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Philadelphia Phillies AN EXERCISE IN PHUTILITY

March 23, 1998
March 23, 1998

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March 23, 1998

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Philadelphia Phillies AN EXERCISE IN PHUTILITY

CLUELESS/NL East

This is an article from the March 23, 1998 issue Original Layout

Who was the Phillies' leading vote-getter for the 1997 All-Star
Game?

Danny Tartabull. That's right, the same Danny Tartabull who
signed as a free agent before last season and then didn't have a
single hit. Nada. Tartabull injured his foot with a foul tip in
the opener and had just seven official at bats all season. For
that the Phillies wound up paying $2.3 million, or $328,571 for
each of his seven outs. Obviously, Tartabull did not represent
the team in the All-Star Game, but maybe he should have. After
all, who better epitomizes the Philadelphia story?

Since John Kruk, Mitch Williams and the rest of the Phillies'
lovable rogues reached the World Series in '93, the club has
finished below .500 every season and a combined 103 1/2 games
out of first place. Their attendance has declined steadily--from
3.14 million in '93 to 1.49 million last year, worst in the
National League. Curt Schilling is the only player to have
played through the entire drought. "It's miserable when you've
been winning all your life and suddenly you're having your head
kicked in daily," says Schilling, who nevertheless in '97 won 17
games and set a National League record for a righty with 319
strikeouts. "For the last four years it seems like we've been
cursed. Every time we did something positive, it was always
followed by a double negative."

Injuries have decimated the team. Since '93 the Phillies have
placed 23 pitchers on the disabled list, including five before
last season even started. Of course, the front office is partly
to blame for the carnage--it has a bad habit of acquiring
players who are past their prime. Last season, along with the
35-year-old Tartabull, the club signed wizened free agents Rex
Hudler, 37 ($2.4 million for two years), and Mark Parent, 36
($800,000 for two years), and the trio combined for a .182
average, five homers and 18 RBIs. It also signed 35-year-old
righthander Mark Portugal ($4 million for two years), who made
just three starts before shutting down for the season with an
elbow injury.

The first half of the '97 season was terrible, even by
Philadelphia standards. The Phillies won just four games in June
en route to a 24-61 start, sparking speculation they might break
the Mets' major league record of 120 losses in a season.
Fortunately, that prolonged period of misery finally pushed
Philadelphia to commit to rebuilding, which in turn has led to
their two stickiest dilemmas in '98.

Former All-Star centerfielder Lenny Dykstra is making an
unlikely comeback from back surgery, but he doesn't fit in with
the youth movement and could cost $11.5 million over the next
two seasons. Meanwhile, the prospect with perhaps the highest
ceiling, J.D. Drew, may never play for the Phillies. Drew, the
second pick in last June's draft, is engaged in a vituperative
contract dispute with the franchise and may not sign before the
May 25 deadline, when he would go back into the draft. Nothing
comes easy in Philly.

"We're not trying to delude ourselves," second-year manager
Terry Francona says. "We don't have a Barry Bonds. We have a lot
of kids who are question marks, but we have begun to answer some
of the questions."

The Phillies do have Schilling, '97 Rookie of the Year third
baseman Scott Rolen (he recently signed a four-year, $10 million
contract) and young talent in rightfielder Bobby Abreu and
shortstop Desi Relaford. And the '97 team did right itself
sufficiently to win 44 games after the All-Star break. Schilling
insists that if he did not believe the Phillies could reach the
postseason before the end of his current contract in 2000, he
would have waived his no-trade clause and allowed the team to
deal him last summer.

For now, at least, the club's future lies in the hands of
42-year-old acting general manager Ed Wade, who joined the
organization as a summer intern in '77, working for $2.50 an
hour. Wade is a true company man. During that summer of '77 he
met a Veterans Stadium usher named Roxanne, whom he would marry
in '81; Phillies centerfielder Garry Maddox served as his best
man. Wade studied under "the Pope," Paul Owens, the former
general manager who turned an awful ball club into the '80 world
champions.

Wade likes to quote his former boss, who preached patience by
saying, "You don't get better a yard at a time, you get better
by the inch." To illustrate, Wade holds his thumb and index
finger an inch apart. Alas, to measure how far the Phillies are
from a championship, Wade would need a much bigger hand.

--T.C.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS WHAT NEXT? First baseman Rico Brogna appears to be anticipating another long season in the City of Brotherly Love.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [Lenny Dykstra]