After nine straight seasons above .500 that included five National League East titles, two pennants, and a world championship, the Phillies lost their final eight games of the 1984 season to finish an even 81-81, in fourth place 15.5 games behind the division-winning Chicago Cubs. But the late-season swoon seemed more fluke than foreshadowing: looking ahead to 1985, the Phillies could project a young and talented lineup featuring a potent blend of speed and power; future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt was the only regular over 30.
At that time, the Phils had a farm system that had long been among the best in the game, producing solid players like slugging catcher Ozzie Virgil, blazing fast second baseman Juan Samuel, and the bounty that had landed promising outfielder Von Hayes a couple years earlier.
But the real gem of the organization, the leadoff man whose high-percentage hitting and quicksilver speed would drive opponents batty and leave millions cheering into the south Philadelphia night for the rest of the decade and beyond, was Jeff Stone.
With a lineup 1-2-3 of Stone, Samuel, and Hayes---who combined for 147 steals in 1984---in front of Schmidt, the 1985 Phillies figured to wear out a lot of pitchers. One baseball preview magazine that spring stated: "If Jeff Stone doesn't win a batting title someday, Astroturf isn't green."
One of fifteen children, Stone was discovered as a high-schooler by Phillies scouts, who convinced Jeff to abandon pitching (he reportedly threw a 90 mile-per-hour fastball) for the outfield. He signed as an amateur free agent in 1979 and didn't take long to make an impression: at low-A Spartanburg in 1981, Stone stole a then-record 123 bases. Two years later at AA Reading, Stone led an R-Phils club that ranked among minorleaguebaseball.com's top 100 minor league teams ever to a 96-44 record, hitting .317, scoring a league-leading 109 runs, and swiping 90 bases. On a roster that also featured future big-league stars Samuel, Darren Daulton, Mike LaValliere, and pitcher Don Carman (and managed by current Phils third-base coach Bill Dancy, then a 31 year-old wunderkind), Stone was clearly the man to watch.
Stone actually made his major-league debut in September 1983, going mostly unnoticed as the "Wheeze Kids" drove toward a playoff spot and eventual World Series appearance. In one late-season appearance, Stone went two for three with two triples; used mostly as a pinch-runner, he stole four bases that month without being caught.
Stone began the 1984 season at AAA Portland, hitting over .300 before his June 19 call-up. After going hitless in his season debut with the Phillies, the rookie left fielder tore off a string of five straight multiple-hit games, including two four-hit performances. For the season, all the 23 year-old Missouri native did was hit .362 in 185 at-bats, with six triples and 27 steals in 32 attempts. His exciting style of play and transparently small-town personality---he allegedly once responded to a server who asked if he wanted a shrimp cocktail by saying, "I don't drink"---both drew national attention. Sports Illustrated, picking up on the popular movie released earlier that year, dubbed Stone "The Natural."
But Stone's rags-to-riches story took an unexpected turn in 1985. Paul Owens, the grandfatherly skipper of the 1983-84 Phillies, who, as the team's general manager (Owens served in this role from 1972-1988), had followed Stone throughout his minor-league career, knew enough just to let Stone play: years later, he told Sports Illustrated, "Certain players you don't fool with, and Stonie was one of them." But Owens gave up the managerial reins in 1985 to John Felske, a very successful minor-league manager who quickly proved that he had about as much business being in a major-league dugout as TV's "Alf". A much more hands-on manager than Owens had been, Felske quickly became frustrated with Stone's difficulty taking instruction.
Stone began 1985 in solid fashion, batting .313 through May 3. But the next three weeks saw him mired in a 5-for-39 slump, and Felske began to cut his playing time. In mid-June, the Phillies sent Stone back to Portland. He returned to the big club later that season, but in 264 at-bats with the Phils he hit only .265 and finished the year with just 15 steals. As a team, the 1985 Phillies went 75-87. Perhaps coincidentally, the impatience shown with Stone would turn out to be a harbinger of things to come; starting that year, the Phils would finish over .500 just twice in 16 seasons.
Stone's next two seasons closely mirrored his 1985 campaign, as he split time between AAA and the majors. With the Phils, he batted .277 with 19 steals in 1986; the following year, he hit just .256 in considerably fewer at-bats. In March 1988, Stone was traded to Baltimore in a five-player deal; he spent the next three seasons bouncing between the Orioles, Rangers, and Red Sox. Perhaps Stone's greatest moment in the big leagues was also one of his last: in late September 1990, his RBI single in the bottom of the 9th won a huge game for Boston that broke a first-place tie with Toronto. But he was released in November and never returned to the majors. At age 31, "The Natural" was done.
What I didn't know then, but what's transparently clear now, was just why Stone flopped so dramatically after such a dazzling start to his big-league career. In retrospect, the warning signs were flashing even while Stone was putting up that gaudy .362 average in 1984: he drew only nine walks to go with those 67 hits, posting an on-base average of .394. A year later, in 279 plate appearances, Stone took only 15 free passes; with his average nearly one hundred points lower, Stone's OBP was just .307. Big-league pitchers quickly determined that more often than not, Stone would get himself out by failing to wait for strikes.
For his career, Stone walked just 60 times to go with 941 big-league at-bats. His lifetime .277 batting average isn't bad; his .327 OBP is cringe-worthy. While John Felske's stinging criticism surely upset Stone, it might well be not just an oversimplification, but a gross error, to blame the stodgy skipper for Stone's drastic decline: if that instruction was "take some %&*^$ pitches!", then Stone should have listened.
Stone's flameout was probably the turning point in my 28 years as a Phillies phan. Heading into that 1985 season, I'd bought the hype in a big way: I knew, just knew, that we had our Rickey Henderson, that Stone, Sammy, and Hayes would combine to steal 200 bases and score 300 runs, that the winning Phils' teams of my youth would return. When Stone fell short, a bit of my baseball innocence disappeared; over the next half-dozen years, a torrent of losses gradually eroded the rest of it.