A few years ago in a segment of Rocky and His Friends, Dudley Dooright, the mountie, posed this question on television: What is a dog team? The answer was the Philadelphia Phillies.
My, how that gag has lost its bite. Redeemed from loserhood by their hockey champions, the Flyers, those hootin', hollerin' Philadelphians want much, much more—nothing less than a divisional baseball title. And, God bless America, Kate Smith, they could get it.
The Phillies, who used to roll over and play dead by the middle of May, have been transformed into a sleek, clean-limbed contender, the pet of thousands at Veterans Stadium. Few teams can field better than this young club, additionally blessed with five starting pitchers, a dancing fan named "Yo Yo" and a talent for riding out hitting slumps at the top of their division, where they resided all last week. The old dog Phillies have learned a new trick called winning.
Some credit this to a psychological spinoff from hockey—DON'T LET THE FLYERS' FEELING FADE says the town's latest bumper sticker—but for the observant the signs were there a year ago, even though the team was above .500 only twice. While the Phillies finished 11½ games out of first, with 71 wins and 91 losses, that was 26 games closer than in '72 and the smartest advance by any club in the division. Yo Yo, whose real name is Bernie Schiffrin, may have sensed the upswing even sooner. He came over from the Palestra to the Vet in 1971 and began dancing in the aisles to Hava Nagila whenever the Phils rallied.
With an improving team that was earning credit with the fans, Vice-President Paul Owens threw in some cash—namely, Dave Cash, 25, a second baseman who had been platooned for four seasons by the Pirates. To get him, Owens traded Pitcher Ken Brett, 13-9 in 1973. The deal originated in October, the result of approximately 10 minutes' conversation at a World Series game between Owens and Pittsburgh's Joe Brown. Owens calls it "one of the easiest trades I've ever made, since no third name ever came in to muddy the waters."
Clean it was, but controversial; Brett (who just missed a perfect game for the Pirates last week) was a proven talent, Cash less known. By now, however, Owens has been more than vindicated, for if any one player has inspired the Phils, it has been Cash.
"The reason we got him," Owens says, "is that we needed a hitter up front, at the top of the order. He's also a better fielder than people thought, but I particularly liked him because of the intangibles. He's a team leader. He'd been at Pittsburgh four years and they had won three titles. I felt that with Larry Bowa, who we think is one of the finest fielding shortstops in baseball, Willie Montanez at first and Mike Schmidt at third, our infield would be one of the best. I just felt he was what we needed, a player who could contribute to our team right away—and for the next eight to nine years."
Cash has marvelously exceeded expectations. He has hit safely in 40 of 49 games, stroking 61 hits from the leadoff spot for a .302 average. He has struck out only 11 times in 202 at bats. That's tangible. He hasn't shortchanged Philadelphia on the intangibles, either.
"I've always thought of myself as a guy who starts something," Cash says. "You have to be that way as a leadoff hitter. When I got here, I watched everyone for a while and then I said, 'You guys don't know how damn good you are.' There are players on this team as good as any in the league, but they've never been recognized. No one pays attention when you finish in last place. In spring training they started making comparisons with other players on other clubs and they started to realize, 'Hey, I'm better than he is.' They started believing in themselves."
No one has profited more from Cash's psychological boosts than Bowa, a 28-year-old who has 57 hits and has stolen 15 bases in a row.
"Dave has been a big influence on me," affirms Bowa. "Last year I'd go 0 for 4 and that would be on my mind the next day, worrying me that I'd go 0 for 8, then 0 for 12. He pointed out that if you give 100% you have to be satisfied and forget it and just start from scratch again the next day. That's how I've tried to keep my attitude this year. My mind is more at ease."
"Bowa is a high-strung boy," Owens says, "and Cash has done more to help him than anyone. I think Cash has made Bowa a better ballplayer than Larry ever expected he could be."
"Dave is always telling me how good I am," Bowa says. "I guess I've felt I've been overlooked a lot of times when the All-Star Game or the Golden Glove awards rolled around. I have won one Golden Glove, but I missed on a lot of other things, and that really used to get to me. It was a case of no one noticing anyone playing in Philadelphia. But I don't feel that way now. Dave tells me I'm the best he's ever seen and I don't know if he's blowing smoke or not, but I'm starting to believe in myself."
Because of Cash the Phillies' slogan is "Yes we can," words that came, somewhat ironically, from a dog-track wager during spring training. Cash had a tip on a dog named Jiff Jones. He told Bowa. Bowa wanted in, and so did Pitchers Steve Carlton and Jim Lonborg.
Asked next day if they'd won, Cash was able to say, "Yes we did." From then on in spring training, if someone asked, "Can you hit this pitcher?" or "Can you beat this team?" the answer was always "Yes we can."
After the season opened Cash made a spectacular defensive play in St. Louis and yelled ecstatically, "Yes we can!" Bowa, slightly bewildered, said, "Who you talking to, man?" Cash replied, "Anyone who'll listen."
Evidently the Phillie pitchers heard well; they may be the division's best. Carlton, whose 27-10 record in 1972 earned him the Cy Young Award, has 69 strikeouts and a 3.00 ERA as evidence of old prowess regained. It was severely diminished last year by a case of bronchitis in spring training. Lonborg, who beat the Giants Saturday for his 100th major league victory before a boisterous home crowd, has also improved markedly.
"I took time over the winter to sit down and look at 1973," he says. "At the strong points, which weren't many, and the weak ones. Then I talked to my pitching coach, Ray Rippelmeyer, and we made three or four corrections in my delivery. Rip taught me the importance of knowing how you threw a good pitch correctly. Remembering that, I can get back in the groove when I go wrong."
Philadelphia's other starters are Dick Ruthven (44 strikeouts, 3.10 ERA) and Ron Schueler (39 strikeouts, 3.22 ERA), who soon may be joined by Wayne Twitchell, an All-Star last year. The team's most consistent pitcher in '73, Twitchell injured his right knee covering first base against the Cubs in September and did not pitch again the rest of the season. Than he tore knee cartilage in a basketball game in November and had an operation the day before Thanksgiving.
"It's a good problem to have, the extra pitcher," Owens says. "Certainly it's a lot better than two years ago when we had Carlton and nothing else."
If the Phillies have a worrisome trait, it is the type of hitting they demonstrated through a five-game losing streak last week. Not a bat in the lineup would have produced a deep bruise on a cantaloupe. From Sunday to Friday the Phils went pffft against Montreal, Atlanta and San Francisco, collecting but five runs and three extra-base hits.
Manager Danny Ozark, who has a phobia about "creating monsters in a guy's mind," gave the team a day of rest on Thursday rather than heavy batting practice. "There was some merit in it," he said after Friday night's loss. "At least some guys hit the ball good, even if it was right at someone."
Rested and restless on Saturday, the Phillies exploded for 13 hits, not at someone, in a 6-2 victory sparked by Schmidt's back-to-back homers, his ninth and 10th.
"We know we can win," Cash said afterward. "This is a mature club. You can't let a losing streak disrupt things. You're gonna have ups and downs."
Owens had tried to trade with the Cubs for Billy Williams, a veteran hitter of the sort he would like for just such occasions as batting slumps and, oh yes, a stretch drive toward a pennant. Williams turned down the deal to stay in Chicago, but Owens is still dickering with other teams.
"The encouraging thing," he says, "is that now other clubs are coming to us rather than us doing all the chasing, the way we once had to. Another thing is the fans. If you give them a winner, they'll come out. If we stay in the race through September we can draw a million seven, and if we win it, we could get two and a half million in here easily."
As far as Bowa is concerned, that audience is in the bag. "It's just a matter of believing," he says. "We've had a bad week but we're still right there. I think we'll be there all year."