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The Ghosts Of '79 Are Lurking

mike schmidt The Ghosts Of '79 Are LurkingThis is a reprint/partially updated blog from March. It’s funny how no one was listening then. It’s funny, too, how they seem to be listening more now.

At the time the main body of this blog was originally written, a  game hadn’t been played yet. But I liked the fact that everywhere you looked, there was something with Phillies on it. If you took a drive down the expressway, you couldn’t help but notice every bumper appeared to have a Phillies’ decal draped over it. At the time the Phillies hadn’t painted just Philadelphia red, they painted the whole eastern part of Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Northern Delaware red, too.

We have without argument the greatest team in Phillies history in our midst. We also have a team that’s woefully underachieved as the midway point of the 2010 season approaches. These next nine games could very well determine where this team is headed. There is no arguing that. Let’s repeat that again—we have the greatest Phillies team before us, but it’s a team that’s underachieved. Some still don’t get that. Or maybe they don’t want to believe it.

It’s still yet to be determined if this will be one of the greatest teams in baseball history. Sure, winning a world championship this year in the slowly closing window the Phillies have over the next few years would certainly place them in rarified air. But they haven’t done it yet.

Though if I were a Martian who just landed in Philly, and heard all the pre-season talk emanating from the gushing media that covers the team, to the hypnotized fans who follow them, I’d swear the Champaign corks had already been popped, the beer suds were flowing freely, and the Phillies finished flogging the defending World Series champion New York Yankees in five quick games.

There’s one major problem with that scenario: IT HASN”T HAPPENED YET!

Plenty of things can go wrong in a baseball season. The example that comes to mind is the 1979 Phillies. Think about it. Before a pitch had been thrown, everyone had already handed them the National League East, their first trip to the World Series since 1950, and a possible collision course with the defending ’78 World Series champions—the New York Yankees.

The 2010 Phillies picked up a future Hall of Famer in the off-season, Roy Halladay. The ’79 Phillies signed Pete Rose, who at the time was considered a future Hall of Famer (and should be in there, in my opinion). Both additions opened the flood gates to speculation that it would be an easy glide to the World Series.

The ’79 Phillies had what could arguably be the greatest infield in their history, with Rose, Manny Trillo, Larry Bowa and Mike Schmidt. This current group rivals that in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco.

That ’79 team started a torrid 24-10 and was 3.5 games up in the National League East standings after the infamous 23-22 Phillies-Cubs mêlée at Wrigley Field on May 17, 1979. Then the bottom dropped out. They went 41-57 over their next 98 games, hitting their nadir in August at 65-67 before going 18-11 in September to finish with a winning record. And playing golf in October.

The problem with that team was an unsteady bullpen—though the starting pitching entering the season was supposed to provide a nice one-two punch in Hall of Famer Steve Carlton and Dick Ruthven. The 34-year-old Carlton did his part, going 18-11, but Ruthven fell to 7-5, after winning 13 games the previous year.

If Halladay gets some offensive support, he could become the Phils’ first 20-game winner since 1983, when Carlton, then 37, won the Cy Young by going 23-11. But we still don’t know about Cole Hamels, this team’s sidekick Ruthven. The back of the bullpen is in a nebulous position–at best. We don’t know what to expect from Brad Lidge. He’s certainly not the “Lights Out Lidge” of 2008, though he hasn’t shown many signs of being the “Lights On Lidge” of 2009, either.

Still, do you really feel comfortable with your closer? The bats were expected to carry the load. They haven’t. This a squad in a team-wide slump. Another factor is the Phillies have been relatively injury free over the last two years. Rollins and Utley are 31, Jayson Werth turned 31 in May. Raul Ibanez will turn 38 this month and if spring was any indication, the cracks that come with aging players were showing then. Rollins has broken down the last two years. Ibanez is looking older than 38.

Fact: This team has played more games than any other team in baseball over these last three years. That daily pounding, that grind can have an effect. We’re seeing that.

The point is this—watch grandiose expectations. Remember, this is snake-bitten Philly. Rose-colored predictions don’t always come to fruition.

Again, the main body of this was written back in March. It feels kind of eerie that it’s actually unfolding–so far–before our eyes in June.

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