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How to survive ten years with the Phillies

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For superstars, sluggers, utility players, and bullpen arms, a decade with the Phillies is always a long time.

Philadelphia Phillies v Brooklyn Dodgers SetNumber: X1064

Ten years: Watching your child grow from a squirming baby to a wriggling adolescent. The rises and falls of fads, technology, and pseudo-celebrities. Premieres and finales, a generational gap, the lifespan of a large dog.

The passage of time is, of course, terrifying, and we gloss over it whenever we discuss baseball contracts. When we think, “Bryce Harper or Manny Machado could get a ten-year deal from the Phillies,” as Jeff Passan says, it’s just the number that’s next to their projected money. There will always be opt-outs, trades, backdoor contract shenanigans, and falling pianos. But as an idea, the point of a ten-year deal is to be security for the player: You will be employed, and at least for a while, it will be by us.

Harper or Machado, if their ten-year deals come from the Phillies, won’t be the first Phillies to potentially spend that much time in this city. None of the guys who have done it before them were recipients of ten-year deals, but they did appear in Phillies uniforms, in Philadelphia, for a decade, and all serve as lessons for what we already know: Nobody can do everything right for ten years, even if they don’t change their shirt.

Larry Christenson (1973-83)

Christenson’s longevity in Philadelphia is overshadowed by the fact that he played alongside Mike Schmidt, who lasted in Philadelphia somehow almost twice as long, and tarnished by the fact that he, for about 12 hours, was traded to the Tigers.

It was 1973, and they didn’t bother with “paper work” or “approval from the league office;” a trade was palm meeting palm over a couple of empty martini glasses. Which is the sort of deal GM Paul Owens had put together to send Christenson (and Bob Boone) to Detroit for Jim Northrup and Bill Freehan not too long after the Phillies had selected Christenson third overall in the draft.

Owner Ruly Carpenter got home from a party, was told of the deal, and “went ballistic,” according to the Daily News. The Tigers GM could only scorn the Phillies for the lack of respect of baseball’s most ancient, respected practice: The booze-soaked handshake. “I want to know,” he growled, “how the hell can the Phillies unshake a handshake?”

Christenson remained with the Phillies until the end of his career, being granted free agency in November 1981, re-signing with the Phillies two months later, and being released by them the following year. He credited his time here to his relationships with other people’s wives.

“Legends of the Philadelphia Phillies: Steve Carlton, Tug McGraw, Mike Schmidt, and Other Phillies Stars,” by Bob Gordon

A rural Washington teen when he was drafted, being set upon by the ravenous media at his family home was an indication that playing for Philadelphia meant he just lived on a different planet now. Reaching the Phillies clubhouse as a recent high school graduate who’d only ever seen one major league baseball game in his life, the front half of Christenson’s stay in Philadelphia was full of dominant pitching, having the lowest BB9 in the league (1.9 in 1978), post season appearances, a World Series championship, and Jim Kaat disco-dancing.

The back half had more pain, decline, and surgery, starting when he broke his collar bone in a charity bike race in 1979, in a fundraising event that proved hazardous for more than one professional athlete—New England Patriots tight end Dan Hasselbeck was at one point hit by a mail truck. “(Eagles linebacker) Bill Bergey hits harder than that,” Hasselbeck said. “I’m a little stiff, but when I have a couple of beers and get back on the bike I’ll be all right.”

Christenson was done with baseball by age 29, but Philadelphia already had its hooks in him. Fans love a pitcher who can mash, and Christenson tied Rick Wise for most homers hit by a pitcher for the Phillies franchise. He would have had more, too; but when his teammate Dick Ruthven was traded out of Philly, he told his new squad about Christenson’s inability to touch a curveball. Why other pitchers hadn’t thought of that yet is beyond understanding, but nevertheless, Christenson, now 65, has been a part of the Phillies family, even contributing $20,000 to the hospital bills of former teammate Chris Short, who suffered an aneurysm and was in a coma for three years before passing away.

Ryan Howard (2004-16)

Howard was in Philadelphia for so long it’s impossible to count how many times we gaped, mouths full of popcorn, as his dingers sailed toward the city skyline. By the end of his tenure here, the calls to trade him out of the organization seemed to outnumber his home runs. But that was about as likely as Howard bunting away from the shift.

Let’s all laugh at the Phillies as they try to trade Ryan Howard, some said. It can be done... but at what cost, asked others. Maybe you could swap him out for Albert Pujols, whispered someone, an idea the Phillies had “kicked around internally” in 2010. When Howard showed signs of life late in his career, he wasn’t bouncing back, he was just increasing his potential trade value. Maybe the team was just going to crumple his contract up into manageable little balls and devour it, piece by piece? He was hitting .226 with a .444 SLG and 91 SO in 297 AB in the first half of 2015, and triple crown threat Darin Ruf was sitting right there. No, no, no, Ruben Amaro said, denying it all.

It was a frustrating, tumultuous end for Howard in Philadelphia, not reminiscent at all of his glorious early years, for which he had been awarded the contract that kept him here. But before that, the first person to ask the Phillies to trade Ryan Howard... was Ryan Howard.

Ryan Howard wants to play in Philadelphia someday. He’s hoping it will be for the Phillies and not as a visitor.

But if wearing a visiting uniform at Citizen’s Bank Park is what it will take to make it to the Major Leagues, then so be it. To that end, Howard’s agent, Larry Reynolds, sent a letter to Philadelphia general manager Ed Wade two days ago, the subject of which was a formal trade request. With Jim Thome firmly entrenched at first base in Philadelphia, the likelihood of Howard breaking into the lineup is slim.

The Phillies, of course, sent Thome’s smiling face to Chicago to make room for Howard, and the rest is Phillies home run history. The length of Howard’s contract extension after being named an NL Rookie of the Year and NL MVP, however, remains the scary part. He provided the Phillies 4.4 WAR in 2009. It was time to give that man money. And a month into the 2010 season, they did: $125 million of it, extending his contract half a decade. Jeff Passan called it “wholly unnecessary” and “the single worst contract in baseball history,” given the projected lifespans of sluggers who strike out a lot.

Once more, it was time, not money, that proved the heftier price, and the post-2011 years of Howard’s career have been hurriedly forgotten, with the team not truly being seen as moving on to the next era until his name was off the books.

Despite this, Howard, too, has remained good-spirited about Philadelphia, and will be honored this coming season at Citizens Bank Park, where the sound he will hear will be clapping, and nothing else.

Bob Miller (1949-58)

Like Christenson and Howard, Miller also could have left Philadelphia via trade. In fact, he did.

It was near the end of Miller’s baseball career in 1959, following a season in which he’d appeared in 17 games for the Phillies, logging one of those ERAs over 11.00 that nobody wants to talk about. The Phillies shipped all six-foot-three inches and two hundred pounds of Miller to St. Petersburg, Florida, where the Cardinals had until April 10 to determine if they wanted to to keep him. They did not, and he was returned to Philadelphia, but never pitched for the Phillies again.

Before all that? Well, Miller caught the eye of a Phillies scout while winning three games in the National Amateur Federation Baseball Tournament in Youngstown, Ohio for a team sponsored by Pepsi. He finished second in the 1950 NL Rookie of the Year balloting, pitching a third of an inning in the World Series against the Yankees.

After that, Miller won no more awards and put up average to solid numbers for the Phillies from 1953-57. By the end of his career, the injuries started: a broken wrist in 1957 caused by a fall and a near-fatal car accident at spring training in 1958 were both harbingers of the end of Miller’s career after 1959. He had just wanted to pitch, regardless of whether it had been in the rotation or the bullpen, and get to use that sexy curveball that had stunned hitters since they’d first been unable to hit it.

Phillies coach Benny Bengough said Miller “could hit a dime” with his curve without flinching. His eerie calm on the mound was noted by everyone from coaches to umpires, and he rode that breaking ball through a ten-year stint with the Phillies.

Imagining a floater between the rotation and the bullpen appearing for a single team at least once every year for ten years is not a concept we would see today. So what kept the Phillies’ interest in Miller? It wasn’t a hyperventilating scouting director, buildup since his high school days, or even blackmail of a team executive.

It was a single at-bat in 1949:

In 1992, at a baseball card show in Philadelphia, Eddie Sawyer asked Miller if he ever wondered why the Phillies kept him on their major-league roster in 1950 after he had played only one full season in the minors. Sawyer then explained, “Your first strikeout [late in the 1949 season] was against [Cincinnati catcher] Walker Cooper and you struck him out with your curveball. Walker Cooper was the best curveball hitter in the National League. When you struck him out, we said, ‘We’d better keep this kid.’

Terry Harmon (1967, 1969-77)

Terry Harmon’s goal in big league baseball was to stay in the league for five years so he could qualify for his pension. The Phillies let him play ten. Well, parts of ten. And never too many times in a row.

Two games in 1967 put Harmon, a weak-hitting middle infielder, on this list. Both were 2-1 losses for the Phillies. In neither did he get an at-bat. But with those appearances, he cracks the ten-season threshold, and does so with a pension in his hands.

Sequestered to the minors in 1968, Harmon would play in fewer than 90 games for the Phillies every year from 1969 to 1977. His career would end in a .233 BA, a .604 OPS, and a realistic outlook on the years behind him: “I like to say I made it to the bottom of the top,” Harmon told author Bob Gordon in “Game of My Life Philadelphia Phillies: Memorable Stories Of Phillies Baseball.”

Manager Danny Ozark gave the highest praise that career utility men like Harmon can receive: “Terry’s a guy that any manager would like in his clubhouse. He’s not out there doing something on the field every day but he’s always contributing, always doing something for the good of the team.”

But even the goodest guys like getting reps. Talking to Hal Bodley in Wilmington’s News Journal near the end of his career in 1975, Harmon discussed how low his expectations had been for himself, how he wished he’d spoken up a bit more, and how much of a “nightmare” it was to not feel like he was not contributing to the team:

“Terry Harmon is the first to admit he could have skipped out of the ball park after infield practice most any day and never be missed.

‘Who would have noticed?’ Terry reasoned.”

It’s a good thing Ozark liked Harmon in the clubhouse, because he kept showing up there for most of the seventies. But his reputation as a “team first” guy continued long after his career, when he was given a chapter of Gordon’s book in which to tell the story of his favorite game of his career. He picked one in which he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and in which, as he says, “Jim Bunning was the real star.” Fielding three grounders in the ninth to lock up Bunning’s shut-out win was all Harmon needed to recall the game.

Ten years of utility work backing up Larry Bowa doesn’t get you on the wall of fame, but it can, apparently, keep you employed for more than five years.

Mike Schmidt (1972-89)

It’s easy to see why Schmidt was a franchise player for a single team throughout his entire career: Because he was the best to ever play his position.

Say something negative about Mike Schmidt, and a klaxon blares inside the heads of fans of a certain age as they rush to his defense, regardless of the discussion. But this is a guy who once wore a wig to hide from these same people, saying Phillies fans were “beyond help.”

“I’ve just accepted my role as the guy the fans are going to take their frustrations out on,” Schmidt famously said in 1985.

And that, really, is being a ten-year player with one team: Acceptance.

Acceptance of an unknown future, acceptance that people are going to hate you for no reason, acceptance that people are going to hate you for a perceived reason, acceptance of injuries, mail trucks, and chaos, acceptance that you are not in control, and acceptance, in this case, of hundreds of millions of dollars. And if it’s year four, and the numbers are dropping, but you find yourself wanting to stick around, maybe take the Larry Christenson route and send a fruit basket to Lauren Klentak.