They are heroes, icons to a generation of Phillies fans who grew up on the team in the last decade when it moved from the concrete behemoth that was Veteran’s Stadium into the gorgeous ballpark that is Citizens Bank Park. They are the last remnants of the 2008 World Series champion team: Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and yes, even Kyle Kendrick.
Six years later, those six players are all that remains of a group that inspired so much passion. It seems like it all passed so quickly, and that it should have went on longer. But should it really? What should we have expected, after all? Not only does nothing last forever, but championship sports teams tend to not have a very long shelf life in particular. All we really needed to do was take a look back at the only other World Series winner in this town’s history to know what was likely to happen.
In 1980, I was just 18 years old, and those Phillies were my heroes. I had grown up in the 1970’s following the team when it moved into ‘The Vet’ in my South Philly neighborhood when I was just 9 years old. Veteran’s Stadium became a regular haunt for my friends and I during our childhood and teenage years, and the team began to win behind a homegrown core of players, much as that 2008 group would do a couple of decades later.
In the 70’s the homegrown core consisted of 3rd baseman Mike Schmidt, shortstop Larry Bowa, left fielder Greg Luzinski, catcher Bob Boone, and pitchers Dick Ruthven, Larry Christenson, and Randy Lerch. They were supplemented by players brought in via astute trades, including stars such as pitchers Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw, outfielders Garry Maddox and Bake McBride, and 2nd baseman Manny Trillo. And then there was the team’s first-ever free agent signing, legendary 1st baseman Pete Rose.
Beginning in 1975, the team contended for a playoff spot every season for the next decade, eventually winning that 1980 World Series in a thrilling fall playoff run. And most of them didn’t seem particularly old. Rose was 39, Bowa was 34, Carlton and McGraw were 35. But the rest were all in the prime of their careers. And even those older guys looked like they had at least another year or two left. It seemed like it could go on, that it would go on, forever.
Despite the best efforts of club management and ownership, it would not go on forever. In fact, it would go on only for a few more seasons, and even then only with major shakeups that included saying goodbye to mainstays Bowa, Boone, and Luzinski and bringing in mercenaries such as Gary Matthews, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Von Hayes, Al Holland, and John Denny. They got back to the Series in 1983, but lost, and it began to fall apart. By the 2nd half of the 80’s, the franchise was scuffling. When Schmidt finally retired in 1989, it was all over. Except for a thrilling, magical 1993 team, the franchise would not win again for more than a decade.
So here we are today, almost six years removed from that 2008 World Series winner, and history is repeating itself, much as we probably should have expected. Management and ownership tried to keep the roll going, saying goodbye to mainstays Pat Burrell and Brett Myers, and then Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino. They brought in mercenaries such as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Raul Ibanez, and Jonathan Papelbon. They got back to the Series in 2009, and contended for a couple more seasons, but it has all fallen apart, just as it did three decades ago for that earlier championship team.
Six seasons after the 1980 World Series victory, the same length of time that we are now at following the 2008 win, the team finished with a winning record, but also finished a distant 21.5 games out of first place. It would, along with the 1993 miracle, be one of just two winning seasons in the nearly two full decades between 1984 and 2001. So is that what we fans now have to face? Are current Phillies fans destined to suffer through a decade or more of losing before having a chance to again experience a winner?
Those final six remaining 2008 championship players will be seeing their own tenures with the team come to an end over the next few seasons, if they are not dealt away even sooner. Kyle Kendrick is a free agent this coming off-season, and is likely the next to leave. Then there is a chance that Howard, Utley, Rollins, Ruiz, and Hamels will have just one season remaining together.
Utley has a $2 millon club buyout of his contract for 2016 when he will be 37 years old, with vesting options that are likely to be more difficult to reach the older he gets. Rollins just earned an $11 million vesting option for next season, but that is all he is guaranteed. He could become a free agent next off-season, and shortstop is one of the few positions of strength in the Phillies minor leagues. Ruiz gets $8.5 million in both 2015 & 2016, so he is likely to remain, assuming the soon-to-be 36-year old holds up physically. Howard is owed $25 million each of 2015 & 2016 and with diminished overall offensive skills is likely staying around.
The Phillies are currently widely considered to have one of the worst minor league systems in all of baseball. The parent club is weighed down with contracts to deteriorating stars, and will still be so for the next year or two. The management shows no signs of being capable of making the kinds of intelligent, creative moves necessary for any kind of quick turnaround. In short, that prospect of a decade of losing is very much on the table. Meanwhile, the fire that once burned brightly for the 2008 World Series champions is quickly burning itself out. For the players, and for we fans, there will always be the 1980 and 2008 memories.