'70s Phils answered Cash's call: 'Yes, we can!'

Posted: April 02, 2007

Jimmy Rollins probably didn't mean to do so, but when the shortstop proclaimed his 2007 Phillies "the team to beat in the NL East," he had channeled Dave Cash.

Like Rollins, Cash was a leadoff-hitting Phillies infielder who'd rather talk than walk. In 1974, after the decade-long hangover created by 1964's monumental stagger, it was the newly arrived Cash who gave voice to a growing excitement about those young, talented Phillies.

"Yes, we can!" Cash shouted after a May 25 doubleheader sweep of Montreal.

And while "No, they wouldn't" for another six years, Cash's catchphrase became the mantra for a collection of players seeking faith in themselves and a city just as desperate to believe in them.

Now, more than three decades later, that excited buzz is back. As the 2007 season dawns, Philadelphia's ephemeral baseball interest - whetted by the talents of Rollins, Chase Utley and NL MVP Ryan Howard - has reawakened.

Season-ticket sales are up. Negative expectations are down. Long-suffering Philadelphians are again wearing Phillies caps instead of hair shirts.

As fans, both casual and intense, look toward this season, they see - or want to see - another mid-1970s dynasty emerging. In their minds, these Phillies are, if not yet the equal of their 1976 or 1977 counterparts, at least as promising as the 1974 and 1975 teams.

"It's true, there are a lot of similarities," said Larry Christenson, a Phillies pitcher from 1973 through 1983. "This team has a lot of guys from the farm system, a lot of great potential. But the only way they're going to live up to it is by winning."

The resemblance between the 2007 Phils and 1974-75 extends beyond Cash and Rollins.

Both had nuclei honed in the farm system (Larry Bowa, Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Bob Boone; Rollins, Howard, Utley, Cole Hamels).

Both had Hall of Fame-caliber power hitters who were emerging stars (Schmidt, Howard).

Both had lanky, stylish and enigmatic lefthanders (Steve Carlton and Hamels).

Both had double-play combinations - Cash-Bowa and Utley-Rollins - as colorful as they were popular.

And both had laconic, frequently tongue-tied managers (Danny Ozark, Charlie Manuel) who many believed were McCarthy-like - that's Charlie, not Joe.

While the 1974-75 seasons, in which the Phils drew record crowds of 1.8 million and 1.9 million, respectively, didn't produce a World Series win, they helped create an atmosphere of hope.

Twenty games under .500 and last in 1973, the '74 Phils improved to 80-82 and third place. (The day they were officially eliminated, Ozark infamously said, "We're not out of it yet." Informed they were, the manager replied, "That's news to me.")

They would add six wins the next year, before the breakthrough in 1976, when the Phils won a franchise-record 101 games and the first of four division titles in five years.

"I can see quite a few similarities," said Frank Bilovsky, a retired sportswriter who covered the mid-1970s Phillies for the Evening Bulletin. ". . . But I can also see some major differences. And the biggest is that this team doesn't have the Pope [Paul Owens]. Pat Gillick is a fine GM, but he hasn't shown he can make those great moves the Pope seemed to make every year."

Owens liked to add a piece or two a year to his nucleus. In 1974, he got Cash from Pittsburgh, hoping the loquacious second baseman would negate the team's youthful uncertainty.

"It was a team that needed confidence," recalled Cash. "Mike Schmidt [in just his second full season] doubted himself. He worried about how the fans were going to react to him. I spent a lot of time trying to convince him to block them out."

Schmidt responded with a breakout season - .282, 36 HRs, 116 RBIs.

Still, for all their abilities, those Phillies had to learn to tame their individual demons and become a team. They were an odd mix of the icily aloof (Carlton), the phlegmatic (Luzinski), the maddeningly analytical (Schmidt), the downright nasty (Ron Reed) and the neurotically intense (Bowa).

"You'd walk into that clubhouse every day and Bowa would be sitting there chewing on his nails or his bat just waiting to rip you or needle you about what you were wearing or what you'd said in the paper," said Christenson. "We had a lot of crazy characters on that team. But when we started to win consistently, all that didn't matter. We became a team."

Those Phillies were, for the most part, a bunch of working stiffs who not only played together but socialized off the field.

"I just saw Yogi Berra in Clearwater and he said, 'These guys just don't have as much fun as we did,' " Christenson noted. "And he's right. That's what this team has to do. . . . It's great that they've got all this talent and that so many came up through the system, but they have to evolve. They have to put aside all the concerns about salaries, agents and individual statistics and come together."

Philadelphia's title-starved fans are counting on it.

The excitement 1974 engendered lasted a decade. The team's nucleus was still intact when the world championship finally came, in 1980.

The window isn't open so wide in 2007.

"The shelf life is a little shorter [today] because of the current economics," said Phillies broadcaster Chris Wheeler. "When those guys came up in the '70s, you realistically thought you might have 10 years to win with them. Now you need to win a little faster because it's tough to pay all of them in their prime."

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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