Monday, June 6, 2011

Random Past Season: 1997

Year: 1997
Record: 68-94 (5th place in NL East, 33 games behind Atlanta Braves)
Manager: Terry Francona
Coaches: Galen Cisco, Chuck Cottier, Hal McRae, Brad Mills, Joe Rigoli, John Vukovich
General Manager: Lee Thomas
All-Star: Curt Schilling
Top Draft Pick: J.D. Drew (1st Round, 2nd overall)

About 1997: In all professional sports, every franchise must go through a rebuilding phase at some point. It could come at the end of a long run of success, when age catches up with a team's core and the time comes for youth to be served. On the other hand, a club could realize its nucleus just isn't championship material and the decision may be made to take a step back in hopes of eventually taking several steps forward. By the time the 1997 season rolled around for the Philadelphia Phillies, it had been decided that the lightning-in-a-bottle format that landed the team in the World Series four years earlier was no longer a viable plan on which to build the organization. With that in mind, the process of rebuilding the ballclub began. The results seemed destined to be historically ugly at first, but out of nowhere, the Phils suddenly transformed to the best team in the National League over the season's final two months. It was a season that also saw a change at the very top of the organization, the trade of a franchise mainstay, a pitching performance for the record books, and sadly, the sudden passing of a Philadelphia icon. When all was said and done, the Phillies found themselves in last place for the second straight season, but at least there seemed to be a reason to believe that better days would eventually come.

After a 67-95 season produced a last-place finish for the Phillies in 1996, general manager Lee Thomas decided to fire his longtime friend Jim Fregosi and hire Terry Francona as the ballclub's new skipper. On the field, Mike Lieberthal was given full-time catching duties while highly touted prospects Scott Rolen and Wendell Magee would man third base and center field, respectively. First baseman Rico Brogna was acquired in an offseason trade with the New York Mets and right fielder Danny Tartabull decided to sign with the Phils during Spring Training when it became obvious his only other alternative would be sitting out the season. Mickey Morandini and Kevin Stocker returned as the team's double play combination, while Gregg Jefferies was back to give it another go in left field. A healthy Curt Schilling would anchor a starting rotation that also included veteran newcomers Mark Leiter and Mark Portugal along with a bunch of question marks. Ricky Bottalico was back as closer after making the National League All-Star squad the previous season, while Ken Ryan would look to build off a strong '96 campaign of his own as the setup man.

Expectations for the 1997 Phillies were certainly not great, as most experts felt they would lose close to 100 games, if not more. Not helping the cause was the fact that five pitchers were placed on the disabled list before the season began. Elbow issues put Portugal and Ryan on the shelf, a triceps injury put Mike Grace out of commission, Tyler Green would be out indefinitely while recovering from the shoulder surgery that ended his 1996 season before it began, and Rule 5 pick Edgar Ramos was sidelined by a hand injury. It was seen as more bad news for a team that already appeared to be in for a long year.

The 1997 season began auspiciously enough for the Phillies as Schilling shut out the Los Angeles Dodgers on two hits over eight brilliant innings, striking out 11 in a 3-0 victory. It would be the club's high-water mark, as the Phils went 3-6 on their opening road trip before dropping six of eight on their first homestand. By the time the calendar turned to May, the Phillies were in last place with an 8-16 record, 10.5 games out of first. May wasn't a whole lot better, as the Phils went 11-18 to sit at 19-34 by the end of the month. As bad as things were, they would soon get a whole lot worse. The Phillies played 26 games in June of 1997, and won just four of them. A 2-20 stretch leading into the All-Star break left the team at an embarrassing 24-61. They were 32 games behind the eventual division champion Atlanta Braves, and seemed poised to challenge the single-season loss record of 120 set by the 1962 New York Mets.

During this time, the Phils selected Florida State outfielder J.D. Drew with the second overall pick in the Draft. Proclaimed to be "The Next Mickey Mantle" by agent Scott Boras, Drew had no intention of ever playing for the Phils and would ultimately go unsigned. He was taken by the St. Louis Cardinals with the fifth overall pick in 1998. Though Drew has never really lived up to the expectations placed on him, Phillies fans still let him know they'll never forget the way he slighted the organization every time he steps to the plate in Philadelphia.

There weren't a whole lot of bright spots to be found during the dismal first half, but Schilling was certainly among them, staking his claim as one of the game's top pitchers. Much like Steve Carlton in his superhuman 1972 season, the Phillies became a good team on days Schilling pitched. Between May 23 and June 24, he was the only starting pitcher on the team to record a victory. Bottalico was effective on those rare occasions where he had a lead to protect, while Rolen was proving to be in a league of his own among National League rookies. One unexpected surprise was Darren Daulton. Thought to be finished after recurring knee problems ended his 1996 season after five games, Dutch shocked everyone by hitting close to .300 for much of the first half while playing a competent right field after a broken foot ended Tartabull's season (which turned out to be his last) after seven hitless at-bats. Those strong performances weren't nearly enough to offset the injuries, ineffectiveness, and general ineptitude of the club, however.

Speaking of Daulton, his tenure with the Phillies (which began as a September callup in 1983, he'd been with the club continuously since 1985) came to a close on July 21, when he gave the OK to be traded to the eventual World Champion Florida Marlins in exchange for outfielder Billy McMillon. It was a difficult decision to part with Daulton, but the deal was seen by many as a reward to Dutch for his years of hard work and perseverance through a countless number of injuries. Instead of spending what turned out to be his final season buried in last place, he was given another chance to win it all, which the Marlins ultimately did.

There was a significant change made for the organization off the field in 1997. Bill Giles stepped aside as club president in late June, turning the day-to-day reins over to David Montgomery with Giles staying on as chairman. The main focus for Giles was now trying to find a new place for the Phillies to play, as it was becoming evident that the organization couldn't remain financially competitive in Veterans Stadium. Needless to say, the team's poor performance was also a catalyst for the change.

Things didn't get much better for the Phillies on the field after returning from the All-Star break. On July 27, they were defeated at Dodger Stadium by a score of 7-1 to drop their record to 30-72. Losing 100 games for the first time since 1961 seemed to be a given, it was now a question of how close to the single-season record they could get. As awful as things were, what happened next was even more shocking. For whatever reason, the Phils got hot and stayed that way. Over the final 60 games of the season, their record was 38-22, which was tied with the New York Yankees for the best mark in Major League Baseball over that stretch. It wasn't a matter of the Phillies benefiting from a soft schedule, either, as they swept series from the playoff-bound Marlins, Yankees, and Houston Astros during that time. For the season, the Phils finished with a record of 68-94, which was still the worst in the National League but a one-game improvement over their 1996 output. Achieving such a record was so miraculous that Francona actually received two Manager of the Year votes.

Schilling finished the season with a 17-11 record and a 2.97 ERA. He struck out 319 batters, a franchise record and the most ever by a National League righthanded pitcher. Rolen hit .283 with 21 home runs and 92 RBI to take home unanimous NL Rookie of the Year honors, becoming the first Phillie to take home the award since Dick Allen in 1964. Liberthal and Brogna both hit 20 home runs while Morandini hit .295 in the final season of his first tenure in Philadelphia. Midre Cummings took over in center after being claimed on waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates in July and hit .303 in 63 games. Minor league journeyman Tony Barron ended up seeing extended action in right after the Daulton trade and hit .286 in 57 games while Kevin Jordan and Kevin Sefcik turned in solid seasons off the bench. Aside from Schilling on the mound, Garrett Stephenson went 8-6 with a 3.15 ERA in his rookie season while Bottalico notched 34 saves for the second consecutive year.

On the negative side, the Magee experiment never panned out, as he was sent to the minors after batting .200 in 38 games. Jefferies hit .256 while struggling in left field. In addition to the hitless Tartabull, fellow veteran free agent acquisitions Rex Hudler, Derrick May, and Mark Parent also brought little to the club. Portugal's elbow miseries limited him to just three starts in 1997, going 0-2 with a 4.61 ERA. Leiter won 10 games, but his 17 losses led the league and along with it came a 5.67 ERA. Ryan was never able to regain his 1996 form, as a horrific 9.58 ERA in 20 appearances will attest. Matt Beech lost his first seven decisions en route to a 4-9 record with a 5.07 ERA. Calvin Maduro, Mike Mimbs, Bobby Munoz, and Scott Ruffcorn all had seasons that would best be forgotten. Jerry Spradlin appeared in 76 games out of the bullpen, but had a 4-8 record and 4.74 ERA to show for it.

In a transitional year, the Phillies had gone from embarrassingly bad to shockingly good with no middle ground. It remained to be seen if the Phils would be able to build off their late surge going forward, but it did at least provide a glimmer of hope for an organization that seemed to be spiraling out of control when the year began. Despite the strong finish, Thomas was relieved of his GM duties after the season. Ed Wade initally served as interim general manager but was eventually given the job on a full-time basis.

Anything happening on the field became insignificant during the early morning of Tuesday, September 9, 1997. Just hours after announcing a 13-4 Phillies win over the Mets at Shea Stadium, Richie Ashburn was stricken with a fatal heart attack in his hotel room. The 70-year old Ashburn was an iconic figure in Philadelphia and quite possibly its most beloved sports figure. Whitey had played for the Phils from 1948-59 before returning to the club as a broadcaster in 1963. He had been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995. Ashburn's death stunned the City of Philadelphia, as thousands of mourners paid their respects at a public viewing at Memorial Hall that lasted well into the night on September 12. When the Phillies eventually moved to Citizens Bank Park, the walkway behind center field was named Ashburn Alley in Whitey's honor, with a large bronze statue in his likeness being placed there.

Personal Recollection: The 1997 season was a turning point for me as a Phillies fan. It had long been established that the Phils were always going to be my team no matter what, but the first half of that season was a real test of how much I had invested in them. I turned 17 that summer and life was starting to lead me in various directions. Would the constant losing cause me to distance myself from the Phillies or would I continue to stick it out day after day? I think you know which way I went, and I decided if I can suffer through that, I don't think there is anything that I can't make it through.

One thing that drew me even closer to the Phillies in 1997 was the fact that my family finally got cable that spring, though it was actually the Flyers who were responsible for it happening. It all started two years earlier when the Flyers reached the Eastern Conference Finals. Since ESPN would be carrying some of the games in the Stanley Cup Finals, my sister came up with a plan to pay for a month of cable should the Flyers advance, then leave it up to my parents to decide what they wanted to do after that. Unfortunately, the Flyers were defeated by the New Jersey Devils in the Conference Finals and nothing more came of it. I kept this in mind and presented this plan to my parents as the Flyers took on the New York Rangers in the '97 Eastern Conference Finals. This time, however, I had an ace up my sleeve as I also informed them that Comcast SportsNet would soon be starting and carrying the majority of Phillies games starting in 1998. Like myself, my parents are fans of all Philadelphia teams, but they were able to deal with not being able to see the Flyers or Sixers that much. I knew it would be a different story with the Phillies. Sure enough, the Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, the cable was installed and never taken out.

The final two months of the '97 season were amazing in that there really seemed to be no good reason for the Phillies to be playing so well. But it was definitely nice for everyone who suffered through that miserable first half. Man, was that team bad. They had 24 wins at the All-Star break and were 32 games out of first. Think about that. More than halfway through the season, they were more games out of first place than they had wins. That's not easy to do.

I think the game that best represented how poorly the ballclub played came on June 29 in Atlanta. The Phillies jumped to a 5-0 lead while Scott Ruffcorn held the Braves hitless over the first five innings. Ruffcorn was so wild, though, he was lifted with one out in the sixth despite having the no-hitter still in tact. Ron Blazier took over and walked Andruw Jones before giving up a run-scoring single to Mark Lemke. Keith Lockhart followed with a pinch-hit grand slam to tie the game at 5-5. The Braves went on to win, 6-5 and everyone was pretty much at a loss for words.

The Darren Daulton trade was the only one the Phillies made that season. It was tough seeing Dutch go, but they were doing him a favor. I've never been overly excited to see a team other than the Phils win a World Series, particularly another NL East team, but I was thrilled to see Daulton and Jim Eisenreich win it with the Marlins. Too bad it didn't quite happen for them four years earlier.

Prior to Roy Halladay last season, Curt Schilling's 1997 campaign was the best I'd ever seen by a Phillies pitcher since I began following the team. He went 17-11, but it's not out of the question he could've won 25 games with a better supporting cast. The game Schilling pitched against the Yankees on September 1 really caught everyone's attention, as he struck out 16 in a 5-1 victory that set the tone for a three-game sweep at the Vet. Regardless of your personal opinion of him, Schilling was a damn good pitcher and was close to untouchable when he was on top of his game.

Scott Rolen was barely eligible to win the NL Rookie of the Year in 1997 (a broken wrist ended his 1996 season while he had 130 at-bats, which is the limit to retain rookie eligibility the following year), but that doesn't take away from how good he was that season and the next few years in Philadelphia. Of course, we had no way of knowing how poorly things would end for him with the Phillies, but it was good while it lasted.

Like so many others in Philadelphia, I was devastated by the death of Richie Ashburn. I was just beginning my senior year in high school and the news was broken to me by a teacher. I'm not sure if I thought the guy was messing with me or just refused to believe it because I didn't really take it seriously. But then I found out it was really true after school and it really hit me hard. Growing up listening to Harry and Whitey, they become members of your family for half the year. No matter how good or bad the Phillies were, no matter how good or bad things in your life were, they were like a security blanket. You wanted to share in the good times with them and find comfort in them during the bad times. When Whitey died, it was like that blanket was ripped in half. Hearing Harry Kalas on the air the night Whitey died was absolutely heartbreaking, but somehow he went on and we knew that we would have to go on as well. We needed Harry and Harry needed us, something we never stopped reminding each other of up until Harry passed on a dozen years later. When Harry died in 2009, the other half of that security blanket was gone forever, but those of us who were fortunate enough to have spent our springs and summers with Harry and Whitey had a lifetime of memories to cherish.

That's my story on the 1997 Phillies season. Feel free to share your own recollections.


  1. Retrosheet's 1997 Phillies page:

  2. I frigging love this blog. Seriously, you and I must share a soul or something. I remember falling absolutely in LOVE with the 1997 Phillies in the back half of that season, and cheering them on in their "quest" (that I think I made up in my brain) not to lose 100 games.

    1997 was similarly a watershed year for me as a Phillies fan. Growing up, I'd been primarily an Eagles and Phillies fan, and, though I loved the Phils, if I am being honest, the Eagles were better from 1988-1992 and again from 1994-1996, and so I was more of an Eagles fan than a Phillies fan. But 1997 was the first year I could start thinking about driving myself down to games (I turned 19 during the summer), and the relative cheapness of tickets made that all the more palatable as a possibility. I remember watching every game of the Phillies' September sweep of the Yankees in my college dorm room freshman year (including Mark Grace's stunning non-perfect game in which he faced the minimum number of batters), and dreaming about him as a future ace for the staff. Also remember Bobby Estellela's 3 HR game in Montreal.

    Anyway, this was the summer that irrevocably did it for me: all due respect to the Eagles, Sixers, and Flyers, but Phillies will always be #1 in my heart if I could only pick one. And 1997 made it happen.