Commentary

Phillies are thinking big, really big

Defending champions believe they're capable of building a dynasty

Originally Published: October 24, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

They've already gone where just about no one ever goes.

They've already done what just about no one ever does.

But it's a funny thing about these 2009 Phillies. They don't seem to view the World Series they're about to play as their ultimate destination.

They think this is just the beginning.

When they think, they think big thoughts. When they dream, they dream big dreams. And the kind of run they're thinking about, dreaming about, is the kind of run the Yankees had in the late '90s.

"It will be interesting to see, five or 10 years from now, what we've been able to accomplish," said the closer, Brad Lidge. "Not just this year, but hopefully next year and the year after. Hopefully, we can kind of look back and [see] we did some pretty amazing things.

"It's obviously the first time we've ever been in the World Series in back-to-back years in this franchise. And we really want to win these four games and win this thing. But with the players we have, I don't think anyone's going anywhere. So I think we have the opportunity to do something pretty special."

Well, in some ways, they already have. After all, they play in an era in which it's tough to sustain this kind of success beyond even one year, and one magical October, let alone beyond.

Since baseball expanded the postseason to three rounds 15 Octobers ago, only two franchises -- the 1998-2001 Yankees and 1995-96 Braves -- have even played in back-to-back World Series. And just the Yankees, as you might have heard someplace, have won more than one in a row.

But even if we look back further and take in the entire division-play era, now four decades old, we find only two other National League teams besides the 2008-09 Phillies -- the 1975-76 Big Red Machine and the 1995-96 Braves -- that managed to win one World Series and then made it back to another the next year. That's it. Two.

So to do this twice is quite a feat. But to do it twice and then keep rolling -- now that's where you're charging into exclusive territory. Want to know just how exclusive? All right. Here goes:

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Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesSorry, Angels. These Phillies fans were already dreaming of an I-95 World Series during Game 5 of the NLCS.
Before the 1998-2001 Yankees, you have to go back to the 1988-90 A's to find another team that played in three straight World Series.

The Yankees also played in three in a row from 1976-78, and the A's won three straight from 1972-74. But to locate any other franchise besides the Yankees or A's that played in three consecutive World Series in the division-play era, you have to ride the time machine all the way back to the 1969-71 Orioles.

OK, what's missing from that list? How 'bout a National League team -- any National League team? That's because, amazingly, only three NL teams in the history of baseball have ever played in three straight World Series. And you won't find a whole lot of videotape on any of them, because they did it a long, long, looonnng time ago -- in 1942-44 (Cardinals), 1921-24 (Giants) and 1906-08 (Cubs).

So for any team to start thinking it can do what those late-90s Yankees did -- uh, let's just say these guys probably have no idea what they're getting themselves into.

"I can't imagine somebody going five or six straight years to the World Series and winning three or four straight," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. "I can't even think about that. I'm dying like heck for us to win two."

But the manager also recognizes he is managing the kind of team that doesn't come along every year, or even every generation. So when Manuel looks at his team, he sees a group that has given itself the opportunity to do something special.

"We're in a time where we're getting to see how good we are," Manuel said. "These are trying times for us. We won a World Series last year, and we're back a second time. … And to me that's a big deal for us. But we're still trying to get to those [special] teams. We're just now touching the surface of places where we have a chance to go. And it's up to us to see how good we can possibly be."

So how good is that? Are we really talking about a team with a chance to be late-90s-Yankees kind of good? Let's take a look:

The case for greatness

Even Joe Torre said the other day he sees qualities in these Phillies that remind him of those Yankees teams he managed.

He sees "confidence," for one thing. And "a lot of fearlessness," for another. And a foundation of homegrown players that had a chance to grow together, play together and learn to win together.

"I think [that's] important because you get to know each other," Torre said. "In this game of baseball, with free agency, guys change uniforms a lot. I think we do too much glamorizing [of] individual accomplishment, when winning is what everybody is here to do. I think sometimes we forget how the hell to get there. But I think there's merit to being able to bring people along."

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Barbara Johnston/US PresswireIncluding the postseason, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth have combined to hit 88 home runs this year.
Torre had Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. Manuel has Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels and Carlos Ruiz. And those two homegrown core groups have formed the heart of their franchises. But the parallels don't end there.

You can find star power all over both groups. But that's not all you find. You also find a quality that's exceptionally rare in modern sports -- star players who were more about "we" than "me." And that way-too-rare outlook on team life formed the foundation of both teams' success.

"We have some big names," Rollins said. "But we don't have bona fide superstars, or a special set of rules for certain players. Everyone here is the same, from Ryan Howard to Antonio Bastardo. Or they're treated the same. The expectations are the same. And because of that, you know where you stand every day."

"It's hard to get everybody to pull on the same rope at the same time, and you have to give Charlie a lot of credit for that," GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "Do these guys have egos? Absolutely. … But I think at the end of the day, the ego goes away and winning becomes the most important part. And it's neat to have guys at this stage of their careers who still believe in winning as the most important part, and not just making money or putting numbers up."

But that's not a quality confined only to the core groups of those two teams. Those late-90s Yankees couldn't have won what they won without the selflessness of three vital players they traded for: Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez. The Phillies surrounded their core with imports Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez -- unselfish, team-oriented human beings who helped glue the group together, not splinter it in the wrong directions.

And there's one other trait, aside from talent, both teams share. We know now that Jeter, Rivera, Williams, Posada and Pettitte never met a big game they didn't live to play in. We're finding out that Rollins, Howard and the cast that surrounds them are amazingly comfortable on that stage themselves.

"When I look at our guys and the way they handle things, they do handle the moment," Manuel said. "They like playing in the moment. … We've learned to handle the game itself. We've learned to play at the right time and in front of big crowds and when the spotlight's on you. I know that some of our players love to be in the big game, being the highlight of the show.

"So somebody is going to have to play better -- in fact, much better -- than us to beat us."

And in many ways, that might be the single most important quality these teams shared: To beat them in October, you didn't merely have to be better. You had to play better. And they entered every postseason game they ever played in with the resolve that they weren't going to let that happen.

The case for reality

But now it's time for the other side of this story. How long are the odds that these Phillies are really about to establish a Yankees-type dynasty? A lot longer than the ride up the Jersey Turnpike to the Bronx. That's for sure.

For one thing, once Howard reaches age 30 in three weeks, the Phillies' only starting position player under 30 will be Victorino, who turns 29 next month. So their only star-caliber player age 26 or younger is Hamels (25). Compare that to the '98 Yankees. Jeter, Posada and Pettitte were all between 24 and 26 years old. So just on the basis of age alone, the Yankees were looking at a longer period of greatness -- and health -- than this Phillies group.

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Al Bello/Getty ImagesThe Yankees captured three World Series titles from 1998-2000, winning 12 of 13 games.

Granted, Rollins, Utley, Werth and Ruiz are all exactly 30 -- not 33 or 35. But this is also a core group that has been ridden as hard as any in baseball. These Phillies had six players who played 150 games or more this season. Not only was that the most in the sport, but just one other NL team in the past 20 years (Larry Bowa's 2001 Phillies) pushed its starters that hard.

Rollins has played at least 150 games eight times. Utley and Howard have done it three times apiece. Victorino has done it twice. And all are now in their third straight postseason. That's a hefty workload in this sport.

"So how long are these guys going to stay at this level?" wondered one NL scout. "Even though Ibanez keeps himself in great shape, he's also 37. And Victorino plays at like 150 miles an hour. So you never know when he'll hit a wall -- literally. Rollins seemed a step slower to me this year. Is this the beginning of Utley starting to slow down? Is he all right physically?"

If all these guys are going to form the centerpiece of a team that thinks it has at least five years of greatness in it, they're going to need help. They'll need a much deeper bench. And they'll need the most advanced prospects in a strong farm system -- pitcher Kyle Drabek and outfielders Domonic Brown and Michael Taylor -- to be everything they've been hyped to be.

The Phillies do have a younger rotation than those late-90s Yankees. Hamels is 25. J.A. Happ just turned 27. Joe Blanton is 28. Cliff Lee is 30. And the strength of the Phillies' system is all the legitimate pitching prospects who reached Double-A or Triple-A this year, headed by the upwardly mobile Drabek.

But those great Yankees teams were also "unlike every other team in baseball," said the scout quoted earlier, "because they never had to worry about the ninth inning -- for 10 years." That ninth inning, of course, was Mariano Rivera's home office. But it also wasn't only the ninth inning the Yankees had under control.

With Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson and Ramiro Mendoza surrounding Rivera, the Yankees had an answer from the sixth inning on. Every darned year. And no team -- not just the Phillies -- seems to sustain that kind of bullpen dominance and consistency for years at a time anymore.

Finally, there's the ultimate wrecking ball for all potential modern dynasties -- the good old dollar bill. The Yankees never ran out of those dollar bills, so they could keep anyone they wanted to keep and add anyone they wanted to add. The Phillies may have pushed their payroll into the $120 million neighborhood, which is record territory for them. But they're never going to be the Yankees, because no team will ever be the Yankees.

So can they keep Lee -- who will want CC Sabathia money -- beyond next year? Doubtful. Can they find a way to hang onto Howard -- who has two years left before free agency and will be chasing A-Rod money? Good luck on that.

Potential free-agent years for other members of this cast: 2010 for Werth, Blanton and Pedro Feliz, 2011 for Rollins, Victorino and Ibanez, and 2012 for Hamels, Ruiz and Lidge.

So is this really a team with a five-year window? The sheer reality of the economic times we live in would seem to suggest otherwise.

"I love their team, but I think they have this year, and maybe another one or two," said the same scout. "But five or six more years? I'd have a hard time betting on that."

Manuel, though, thinks otherwise. He sees a bunch of players who love playing with each other and have come to love playing in their town. So when he looks into his crystal ball, he doesn't see his stars bailing for a paycheck. He sees them staying because "this is where they want to play."

"We're going to have to do some tweaking with this team," the manager said. "We've got to keep the right pieces. But if we just make smart decisions, with the nucleus we've got, we can be good for quite a few years."

At the moment, however, what's about to unfold over the next few days is a much bigger deal than anything that could unfold over the next few years. This team has a World Series to play. And if it really wants to be thought of as some kind of burgeoning dynasty, then winning this World Series would be an excellent idea.

"People here feel like we can do some pretty amazing things," Lidge said. "And if people out there feel like we're not that good, then maybe we have to prove it to them. And if we have to do it over and over and over again, so be it."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com