CLEARWATER, Fla. - For the second time since 1883, the Phillies will defend a World Series title. For the sixth time, they will defend a National League pennant. But I'm only interested in the pennants won in 1950, '80, '83 and '93 and the track record for a 2009 team that is about to be written.
The Phillies won their first pennant in 1915. And unless you remember that the Germans used chlorine gas in the 100,000-casualty Battle of Ypres or that outfielder Gavvy Cravath hit 24 of the Phils' 58 homers that summer, we probably can skip the 1915 champions.
Here are some numbers to link how the four modern-era pennant winners handled their crowns in '51, '81, '84 and '94:
Like a bar of soap in a steam-bath shower is how. Trying to repeat, the defending NL champs went 267-271.
The wiser Whiz Kids of '51 staggered to a 73-81 record in a historic pennant race where the Giants had a rookie named Willie Mays and a pair of binoculars so sharp that Leo Durocher's cheaters were able to chop a 13 1/2-game Dodgers lead to nothing, forcing a best-of-three playoff decided by Bobby Thomson's so-called "Shot Heard 'Round the World." Owner Bob Carpenter was so upset by his ballclub's lethargic start, he flew to St. Louis and called a surprise team-meeting in the Chase-Park Plaza Hotel. There, he accused his underchievers of burning the social candle at both ends. Player rep Rich Ashburn replied with a fiery defense of his teammates, ending with, "Bob, this room is filled with good family men and we resent your accusations very much." A hungover Willie Jones was seated next to the house phone and had nodded off. He was jarred awake when the phone rang in his ear. Willie interrupted Ashburn's statement. "Rich, some broad named Mary wants to talk to you." When the laughter subsided, the red-faced centerfielder said truthfully, "Bob, Mary's an old family friend from Nebraska asking for tickets . . . "
Dallas Green and others close to the strike-interrupted '81 team will tell you that team was better than the '80 champions. Mike Schmidt appeared headed for 50 homers and 135 RBI. (Despite losing 55 games to the strike, the third baseman hit 31 homers, drove in 91 runs and batted a career-high .316.) Steve Carlton was lights-out and the bullpen was deep and gifted. The strike-sundered club was an uninterested three games under .500 in the so-called second half.
The post-Wheeze Kids '84 club had launched a disastrous rebuilding plan and finished 81-81. The teams Bill Giles put together finished under .500 in seven of the next eight seasons.
The baby-on-the-doorstep '93 Phillies were a gasping 54-61 the next year when the players walked off the job to ignite a bitter strike that led to the cancellation of the postseason and threatened to launch a '95 season played by patchwork replacement teams.
It is a daunting history of one-and-done. But I am as optimistic about this team's chance to be the first repeat NL World Series winner since the Big Red Machines of 1975-76 as I was about the 1981 team. Those 14-1 odds floating around are a joke and an insult.
Charlie Manuel is not a stat fanatic. He doesn't kill time on club charters poring over SABR newsletters. He knows one thing without incanting the gospel according to St. William James.
"I know we can hit better than we hit as a team and as some individuals hit last season," the manager was telling me the other night. "We are not a .255 hitting team. I think we can hit better than that and I think we will hit better. At the same time, it seemed a lot of our guys who struggled last year seemed to get big hits when we needed them most. I'm talking about Jimmy [Rollins] and Jayson [Werth] and Shane [Victorino] and [Greg] Dobbs was just about the best in baseball off the bench. And it seemed every hit Pat [Burrell] got when he was struggling either tied or won a game for us. So, I'm not saying we didn't hit last year. I just think we can hit better as a team and as individuals."
Charlie uses one phrase constantly as a bridge over troubled waters and to a parallel baseball universe he runs in the background, kind of like a minimized computer file that is only a mouse click away. In Manuel's case, it is a four-word click:
"At the same time . . . "
He was discussing how, sure, Raul Ibanez, the new leftfielder, might hit hell out of most lefthanders, but . . . "At the same time, there might be situations where a really tough lefty reliever is brought in just for him. And I think it's important that we have a righty bat that can go up and keep a rally going or whatever."
That righty hitter is unlikely to be any of the unsigned warhorses still waiting for the market to heat up, which is probably not going to happen for guys looking for $5 million scores or multiple years.
"So maybe we need somebody from our organization to step up the way [J.A.] Happ did last year," Charlie says. He has already spent some time with John Mayberry, the intriguing former first-round pick whose stock in Texas was so low he was not going to be on the Rangers' 40-man roster.
At the same time . . .
"We got a bunch of guys who really love to play," Charlie Manuel says. "We got us some ball rats. I like that. That counts for a lot with me." *
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