It is early yet, perhaps much too early, to wonder aloud if these new Philadelphia Phillies are not just those old Philadelphia Phillies in muscle shirts. It's too soon to say for certain whether Pete Rose can perform some mass Heimlich maneuver on a grim legacy and personally see to it that the Phillies will choke no more. But whatever the result, the addition of Pete's unique ardor promises to provide the Phillies with the most fascinating passion play of the baseball season. Will Philadelphia lose the lump in its throat and find happiness in true grit?
No team in baseball has a higher payroll than the Phillies—estimated at $6 million a year—and no team has more richly earned its reputation for being an el pholdo. That's because no team has gone face first into its hoagies more regularly in postseason play. By every means imaginable, the Phillies have contrived to stay out of a World Series since 1950, when they went 0-4 against the Yankees. Their last appearance before that was in 1915, and they lost that time, too. In short, the Phillies have never ever won the big one, even after winning their divisional title the last three seasons.
Late last week Philadelphia returned home to Veterans Stadium, comfortably in first place in the National League East but still searching for itself, even after taking two of three from the Cubs in Chicago. That series included a getaway victory by the hilarious score of 23-22. The last time two teams had scored more runs was Aug. 25, 1922, in a game between—you got it—the Cubs and Phillies in Chicago. Every 57 years or so, the Phils and the Cubbies get together for one of these bashes.
Never mind that balls were flying out of Wrigley Field so fast that the Phils' team ERA went from a league-leading 2.91 to a 3.37, all in one afternoon, and that Tug McGraw, who gave up seven runs in less time than it takes him to blow-dry his hair, went from an ERA of 1.64 to 4.50, all in one inning. The important thing is that when the last of the afternoon's 11 homers, a titanic shot by Mike Schmidt, flew out in the 10th inning, the Phillies had found another new way to win.
May 27, 1979
So regardless of whether some new calamity overtakes them this year, one thing at least seemed reasonably clear last week. Whatever else they may be, these are not the same Phillies we have come to know and, inevitably, to despair of. For better or—and at those prices, perish the thought—for worse, they are the new Phillies, and if the rest of the major league teams will just open wide and say ah, Philadelphia will be only too happy to jam the National League pennant and a whole shipping crate of World Series rings down their throats.
"The last three years there was something missing," says Phillie Shortstop Larry Bowa. "We've probably had the best talent in the league for that long, but there was something that just wasn't there when we needed it." When they needed it most, of course, was during the last three National League championship series, in which the Phils were swept 3-0 by Cincinnati and lost 3-1 and 3-1 to the Dodgers. "We've always had guys who would play hard, but we never had somebody like Pete, with that charisma or whatever it is he's got, who would push us and make us all try for something extra."
Rose was the highest-priced bauble in this year's free-agent draft, his freedom having been achieved at the expense of his pride when Cincinnati made only a token effort to re-sign him after 16 years of extraordinary service. Cincinnati President Dick Wagner suggested that Rose's salary demands were excessive for a 38 year old. To cover his hurt, Rose made a public spectacle of the multimillion-dollar tug-of-war for his bat. For several weeks he strode through airports like some barrel-chested Ancient Mariner searching for a friendly port.
And friendship was one of the things that prompted Rose to drop anchor in Philadelphia. Sure the $3.5 million, four-year contract the Phillies gave him is nice, but it wasn't the best offer he received. He decided on the City of Brotherly Love because of his affection for guys like Bowa and Greg Luzinski and because he felt he was just what the Phillies needed to win a World Series.
And so far he has played as if there is no question of that. After going 2 for 5 last Sunday against Montreal, Rose was batting .354, second-best in the league. "He makes our lineup consistently tough," says Schmidt, who has played no small part in the team's fast start with a league-leading 14 home runs. "With Pete, we're tougher to pitch to, we make more contact with the ball and we have better base running. We used to be an all-or-nothing team. Now we go for the line drive and the bunt, too. We try to move men along. All those things will help us in the long run."
The big question in Philadelphia these days seems to be whether Rose's contribution to the team has been greater as a player or as a psychological force. In addition to hitting well, he has worked fiercely to become solid at his new position, first base. "He was a way-below-average first baseman when he first got the glove," says Manager Danny Ozark. "Then one day he walked into my office and told me not to worry about his defense. He's worked at it constantly. That rubs off. I think in the past our guys didn't have anything to shoot for. Now Pete's out there every day leading the way, setting an example by working hard."
Though it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Rose's role in Philadelphia's drive for a pennant, it is nonetheless possible that Rose isn't the team's most valuable newcomer. What the Phils lacked most in recent seasons were depth in their starting rotation and a good second baseman who could hit a bit. The addition this spring of righthander Nino Espinosa from the Mets and Second Baseman Manny Trillo from the Cubs has repaired these deficiencies. "Rose is a terrific player," says Expo Manager Dick Williams, "but getting Trillo was the key acquisition the Phillies made. He's a tremendous second baseman."
If anything, Trillo has been better than anyone expected—he was batting .303 and working smoothly with Bowa around second when he became the first casualty on a 16-day road trip the Phillies completed last week. It was a puzzling journey, but it may have been a revealing one, too, because it was during those 16 days that the new Phillies showed what Ozark hopes is their true mettle.
On the first day of the trip, Trillo broke his left forearm when he was hit by a delivery from Dodger Pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, and he will probably remain out of action for another two weeks. The next night, the lefthanded McGraw fractured his right forearm while diving for a ball in the outfield during batting practice and has been pitching with a cast on that arm. A few days later, Luzinski went down with a muscle pull somewhere deep within that ponderous shank that is his left thigh, and his booming bat has been missing ever since. All these injuries came on top of the broken right collarbone that Pitcher Larry Christenson suffered when he fell off a bicycle in February. Christenson didn't make his first start of the season until last Saturday, when the Expos roughed him up for four quick runs en route to a 10-5 victory.
Despite such adversity, the Phillies won 10 of 14 games on the trip, widened their margin over the second-place Expos from one game to four, and emerged from what could have been a disastrous excursion with the best record (24-10) in the majors. Things are not supposed to happen that way, and no one knows it better than the Phils. "We've had our backs to the wall several times already this season," says Schmidt, "and each time we've been able to adjust."
The Phillies responded to their chain of misfortunes by coming up with one sensational replacement after another. When Ramon Aviles, an untried utility infielder, was asked to help fill in for Trillo, all he did through last Friday was hit .480 and get seven hits in eight at bats with men in scoring position. Del Unser, a bargain-priced free agent who was signed in spring training, has replaced Luzinski in left and hit .368, and when Centerfielder Garry Maddox pulled a muscle in his right side in Chicago, Greg Gross batted .313 in his place.
Most important, however, has been the performance of the starting pitchers, particularly Espinosa and righthander Dick Ruthven, who was acquired last season from Atlanta. When Espinosa came over from the Mets, the first thing he was asked was how he thought he would respond to pitching under pressure. "What do you mean, pressure?" asked Espinosa. "In New York I pitched once when we were trying to keep from losing 100 games. That's pressure."
After foundering against the Expos last Sunday, Espinosa, who was a wretched 2-7 in the late stages of '78, had a '79 record of 5-3 and had a 2.80 ERA, which ranked him among the league's 10 best starting pitchers. Ruthven, who jumped off with a 6-0 rush before being defeated by Montreal on Friday, has the second-best ERA among starters at 2.32. Ruthven's impressive record is really not much of a surprise. After joining the Phils in midseason last year, he was 13-5. So why was he 23-36 during his 2½ seasons with the Braves? "That was just a case of terminal boredom," says Ruthven. "Pitching in front of 800 people didn't get it. All you could do in Atlanta was play for yourself. And you had to hope nobody hit the ball. At least here I can try to get the hitters to beat the ball on the ground and let one of these awesome athletes run it down."
The Phillies, especially the pitchers, were considerably less than awesome at home against the Expos last weekend, losing 5-3, 10-5 and 10-6 in generally soggy conditions. "As mudders, we ain't much," admitted Rose as the Phils' lead was cut to one game. Still, the Montreal starting pitchers were impressed, especially ace lefty Bill Lee, who didn't survive the third inning on Sunday. In fairness to Lee, he didn't know what he was getting into. "Ross Grimsley lost our scouting report on them," Lee said. "We're still looking for it. All I know about them is they look extremely well fed."
Whatever it is the Phillies have been eating this season, they don't seem to be choking on it.