BASEBALL TEAMS must be built for the long slog of a season that covers summer like a tarpaulin, opening in the damp and chill of late spring and not ending until autumn has announced its presence. It is a daily drama that unfolds slowly. That's why the ability to grind it out is more valued than sporadic flash and sizzle.
Logically, then, it follows that the best Phillies team ever must have been either the 1976 or 1977 clubs, the only ones in franchise history to win 101 games. Except that neither assemblage made it to the World Series. The former was swept by Cincinnati in the National League Championship Series, the latter was dismissed by the Dodgers in a morality play featuring Black Friday, Davey Lopes barely beating Larry Bowa's throw to first (or not, depending on your perspective), hooting Burt Hooton off the mound and a clinching game played in a steady downpour.
Success also can be defined by the bottom line. So the 1915, 1950, 1980, 1983, 1993, 2008 and 2009 teams might have been the best. Ultimately, though, only the '80 and '08 versions won it all, which narrows the discussion considerably.
Look, in the end, this is all unscientific conjecture, an amusing diversion, a decent enough debate over a couple of frosty brews. As much as we all like to make declarations about the Biggest! and the Best! and the Most Amazing! whatever, it's all just opinion. As such, there is no right or wrong answer.
So let's just throw this out there: Now that the 2010 Phillies made mincemeat of the Reds in the NLDS, while they go back into the shop for a quick tuneup while waiting for the NLCS to get started Saturday night against the Giants at The Bank, it's not a stretch to suggest that this just might be the best squad in the 128-year history of a franchise that also has operated at various points as the Blue Jays and Quakers.
Some talking points: Among the regulars, only catcher Carlos Ruiz hasn't made an All-Star team. And he was the only starter to hit over .300 this year and was probably their most valuable position player.
The top three starting pitchers and the closer are former All-Stars as well.
The 1980 Phillies had a pair of future Hall of Famers: Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. The '83 Wheeze Kids had them plus Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, but the two former members of the Big Red Machine were at the end of their careers by that point.
First baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins are widely recognized as the best at their positions ever to wear a Phillies uniform. If Cole Hamels isn't already the best lefthander the organization has developed, he's close. It remains to be seen how many from this bunch end up with plaques in Cooperstown.
They won 97 games. And if that's four behind the historical high-water mark, the .599 winning percentage is also tied for fourth best. If you're into grading on a curve, they also accomplished this in a season in which they were hammered by injuries.
What really sets this team apart, though, is the way they've kicked it into gear when they needed to. Since being swept at home by the Astros Aug. 23-26, they've gone 30-8, including sweeping the Reds in the playoffs.
So is this the best Phillies team ever?
Not yet. They're in the red zone, but they still have to cross the goal line.
All the reasons listed above would just make it that much more disappointing if it all goes kablooey before this year's team adds a third championship trophy to the display case. The best team doesn't always win. But to be considered the best, you have to take the big enchilada.
And that's not a given. Past isn't always prologue, but here's an interesting historical trend that the Phillies will be going against: Previously, there have been 15 National League Division Series sweeps.
Only three times has the team that advanced gone on to reach the World Series and twice - in 1996 and 1997 - it had to happen because both winners eliminated their opponent in three games. Only once has a team that swept in the NLDS won the world championship: Florida in '97.
So as good as this team is, as well as Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt have been pitching lately, as invincible as Brad Lidge has been since the beginning of August, as formidable as their lineup appears on paper, they still have to go out and play up to their ability and win.
And, if they complete just two more tasks, we can all say we've just witnessed the best Phillies team ever. *
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