The Philadelphia Phillies are in the hunt for their first playoff berth in 12 years. In the 102 years that they've played the World Series (actually, by my count, 100, because John McGraw boycotted the 1904 series and there wasn't a 1994 series owing to labor discord), the Phillies have made it five times. They lost in '15 and '50, won in '80 and then lost again in '83 and '93.
And then there was this, which is indelibly etched into the minds of Philadelphians who were born in 1956 or before. Mention the name Chico Ruiz to Phillies fans from a certain era, and they'll require sedation. Mention the name of the late Gene Mauch to Phillies fans from that era, and you'll get a string of adjectives, from superlatives to profanity, all of which are meant to convey the same feelings about the skipper of the most ill-fated ship since the S.S. Titanic and before the Minnow of Gilligan's Island fame.
Last night the Phillies tattooed the Diamondbacks, 11-3 last night, to keep them 1.5 games ahead of Florida, Houston and the Mets in the wild card race, 2.5 ahead of the Washington Nationals, the team whose clock looks like it's just about to strike midnight and who itself is ready to turn into a pumpkin. More interestingly, the Phillies are only 2.5 games behind the Braves for the NL East lead. The Phillies' stellar play since the All-Star break is confounding to some longstanding Phillies' watchers, given that a) they lost lineup anchor Jim Thome for the season (and when he was in the lineup, he played dreadfully), b) they had two dreadful months' worth of pitching from big free-agent signee Jon Lieber, c) they've lost formidable lefty starter Randy Wolf for this year and possibly next, d) they have a first-string catcher who many of the starters don't want to have catch them and e) they play in a bandbox ballpark more suitable to a HS girls' softball league than Major League Baseball.
They also have a front-office, about whom I have blogged before, in whom the fans have almost zero confidence. Mention the Brahmin group of owners (from old Philadelphia families), and you'll be met with sighs at best and scoffs at worst, and they symbolize a group of owners who, during their tenure (which comes right after the relative golden years of Ruly Carpenter's stewardship) haven't seemed overly committed to doing what it takes to put a contender on the field every year. In total fairness, with the advent of Citizens Bank Park (which is in its second year), the ownership has ponied up serious bucks to put the Phillies' payroll at least in the top ten in the majors, if not higher.
The ownership, of course, evokes certain responses, but then there's the GM, Ed Wade, whose moves and demeanor remind certain fans of a stern schoolmaster whose results demonstrate that the school he runs is the type of school you'd send your kids to if they couldn't get into someplace better. Wade has to be happy that the volcano that is Terrell Owens erupted this summer, so as to have Owens replace him as the most disliked sports figure in Philadelphia. Wade has to be sad that the Eagles' popularity is such that it's taken a bunch of attention away from the Phillies (and perhaps from him), as the team that he and his staff have put together is playing very well and worthy of plaudits at this point in time. Wade is a lightning rod for criticism of the Phillies, and he's also a symbol for the perennial frustration that they have provide the fans during his tenure. Click here to see what I mean, and click the links within to get a sense of some of the trades he's made. (There's also another sense of frustration in longstanding Phillies' fans, who remember fondly one-time GM Paul Owens, who had a knack for making trading-deadline moves in the late 1970's that always seemed to boost the club; in contrast, Wade traded Tim Worrell for Matt Kata this year, his one move before the trading deadline).
Despite the historical baggage (the Phillies are one of the worst franchises in the history of professional sports), the present-day club is functioning well. Among the bright spots are rookie 1B Ryan Howard, who might turn Jim Thome into Wally Pipp, as there's speculation that Thome might have played his last game at 1B for the Phillies. Howard has played so well that unless the Phillies could get a front-line #1 starter for him, they'd be foolish to trade him, which means the Phillies will eat some of Thome's hefty salary if they move him in the off-season. There's also 2B Chase Utley, the spark plug of the team, who has been unfettered since the Phillies moved Placido Polanco (with whom Utley platooned) early this season for Ugueth Urbina. LF Pat Burrell has broken free from the dreadful slump that paralyzed him two years ago, and RF Bobby Abreu has finally emerged from his awful swoon that followed his amazing display in the All-Star weekend's HR contest (he hit a grand slam last night).
And the pitching has been very good. True, they lost Wolf for the year, and, yes, Lieber has been disappointing at times (even if he's better than the guy he replaced, Eric Milton), but Brett Myers has gotten out of former pitch coach Joe Kerrigan's overanalytical gulag and turned himself into a pitcher, Vicente Padilla is hurling well, and journeyman Cory Lidle is an excellent groundball pitcher. Toss in rookies Robinson Tejeda and Eude Brito, one of the best setup men in baseball in Ryan Madson (who leads the majors in holds) and outstanding closer Billy Wagner and a bunch of other relievers who have been steady, and you have the formula of a team that's primed to stay in this hunt until the very end. Click here for the Phillies' stats for 2005 thus far.
Reasons to be optimistic? You bet. After all, as much frustration as the owners and front office have given Phillies' fans, at the end of the season the lineup reflects how the players on the roster fared. Which means, of course, that even great management can put together a team that loses, and that average management can put together a winner occasionally (such as every 12-15 years or so). This team definitely has a chance to go to the post-season.
In most cities, the fans would be absolutely giddy by this prospect. The team would be the talk of the town, they'd get tons of free publicity, the TV people and DJs would be talking them up, and kids at school would be focusing on the Phillies. But two factors combine to reign in the giddiness. The first is that at some point in the past fifteen years, Philadelphia has transformed itself into a football town. A combination of the Phillies' inept management and the baseball strike of 1994, along with the in-your-face style of Buddy Ryan, the early success of Ray Rhodes and the excellence of Andy Reid caused this change. The second, of course, is the ghost of Chico Ruiz, evidenced in the late 1970's by Greg Luzinski's futile ballet after balls hit by aging pinch hitters Manny Mota and Vic Davalillo in the 1977 LCS and then by Mitch Williams' World Series-ending gopher ball to Joe Carter in the 1993 Series.
Put simply, Phillies' fans are waiting for something bad to happen, for some evildoer, someone who must not be named, to put sugar in the team's gas tank, put a key on their sportscars bright cherry red paint job, to cause a thunderous collapse along the lines of 1964. For while you had to have been born in about 1956 or so to remember the debacle of 1964, if you were born after that you can recall vividly your relatives' talking about that awful time long into the 1980's. As a result, the Ghost of Chico Ruiz (who, for the uninitiated, stole home in the bottom of the 15th inning of a road game in Cincinnati during the last two weeks of the 1964 season to give the Reds a 1-0 victory and start the fateful fall of the team), lives on in the children and grandchildren who watched that train wreck.
In Boston, they called it the Curse of the Bambino.
In Philadelphia, it's the Ghost of Chico Ruiz.
Now, it's true that the 1980 squad, an outstanding team from top to bottom, eradicated the historical frustration of Phillies fans that dated back to the team's inception, including the spectacle of blowing a 6.5 game lead with 12 to play in 1964. But curses are different from ghosts. You can purge a curse, as the Red Sox did last fall, but ghosts linger long after the times in which the baseball-playing bodies to which they once were attached lived. So, in 1980, the Phillies eradicated whatever curses permeated their landscape.
But the Ghost of Chico Ruiz lives on.
Will the hometown nine build on this excellent second half, catch the Braves and win the National League East? Or, will they stay atop the Wild Card standings and make the playoffs that way?
Or will something strange happen in extra innings on a road trip that leaves a tired squad's spirit depleted?
The last five weeks of the season will tell a lot. It says here that with exciting young players in Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, the Phillies' have a fighting chance. The big question for this time won't be whether they hit, but whether the starting pitching can hold up during the home stretch.
Because in the end, as rock beats scissors, talent beats ghosts.
Even in Philadelphia.