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Danny Tartabull. That's right, the same Danny Tartabull who signed as a free agent before last season and then didn't have a single hit. Nada. Tartabull injured his foot with a foul tip in the opener and had just seven official at bats all season. For that the Phillies wound up paying $2.3 million, or $328,571 for each of his seven outs. Obviously, Tartabull did not represent the team in the All-Star Game, but maybe he should have. After all, who better epitomizes the Philadelphia story?
Since John Kruk, Mitch Williams and the rest of the Phillies' lovable rogues reached the World Series in '93, the club has finished below .500 every season and a combined 103 1/2 games out of first place. Their attendance has declined steadilyfrom 3.14 million in '93 to 1.49 million last year, worst in the National League. Curt Schilling is the only player to have played through the entire drought. "It's miserable when you've been winning all your life and suddenly you're having your head kicked in daily," says Schilling, who nevertheless in '97 won 17 games and set a National League record for a righty with 319 strikeouts. "For the last four years it seems like we've been cursed. Every time we did something positive, it was always followed by a double negative."
Injuries have decimated the team. Since '93 the Phillies have placed 23 pitchers on the disabled list, including five before last season even started. Of course, the front office is partly to blame for the carnageit has a bad habit of acquiring players who are past their prime. Last season, along with the 35-year-old Tartabull, the club signed wizened free agents Rex Hudler, 37 ($2.4 million for two years), and Mark Parent, 36 ($800,000 for two years), and the trio combined for a .182 average, five homers and 18 RBIs. It also signed 35-year-old righthander Mark Portugal ($4 million for two years), who made just three starts before shutting down for the season with an elbow injury.
The first half of the '97 season was terrible, even by Philadelphia standards. The Phillies won just four games in June en route to a 24-61 start, sparking speculation they might break the Mets' major league record of 120 losses in a season. Fortunately, that prolonged period of misery finally pushed Philadelphia to commit to rebuilding, which in turn has led to their two stickiest dilemmas in '98.
Former All-Star centerfielder Lenny Dykstra is making an unlikely comeback from back surgery, but he doesn't fit in with the youth movement and could cost $11.5 million over the next two seasons. Meanwhile, the prospect with perhaps the highest ceiling, J.D. Drew, may never play for the Phillies. Drew, the second pick in last June's draft, is engaged in a vituperative contract dispute with the franchise and may not sign before the May 25 deadline, when he would go back into the draft. Nothing comes easy in Philly.
"We're not trying to delude ourselves," second-year manager Terry Francona says. "We don't have a Barry Bonds. We have a lot of kids who are question marks, but we have begun to answer some of the questions."
The Phillies do have Schilling, '97 Rookie of the Year third baseman Scott Rolen (he recently signed a four-year, $10 million contract) and young talent in rightfielder Bobby Abreu and shortstop Desi Relaford. And the '97 team did right itself sufficiently to win 44 games after the All-Star break. Schilling insists that if he did not believe the Phillies could reach the postseason before the end of his current contract in 2000, he would have waived his no-trade clause and allowed the team to deal him last summer.
For now, at least, the club's future lies in the hands of 42-year-old acting general manager Ed Wade, who joined the organization as a summer intern in '77, working for $2.50 an hour. Wade is a true company man. During that summer of '77 he met a Veterans Stadium usher named Roxanne, whom he would marry in '81; Phillies centerfielder Garry Maddox served as his best man. Wade studied under "the Pope," Paul Owens, the former general manager who turned an awful ball club into the '80 world champions.
Wade likes to quote his former boss, who preached patience by saying, "You don't get better a yard at a time, you get better by the inch." To illustrate, Wade holds his thumb and index finger an inch apart. Alas, to measure how far the Phillies are from a championship, Wade would need a much bigger hand.
by Tim Crothers
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