Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Few Oddities About My Childhood Baseball Team

The team referenced would be the Philadelphia Phillies, particularly the years from 1979-83, when I was age nine to thirteen, and followed the sport most intently.

In 1979, the Phillies signed a soon to be 38 year old Pete Rose to a 5-year, 4 million dollar contract (a huge number at the time). This goes against every tenet of sound modern baseball analytics, according to which Pete Rose even in his prime probably would not be regarded as a superstar player. Yet looking back 35 years later, with all of the sober maturity and wisdom that developments in understanding baseball statistics have brought us, I still regard that signing as a great triumph, for the first two years alone. In '79 he was still the same Pete Rose he had been in Cincinnati for the previous 15 years--162 games played, .331 average (2nd in the league), 208 hits. In '80 his numbers slipped some, but the Phillies won their first ever World Series, which is what he had been primarily signed for in the first place, and as somebody who followed nearly every game that season I don't believe they would have accomplished that without Pete Rose. I have expanded more on this below. '81 was the strike year, and as such kind of a waste of time, but Rose still hit .325 and finished 2nd in the batting race at age 40. In '82 he began to drift towards mediocrity, but was still a plausible everyday player. It was only in the last year of the contract that the fans began to perceive that he might be a liability, and the team managed to win the pennant anyway.

While a lot has been written over the years about what an awful person Pete Rose is in addition to details of his crimes and sleaziness and moral offenses, I have always retained my affection for him as a ball player. I have no doubt that he has never cared much about other people's feelings or dignity, but as with a lot of successful people, I'm sure he would consider that those things are not his department. If you can't uphold your dignity on your own, better lie low in life and don't try to run with the big dogs, that sort of thing. I may well have hated him if my 9-13 year old window had coincided with his glory days with the Reds (as it was, I hated Gary Carter and Steve Garvey above all other players in this 1979-83 era, though I have had the satisfaction of seeing Garvey, aside from all the ridicule he later endured for impregnating too many women while still married, which I don't care about, have his regard as a great player thoroughly squashed by modern analysis). As a player on your team, Rose was very exciting, because he was a star with credibility, and he made every game feel like it was an important event because he was in it.* He also always made me feel like if the Phillies lost or failed it at least would not be because he was not inherently a choker or loser, as had been demonstrated over his long career with Cincinnati.

*(I say a star with credibility because he was regarded as such, or seemed to be, by the national media, even though the Phillies at the time he joined the team had two established superstars in the midst of Hall of Fame careers. Mike Schmidt had probably already been the best player, or in the top three anyway, in the National League for 4 or 5 years going into the 1979 season, but no one in the national media, and especially in the Philadelphia media, seemed to know this, at least that I could pick up on, the dominant narrative surrounding the team then being how they kept losing in the playoffs (and then finishing a dismal 4th in '79). Steve Carlton, the ace pitcher, who we will discuss later on, was generally acknowledged to be really good (though seemingly not as good as Tom Seaver or Catfish Hunter or other pitchers from more glamorous franchises), but he was a weirdo, and there seemed to be skepticism both in Philadelphia and around the league as to whether he could deliver in a playoff or World Series setting).        

I Never Heard My Baseball Team's Ace Pitcher During the Entirety of My Childhood Speak One Single Time. When one considers the current media environment and oversaturation of sports coverage, this is almost amazing, but it is true. Steve Carlton stopped doing interviews and talking to the press in 1974, well before my time, and he never went back on this while he was with the Phillies (later on some stories came out about him in which he revealed himself to be one of these paranoid people who built his house in an underground bunker and openly admits to believing that the world is controlled by a small clique of Jewish bankers, but this is irrelevant to my posting here). Of course every game was not on television in those days. Home games were only on on Sundays, and usually one game in each road series would be left off also. I listened to a lot of the games that weren't televised on the radio however, and through all of those years, the voice of by far the best pitcher on the team, and by that point in the entire league, was never heard, and by the late 70s it was so accepted that no one talked about it much anymore.

This Phillies at this time by the way had one of the all time great broadcasting teams, Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn, who had been a star for the team during the 50s and would later be elected to the Hall of Fame. Both of these guys were still working when they suddenly died in the middle of the season, Ashburn around 1997 and Kalas in 2009. By all accounts the team has never been able to adequately replace them. In fact, the last time I was in Philadelphia during the baseball season, which was a couple of years ago, there was a big story in the paper about how especially with the team declining, following the games on radio or TV for all the fans who grew up on Kalas and Ashburn was almost brutal. At that time, they had three former players calling games on TV, at least two of whom struck me as being decidedly of the meathead type. (Ashburn, though an ex-jock, always exuded a relaxed, mature persona, I would say grandfatherly, because he actually talked a lot like my grandfather, who was also from the midwest and was about the same age, etc).

Back in the 70s Especially Teams Used to Keep Older Players on the Roster Who Were Most Notable For Being Clowns, or Friends of the Manager, or Whatnot. This has almost completely gone away due to costs and the emphasis/importance on always building for the future in all areas. No one has 38 year old bench players around anymore, though this used to be common, perhaps especially in the National League, where you usually need a pinch hitter at least once a game. Among the many ancient players long past their days as regulars who put on uniforms for the Phillies in this era were Jay Johnstone, Tim McCarver (Steve Carlton's personal catcher), Del Unser, Jose Cardenal and Tony Perez (Joe Morgan also joined the team at age 41 but he started at second base, with the 42 year old Rose as the other regular on the right side of the infield. That team still won the pennant). Tommy Lasorda and the Dodgers also always had guys of this ilk: Manny Mota, Mickey Hatcher, Rick Dempsey, who hit .179 and .195 at age 39 and 40, though I suppose he was still a serviceable catcher. Johnstone went and played for Lasorda after leaving the Phillies. The Mets had Rusty Staub, who had been good in the early 70s, but by the time I came along was an exceptionally fat and almost immobile pinch hitter (who could admittedly still work a walk).

I've got other topics I could bring up, but I'll save them for another occasion. A few clips on parting. First, Harry and Richie get warmed up for the decisive Game 5 against Houston in the 1980 NL Playoffs:

This is from the Chicago network, but these are highlights from the famous 23-22 game the Phillies won at Wrigley Field in May of '79. That's my team out there in about its purest state.


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