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News » Bill Conlin: History no cure for 2008 Phillies hangover

Bill Conlin: History no cure for 2008 Phillies hangover

Bill Conlin: History no cure for 2008 Phillies hangover
IF YOU'VE been following the ebb and flow of the Phillies' fortunes most of your conscious life, you're probably in the throes of the George Patton syndrome. Thirty games into this season in progress, you are gripped with a powerful sense that both you and the Phillies have been here before. And you would be right. You haven't been here often, but you had this same feeling of walking down a familiar road, perhaps in 1951 if you are an old-timer, in 1981 and '84 for you baby boomers, and in 1994 and the present for Gen-X fans.

Gen. George S. Patton was a brilliant but erratic World War II tank commander who was a big enough character to rate an Academy Award-winning movie with his name on it. Patton experienced deja vu all over again long before Yogi Berra coined the term that is now considered correct usage for the phenomenon of sensing a present event was experienced in the past. When Patton stood on a battlefield from some long-forgotten war, he sensed he had played a role in that battle in a previous life.

One calendar month into the 2009 season, we are obsessed with the epic slump of Jimmy Rollins. We are numbed by the injury-marred and black-catted performance of double-postseason MVP Cole Hamels, who has produced just one victory so far. We argue whether 46-year-old Jamie Moyer is approaching the day when it will be necessary to remove the "ageless" modifier from his name. Or is Dr. Moyer's unseemly 7.26 ERA going into last night's matchup with LA's Randy Wolf linked more to hooking up with umpires calling a less generous strike zone? And we are beginning to wonder when Ryan Howard, much improved as a ballplayer, will go on the tear that will return him to the top of the slugging charts. Howard, with just six big flies, has teammates Chase Utley (10) and Raul Ibanez (9) between him and the Phils' home-run lead.

But the elephant in the clubhouse is a pitching-staff longball rate that makes the joke lines about batting-practice stuff closer to reality than hilarity. A staggering 21 percent of the 48 hits Brett Myers has allowed in 43 innings have left the yard. The staff was on pace to throw 286 homers, an average of 23.8 for each of pitching coach Rich Dubee's 12 pitchers.

So the focus and community angst is understandably on the events of the Phillies' first calendar month rather than a franchise history that suggests this is a typical start to a season in the hangover years that have followed the club's five World Series appearances since 1915.

The Tuesday-night display of Jayson "Long Legs" Werth's base stealing, some fortuitous smallball and a second straight quality start (God, I hate that stat and its pitch-count connotation) by Chan Ho "Duck!" - Oops, he's back to Chan Ho Park - left the defending World Series champions at 16-14, a game behind the first-place Mets in what is developing into a four-team hair-pull in the fun but flawed NL East.

A year ago, the Phillies were one game better at 17-13, in first place by half a game.

The only 30-game year-after team to go inextricably south was the 1951 Phils. In 1950, the Whiz Kids were off to a fast 18-11 (they played a tie with Boston) and were tied for first with the Dodgers team they eventually beat for the pennant on the final day. Next year, they were dead last at 13-17 and four games back. The "Was Kids" did not rally.

In 1980, Dallas Green's last-chancers were 16-14 at the 1-month pole in second place, 2 1/2 games back. In 1981, the first-time world champions were out of the gate smartly at 18-12 and leading the league. Infused with young players who played so well in '80, they appeared poised for a runaway when the 50-day strike destroyed that season. The poststrike Phils bore no resemblance to the first-half version.

The 1983 Phils got off 18-12 and were tied for first on their way to a sizzling finish that turned a close race into a stretch breeze. The Wheeze Kids had been broken up in 1984 and a rebuilding team stumbled to a 14-16 record and fourth place. That was the end of the club's decade of excellence.

The 1993 Phillies were a disheveled Phoenix of a team that arose from the ashes of eight dismal seasons and a last-place finish in '92 to unfurl the best start in franchise history. When the sun rose on the day of Game 31, Jim Fregosi's brigands were 23-7 with a seven-game lead over Montreal. A year later, another, even more destructive, player strike loomed and the Phillies were back in the tank. Thirty games in they were 12-18 and soon-to-be-off until the strike finally ended after the spring-training replacement charade.

Taken together, the Phillies' five hangover teams since 1915 played the first 30 games with an average of 14.6 wins and 15.4 losses. I know, you're feeling better already. With all the current issues swirling like oak pollen, the '09ers are ahead of the curve at 16-14.

The rest of the story, of course, is a sad one. None of the teams that came after the Fab Four won repeat pennants. Only the season-interrupted '81 team came close, losing the "Split-Fluffing Season" division playoff to Les Expos.

But you already knew that, didn't you, having somehow been there before for all the years the Phillies did not make it back to the World Series. Maybe George Patton was in the stands, as well. *

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Added: May 14, 2009

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