CLEARWATER, Fla. – The last time a National League team repeated as World Series champion, Gerald Ford was in the White House, cookie-cutter multipurpose stadiums were still really cool, and a blackberry was something you popped into your mouth after rinsing with cool water.
The Cincinnati Reds, with future Hall of Famers on the field and in the dugout, ruled baseball in 1975 and 1976. On a short list of the greatest teams ever, they carried a moniker that even today resonates with greatness.
The Big Red Machine.
Thirty-three years later, the Phillies are preparing to see if they can become the first NL team to repeat as World Series champs since the 1976 Reds.
While the odds might be against the Phillies, it is not far-fetched to imagine Chase Utley stepping to the microphone and once again declaring this team world (ahem) champions one of these next few Octobers.
The Little Red Machine?
The pieces are there.
"That's definitely what we're thinking about," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We have the talent. We've got an opportunity to keep winning these next few seasons. But first we're going to work on this one. Repeating is hard, but I think we can."
Former general manager Pat Gillick, who became a front-office adviser with the club after it won the World Series in October, concurs: The window doesn't have to close on this nucleus after one championship.
"I'd hate to jinx us, but, yes, I think we can do it again," he said. "I think we'll be right there."
Before the Phillies last season, eight teams had won the World Series in the 2000s. All of them went into the next season thinking they could do it again; none did. Four, in fact, did not make the playoffs.
Hard to repeat
As Manuel said, it's hard to repeat, especially in an era when rising salaries can force owners to break up teams, when players can bolt for free agency, and when competitive balance is improving. Injury and underperformance can also scuttle a team's hopes of repeating.
In the 1970s, three teams - the Oakland Athletics, Reds, and New York Yankees - all repeated as World Series champs. Since them, only the 1992-1993 Toronto Blue Jays and the 1998-2000 Yankees have won consecutive championships.
The Phillies, in some ways, resemble several of the aforementioned teams.
Their infield, headlined by Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins, compares favorably to the Big Red Machine's, which featured Hall of Famers in Tony Perez and Joe Morgan, the game's all-time hits leader in Pete Rose, and a highly respected talent in Dave Concepcion.
The Yankees' championship teams from 1998 to 2000 were anchored by an all-world closer in Mariano Rivera. In 2008, the Phillies had the NL's best bullpen, led by closer Brad Lidge.
The Blue Jays' title teams were, of course, built by Gillick, whose acquisitions of Lidge, Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton, Matt Stairs, Jayson Werth, and Greg Dobbs helped put the Phillies over the top.
Over the next week, The Inquirer will take a look at some of the teams that have repeated as World Series champions and examine how the Phillies compare.
In a wide-open and competitive NL, the Phillies are well-positioned to contend the next few years.
The team's nucleus features five elite players (Lidge, Howard, Utley, Rollins, and Cole Hamels) and a strong supporting cast that can - and has - won. What's more, this talent is in its prime years. The team is no longer young and promising. It is experienced and proven.
Phillies officials believe the team can win another title in the next three seasons. That much became clear when the team signed Howard to a three-year, $54 million deal in February. The contract bought out Howard's remaining salary arbitration years. He can become a free agent after the 2011 season, when he will be 32. There's a chance the Phils will look for a younger, cheaper alternative at first base when Howard's contract is up. Lidge's deal also runs through 2011, though there is a club option for 2012. Utley and Rollins will both turn 33 after the 2011 season.
In short, there's no telling what the Phils will look like after 2011. Clearly, the team will be in a go-for-it mode these next three seasons. It has to be. The talent is there, but the meter is running. Guys are getting older. The payroll is going up, and at some point it figures to level off.
While Manuel acknowledges a three-year title window, he is focused on 2009. The club won 92 games last season - hardly an eye-popping total - but got hot at all the right times. The Phils won the NL East with a 13-3 finish and the World Series with an 11-3 postseason.
"It's a long season, and you have to play with consistency," Manuel said. "We had that consistency the last five weeks of last season. We have to do that from the beginning. We've got to play better. People will be coming at us differently. But I think we can do it. The guys want to do it."
Manuel believes these Phillies can do more offensively. They were tied for second in the NL with 799 runs last year, and that was with Utley (hip) hurting all season, Rollins and Howard starting slowly, and the departed Pat Burrell slumping in the second half. Raul Ibanez takes over for Burrell and is expected to bring more consistency to a team that ranked 10th in the NL with a .255 team batting average.
"If we can match our pitching at the end of the season, we'll be in business because I think our hitting will be better," Manuel said. "We didn't have a .300 hitter last season and that [ticks] me off. I think we have five or six guys capable of hitting .300. We can improve."
Pitching was the consistent strength of the 2008 Phillies, who had the fourth-best overall ERA (3.89) in the NL and best bullpen ERA (3.22). While Manuel hopes to match that, Larry Andersen, the team's former reliever, current broadcaster, and keen observer of the pitching staff, believes it can do more.
"Health is the key anytime, anywhere," Andersen said. "Given good health, I don't see the staff being as good as it was last year - I see it being better.
"You hear a lot about the nucleus of the lineup, but the nucleus of the pitching staff is more important than the nucleus of the lineup. From what I see in spring training, the pitching is better."
Blanton showing confidence
Andersen loves Hamels and Lidge, but who doesn't? Andersen likes the way Joe Blanton has thrown this spring. The righthander looks confident and comfortable beginning his first full season with the club. Andersen also believes Brett Myers is ready for a strong season.
"It's his free-agent year and, right or wrong, that has a tendency to give guys more incentive," Andersen said. "Some guys feel pressure in a free-agent year, but I think Brett is the type who will use it to push himself.
"To me, you judge a pitching staff by its weakest link. No disrespect, but Clay Condrey pitched well last season and developed a lot of confidence, and I know Charlie developed a lot of confidence in him. And you still have Lidge, [Ryan] Madson, [J.C.] Romero, and [Chad] Durbin in the bullpen . . .
"There's a lot to like about this staff - top to bottom."
A week before the season opener, there's a lot to like about this entire team.
Little Red Machine?
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