The Phillies as the Nouveau Riche of Baseball

So who are the current Philadelphia Phillies, who hold the paradox of marking their 10,000th loss (making them the biggest losers in sports history) during the same era in which they have appeared in two consecutive World Series?

Listen to their manager, Charlie Manuel – the Walter Brennan of Baseball – and you might conclude that they are lottery winners of sorts.  The nouveau riche who come into a pile of money they haven’t really earned.  We all know what usually happens to big time lottery winners: they squander their assets and wind up in the poor house, unable or unwilling to listen to good investment advice.

That was the message that Charlie, who has been around the game for awhile, was trying to send his team when he was interviewed after the club was swept by the resurgent Atlanta Braves this week:

“Now, if you get complacent, and you get satisfied because you got a big deal or you make more money and you know that you’re set … Or if you’re a bench player and you come over here and you get a two- or a three-year deal or something like that and you feel good about yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that, but at the same time, we still want those people to have the same drive they’ve always had.  I see a whole lot of cockiness, big-headedness and complacency. It’s an every-day process to be good. You don’t take it easy or you slip.”

I don’t know about you, but sports as a metaphor for life has always appealed to me, and Charlie seems to be delivering an important message here.  It’s an every-day process to be good. You don’t take it easy or you slip. Now you’d think that to ballplayers at the major league level, that would be obvious.  You don’t water the plants, they die.  You don’t put in the sweat equity outside the lines, and you won’t perform inside the lines the way you’re capapable of.  But evidently that isn’t obvious to some of these Phillies players.

This isn’t the first time such notions have surfaced in the Phillies clubhouse this century.  Larry Bowa, the volatile manager of the club at century’s turn, called out the middle of his lineup for complacency. There were rumors that Scott Rolen, the Eric Lindross and Donovan McNabb of his day, on the brink of elite athlete status but shunning a leadership role, was not a role model of putting time in before or between games, as much as he was able to to throw his body around on the field during the game.  Ironically, Rolen is now considered a quiet leader in the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse.  Perhaps with maturity comes the realization that one’s elders were right about some things after all.

You wouldn’t think that the Phils would need Charlie’s public pep talk about complacency, because at the top of their heap resides the icon of anti-complacency in Roy Halladay.  The guy is reportedly a between games preparation machine.  How can a clubhouse witness a guy who has earned his riches so well, yet be complacent that the season is long enough for them to catch lightning in a bottle at year’s end?

Well, why not?  After all, the team has come back from the brink of death in April several times in recent years to catch the resting-on-their-laurels NY Mets, haven’t they?  Charlie’s point is that this team can’t afford to be complacent.   Not in the town of Philadelphia.  We Philly fans are legendary.  Forget about that pelting Santa Claus with snowballs crap.  I’ve been in Yankee Stadium and Shea surrounded by goons who make Philly fans look suave, so spare me the caricatures.  What Philly fans want from their players is precisely what Charlie Manuel wants from his players.  Let your lousy performance motivate you to put more time in.  Let it visibly concern you.

We don’t celebrate a sulking Rolen.  We don’t idolize a happy-go-lucky Abreu.  We even had trouble with the aloof Michael Jack, as well as he produced between the lines.  We want team players who give it their all.  We want leaders in the clubhouse who hold others accountable.  In 1980 the Phils won the World Series, the gelling of a young homegrown club seasoned with key acquisitions.  That was the expectation for the 2008 club.  And it looked last year like we might build one of those rare dynastic experiences in Philly.

So who are the current Phillies?  Have we just hit a little bump on the road, as the players suggest, and we’ll be fine because it’s a long season and we’ll statistically progress to the mean of greatness that we are?  Or, are we the Phat Cats that Charlie sees in the clubhouse, who’ll limp to the Phinish Line like the Wheez Kids of 1983, never to be heard from again?

Well, Yogi, that’s why they play the games.

3 Responses to The Phillies as the Nouveau Riche of Baseball

  1. Daniel Wohlgelernter says:

    outstanding piece, Len. Excellent point about Halladay as a role model not impacting the position players on the team (though I think other pitchers, e.g., Kendrick, have benefited greatly from observing and integrating Doc’s work ethic). Is it possible that Ryan Howard will never learn how to hit a left-hander’s breaking and offspeed pitches ? Why isn’t he working out night and day with hitting coach Milt T. on this ? Is Jayson Werth playing scared now; worried that he will lose his opportunity at the huge contract ? Is Chase Utley’s hip affecting his swing (certainly seems so ) ?

  2. Points well made, Dan. The answer is, Ryan Howard will keep getting a steady diet of off-speed pitches, particularly from lefties, until he learns to hit them. He seems surprised by the fastball when he gets one, so pitchers now have him guessing both ways. I can’t imagine what advice Barry Bonds gave Ryan over the winter, but it sure wasn’t about being selective at the plate. The gift Bonds had, steroids aside, was his eye. He knew pitchers were pitching around him, so he didn’t give any swings away. And when the pitcher felt like he could catch Bonds with a strike, boom! Howard, on the other hand, bails the pitcher out. I’m sure Milt has pointed this out to him; but none of this matters until Ryan is able to take the advice to heart.

    Regarding Utley’s hip, we won’t know until he goes on the DL, or needs a “procedure” over the winter. Utley is that mixed blessing of a macho player who won’t admit he’s hurt, even if his bat is killing us in the #3 spot right now. With his swing, he puts an incredible amount of torque on his hips. It’s just a matter of time until he wears down, and I presumed it would happen a bit earlier each year, but if it’s happening this early — big trouble. He still seems mobile enough in the field, but all the torque isn’t on his hips out there.

    Werth and Ibanez both have a terrible habit of their heads and body flying in different directions when they’re not swinging well. Heck, you and I lost our shot at the majors because we never learned to keep our heads on the ball. If the Phils continue their offensive funk, I’d hate to see Milt be the fall guy. It really isn’t his fault, and Charlie’s message was that it’s the players themselves who have to be accountable. For gosh sakes – Charlie’s supposed to be a hitting guru. So firing Milt would just be a move for the sake of making a move.

    • Ezra Wohlgelernter says:

      Well it seems you and Dan are both correct, but a weekend series with San Diego (the best record in baseball) and 2/2 wins may just be the medicine the doctor ordered. Regarding Utley’s hip, if it is bothering him the incredible defensive play he made last night made my hip hurt just watching him pivot perfectly without a grimace. I think time will heal most slumps, but your review of Ryan’s deficiencies makes me think of two words “buyer’s remorse”.
      I can’t see paying someone 125 million bucks who can’t hit left handed off speed pitches. Len, say it ain’t so!!

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