Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bill Conlin: History will judge if this is the best Phillies team ever

Cole Hamels’ elbow inflammation was big news in spring training. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Cole Hamels’ elbow inflammation was big news in spring training. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Cole Hamels’ elbow inflammation was big news in spring training. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer) Gallery: Bill Conlin: History will judge if this is the best Phillies team ever

STUFFY McINNIS...Eddie Collins...Jack Barry...Frank "Home Run" Baker...

They were the fabled "$100,000 Infield" that drove Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics to dynasty status from 1910 to '14. The A's won the World Series in 1910, '11 and '13. They won the pennant in 1914.

"It would take $100,000 for me to part with any of those players," Mack said during the A's American League domination. Hence a nickname was born that has been confused with their combined salaries. When the market value of these players became too heavy for the A's always-broke manager, general manager and part-owner, Mack began selling them off.

Their intrinsic value of $400,000 in 1914 dollars would be $8,487,720 in 2009's recently printed pieces of paper bearing the likeness of George Washington and the fine print promise, "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private." Just don't try to sell that to the Central Bank of China.

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  • One $100,000 Infield factoid blew me away. Here are the ages of the $100K IF when the great run ended: McInnis 24. Collins 27. Barry 27. Baker 28. All were multiple ring winners. In fact, when Mack started selling off his precious inventory of stars, the average age of his starting eight was 25.75. Outfielder Rube Oldring was a doddering 30.

    The Phillies team that gifted us with October's thrilling run through the Brewers, Dodgers and Rays, an 11-3 magic carpet ride that touched both coasts, the Upper Midwest and Florida's Suncoast, then dragged upwards of 2 million believers of all ages on a rolling red avalanche for the ages that turned Broad Street into what appeared from the air to be a southbound lava flow.

    Thanks to that momentous postseason, it is now politically correct to ask if this team is the best in franchise history.

    My answer to that rhetorical skull-buster is a qualified probably. But, wait, this is still a team in the maturation process. There are questions to be answered. For example, it is less important from this man's perspective for the Phillies to win an improbable second straight World Series than it is to have a more doable dominant season where all the components of greatness come together. Both Cole Hamels, the ace-in-waiting, and Brett Myers, still looking to press his palm against his high-ceiling profile, must control the rotation. When I hear of Hamels coming off elbow soreness significant enough to require a trip home and cortisone shot then using a couple of long-toss sessions to get himself "stretched out," I want to grab a straight razor and slash my wrists, writing a final message of protest with my gore: "Long toss — so mid-20th century. No, Cole, No..." When pitchers start their delivery with a crow-hop and throw to a hitter standing 150 to 200 feet away, I'll reconsider. Until then, I stand with Tom House, Dick Mills and many, many other reformists who have seen the red light blink brightly enough to develop the momentum delivery that has spawned Tim Lincecum. More to follow. I repeat with them, "A pitcher 'pitching' stands on a mound throwing a baseball downhill. A pitcher 'long-tossing' stands on flat ground throwing uphill." There is absolutely no release point relevance, setup similarity or arm-mechanics point of reference. However, long toss is just fine for outfielders who are required to throw a baseball long distances with accuracy and velocity.

    That's a technical way of saying, Hamels must establish himself as that guy and stay there healthy, wealthy and wise for a number of years. Myers must step up and stay up. Brad Lidge must be a long-running beast of a closer. Prospects like Carlos Carrasco must be more than the Kyle Kendrick level.

    But this team is tightly wound around an infield core that is to the present what that A's $100,000 Infield was to Philly when its run began exactly a century ago (McInnis arrived in 1909 at age 18). Collins and Baker are enshrined in Cooperstown. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are on track to have their days on the dais next to the National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame.

    The Whiz Kids sent Rich Ashburn and Robin Roberts to the Hall. Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton anchored the Almost-A-Dynasty team we loved and hated with alternate breaths. Curt Schilling will be on the bubble of too few wins, too-late controversy as the only 1993 representative with a shot.

    Hamels is still young enough to be a HOF contender if he avoids the DL and can maximize his vast talent. Lidge is heading toward huge closer career numbers.

    One thing to watch as this nucleus edges toward franchise greatness is longevity, not so much in titles but in the Eagles' business model of avoiding being really bad while contending every year.

    This team has flirted with being pretty good since 2001, stringing together eight straight seasons of 80 or more wins, including seven with 85 or more, with 89 and an East Division title in 2007 and the whole ball of wax last year. It is an almost Reidian run — 94 games over .500 with the only losing season just one under. But until last season's break-on-through-to-the-other-side, the Phillies had charted a course of stupefying mediocrity. To ditch that unwanted baggage, the train to greatness finally pulled out of the station last year.

    Fortunately, the historic bar is set low for this team. Even though the 1976-77 Phils won 101 games each year, they were 1-6 in playoffs against the Reds and Dodgers. The '78 team served up a third straight division title without distinction. In 1980, Dallas Green managed the often-bitter veterans of those NLCS collapses with the touch of a shift foreman at the building of the Pyramids. The lash worked.

    Ultimately, the Pastime's dynasty teams are certified by the depth and quality of their pitching staffs.

    For this excellent Phillies team to be mentioned in the same historic breath as the best-ever "Philly" team, the A's of 1910-14, the pitching has to emulate what some of Connie Mack's staffs accomplished. (Adjusted for evolution of the game and radically different approach to pitching, of course.)

    In 1910, Mack used five starters — you needed a No.5 with all the doubleheaders. For a team that went 102-48, a staff headed by Jack Coombs produced 123 complete games. Coombs had a 1.30 ERA to go with his 31-9 record. Hall of Famers Eddie Plank and Chief Bender filled out one of the greatest rotations of all time.

    That A's dynasty, shrouded by the mists of time, gives these Phillies, their ancestral cousins, a high aiming point.

    Mack had a $100,000 Infield. Dave Montgomery has a $39.75million infield.

    But don't despair, Dave. That's only $1,807,906 in 1913 dollars. *

    Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/conlin.
     

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