For 5 thrilling years, the Phillies were the biggest show in town. They won five consecutive National League East championships, advanced to the National League Championship Series in 2010, won the National League pennant in 2009 and captured the World Series trophy in 2008. By virtue of their success at the gate - which included 257 straight regular-season sellouts from July 7, 2009 to Aug. 6 of this year - they were able to hold on to homegrown stars such as Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels and bring in stars from other organizations, including Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Going into the 2012 season, the Phillies were favored at 11-2 to win the World Series, and with the over/under set at 93 1/2 victories.
Good for you if you took the under. Manuel says he knew it was going to be "tough" when the team came out of spring training with Utley and Howard sidelined - Utley with chronically injured knees, and Howard still on the mend from Achilles' tendon surgery. To add to that scenario, Halladay went on the disabled list with a shoulder strain on May 28. Utley came back in late June, Howard in early July and Halladay in mid-July, but by then the Phillies were well under .500. The Phillies played well enough from that point to contend for a second wild-card berth, but there would be no playoffs for them this year. As the season draws to a close Wednesday, the perennial National League East champions will finish in third place. They are 81-80, 16 games behind division-winning Washington.
So what accounts for what happened this year? In a way, you could say it was the same set of circumstances that eventually befalls every sports team that gets on a run, including the Flyers (won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and '75), the Pittsburgh Steelers (won Super Bowls in 1975, '76, '79 and '80) and the Boston Red Sox (won the World Series in 2004 and '07). Ultimately, each of these teams encountered what the Phillies did this year: the physical and psychological grind of playing at a very high level year in and year out is exhausting.
"When you go to the World Series twice, and go to the playoffs 5 years - and go deep in the playoffs [4 of those years] - and then go home in November, if you stop and think about it, you are playing a lot of baseball," Manuel said. "When you count your spring-training, regular-season and playoff games, you are playing some 200 games a year. So over the course of 5 years, that takes a toll on you."
Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona echoed that. "I completely agree with that," said Francona, who managed the Phillies from 1997 to 2000 and whose career in Boston ended in 2011 on the heels of a colossal September collapse. "When you go deep into the playoffs even for 2 consecutive years, it especially takes a toll on some of your starting pitchers. Some of them are working 30 to 40 high-intensity extra innings. You saw what can happen when Halladay was sidelined this year. These guys are playing a lot of innings. And when you lose them, it hurts you."
That is precisely what happened to the Flyers in the 1970s. Coming off two Stanley Cup championships, the Flyers set a team record for points in 1975-76 with a 51-13-16 record. But before the playoffs that year, they suffered two significant injuries: one to Bernie Parent, their stellar goaltender, and the other to Rick MacLeish, the left wing/center who was their leading scorer in the two championship seasons. Chances are, both would have helped in the Stanley Cup finals, where defenseman Joe Watson said, "We ran into a buzz saw" in the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadians swept the Flyers in four games. Watson said, "I swear, they were so quick that it seemed like they had eight men on the ice." But he also said that by then the Flyers had played "a lot of hockey."
"When you go to the Stanley Cup finals, God, you only have 3 months to recover and you are back at it again," Watson said. "But in a contact sport like hockey, you need time to heal. Not just from injuries, but you get worn down."
Left wing Bill Barber agreed. "We had a real, real good team, but I think we just ran out of steam in the finals. When you look back on it, we played a lot of hockey in those 3 years, including exhibition games, the regular season and playoffs. And it led to a degree of wear-and-tear."
Barber addressed the Phillies' decline this year. "I think that time moves on," he said. "In their case, I think the time has come for them to look at some young players and get them in there. Sooner or later, the spark you had kind of leaves. They had a great run."
Former Temple tight end Randy Grossman played for the "Steel Curtain" Steelers during their Super Bowl years in the 1970s. He said there are three components that play into the sustainability of winning over a period of years. The Steelers circumvented the obstacles that can occur.
"To begin with, you have to look at the age of your core group of players and the potential diminishment of their skills," Grossman said. "Few athletes will admit it, but they get slower, although they always say they have offset that by becoming smarter. But regardless of the sport, it is a physical game in which the players operate as an engine. The cylinders have to work together. So you have to be aware of that when you add new blood to the core group that created your success."
Grossman said highly successful teams have to guard against distractions. "That is the second component," he said. "The more success you have, the more you have pulling at your attention. And it is worse today than it was when I was with the Steelers. Today, you have 24-hour sports and so on. Plus, success brings with it more money, which opens up the potential for distraction. What I learned with the Steelers is that there is no place for distractions. We won because we did the boring stuff in practice over and over and over again."
And the third component?
"Opponents are always addressing your strengths," he said. "A pitcher gets a book on a hitter and knows how to attack him. The same goes for football, basketball and hockey. Your opponents are going to build their team to offset your strengths."
Grossman paused and added, "And there is one other wild card: luck. The ball has to bounce your way. Remember that catch by Franco Harris, The Immaculate Reception?"
Getting younger is never easy, especially when your team is expected to contend each year and you have a shot at winning a championship. Francona said that when he was with the Red Sox, general manager Theo Epstein was of the belief that "you have to give yourself the ability every 3 or 4 years to step back and get younger." Francona said Epstein told him, "If we gamble on free agency, we are going to lose some of those gambles. That is just the reality of it."
"For 5 years in a row, the Phillies' record got better," Francona said. By a strict accounting of regular-season win totals, Francona is correct: The Phillies won 89 games in 2007, 92 in '08, 93 in '09, 97 in '10 and a team-record 102 in '11. However, the Phillies have gone backward each year in October since they won the 2008 World Series. They won the National League pennant in 2009, then lost the World Series to the Yankees. They were beaten in the National League Championship Series in 2010 by the Giants. And last year they did not advance beyond the NL Division Series, which ended with Howard tearing an Achilles' tendon on a ground out that ended the series with the Cardinals.
"Sometimes change is good," said Manuel, who has worked new faces such as Darin Ruf and Tyler Cloyd into the lineup. Manuel said that strengthening the bullpen would his "first priority,'' but that he would also like to have "a big corner outfielder" and "a prototype third baseman," which is to say a "run producer who drives in 85 to 100 runs.''
"Front-line, run-producing players - and I am talking about more than one," Manuel said. "Getting Howard and Utley back to where they can be, that will take in some of it. But we have to score runs."
Howard hopes that the off year will help the team rejuvenate. "Hopefully, this year can motivate us," said Howard, who had 14 home runs in 260 at-bats. "By putting together a run at the end of the season, we can move forward and try to build on that in spring training."
Does Howard have his own explanation for what happened?
"It was just one of those things," he said. "Chase and I were out with injuries. We had a young bullpen that has gotten some experience. I think the outlook for next year is very bright."
But Manuel is not one to offer any excuses. From his vantage point, he said he had never been around a group of players that had a better attitude than the ones who played for him for 5 years. In the course of that long run, he said his players exhibited "dedication, hunger and preparation."
But he said that "winning changes you," and the spirit he spoke of "goes away, especially if you go a long period of time and have the same people."
The old baseball man shrugged and said, "It has to end somewhere. It happens."
Contact Mark Kram at email@example.com.