Wednesday, September 17, 2014

21st Century Dynasty: Why Not Phillies?

The night of October 26th, 2000 was a beautiful, cool but comfortable one in New York City. In the pre-9/11 world of the Big Apple, this would be a far from typical Autumn evening.

The 5th game of the 2000 World Series, the last official Fall Classic of the 20th century, was being held that night at Shea Stadium. What made it all the more special was that it was the first 'Subway Series' since 1956.

The visiting New York Yankees took a 3 games to 1 lead into that 5th game over the host New York Mets. The game would feature a matchup between a pair of classic lefties: Andy Pettitte for the Yanks, and Al Leiter for the Mets. The two neighbors battled into the 9th inning tied at 2-2, the Mets looking to stay alive, the Yanks looking to win the series.

With two outs in the top of the 9th, the Yankees pushed across a pair of runs against the always-tough Leiter, taking a 4-2 lead. With two outs in the bottom of the 9th, in a matchup between a pair of likely future Hall of Famers, closer Mariano Rivera got Mets catcher Mike Piazza to fly out to the deepest part of the ballpark as the tying run.

The Yanks mobbed one another around the mound, celebrating the 3rd World Series title in succession for future Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre's club. There was really no more fitting way to end the century, as this third straight crown made it 26 World Series titles for the Bronx Bombers during the 20th century, 17 more than the next-highest club had won.


During that 20th century, a parade of superstars had succeeded one another across the legendary sod and under the rooftop frieze of old Yankee Stadium. The names are a veritable roster of baseball royalty: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Yogi, Mickey, Whitey, Reggie, Goose, Thurman, Mariano, Boggs, Donny Baseball, Jeter. Too many more to name them all.

But how did it happen? Why the Yankees? Why so many titles? Sure, it's New York. But there were, for more than half the century, other good teams right there in the same city. The Yanks didn't win their first crown until 1923. By that time, the Boston Red Sox franchise already owned 5 World Series titles. The Philadelphia Athletics and New York Giants had 3 each.

So how did the Yankees become the 'Team of the Century', and more importantly for this discussion, why can't the Philadelphia Phillies become the 'Team of the Century' for this, the 21st? The short answer is, they can. There is no reason that the Phillies, already with a good start, can't set that as a legitimate goal, and there is no reason for them to not work as hard as possible to attain that goal.

The combination of good business and personnel moves is what drove the Yankees to the top, and then returned them to the top three different times in the 20th century. It first started with a business arrangement among the Yankees, Red Sox, and Chicago White Sox just before the 1920's began which directly led to the Yanks acquisition of Ruth, by far the greatest player in the game's first half-century, from Boston in 1920.

Key trade took 'The Babe' from Sox hurler to Yanks masher


With The Bambino on board, Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert undertook the next big step, the building and opening of Yankee Stadium in 1923. That first season in their new 58,000 seat, triple-deck palace saw the Yanks finally overcome their cross-river rivals, the New York Giants, to win their first World Series title.

These early "Murderer's Row" Yankee teams featured not only Ruth in rightfield, but also 5 other future Hall of Famers in 1st baseman Lou Gehrig, 2nd baseman Tony Lazzeri, centerfielder Earle Combs, pitchers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, and a parade of strong supporting characters. These players would make up the core of the first Yankee dynasty.

The dynasty would build again over the next two generations of stars led respectively by Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Over the 40 seasons between 1923 and 1962, the Yankees would win half of the World Series crowns contested. Ten of those would be won after World War II ended, in the 15 year stretch between 1947-1962 dominated by Joe D and The Mick.

After a deep lull in the post-Mantle years, the Yankees came back strong under the ownership of George Steinbrenner in the mid-1970's. He took advantage of the new free agency era to add stars like Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Goose Gossage to homegrown stars such as Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry, and the Yankees tacked on 2 more World Series crowns in 1977 and 1978.

After another slip in the mid-late 1980's, the Yanks again emerged with a new dynasty at the end of the 1990's led by players like Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, and the homegrown "Core Four" of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. They would close out the century with 4 World Series wins in the final 5 years, raising the total to 26 for the franchise.

The two key factors in all of this winning by the 20th century New York Yankees were the ability and willingness of dedicated and competitive ownership to spend money, and the ability to evaluate and cultivate championship-caliber talent. In the first decade of the 21st century, the Philadelphia Phillies exhibited both of these traits masterfully.

The club ownership undertook a pivotal move from crumbling, artificial turf, multi-purpose Veteran's Stadium to a new baseball-only, grass field, glistening open-air ballpark. Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, and it was and is a beautiful, downright fun place to enjoy a baseball game.

In anticipation of their new home, the team began to spend money on talent acquisition, bringing in stars such as slugger Jim Thome and closer Billy Wagner. They hit it big in developing their own talent as well, with a homegrown core of shortstop Jimmy Rollins, leftfielder Pat Burrell, 2nd baseman Chase Utley, 1st baseman Ryan Howard, catcher Carlos Ruiz, and pitchers Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson, and Brett Myers among others.

First basemen Jim Thome (L), Ryan Howard (R) powered Phils in 00's

The Phillies would begin the century by recording a winning record in all but one season of the entire first decade. They would win 5 straight National League East Division crowns from 2007-2011. And to cap it all off, they won the 2008 World Series, and returned for a 2nd straight appearance in the Fall Classic in 2009. In that '09 series, they were kept from back-to-back crowns by none other than those Yankees themselves, who finally earned their own first title of the 21st century.

Both the Saint Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox have each won a pair of World Series in the years between 2001-2013, but the Phillies have been unable to follow-up that 2008 crown with another. Despite the 5 straight division crowns, their post-season finishes proved to be steadily declining disappointments.

That loss in the World Series in 2009 was followed by a loss in the 2010 National League Championship Series to the Giants. This was followed by a loss in the 2011 NL Division Series to the Saint Louis Cardinals, after having set a franchise record with a 102-win regular season. All of the clubs they lost to: the Yankees, Giants, and Cardinals, would end up winning the World Series in those years.

Management tried to keep contending by supplementing the homegrown core of Hamels, Howard, Utley, Rollins, and Ruiz by bringing in a succession of strong veterans. Pitchers Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, and Jonathan Papelbon. Hitters like Raul Ibanez and Hunter Pence. But none of it ultimately worked to win another title.

Phils' 2011 rotation "Four Aces": Halladay, Oswalt, Lee, Hamels


Over the last 3 seasons, that homegrown core has grown older, has at times been injured, and has become less effective. That is only natural, and it is something that frankly should have been anticipated. Nothing lasts forever, least of all athletic ability to compete at the very highest professional levels as one ages.

As of today, the Philadelphia Phillies will spend a 3rd consecutive season out of the MLB playoffs. It will be the first time since the late-90's that the team has suffered through 3 consecutive non-winning seasons. The minor league system is ranked as no better than middle-of-the-pack by most outside evaluators, near that bottom by many.

They major league club appears tied to a number of contractual and sentimental situations that will likely hamstring some necessary moves for at least another year or two. In short, the Phillies have fallen in their efforts to become the 'Team of the Century' - but they can get up. There are still key pieces in place to make this happen.

First, they have the base of a record from which to begin such a claim. Most other MLB teams do not have such an early 21st century history from which to build their own claim to the "century" mantle yet.

Second, they have the ballpark and the fans. They have lit a spark in a generation of fans with that first decade of excellence in Citizens Bank Park. But the crowds have steadily dwindled as the competitiveness of the on-field product has lessened, drawn back only by occassional giveaways and gimmicks.

Third, the team has a new, lucrative financial TV arrangement in place with Comcast. This will bring in a steady stream of dollars to the coffers for the forseeable future, something that the team must use to it's advantage in putting a consistent winner on the field.

Winning will result in more people in the stands, and even more money in the coffers. It is an inevitable cycle in a sports-crazed town that wants to be in love with it's ball team during the warm weather summer months.

The talent has taken a hit, and the ability of current management to right the ship quickly is perhaps the biggest question mark right now. General Manager Ruben Amaro inherited a winning situation built mostly by his two immediate predecessors: Ed Wade and Hall of Famer Pat Gillick. Amaro has tried to recapture or extand that magic, both at the major and minor league levels, but has thus far failed.

GM Ruben Amaro now tasked with finding right mix for next Phillies title

The burden right now is squarely on Amaro's shoulders to make the right decisions to make the quick turnaround happen. He has not shown that ability as of yet. If he doesn't soon, it should be his head that rolls as a result. If he doesn't, and a change is not made, then it will be squarely on ownership for not making the correct decision on behalf of the team.

The Phillies have the money. They have shown in the last 5-6 years following the 2008 World Series victory that they have a willingness to spend it. Now they must have the other piece: proper talent evaluation and acquisition. With the right decisions made in the next year or two in that regard, the team could quickly return to winning, and a 2nd dynasty could rise to push forward this 'Team of the Century' goal as the 21st century marches onward.

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