The Rotation is first and foremost a story. A true story, of course, but one entwined with prospects of glory and, to steal a phrase from Howard Cosell, the agony of defeat. So easy is it to get wrapped up in the narrative that I nearly forgot how the season actually ended, and found myself hoping that this time the outcome was different.
Like any good story, this one opens with an introduction to our main characters.
Tenth-grade Cole Hamels told his pitching coach, Mark Furtak, that he thought he could make the JV team of his San Diego high school. His pitching coach scoffed. “From this day on, I want you to think like a varsity guy.”
The following summer, Hamels would suffer a fracture of his humerus. The same injury had ended the careers of other pitchers. But Hamels rebounded. At age 24, donning a Phillies jersey, he took the mound in the 2008 World Series and walked away with an MVP trophy.
As a Blue Jay, Roy “Doc” Halladay, posted a 10.64 ERA in 2000 and was sent down to single A. He was humiliated and disheartened. His wife, Brandy, picked up a copy of The Mental ABCs of Pitching by Harvey Dorfman from a bookstore near Dunedin, Florida. The book changed Doc, and the path it set him on eventually led to an ability to focus at a nearly inhuman level. As a Phillie, he’d go on to pitch a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter.
Roy Oswalt’s high school didn’t have a baseball team, so his family opened their wallets and helped create one. There were only 31 kids in his graduating class. The team had no bullpen. When Roy stepped on the rubber in the first inning, come the last out of the ninth he’d still be the one slinging from the mound. Not long after the Astros signed him he developed severe pain in his shoulder and it was thought he would need surgery. The accidental cure he stumbled upon is bizarre but amusing, and is a story I won’t spoil here.
American League Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee loved playing in Philly so much before being traded after the 2009 season, that as the Yankees and Rangers were making offers for him, Lee was secretly courting an offer from Ruben Amaro Jr. Everyone from fans to owners to were shocked to wake up and learn that Lee left money on the table to rejoin the Phillies and be part of one of the greatest rotations in history.
After brief introductions to the guys who would serve in the fifth starter spot - another hero from the 2008 World Series, Joe Blanton, plus rookie Vance Worley, and clubhouse favorite Kyle Kendrick - we meet the rest of the team before moving onto the unforgettable 2011 season in which the Phillies would win a franchise record 102 games.
We learn what went on behind the scenes with trades and acquisitions, and glimpse the very human personalities of players who over the years we came to lionize. We’re led through this incredible season month by month, the hopes and expectations growing ever higher of hoisting another World Series trophy. Through injuries and victories, amazing feats by the four-headed pitching monster, a September filled with struggles, and the heartbreaking October no one at the time knew would be the team’s last postseason for over a decade, Jim Salisbury and Todd Zolecki immerse the reader in reliving every bit of joy and agony.
The Rotation is replete with accounts of moments both heartfelt and amusing. When the Phillies played in Toronto in July of that year, it was the first time Halladay returned to the city where he had spent his entire MLB career before being traded to Philadelphia. Prior to the first pitch of the series, Halladay was asked to deliver the lineup card to the home plate umpire. The Toronto crowd erupted in applause from the moment Doc stepped onto the field. And they stood on their feet cheering until he popped back out from the dugout and tipped his cap to them - not once, but twice.
Then there’s the story of the season-long competition between the starters to see who could help the team the most offensively. Bench coach Pete Mackanin devised a system that rewarded points for hits, walks, bunts, home runs, and so on. Lee once argued that he should be awarded a half point for advancing a runner. Despite his competitive drive, Lee didn’t win. Can you guess who did?
In June of that year, Lee allowed only a single run and went on to start and win five games. While reading The Rotation, I recalled that summer and the elation at the idea that this was the year when the Phillies couldn’t be stopped, the year when they went all the way. Then October arrived, and when it counted the most, a series of failures erased the dreams spawned over that mythical summer.
The story of the 2011 Phillies is an odd one. It didn’t end with a showdown in the World Series. There was no deep run into the postseason. But it’s a fascinating story nonetheless, not least because it was the season the Phillies sent to the mound the greatest pitching staff ever assembled. Jim Salisbury and Todd Zolecki tell that story very well.
Read it. You’ll come away with an even greater love for the guys in pinstripes.
The Rotation: A Season with the Phillies and the Greatest Pitching Staff Ever Assembled by Jim Salisbury and Todd Zolecki is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other book retailers.