When Larry Bowa was growing up, he was a little guy with a loud mouth. He was stubborn, cocky and obnoxious. Nobody could tell him anything, though quite a few tried. "Don't be a baseball bum. Go to college," his father, a former minor league player and manager, advised. "You're not good enough," said his high school coach in Sacramento, Calif., who cut Bowa three times. "Not interested." said the major league clubs that refused to draft him. "You belong in Williamsport playing against Little Leaguers," said a sportswriter when Bowa made it to Philadelphia in 1970.
They were all wrong, of course. Last Tuesday night the Phillie shortstop took his .300 batting average and Gold Glove into his fourth All-Star Game and slapped two hits, stole a base and made two flashy defensive plays as the National League won 7-3. Three days later he was in Atlanta, rejoining his team for the second half of what appears likely to be a third straight championship season for the Eastern Division leaders.
This has been a strange year for the Phillies, who seem to be succeeding despite themselves. Pitching ace Steve Carlton is not winning, slugger Greg Luzinski is not hitting and slugger Mike Schmidt is not playing. As a group, Philadelphia's starting pitchers are only three games better than .500; compared to their league-leading totals of 1977, the hitters are down 24 points in average and almost a run per game in scoring.
"We're lucky to be in first place," one Phillie acknowledged last week, but that is exactly where the Phils have been since June 23. It took them almost a month and a half longer to reach that spot last season.
The team has benefited greatly from a lack of strong competition. Pittsburgh and St. Louis were expected to be tough challengers, but they have not won even half their games. And once again Chicago, the early division leader, has collapsed like a dime-store umbrella.
But the Phillies have not prospered merely by default. Two other reasons for Philadelphia's success are more positive: a four-man relay race out of the bullpen and a bench of bombardiers. The relief pitchers have a 14-4 record and 18 saves, and three of them. Tug McGraw, Ron Reed and Warren Brusstar, have the best earned run averages on the staff. Pinch hitters have provided 33 RBIs and seven home runs, including three grand slams, and part-timers Jerry Martin and Jose Cardenal have the highest batting averages on the team.
Bowa and Centerfielder Garry Maddox are the only every-day players who resemble their old selves. After last weekend's series in Atlanta, Bowa's average was up 18 points from last year, to .298, and Maddox' was up three to .295. In contrast, Luzinski had plummeted 73 points to .236, Second Baseman Ted Sizemore 62 to .219 and Rightfielder Bake McBride 49 to .267. Except for four appearances as a pinch hitter, Schmidt had missed the last 15 games with a hamstring pull and was 28 points and 14 home runs off his 1977 pace.
Even if Bowa's teammates were playing up to form, he would still be a major factor in Philadelphia's success. With only four errors so far this year, he is threatening his own single-season fielding record for shortstops, .9874 in 1972. Bowa also holds the major league career record for fielding percentage by a shortstop who has played 1,000 games or more. His .980 is .004 better than Oriole Mark Belanger's American League record of .976.
Playing defense has always been what Bowa does best. He is not terribly fluid moving to handle grounders and he short-arms his throws to first, but he rarely bobbles the ball and his pegs are invariably strong and on target. Bud Harrelson, who joined the Phillies as a reserve this year after a Gold Glove career at short for the Mets, says of Bowa, "He's the best every-day shortstop I've ever seen. He makes routine plays out of balls I'd have to dive for. If the ball goes in his direction, you know the runner's going to be out."
Though Bowa considers himself "the best at what I do," he recognizes the considerable talents of Cincinnati's Dave Concepcion. Concepcion has four Gold Gloves to Bowa's one, but he has led the league in fielding once to Bowa's three times and his career percentage is nine points lower.
"I don't handle as many chances as Davey does," Bowa says, "but there are good reasons for it. Schmidt is able to cut off a lot of balls hit to my right, and Maddox plays so shallow that he takes anything over my head. For Cincinnati, Pete Rose doesn't have Schmidt's range, and Cesar Geronimo plays with his back to the centerfield wall. So you're talking about a difference of maybe 30 chances a year."
It is only in recent seasons that Bowa's offense has begun to match his defense. In none of his first four years did he hit more than .250, but in his last four he has batted below .275 only once. Three years ago he was among the league leaders at .305. "When I came up, people told me that considering the way I play defense, I could hit .220 and still be in the majors for 10 or 15 years," Bowa says. "But that's not the way I am. I'm always trying to improve."
The surest way to get Bowa to do something is to tell him he can't or shouldn't. That is how he became a solid major league player.
"If there's something you want to do, I mean really bad, you can do it if you sacrifice," he says. "I may be kicked in the face, but I'll be damned if I'm going to quit. It's like when I learned how to water ski. The first time I went out every-body said I wouldn't even be able to stand up. I stayed out in the water and really took a beating, but when I finished I was able to do it."
Bowa has kept his head above water in baseball in much the same way. After being cut from McClatchy High's team in Sacramento, he played American Legion ball. When he was not drafted by the majors, he played in junior college until he caught the attention of Eddie Bockman, a Phillie scout. Even then, he had one more hurdle to clear, which Bockman's scouting report bluntly described: "Have always liked his potential, but his attitude will make you throw up at times. A definite major league prospect if he can keep the bugs out of his head."
Bockman's concern for Bowa's "attitude" was understandable; the first time Bockman scouted him, Bowa was thrown out of both games of a doubleheader. The problem was simple enough to understand but difficult to cure: Bowa wanted to succeed so badly that a fielding error or an umpire's negative call would increase his fear of failure. "People have always thought that I lost my cool because I was cocky," Bowa says. "The truth is that I battled hard because I always doubted my ability. Instead of forgetting about my disappointments, I would dwell on them. I was afraid that I was blowing my chance for acceptance or recognition. Now I have a more positive attitude."
Bowa has two people to thank for that, Philadelphia Coach Billy DeMars and former teammate Dave Cash. DeMars convinced Bowa that he should be content with his best effort, even if the results were not always satisfactory. Cash, now a member of the Expos, says, "I tried to impress on him that he shouldn't lose his head under fire. I told him that if he got thrown out of a game, the loser would be himself and the ball club."
Instead of going after umps, Bowa now most often saves his sharp tongue for his teammates, and has emerged as something of a clubhouse Don Rickles. He will stick the needle into anyone—except the hypersensitive Carlton—but his favorite target is Luzinski. He calls the 225-pound outfielder "Fat Hog" and criticizes his hitting. Luzinski is forever threatening to punch the 160-pound Bowa's head off but so far has managed to contain himself, partly because he probably suspects that Bowa's goading helps him play better.
Bowa learned the hard way just how far he can go with Luzinski. Ten years ago, when the two were roommates on an Instructional League team and Bowa was in his more sensitive stage, he misinterpreted a Luzinski comment as criticism of his hitting. Bowa was also jealous of the fact that Luzinski's $55,000 signing bonus was 30 times larger than his. So he started harping, and Luzinski took a swing. Instead of hitting Bowa, the Bull clipped Infielder John Vukovich, who was trying to break up the fight. Bowa ran into the lavatory, locked the door and thanked his luck. "If Bull had hit me, it would have been surgery for sure," he says.
Lately, Bowa's favorite way to rag Luzinski has been to point out the decline in the Bull's run production. Although Luzinski's league-leading 21 home runs equal his total at this point last year, his RBIs are down from 74 to 55, and his batting average has dropped from .330 at this point in 77 to .236. Fortunately for Philadelphia, the bench has helped take up a lot of the slack. Early this season Dave Johnson set a major league record—later equaled by the Giants' Mike Ivie—by clubbing two pinch-hit home runs, against the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers, with the bases full. He also beat the New York Mets with a two-run single in the 11th inning.
Cardenal has won a game with a pinch homer, too. but the most valuable work he and Martin have done has been as starters. Martin, who has a .304 batting average, has been platooning with McBride in right, and until recently Cardenal had been splitting the first-base job with Richie Hebner. Now, while Hebner is filling in for Schmidt at third, Cardenal has first all to himself. He has responded by hitting .312. Martin and Cardenal, both righties, are important reasons why Philadelphia is 19-5 against lefthanded pitching.
"Adjusting to a part-time role is the toughest thing I've tried to do in sports," says Martin, a former basketball star at Furman. "I wanted to be traded for a while, but now that I'm playing more, I feel as if I'm a valuable part of the club. Sort of like an insurance policy."
Cardenal is more like a dry hole that suddenly gushed oil. After averaging .301 for his first five seasons with the Cubs, he slumped to .239 last year, and the Phillies picked him up in exchange for a minor league pitcher. Not only is he hitting again, but he is also playing first for the first time in his major league career. "We dun nee' you," he kidded Schmidt last week. "Why dun you go home? We in first place without you."
The Philadelphia bullpen could say much the same thing to the starters. Carlton is 8-8 and has failed in five attempts to win his 200th major league game, and Larry Christenson is 6-8. The Phillies were so strapped for starters that they traded their ace reliever, Gene Garber, to Atlanta for Dick Ruthven, whom they had dealt away in 1975. "I hated to lose Gene, but I was begging for another starter," says Manager Danny Ozark. Ruthven was 2-6 with the Braves, but since returning to the Phillies he has won four of six decisions.
In coming back to Philadelphia, Ruthven moved from the bottom of one division to the top of another—and he likes it up there. "There's less pressure because the defense and offense are so good," he says. "I'm amazed at the balls that are caught. Bowa is awesome."
Even without Garber, Philadelphia's bullpen has been outstanding. McGraw is the key reliever now, with eight wins, seven saves and a 2.29 earned run average. "I'm on top of my game," he says. "I came to spring training in the best shape I've been in since I got out of active duty in the Marine Corps reserves in 1966, and this is the first year of the last six that I haven't had some kind of arm trouble."
The other two holdovers are Ron Reed, who has eight saves and a 2.40 ERA with no decisions, and Warren Brusstar, 2-0 and 2.41 with no saves. The new fourth man is Rawly Eastwick, formerly in semi-retirement with the Yankees. "We're trying to get Eastwick back into baseball," says Ozark. They're succeeding: Eastwick is 2-0 and has made more appearances—seven in a month—with Philadelphia than he had with New York in the previous two months.
If the bench and bullpen can keep producing until the regular hitters and pitchers get untracked, the Phillies should have no trouble winning their division. They have often stumbled on the road—their two losses in Atlanta last week dropped their away record to 17-25—but they have also shown a knack for winning at home, where they are 31-11, and when they have to. They won 16 of their last 21 before the All-Star break to move into first place and build a 4½ game lead. Eight of the victories came in nine games against the Cubs, raising the Phillies' advantage in the season series between the clubs to 10-4.
"It's hard to believe we're winning without the contributions we expect from key guys," says Bowa. "But we're supposed to win the regular season. It's the playoffs when people call us the choke artists. This year should determine what kind of men we are."
Philadelphia has had two tries in the playoffs, against the Reds and Dodgers, and failed. But as Bowa knows from experience, failure is something that can be overcome—if you are willing to try long and hard enough.