June 19, 2007

How the Philadelphia Phillies Came To Wear White Sox

At the north-west corner of 5th and Bainbridge Streets is a restaurant-supply store called John C. Paul’s. It sells all matters of paper, plastic, and aluminum goods, and other mainstays of take-out meals. It has hardwood floors and smells of wet dog. In the window facing 5th St, as it leads to South Street, is a hand-made Phillies booster sign updated daily in magic marker.

On Thursday morning (before the team collapsed against the Tigers), it celebrated the Phils’ 8 to 4 Wednesday win over the Chicago White Sox and the club’s move into a tie for second-place in the National League East, two games behind the first-place New York Mets. The Phillies took themselves four games over .500 with the victory and kept themselves winners of seven of their last ten.

Wednesday’s was a solid win during a day-game at Citizens Bank Park. The weather report had the chance of rain at 60% and it was blustery, almost chilly, up at the top of the stadium where I sat behind third-base. The flags whipped the entire game like it would rain at any moment. The rain held-off and the Phillies held-out for the W.

Beyond the victory, it was a day of baseball soap-opera unique to the current connections between the Phillies and White Sox.

This is unusual given the minimal connection between the clubs in the past couple generations.

Oh, the Phillies sold outfielder and fan favorite Greg Luzinski to the White Sox in March 1981. Luzinski was one of those ball players for whom the creation of the designated hitter was an act of clemency. Luzinski had been a four-team All-Star for the Phillies and had three productive seasons in Chicago before his release after the 1984 campaign.

The Phillies traded outfielder Gary Redus to the White Sox for starting-pitcher Joe Cowley in March 1987. Cowley had pitched a no-hitter for the White Sox in 1986, a game in which he walked 11. Cowley lasted five games for the Phillies in 1987. He recorded a 15.43 ERA and was out of the Major Leagues.

Relief pitcher Bobby Thigpen set the season-record for saves with 57 for the White Sox in 1990; he pitched in 17 games for the 1993 Phillies and recorded his lone Major League at-bat in that stretch.

The White Sox had reached the American League Championship Series in 1983 and 1993 and would have faced the Phillies in the World Series in these years had they been able to beat the Baltimore Orioles in ’83 or the Toronto Blue Jays in ’93.

What else? Uh, there had been Spring Training games when the White Sox trained in Sarasota, Florida between 1960 and 1997. Sarasota is down Route 75 from Clearwater past the Cardinals in St. Petersburg (until 1997) and Pirates in Bradenton.

It is not for the White Sox playing in the American League such that the two teams play only three games every three years. The Phillies are connected to other American League clubs. The Phillies have working relationships with the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Blue Jays because they all hold Spring Training and have their minor-league complexes around Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The Phillies and Orioles have a friendly rivalry due to their geographic proximity. Phillies fans travel to Oriole Park at Camden Yards when the Phillies play there and there are stretches of southeast Pennsylvania and parts of Delaware where loyalties are split between the Phillies to the north and Orioles to the south.

But the White Sox? Yeah, not much until the Phillies had a log-jam at first-base with Ryan Howard and Jim Thome after the 2005 season.

2003 was to be the Phillies last-season at Veterans Stadium. In anticipation of the move into the new ballpark in 2004 and the expected increase in payroll, since-deposed Phillies general-manager Ed Wade went free-agent shopping. The centerpiece of his acquisitions was Thome.

Thome had spent his entire 12-year major league career with Cleveland where he hit between 30 and 50 homeruns a year and had been a centerpiece of the club’s dominance of the American League Central Division between 1995 and 2001.

But Cleveland had slipped to third place in 2002 with a 74 and 88 record and the buzzword in northeast Ohio was “rebuilding”. For Thome, this meant that the team would not pay the highest dollar to keep the then 32-year old at Jacob’s Field.

Enter the Phillies with their newly expanded payroll. It helped that when Thome visited South Philadelphia in the winter of, the construction workers building the new ballpark next to Veterans Stadium, stopped and cheered for Thome as he drove by. It was a blue-collar reception for a blue-collar player and Thome and Philadelphia were hooked on each other.

The Phillied hosted the Pittsburgh Pirates on Opening Day 2003, the last at Veterans Stadium. Thome received the longest ovation during pre-game introductions. In his first official Phillies at-bat, he drove a pitch to the fences. We went nuts – this would be an amazing way to start his Phillies-life. The ball caromed off the wall and we settled ecstatically for the triple. Thome finished the season with 47 homeruns and 131 RBIs. Philadelphia had not seen a slugger like this since Mike Schmidt in the mid-1980s.

In 2005, Thome went down with an injury; he would play only 59 games that season and finish with seven homeruns. Like Wally Pipp being replaced by Lou Gehrig, rookie Ryan Howard filled in by hitting 22 homeruns in 312 at-bats and winning the National League’s Rookie of the Year award.

After the 2005 season, Philadelphia fans questioned how the Phillies would solve their first-base log-jam. They asked if Thome would return healthy in 2006 and whether Howard would blossom in a full-season. The Phillies had tried Howard in the outfield in practice, an experiment that lasted, maybe 48-hours. Thome was long past his days of playing third-base.

I met Howard in early November 2005. Mike Lieberthal was then the Phillies’ catcher and fans awaited the end of his contract in 2006. I asked Howard if he could catch. He returned my deadpan question with his response, “I’m a lefty.” “We’ll take it!”, I joked, and we laughed together. The man is huge and built to play first-base or outside linebacker.

On November 25, 2005, the Phils traded Thome to the White Sox for Aaron Rowand. Like the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers trading Allen Iverson this past season, it was necessary bittersweet trade of a loved-player.

The trade had the potential to be win-win. The White Sox had just said goodbye to Frank Thomas and wanted Thome’s bat in the lineup. Thome was from Peoria, Illinois, southwest of Chicago and just north of the Illinois capital, Springfield; he was returning home. The Phillies needed a centerfielder and Rowand’s hard-charging play would be welcomed in Broad Street Bullies Philadelphia, and now first was open to Howard.

It worked.

Thome bounced-back to hit 42 homeruns for the 2006 White Sox. Howard hit 58 homeruns for the 2006 Phillies and won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. Rowand endeared himself to Phillies fans early in the ’06 season when he ran his face into the centerfield fence at Citizens Bank Park on May 11 against the Mets to make a game-saving catch.

The Phillies finished 2006 a couple-games out of the playoffs and entered the off-season in need of a starting pitcher. Yes, like almost every team in baseball, they wanted pitching. Phillies general-manager Pat Gillick turned to the White Sox and made it happen.

This White Sox series was Thome’s first visit to the Phillies’ home since the trade. He had sat during Monday’s and Tuesday’s game and Wednesday he had the start. This was a homecoming.

Kyle Kendrick started the game for the Phillies. He was making his major league debut, starting in place of injured Freddy Garcia – former White Sock Freddy Garcia.

Last December 6, Gillick traded Phillies pitchers Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez to the White Sox for Garcia. Garcia had won 17 games for Chicago in 2006 and was the winning pitcher in game four of the 2005 World Series when he threw seven shut-out innings against the Houston Astros giving up only four hits.

On December 8, ESPN.com ran the Associated Press’ article, “White Sox trade Garcia to Phillies for Floyd” and quoted Phillies assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle as saying, "[Garcia]'s had to pitch when it's on the line. He's had the opportunity to do things you want a pitcher to be able to do. He's going to fit nicely into our rotation and we feel like he's a guy that's going to be able to give us innings. He's a proven winner."

"Proven winner", as in past-tense.

Garcia was struggling with the Phillies this season when he left June 8’s game in Kansas City after 1 2/3-innings. In 11 starts, he has an ERA of 5.90 and a batting-average-against of .318. He might now be out for the season with a shredded-shoulder. His one win was not what Philadelphia had in mind.

The loss of Garcia was tough to take because he follows a string of would-be All-Star pitchers who flopped in Philly.

The Phillies acquired Andy Ashby in November 1999 for three prospects. Ashby had pitched 206 innings for the 1999 Padres and won 14 games. He was to be the number-two pitcher behind ace Curt Schilling. Ashby went 4 and 7 in 16 starts for the Phillies before they dumped him to the Atlanta Braves on July 12 of that season.

In October 2002, the Phillies signed Terry Adams to start for them in 2003. Adams had been a reliever with the Los Angeles Dodgers since 1995 but had made 22 starts for Los Angeles in 2002 and finished the season with a 12 and 8 record. Adams made it through 19 starts for the ’03 Phillies before they returned him to the bullpen.

It was Garcia’s turn to start on Wednesday against his former team. Instead, Garcia was in Alabama obtaining a second opinion on his shoulder. In his place, the Phillies started Kendrick. Kendrick’s lanky presence on the mound was a reminder of Garcia’s bust.

This game was the third and last of the three-game mid-week series. Thome has been the White Sox’ designated-hitter and with the pitcher batting at the National League park, he had sat out Monday’s and Tuesday’s games. He was penciled in to start at first on Wednesday. Thome batted third and came to the plate for the first-time in the top of the first.

The fans gave him a warm and extended ovation. It reminded me of the reception that we gave Ozzie Smith during the 1996 All-Star Game held in Philadelphia. Ozzie had announced he would retire after the ’96 season and this was his final All-Star Game. Like Ozzie, Thome stepped out of the batters-box and doffed his batting helmet in appreciation. Both Thome and the fans showed a lot of class.

I was sitting next to a buddy of mine behind third-base. As we applauded, he grumbled that Thome was great but he had left us with Charlie Manuel as manager.

Manuel had long been a coach in the Cleveland Indians’ farm-system and had replaced Mike Hargrove as manager after the 1999 season. Manuel was fired during the 2002 season and in deference to Thome, the Phillies hired Manuel as a scout in 2004. The Phillies fired fan-favorite Larry Bowa as manager at the end of the 2004 season. The team conducted a drawn-out interview process where they paraded through Philadelphia top managerial candidates. The fans’ choice was Jim Leyland. The Phillies chose Manuel.

On Friday, Marcus Hayes wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News in “Manuel’s Cooler Head Helping Phils Previal”, “Manuel has never been a popular hire in Philadelphia. He followed incendiary icon Larry Bowa. He was chosen over managerial legend Jim Leyland, whose resuscitated Tigers, AL champs under him last season, visit today.”

One on-going criticism of Manuel is that he had never understood the double-switch. The double-switch is used in the National League in the latter innings whereby one replaces a fielder at the same time as a pitcher, but flip-flops the batting order to maximize the innings the pitcher might pitch before he would bat, and the need would arise to pinch-hit for him.

The game was already ripe with the undercurrents of the White Sox-Phillies with Kendrick on the mound and Thome at first-base.

Manuel had given Rowand, the regular centerfielder, the day-off. It was a 1:00 PM start and a privilege of being a veteran player is that one receives periodic rests when afternoon games follow night-games. But Kendrick had gone six-innings in his maiden outing and now there were runners on first and third and one out with the Phils down 3 to 2.

Manuel sent Rowand to hit for Kendrick. Rowand grounded-out to third, the run scored, the game was tied, Kendrick was off the hook for the loss, Rowand had done his job, and Manuel looked pretty good. Even better, Manuel left Rowand in the game in the ninth position and sat Jayson Werth who had started in Rowand’s place. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a double-switch.

One inning later, Rowand made Manuel look like a genius and the White Sox mourn their loss. The Phillies had tacked on an additional run to go ahead 4 to 3 when Rowand came up with the bases loaded. Matt Thornton was now pitching for the White Sox and Rowand sent a shot down the left-field line and over the wall for a grand-slam. This took the Phils ahead by a score of 8 to 3, too much for even Geoff Geary and Yoel Hernandez to cough up. Rowand circled the bases and then we kept cheering and called him out of the dugout for a curtain call.

Which is how Jim Thome made a sweet return to Philadelphia and Kyle Kendrick came to replace Freddy Garcia and how Aaron Rowand was a hero against his old team.

This is how the Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies are curiously connected these days.

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