CLEARWATER, Fla. - So which Phillies team has earned the right to be called the best in the history of a franchise basking in a golden age of back-to-back pennants and three straight National League East
The envelope, please . . .
But first, let's examine the finalists, who happen to own the only two World Series trophies since the
Phillies joined the league in 1883.
The 1980 and 2008 champions could not be more different in personality, leadership and playing style. Different strokes and different folks.
Tug McGraw held a Daily News aloft at the end of the
parade down Broad Street, the one with the "We Win!" headline. He informed the enormous throng, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea that "New York can take this title and stick it."
Chase Utley topped McGraw with his slightly tipsy, totally incredulous, "World champions . . . World effing champions" that shocked thousands and delighted millions on that
epic autumn afternoon in 2008 after the Phillies sliced through the Brewers, Dodgers and Rays like a hot knife through butter.
The R-rated epitaphs are about all the Last Chance Gang of Dallas Green, "a cusser and a yeller," had in common with the collection of mostly good guys who played as hard as any team this town has seen for a grandfatherly manager who frequently made Beverly Hillbillies patriarch Jed Clampett sound like a Rhodes scholar. Charlie Manuel brought a rare sense of fairness to a clubhouse filled with "character" players, as opposed to the "characters" who provoked a volcanic clubhouse eruption by Green after his moribund ballclub lost the first game of a doubleheader in Pittsburgh. During the second game, the 6-5 manager nearly came to blows with 6-6 reliever Ron Reed during a dugout shoutfest.
At the same time - Charlie's favorite phrase - Manuel gained additional respect from his athletes by tempering his general good nature and even-handedness with the tough love he administered when 2007 MVP Jimmy Rollins failed to hustle on a play and showed up late for a day game with the Mets in Shea Stadium. Manuel punished the lack of hustle by removing his shortstop from the following inning and the lateness by pulling him from the starting lineup.
Picking the best Phillies team ever is tricky business because neither the 1980 nor 2008 champions caught lightning in a bottle, which is what happened to Jim Fregosi's nifty knaves in 1993.
Hell's Team finally emerged from the fire and brimstone near the end of a run that began with contention in 1975, three straight division titles in 1976-78, the shambles of 1979, when Green replaced Danny Ozark on Aug. 31, then agreed to come back to lead what everybody believed would be the flawed dynasty's final shot. Had they lost in '80 - and they had many, many opportunities - general manager Paul Owens was going to blow it up. He would have rebuilt around Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and aging leader Pete Rose, who was signed through '83, and the call-ups who saved the bacon for an aging team.
But in 1980, a paranoid, cranky, whacky, nucleus that included Schmidt, Rose, Larry Bowa, Manny Trillo, Greg Luzinski, Bake McBride, Tug McGraw, Reed, Larry Christenson and Dick Ruthven had been buttressed by that infusion of hard-living but gifted rookies. They don't win the East on the next to last day of the season in Montreal without Hard Marty Bystrom's 5-0 September. And maybe they don't win the World Series without the Dickie Noles knockdown pitch in a Game 4 loss that left Royals Hall of Famer George Brett sprawled in the dirt. It was a line drawn in the red clay that seemed to say,
"We're not blowing this one . . . "
Ruben Amaro Jr. could be a talking history book for this argument.
The general manager who seamlessly replaced Pat Gillick last year and watched his team take the Yankees to six games, despite a season littered with physical and performance setbacks, a subpar bench and bullpen meltdown, was 1-year-old when I went to my first Phillies spring training in 1966. His dad was in his first season with the Yankees after being traded by the Phils in 1965 for Yogi Berra's favorite harmonica soloist, Phil Linz.
The Amaros were together in 1980. Senior was Green's first-base coach. Junior was a 15-year-old assistant to clubhouse manager Kenny Bush and would soon be a star outfielder at Penn Charter, then a College World
Series outfielder for Stanford's elite program. The Angels drafted him on the 11th round in 1987. His 8-year career included five seasons - including magical 1993 - as a reserve outfielder with the team that had been part of his life almost from birth.
Junior picked up dirty socks and jocks in 1980, played for Jim Fregosi's pennant winners, then studied at the feet of GMs Ed Wade and Gillick.
"Best Phillies team ever?" On a rare sun-splashed Florida morning, Amaro shuffled the years like playing cards. "Naturally, you've got to start with the team from the '70s that finally won in '80 and this team that won in '08 and was the first Phillies team ever to win back-to-back pennants. Even though we were pretty much a one-shot team, the '93 team was pretty special. We had a great approach to the game and that club had a lot of chemistry.
"The '80 team and our current team both had a homegrown nucleus. They had Schmidt, 'Bull,' Bowa, Lonnie Smith, Keith Moreland, Randy Lerch, Bob Walk, Marty Bystrom, Larry Christenson, Dick Ruthven, Dickie Noles, Kevin Saucier, Warren Brusstar, John and George Vukovich. Really an amazing number of players from our minor league system."
But Amaro believes, as do many baseball people, the nucleus that has won so many games for Manuel still has some upside. It also has a historic edge.
"This nucleus has three players, all homegrown, who are considered by many baseball people to be the best at their positions to ever play for the Phillies,"
Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are why Schmidt said during his annual spring-training sabbatical, "I was born a generation too soon." Yep, that could have been one helluva infield. Not that Schmidt, Bowa, Trillo and Rose was chopped liver.
Nine members of Manuel's projected Opening Day roster came from the Phillies' revived minor league system. At the same time, a truckload of top prospects were cashed for uber-stars Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay - seven, to be exact.
ESPN.com baseball analyst Jayson Stark was the Inquirer beat man in 1980. He was new, he was good and he spent much of that seminal season with eyes opened wide by things he had never seen before and most likely has not seen again. And that was just in the hotel bars.
At lunch near the end of spring training, he recalled some of the bizarre happenings of a final regular-season week where the team came close to mutiny and self-destruction. Stark remembered when usually mild-mannered Garry Maddox paraded him to a storage room in the dank bowels of Veterans Stadium and berated him at length for causing Green to bench him after a second straight incident involving the centerfielder's lack of sunglasses.
Green also had benched Luzinski and catcher Bob Boone for a game with the Cubs that was only the biggest of the season. Before the game, Bowa ripped Green and the "disloyal" fans on his radio show. After the game, an excruciating, 6-5 victory in 15 innings, where defensive replacement Maddox singled home the tying run and scored the winning run on Manny Trillo's walkoff single, Green ripped Bowa and implied there are "some guys out there who don't want us to win this thing."
The wild roller-coaster ride was on . . . By the time Astros ace Nolan Ryan took a 5-2 lead into the eighth inning of decisive Game 5 of the NLCS, we were used to great escapes. Ho hum.
OK, envelope time . . .
Stark favors the 1980 champions, based on a body of work that has had 30 years to be studied and dissected. Yes, Schmidt and Carlton were first-ballot Hall of Famers and Rose would have been. Tug McGraw was special in myriad ways. And, yes, this team, the one that won it all in 2008 and came close last year despite daunting setbacks, could have three Hall of Famers down the road. Or none.
But one thing they have is the total love of a fan base that can't buy enough tickets to watch them play, not here in The Bank, or in Clearwater's Piggy Bank. The Phillies have earned that love by assembling the game's most potent starting eight and a middle of the order guaranteed to fire off 200 plus home runs.
The tiebreaker, the defining reason the slip in my envelope reads 2008 Phillies, has to do with baseball's increasingly complex math:
The 1980 Phillies had to win seven games before they got to ride down Broad Street.
The 2008 Phillies had to win three, then four, then four more games. They had to battle through three rings of fire.
Twenty eight years after Tug McGraw's triumphant wait for Mike Schmidt to leap into his arms, seven had become 11. And the postseason had become a