THE PHILLIES laid their wretched 1996 season to rest during a late-September weekend series at Shea Stadium in New York. In those dying days, manager Jim Fregosi posted lineups that included Ricky Otero, Desi Relaford, Jon Zuber, Wendell Magee, Kevin Sefcik, Bobby Estalella and, playing rightfield and batting fourth, a spare outfielder named Ruben Amaro Jr.

Even the supremely self-confident future general manager recognized that having him bat cleanup wasn't a real good sign.

"I'm looking at Fregosi like, 'Are you smoking something?' " he joked recently.

Yeah, there was a reason that team lost 95 games and finished 29 games behind the Braves. "Eesh," Amaro said, summing it up. "Or ech."

Before the 1999 season, he moved into the front office as an assistant to GM Ed Wade. The situation wasn't much better then. The Phillies were coming off their 11th losing season in 12 years.

A decade later, obviously, the franchise has come full circle. They're about to appear in the World Series for a second straight year for the first time in franchise history.

Amaro is in a unique position to chart the evolution, to note the mileposts that have marked progress along the way. And, in his view, it all started with a couple of names that aren't exactly popular with Phillies fans of a certain age:

Wade and David Bell.

By the time he was let go after the 2005 season, Wade had become a lightning rod for all the frustrations of a fan base that hadn't been able to experience watching its club in postseason play since 1993.

Amaro - Philadelphia native, son of a Phillies player, batboy for the 1980 world championship team - saw something different.

"I just remember when I was growing up here, the glory days of the late '70s and early '80s when we were, like, awesome," he said. "Everybody wanted to be a Phillies fan because we had Boone, Schmidt, Bowa, Trillo, Carlton, Maddox. Some studs, you know? Those are the guys I grew up with. My favorite was Bake McBride. He wasn't there as long but Shake 'n Bake, he was the man. I could identify with those players. And that was really the goal, to try to get back to where our fans would love our players and could identify with a core group of players.

"When Ed set out on the track of being the GM here [in 1998], that's what his goal was. He really started the ball rolling. That's what his goal was. Because he made a lot of changes in player development, he made a lot of changes in scouting."

It didn't hurt that Wade started being given money to spend, either. The Opening Day payroll in 1999 was $27.3 million. By 2003, the last year at Veterans Stadium, it had risen to $73.1 million as the team tried to generate excitement - and sell premium seating - for its new park.

Before the Vet's curtain call, Wade made two significant free-agent signings. Jim Thome was one. Bell came even before that and it was a big deal at the time. A third baseman, he had been voted most valuable player of the Giants' 2002 playoff team. He and Thome did a lot to help change the clubhouse culture.

In 2005, folksy Charlie Manuel replaced the hard-nosed Larry Bowa.

"There was just kind of a sense that things were turning for the positive," Amaro said. "We talked about it a lot, even when Charlie was in the front office [as a special assistant] about wanting to change the mindset in the clubhouse. Hey, let's make this a happy place. Let's make this a place where people want to come to play and want to win.

"It's kind of a 180 for what it was like when Ed first gave me an opportunity to be the assistant. There was always like that feeling of, 'Well, they're doing OK now. But don't worry. It will collapse at some point.' And I think that bringing Charlie on and the core group of players with the confidence level they have, I think there's been a 180 in that regard.

"We actually get into situations and it's not, 'Oh, woe is me, the dam's going to break.' It's more like, 'I think we've got a chance to come back and win this game.' Or come back and win the series or get back on track. We clearly have a different mindset than we did when I was first working in the front office."

Jimmy Rollins was asked whether there is a bond among players who were brought up within the organization.

"There is a bond, that you can go down in the history of this organization as a team that was winners," Rollins said. "When I first got here, it just wasn't that way . . . Ed Wade drafted a lot of good players and always said, 'Wait till the crop gets up here.' Now we're here and everything he said has come through."

The Phillies were eliminated on the final day of the 2006 season. Even that was a building block, Amaro believes.

"There was a different attitude in the clubhouse that day. They were really [ticked]. I mean, they didn't like the feeling of not being in the playoffs. And I think there was some carryover there in '07."

The 2006 season was Pat Gillick's first as Phillies general manager. He previously had been the GM in Toronto, Baltimore and Seattle. All three teams made the playoffs and the Blue Jays twice won the World Series.

Amaro described the firing of Wade, who remains a close friend, as "unfortunate." He also recognizes that Gillick added something to the mix. "Pat's brilliant and makes all the right moves and has been doing it for 35 years," he said.

The Phillies broke their streak of three straight second-place finishes in Gillick's second year, finishing with a furious rush as the Mets collapsed.

"We pushed hard at the end of '07. We were lucky that New York was not playing well, obviously. All that stuff," Amaro said. "It was kind of like an order of progression there. Guys got a little more confident each year and started to believe in themselves a little bit more each year. And it kind of culminated last year in the World Series victory.

"And it's carried over to this year. Not to the point that they're throwing their gloves out there and saying, 'OK, we've got this handled.' And Charlie and his staff deserve a lot of credit for not allowing that to happen over a long period of time."

Amaro took over as GM when Gillick retired at the end of last season. He now oversees a baseball team with a lineup that includes Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez. A lineup, in short, that he would not have cracked in his playing days.

"On this team I'd be down on the end of the bench over there with my pompoms on. That's where I'd be," he said with a laugh. *

Daily News columnist Rich Hofmann

contributed to this report.