Phillies' bumpy road to a third straight pennant

Ryan Howard, left, and Chase Utley, right, are not asvocal as the absent Jimmy Rollins, center.
Ryan Howard, left, and Chase Utley, right, are not asvocal as the absent Jimmy Rollins, center.
Posted: June 20, 2010

As the Phillies swaggered onto the Nationals Park grass for the start of their 2010 season, they looked nothing like a team that less than two months later would detour into a forest of self-doubt.

They'd been to consecutive World Series and, given the trade for Roy Halladay and the shortcomings of many National League rivals, seemed destined for a third.

"With the additions they made and the offense they had, they were head and shoulders above everybody else. They had an edge," said John Smoltz, the longtime Braves pitcher. "But when that edge starts slipping - and with them it has to a degree greater than anybody could have imagined - all of a sudden your team looks a little more vulnerable. They've got to find a way to get that swagger back."

One of the many theories that swirled around the Phils during the recent punchless, 6-15 funk that dropped them into third place was that perhaps they were overconfident, that success had made them fat, content, and unable to find the motivational spark that propelled them in the past.

After all, this thinking went, Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino had signed long-term contracts. Nearly everyone had lucrative endorsement opportunities. Their faces graced magazine covers.

It would be so easy to relax that perhaps, somewhere in their collective psyche, the 2010 Phillies had subconsciously switched off their ambitions, although by winning two of three games at Yankee Stadium and a dominant performance Friday before Saturday's extra-innings loss may have snapped them out of it.

Conversations with Smoltz and several others who were parts of teams that won consecutive pennants, then staggered the next season, suggest injuries, improved rivals, fatigue, a lack of leadership, even ill fortune can all play roles. But rarely, they said, is a lack of motivation a factor.

In fact, some said, being questioned on that subject can, in itself, push a team to succeed.

"We got our taste in '91 and '92 and in '95 and '96 and each time [when the Braves didn't three-peat] we heard that 'fat-cat' theory," said Smoltz. "We proved that and every other theory wrong. Obviously, we should have four or five rings and we don't. But it was never a matter of complacency."

Whether it was Smoltz's Braves, the Dodgers and Yankees teams that met in both the 1977 and 1978 Series, the Toronto Blue Jays of 1991-92, or even the old Philadelphia A's, who disappointed this city by failing to win a third straight pennant in 1912, the reasons for these third-year breakdowns remain topics of debate decades later.

Some, like the ones these Phillies heard the last month, often sound preposterous in retrospect: Those Braves pitchers played too much golf. Those Dodgers were distracted by Hollywood. Those Yankees fought too much. These Phillies can't hit without stolen signs.

Even the terminally sensible Connie Mack had a theory. He believed his 1912 Athletics finished second, in part, because too many players had purchased newfangled automobiles and were more concerned with "joy riding" than winning.

In the end, whether or not these Phils become the latest club to succumb to a third-year jinx, the reasons for failure can't always be pinpointed.

"Something was lacking," Mack said in 1912. "And there wasn't anything I could do about it."

Goose Gossage, the flame-throwing closer who was injured in 1979 as the Yankees finished fourth, said the Bronx Zoo's famed bickering didn't explain that season's disappointment. It was, he said, more likely the pressures that accompany sustained success.

"It just becomes harder all the time," said Gossage. "When you're not expected to win, it's not as hard. But expectations become problematic. There's pressure from fans, from management, from the media. Even cellar-dwelling teams are gunning for you."

However, Ron Cey, the third baseman on a '79 Dodgers team that finished third after consecutive pennants, disagreed. He said consistently successful teams like his engendered optimism almost every season.

"That was part of our understanding as a group. We knew what the expectations and demands were," Cey said. "We had it drilled into us. It wasn't an issue. We always had a bull's-eye on our foreheads. We'd been around long enough to manage our time and deal with the distractions."

The Phillies have tried superstitions (bringing their lucky batboy to Boston), baseball voodoo (the bat display Chase Utley arranged), and several team meetings to find a renewed focus.

On Friday night, Utley denied he was injured during this stretch and then promptly made a sparkling play in the field and belted a home run, then followed on Saturday with a two-run triple. Not to be outdone, Howard blasted two homers Friday night and added another on Saturday, part of a five-homer barrage.

Though meetings are by far the most common attempted remedy, Gossage's Yankees eschewed them while Cey's Dodgers met more often than a corporate staff.

"We met a lot. We policed ourselves really well," Cey said. "We had a veteran group of leaders who understood when the timing was right. We could get after each other, but not in a way where you walked out of meeting feeling like you were crucified."

His manager, Tommy Lasorda, said he called meetings whenever he felt his '79 Dodgers were getting down on themselves. On one occasion, when L.A. had lost seven straight, he told them not to worry because the '27 Yankees had once dropped nine in succession.

"Later, my wife asked me if that were true," Lasorda said. "I said, 'How the hell would I know? That was the year I was born.' . . . But it worked. They relaxed and felt better about themselves and we had the best record in the National League in the second half."

Smoltz's Braves and Gossage's Yanks, meanwhile, preferred to rally around their veterans when times got tough.

For the Phils, though, the most likely players to fill those roles in Jimmy Rollins' absence - Ryan Howard and Utley - seem unwilling or unable to provide vocal leadership, though Rollins is expected to return to this team very soon.

"Once you've proved yourself on the field the way Utley, Howard, Rollins, and to some extent Victorino have done, then it's important for them to step up," said Cey. "If they're going to be the best-paid players, the most visible spokesmen, they have to be the ones that step up. If they don't, then they're missing a part of leadership that's really important."

According to Smoltz, "the perfect formula" to keep a team motivated was one employed by Bobby Cox's Braves, who won 14 straight NL East titles and back-to-back pennants twice:

A manager conveys a simple message to a core of veterans who then convey it to the rest of the club.

"A manager has to get the attention of the guys who can get the attention of all 25 guys," Smoltz said.

The best way to stay motivated, these men said, was to avoid needless distractions whenever possible, distractions like all the questions about the Phils' alleged sign-stealing.

"Mentally, you can buy into anything," said Smoltz. "If it's talked about enough and you're asked enough questions, it can cause a diversion. Any time a player or a team has to deal with distractions, true or not, it can affect you. I think that's the danger."

Gossage said these Phils were experienced enough to have learned to deal with diversions.

"It's up to the veteran guys to lead," he said. "If you see somebody not giving 100 percent, you can't be afraid to call people out."

The biggest danger for these Phillies, said Smoltz, was that their extended run of vulnerability allowed the rest of the NL East to believe again that they can compete.

"Once you allow a team that feels inferior to you to play on equal terms with you for a period of time, then their confidence is going to go up and yours is going to wane," he said.

"Suddenly everybody else thinks they have a chance. And that's what's been going on with the Phillies. At the same time, they're very lucky to be only 31/2 games out [as of Friday]. When they get it back, the rest of those teams are going to be going, 'Oh shoot. Why didn't we take better advantage?' "

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-313-3468 or

at Ffitzpatrick@phillynews.

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