Monday, May 9, 2011

Random Past Season: 2003

Year: 2003
Record: 86-76 (3rd place in NL East, 15 games behind Atlanta Braves)
Manager: Larry Bowa
Coaches: Greg Gross, Ramon Henderson, Joe Kerrigan, Tony Scott, Gary Varsho, John Vukovich
General Manager: Ed Wade
All-Star: Randy Wolf
Top Draft Pick: Tim Moss (3rd round, 85th overall)

About 2003: The 162-game odyssey that is the Major League Baseball season is one full of peaks and valleys. Even the best teams go through spells where very little goes right. Conversely, the worst teams manage to sneak in an occasional hot streak here and there. Then there are those who fall somewhere in between, teams that do enough to stay in contention but can never quite make that final push as the season enters the home stretch. The 2003 Philadelphia Phillies were one such team. It featured a Jekyll and Hyde offense that could be downright explosive, yet was often muzzled immediately following their outbursts. A promising young starting rotation boasted four pitchers who won no fewer than 14 games, but never quite seemed to be firing on all cylinders. A veteran-laden bullpen generally did a masterful job setting up, but all too often stumbled before crossing the finish line. Despite all the ups and downs, the Phils found themselves in position to end a decade-long playoff drought before a freefall in the final week of the regular season left them on the outside looking in. The postseason that followed ended up being a cruel reminder of what could've been.

It was known for a couple years in advance that the 2003 season was going to hold a special significance for the Phillies, as it was to be their final campaign at Veterans Stadium, the place they'd called home since 1971. While the Vet was much-maligned, it held a lot of sentimental value for fans, as the longest sustained run of success in franchise history had taken place there in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including what at the time was their only World Series title in 1980. But by 2003, the stadium had long outlived its usefulness as one of the last remaining multipurpose facilities that had been the building trend in the 1960s and early 1970s. Detractors called them "cookie cutter" stadiums, as it was hard to tell one from the other save for a few minor details. Still, the organization made no secret that it would go all-out to ensure the Vet received a proper sendoff.

While giving Veterans Stadium a dignified exit from a marketing standpoint was basically a given, it was unclear as to what kind of sendoff would be given by the players on the field. The Phillies appeared to be building a solid, young core, but the fact remained at the time that the club had finished above .500 just three times since 1984. One such winning season had occurred in 2001, when the Phils went a surprising 86-76, staying alive in the National League East race until the season's final weekend before finishing two games behind the Atlanta Braves. The 2002 campaign was a huge disappointment, however, as a horrendous start knocked the Phillies out of contention right away while the inevitable trade of disgruntled star Scott Rolen seemed to weigh the club down. The team's play improved noticeably after Rolen was finally dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals in late July, but it couldn't undo the early-season damage as the Phillies finished 80-81. As the '02 season was coming to a close, there were some hints dropped that the Phils were going to be very aggressive in the free agent market that winter. The name most mentioned was Jim Thome, the slugging first baseman from the Cleveland Indians who was considered to be the prize of the market. The notion was scoffed at by many, as the front office had been criticized mercilessly for many years for what was perceived as an unwillingness to spend the money necessary to become a serious contender.

Early on in free agency, the Phillies signed third baseman David Bell, who had been a key contributor for a San Francisco Giants team that came within one win of a World Championship. Then, in early December, the organization stunned the baseball world by luring Thome away from Cleveland. The Phils weren't done, as they were a finalist for the services of future Hall of Fame lefty Tom Glavine, who ultimately signed with the New York Mets. Undaunted by losing out on Glavine, the Phillies turned heads again when they acquired 18-game winner Kevin Millwood from the division rival Atlanta Braves in exchange for catcher Johnny Estrada. Adding these established players to a rising young nucleus led many to believe the Phillies were ready to dethrone the Braves atop the NL East, or at the very least be a top Wild Card contender.

Though the signing of Thome was expected to turn the offense into a juggernaut, it was pitching that kept the Phillies afloat early in the 2003 campaign while the bats struggled to find some consistency. Never was this more evident than on April 27, when Kevin Millwood no-hit the Giants in a 1-0 victory. Thanks to strong starts on the mound by Millwood, Randy Wolf, and Brett Myers, the Phils ended April at 16-12. They would not be above .500 at the end of the season's first month again until 2008.

Outside of Mike Lieberthal and Placido Polanco, few Phillies hitters got off to strong starts at the plate. Despite occasional flashes of brilliance (including twice scoring 16 runs in a game during the opening homestand, only to be shut out the day after one such scoring binge and limited two runs after the other), this trend continued over the season's first two months as the ballclub stayed slightly over .500 while the Braves built up a big lead in the division. In late June, the Phils finally seemed ready to turn a corner as they won 12 of 14, improving their record to 46-34. Thome and Bobby Abreu began to heat up after slow starts, while rookie Marlon Byrd caught fire after struggling mightily in April and May. Those performances helped pick up the slack for Pat Burrell, who appeared lost after a breakout 2002 season and David Bell, whose first season in Philadelphia was deteriorating into an injury-plagued disaster.

Just when it appeared as though the Phillies were ready to make a serious move in the NL East, they were swept at the Vet in a three-game series by the Florida Marlins over Fourth of July weekend. The Phils bounced back to win 10 of their next 14 after that series, but their momentum would again be stopped by the Marlins, who swept a three-game set in South Florida. A key reason for Florida's success against the Phillies the strong performance of their bullpen. For the most part the Phils were getting quality performances from their relievers. Rheal Cormier was nearly unhittable after an awful first outing of the season, while Terry Adams and Dan Plesac came on strong after struggling early. Turk Wendell was the opposite, starting strong before faltering late. The ninth inning was where things came to a screeching halt, however, as closer Jose Mesa was going though a nightmarish season. Near the trade deadline, the Phillies reacquired Mike Williams from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Williams, who had pitched for the Phils from 1992-96, had been serving as Pittsburgh's closer and it was hoped he could take some of the pressure off late in games. Instead, it proved to be a complete bust as Williams went 0-4 with a 5.96 ERA after the deal.

Though they weren't without their share of issues, the Phillies seemed to bounce back after every misstep and found themselves leading the NL Wild Card race at 69-54 on August 18 as they set out on a 13-game road trip. A decent showing would seemingly put the Phils on track for a postseason berth, but any thoughts of that were long gone when they lost nine of the first ten games, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the lowly Milwaukee Brewers and an absolutely humiliating four-game sweep by the Montreal Expos. The latter series appeared to rip the team apart at the seams as Brett Myers and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan engaged in a shouting match after Myers pitched poorly in one game while manager Larry Bowa ripped the team's lackadaisical play after a 4-0 getaway day snoozer in the series finale. The players themselves held a meeting of their own on the team bus prior to heading to the airport en route to New York for their next series, where they would sweep the Mets in a three-game set that proved to be controversial in its own right. In the opening game of that series, the struggling Burrell refused to shake Bowa's hand in the dugout after hitting a home run. The following day, the Phillies designated Tyler Houston for assignment, believing the club's leading pinch-hitter had put Burrell up to it. Bowa and Houston would wage a war of words in the media for a few days afterwards.

While controversy raged over the dugout snub incident, the Phillies followed the sweep at Shea Stadium with a 6-1 homestand to keep pace in a Wild Card race that saw as many as eight teams within striking distance of the lead at various points. After splitting a four-game series in Atlanta, the Phils dropped two of three in Pittsburgh to find themselves 1.5 games behind the Wild Card-leading Marlins, who came to the Vet for a three-game set on September 16. The Phillies would win two of three from Florida, and a 7-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds on September 19 gave them an 85-69 record and a half-game lead atop the Wild Card standings. Losses in the final two games against Cincinnati dropped the Phils a game behind the Marlins heading into a three-game showdown in Florida beginning on September 23. The Phils blew a three-run lead in the seventh inning of the series opener and never recovered, as the Marlins swept the series to eliminate the Phillies from playoff contention. Florida would win the NL Wild Card and ultimately took home baseball's ultimate prize as World Champions in 2003.

With their postseason dreams shattered, the Phillies returned home for what was dubbed the Final Innings against the Braves. The Phils lost two of three to Atlanta in a meaningless series, but Veterans Stadium was bid farewell with one last fireworks show, the announcement of the All-Vet Team, and an emotional closing ceremony. Scores of players from seasons past paraded around the Vet one last time, while three of the greatest moments in the stadium's history were re-created. Steve Carlton again delivered his 3000th strikeout, Mike Schmidt trotted around the bases to commemorate the last of his 548 career home runs, and Tug McGraw jumped off the mound after reliving the final out of the 1980 World Series. Terminally ill with brain cancer, the Tugger would pass away a little more than three months later.

The rollercoaster 2003 season saw its share of bright spots. It can be argued that Jim Thome's signing made baseball relevant in Philadelphia again and he certainly didn't disappoint, leading the NL with 47 home runs while driving in 131. Mike Lieberthal hit a career-high .313 with 13 homers and 81 RBI. Placido Polanco hit .289 with 14 homers and 68 RBI while seeing significant time at both second and third base. Bobby Abreu finished at .300 with 20 homers and 101 RBI. The reserves on the club were known as "The Bench Dawgz" and provided a lift when necessary. Tyler Houston hit .278 before being cut, while Ricky Ledee, Jason Michaels, Tomas Perez, and Todd Pratt all turned in strong seasons of their own. On the negative side, Pat Burrell just never found his stroke in '03, hitting a dismal .209 with 21 home runs and 64 RBI. David Bell appeared in just 85 games, hitting .195. Top prospect Chase Utley struggled some at the MLB level, but did make some history on April 24 against the Colorado Rockies when he swatted a grand slam off Aaron Cook for his first MLB hit.

Among the pitchers, Randy Wolf won 16 games and was the club's lone All-Star, though the second half of his season wasn't nearly as strong as the first. Millwood's no-hitter was part of a phenomenal 7-1 start, but he also faltered in the second half to finish 14-12. Brett Myers went 14-9 in his first full MLB season while Vicente Padilla rebounded from a poor start to finish 14-12 with a 3.62 ERA. In the bullpen, Rheal Cormier turned in an amazing campaign, going 8-0 with a 1.70 ERA. Dan Plesac was 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA in what turned out to be his final season. On the other side of things, Jose Mesa was 5-7 with a 6.52 ERA despite saving 24 games. Brandon Duckworth had a disappointing season in the starting rotation, going 4-7 with a 4.94 ERA.

An era of Philadelphia Phillies baseball ended with a painful near-miss. It was now time to move on to Citizens Bank Park, with the hopes that their new digs would allow the franchise to become one of the game's elite.

Personal Recollection: Man, what a crazy year 2003 was. There was so much excitement over the Jim Thome signing, because it just seemed so out of character for the Phillies. The buzz from that hadn't nearly died down when the Kevin Millwood trade took place out of nowhere. Of course, it turned out that Millwood never became the ace the Phils hoped he'd become while Johnny Estrada had a couple nice seasons for the Braves just as Mike Lieberthal was starting to decline, but you certainly can't fault that deal.

I was also lucky enough to attend Millwood's no-hitter, which is obviously something I'll never forget. You could tell early on that Millwood had great stuff. I remember thinking in about the third or fourth inning that the Giants would be lucky to get a hit that day, which is strange because pitchers often don't allow a hit for five, six, even seven innings sometimes and you really don't think anything of it. When Ricky Ledee made a running grab on Marquis Grissom's line smash to center leading off the seventh, it felt like it was meant to be. What a great day.

I know we get frustrated with the offense the Phillies have right now, but the one they had in '03 was on another level. It was uncanny how they would score in double figures one night and get shut down the next day. On eight occasions, they held to two runs or fewer after having reached double digits the previous game. It was amazing. I've never seen anything like that before or since.

Also amazing was the contrast between Thome's season and Burrell's. Thome got off to a pedestrian start, but was an absolute monster from about the middle of June on. He basically put the team on his back in September and nearly willed them to the playoffs. Burrell just had a lost season. It just seemed like nothing he did worked. Not sure if he put more pressure on himself after signing a big contract the previous offseason or if he was trying to keep pace with Thome, but it was just awful. The thing about that was, the more Burrell struggled, the harder fans cheered for him. Everyone knew he was trying out there, I guess it was hard not to feel bad for him.

The whole situation with Tyler Houston was bizarre. The tension between the players and coaches was no secret, but when that whole thing went down you had to wonder if this was a baseball team fighting for a postseason berth or some kind of soap opera. Still, they kept battling through and it looked like they were finally going to make the playoffs. Then they lost those two games against the Reds, getting shut out by Todd Van Poppel the night after taking the Wild Card lead before losing the series finale on one of those little hit-and-run jam shots in the spot vacated by the fielder covering that ended up producing the winning run. Then, Jeff Conine hit a big home run down in Florida and that was that. Of course, the Marlins went on to win it all, which made it all the more frustrating, knowing it easily could've been the Phillies in their place.

The closing ceremony at the Vet was something else I'm glad I got to see in person. It was tough saying goodbye to the old place, so many memories of growing up going to games there. When Tug McGraw re-created the final pitch of the 1980 World Series, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Such a fitting farewell and a great segue into the baseball mecca that Citizens Bank Park has become.

That's my story on the 2003 Phillies season. Feel free to share your own recollections.

1 comment:

  1. Retrosheet's 2003 Phillies page: