Bill Conlin | An old adage: Don't count on Phillies

Posted: April 02, 2007

TO A KID baseball fan growing up in Brooklyn with the biggest, baddest war of them all raging, the 1940s were a decade of slogans.

We were exhorted to "Remember Pearl Harbor,'' to "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.'' We watched what we said because "Loose Lips Sink Ships.'' In every public place a fierce old man dressed in red, white and blue with a goatee and stovepipe hat pointed directly at us all from a poster that proclaimed: "Uncle Sam Wants You!''

We were ordered to "Buy War Bonds'' and to save or conserve a variety of common household items, including tin cans, tin foil (aluminum foil was not yet invented), paper bags, anything else that could be made into war material. Oh, and to turn in our copper pennies.

But one slogan trumped all in the Dodgers-crazy borough of Brooklyn. And it was still going strong well into the 1950s. In fact, starting in September of 1941, when the Dodgers lost the first of six World Series to the hated Yankees, the slogan became an anthem and, finally, a plaintive entreaty:

"Wait 'Til Next Year!''

The Dodgers were a solid, well-funded and savvy franchise by 1941, of course. They were no longer the not-so-beloved Bums who dueled the Phillies for the National League cellar so many years. In the 16 seasons before their breakthrough World Series victory in 1955 - thank you, Johnny Podres - and their shattering 1958 move to Los Angeles, the Dodgers had just one losing year. But as they extended that string of World Series futility, each spring engendered emotions and anticipation that approached religious fervor. When Podres shut out the Yankees, 2-0, in Game 7, grown men knelt in the streets and wept, thousands poured from their mean tenement apartments in impromptu celebration. In some neighborhoods, it topped V-E and V-J Days.

Like the best dining and sex, anticipation in baseball might be the best part of the event because the buildup lasts so much longer than the main course.

So, what is it Phillies fans are feeling on another Opening Day? Is it a sense of, "Win Phillies Win,'' the 1964 Daily News slogan? Or is it another season of "When Phillies When?''

The time was never riper. The Sixers and Flyers seasons have left the taste you get after a night of washing down Limburger cheese and day-old lox with stale beer. In Eagles Land, the names Andy, Jeff and Donovan generate more frowns than smiles.

And Jimmy Rollins assures us the Phillies are the "team to beat'' in the National East, bold words that fill us with either the elation of an unexpected gift from the baseball gods or the dread of a rube who has just been offered the chance to buy options in Enron stock all over again.

We have been bitten more often than a cheap carnival snake charmer. But we are veterans in the terror and exhilaration of falls from high places.

The day in April 1966 I took over the Phillies beat from new columnist Stan Hochman, veteran Evening Bulletin beat man Ray Kelly approached me at the batting cage. "How lucky can you get, big boy [Kel's nickname for just about everybody]? I've been covering lousy A's and Phillies team more than 20 years and you luck into covering a favorite as a rookie.''

General manager John Quinn and manager Gene Mauch had taken the best of the failed '64 Phillies - Dick Allen, Johnny Callison, Jim Bunning, Chris Short, Rick Wise, Johnny Briggs, Tony Taylor, Cookie Rojas, Tony Gonzalez - and added quality and depth. Based on the addition of veteran shortstop Dick Groat and top-rung first baseman Bill White, Sports Illustrated picked "The New Phillies'' to win the NL pennant. Groat graced the cover of SI's baseball issue. While Dick didn't look finished in the two cover pictures, he was cooked. Mauch panicked early when he was unable to find a No. 4 starter to back 20-game winner Short, 19 game-winner Bunning or 15-game winner Larry Jackson. Nor could he find a reliever to consistently finish games in an era when the complete game was still king. Lefty Darold Knowles led with 13 saves. The rest of the bullpen produced just 10.

Looking back at the box scores from that season, Mauch appeared to be picking his lineup from a hat many days. The Phils finished fourth in a 10-team league, eight games behind the Dodgers.

The 1964 Phillies had snuck up on everybody. They were a solid third or fourth pick going into what I consider the strongest NL of all time. Nobody thought they would jump out to a big lead and still hold 6 1/2 games of it with just 12 to play. The 1993 Phillies were coming off a dead-last finish for Jim Fregosi. Playing .500 would have been overachieving for those dead-enders. Surprise, surprise . . . Fregosi's stealth bombers streaked to the easiest of the franchise's five pennants, winning 97 games.

There was big buzz before the '76 Phillies season. The '75 club had contended into September. When the season began, the Flyers were two-time defending champions. The Sixers were good again and the Eagles had just hired Dick Vermeil. The Phillies were loaded - Schmidt, Bowa, Luzinski, Allen (Crash was back), Cash, Maddox, Boone, Carlton, Christenson, Tolan, a deep bench and bullpen. They won 101 games and probably should have won 105. Then they ran into The Big Red Machine, a Cincinnati team that was one of the best of all time, and were swept in the best-of-five NLCS.

The Phils won 101 more in 1977 but all the euphoria and pent-up joy rushed out of town with the speed of a tsunami wave after the 10-Minute Collapse. With a 5-3 lead on the Dodgers and one out needed to go up 2-1 in the NLCS with Carlton pitching Game 4, the Phillies imploded. I still get weak-kneed and nauseous remembering the nightmare sequence of the Dodgers scoring three runs in an Academy Award-level comedy of errors and omissions. The most egregious was defensive outfield whiz Jerry Martin spectating from the bench while The Bull trundled to left for a close encounter of the two-out kind, Manny Mota's catchchable, flyball to the warning track.

I asked ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, a veteran Phillies watcher, which upcoming season filled him with the most hope. We agreed: 1981, coming off the franchise's one world title. The 1979 Pete Rose acquisition had raised the hope and hype to the levels of an HGH cheater's testosterone. When two-thirds of Danny Ozark's rotation blew out in July, however, an era appeared to be whining to an end. The 1980 season was going to be the last chance everybody - even underachieving baseball teams - deserves. Even Bowa underscored the absence of enthusiasm after emerging from a fiery Dallas Green first day of spring training peroration and growling, "Where are the bleeping pompom girls?''

"The 1981 season for me,'' Jayson said. "The Phillies were the best team in baseball going into the strike.''

The strike lasted 50 days, but might as well have been 50 years. The Phillies went into the second half of Green's

detested "split-fluffing-season'' flatter than Iowa. An inferior Expos team handled them easily in the mini division series.

So here we are once again, ready to slobber all over a team that treated spring training with either indifference or disdain, maybe both.

Will the slogan be "Win Phillies Win!?"

Or just another weary chant of "When Phillies When?'' *

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com. For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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