Commentary

Phillies on a mission to rewrite history

Originally Published: October 8, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Passersby reported a strange sound Tuesday at the corner of Darien Street and Pattison Avenue in South Philadelphia.

It was odd, all right. It sounded almost like, well, baseball.

In a month that most of us know as October. How 'bout that?

As it turned out, it was just the sound of the Phillies tuning up for their National League Championship Series with the Dodgers. But you could understand why that sound could scare off many an unsuspecting pedestrian.

Jimmy Rollins
Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIREJimmy Rollins is in his eighth full season with the Phillies.
In case you hadn't studied up on this sort of thing, you see, not many people in Philadelphia are familiar with the concept that baseball can still be played in October.

The leaves turn in October. Pumpkins get carved in October. The Eagles throw those shoulder pads on in October. But the Phillies? For 95 of the past 106 Octobers (aka the World Series era), they've been officially invisible by now. Unless they had a manager to fire or something.

So for the current group of Phillies, there's more going on this month than just another baseball team trying to reach for another October mountaintop.

This is a group on a mission -- a mission to rewrite history.

Its own.

It's very rare in sports that you hear players talking about this sort of thing. But it happened just the other day, in a clubhouse where a team was celebrating only its fifth victory in any postseason series in franchise history.

"I always said, when I got here, that I wanted to try to change the tradition," said Jimmy Rollins, a man who actually thinks these concepts through -- and verbalizes them right out loud, in front of real witnesses. "I said it to myself, 'We need to change the mentality, change the way people think about this organization, change the way the young kids feel about being in this organization.' And the only way you can do that is by winning."

So Rollins and the core group of this team have constantly raised the bar. A little higher. Then a little higher than that. Then a little higher than that.

Until it has brought them to this time and place -- where they have an opportunity to carve a new chapter all their own.

A chapter they might even enjoy reading some day.

There haven't been a whole lot of enjoyable chapters like that in the life of this franchise, you understand. Need a brief history lesson? Here goes:

You might be shocked to learn that before the Cubs forgot to win the World Series for a century, the Phillies were the team whose record they broke. It took the Phillies 98 seasons to win their first World Series in 1980. And, as you might have noticed, they haven't won one since. Heck, even the Royals have won a World Series more recently than the Phillies.

But it hasn't just been the World Series that Phillies teams have had a little trouble with. It's been every kind of postseason series.

The Marlins have been around for 16 seasons. They've won six postseason series. The Phillies have been in existence for slightly longer than that -- like 110 years longer. But they've won only five postseason series. In the history of the franchise.

"You know, I was watching ESPN the day we beat the Brewers, and I saw that," said catcher Chris Coste. "They said it was only the fifth postseason victory here. That stunned me. It really did. I don't know how many of us knew that."

In this case, though, ignorance is bliss. The less these players know about the 125 seasons before this one, the better off they'll be. Fortunately, when we took a quick survey of the clubhouse to determine how much these men knew about their franchise before they arrived, they confessed to a dazzling array of historical obliviousness.

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"To be honest," said Chase Utley, when we posed that question, "I knew very little."

So what would constitute "very little"? we asked.

"Uh, zero?" he said, laughing.

Then there was third baseman Greg Dobbs. He "had no idea" about what went on in Philadelphia all those years before he checked in last year. "I had none," Dobbs said. "I really didn't. Not one iota."

"I mean, I knew about Steve Carlton," Dobbs offered, just so he wouldn't flunk this test too disastrously. "I knew Jack Schmidt -- I mean Michael Jack Schmidt. I knew those names. I knew [Bob] Boone. But being a West Coast guy, playing in Seattle all those years, I had no clue what I was walking into."

Fortunately, though, these fellows have had the always-helpful fans of Philadelphia to turn to. And those fans have been working overtime to fill in the blanks -- just to make sure these guys were all caught up on important historical tidbits such as the collapse of the '64 Phillies, the Black Friday debacle of October 1977 and, well, just about every other dark day in Phillies history.

"When we had that 10,000th loss [in franchise history] last year, I don't think one player in here knew about that up until we approached it," Coste said. "But once we got to that 10,000th loss, the fans let us know about it -- as if we lost all 10,000 games."

The Red Sox, by the way, could lose every game they play between now and the year 2020 and still not reach 10,000 losses. And while we're on the subject, the Phillies also could win the next three World Series in succession and still not have won as many championships or postseason series as the Red Sox.

But for some reason, the Phillies have never gotten their due as a pre-eminent semitragic franchise in this great country we live. Billions of Americans can run through every lost October opportunity in the life of the Red Sox and Cubs. But the Phillies' 125 years of futility? Only the people in the cheesesteak line at Pat's Steaks seem to be totally up on that one.

"I think Fenway has a lot to do with it," said Mitch Williams, the remarkably beloved closer on the last Phillies team to win a postseason series [and last to lose a World Series], the 1993 juggernaut. "Fenway is kind of a national landmark. And so is Wrigley. The field has never changed. So everyone wants to go to Fenway. Everyone wants to go to Wrigley. No one wanted to come to the Vet [the late, great Veterans Stadium]. I mean, all they ever heard about the Vet is, they had rats in there that could carry a man off."

Apparently giant rats don't carry the same kind of poetic weight as ivy. Who knew?

But of course, some good things happened at old Veterans Stadium, too. The 1976-'77-'78 Phillies won three straight NL East titles there (and made three straight first-round postseason exits). And the 1980 Phillies carved the happiest memories in Phillies history there.

It's crunch time. Big lights. Big city. We're playing the best of the best. It doesn't get any more urgent than
that.

--Phillies third baseman Greg Dobbs

Now, though, the Vet has been defunct for five seasons. And a new generation of Phillies looks at its new ballpark as a blank canvas where this group can create a whole different kind of masterpiece -- starting right now.

"I think step one, phase one, was getting out of the Vet," said Rollins, "and getting to somewhere where you could kind of erase the history of all the wrongdoings that happened there and only winning one World Series. The 1980 squad, that [was] their home. No matter who you were or what you did, you were always playing where Mike Schmidt and the 1980 squad won the World Series.

"So I told [former Phillies manager] Larry Bowa [before the Vet was imploded], that was the house that he had built, and across the street is going to be the house that we build. And this is a step in the right direction."

Whether this team is ready to take the last two steps in that direction, all the way to the parade floats, we won't know for three more weeks. But this group seems atypically aware of the opportunity it has -- right now -- to leave its imprint on the mostly dark history of the franchise.

"When you look back, the Philadelphia Phillies have been around for a long time," Dobbs said. "So there is a certain legacy. And you hope that you can leave an imprint on that legacy in the time that you were with that organization, that you were able to accomplish something special for the organization, for the city, for the town and for your teammates. So I would have to agree with Jimmy. … You do want to leave your stamp on this era, because as soon as it comes, it can be gone as well.

"There has been so much made here of the losses and the failures," Dobbs went on. "Which I understand. There are always two sides to it. There are the wins and the losses. You have to take the good with the bad. But to be able to maybe put that to rest once and for all, and maybe have the sun shine a little bit more on the organization when people look at it from the outside. … I think we all, deep down, want that.

Manny Ramirez and his buddies will have other ideas, obviously. But if the calendar says it's October and the Phillies are still playing baseball, their history is still in their hands. And if they don't rewrite it, at least it won't be because they don't understand the urgency of the moment.

"It's crunch time," Dobbs said. "Big lights. Big city. We're playing the best of the best. It doesn't get any more urgent than that."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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