The Dynasty That Never Was…
By Glen Kozemchak
Being a transplanted native Pennsylvanian, I’ve always been a Philadelphia Phillies fan. Yes, I long for a soft pretzel sold by a street-side vendor along Passyunk Avenue and, for the record, I’m still searching for a Philadelphia Cheesesteak that warrants bearing ‘that’ name here in Southwest Florida. But as much as the topic of food conjures up the yearnings for days of yore, nothing can compare to the feeling we get from the earliest memories of our favorite sports’ teams. It gets into our blood from an early age. Just as October yields the majestic array of Fall colors and the crisp air of harvest in the Great Northeast, something also rises up within the hearts of diehard baseball fans as well. And that sensation is not reserved for only certain regions of this great land. After a long Summer, fans are drawn back to the ‘Diamond’ with the hope of watching their favorite teams unfold Autumn feats of excellence and new heroes are made as they become part of baseball history.
For those of us who grew up somewhere other than Southwest Florida, a different region of this great country is still called ‘home’ in our hearts. And baseball in many ways defines their hometown allegiance. Baseball, ‘The Great National Past-time”, has been around since the 1860’s when the idea of hitting a round ball with a stick was dreamed up. The ‘Boys of Summer’ become close knit teams in an effort to rally into the post-season. They scratch and claw and sweat for a 162 game regular season In order to become victorious at the end and earn the distinction of being called the best in the world in one of the oldest sports in American history. Like a time machine, we are catapulted decades back in our minds in the blink of an eye to the days of yesteryear where the wide-eyed memories of our childhoods are alive and well.
I was born in Northeast PA., and I rarely had the chance to go with my parents to old Connie Mack stadium in South Philly to attend an actual Phillies game. So as a child, I was content to listen to Phillie my heroes on the radio in the 1960’s for seeming hundreds upon hundreds of nights. As I drifted off to sleep, I recall listening to Tony Taylor, Jim Bunning, Chris Short and Johnny Callison. My Mom would always lament, “That’s how the Cookie crumbles”, each time Cookie Rojas popped out to end an inning. Then there was the great team of Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose brought World Series joy to the City of Brotherly Love in 1980. But that championship feeling has mostly been a distant dream in southeast Philly since then, and for the lifespan of the franchise for that matter, save the dismal showing of the most recent flash in the pan in 2008.
We came close with a taste of glory in 1993 with the likes of John ‘The Krukker’ Kruk, Lenny “Nails” Dykstra, Curt Shilling and Darren Daulton. But that miracle season of rag-tag players who had caught the proverbial ‘lightning in a bottle’ came up short when Joe Carter crushed a fastball, thrown by reliever ‘Wild Thing’ Mitch Williams, deep over the left field wall along with the hopes of another coveted parade down Broad Street. Surely we did enjoy the characters on that team: The clutch hitting Jim Eisenreich, with his turrets ticks and sharp line drives. Pete Incaviglia and his famous Hulk Hogan macho poses. And who could forget Lenny Dykstra’s embarrassing gaff at a local establishment. It seems the tobacco chewing, juiced up Dykstra’s ego had gotten as big as his ‘guns’. So after spewing a litany of profanities in a local family establishment one evening, much to the chagrin of many parents of young children within earshot, a Congressman seated at a nearby table, politely asked Lenny to kindly delete the expletives. Well, fresh into several pints of liquid refreshment, Lenny retorted to the political figure, “I’ll drop ya Dude!”… subsequently making headlines on the cover of both major Philadelphia newspapers, The Inquirer and Daily News. But what do you expect from a guy named, “Nails Dykstra”? Hey, these are ball players. They eat dirt for breakfast and rip hanging curves into the corner for triples in the afternoon. With the reflexes of big cats and the temperaments to boot, they possess the uncanny ability to jack a 98 mile per hour fast balls into the left field bleachers, and send ringing doubles off right-center field walls. Alas, such are the memories we can recall from living elbow to elbow with the sports figures of our days past from our own hometowns. You have to love it.. And if you can’t, then I would have to ask you to give it a try and see if you too don’t find the hype of playoff baseball thrilling, too. Are there any questions why men and women alike cannot get enough baseball at this time of year? I think not.
Fast forward to 2008. I sensed something special in that Phillies’ team and followed them from wire to wire. Still living in PA. then, I came down south for Spring Training that year to Brighthouse Networks’ Field in Clearwater, Florida. Being from up north, I had never had the experience of enjoying a cold beer in the late March sunshine two rows behind the Phillies’ dugout watching my team play. There’s a surreal beauty to it unmatched by anything else that immediately come to mind. Yes, that year I was one of the lucky ones in line to get autographs from the likes of Ryan Howard, J-Roll, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Shane Victorino before their heads got so big their hats would no longer fit. I even chewed the fat with Mike Schmidt and Pat Gillick, and even got Charlie Manuel himself to autograph one of those mini baseball bats for me. To steal a line from Kevin Costner’s ‘Field of Dreams’, I had to ask myself, “Is this heaven?” Because I had achieved what I thought to be the pinnacle of a sports fans’ life – Hobnobbing with my favorite team.
As this story about the present era Phillies goes, it all began when Larry Bowa was fired as manager in 2007 because, among other things, he was a ‘hothead’. Larry has one of the great baseball minds of the day, but his only speed as a player and later also as a manager was ‘Mach 3 with his hair on fire’. He didn’t have the finesse the Carpenter’s, owners of the team, wanted in their manager. So upper management let Larry go. In their search for their new manager, they bypassed Jim Leland (present Detroit Tiger’s Manager) and settled with good old boy Charlie Manuel, the lovable hayseed from Appalachia. He could guffaw with the best of them and although a great hitting coach, just wasn’t a good game day decision maker. What most people don’t realize is, although Charlie was the manager, the real brains of that team were possessed by bench coach Jimmy Williams. Jimmy was the tactician and genius behind the great moves that brought that wonderful 2008 World Championship to Philly. He sat close to Charlie and was a constant angel on Charlie’s shoulder when he needed to know what needed to be done next. Early in that season Chase Utley was profoundly quoted as saying to Charlie, “You’ve got a damn good ball club here.” And he was right. But he should have added, “Don’t blow it, Charlie”.
That 2008 team had finally arrived to put the Phillies on the same list of great teams along with the powerful dynasties of championship teams of the past. With names like the memorable Oakland Athletics of 1972, 1973 and 1974 and the ‘Big Red Machine’ Cincinnati Reds of 1975 and 1976. Even the late Nineties’ Atlanta Braves flirted with the dynasty moniker. Of course, everyone knows the word ‘dynasty’ in baseball had been reserved for the winningest team in history, the dreaded New York Yankees, whose name alone strikes fear into the hearts of lesser opponents, probably due in large part to the image of the pinstripes worn by the ghosts of the past with names like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe Dimaggio and Reggie Jackson. Let me be perfectly clear that the term ‘Dynasty’ is not a vernacular loosely tossed around in the sports world. That Yankee baseball team from the other great market in this part of the country, New York City, had become legendary. So why couldn’t our Phillies achieve the same level of success? Couldn’t we become something special now that we had the pitching we’ve needed for the past two decades? Yes! Now was the time. The Red Sox won in 2004 and 2007, but that doesn’t quite qualify as dynasty material. What is the definition of a dynasty? To win just one World Series was not enough. These Phillies were ready to bust it all loose and become the team for the ages. We were poised to win 2, 3, and maybe 4 championships in a row. That would be enough to earn the distinction to be called a dynasty. But only then could we finally discard the miserable memories piled up over the years of losing. By amassing a record held by no other team in baseball history, the Phillies have lost over 10,000 games in the history of their franchise.
But now surely, with the power of ‘Blue Rhino’ Ryan Howard, the uncanny hitting of Chase Utley, speed and desire in the field and on the base paths from Jason Werth and Shane Victorino along with a pitching staff which included Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, J.C. Romero, Ryan Madson and closer Brad Lidge, the Phillies were poised to achieve greatness for years to come.
Before game 4 of the 2008 World Series, I drove down to Citizen’s Bank Ballpark and scalped a ticket for $300.00 just to get into that game. We won 10-4 on the power of Ryan Howard’s two home runs. I remember the shortened game 5 when the wind kicked up and it started to snow at Citizen’s Bank Park. Watching on television, I was amazing to watch Jimmy Rollins run across the snow-covered infield chasing a pop up that got pushed by the chilling wind all the way into foul ground. The game was called. The rescheduled clinching game 5 was also postponed due to foul weather. As an homage to my beloved Phillies, I remember going outside my house in the Philly suburbs to do yard work that day at in bone-chilling, sub-freezing temperatures so I could contribute in some way to help my team finish off the Tampa Bay Rays and enjoy the long awaited victory parade. The Phillies finally beat the Rays to win it all that year in game 5. It was the crowning moment of that great team. But how much greater could it have been? As Chase Utley put it, in true South Philly vernacular, they were ‘World Effing Champions’ for the first time since 1980. Even Charlie gave his best ‘Rocky’ impression saying, “Yo Philly, we love hip ya!” at the World Series Championship celebration. And although the young Phillie gunslingers were poised for greatness in the upcoming years, that season marked the end. Period. As quickly as the rise came, the fall was just as abrupt. The build-up of the new ballpark and great development of the farm system paying off with great homegrown players would only yield one championship team. In spite of GM Pat Gillick’s magic and the overwhelming support of diehard Philadelphia fans, Charlie Manuel, coach of the Phillies, snuffed out all hopes as surely as a fire hose dousing a match stick. His flawed moves and poor decisions caused the consistent failings of an otherwise impending dynasty over the next 3 years. What happened was Jimmy Williams got plucked from Charlie’s side by another team, and with his departure, so also went the success of the team. We all know the rest of the story.
Phantasy would Phizzle. Jamie Moyer must have dug up any chance of future hope along with the pitcher’s mound he removed after the final game was won in that great 2008 Series. And although Pat GIllick wrangled Cliff Lee away from Seattle in the off-season before the 2009 campaign, the Phaltering Phillies were soon to no longer be a team to be reckoned with. In the 2009 series, poor clutch hitting and the Yankees ‘Godzilla’, Hideki Matsui rose up and stomped out the Phillie’s hopes for a repeat championship. Bad choices by Charlie caused the beginning of a long, arduous free fall. Although we could dominate during the regular season with hopes of more scintillating playoff magic in the Fall Classic, the bloom repeatedly fell off the proverbial rose. He kept pitchers in too long and didn’t pinch hit when he needed to. Jimmy Williams wasn’t there to tell him what to do anymore. “All we needed was another horse on the pitching staff and we would be set to win it all.” Charlie said. I suppose I should have known it was the end for this team when, one day in January of 2009 when I was returning home on the Interstate highway from North Carolina, my car overheated and limped into Buena Vista, Virginia, hometown of Charlie Manuel. That event was an omen of things to come – just as my car broke down that day, my team must have done the same, and the ‘Dynasty’ word was never uttered again.
After being stunned by the Yankees in 2009, Charlie misfired again in 2010 when, after acquiring the much coveted ‘horse’ Charlie needed in Cy Young award winner Roy Halladay, he didn’t see the young upstart San Francisco Giants pitching staff arriving in the NLCS. In game 4, down two games to one and the ‘horse’, Roy Halladay, sitting on the bench ready to pitch on 2 day’s rest, Charlie instead trotted Joe Blanton to the mound. Blanton lost, taking the team to the brink of elimination, down 3 to1, and even Halladay couldn’t resurrect them. What would Jimmy William’s have done?
Watching the playoffs this week, I heard an announcer quoting another manager as saying, “You have to be ‘impatient’ at this time of year.” You can’t rest anybody, there’s no time to be patient any more. ‘Go the distance’ and ‘Take one for the team’ are colloquialisms that come to mind. “You must put your best players out there in order to win it all. “Leave nothing on the field”. “Give it all you’ve got with what you have”. As we all know, Roy Halladay, would have all winter to rest. He didn’t need to be resting in Game 4 of the 2009 World Series when we needed him most. Had someone told Charlie, things might have turned out differently, but we’ll never know. The San Francisco Giants were crowned World Champions 3 weeks later. Another chance squandered.
2011 brought a whole new chapter of heartache to phoolishness in Philly when the Phillies racked up 102 wins to set a new franchise record. Everyone knew the Phillies wee the team to beat in the post season. But priorities were again vexed, all at the expense of another wasted opportunity for what really mattered, another ring. After all, what’s more important, winning 102 games, or using wisdom and tanking at least one game in order to face the team you really want in the first round of the payoffs? Jimmy? Are you there? We controlled our own destiny, but Charlie didn’t see it. The Atlanta Braves had the wild card all but wrapped up but were limping into the playoffs due to untimely injuries to key players. The Phillies would have dispensed with them effortlessly in the playoffs. All the Braves needed was one more win to clinch the Wild Card. Did Charlie realize it? Did he lose Jimmy William’s cell phone number or forget to ask him what he should do? Instead of giving the Braves one victory in the final 4-game series, the Phillies swept them. And guess who sling-shotted into the playoffs like a big orange ball of hot energy? None other than the peaking St. Louis Cardinals. They proceeded to eliminate the over confidant Phillies in 5 games to win the divisional series and went on to get rings for themselves, even though the Phillies were heavily favored 3 to 1 to win it all. The Phillies posted a record of 81-81 in the 2012 season and didn’t make the playoffs. If you listen very carefully, you can hear what may sound like a primal scream of anguish with a South Philly accent ring out deep from within the belly of Philadelphia fans, as the last breath exhaled from what was once the great hope of shining upstarts known as the Fightin’ Phillies of 2008… And along with that groan all dreams evaporated of what might have been.