After three straight frustrating playoff losses, the Philadelphia Phillies went into the 1979 season with high hopes of changing the formula. They did come up with a different ending, too, but it was hardly the one they had envisioned. Instead of finally earning that long-denied World Series trip, they didn't even come close to making the playoffs.
Even the adoring fans who have poured into Veterans Stadium in record numbers the last four seasons turned against their heroes as they struggled home a badly beaten fourth. The news media, too, became hostile. And the players reacted to all this by performing more and more indifferently as it became obvious their chances were slipping away.
Was the lost season a fluke? Were there too many injuries for even Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Pete Rose, and the rest of those superstars to overcome? Or has this theam's reputation been unduly inflated by a combination of front office enthusiasm, media hype, fan expectations, and player overconfidence?
We'll find out during the current season, because if ever the old slogan applied to any team, "This is next year" for the Phillies. They have a new manager in Dallas Green, a 6 ft. 5 in., 230-pound former pitcher and minor league manager with a "tough guy" reputation, but otherwise it is basically the same cast being given one more chance to prove itself on the field, not just in its press clippings.
"After a while, the frustrations of the injuries and of losing caught up with us last year," says Green. "It got to the point where it affected us mentally. The fans and the media got negative, and the reaction of the players just wasn't good. They more or less said, 'This year's over, we'll get 'em in 1980.'
"People say, 'You're pros; you should be able to handle situations like that, ' -- and they're right, to a degree. But we all like to hear the cheers and plaudits. It can affect a team when the fans go against it, and it affected this one.They didn't execute or play well, and they couldn't seem to come out of it. I think that's why Paul [General Manager Paul Owens] and Ruly [club president Ruly Carpenter] decided to make a change."
The change consisted of firing the easygoing Danny Ozark; persuading Green, Director of the team's minor league operations, to step into the breach for the last month; then talking him into staying on this year in hopes of getting the team straightened out. Aside from that, it's been pretty much a standpat operation -- no major trades of free-agent signings, but rather a quiet vote of confidence in the basic talent of a team whose playoff failures tend to obscure the fact that over the last four reasons it has won more division championships (National League East titles in 1976, '77 and '78) and more games (376) than any other club in the league.
"My job in the last 30 days of the '79 season was to find out if these guys still wanted to play for Philadelphia and to win. And my judgment was that down deep they really care -- they really want to win for our fans. So Paul, Ruly, and I decided to give this team one more year. We feel they deserved to stay together another year to see if they're as good as we think they are -- as they think they are.
"That's what I'm here for. I'm not on any ego trip, and I certainly don't intend for this to be my career. I've spent the last 10 years in the executive level, and I feel that's where my career is. But after talking to Paul, I agreed that maybe I am the best guy for this job right now. I've been in the game 25 years, mostly with this organization. I know most of the players; I know the minor league system; I know how Paul and Ruly think. I haven't done too much managing, but I have good baseball men around me to help in that part.
"I like it -- more than I expected to, actually," he added. "And I think we'll get the job done. As for how long I might stay, I'm taking it one year at a time. I'm here to help these guys do what they say they want to do -- win the world championship for Philadelphia."
That's something, by the way, that no Phillies team has ever done (they've only won two pennants in their history, the last one in 1950). So far the 1980 start hasn't been too auspicious, either, with the team struggling around the . 500 mark, just as it did much of last year. But it's early yet, of course, and there are already some hopeful signs.
A slimmed-down Luzinski looks like his old slugging self after an off-year in 1979, and already has seven home runs. Greg was leading the league, in fact, until Schmidt blasted a pair against Atlanta Monday night to take over the top spot with eight, and both also rank well up there in RBIs. Another hopeful sign is that the team is scoring plenty of runs, even though some other key hitters are off to very slow starts (Garry Maddox in the .230s, Larry Bowa in the .220s, and Rose down close to .200), making one wonder how much more awesome the lineup will appear when these three hit their strides.
Pitching, however, continues to be a problem -- as it was last year. Steve Carlton (5-1) is rolling along as usual, but the others have been ineffective. The names are there, though (starters Larry Christenson, Dick Ruthven, Randy Lerch, and Nino Espinosa, plus relievers Tug McGraw and Ron Reed), and over the long haul this group looks good enough to win with the kind of hitting and defense its teammates usually provide.
Furthermore, Green doesn't expect as many bad breaks as the team got last year.
"In my 25 years in baseball, I've never seen a club as riddled with major injuries as the Phillies were in 1979," he said.
And if there is adversity -- either through injuries or otherwise?
"I think we're in a better frame of mind this year," he said. "Even if we do get a setback or two, I think we can pull out of it better. I know we're in better physical condition, and I hope we have a better attitude.
"When adversity does come," he added, "it's up to me to be sure it doesn't affect the entire club. It's going to affect the individual, whether it's an off-year, an injury, or a big disappointment. The thing is not to let it permeate the entire clubhouse. That's my job."