(Screen grab by the ever-great The700Level blog)
We swore blood brothers against the wind/Now I'm ready to grow young again...
-- Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, "No Surrender"
If the Phillies are to win their second World Series in four years in 2011 -- and we want and expect nothing less, right? -- then they must be ready to grow young again.
Easier said than done.
The bitter and unexpectedly early end to the Phils' 2010 season on Saturday night, with Ryan Howard, who did not have a homer or even an RBI in the National League Championship Series, looking at a third strike with the potential winning runs on base, is already viewed by both fans and by scribes as Grand Metaphor for the broader failings of an entire season. Perhaps. But like everything else about the 2010 Phillies, the real story is more complicated. In that instance, the slider by Giants' closer Brian Wilson that painted the outside corner at the knees was all but unhittable. Would you have felt better about the world tonight if "The Big Piece" had swung and missed it by six inches? I think not.
There are three ways to look at why the Phillies -- who gave us another great ride, as they have for the last four years -- didn't make it back to the World Series.
1) Bad luck. Under this theory, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with a franchise that, after all, won 97 regular season games, more than any other team in Major League Baseball. Their struggles at times during the regular season (despite those 97 wins) that re-surfaced, fatally, in the San Francisco series were largely because their three biggest stars -- Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins -- never got their groove back after significant time on the disabled list. No one else -- except arguably Carlos Ruiz, who had a career year -- was there to pick up the slack for the Big Three. If you buy into the "bad luck" theory, then there's not much need to do anything in the off-season -- other than pray for good health.
2) Bad baseball. Hey, this is baseball -- you make your own luck. The 2010 injuries shouldn't mask the fact that the Phillies -- good as they are -- have had a problem with batting with runners in scoring position and have depended too heavily on the long ball -- except home runs were down sharply across the game this year. But the Phillies seemed lackadaisical about making up for that by manufacturing runs the old fashioned way -- stealing bases, bunting, moving runners over. Did you see Giants' centerfielder Andres Torres bunt his way on for a hit in the 9th inning last night? Did you see Shane Victorino or Rollins doing that? Me neither.
3) Bad karma. OK, this is the kind of psychological mumbo-jumbo that passionate but ultimately ill-informed fans -- people like me, who've never set foot in the team clubhouse and form opinions about these total strangers based on the stray electrons bouncing off our flat TV screen -- love to engage in. Having said that, I'm going to do a little bit of it anyway, because that's part of what being a fan is all about. From coach-potato distance, something did feel a little "off" about the 2010 Phillies from Day One.
Oddly enough, the issue seemed to be one of "overconfidence" -- something that Philadelphia sports fans are just not used to seeing. On one level, we delighted in having a team that seemed so sure of itself -- I blogged during the 2009 World Series, speaking of fan mumbo jumbo, about the confidence of the team reflecting the newfound confidence of the city itself. But I think this year some fans, myself included, looked at the team and noticed that "confidence" sure looks like "complacency," at times. Would it really be possible after two trips to the World Series to flip a switch and re-capture the raw urgency of the 2007 pennant race and the 2008 post-season?
These Phillies looked and felt "older" in so many ways, not just with more injuries slowing them down but even off the field; OK, this may be even more fan pyschobabble, but it occurred to me that in growing up, as it were, that these Phillies had a lot of things happening in real life -- Rollins and Victorino got married, Cole Hamels became a dad, and God knows what else -- and maybe so many things happening off the field were a bit of a unintended distraction from the brass ring of a third straight Series trip. I know, I know...they're professionals getting big bucks to play baseball, but they're also human.
Last night, when I flipped on Fox-29 as the local coverage was just ending, they played the obligatory theme music from "Rocky," but the Phillies have already lived out their "Rocky" and "Rocky II" moments in 2007 and 2008, respectively, and now it seems like we were into that long opening montage for "Rocky III," endorsing cheesy products and beating up the bums of the month until the younger, hungrier Clubber Lang arrived to knock us to the canvass. Last night, the role of Clubber Lang was performed by the San Francisco Giants.
With most of their core stars except Jayson Werth under contract for 2011, the temptation is to make not major changes, to think the Phillies can be like the Boston Red Sox team that also won two championships in a four-season period, in 2004 and 2007.
That may be a temptation to avoid -- check out Boston's lineups for Game 4 of each of their titles (both sweeps -- here and here) and you'll remember that the Sox did a lot of overhauling, dumping the aging Johnny Damon on the Yankees for the speedy Jacoby Ellsbury in center and adding All-Star Dustin Pedroia at second ; only core position players Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Jason Varitek started in both '04 and '07. The Phillies tried to do it this year with six repeat starters from 2008 (the only changes being Ibanez for Burrell in left and Polanco for Feliz at 3rd) and possibly with five '08 veterans (minus Werth, although in theory they could try to resign him) next year. Good luck with that.
The Phillies might want to consider a more radical overhaul than either fans or pundits are talking about. If the Phillies are "ready to grow young again" for 2011, they could try and trade one or two core players -- try to rely less on the home run and acquire one or two hitters more prone toward getting on base and the kind of clutch hit that seemed in short supply this season. The problem is...who could they trade? -- most of the core group makes too much money (like Howard, for example) or is too old (Ibanez, who could be a giant weight on the 2011 lineup) to swap for anything like equal value. The exceptions to consider -- Victorino, who does have some trade value despite a somewhat underwhelming 2010, and maybe (trying desperately to think outside the box here) Brad Lidge. who had a comeback season but who could also be replaced as closer by Ryan Madson. If nothing else, the likelihood of Domonic Brown replacing Werth in right will bring some youth and maybe excitement, although based on this season's trial Brown will need a lot of seasoning in early 2011.
The other way for the Phillies to play younger baseball is...inside their heads. The other option is not to revamp much and just hope that a few months of rest for Howard's ankle, Utley's groin, Rollins' hamstring, Polanco's elbow, etc., etc. -- coupled with the painful memory of watching the Giants celebrate on their turf at Citizens Bank Park -- will bring back the hunger and spirit of '07 and '08.
I'm not sure if that can really work.
But hey, it did for Rocky Balboa.