went from Atlanta to the New York Yankees in a trade for Clete Boyer, hit a home run in his first at bat and was billed as another Mickey Mantle by the ever-optimistic New York press. But Robinson was not another Mantle. The pressure got to him and he fell on his face.
"It got so I dreaded going to Yankee Stadium," he says. "Now I'm taking the game the way Willie Davis of the Dodgers said you should take it. 'It's not my life and not my wife, so why worry about it?' Willie said. Well, that's how I am now. I'm 30, but I'm playing baseball the way I did when I was a kid. I'm enjoying it."
Del Unser is enjoying the game, too, something he had almost forgotten how to do. "Last year was murder," he says. Which is understandable—last year Unser played for Cleveland. "I needed a change of scenery. And did I ever get one. From that dismal, empty park in Cleveland to Veterans Stadium."
Unser, the No. 1 draft selection of the Washington Senators in 1966, woke up one morning last month to find that his .345 batting average was best in the National League. The figure was doubly impressive since the Phils had had limited plans for him. Shortly after being traded to Philadelphia last December, Unser read that Ozark had said he had been acquired as a pinch hitter and late-inning defensive replacement.
"I was upset," Unser recalls. "I had never met Danny before but I spoke to my father, a scout with Cleveland, and told him I wanted to call the man. He told me Ozark was a fair person, so I called. I said I wanted the chance to play every day."
"I liked that," Ozark says. "It certainly made me take a better look at him this spring."
Ozark also liked what he saw. Unser dropped his hands down to the end of the bat, used a lighter model, stopped slapping at the ball and began to hit with authority. One night he won a game with a home run against St. Louis and the fans gave him a standing ovation, a rare thing in Philadelphia.
"They're different, but they're basically good fans; you've got to learn to understand them," says Luzinski, a 22-year-old who is becoming an expert on Philly fandom.
Six-one, 220 pounds and nicknamed The Bull, Greg Luzinski has heard both the boos and the cheers. Neither has affected him. He just keeps swinging in his fashion, which is a display of tremendous power. "In a couple of years, as soon as he learns to lay off all the junk pitches, Luzinski will be capable of hitting 60 home runs," predicts Sparky Anderson.
"I think it's possible," said Luzinski matter-of-factly when informed of Anderson's view. "I'm only 22. I have the ability and the strength. It's just a matter of how fast I learn and improve on my skills."
Luzinski's homers are prodigious. His first big-league home run, off Reggie Cleveland of St. Louis, landed in the fifth level at Veterans Stadium and was the longest at that time ever hit to left. He also got a 500-footer off Burt Hooton of the Cubs that hit the top of the Liberty Bell display in the Vet, which is in dead center. Then early this month he hit a shot over the scoreboard in left-center, a drive the Phillies are calling the longest ever hit in the park.
"I'm just glad when they go over the fence," says The Bull. "The name of the game is to hit it over. How far over is just extra. Think of Henry Aaron. He's challenging Babe Ruth's record, but he doesn't hit a lot of monstrous home runs."
That Luzinski is hitting home runs at all is a tribute to the patience of Ozark. Greg got off to a very slow start this year, his second in the big leagues. At the end of May he was batting .207, with three homers and 14 runs batted in. Since then he has been hitting .332, with 14 homers and 48 runs batted in—a most productive seven weeks.
It is no coincidence that when he started hitting the Phils started winning. "When I hit, we win," he says succinctly. And when Robinson and Unser hit, the Phillies look like a team from another town.