PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia--Welcome to baseball's outback.
Sure, about 2 million fans will show up at Veterans Stadium this season, populating otherwise rutted terrain in the National League East. But does anyone outside Philadelphia actually follow the Phillies? Howard Spira has a higher profile.
But suddenly, in this spring of 1991, the Phillies are presenting an intriguing picture. Maybe by September they'll be renowned for something other than Lenny Dykstra's inability to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em.
After replacing Nick Leyva 13 games into the season to win baseball's fire-the-manager sweepstakes, the Phillies are veering on course under the born-again patience of Jim Fregosi. The starting rotation remains a nightly mystery, and fielding ground balls is often an adventure, but the Phillies are recasting their image with a blend of experienced wall-bangers and clubhouse flakes.
"I can see light at the end of the tunnel," general manager Lee Thomas said.
Goodness knows this team was threatening to fall out of the playoff chase by May Day.
Spring training opened with Dykstra called as a witness to explain losses totaling $77,000 in poker games organized by Jackson, Miss., businessman Herbert Kelso. Kelso was acquitted, and Dykstra was placed on a year's probation by baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. Kelso said he and Dykstra were so close that if Dykstra were a woman, they'd be lovers.
Meanwhile, back in Clearwater, Fla., Leyva was under siege, trying to cobble together a pitching staff while warding off rumors that his job was imperiled. The rumors never died. And the pitching staff eventually cost Leyva his job when the team got off to a 4-9 start.
Dave LaPoint lasted 2 2/3 innings and gave up nine runs in two starts before being released. Good thing, too, because Phillies fans actually were getting angry at this guy.
In the first game of a doubleheader April 20, starter Jason Grimsley allowed one hit, two walks, one wild pitch, two hit batsmen and five earned runs. Oh, he did get one batter out before leaving the game.
Did we mention the wild pitches? Nineteen of them in the first 21 games. Tommy Greene threw one that bounced off the top of the backstop at New York's Shea Stadium. A few nights later, catcher Darren Daulton called for a pitchout. Pat Combs complied but sent the ball to the screen. A run scored.
"Do you know how an ostrich feels?" Daulton said. "If I could have, I would have dug a hole at home plate and buried my head. But I couldn't."
Get the picture? This team was playing horribly, even though its assembled parts weren't so terrible.
"I think people around baseball look at this team and say, 'Why can't these guys win? Look who they've got. Why can't they get it together?' " pitcher Terry Mulholland said.
Losing in Philadelphia wasn't anything new: The Phillies haven't had a winning season since 1986. But losing this badly was. Since dropping the 1983 World Series to the Baltimore Orioles, the Phillies discovered their own heart of darkness. Years of blundering trades, front-office politics and minor-league ineptitude brought the Phillies crashing to the bottom of the NL East with 96 losses in 1988 and 95 in '89. The 1989 retirement of future Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt also left the team without a star figure.
"Every organization has ups and downs," said Thomas, the former director of player personnel for the St. Louis Cardinals, who was hired as Phillies general manager in 1988. "This ballclub was at a low ebb."
Thomas backed up the moving vans, signed a few modest free agents and made 21 trades in three years. In all, 18 of the current Phillies were acquired by Thomas. In five major deals, he plucked Dykstra and Roger McDowell from the New York Mets, John Kruk and Randy Ready from the San Diego Padres, Dale Murphy from the Atlanta Braves, Charlie Hayes and Mulholland from the San Francisco Giants and Mitch Williams from the Chicago Cubs. Not a bad winning streak for a team that once traded away Ryne Sandberg and Guillermo (Willie) Hernandez and let George Bell leave in a minor-league draft.
"We got lucky on some trades," Thomas said. "I'm not out to rip someone off."
Thomas said the team, coming off a fourth-place, 77-85 finish, was capable of winning 85 games and contending in the NL East this season. After the faltering start under Leyva, Thomas brought in Fregosi, who was neatly stashed in the broadcasters' booth.
Fregosi is the answer to that trivia question: Whom did the New York Mets covet when they traded Nolan Ryan to the California Angels back when Richard Nixon was president? Among Fregosi's accomplishments were becoming a six-time All-Star shortstop with the Angels and serving two terms as a major-league manager, with the Angels (1978-81) and the Chicago White Sox (1986-88).
By his admission, Fregosi was a boorish figure when he managed the Angels, who won the 1979 American League West title and lost to the Orioles in the playoffs.
"I was awful," he said. "I did not know how to handle situations. I took everything in a personal vein. I could not accept losing. It just drove me up the wall. But whatever you do, you hope you learn from it."
Fregosi apparently learned plenty when he replaced Tony La Russa as manager of the Cardinals' Class AAA minor-league team in Louisville, Ky., (1983-86). He struck up a friendship with Louisville Courier-Journal sports columnist Billy Reed, who instructed him in the fine art of dealing with cynical beat writers. He discovered the craft of handling young players, especially pitchers. He mellowed.
"I learned humility," he said.
Hired by the White Sox midway through the 1986 season, Fregosi never could budge the team out of its fifth-place rut in the AL West. He was fired after the 1988 season, the predictable casualty after a change in general managers.
Thomas, who remembered Fregosi from his days with the Cardinals organization, lured him to Philadelphia in 1989 and let him roam the Phillies' minor-league system, grading players and gathering information from the bottom up. Once he was named a special-assignments coach and given a job as an announcer this spring, it was clear that Fregosi was the manager-in-waiting.
"I work for the Phillies," Fregosi said. "I do what they want."
What the Phillies want is to enter the NL East race. After losing two straight games under Fregosi, the Phillies put together a five-game winning streak to move within sight of .500 by the weekend. Kruk had 20 RBI in April, Murphy ended a slump with four home runs and Dykstra continued to hit like the second coming of Phillies Whiz Kid Richie Ashburn.
"I like this club, yes," Fregosi said. "I like the individuals that make up this team. They like to play and can play hard."
The Phillies have no shortage of characters, from Williams, baseball's Wild Thing, to Kruk, a man whose apparent goal in life is to wear every uniform number in existence. On this team, hotfoot specialist and relief pitcher McDowell is merely mild-mannered.
"We do have personality," said Williams, the bullpen closer. "We've got a good team, a team that won't quit. If you can play ball from bell to bell, you'll win more than you'll lose."
But the Phillies, like everyone else, will contend only if their starting pitching improves. Their starting rotation is composed of Mulholland and question marks. Nearly every player on the team talks wistfully of the impending return of Ken Howell, 8-7 last year before sustaining tendinitis in the rotator cuff, and the continued comeback of Danny Cox, who missed two seasons after undergoing a ligament transplant in his right elbow.
"I'm not hanging my hat on Cox and Howell," Thomas said. "They'll be hellacious pluses if they can come back."
Wherever they come from, the Phillies are looking for a few good starters and a few more wins. It's a long road from baseball's outback to the playoffs.
Thomas' terrific trades
Phillies general manager Lee Thomas has made some good trades:
* June 1989: Chris James to San Diego for John Kruk and Randy Ready
* June 1989: Steve Bedrosian and Rick Parker to San Francisco for Charlie Hayes, Terry Mulholland and Dennis Cook
* June 1989: Juan Samuel to New York Mets for Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell and Tom Edens
* Aug. 1990: Jeff Parrett, Jim Vatcher and Victor Rosario to Atlanta for Dale Murphy and Tommy Greene
* April 1991: Chuck McElroy and Bob Scanlon to Chicago Cubs for Mitch Williams