Monday, July 2, 2012

What Year Is It?

(It is my pleasure to introduce Morris Levin.  In addition to being the first guest writer on, Morris Levin is an alumnus of Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co. He lives in Philadelphia, where he roots for the Phillies, win or lose. He is a proud booster of the Athletic Base Ball Club of Philadelphia and supportive of efforts in West Philadelphia to honor the legacy of the Philadelphia Stars.)

“It's beginning to smell a lot like 1979 around here”
Are the 2012 Phillies Mirroring Their 1979 Counterparts?

Expectations were high for the Phillies entering the 1979 season. The Phils had won the division with 101 win in 1976, 101 in 1977, and 90 in 1978. But in each of these seasons, they had lost the National League Championship Series.

The Phils had very strong clubs. Catcher Bob Boone, infielders Larry Bowa, Dave Cash, and Mike Schmidt, outfielder Greg Luzinski, and pitcher Steve Carlton were all repeat All-Stars. But they could not make it to the World Series.

Player free agency in Major League Baseball was a still a relatively new phenomenon in the late 1970s. After losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1978 National League Championship Series, the Phillies seized on the opportunity presented by all-time great Pete Rose’s first entry into free agency.

Rose had reached his 3,000th career hit in 1978, and hit in 44-straight games. Rose and Reds management were at odds, and the Phillies signed Rose for a then record four-year $3.2 million contract. Rose would be the piece that pushed the Phillies over the hump to the Series.

Prior to the 1979 season, Phils manager Danny Ozark had publicly speculated that his club lacked player leadership. Rose would lead the team to the World Series. The Phillies were very good with him and became stocked with him. Like having four ace pitchers.

Know what happened? The team finished fourth.

Larry Christenson of the 1979 Phillies
Reliable starting pitcher Larry Christenson cracked his shoulder in the preseason. Carlton started the season wounded. You think the 2012 Phillies are old? The planned 1979 rotation had Carlton at 34 years old, Jim Lonborg at 35 years old, and Jim Kaat at 40 years old. The team wilted in front of the media; Larry Bowa publicly lamented the added pressure and questioned whether the team could meet the expectations.
The 2012 Phillies bullpen is struggling so much that Chad Qualls was released by way of example. Tug McGraw led the 1979 team in saves with 16 and had an ERA of 5.16. The great McGraw was more Brad Lidge circa 2009. Ron Reed pitched 100 innings out of the pen and had an ERA of 4.15.

Rose continued his dominance, hitting .331 in 1979, and Schmidt cracked 45 homeruns with 114 RBIs. But midseason injuries to Luzinski, stellar double play combo Bowa and Trillo sank the team. By July 1st, the Phillies’ record was 39-38; fifth place in the six-team division, and still 7½ games back. By August 29, the team had fallen to fifth place and two games under .500, 12½ games behind the Pirates.

Trillo sustained a broken forearm on May 3 when he was hit by a pitch. Bowa broke his thumb May 22 diving for a ball in a win at home against the Cardinals. Garry Maddox went down injured, and later that summer Greg Luzinski was hurt. By mid-August, fifteen players had been to the disabled list and the Phillies were eight games out of first place. The team's decline led to the firing of manager Danny Ozark on August 31.

Yeah. 1979 was not a fun season for baseball at the sports complex in South Philadelphia under the weight of World Series expectations, and a fan base for whom winning the division, a dream five years ago, expected.

Here we are in July 2012 and the Phillies are mired under .500. Injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, Roy Halladay, and the middle-relievers have badly hurt the club. This does not exonerate Cliff Lee, Shane Victorino, and other playing at or below career averages. Nor does it exonerate management from not signing surer outfield hitting whether it may have been a Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel, Carlos Beltan, (or even resigning Raul Ibanez for one season).

Jimmy Rollins Hoists The World Series Trophy In 2008
The Phils should be able to right the ship in 2013. Whatever permutation in 2013 of Hamels or Halladay or Lee or Worley is around should be strong. Howard should be back following precedent that players who previously had Howard’s injury come back strong in their second year back and not their first. All the more reason the team should have signed one of the above rather than leaving it at the combination of Nix-Wiggington-Thome-Mayberry.

Money will be available from the contracts of Joe Blanton, Placido Polanco, and Shane Victorino. Howard plays first. Utley or Martinez plays second. Rollins is at short. The Phils will have a new third-baseman and left fielder. And at best they will have Halladay, Lee, and Hamels, and at worst, Lee, Halladay, and Worley.

It was the 1980 Phillies club that won only 91 games, fewer than the 1976 and 1977 teams. But it was this team that won the club’s first World Series in its then 98-year history. The Phillies made mistakes during this past off-season by failing to replace Howard’s production at first, and Ibanez’s in left. But this franchise is not ready to head quietly into history.

After the dreadful 1979 season, the Phillies won the division, National League pennant, and World Series in 1980; won a play-off spot in the strike-shortened 1981 season; and won the pennant in 1983. The Phils may not win in 2012 but 2013 need not be a disaster.

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