The Latest in A Sad Chapter of Phillies Baseball

There was a reason why your parents lied about sending the family dog to a farm upstate. In ignorance, a comfortable lie is always better than the cold, hard reality. Better to deal with a temporarily nonplussed child who believes his dog will play fetch into eternity than an inconsolable child who just lost an irreplaceable best friend.

Baseball, funnily enough, is similar though unintentionally so. We often watch our favorite players grow up and become talented major leaguers, but as their careers inch closer to expiration, they are traded or released, joining other teams as they desperately attempt to breathe life back into a sputtering career. John Kruk, the fan-favorite first baseman of the 1993 team that went to the World Series, left the Phillies after the ’94 season. He joined the Chicago White Sox before retiring mid-season. Pitcher Steve Carlton, who won a World Series and all four of his Cy Young awards with the Phillies, sputtered with the San Francisco Giants, the White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the Minnesota Twins before calling it quits. Catcher Darren Daulton played with the Phillies in the majors between 1983-97 before the Phillies traded him in July. He retired after the season.

The exception, of course, is third baseman Mike Schmidt. Schmidt went 0-for-5 on May 28 in San Francisco against the Giants, bringing his May average down to .117. He retired, sobbing, in front of a shocked press corps in what has to be one of the saddest events in baseball history. A baseball legend, the greatest third baseman in baseball history, was reduced to a sobbing mess of a man as he accepted his inability to do his job any longer. Retirement is typically done not in front of television cameras and microphones, but through an impersonal press release. Sometimes you don’t get to choose to send the dog upstate, though; sometimes he just gets hit by a car.

The Phillies entered another sad chapter in the tale of their decline since 2011 last night in the opening game of a four-game series against the Nationals in Washington. Cliff Lee was making his third start since being activated from the disabled list with a flexor pronator strain in his left elbow. Lee was humming along into the third inning. Danny Espinosa had doubled with one out, but Lee bounced back and struck out pitcher Gio Gonzalez. After his first pitch to Denard Span, his 31st of the evening, Lee uttered the F-word, then motioned to the dugout that he felt something in his elbow. Lee left with a trainer, and was replaced by reliever Antonio Bastardo.

The injury is the same as before: a flexor pronator strain in his left elbow. Considering that the team is fully out of contention, it’s safe to say that Lee’s season is done. That 31st pitch to Span, an 85 MPH cut fastball, could be the last pitch he will have thrown in the major leagues. At the very least, we may have seen the last of an effective Cliff Lee.

We saw how quickly a pitcher can fall from grace in Roy Halladay. He went from winning the Cy Young award in 2010 and finishing as a runner-up in 2011 to posting a 4.49 ERA in ’12 and falling completely apart last season. The face of an overheated, overmatched Roy Halladay on the mound in Florida on September 23 is forever singed in the minds of Phillies fans. Halladay, an emotionless baseball robot, shaking his head and sighing defeatedly to pitching coach Rich Dubee before walking off of the mound. Halladay announced his retirement in the off-season.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Phillies were the class of the National League going into 2011 with baseball’s best starting rotation and a formidable middle of the lineup that could compete against anyone. But the Phillies left the NLDS with a hobbled Ryan Howard and nothing has been the same since. Phillies fans have been treated to worst case scenario after worst case scenario.

The Phillies absolutely have made some critical mistakes in the time since. A lot of what they did in an attempt to compete was a calculated risk. Signing Howard to a five-year contract was a calculated risk. Trading for Roy Halladay and signing Cliff Lee to a five-year deal, also calculated risks. Most of the time, you end up on the losing end of a small portion of those risks. Some pay off, but most will return a small gain, a small loss, or neutral value. The Phillies have been hit especially hard on every risk they’ve taken. It’s unfortunate, and important for fans to realize that the Phillies’ current position is as much due to misfortune as incompetence.

Most teams get the chance to send their players upstate to a farm, giving their fans a chance to say goodbye with grace and dignity. The Phillies have not been afforded that privilege — not with Halladay, not with Howard (yet, at least), and there’s a very real possibility they won’t get that privilege with Lee, either. It’s as sad an end to an otherwise glorious chapter of Phillies baseball as could have been written. Even worse, neither Halladay nor Lee will get the World Series ring they thought they’d get when they first arrived in Philadelphia.

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  1. ross

    August 01, 2014 07:22 AM

    Beautifully written. The game is fickle and cruel.

    I’ve often thought that the Phillies trajectory has made it so much harder. Winning the WS, then losing in the WS, then losing in the NLCS, then in the NLDS, then not making the playoffs. Each year they ended one step further from a WS ring. If the sequence had been reversed, fans would feel so differently about the buildup to the triumphant goal. As it was it was more like watching the air slowly escape from a balloon.

    • MMM

      August 01, 2014 10:57 AM

      And I also think that you can throw in that the WS they did win was against the underdog Rays, a team with not much history or prestige, not to mention the Game 6 rain delay. Not only do the Phillies have a lot of sad chapters, even their good chapters are flawed. I’d much rather have the win against the Yankees and a loss against the Rays and it would’ve felt like the Phillies left a bigger mark on the decade. Something to take the sting off a little…

  2. Bob

    August 01, 2014 08:35 AM

    I have no problem with them taking risks so long as the pros and cons are weighed, and an informed decision is made as to how the team will be affected in the long term and short term to determine what an acceptable risk level is. If you’re taking risky risks, you need to have a back up plan and look for avenues to hedge your risk so as to avoid a systemic failure for a prolonged period of time.

    I don’t see where the Phillies hedged their risk, so their risk calculation is a failure. I see no long term or even short term planning at this point for that matter. We have no farm system. We have old, injury prone players that by RAJ’s own admission no one wants for a hill of beans even after we eat the money. The vets we do have that are valuable continue to decline in value as we hold on to them and don’t maximize their value through trade. The vets that should be benched or released can’t be because we have no one in the farm to replace them or out of sheer stubbornness they’re plugged into the same spot in the heart of the order as we watch them flail away. We’ve failed to acquire Major league ready talent from international markets. We haven’t snatched up the young minor league talent from the international market like the Yankees and Rays did this year. With teams locking up younger players and not letting them hit free agency, the free agent market is barren.

    So, I don’t agree with you that the current state of the Phillies is as much to do with luck. It’s important in any business not to put all your eggs in one basket and to hedge against some of your riskier decisions. The Phillies didn’t and have no plan now except to flounder in mediocrity and hope that they draft well as they continue to eschew analytical player evaluation. I don’t feel that the Phillies have been plagued by misfortune as much as by lack of planning.

    • Greg

      August 01, 2014 10:07 AM

      I don’t think it was entirely bad decisions, but you’re right that the current situation is due way more to mortgaging the future for the now in the chase for rings. I do think some things like sweeping Atlanta to let in a red hot cardinals team, howard hurting his Achilles, Halladays injury, and aumont/tommy Joseph/other prospects not panning out is out of Rubens or anyone’s control. I hate to feel like I have a losing fan complex, but it seems like anything that can go wrong for the phillies almost always does. At least we got our one major outlier to that in ’08.

  3. Matt

    August 01, 2014 08:42 AM

    Good sports GM’s hope for the best and at least somewhat plan for the worst. But when your fielding a team with an average age of 30, well… that “somewhat” needs to morph into a full-blown “consistently”.

  4. Carmine

    August 01, 2014 09:20 AM

    Bill, I always look forward to your keen statistical analysis. You have a poetic side too. Well done.

  5. bubba0101

    August 01, 2014 09:44 AM

    I just try to remember that it’s baseball. Sports meant something different years ago when I would scream at the TV. It was part of life and bad beats and tough losses would stick with me for hours and days. Those have been plentiful since the early 80’s if you’re a phila sports fan. Im numb to it now. Ill never be able to “root” for a team outside of phila, but I have to be able to walk away from it. Too many other things to do in life. The Phillies will bounce back. Ultimately, theyre a great organization regardless of their track record in the history of baseball, and as Bill awesomely pointed out here, they’ve been as unlucky the last 4 years as they have been incompetent. If they go out in game 2 against the Yankees in 09 and dont let Burnett throw a first pitch strike to every batter and if that ump called out Burrell the next year when Doc had him struck out, before he hit that double, we are more than likely looking at three straight parades down Broad St, and who’s gonna complain then. They have a great fan base that will support the team when they see the product that they are paying for. In Philadelphia, more than most cities, the fans absolutely do fund the team. Every game is an event. Every fan owns no less that ten shirts, two jerseys, six hats, and countless other mementos from games. Look at the early 2000’s when the phils started sniffing the wild card. That stadium was filled day in and day out. And itll happen again as soon as the product is out there. Its just gonna take a few years.

  6. tom b

    August 01, 2014 10:11 AM

    i believe you are underestimating the incompetence side of that argument. when you allow your team to grow this old together and hamstring your ability to make a single trade with the stupid contracts you’ve handed out, that’s incompetence. if howard’s contract was a calculated risk,well as i remember even then it was universally panned by everyone. phillies haven’t been the only team hurt by injuries,actually i would say they have been healthier than most. you make your own misfortune in this world

  7. zengreaser

    August 01, 2014 10:44 AM

    I’m going to take this moment to do something that isn’t very popular these days: come to the defense of RAJ.

    I can’t say that he has made all the right decisions; I can’t even say that he’s made enough to justify being the guy to try and right the ship; but he has done enough (at least for me) to warrant someone coming to his defense.

    Everyone is quick to point out that he was not the GM of the World Series champions, but they forget that he did have a voice in that office as an assistant. Even so, let’s ignore 2008. Winning it all was great, and sure I wanted to win again, but there was also something else I secretly desired: to have the most dominant team in baseball. And RAJ gave us that. Record-wise, 2011 was our year of dominance, but from 2009-2011 we were the most feared team in baseball. From 2005-2008, my summers were filled with hope and excitement. From 2009-2011, summer was a season of pure joy. You don’t get that without paying a price. It is now that we are paying the tab for all that winning, but I can’t complain. Has RAJ made mistakes? Yes. Should some trades never have been made, some contracts never offered? Of course. But I am not going to pile on the guy as if he never did anything for me as a fan. I’m not going to go all “WIP-Morning-Show-caller” on him and trash the guy that was being hailed as a genius just a few seasons ago. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t merit criticism; it’s just that the level of vitriol that is being directed at the guy is unnerving.

    I hold out hope that the days of winning will return once again, but until then (seeing as I don’t have any other option or control over the matter) I will choose to enjoy watching Jimmy, Chase, Chooch, Cole, and, yes, even Ryan.

    • Thad

      August 01, 2014 03:40 PM

      I’m with you, zengreaser! The 2000s (the whole decade, as the team’s promise began to be apparent in Rollins and Burrell and Abreu) were contented baseball years for me, and I appreciate that. Yeah, Ruben drives me crazy, but I’ll save my real outrage for Goldman Sachs and Halliburton.

  8. DMAR

    August 01, 2014 11:09 AM

    Once upon a time this organization was chastised for not spending money and for not having enough African American players. Now clearly the argument can be made their F/O misplayed quite a few moves and clearly were very unlucky with some others.

    In a world where so many try to de-humanize everything about sports this was quite a refreshing spin how things can go awry in a hurry in such a human way. I don’t care what math equations or computer programs you employ it will never be a game played by robots.

    And if and when it does I won’t be watching!

  9. BDH

    August 01, 2014 11:45 AM

    Such a lovely written article that shines light on how we don’t coddle million dollar athletes enough in this day and age. Loved the dog and little boy analogy as well. Is there really any thing more depressing than watching grown men start to fail playing a kids game? Ive watched people fight (and lose) the hard battle with cancer but after reading this little gem my heart is bursting to the Halladys, Lees & Howards of the world. Sad day indeed.

  10. GB

    August 03, 2014 02:16 PM

    I have to disagree…every team takes risks with players and suffers misfortune, some much worse than the Phils (Braves lost 5 starters, Yanks have been decimated with injuries) and yet continue to compete.

    The Phils ownership/management have no excuses and deserve little sympathy or benefit of the doubt – they have purposefully and willfully ruined this team in dozens of different ways.

    They have no one to blame but themselves and the total lack of accountability so far into the 3rd year of awful peformance is sad and yet hardly surprising to anyone who has been paying attention during their entire tenure.

    We need a total house cleaning and it needs to start now. The longer they continue to delay and deny reality, the longer it will be before we have another chance to compete.

  11. Alex

    August 03, 2014 08:15 PM

    Well written. And while I would agree with the premise that the Phillies failures between 2009-2011 were somewhat the product of the fickle baseball gods, there is also no dispute that their failure to recover from those losses reflects piss poor decision making by Amaro and Co.

    Look, I love what Ryan Howard has meant to the franchise as much as anyone. But it was absolutely asinine to sign him to that albatross of a contract 2 full years before his walk year. That’s $125 million locked in that couldn’t be applied elsewhere when needed. Sure, Ruben probably thought he wouldn’t need it, or would have 2 more WS trophies before he did. But smart GMs hedge their bets carefully between past and future. Otherwise, you get decades in the wilderness between occasional triumphs.
    To use a basketball analogy—would you rather be the Spurs or the Knicks? The former has gracefully transitioned by blending an aging core with young talent, while the latter is still feeling the weight of bloated contracts and poor roster construction.

    So yeah, luck is part of the equation, but let’s not kid ourselves. The Phillies won’t be relevant again until they figure out how to get back to basics—smart drafting, smart signings, and the ability to be flexible when circumstances demand it.

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