Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Random Past Season: 1991

Year: 1991
Record: 78-84 (3rd place in NL East, 20 games behind Pittsburgh Pirates)
Managers: Nick Leyva (4-9), Jim Fregosi (74-75
Coaches: Larry Bowa, Hal Lanier, Denis Menke, Johnny Podres, Mike Ryan, John Vukovich
General Manager: Lee Thomas
All-Star: John Kruk
Top Draft Pick: Tyler Green (1st Round, 10th overall)

About 1991: More than any other sport, the Major League Baseball season can be a real rollercoaster ride. Over 162 games, every team will have its share of highs and lows. For some, it can seem to be one extreme or another with little to no middle ground. The 1991 Philadelphia Phillies experienced such a season. It was a year that saw a managerial change very early in the campaign, a near-fatal car accident involving two of the club's key players, a no-hitter, and a summer swoon that was stopped by what is tied for the second-longest winning streak in franchise history. In the end, the Phils finished with a record of 78-84, 20 games behind the National League East champion Pittsburgh Pirates. While that may not seem like much, it was good enough for a third-place finish, the team's highest since finishing second in 1986. It also provided some hope that perhaps, at long last, the Phillies were not that far away from contention.

Despite winning 10 more games in 1990 than they had in 1989, the Phillies were not seen as a team on the rise as the 1991 season dawned. An offense that featured returning veterans Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, Von Hayes, Charlie Hayes, Dale Murphy, and Dickie Thon, newcomer Wally Backman, and rookie Wes Chamberlain was considered adequate enough, but a pitching staff riddled with question marks and inexperience (especially after the loss of top '90 starter Ken Howell to shoulder surgery) was expected to be the team's downfall. Terry Mulholland (who no-hit the San Francisco Giants on August 15, 1990) would head up a young rotation, followed by Jason Grimsely, Jose DeJesus, and Pat Combs. The final spot was up for grabs, with journeyman Dave LaPoint ultimately prevailing over Tommy Greene, who joined a bullpen that featured Roger McDowell, Joe Boever, Bruce Ruffin, and Darrel Akerfelds. Added to the mix would be Mitch Williams, who was acquired from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for relievers Chuck McElroy and Bob Scanlan on the eve of the regular season opener. Another addition was former St. Louis Cardinal Danny Cox, whose '89 and '90 seasons were wiped out due to elbow problems, but was expected to resume his career after a brief rehab stint early in the '91 campaign.

Preseason prognostications almost exclusively saw the Phillies finishing last or next-to-last in the six-team NL East. As the club stumbled through the Grapefruit League schedule, reports began to surface that manager Nick Leyva was on the hot seat. The gloomy spring seemed to foreshadow a long season ahead, and by the time camp broke in April, the Phils already seemed like a defeated team resigned to their usual place at or near the bottom of the standings. It was probably no shock when they dropped their first two games of the regular season, though it was hard to fault the pitching staff for consecutive 2-1 losses to the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. Those two losses were followed by three victories, the second of which was an 11-4 romp over Jamie Moyer and the St. Louis Cardinals in the home opener. At 3-2, the Phillies had reached what turned out to be their high-water mark of the 1991 season, as they'd never be above .500 at any other point. Seven losses in the next eight games dropped the Phils to 4-9, and general manager Lee Thomas felt it was time for a change.

On April 23, 1991, Nick Leyva was relieved of his duties as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. His replacement was Jim Fregosi, a longtime friend of Lee Thomas who had previously managed the California Angels and Chicago White Sox. After dropping the first two games of Fregosi's tenure, the Phils responded well to the change, winning 14 of their next 21 to pull back to .500 at 18-18. Included was a five-game winning streak between April 27 and May 1, the first time since 1987 the team had won that many games in a row.

Unfortunately, anything the club did on the field to that point was greatly overshadowed by the events that took place during the early morning hours of May 6. On the way home from John Kruk's bachelor party, Lenny Dykstra crashed his car into two trees, breaking three ribs, his right collarbone and cheekbone, as well as puncturing a lung and bruising his heart. Darren Daulton was a passenger in the car and suffered a broken left eye socket, scratched cornea, and bruised heart. Dykstra, whose blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit at the time of the crash, managed to survive and would miss over two months of action while Daulton missed three weeks.

A couple weeks after that lowest of lows, the Phillies reached a high point on May 23 against the Montreal Expos at Olympic Stadium. There was more bad news going into this game as Danny Cox (who had joined the rotation in late April) had to be scratched due to a pulled groin, with Tommy Greene getting the call. Before a sparse Thursday afternoon crowd of 8833, Greene walked seven Expos but held them hitless over the first eight innings. With the bullpen up and throwing just in case, Greene set the first two Montreal hitters down in order in the ninth before stabbing a one-hop scorcher off the bat of Tim Wallach to complete the eighth no-hitter in franchise history. The 2-0 victory pushed the Phils back to .500 at 20-20. Unfortunately, it was the last time they'd reach sea level. Four consecutive losses followed the no-no, with Greene proving to be the stopper when he again shut out the Expos on May 28, allowing three hits while striking out nine and walking none in a 12-0 romp at Veterans Stadium. The team's record stood at 22-24 after a 2-1 win over Montreal the following night, but another four-game losing streak ensued and the Phillies were never fewer than three games below .500 the rest of the way.

By the end of June, the Phillies were 32-43 and in the basement of the NL East. It seemed as though the only drama that awaited the ballclub over the season's final three months was to see if they could avoid finishing last for the third time in four years. John Kruk was one of the few bright spots, hitting near .300 for most of the first half. He was the team's lone representative at the All-Star Game in Toronto, but perhaps fittingly, never got into the game. On the field, it was more of the same, as the Phils fell to 35-51 after being bludgeoned at home by the Giants, 17-5 on July 14.

The following night, Lenny Dykstra received a mixed reaction from the home crowd as he returned to the lineup for the first time since the crash. He went 2-for-5 and Darren Daulton hit his first career grand slam as the Phillies rallied from a 6-1 deficit to top the Los Angeles Dodgers, 9-8. The win sparked the Phils to a three-game sweep of the Dodgers before heading to San Diego and taking the first two of a three-game set from the Padres. The rollercoaster ride that was the 1991 Phillies season immediately took another steep dive, as they lost the final seven games of the road trip, limping home on July 30 with a record of 40-58. Aside from avoiding a last-place finish, it appeared as though the Phils may have their work cut out for them trying to avoid losing 100 games. But this was a year to expect the unexpected. Still, nobody could've ever dreamed of what was about to take place taking place.

On July 30, the Phillies welcomed the Padres to Veterans Stadium to open a brief two-game series and homestand. Jose DeJesus allowed seven hits and walked seven, but surrendered just one run over eight innings in a 2-1 victory to snap the seven-game skid. The following night, Wes Chamberlain blasted a pair of three-run home runs in a 9-3 rout. After the mini-sweep, it was off to Montreal for four with the Expos. The Phils took the first three games in Quebec, but the Expos seemed poised to take the finale as they loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied at 2-2. Mitch Williams pitched his way out of it, though, and an RBI double by Dale Murphy in the 10th gave the Phillies a 3-2 lead that the Wild Thing would preserve and give the ballclub a six-game winning streak.

Back home against the Cubs on August 6, the Phillies again found themselves in dire straits as Chicago took a 2-1 lead in the ninth. Lenny Dykstra fixed that by sending Paul Assenmacher's first pitch of the bottom of the frame to the seats in right field for a 3-3 tie. Two innings later, Murphy again delivered the deciding blow with a walkoff grand slam and a 6-2 win. Williams again was the pitcher of record, and he and the team would make it three straight extra inning victories the next night as Chamberlain's 11th-inning RBI single scored Randy Ready with the final run in a 5-4 triumph. The Phils completed the sweep of Chicago and made it nine wins in a row with an 11-1 plastering in the series finale. The streak reached double digits in a seesaw 5-4 victory over the Expos on August 9, with Dickie Thon's sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth scoring John Kruk with the decisive run. Williams was the winning pitcher for the fifth time during the streak. Win number 11 came the next night by a score of 4-2, and the Phillies made it an even dozen on August 11 as Charlie Hayes scampered home on a Jeff Fassero wild pitch in the eighth inning to give the Phils a 5-4 lead that Williams held in the ninth. On August 12, Terry Mulholland outdueled Dennis Martinez, 2-1, and the Phillies had their longest winning streak since 1977 at 13 in a row. It was tied for the second-longest streak in franchise history, behind the 1887 club that won 16 straight.

All good things must come to an end, and for the Phillies, their 13-game winning streak ended at Three Rivers Stadium in a 4-3 loss to the Pirates on August 13. A 5-3 loss in Pittsburgh the next night continued another streak, as it dropped the Phils to 0-8 against the Buccos in '91 before finally entering the win column with a 6-4 victory in the finale of the three-game set. The Phillies did get some measure of revenge the following week when they swept the Pirates at the Vet, with all three wins coming in walkoff fashion. Dickie Thon was the hero in the series opener, as his two-run homer off Stan Belinda with two outs in the ninth lifted the Phils to a 6-5 triumph. The last two games were won by scores of 6-5 and 4-3 in 11 innings, respectively, with RBI singles by Wally Backman and Darren Daulton delivering the final tallies. With the season entering its home stretch, the Phillies didn't have any postseason aspirations, but finishing above .500 for the first time in five years now seemed to be a reasonable goal. Disaster would strike once more, though.

The Phillies held a 3-1 lead over the Cincinnati Reds with two outs in the second inning of a game at Riverfront Stadium on August 26 when Chris Sabo stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and sent a drive to deep center. Lenny Dykstra took extra bases and three RBI away from Sabo with a running grab, hanging onto the ball when he crashed into the unpadded wall. Leading off the top of the third, Dykstra was unable to finish his at-bat, immediately running to the clubhouse after swinging the bat. He'd broken his collarbone and would miss the season's final six weeks. Cincinnati rallied for a 5-4 victory, leaving the Phils with a record of 60-64. They'd play slightly south of .500 ball the rest of the way en route their final mark of 78-84.

In an up-and-down season, there were predictably a variety of individual performances when the final numbers went into the books. John Kruk was far and away the team's top offensive performer, hitting .294 with 21 home runs and 92 RBI, leading the club in each of those categories. Lenny Dykstra hit .297, but appeared in just 63 games. Very telling was the fact the Phillies went 36-27 with Dykstra in the lineup, 42-57 without him. Dale Murphy finished what would be his last full season with a .252 average, 18 homers, and 81 RBI. Wes Chamberlain's name was tossed about in Rookie of the Year discussion for much of the summer, but a poor final month took him out of the running as he ended up at .240 with 13 homers and 50 RBI. Darren Daulton never really recovered from the car accident in '91, hitting a paltry .196 with 12 home runs and 42 RBI. Charlie Hayes hit a disappointing .230 with 12 roundtrippers and 53 RBI in the last season of his first Phillies tenure, while Dickie Thon's stay in Philadelphia ended with a .252 average, 9 homers, and 44 RBI. Von Hayes also had a forgettable final season as a Phillie, hitting just .225 without a home run in 77 games. He also missed over two months due to a broken wrist sustained after being hit by Reds pitcher Tom Browning. Dave Hollins, Ricky Jordan, and Jim Lindeman chipped in with strong performances off the bench.

On the mound, Terry Mulholland really came into his own in 1991, going 16-13 with a 3.61 ERA and eight complete games. Tommy Greene didn't rest on his laurels after his no-hitter, finishing at 13-7 with a 3.38 ERA. Jose DeJesus showed promise by going 10-9 with a 3.42 ERA, but injuries would prevent him from ever throwing another pitch in a Phillies uniform after '91. The rotation was in a constant state of flux after those three, however, with Pat Combs and Jason Grimsley having particularly disappointing campaigns. In the bullpen, Mitch Williams was the star, going 12-5 with 30 saves and a 2.34 ERA. Eight of those wins and five of those saves came in August, for which he was named National League Pitcher of the Month. The Wild Thing's stellar performance made Roger McDowell expendable, and he was traded to the Dodgers in exchange for fellow reliever Mike Hartley and outfielder Braulio Castillo on July 31.

When all was said and done, 1991 was the fifth consecutive losing season for the Philadelphia Phillies. Despite that fact and all the obstacles they faced along the way, it wasn't quite the gloom and doom that everyone had been expecting when the season began. The unlikely 13-game winning streak vaulted the club to some level of respectability. It was now a matter of moving forward and taking the next step towards becoming a legitimate contender.

Personal Recollection: It really was a rollercoaster ride for the Phillies in 1991, wasn't it? In fact, that year's Home Companion was entitled "What a Ride!" and narrated by John Kruk. The way a team performs during the exhibition season very rarely gives any kind of indication of how they'll fare once the games count, but the Phils did seem very listless that spring. There were problems with Nick Leyva going back to the previous year, which Kruk noted in his autobiography, I Ain't An Athlete, Lady...

According to Kruk, Leyva took a hard-nosed approach to the team in his first season at the helm in 1989 and was often distant. Then in 1990, he decided to try and be one of the guys. The inconsistent demeanor rubbed many players the wrong way and it had gotten to the point where they didn't know what they were going to get on a daily basis in 1991. The final straw evidently came prior to the Home Opener, when Darren Daulton went into Leyva's office after noticing he wasn't in the starting lineup. After Daulton met with Leyva, the lineup was changed. That was on April 12, and 11 days later, Leyva was gone. The team still had its share of issues on the field after Jim Fregosi took over, but it did seem as though everyone knew where they stood with him.

I remember hearing about the accident involving Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton on the way to school the morning it occurred. There weren't a whole lot of details given at that time, but later in the day more news came out about how serious it really was. Both were lucky to survive, especially Dykstra. Kruk mentioned in his book how he felt responsible for the whole thing when it happened, since it was his bachelor party they were coming home from. Of course, it wasn't Kruk's fault at all, and fortunately everyone made a full recovery.

The beauty of a no-hitter is that it can happen to anyone at any time, and that's what happened with Tommy Greene. Called upon to make a spot start, he ends up making history. Like Terry Mulholland's no-no the year before, I only saw the last inning on TV, as in '90 my family was on vacation and saw only the last inning when ESPN cut in. This time, I was in school (fifth grade at Masterman middle school) and caught a couple innings on the radio during the ride home before arriving in time for the ninth. It was weird to see bullpen activity when a guy had a no-hitter going, but Greene was effectively wild that day. Greene made a very nice grab on the ball hit by Tim Wallach for the final out, as it was probably headed back up the middle. And of course, there was a Harry Kalas call to go along with it: "Hard ground ball, GREAT GRAB GREENE, IT'S OVER! HE'S PITCHED A NO-HIT, NO-RUN GAME, MAKING THE FINAL OUT HIMSELF! TOMMY GREENE A NO-HITTER! That young man has to really be excited, the flight to Pittsburgh's going to be wonderful."

Dreadful Phillies summers were commonplace by the time 1991 rolled around, and on July 30 of that year, there didn't seem to be any reason to think the rest of that one would be any different. I remember after the first win (which as previously mentioned came immediately on the heels of a seven-game losing streak), my dad said to me, "Well, maybe they'll win about 10 in a row now." True story. Not sure if he knew something nobody else did, but the Phils ended up doing him three better.

Man, what an awesome two-week oasis that was. Everything that could go right went right. Granted, eight of those 13 wins were against a pretty bad Expos team, but you still have to do a whole lot of things right to win that many games in a row. Six of the victories were decided in the final at-bat. The Phillies became the hot team in town again for a brief period. Even though I'm also a huge fan of the Eagles, Flyers, and Sixers, it was nice to see the Phils generating that buzz. Little did we know that two years later, we'd have an entire season just like it.

Mitch Williams was absolutely brilliant during the winning streak, as he was for much of the year. Because of what ultimately happened in 1993, it's mostly forgotten that 1991 was the Wild Thing's best season as a Phillie. I would have to believe it ranks pretty high among the top seasons ever for a Phillies reliever. Terry Mulholland really started to blossom after his no-hitter and it carried over into '90. Tommy Greene followed a similar path, but aside from '91 and '93, injuries prevented us from seeing just how good Greene could've been. Jose DeJesus didn't throw a no-hitter, but he had pretty nasty stuff himself. Like Greene, injuries prevented us from seeing the finished product in DeJesus.

Back to the Home Companion, one aspect that Phillies fans raised during the current generation would find pretty silly is how big of a deal was made out of finishing in third place. I remember one scene when the Phils took over third, they showed a player (I believe it was Wally Backman) changing the magnetic standings board in the clubhouse. Kruk mentioned how it felt like they were in a pennant race. The "clincher" came on the season's next-to-last day as Terry Mulholland shut out the Mets, 1-0. It goes without saying that times surely have changed.

The Phillies commemorated the 20th anniversary of Veterans Stadium in 1991. I was at the Home Opener that year and I'll never forget how loudly Nick Leyva was booed during introductions. Everyone knew the guy was on the way out. Jim Bunning threw out the first ball, as he got the win in the first game at the Vet in 1971. On that night, Roger McDowell was on the mound to record the final out. Noting this on the Home Companion, John Kruk quips, "I wonder what they'll be saying about Roger McDowell in 20 years." Well, 2011 marked 20 years since that took place. McDowell got into a little trouble with some fans in San Francisco prior to a game last year. I won't go into detail here, but look it up if you're unfamiliar. So that question was answered.

No matter how well or poorly the team has performed in a given year, I always feel a little sadness at the end of each Phillies season (the obvious exception to this point being 2008). You get used to them being there every day, and then suddenly they're not for four or five months. Despite that sadness, there was also a sense of relief at the conclusion of most seasons growing up. Let's face it, the Phils weren't very good for the vast majority of my youth and it was good to turn the page and look forward to the next season, even though there often wasn't a whole lot of hope for improvement. When the 1991 campaign came to a close, there was finally a real sense of optimism moving forward, that maybe this team was finally ready to come into its own. Of course, things didn't go as planned in 1992, but sure enough, we did have that one glorious summer of 1993. You have to think that some of that season's seeds were planted during that magical two-week run in 1991. Good times, good times.

That's my story on the 1991 Phillies season. Feel free to share your own recollections

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Gambler

Remember that guy? Kenny Rogers? Total stain. Not "Islands in the Stream" Kenny. I'm talking pinstripes Kenny. Anyway, I bring him up only to introduce today's topic: sports betting.

My gambling "career" began while I was at Roman Catholic High School. Yeah. I was like 15, dropping $30 parlays and $25, three-team teasers. During football season, me and my friends would gather in one of our living rooms and go through the matchups in the Inquirer. We'd call a neighborhood bookie and get the latest lines. We'd pass the phone around while each making our picks. Then we ordered food from Fiesta and watched our games. I always ended up regretting my food order; I was gonna need that money to pay off my loss.

I always lost. And that's not exactly the kind of thing you can bring to your single, two- and three-job working mother.

"Yes, my wonderful, youngest child?"
"Can I have $30?"
"Thirty? That's a lot. Why do you need that much money?"
"Well, I bet on the Seahawks to lose by less than eight points on the road in the snow after a Monday Night division loss at home. And, well, they lost by 22."

So, rather than trying to have that conversation, I instead had to keep all money I got that week and hope it came to $30 by Saturday morning. Token money, lunch money, some invented field trip. (Roman didn't do field trips. Though freshman year, our English teacher took us to Les Mis at the Forrest Theater. I fell asleep) Point is, even though Mom was actually paying my debts, she didn't know it. Yes. Hell will be hot. I know...

After a few losses like these, I pretty much came to realize that I was a mush. I needn't be betting, particularly with funds to which I had not access.

Fast forward to more current times. Fantasy football. I suck at running a pretend football team. Like, I'm horrible. The guys I draft don't just get injured; in fact, I'm pretty sure one guy I took back in '07, promising back out of Tough Guy U came down with Dengue fever. That, or I miss a player's career year by a season. I've learned to never draft rookie WR, but third-year guys are solid. No matter, because I always finish out of the money. Better yet, I always end up donating to the grocery fund of some dude I know through my college pals. Bastard!

Then there's fantasy baseball. What a clusterfuck that is. I've discovered, the hard way, that it's damn near impossible for me to follow a fake, 25-man team over six months. I was involved in a serious money league a few years back. Holy shit. These guys didn't even kiss me, they just told me to leave the money on the dresser on my way out.

Let's face it: gambling is hard. If it weren't, what happened in Vegas wouldn't last very long. On the other hand, gambling is fun. And that's why we do it, no? It's why I still do, at least. I can't sit through a Super Bowl without having some kind of wager going. Otherwise, I'll just eat and look stupid. And we can't have that.

So now, when I gamble, it's a small bet. Something to make the game I'm watching or the season I'm enduring a little more interesting. Case in point: back on Christmas Eve 2010, I was at a friend's house celebrating with a bunch of people. It was a good time and everyone's superior sports acumen was on full display.

As this was the case, a group of us were talking about the Phillies' latest signing: Cliff Lee. Many of us were quite excited about the prospect of a 1-2 punch of Halladay and Lee. My friend, Bobby, quickly asserted that Cole Hamels should not be excluded from our conversation. Hamels, according to my disillusioned pal, was better than Lee. Upon hearing this, I engaged in a spirited debate with my friend over who in fact was the better pitcher. The argument was moot, unprovable at that current juncture. The only way to solve our dilemma was to let them play. And of course, make a bet.

The bet was: I took Lee and Bobby took Hamels. $100. The pitcher with the best season won. We based this on wins and ERA. What a bet it turned out to be! Lee started hot, then Cole overtook him, but Lee rattled off an impressive streak and then settled into a nice rhythm. Lee ended the season at 17-8 with a phenomenal 2.40 ERA, while Cole finished with a respectable 14 wins against 9 losses and a 2.79 ERA. A good season, no doubt. Just not better than Lee's.

The bet made the season a touch more interesting. And once it ended, Bobby reached out and we agreed to run it back for the 2012 season. When we met on Christmas Eve 2011, Bobby laid a cool c-note on me and we brainstormed for this year's wager. What we came up with should prove to be another down-to-the-wire contest.

My horse is Hunter Pence; Chase Utley, Bobby's. The bet is who will have the better batting average. A few caveats had to be included, in the event of injuries. The winner must have at least 300 ABs. If the player with the higher average does not reach 300 ABs, he must hit at least .300 to win. I'll save you further explanation.

$100. A complete season of yet another reason to love and follow the Phillies.

I'm looking forward to this season. I hope to get to the Bank to see a few games. Maybe I'll take the subway once, just for nostalgia. Only one problem: I need token money.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Clearwater and Wilbur Snapp

Careless Whisper by WHAM! Was topping the charts this June. The foul year of our lord 1985. I was 10 years old the last time I stepped foot in Clearwater, FL.  The only booze I tasted was the Irish Whiskey my Mom rubbed on my gums. Life was a lot less complicated, but things change. Well most things..My voracious love for baseball has never waxed nor waned. My family was on a trip to Disney World that year, but I begged and pleaded for us to travel down I-4 to watch the Clearwater Phillies play. My Mom and Dad are the greatest and agreed to make that trip, spend a day at the beach, and then catch the game that night.

I can recall 7 of us piled into our rented Lincoln Continental Town Car. It was white and it was sweet..kinda like (oh nevermind). Clearwater Beach did not offer changing rooms or bath houses, so I can vividly recall my Aunt Gerry getting changed in the back of the car with my Mom holding up towels over the windows. She loved the water and HAD to set her feet in the Gulf atleast once. I can recall my cousin Brian floating on a raft in the Gulf and this fish jumping or ‘flying’ over him. That was enough for me, I was OUTTA THERE!

We arrived at Jack Russell very early for the game against the Osceola Astros that night. So early that we were the only 7 patrons in the park. A thirty-something ginger haired fella walked up to my Dad and they started chatting it up. I forget his name, but he was the current GM of the Clearwater team.  My Dad was telling him my name, to look out for me in about 7 years, and that I could ‘hit a speck of fly shit off of a pile of pepper grains’ . So my Dad and the GM called me over. The GM asked me if I would want to go on the field during the 7th inning and throw a baseball for a contest. I had no idea what the contest would be, but I was confident and cocky, so I said sure.

The middle of the seventh was approaching, so I made my way down towards the Phillies dugout. I was decked out in JAMS and a mesh-backed maroon Phillies cap (I was wearing mesh hats before that nutrag Kutcher). There was a wooden cutout with three holes (triple input??) being brought onto the field as well. My name was announced over the PA system and I was given three baseballs. I do not remember the prize, but the deal was the three holes were small, medium, and large and I had to try and throw the ball in whichever one I picked. My Dad had just talked me up, so I had to go for the toughest and smallest. SWISH! One through. SWISHH! Two through! And finally SWISSHHH! The kid from Philadelphia just aced the challenge. As I was leaving the mound area, the Astros pitcher gave me a high five and I felt like the coolest kid on Earth for that moment.

I remember a few players from that game: Steve DeAngelis, who was supposed to be the next big thing for the Phillies. The starting pitcher was Marvin Freeman. Wally Ritchie came in the game to pitch relief and that Ricky Jordan was on the squad and played First Base this night. It was June 25, 1985. I remember it for many reasons, but one reason made it particularly memorable. Wilbur Snapp.

Wilbur Snapp was the Clearwater Phillies organist. He was at the game bright and early and played a few songs for my brother and I. He was cool and fun and just had a neat way about him. Later that night on a particularly bad umpiring call, Wilbur played “Three Blind Mice”. I can remember laughing my ass off and thinking minor league baseball was so easy going and fun… Then I saw the umpire take off his mask and motion above the first base area, right where Mr. Snapp was, and toss him. For the first and only time in recorded baseball history, the organist was ejected. I can recall the PA announcer laughing while he said, “Wilbur Snapp, the Clearwater Phillies organist, has been EJECTED!”. The crowd of 2000 or so went wild applauding! Mr. Snapp came down from his perch at the organ and grabbed a seat in the stands. He was seen making balloon animals for any kids that came by. I went over to Mr. Snapp and had him sign my ball: Wilbur Snapp, 3 Blind Mice Organist.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Random Past Phillie: Mike Grace

At long last, we have our newest Random Past Phillie! Suggestions are always welcome. Quick shoutout to and for some of the particulars.

Michael James Grace
Position: Pitcher
Born: June 20, 1970 in Joliet, Illinois
Acquired: Selected in the 10th round of the 1991 Draft
Phillies Debut: September 1, 1995
Final Phillies Game: October 1, 1999
Uniform Number: 44

About Mike Grace: Of all the labels one can place on a professional athlete, few carry quite the stigma as "injury prone" does. Regardless of the circumstances, such a label generally stays with a player for the duration of his career and can give to some the perception that he is soft. In many cases, the injuries have a way of piling up. Sometimes, it can be a case of coming back too soon. Other times, overcompensating for one injury can lead to a different one somewhere else. And sometimes, they just happen. It was a little bit of everything for Mike Grace during his brief Major League Baseball career. A 6'4" righthander with a quirky delivery, Grace suffered a series of injuries during his minor league career but overcame them and burst on the scene to become one of the game's top pitchers early in the 1996 season. Unfortunately, the injury bug would bite again to wipe out Grace's very promising rookie campaign, and eventually his career.

Mike Grace was originally selected by the San Diego Padres in the 7th round of the 1988 Draft, but opted instead to attend Bradley University. Three years later, he was a 10th-round selection of the Philadelphia Phillies, with whom he signed. Grace didn't disappoint in his first season of pro ball, going 4-3 with a 1.64 ERA in 12 combined starts between class "A" Batavia and Spartanburg. It would be a different story in 1992, however, as elbow problems limited him to just six starts at Spartanburg. "Problems" are somewhat of an understatement here, as the next time Grace set foot on a professional mound was two years and four surgeries later. He found himself back at Spartanburg after recovering, going 5-5 with a 4.82 ERA in 15 starts. Finally healthy again in 1995, Grace responded with a 13-6 record and 3.54 ERA in 24 starts for "AA" Reading, before being promoted to "AAA" Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. After winning both of his starts at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and fashioning a 1.59 ERA to boot, Grace was among those who got the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September of '95.

On September 1, 1995, Mike Grace made his debut for the Phillies against the San Diego Padres at Jack Murphy Stadium. It was far from an impressive first start, as Grace allowed four runs on eight hits over 4 and 1/3 innings in a 6-3 loss. The second time around proved to be a charm for Grace, however, as he allowed two hits over seven scoreless innings against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on September 7. Ismael Valdez was even stingier over those first seven frames, shutting out the Phils on one hit before allowing singles to Jim Eisenreich and Andy Van Slyke. After Mike Lieberthal advanced the runners with a sacrifice bunt, Kevin Elster lifted a sacrifice fly to score Eisenreich with what turned out to be the game's only run and gave Grace his first MLB victory. As luck would have it, that turned out to be Grace's final appearance with the Phillies in 1995, as a shoulder injury put him on the shelf for the season's remaining three weeks.

Though the Phillies liked what they saw of Grace during his two '95 starts with the parent club, it was assumed heading into Spring Training that he'd be opening the 1996 season with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Grace had learned the hard way that injuries can nearly derail a player's career, but the flip side of that is they can create opportunities for others. When numerous Phillies pitchers were sidelined prior to the '96 campaign, it put Grace in position to win a spot in the club's Opening Day starting rotation. He did just that, and in fact was given the start in the second game of the season. The placement of Grace in the second slot was more a case of splitting up two lefthanders in Sid Fernandez and Terry Mulholland than anything else, but you could've fooled the Colorado Rockies. Grace stymied the potent Colorado lineup in his '96 debut, giving up four hits over eight scoreless innings. His shutout bid and outing itself came to an end when Ellis Burks led off the ninth with a titanic home run into the left field upper deck at Veterans Stadium, but Ricky Bottalico preserved a 3-1 lead to give both Grace and the Phillies their first victory of 1996.

Grace did hit some bumps in the road over his next two starts, allowing 11 runs (10 earned) in 11 innings. He managed to come away with a 7-6 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 10 thanks to a three-run home run by Benito Santiago that erased a 5-4 deficit in the seventh, but was unable to hold a 5-0 lead against the Montreal Expos his next time out. Grace ended up with a no-decision in a 7-6 loss at Olympic Stadium, the big blow a sixth-inning grand slam by Shane Andrews that tied the game at 6-6. The struggles would be short-lived, though, as Grace upped his record to 5-0 by allowing just two earned runs over 23 and 2/3 innings in victories over the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, and Florida Marlins. He departed his next outing against the Houston Astros with a 5-3 lead after six innings, but a fourth straight winning start proved elusive as Houston rallied for a 7-5 victory.

On May 12, Grace took the mound against the defending World Champion Atlanta Braves and Greg Maddux, winner of the previous four National League Cy Young Awards. Atlanta had won the first two games of a weekend set at Veterans Stadium, and were in prime position for a sweep as Maddux in his prime against a rookie seemed like a Mother's Day mismatch. It was, but not in the way you'd expect as the Phils jumped on Maddux for three runs in the first. That proved to be ample support for Grace, who went the distance for the first time in his MLB career, allowing four hits in a 6-0 shutout victory. Flying under the radar for what would eventually be a last-place Phillies team, it seemed like maybe they had unearthed a gem. What nobody knew at the time was that Mike Grace's career had hit its ceiling.

After defeating Atlanta, Grace suffered his first two losses of the '96 season, falling to the Dodgers and Padres, respectively. He rebounded with a 9-3 win over the Dodgers on May 28, but left his next start (June 2 against the Padres) in the fifth inning after experiencing shoulder discomfort. The Phils blew a 6-0 lead against San Diego that day, but managed to eek out a 9-8 victory thanks to a walkoff RBI single by Ricky Otero in the bottom of the 12th. The bad news was that Grace had severe inflammation in his shoulder and would end up missing the rest of the season after going 7-2 with a 3.49 ERA. After recovering from the shoulder injury, Grace went down with a triceps injury during Spring Training in 1997, and spent most of the season recovering in the minors. He'd return to the big club in late August, where he was 3-2 with a 3.46 ERA in six starts.

Included among those six starts was Grace's finest outing as a Phillie, a 5-0 three-hit shutout of the New York Yankees on September 2. Never known for having pinpoint control, Grace surrendered no walks and the defense made all the plays behind him, as his only strikeout of the night came when he got Tim Raines looking to end the game. Thanks to two double plays and a caught stealing, the Yankees only sent the minimum 27 batters to the plate in nine innings. Between Terry Mulholland's no-hitter in 1990 (one batter reached on an error but was erased on a double play) and Roy Halladay's perfect game in 2010, Grace was the only Phillies pitcher to accomplish this feat.

Grace's encouraging return to action late in the 1997 season landed him a spot in the rotation when 1998 came around. Unfortunately, he was unable to take advantage of this opportunity, as a 3-5 record and 5.65 ERA got him sent back to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in early June. He returned to the Phillies in August, but didn't fare any better en route to finishing the '98 campaign at 4-7 with a 5.48 ERA in 21 appearances (15 starts). It was even worse for Grace in 1999. Relegated to long relief, he went 1-1 with an ugly 7.50 ERA in 21 games out of the bullpen before being demoted in early July. Grace rejoined the rotation upon his recall to the parent club in September, but went 0-3 in five starts. He made what turned out to be his last MLB appearance during a 7-4 loss to the Expos at Veterans Stadium on October 1, allowing two runs in 1 and 2/3 innings. In all, Grace worked in 27 games for the Phillies in '99 (five starts), going 1-4 with a 7.68 ERA. Granted free agency, Grace moved on to the Baltimore Orioles organization in 2000 and then to the Cincinnati Reds in 2001, not reaching the majors for either club over his final two pro seasons.

Personal Recollection: I'll admit it, I was a big Mike Grace fan. I've mentioned on here before that I always tried to wear number 17 for each baseball team I played on, with Ricky Jordan being the reason. Most years, I played on multiple teams and was usually successful in getting that number with at least one of them. In 1996, I only played for one team and number 17 wasn't available, so I took 44 instead. There must have been something about that number, as you know all about Grace's fate by now. In my case, I also got off to a great start. I think I gave up something like one run in the first 25 innings I pitched that season while hitting close to .600. Then I came down with mono. I foolishly tried to play through it, but my ERA over my last four or five appearances was probably close to what Grace had in his last two seasons with the Phillies and if I hit above .200 over the last ten or so games of the season, it wasn't by much. Needless to say, I never wore number 44 again.

I think what I liked best about Grace was his delivery, which had a real high leg kick and seemed like he was going in a million different directions. It could be very deceptive, but the problem was that he threw across his body with that delivery, and that probably had more than a little to do with all of his injury woes. Grace also seemed to have that unflappable, "whatever" kind of personality, kind of like what we see in Cliff Lee. Of course, that plays a lot better when you're winning.

I was at the game where Grace shut out the Braves and defeated Greg Maddux in the process. There weren't a while lot of bright spots for the Phillies in 1996, but that was certainly one of them. It's impossible to say what would've happened over the remainder of the '96 season, but I do believe Grace was the frontrunner for NL Rookie of the Year at the time he got hurt. Three of his last four outings before the injury were subpar, and maybe the league's hitters were starting to adjust to him. They certainly seemed to have Grace figured out in 1998 and 1999. But we'll never know for sure. As it was, Todd Hollandsworth won the Rookie of the Year in '96, the fifth straight Dodger to do so. That streak was broken by Scott Rolen in 1997.

Grace's shutout against the Yankees in '97 was a thing of beauty. I guess you can't call a one-strikeout performance dominant, but he kept them off-balance all night. That was the middle game in that great three-game sweep at the Vet, with the first one being Curt Schilling's 16-strikeout masterpiece and the finale being won on a walkoff walk by Tony Barron. Fun times in an era when there weren't a whole lot of those. Too bad it ended up being the last hurrah for Grace. I really would've liked to have seen him overcome all the injuries and have a nice career. Oh well, at least he had his moments.

That's my story on Mike Grace. Feel free to share your own recollections.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Hide Your Eyes, Schilling Should Be This Year's Wall Inductee

Well, Phillies fans, it's that time of year again. Yes, Spring Training will be starting in a matter of days, but that's not what I'm getting at in this instance. What will be discussed here is a low-key event that takes place within the Philadelphia Phillies organization this time of year: the annual Wall of Fame balloting.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Phillies Wall of Fame, here's a quick rundown. It was formed in 1978 with a past member of the Phillies and Philadelphia Athletics being inducted each year. This continued through 2003, with the lone exception being 1983, when the Phillies decided to commemorate their 100th anniversary by inducting an All-Centennial Team. No members of the A's were enshrined that year. When the Phils moved to Citizens Bank Park in 2004, the practice of inducting an A's player ceased. CBP being an exclusively Phillies venue was a reason for this, as was the fact that the Athletics had only 54 seasons of history in Philadelphia to choose from. The plaques honoring the A's players now reside at the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society in Hatboro, PA.

Starting in 2005, the Phillies decided to open the Wall of Fame balloting to fans online at Each voter may pick a first, second, and third place candidate. The fan vote is combined with voting from within the organization to determine the winner. It's been rumored that the winner is predetermined before all of this takes place, and the voting is just a stunt to stir some interest, but we won't get into that here.

The requirements for nomination (according to are that a player must have spent at least five full seasons in a Phillies uniform, while a coach or manager had to have served at least four seasons. All candidates have a three-year waiting period after retirement to become eligible. Aside from a player's statistical accomplishments, other considerations include longevity, character, special acheivements and contributions to the Phillies. The nominees for 2012 are: pitcher Larry Christenson, manager Jim Fregosi, outfielder and current hitting coach Greg Gross, outfielder/first baseman Von Hayes, pitcher Jim Konstanty, catcher Mike Lieberthal, pitcher Ron Reed, catcher and longtime coach Mike Ryan, pitcher Curt Schilling, third baseman Pinky Whitney, catcher and manager Jimmy Wilson, and pitcher Rick Wise.

Given the title of this post, it's no secret that Curt Schilling will be getting my first place vote this year. While the guy's personality leaves quite a bit to be desired (if a Toolbag Hall of Fame exists, I'm sure he'd go in on the first ballot), the fact remains Schilling is one of the top pitchers in Phillies history who in all likelihood will be a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame at some point in the future. Schilling's 101 wins as a Phillie currently rank him 6th on the club's all-time list and his 1554 strikeouts are 3rd, with the 319 he tallied in 1997 being the single-season franchise record. He was also the MVP of the 1993 National League Championship Series, in which the Phils upset the heavily-favored Atlanta Braves and tossed a five-hit shutout in a 2-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 5 of that year's World Series. Schilling pitched for the Phillies from 1992-2000 and was a National League All-Star in 1997, 1998, and 1999. In the last of those three seasons, he finished second in the NL Cy Young voting to Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

This is the second year in which Schilling has been a nominee. Last season, he lost out to John Kruk in a vote that did draw some criticism. Not to say Kruk was more deserving than Schilling, but I do think people tend to underrate Kruk's career with the Phillies, maybe remembering more as a fat guy with a beard and mullet than one of the game's better hitters during his time in Philly. Kruk's personality on ESPN is off-putting to many, which may have played into the criticism as well.

Of course, very few Phillies that I can recall were ever more off-putting than Curt Schilling. I chose the picture of him with the towel over his face for that reason, as it was one of the most immature, bush-league ways of showing up a teammate that I've ever seen. Schilling had a way of always knowing when the camera was on him, and whenever Mitch Williams took the mound in the 1993 postseason (I can't remember a single time in which Schilling did this during the regular season), Schilling and his towel got almost as much airtime as did the Wild Thing. Sure, it was an adventure watching Williams and his high-wire closing act, but at least be a man and support your teammate. It also seemed like Schilling pitched the last three or so years of his tenure in Philadelphia with one foot out the door until eventually getting his wish when he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks during the 2000 season. While Schilling's criticisms of the front office were certainly not unfounded at the time, it all got tiresome after a while. As Ed Wade once said of Schilling, "On the day he pitches, he's a horse. On the other four days, he's a horse's ass." Though I'm far from an Ed Wade fan, I have to admit that was pretty much a dead-on assessment.

That said, it can't be denied that Curt Schilling was an outstanding pitcher with the Phillies, and he catapulted to stardom in Philadelphia after bouncing around between three different organizations (Red Sox, Orioles, Astros) until being acquired from Houston in exchange for Jason Grimsley just before the start of the 1992 season. The winner of the balloting is generally announced sometime in June, and as much as the organization may want to avoid it, I expect that Schilling will be this year's inductee. If nothing else, it could make for a pretty awkward ceremony come August.

Here's a look at the other nominees and what I think of their chances:

Larry Christenson: Debuted with the Phillies at the age of 19 in 1973 and went on to spend all or part of an injury-plagued 11-year career with the Phils. Had a lifetime record of 83-71 with a 3.79 ERA, including a 19-6 mark in 1977. Probably would've been a no-brainer with a couple more healthy and productive seasons. Has consistently been on the ballot and will likely remain in the running going forward. Could eventually sneak in depending on who the other candidates are.

Jim Fregosi: Manager of the 1993 NL Champions. Took over for Nick Leyva 13 games into the 1991 season and remained at the helm through 1996. His 431 wins rank 5th all-time among Phillies managers, but he also lost 463 games with the Phils and '93 was his only winning season. While his sub-.500 record is partially an indicator of what he was given to manage during his tenure, I can't see Fregosi getting in. He's been on the ballot a few times, though that's mainly been due to a lack of deserving candidates.

Greg Gross: Played for the Phillies from 1979-88 and has served two separate stints as a coach (2001-04 and 2010-present). His 117 pinch-hits are by far the most in franchise history, as Tony Taylor ranks second with 53. Gross totaled 143 pinch-hits in his career, 5th-most in MLB history. Laid down the greatest bunt in Phillies history, off Nolan Ryan to load the bases with no outs in the eighth inning of the deciding Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS. The Phils scored five runs in the inning to take a 7-5 lead en route to an 8-7 victory to win the pennant. Like Christenson, I think Gross will remain on the ballot in the coming years. Depending on what the Phillies ultimately do during his tenure as hitting coach, I could see Gross making it due to his service time within the organization. Keep in mind, nobody has ever won a World Series as both a player and coach for the Phillies to this point.

Von Hayes: Arrived from the Cleveland Indians in an infamous 5-for-1 trade following the 1982 season. Hit .272 with 124 home runs, 568 RBI, and 202 stolen bases in nine seasons with the Phillies. A solid player, but was never able to live up to the enormous expectations placed on him. May have already been inducted had his career in Philadelphia taken place under different circumstances. Probably will be an uphill battle for Hayes to make it unless he sneaks in before the players from the current era start to become eligible.

Jim Konstanty: The first relief pitcher to be named Most Valuable Player, Konstanty won 16 games for the 1950 NL pennant-winning Whiz Kids. Appeared in 74 games that season, a club record that stood until broken by Kent Tekulve (90 games) in 1987. With a lack of fresh arms, Konstanty was forced to start Game 1 of the 1950 World Series vs. the Yankees, allowing a run on four hits over eight innings in a 1-0 loss. Pitched for the Phillies from 1948-54, compiling a record of 51-39 to go along with a 3.64 ERA. Online fan balloting is generally a kiss of death among players from older generations, which will certainly hurt, as will the fact that Konstanty's six seasons in Philadelphia aside from 1950 were rather pedestrian.

Mike Lieberthal: A Phillie from 1994-2006, Lieberthal is the franchise's all-time leader in games caught with 1139. Also has the most career hits (1128) and home runs (149) among Phillies catchers, as well as single-season marks for home runs (31) and fielding percentage (.997), both of which came in 1999. Lieberthal's decline basically coincided with when the Phillies moved to Citizens Bank Park, and there's a sizable contingent of fans who only really remember the end of his tenure, when he also drew a lot of criticism for his handling of the pitching staff. Before that time, however, there was about a five-year period (1999-2003, excluding an injury-shortened 2001 campaign) in which Lieberthal was on a very short list among baseball's top all-around catchers. Received one of the loudest ovations when returning for Alumni Weekend last year, and it was nice to see his whole body of work was given its due. This is Lieberthal's first time on the Wall of Fame ballot, and I imagine it won't be too much longer before he is inducted.

Ron Reed: Appeared in 458 games with the Phillies from 1976-83, with all but nine of those appearances coming in relief. Reed posted a record of 57-38 and an ERA of 3.06 with the Phils, and his 90 saves rank 6th on the franchise's all time list. His 763 innings pitched and 54 wins out of the bullpen are the most among Phillies relievers. Saved Game 2 of the 1980 World Series against the Kansas City Royals. Prior to his MLB career, Reed spent time in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons. If you were to take into account both a player's performance and longevity with a club, Reed is probably the second-greatest reliever in Phillies history behind Tug McGraw. The right-handed Reed wasn't nearly as colorful as his lefty bullpen counterpart, and had somewhat of a reputation as being a difficult person to get along with. Perhaps that's what has been keeping him off the Wall of Fame, as he does appear to have the credentials.

Mike Ryan: Also known as "Irish," Ryan was a catcher for the Phillies from 1968-73, but his nomination stems from his 16-season tenure as a coach for the Phils, which lasted from 1980-95. Fifteen of those seasons were spent as the club's bullpen coach, the lone exception being 1985, when he served as the first base coach. Ryan's 16 seasons as a Phillies coach were the longest in franchise history until John Vukovich surpassed him in 2004, and to date is the only person to be a uniformed member of three Phillies teams that appeared in the World Series (1980, 1983, 1993). Bench-clearing brawls are rare in baseball, but if the Phils were involved in one during Ryan's tenure, it was a pretty safe bet he was right in the middle of things. He also caught the first ball at Veterans Stadium, which was dropped in from a helicopter. Despite all that, bullpen coaches generally toil in anonymity and it's hard to envision Ryan finding a place on the Wall.

Pinky Whitney: A third baseman who saw action with the Phillies from 1928-33 and again from 1936-39, Whitney ranks 10th on the franchise's all-time list with a .307 lifetime batting average with the club and his 1076 games at the hot corner place him 3rd. His 103 RBI in 1928 are the most ever by a Phillies rookie and his 1931 streak of 10 consecutive games driving in a run are a franchise mark. Among Whitney's single-season club records for third baseman are RBI (124 in 1932), batting average (.342 in 1930), fielding percentage (.987 in 1937), and triples (14 in 1929). He was also the first Phillie to drive in a run during the All-Star Game, which he did in 1936. The numbers are certainly there, but no way does Whitney make it the way things are set up now, unless the Wall of Fame creates some sort of Veterans Committee.

Jimmy Wilson: To date, the only native Philadelphian to both play for and manage the Phillies. Was a Phillie from 1923-28 before returning as a player/manager from 1934-38, hitting .288 in 838 games. Wilson's managerial record was 280-477. A nice nomination for his local connection, but Wilson is the longest of longshots. Would be surprised if he appears on the ballot again.

Rick Wise: Best known as the pitcher the Phillies traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Steve Carlton and for hitting two home runs while pitching a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds on June 23, 1971. Wise made his MLB debut at the age of 18 on April 18, 1964 and remained with the Phils through the '71 season, compiling a record of 75-76 with a 3.60 ERA. In addition to his no-hitter, Wise also retired 32 consecutive Chicago Cubs batters over 12 innings on September 18, 1971. His 11 home runs are tied with fellow nominee for the most in Phillies history among pitchers, and the six he hit in '71 are the most in one season. Despite some dazzling performances, Wise's overall numbers as a Phillie are too mediocre to remain a serious candidate going forward.

As previously mentioned, Schilling gets my first place vote, with Reed taking second. Third place is a little tricky. Right now, I'd say it's a tossup between Lieberthal and Whitney. I guess I'll take Pinky, since I know Lieberthal's time will arrive in the not-too-distant future. I do know that in the coming years, the pickings are going to be a little slim until the players from this era start retiring. Then it will basically come down to deciding who to take first. Charlie Manuel, Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino, Cole Hamels, and Ryan Madson are basically shoo-ins, while Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee should also fall into that category assuming they end up spending at least five seasons in a Phillies uniform.

Voting runs through March 14. My purpose in writing this was not to sway any of you one way or another, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on this year's nominees and other players you'd like to see on the Phillies Wall of Fame.