By In Stuff

The Human League

This is about the Philadelphia Phillies, but let’s start with the Chiefs. I have always been fascinated by the Kansas City Chiefs of the 1970s. You probably know that the Chiefs of the late 1960s and early 1970s were among the best teams in football. They played in Super Bowl I, and they won Super Bowl IV. In 1971, they went 10-3-1 and lost the game I believe was the greatest ever played — a 27-24 playoff overtime loss to Miami on Christmas Day. For most of those incredible years, they featured SEVEN Hall of Famers: Quarterback Len Dawson, dominant defensive tackles Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp, brilliant linebackers Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell, cornerback Emmitt Thomas and kicker Jan Stenerud. I have long believed receiver Otis Taylor also should be in the Hall of Fame. Their coach, Hank Stram, is a Pro Football Hall of Famer. We are talking about an all-time team.

But as the 1970s progressed, the players got old. And the Chiefs just, well, they just watched the players get old. The year after the Christmas Day game, the Chiefs went 8-6 with 37-year-old Len Dawson at quarterback and aging players everywhere. In 1973, they were 7-5-2 with the same aging players — they still had enough class to hold their own but not enough youth or energy or exuberance to more than hold their own. In 1974, the Chiefs imploded. They went 5-9 with most of the same players, Hank Stram was shoved out, and the Chiefs would have losing records for 12 of the next 15 years, making the playoffs only once, and becoming such a non-factor that there was serious talk of moving the team out of town.

What makes it fascinating to me is this: What the Chiefs did in the early 1970s was so human. I can’t honestly blame them for it. They knew time was running out. They had to know. But they just couldn’t get themselves to start over when there was still light flickering. They wanted to get as much out of the team as humanly possible before the candle burned out. Maybe — certainly — the right thing to do was to break the team apart while it was still winning and begin the building process again. But they couldn’t. They had this core of amazing football players, and they just couldn’t break it apart. Like I say, it was so human. It was also thoroughly self-destructive and it took the organization a decade and a half to semi-recover. There are people in Kansas City who will tell you they STILL have not recovered.

This comes to mind because in 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies had to make a decision. The Phillies were an amazing team. They had won the World Series in 2008, lost the World Series to the Yankees in 2009 and lost in NLCS to San Francisco in 2010. They were on a spectacular high, and the city was alive with baseball, and the atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park was fantastic, and the core of players — Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth and so on — were Philadelphia icons. It was a magical time.

But you know — you could see the cracks. They weren’t hard to see. I have little doubt that general manager Ruben Amaro — for all the heat he has taken in Philadelphia lately — saw the cracks. Look:

— Howard had turned 30, he’s the type of player who doesn’t age well, and his production had dropped significantly.

— Utley had turned 31, he missed about 50 games with injury, his power numbers had dwindled.

— Rollins had turned 31 and his offensive production was way down from his MVP season.

— Victorino was about to turn 30.

— Werth, coming off a career year, was a free agent and about to leave.

These were impossible to miss signs. And Amaro, manager Charlie Manuel, ownership, the fans of Philadelphia, everybody had a decision to make: What do you do? Do you break things up now, when things are so good? Do you begin the process of rebuilding when the team is at its height? OR do you double down, add a few big money pieces, hold on tight and hope that the ride will last for a while longer? It’s one of the great questions in sports.

The Phillies, as we know, did not just double down. They tripled down. They quadrupled down. They signed Ryan Howard to a huge extension that would not even kick in for two years, an extension that made absolutely no sense when it was signed and made progressively less sense every single day that passed. But they were committed. Utley was already signed. Rollins was already signed. They signed Cliff Lee to a huge contract, thus securing what many of us called the greatest four-man rotation of the generation — Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. They brought back everybody except Werth — eventually replacing him with Hunter Pence — which meant that their starting team had nothing but 30-somethings. No player under 30 got 300 at-bats for the 2011 Phillies.

And … they were awesome. The pitching staff was so absurdly good, it almost didn’t matter how many runs they scored. Halladay finished second in the Cy Young voting. Lee finished third. Hamels finished fifth. In games when they scored three or more runs, the 2011 Phillies won EIGHTY PERCENT of the time. That made up 90 of their 102 wins. Yes, the team finished seventh in runs scored. Yes, Utley got hurt again, and Howard’s decline continued, but the season was glorious. Well, the regular season. Then it was the playoffs, and the Phillies lost to the Cardinals in five games — losing the last game 1-0 when Chris Carpenter out dueled Roy Halladay. Howard also got hurt running to first. And it was the beginning of the end.

Amaro had to see this. Manuel had to see this. But what was there to do? The Phillies had to double down again — they were too far in to fold now. They signed Jim Thome. They signed Jonathan Papelbon. They signed Juan Pierre. They signed Chad Qualls. At this point, it was like Amaro was jamming his fingers underneath the window, trying to keep it from closing. There was some vague talk about getting younger — star prospect Dom Brown was about ready, young Vance Worley had shown some moxie as a 23-year-old pitcher, but that was basically window dressing. They were old (or “experienced”). They were declining (or “accomplished”). Amaro knew all about the holes in the boat. He believed it had enough strength and experience to make it to shore one more time. He really had no choice but to believe it. He had made his bet.

The boat didn’t make it to shore. Halladay collapsed. Howard caved in. Utley got hurt again. Victorino at 31 wasn’t the same player. Like those early 1970s Chiefs, the team had enough class to break even — they finished 81-81. But the ride was over. This year, the Phillies came in as a bloated and ancient team of the past. They have tried to get younger. The lineup now has players in their 20s, the rotation too. But the team is 15-games under .500, in fourth place, and manager Charlie Manuel was fired.

Manuel talked with Leslie Gudel and in his folksy way said that he knew the Phillies were doomed the last two years and seemed to blame the Phillies for not adding pieces. I can’t blame him for feeling that way — I mean the guy just got fired and I’m sure he’s hurting — but I kind of think he’s talking out of pain. I suspect he believed. I think they all believed. That’s the human equation. The Phillies could have played it differently when they were the best team in the National League. They could have gotten rid of Howard, traded Utley or Rollins or both, gotten a lot younger, not signed all those old players to patch the holes, taken a step or two back in order to take a step or two forward (and heard the screams and boos that come with such maneuvers). They chose to ride it out. It was the human thing to do. And it led to where it always leads.


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27 Responses to The Human League

  1. Wilbur says:

    Joe, not only Otis Taylor, but Jim Tyrer, Ed Budde, Jerry Mays, Johnny Robinson were as good as the Hall of Famers from that team.

  2. Mark Daniel says:

    In Detroit, they’re talking about signing Miguel Cabrera to an extension. There was a report about the Tigers and Miggy working on this a month or so ago, and now the rumors have started up again it seems. Now, I like Miggy and think he’s awesome. But he’s signed until 2015. That means when his current 8 year, $152M contract is up, he’ll be 32. Thus, the first year of the extension will be at age 33.

    So, aside from age and the poor track record of big, lumbering ballplayers as they age, there is also the issue of the Tigers negotiating with a player who 1) just won the triple crown and 2) is putting up a .359/.450/.684 line this year. A guy like that won’t settle for a 2 or 3 year extension. This is bad news, and I’d hope the Tigers were as enlightened as the Cardinals when they were negotiating with Pujols. But I fear they are not, and this extension will end up being big trouble.

    • simon says:

      I totally agree.

      Appreciate that you got to witness the prime of the great Miguel Cabrera, and let someone else pay for the decline years (and beyond?), even if he manages to put up 2 or 3 more all star seasons.

    • Jeff says:

      Well the good news Mark is nothing in their history with DD at the GM helm indicates that they will make such a strategic mistake. Lets have the Angels come and swoop him up too so he can implode like the other two big offense signing they have made the last two years.

    • Mike Cumming says:

      The Prince Fielder signing seems like exactly that kind of mistake. The Tigers will end up with two old lumbering former sluggers by the end of the decade unless they show some restraint.

  3. Badfinger says:

    Joe they could have pulled out without doubling down that second time. They could have gone after people who WEREN’T Juan Pierre or Chad Qualls. They could have NOT been the first team to sign a relief pitcher in the free agent market. They could have waited until AFTER the compensation rules were updated so they didn’t give up a 1st rounder for Papelbon. They could have not signed a “Closer” at all!

    I know you addressed this to some degree in the last paragraph, but the situation could have been avoided, or at least blunted, by patching the holes intelligently around the aging core, and spending the money they had more broadly rather than wrapping it all up in ~45 9th innings a year. They didn’t need to trade for Michael Young (who is older than any of the drafted “core” Phillies!). Two years previous they didn’t need to trade for Hunter Pence.

    You can’t blame the core players for aging, but you can sure blame the management for continuing to age the rest of the team around them.

    • Wugeball says:

      I don’t know what they could have done the last few years, but they didn’t have to sign Howard to that extension two full years before he was a free agent, and there was no one competing for his services. They could have lived with Dom Brown taking his rookie lumps; he would have been much more productive much sooner than now. They could have moved Rollins to 7th in the order where he’s always belonged. Other than that, what else could they have done? And why extend Utley now? I know he’s fairly productive this year, but the man has no knees left.

  4. FranT says:

    This reminds me of the Boston Celtics’ choice to keep their aging core together in the early 1990s. Danny Ainge left that team in the late ’80s, and he thought the front office made a mistake by refusing to trade any of their old stars. Twenty years later, Ainge just traded away the aging core of the currrent Celtics, including presumable lifer Paul Pierce. Ainge chose against the “human” route, but I suspect that Boston will be better off in the long run.

    • Robert says:

      Actually the Celtics, although not trading the big 3, did make trades and moves to make their team younger and more athletic. Unfortunately two of those players died (one before stepping on the court and, ironically, the other one on it).

  5. To be fair, that 2011 team was really, really good. If not for an absolute pitching gem from Chris Carpenter, that team likely would have gone to the World Series (I think they would have beaten Milwaukee). I don’t blame the Phillies for going for it in 2011, but the rebuilding process should have started shortly thereafter.

  6. Josh says:

    The timing of the Howard extension made no sense at all to me. Even a year later, it wouldn’t have made sense. I just don’t understand what the rush was.

  7. Phil says:

    Two other teams that come to mind: the Jays and Tigers of the late-’80s/early-’90s. Both tried to stay with their core too long–the Tigers took a decade to recover, the Jays haven’t really recovered yet.

    • Wilbur says:

      The 67-72 Cubs were a good, but flawed team that could never get to the top. Their core got old real fast in ’73, and the balloon deflated quickly.

      I don’t think the Cub farm system produced another position player until Grace and Dunston. Hmmm – maybe Jody Davis, I guess I should’ve looked it up. How good can you be when you go 15-20 years without getting any offense from your minor league system?

    • invitro says:

      Mel Hall, Henry Cotto, Billy Hatcher. From Santo in 1973 to Davis in 1981-1982 = 8-9 years.

      They got young in a hurry in 1973/1974 with Santo for Stone and Swisher, Pepitone for Thornton, Jenkins for Madlock, and Beckert for Morales.

      They had piles and piles of team-developed pitchers in the interim time span, of course.

    • invitro says:

      But yeah, eight years seems like a long time to go without a team-drafted offensive starter. 🙂

    • Jeff says:

      The Tiger’s employed a horrific draft strategy. Or perhaps they just had 20 years of bad luck? Either way, they had no replacements for that 80s core group of players.

  8. Jake Bucsko says:

    If I’m a Phillies fan, I regret nothing and I thank the baseball gods that my owners are willing to spend any amount of money to get my team to the promised land. Sure they stink now, but from 07-11 the Phillies won the division every year, increased their win total every year, averaged about 95 wins per, went to 3 NLCS’s, 2 World Series, with the 1 championship.

    To my mind, totally worth it. You take your shots when you can, the Phillies pushed all their chips into the middle, and they did it again, and again. It wasn’t always a great bet, but respect for staying at the table instead of cashing out.

    • Frank says:

      Just like the 1970’s Chiefs.

      I think the issue now is what someone else noted above – why sign Michael Young in 2013? The only thing I can imagine is that the farm system is so depleted, that they can only get has-beens to field a team.

      So the Phillies had their window from 2007-2011. The problem is the current contracts will keep them from being competitive for a long time in the future. I think they could have had their window (maybe shortened by a year), and then come back for another look a lot sooner.

  9. BMacs Says says:

    I’m an Astros fan. Tell me about it.

  10. Dave says:

    the inverse of this is to think on teams that have been successful over a long period of time. The 1995-2009 Yankees, the Braves have successfully re-loaded without significant down time (though only one WS win), the Patriots continue to thrive though all with Brady/Belicek, the Packers transitioned from Favre to Rodgers. The Braves, to me, are the most interesting because they totally rebuilt their team, changed their manager and GM and are back as one of the best teams in the NL.

    • Ian R. says:

      The Red Sox have done something pretty similar. They had a pretty impressive run from 2002 to 2005 (including of course, the huge Series win in ’04), took a step back to third place in 2006, then came back and won it all the very next year. They stayed at a high level for several more years, then crashed and burned in 2012… but they got rid of some high-priced contracts, hired a new manager, made several shrewd acquisitions and are back in first place this year.

    • Dave says:

      Sox are a good one! Not only have they changed managers and GM and most of their team, they started down the wrong path with the high priced players like Crawford and Gonzalez and have returned to being a top team with a more measured approach free agent-wise while bringing up a bunch of new prospects.

  11. nscadu 9 says:

    Utley and Rollins are two of a fewer and fewer players who can claim one team for a career anymore. We used to talk of player loyalty, then team loyalty. Owners trade to save money and players move on to greener pastures. Understandable if you don’t win the World Series or don’t get a taste of the playoffs, but The Phillies did win and did make playoffs. Maybe teams don’t need to continually bring guys in, but for every twilight overpaid season, teams get earlier breakthrough seasons at a bargain. Plus teams get more than just production if the player is a face of the franchise (see David Wright). There has to be some trade off, though, there still is no excuse for the Howard extension. It’s a fine balance between swallowing a little pride to take a salary cut for years on the wane vs signing at a heavy cut just out of loyalty. Pujols and Rivera seem to be the opposite ends of that spectrum.

  12. J Hench says:

    Some BRs have already brought up other teams that rebuilt/reloaded succesfully. I think it would be interesting to look at teams that did try to reload, for whatever reason, but were not successful at it.

    Take, for instance, the Pittsburgh Pirates of the early 1990s. In 1990, they won the division, in 1991, they won again. One of their best players, Bobby Bonilla, left as a free agent after ’91 (signing the largest contract in baseball history at the time), but they won the division again in 1992 despite that. They let Bonds and Drabek go in that offseason, but they had reason to believe that while 1993 might be a down year, they would be back on top in no time. They had successfully incorporated youth into their core – Jay Bell was 26, Jeff King was 27, Al Martin (24) and Kevin Young (23) had limited playing time in ’92, but were the future. Martin had crushed AA pitching to the tune of .305/.363/.557, making him seem a feasible replacement for Bonds. The pitching staff included rookie Tim Wakefield, who had dominated in his debut, and Randy Tomlin, who was 26 and had won 14 games. Steve Cooke (22) and Paul Wagner (24) both looked promising in limited time. Denny Neagle was in the minors, Jon Lieber was too.

    Obviously, it didn’t work out. In retrospect, not signing Bonds (and instead signing 31-year old Andy Van Slyke) turned out to be a poor idea; even pre-BALCO-Bonds was the type of player who comes along once in a generation. But letting Drabek and Bonilla sign big contracts elsewhere certainly didn’t hurt the team; neither was anything like star-caliber again. Instead, the bigger issue was that the farm stopped producing; Van Slyke got hurt, Wakefield lost his knuckler and the Pirates gave up on him, Al Martin was decent but not great, and the pitching staff imploded.

    In 1992, the Pirates had the second-oldest offense and scored the most R/G. In 1993, they dropped to 6th oldest (essentially average) and scored the fifth fewest R/G.

    In 1992, the Pirates had the second-oldest pitching staff in the NL and allowed the third fewest R/G. In 1993, they had the 4th youngest, and allowed more than any team except Mile High era Rockies.

    They tried to get younger. It just didn’t work.

  13. As a Yankee fan, I’m reminded that Lee didn’t want to sign with the Yankees because “they were too old”. Now, the Yankees are not exactly busting down the door this year but they’re a lot better off than the phillies, and injury confluence aside would be a lot closer to fighting for the division than the wild card. The hilarious thing about it is that at the time I believe the Yankees were actually numerically younger than the Phils. Whatever. Everytime I expect baseball players to be smart I’m disappointed. I guess I have to learn to live with just talented and relish the Mike Mussinas of the world.

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