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News » Bill Conlin: Ozark's calming influence helped move Phillies from chaos to quality in 1970s

Bill Conlin: Ozark's calming influence helped move Phillies from chaos to quality in 1970s

Bill Conlin: Ozark's calming influence helped move Phillies from chaos to quality in 1970s
DANNY OZARK already had two strikes against him when he took over as Phillies manager in 1973.

The first came at the World Series in '72, when Phillies general manager/manager Paul Owens informed the media that they could not announce the hiring but that Dave Bristol was going to be his next manager. The Pope then told another reporter the new manager was going to be Jim Bunning. Bristol went to bed that night pretty sure he was going to be called to a news conference when the Phillies' management got home after the World Series.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Owens, Bill Giles, who was the team's chairman of fun and games/vice president, had convinced owner Bob Carpenter that what the organization needed was a sense of continuity. He suggested they needed to play Baseball at every level from the low-level minor leagues all the way to the big club with everyone on the same page, using the method that made the Dodgers so successful. Giles told Carpenter that it appeared that when Walter Alston retired, the Dodgers' third-base coach named Danny Ozark was going to be passed over for a hotshot guy in the minors named Tommy Lasorda. General manager Al Campanis wrote the book, "The Dodger Way to Play Baseball," but it was known to people who traveled with the club that Ozark was the man who did a lot of the grunt work and implemented the system at the instructional level.

All the media leaks forced Carpenter's hand and the Phillies announced Ozark's hiring within days. Other than people in the inner loop, nobody in Philadelphia had ever heard of Danny Ozark, who died yesterday at his Vero Beach, Fla., home. He never had played in the big leagues and had been a Triple A journeyman first baseman. It was a total bolt out of the blue and it did not strike anyone harder than Owens, who learned his manager was not Dave Bristol and that The Pope had not been consulted.

Strike 2 against Ozark came from the players. There was a very strong groundswell among the veterans that Owens come back himself as manager because he had established a Charlie Manuel-like comfort zone after he had fired Frank Lucchesi midway through the 1972 season and replaced him. Owens had done that for one reason - to see who wanted to play and who didn't. A number of other players would have been very happy with Bunning or Bristol.

When Ozark walked into spring training, he was already an underdog and there was almost an immediate player movement to get him fired.

After playing .500 in April, the Phillies began to struggle and by late May they were about to start a season-high seven-game losing streak that would put them in last place. I was having a conversation in Owens' suite around midnight in Los Angeles. The phone rang and on the other end was Steve Carlton. Carlton asked The Pope to come up to his room. The Pope said, "I'm here with Bill Conlin." Carlton said, "That's OK, bring him, too."

We went up to find a bizarre scene with two beds having been placed on top of each other and righthanded reliever Billy Wilson and Carlton on top of the beds engaging in a sumo wrestling contest with other players watching. They called a timeout, dismounted from the bed and sat down with Owens. Carlton told Owens that he needed to fire Ozark, that he couldn't manage, that he already had lost control of the club, and had no respect in the clubhouse.

Owens replied, with words to the effect of, wait a second, I think you know he was not my No. 1 choice. I think the man has great integrity and character. I'm not going to pull the plug on him. This club is in last place on merit. We've had some injuries, some bad luck and I can't see anything for which he can be held directly accountable. Give this guy a chance to right this ship and you guys here in this room are the ones who are going to have to help pull this thing forward.

Ozark managed to survive the crucible of his rookie season with a team that wound up in last place in a race in which every team but the Phillies was in contention into the final weekend.

Ozark was back in hot water as the 1974 season unfolded because of a column around Opening Day that called for his firing. The clubhouse chemistry had deteriorated to the point that in the middle of April, Owens went to New York where the Phillies were playing against the Mets with instructions from Carpenter to take the pulse of the team and see whether there really was a player mutiny and cause to fire Ozark.

Nobody worked a clubhouse better than The Pope. By the time the weekend was over, he had canvassed just about everyone on the club. Ozark got a weak vote of confidence, led mostly by the young players. Owens was smart enough to know the future of the club was with the talented group of players who had recently come up from the minors. Mike Schmidt had become established by then as the future face of the franchise.

From then on, the Wizard was pretty well established. Maybe some clubs would have fired him after Black Friday, but Ozark was strong, solid and evenhanded. He was like Charlie Manuel without the countrified drawl.

A sergeant and war hero, Ozark was wounded in the breakout from Saint-Lo after D-Day and came ashore on D-Day plus three. He never mentioned his role, the fact that he had been wounded or that his chance to play in the major leagues was hurt by the number of years he spent in the service.

He also had a tremendous impact as a calming influence on a front office with Owens, Hugh Alexander and all the crazies they had running around loose, conducting business in cocktail-laden suites and hotel bars.

I personally thought he was a hell of a guy and a great Baseball man whose biggest contribution was taking an organization in the throes of chaos and teaching it the Dodger Way. All the organizational success the Phillies now have is justifiably awarded to Owens, but they had to have an implementer to install everything, and that was Ozark's greatest gift.

Ozark also had physical strength and courage, a large, powerful man with hands like first baseman's mitts. It was Ozark who stepped between the 6-6, 255-pound Ron Reed and Pete Rose, who were about ready to punch each other 35,000 feet over Texas over a card-game dispute. Once Ozark arrived, both sat down.

It was also Ozark who was unafraid to challenge Carlton. He came out to take the Baseball from Carlton one night in St. Louis. Lefty glared holes in the skipper, then slam-dunked the ball into his enormous right hand.

"I called a clubhouse meeting the next day," Ozark told me in 2007, "and I told Steve in front of the team that if he ever showed me up like that again, I would kick his ass and said, 'If you don't like how I'm talking to you, I'm standing right here.' "

Carlton never budged.

Unfortunately, Ozark will never live down the infamy that arose from failing to send in Jerry Martin in the top of the ninth in Game 3 of the 1977 NLCS. If a fan from that era was going to craft an epitaph, it would have been, "Should have pulled the Bull."

And that's no bull. *

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Author:Fox Sports
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Added: May 8, 2009

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