Yuletide Time Machine: A Phillies Xmas, 2000

Pretty much nothing in or about this image would have made sense to a Phillies fan in December 2000. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Around the time of the lunar eclipse this week, the following article appeared through what can only be described as a rift in the space-time continuum. Dated December 24, 2000, from what seems to be a Phillies blog in some alternate universe called PhightKlub, it reads as a somewhat TGP-like take on the miserable baseball season the team endured ten years ago, and five before this site came into existence. We present it here as an historical curiosity, in gratitude that we Phillies fans are living in considerably more agreeable times. 

If the 2000 season is any indication, it’s going to be a long millennium for the Philadelphia Phillies—possibly to the point where we might look back on a mostly miserable 20th century as "the good old days." 

For the 13th season in the last 14, the 2000 team finished below .500; their 65-97 mark, "good" for a .401 winning percentage, was the team’s worst in 28 years, since the 1972 Phils went 59-97 (.378).  But at least that team had Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton, who made them reliably worth watching every fifth day. Our equivalent to Carlton, Curt Schilling, only pitched for a bit less than three months in 2000 before successfully talking his way out of town.

We’ll briefly recap the lowlights: after splitting their first eight games, the Phils went 3-14 in their next 17 to find themselves 12.5 games out of first on May 2. They never got much closer, and completely collapsed down the stretch with 22 losses in their final 31 games. Manager Terry Francona was unceremoniously fired at season’s end.

Underperforming and unhappy players, a decrepit home ballpark one quarter filled with surly fans, irrelevance before summer even started: this was a characteristic Phillies club, only more so. It wasn’t fun.

The salt in the wound was that the 2000 Phillies were widely expected to contend, behind a rising lineup core and a troika of starting pitchers who'd been all-stars just a year earlier. 

The lineup boasted third baseman Scott Rolen, catcher Mike Lieberthal and right fielder Bobby Abreu--with the consensus best prospect in baseball, first baseman Pat Burrell, almost ready to join them—and three 1999 all-stars (Schilling, Andy Ashby and Paul Byrd) in the rotation. The supporting cast included 100-RBI man Rico Brogna and fleet center fielder Doug Glanville plus promising lefty Randy Wolf and hard-throwing Robert Person. Record-wise, the team had improved in each of the previous three seasons.

But the 2000 Phillies gave back all that progress and then some. Where did it go wrong? To start with, the three ’99 all-stars went a combined 12-22, 5.26 for the Phillies. Ace Schilling was slow to return from offseason surgery, struggled by his usual standards (6-6, 3.91), complained about his contract and was finally traded by GM Ed Wade in late July for a shabby package of "major-league ready talent" led by pitcher Omar Daal, who improved from the 2-10 record he posted for the Diamondbacks all the way to 2-9 for the Phillies. Ashby, given the Opening Day start in Schilling’s stead, was awful in his return to the organization that drafted him: he was 4-7 with a 5.68 ERA when he was shipped off to the Braves in early July. Byrd allowed six runs in two-thirds of an inning in the season’s second game en route to a 2-9 record and 6.51 ERA in an injury-shortened season.

The news wasn’t that much better on offense. Rolen and Abreu were as advertised, leading the team in just about every category. Lieberthal was the Phils’ lone all-star representative, and Burrell held his own after a May promotion with 18 homers in just 111 games, finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.  But middle infield was a dead zone, with shortstop Desi Relaford and second baseman Mickey Morandini both delivering little at the plate. Travis Lee, the centerpiece of the Schilling trade, was a big disappointment with all of one home run in 223 plate appearances with the Phils. A flickering bright spot was 21 year-old rookie Jimmy Rollins, who hit .321 in 55 September plate appearances.

If there’s reason to hope that the Phils fare better in the next ten years—and the next hundred—than in the last, it’s the farm system that’s yielded Burrell and Rollins. They join a young nucleus that includes Rolen (26 in 2001), Abreu (27), Lieberthal (28), Wolf (24), and perhaps Lee (26) and Vicente Padilla (23), another acquisition in the Schilling trade. More help might be on the way, with outfielder Eric Valent poised to challenge for a job after slugging 22 homers at Reading. 6’9" right-hander Brad Baisley, who was taken just after Burrell and Valent in the 1998 draft, went just 3-9 but put up a solid 3.74 ERA at high-A Clearwater; at age 21, he has plenty of time.

The next wave cooled their heels at low-A Piedmont, the most loaded team in the system. The Boll Weevils featured outfielders Marlon Byrd, who batted .309 with 17 homers and 41 steals, and Jorge Padilla (.305, 11 HR), as well as first baseman Nate Espy, who mashed the South Atlantic League with a .312 batting average and 21 homers. On the pitching side, the team featured 19 year-old right-handers Ryan Madson, who went 14-5 with a 2.59 ERA, and 1999 first-round pick Brett Myers, the team’s co-ace with a 13-7 record and 3.18 ERA.

Last summer’s top pick, infielder Chase Utley, hit .307 in his pro debut at short-season Batavia but faces concerns about his defense. Hard-throwing teens Keith Bucktrot  and Taylor Buchholz, taken in the third and fourth rounds respectively, could be names to watch after racking up gaudy strikeout totals in rookie ball.

Ultimately, though, it feels almost futile to dream on a Phillies future that never seems to arrive. That the team’s new ballpark will open for business years after those of the NFL’s Eagles and Steelers and the cross-state baseball rival Pirates (who have gone even longer without a winning season the Phils—eight years and counting, since Barry Bonds left town after 1992) comes as no surprise at all. And while big names like Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Hampton, and Mike Mussina are on the move through free agency this winter, the Phils aren’t even on the map. Maybe that’s for the best; when they do make their once-a-decade "big" free agent signing, it turns out to be Lance Parrish. Or Gregg Jefferies.

The culture of the team seems almost uniquely inimical to winning; while Francona was ultimately held accountable for four straight losing seasons, the all-but-invisible ownership and awfully nice (in both senses) front men David Montgomery and Bill Giles turned to Phillies lifer Larry Bowa rather than bringing in someone who might raise an eyebrow at the perpetually languid atmosphere around the team. In Bowa’s lone previous big-league managerial stint, he lasted a season and change, going 81-127 for a .389 winning percentage; he could fit right in. To be fair, perhaps nobody else wanted the job of taking over the team with a 2000 payroll 20th out of the 30 teams despite playing in the largest one-team market.

Still, it’s Christmas season and a new year is just over the horizon—a time for looking to the best and wishing on a brighter tomorrow. So here’s a wish list for the Phillies, for 2001 and all the years to follow:

  • A great farm system that really can produce the core of a contending team—whether the names mentioned above, or pieces missing such as a great left-handed home run hitter or true ace who can deliver memorable pitching performances when the spotlight shines brightest
  • That the promised new ballpark—wherever it winds up, and whenever it opens—generates the special feel and true home-field edge of the best parks, from old gems like Wrigley Field to new marvels like Camden Yards, and that it helps spark a baseball renaissance in Philadelphia, however unlikely that seems right now
  • A manager, whether a kinder and gentler Bowa (fat chance) or someone else, who can be both tough and supportive, who has the trust and respect of his players yet isn’t afraid to use the hammer when circumstance dictates
  • Deeper pockets, from a reversal of fortune on the field or the financial boost the new stadium could offer, to allow the Phils to keep their stars as they approach free agency and even poach the occasional impact player from competitors
  •  A return to the playoffs, which the team has seen just once in the last 17 seasons—and even, somehow, a second championship banner to fly alongside the lonely 1980 flag

Farewell, 2000, and here’s to better days ahead. 

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