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.