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234 Games Under .500

SPORTS

'THE REDS LEAD IT, 5-4, in the ninth. Jay Johnstone's at third with one gone, he's taking a long lead. Schmidty's got a 3-2 count on him. He'll be looking closely at this one. The pitch. It's a long fly ball to Rose in right, that ought to score a run. Johnstone tags. Ooops, he better hurry. Ooh, and he's out at the plate." That's By Saam, the voice of the Phils for several decades describing another crucial loss in the tail end of the disastrous '73 season.

Growing up with the Phillies wasn't easy, especially for those of us in the lost generation--born too late to see the Whiz Kids capture the flag in '50, but not late enough to miss the Fizz Kids throw away their six-and-a-half-game lead with 12 to play in '64. The standings for my lifetime show the Phils playing 234 games under .500. We have finished in the cellar nearly half of those seasons.

Perhaps the most relevant piece of information in that unimpressive pile of statistics is that after two decades of frustration I still use the word "we." And I do so with pleasure. Frankly, I'm not sure why the home team means so much to me. After four years in Boston I'll still check the wire services' one inch story about the Phils before I'll even glance at a Sox score. At Fenway one eye is always fixed on the National League scoreboard. The attachment is probably a part of growing up. For instance, when you are younger you don't figure that the Phils are just a bunch of pros with no particular allegiance to their home town. For all I knew the whole team was born and raised in Philly--just a bunch of all-stars plucked from great Center City high schools. (I must admit, however, that early on my geography had gotten the best of me, I wasn't sure if I was supposed to root for my home town or home state team. But my parents settled that matter by giving me a Richie Ashburn mit, instead of the Clemente model I requested.'

CHILDHOOD CONDITIONING may explain the initial bond. But it certainly doesn't explain what drove us to go to all those games in the early 60s. When you went to the park in those days you could be a bigger loser than the box score indicated. That's because the Phils used to play at now-demolished Connie Mack Stadium (Shibe Park to the lost generation's older members), located in a neighborhood so tough that you had to pay rock-wielding youths 50 cents to "watch your car."

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I was reconciled early to the losing ways of the Phils. We got clobbered in my first three outings and in the fourth Sandy Koufax no-hit us (I was angry at Dad because he was cheering for a no-hitter while I wanted Johnny Klippstein to break it up with two out in the ninth.) The highlight of that game was Richie Allen's--yes, Richie then--leadoff walk in the seventh inning. He was picked-off on the next pitch. Those were the days when we felt a right to boo. But sometimes we over-extended that right: after hitting three home runs in one night Allen was jeered for striking out in his fourth appearance.

I remember Bill Campbell's shrill voice at the mike when Chico Ruiz stole home to give the Reds a 1-0 victory and start the Phils on their nine-day September '64 nosedive. I recall reading the front-page story about Richie Allen putting his hand through a headlight while trying to push his car, thus ending the Phillies' season before it began. And how about the untold number of games lost in the seventh inning as Manager Gene Mauch motioned arsonist after arsonist in from the bullpen? I would snap off the radio rather than listen to that last painful "...going, gone" of an opponent's homerun, vowing never to turn it on again. And then I would sneak the radio back on again, to spite myself, and catch the Phils' non-existent rally.

THAT'S WHAT HOME TEAM LOVE is really all about--optimism, the belief that the next inning, the next game, the next season will bring a better crop of Phillies. That's what sustains you. It can be addictive. I loved the Phillies so much that when they moved to Vet Stadium I became one of them. Well at least I wore a uniform. I was a vendor selling cokes that first year and the next two--until seniority at last enabled me to move into the exclusive ice cream ranks. There were only six of us on ice cream in the whole stadium. But no mattered how lucrative the night got, what really mattered was being there, with the best excuse in the world, short of playing, to attend 60 games a season. Nightly I pleaded with Bowa to lob one to the upper deck before the game began. I would sneak peaks between sales. But mostly I cheered. I was into the works: Billion dollar scoreboard, clapping hands, ear-piercing organ, Mexican hat dance, Hava Negila, Da, Da, Da Dump Pa Da; Charge!

I always left the stadium broken-hearted, listening half-heartedly to their player on the Star of the Game show. But going back the next day I was confident of a win, knowing tonight was the night that a Roger Freed, or a Joe Lis, or a Ken Reynolds would at last catch fire. And then when those young phenoms failed us, I would scurry to the back pages of The Sporting News and read about how the Phillies' farm clubs were doing in Eugene and Reading. There was plenty of scuttlebutt before games: "How about that Luzinski tearing up the Double A? Schmidt looks like a good prospect, hitting .300 for Pulaski. Maybe they'll make the difference next year."

Then something bizarre happened.

This year something went wrong. You could sense the wierdness; the team in all capital letters in the Inquirer's standings was at the top of the heap. No, not just in May mornings, we've been disappointed by that before. But June, July, (what's going on?) August. Up by 15 1/2. The old-magic number box, usually reserved for teams like the Flyers, was now out for the Phils. 32--any combinations of 32.

Finally the team became a prisoner of history. No matter that Taylor and Allen were the only ones left from the squad of chokes. We saw that same team that destroyed our hopes in '64 out on the field in '76. Ten games and ten losses later the box still read 32. But somehow, just 3 1/2 games from hitting the mountain the Phils pulled up. No one really knows why. It just became time for us to win. I guess it's our turn at last.

What does all this mean about the post-season contests? Who knows? The Phils have never won a World Series; they have only won one series game. But to tell the truth, for me it doesn't really matter what happens. I actually haven't been able to comprehend the title, the play-offs, or anything else associated with the Phillies' victory. That's a whole different mentality. You see, we've got this kid Lersch coming up from the Oklahoma '89ers, and Rick Bosetti--boy can he throw. Maybe we'll get 'em next year.

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