Despite a tough, injury-plagued spring training, today’s Philadelphia Phillies are about to break camp surrounded by the type of lofty expectations that are attached to very few ballclubs.
Yes, injuries to Chase Utley and Brad Lidge have scaled down some of the unchecked optimism about the regular season (okay, they won’t win 115 or so games), but they are still the odds-on choice to advance to the World Series for the third time in the last four years.
Charlie Manuel’s bunch has won the last four National League East pennants, and No. 5 is but a formality. The Phillies always win. Don’t they?
If you cut your baseball teeth in 2007, it’s hard to think otherwise. But it hasn’t always been this way, and one does not have to conjure up images of the horrid choke of 1964— featuring Jim Bunning, Chris Short, Chico Ruiz and Gene Mauch—to appreciate how special the last four seasons have been.
Please travel with me all the way back to the year 2006 for a reminder of the way it used to be.
The Phillies of 2006
In the early spring of 2006, the average price of a gallon of gas was $1.23, stadium hot dogs cost a dollar, and the Atlanta Braves were coming off their zillionth straight NL East title.
I’m just kidding about the price of gas, but stadium hot dogs did cost you a buck—on Dollar Dog Days.
The Phillies had finished the season with a quite respectable 88-74 record under first-year manager Charlie Manuel. Although 88 wins wasn’t bad, it was yet another season—their 12th consecutive—without a playoff berth.
For the glass-half-full fans, there was consolation to be found in finishing only two games out of first and one game behind the Astros for the wild card.
For most Phillies fans, it seemed like Groundhog Day. And who exactly was this glorified hitting coach with the strange accent who was mismanaging our team?
As the Phils geared up for Opening Day, nobody was comparing their starting rotation to the 1971 Baltimore Orioles or the 1990s Atlanta Braves. R2C2? The Four Aces? Mound Rushmore? Please.
The 2006 Phillies started the season with this rotation: Jon Lieber, Brett Myers, Cory Lidle, Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson. Maybe they should have been called Five Guys, if a certain burger joint wouldn’t have sued. This wasn’t Mound Rushmore. It was more the case of Mount NeedMore.
By the way, the Phillies opened the 2006 season with four straight losses, and one win out of their first six. All six games were played in front of their ever-patient fans. Their first victory was earned by reliever Tom Gordon.
To reassure you that I’m not describing some alternate universe played outside of Citizens Bank Park, I will add that a certain Cardinals player named Albert Pujols left Philly with a .500 batting average, three homers and six RBI after the first three games. Some things stay the same.
The Phillies did have a pretty good hitting team back then, if in a bit of transition from an offense led by Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome, Pat Burrell and Mike Lieberthal to one sparked by the young emerging corp of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins.
In 2005, Jim Thome battled injuries, which finally gave Howard his long-awaited shot. He capitalized with 22 homers and 63 RBI in only 88 games, winning Rookie of the Year honors.
Utley got his chance to play everyday in 2005, posting a slash line of .291/28/105 and Rollins, just 26, was coming off his first All-Star season.
The Phillies cut ties with Thome prior to the 2006 season, and Manuel presented the following lineup card to home plate umpire Gerry Crawford:
1. Jimmy Rollins, SS
2. Abraham Nunez, 3B
3. Bobby Abreu, RF
4. Chase Utley, 2B
5. Pat Burrell, LF
6. Ryan Howard, 1B
7. Aaron Rowand, CF
8. Mike Liebertahal, C
9. Jon Lieber, P
Even the most fervent Phillies fans may be surprised to see that Utley was hitting hitting cleanup, and Ryan Howard (who would slug his way to the NL MVP award with 58 homers and 149 RBI) was in the six-hole.
The lineup would soon see more changes. Bobby Abreu, who always struck me as both the most overrated and most unappreciated Phillies player, was traded to the Yankees in midseason.
Shane Victorino would emerge as an important outfielder before season’s end. Mike Lieberthal (starting to show signs of wear and tear) would finish 2006 and 2007 as a Phillie, but was losing playing time to Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz.
Even Aaron Rowand, a fan favorite just acquired in 2006, would leave after the 2007 season. Third base? Don’t ask. David Bell, never a Philly fan favorite, saw the majority of the playing time.
The 2006 Phillies, despite big years from Howard, Utley, Rollins and Burrell, dropped to 85-77 and—check the record books—12 games behind a talented New York Mets team. They did not even make it as a wild card, extending that Groundhog Day scenario to 13 seasons.
Unlike the Phils of last year and for the foreseeable future, the starting pitching was never strong enough. Lefty phenom Cole Hamels came up midseason and posted a 9-8 record with a 4.08 ERA. Only Myers (12) and Madson (11) had more wins than Cole.
In the final analysis, that long, lost season of 2006 yielded a 2007 spring training of equal parts optimistic and uncertainty. That spring training gave birth to a 2007 team that nipped a collapsing Mets team by one game at the wire.
The rest, as baseball fans and archivists alike tend to say, is history.
For more information on Matt Goldberg’s new books, other writings and public appearances, please e-mail: email@example.com or contact him via his Bleacher Report homepage.