Back to back to back? Enjoy a bid for history

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Ryan Howard and the Phillies are looking to go back to the World Series for the third straight year. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)

Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer columnist

 

They had Stan (the Man) Musial, who would coil into that distinctive peek-a-boo stance and lash 3,630 base hits. They had Enos (Country) Slaughter, a swashbuckler who counted any game in which he didn't look like he'd been wallowing in a pig pen a failure. And they had not one but two 20-game winners in MVP Mort Cooper and rookie Johnny Beazley. And yet despite that largesse, the St. Louis Cardinals found themselves sleepwalking through the first two-thirds of the 1942 season. But they awoke in time to finish an incendiary 43-8, and win the National League pennant. It was, though no one could know at the time, the start of a historic streak.

In 1943, Musial hit .357, Cooper won 21, World War II put a serious drain on major league talent, and also used up all available cork and rubber. So substitute balls, made out of a thoroughly unsatisfactory material called balata, were used, and they were pronounced to be deader than vaudeville. Oh yes, the Cardinals repeated as NL champions.

In 1944, Musial hit .347, and the other Cardinals fattened up on thinned-out wartime pitching. One thing remained unchanged: St. Louis won the NL pennant.

For the third straight time.

Repeat . . . for the third straight time.

No one has matched that since. Sixty-five years and counting - since those Red Birds did it no one has won the National League three years running.

Why do you suppose that is?

"Probably 'cause it's hard," suggested Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, demonstrating unassailable logic.

But now, ah now, that streak is ripe for the equaling. By Manuel's Gang. By your beloved Fightin's. By, of all the unlikely prospects, the franchise that has eclipsed all others when it comes to losing.

The very same franchise that only recently accumulated its 10,000th defeat now looks down the barrel of history.

Three NL pennants in a row? Who would have thought that possible, say, only as recently as three years ago? Three in a row? There was a time when we viewed one in a row as a gift. And that only once every century or so.

Folks, the point is, these are our Glory Days. Enjoy them. Go ahead, savor them. Wallow in them. Make them your guilty pleasure. Don't let the ghosts of all those past failures intimidate you. The infamy and the anguish of the 1964 meltdown? Ha! Laugh in its face.

I know, I know, you're expecting calamity. It is, after all, what you have been weaned on. To be a Philadelphia fan is to be conditioned to heartbreak, to fear success because to acknowledge it is to invite hexes and jinxes, to bring down the wrath of Billy Penn's hat, and do-do-that-voo-doo-that-you-do-so-well.

But, people, this is different. These aren't your father's Fightin's. These aren't One-Shot Wonders. They are legitimately good and deep, and given that the core of the team is only now in its prime age, it is not unreasonable to suggest that its best baseball could still lie ahead.

Of this roster's everyday eight, seven have been all-stars and very well could be again. Chase Utley is a throwback and the best second baseman the Phillies have ever had. Ryan Howard has pledged to resist breaking balls from lefties, and if he does, then 70 home runs and 150 RBIs do not seem so far-fetched. Jimmy Rollins, the best shortstop the Fightin's have ever had, has refrained from predictions this time around but has set .300 and 50 steals as reasonable goals for himself.

And so it goes, all down the lineup, Jayson Werth blossoming, Shane Victorino giving off sparks, Raul Ibañez the quiet professional, Placido Polanco the selfless one, and Carlos Ruiz efficiently playing sports' most demanding position.

Which brings us to that little hillock in the center of the infield, where, ultimately in some fashion, all is won. Or lost.

Philadelphia has acquired its second doctor, and the Fightin's can only hope that Roy (Doc) Halladay is as successful here as was Julius Winfield Erving II. And that Cole Hamels, having added new pitches to his repertoire, reverts to being the prodigy we all thought we saw. And that Brad Lidge does likewise. And that the rest of the arms arsenal performs up to reasonable expectations.

Put it at somewhere between 90 and 100 wins.

The Phillies have undergone quite a makeover in recent years. Buttressed by a new home, they have shed that small-market mentality they shackled themselves with for so long. Their payroll now approaches $150 million.

And the turnstiles hum a merry tune - when the calendar flipped over into March, ticket sales already had zoomed past three million.

Hope, as you may have heard, springs eternal. But with the Fightin's, too often it has turned out to be a false spring.

But not now.

No, now is what, a generation from now, you will be remembering as that enchanted time when the Fightin's were making history.

 


E-mail Bill Lyon at lyon1964@comcast.net.