THEY WERE OLD. So many guys in their 40s. Old baseball guys creak when they run and they run a step slower. They make a whistling, tea-kettle sound when they go first to third or second to home.
Wheeze Kids, that's what I nicknamed that 1983 Phillies team, and it stuck. A spinoff of Whiz Kids, the nickname for that swaggering, young Phillies bunch that won the pennant in 1950, only to get swept by the Yankees in the World Series. Throw enough mud at the wall and some of it sticks.
(Let the record show that I mocked the tightwad Eagles owner as Bottom Line Braman, and that stuck too, even after the sheepish PR guy begged me to cease and desist.)
The Phillies had won it all in 1980 with Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa and Greg Luzinski leading the way, home-grown, up-from-the-farm, survivors. The fans embraced that team, impatience transformed into pride.
By 1983, Luzinski had been swapped to the White Sox. Bowa had been shuttled to the Cubs, along with Ryne Sandberg for Ivan DeJesus. Schmidt remained, turning 34 by the time the playoffs arrived, but still capable of cranking out 40 homers and driving in 109 runs.
The fans were wary. And when the team wobbled out of the starting gate, the fans got warier. Attendance was down, skepticism up. Sure, they loved Pete Rose because of what he had contributed in '80, but he was 42 now and hitting a puny .245.
They had brought Joe Morgan and Tony Perez here, too, vital cogs in Cincy's Big Red Machine that stomped the opposition on the way to championships. But Morgan turned 40 that September and Perez was 41 in May, and nostalgia goes only so far in Philly.
Morgan was already a patch in the crazy-quilt history of the Phillies. As a rookie in Houston, he got a game-winning hit against Gene Mauch's 1963 squad. Mauch went berserk in the clubhouse, scattering the league's best postgame spread.
"You got beat by a guy who looks like a Little Leaguer," Mauch screamed, scattering watermelon everywhere, staining the clothes in Tony Gonzalez' and Wes Covington's lockers.
Mauch paid for new suits. Morgan wound up in the Hall of Fame.
Slow start in '83, skimpy crowds, bingo, the Phillies fired manager Pat Corrales. Fired the manager with the team in first place in July. You could look it up!
Cajoled general manager Paul Owens, who was 59, into going back into the clubhouse once again. This was a tougher task, a geezer managing an aging team he had patched together for one final run at glory.
He had some strong pieces and they came through for him. He had traded for the volatile pitcher John Denny the year before. Million-dollar arm, 10-cent head. Somehow Owens got him to channel his hostility on the days he pitched. Went 19-6, won the Cy Young Award. Won few friends.
He had Al Holland anchoring the bullpen. Mr. T, they called him because of a resemblance to the television character draped in bling. And he still had 38-year-old Steve Carlton, leading the league in strikeouts, even though he finished 15-16.
Somehow, some way, Owens spurred them through an incredible September. They went 22-7 and won the division by six games. Drew the Dodgers in the playoffs. In 12 meetings that year, the Dodgers had won 11 times.
The Wheeze Kids had worked up a head of steam. They surprised the world, and the oddsmakers, beating the Dodgers in four games. Now they faced the pitcher-rich Orioles in the World Series. Won the opener, and that's the day the hitting and the music died.
Schmidt went 1-for-20, which didn't help the sales of a kids' book I had written about the best third baseman ever to play the game.
And then, first home game of the Series, Owens benched Rose, the all-time hit king, the sure-thing Hall of Famer. Said he wasn't happy with his offense. The move took guts. Owens had enough for three guys.
Rose sprawled there, second step of the dugout, elbows on the top step, flicking pebbles with his thumb the way kids shoot marbles. Thirty years later and the image remains. Rose sprawled on the dugout steps, flicking pebbles, one final premeditated photo op in that strange season.
Rose, the all-time hit leader, has never made it to the Hall of Fame, never made it off the suspended list for gambling on baseball. Yo, 1983, wasn't that the year they yanked the pay phone off the corridor wall, the one 50 feet from the clubhouse door, the door with the sign warning about betting on baseball? Just asking.