And if the 1979 pennant seemed to be a lock that day in the shadow of Disney World, it became a slam dunk on the eve of spring training. Ozark's already stellar infield became best-in-show when The Pope acquired balletic second baseman Manny Trillo, outfielder Greg Gross and catcher Dave Rader from the Cubs for five players, including Ted Sizemore, Barry Foote and Jerry Martin. Mike Schmidt and Rose at the corners, Larry Bowa and Trillo in the middle, Bob Boone catching. Garry Maddox flanked by Greg Luzinski and Bake McBride. A tremendous bench. Carlton heading a formidable rotation. A loaded bullpen. What could go wrong?
The 1979 Phils did not win the pennant. They got Danny Ozark fired instead. Oh, Pete Rose held up his part of the bargain. At age 38, he played 163 games, lashed 208 hits and batted .331. But the rest of the season was a train wreck of injury and underacheving. By midseason, the Phillies were all but out of the race. The torpor was so thick you could cut it with a broken bat. Rose made this observation to Sports Illustrated: "I run out to first base when we're taking the field and I have to stand out there 2 minutes before I have anybody to throw to. Maybe the Phillies were always that way, but they ran out on the field when I first joined the club. I still run to my position."
It is becoming painfully apparent with each passing day, each feeble dribble of off-balance offense that the 2010 Phils will not win the pennant, either.
The lead on this team's obituary was written during a warmup sprint by Jimmy Rollins, minutes before the home-opener introductions. The shortstop missed 57 games. His fellow All-Star sidekick, Chase Utley, has been out 17 games since blowing up his right thumb and could miss at least 50 more.
In '79, Trillo fractured his left arm and was sidelined 6 weeks. Bowa missed 16 games with a broken thumb.
Terrible things happened to the pitching staff. Larry Christenson, 25, opened the season on the DL, the beginning of arm miseries that would end his career prematurely. LC didn't make his first start until May 12 and finished 5-10. Dick Ruthven was brilliant during a 6-0 start, then became suddenly ineffective. The righthander finally admitted he was pitching with a groin injury. He went on the DL and finished with a 7-5 record.
Righthander Nino Espinosa, acquired from the Mets to be a solid No. 4 or 5, found himself as the No. 2 behind Steve Carlton, headed for a so-so 18-11 season.
Like these former 2010 favorites, those former 1979 favorites broke smartly from the gate and were 24-10 with a 3 1/2-game lead after the famed 23-22 victory on May 17 in Chicago. Charlie Manuel's club was 24-13 on May 17, with a five-game lead. I was starting to agree with e-mailers who suggested my 98-victory call was pessimistic.
Ozark's starters - other than Lefty - had so much trouble digesting innings that Ron Reed, that decade's equivalent of a setup man, had an amazing 13-8 record for 102 innings pitched.
I have not mentioned this team's cruelest "loss" of all. Of course, that was the loss by trade - if you can call it that - of 2009 World Series hero Cliff Lee. The deeper this deflated and, in some areas, exposed team slides into a hole from which there will be no escape, the larger Lee's dispatch to Seattle looms. Not many people bought the organization line that the Lee trade was not about the money as much as it was about restocking a minor league system depleted by the loss of seven prospects in the Lee and Halladay acquisitions. We were told outfielder Tyson Gillies (out nearly 3 months so far with a leg injury) and righthanders Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez had a chance to be special. It appears just past midseason they have a better chance to be ordinary. In Lee's third deal in a calendar year, the Mariners got Justin Smoak, a ready-now Rangers slugging prospect. It appears the Phillies have gotten just Smoak and mirrors.
Meanwhile, the trade deadline looms. That annual rite of rumor, innuendo and unconfirmed "I heards" from hundreds of the usual unreliable sources is just 13 days away. If you're a scout following Jayson Werth the past 6 weeks, what would your report say - swing's so screwed up, not even a caveman could hit it? Werth is a contender's luxury right now and contenders are going to be dealing prospects, not players who could help fill a gaping hole in the rotation, bullpen or infield. So get over that.
I heard that one of those MLB XM-radio rumor panels recently floated one where the Phillies would send Raul Ibanez and a lot of money to Seattle for prospects and the prospects would be sent to Texas for Lee. Who makes these up?
Meanwhile, think wild card. Now, there's a race where this team might be able to compete, seven teams bunched together like a NASCAR restart. Trouble with those damn December pennants, you still have to play 162 games starting in April.
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