On many lazy March mornings an alligator could be seen sunning itself by a pond beyond the rightfield fence of Philadelphia's new spring training stadium in Clearwater, Fla. The reptilian sentry of Thome's Tarn (as the water hole was soon dubbed) had a dual role: to deter lunatic fans from leaping into the water, McCovey Cove-like, and grabbing one of Jim Thome's batting-practice moon shots, and to serve as the symbol of the 2004 Phillies—a team with thick skin and a real bite.
Playing for Larry Bowa, the Randle P. McMurphy of managers, the Phillies curiously proved their toughness last season just as things turned rotten. While Bowa and �ber-organized pitching coach Joe Kerrigan were feuding with players and the wild card was slipping away during a brutal stretch in which Philadelphia played on 27 consecutive days, the team actually grew closer. "We had some circus times"—Bowa's eruption after an Aug. 28 loss in Montreal, Kerrigan's argument with rookie righthander Brett Myers the same day, left-fielder Pat Burrell's dugout snub of Bowa after a home run in the subsequent series against the Mets, to name a few—"but the clubhouse never was in turmoil," lefthander Randy Wolf says. "That was [because of] Thome. When you've got a guy like Jim, with his humility and integrity, it filters down to everybody."
Thome's ability to calm the waters that invariably eddy around the high-strung Bowa augurs as favorably as his production, which last year included 131 RBIs and a league-high 47 home runs. He and Bobby Abreu carried the Phillies, and, shockingly, the fans at Veterans Stadium carried Burrell. From the usual mob of Santa Claus hecklers Burrell drew a free pass during a wretched season in which his batting average dropped from .282 in 2002 to .209 and his RBIs plummeted from 116 to 64. Maybe it was his inevitable role in Philadelphia's future—Burrell signed a six-year, $50 million contract in February 2003—that made the fans docile. Or perhaps his matinee looks soothed them. "I think the fans could see in his face and body language that he was bothered when things didn't go well," general manager Ed Wade says. "They appreciate work ethic and even empathize with him from time to time. But it's probably not a good thing to do it in back-to-back seasons."
If Burrell, a 37-homer man two years ago, and David Bell, a normally dependable third baseman whose balky back contributed to his .195 average, approach their career averages, the lineup will be dangerous. The problem is discipline at the plate. The Phillies struck out a club-record 1,155 times, including 113 by 5'8" shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who in three full seasons has never walked more than 54 times despite having a strike zone the size of an iPod. Rollins and leadoff man Marlon Byrd spent two weeks in San Diego this winter honing their swings, and batting eyes, with eight-time National League batting champ Tony Gwynn.
Thanks to Wade, for the first time in memory the Phils are pitching rich. The G.M. swung a trade with the Astros for marquee closer Billy Wagner and added free agent Tim Worrell, late of the Giants, as a setup man. With sneakily superb lefty Rheal Cormier and warhorse righthander Roberto Hernandez, the bullpen is quality four deep. And while the rotation might not have the cachet of Houston's, No. 1 Kevin Millwood, Wolf, Vicente Padilla, Eric Milton and Myers offer no soft underbelly. The one worry is late-season burnout. Wolf faded to 6-6 with a 5.60 ERA in the second half, Myers foundered, and Millwood had an egregious September that concluded with his flinging his cap and glove into a booing crowd at the Vet. Kerrigan has vowed to back off having his starters throw between starts in July and August.
He is less malleable, however, on the subject of the slide step, a potential antidote to the 112 stolen bases Philadelphia allowed last year. (The catchers threw out only 17.7% of runners attempting to steal.) Instead of a slide step, which Kerrigan says flattens the plane of the fastball and makes it difficult to throw a curve, he has counseled his pitchers to hold the ball longer at the set and use abbreviated leg kicks to short-circuit the running game.
Moving into the new Citizens Bank Park and comfortable in their own leathery skin, the Phillies should finally dethrone Atlanta in the NL East. And that's not a croc.
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