Some big anniversaries come up during the course of a Philadelphia Phillies regular season, and I like to flashback for fans with a bit more detail.
Today marks one such occasion, as it was on this date 27 years ago that Phillies Hall of Fame 3rd baseman Mike Schmidt blasted the 500th homerun of his career.
The 1987 version of the Phillies had visions of contending when the season began. Now seven years removed from what to that point was the only World Series championship in franchise history, four years on from the ‘Wheeze Kids’ team that reached the World Series before losing to Baltimore, the Phils had gone 86-75 and finished in 2nd place the previous season.
The team had a winning record for 10 of the previous 12 seasons, finishing in either 1st or 2nd place in the National League East Division in eight of those dozen seasons. They were still a perennial contender.
That 1987 Phillies team featured Schmidt, then a 37-year old whose age might have put him near the end of what had become a sure-fire Hall of Fame career, but whose performances showed little sign of a slow-down as yet.
Schmidt would crush 35 homers and drive in 113 runs that year while hitting for a .293/.388/.548 slash line, and would become an NL All-Star for the 11th time.
Offensively this Phils team had a potent, diverse attack. Besides Schmidt there was exciting 2nd baseman Juan Samuel, who would slam 28 homers, drive in 100 runs, score 113, and steal 35 bases.
1st baseman Von Hayes (21HR/84RBI/16SB) was an all-around threat, veteran catcher Lance Parrish had pop (17HR/67RBI), and the outfield of Chris James, Milt Thompson and Glenn Wilson was multi-talented and athletic, with offensive and defensive skills.
Manager John Felske could turn to his bench for veteran, professional hitters such as Greg Gross, Mike Easler, or Luis Aguayo, or youngsters like Rick Schu and a 25-year old developing backup catcher named Darren Daulton.
The Phillies had begun a season without 4-time Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton for the first time since 1971. ‘Lefty’ was now in his early-40’s, and had been released the previous June.
On the mound, the 1987 Phillies rotation was mostly young. Don Carman, Kevin Gross, and Bruce Ruffin.31-year old lefty, led the rotation. He was followed by 20-somethings
The 1987 Phils bullpen featured a dynamic, veteran, late-inning combo in Kent Tekulve, who would set a franchise record by pitching in 90 games, and closer Steve Bedrosian, who would save 40 games, and whose overall performance was so stellar that he would win the NL Cy Young Award.
April 18th was a Saturday afternoon, and the Phils were coming off a 6-2 win the previous night which they were hoping had halted a horrendous season-opening stretch.
Before the Friday night win, the club had lost eight of its first nine games, and the lone win was thanks only to a walkoff rally.
So the 1987 Phillies had dug themselves a hole, and were still trying to find their legs on that cloudy 72-degree Saturday afternoon at Three Rivers Stadium.
The game began in promising fashion against former Phillies 1980 World Series hero Bob Walk, who came out wild on the mound for the host Pirates.
Thompson led off with a single in the top of the 1st. After two walks, Walk then balked in Thompson with the game’s first run.
In the top of the 3rd, the Phillies stretched the lead out to 5-0. Walk was wild again, allowing a single, a walk, and a wild pitch to put runners in scoring position at 2nd and 3rd.
The Phillies would cash in, as Easler delivered an rbi single to make it 2-0.
That brought Parrish, who the club had signed as a high-priced free agent in March following a decade-long All-Star career with the Detroit Tigers, up to the plate. The powerful catcher blasted a 3-run homer to break the Phils lead out to 5-0.
That 3rd inning would be the last for Walk, who was replaced by Logan Easley. He and Brian Fisher would combine to shut the Phils out over the next five innings, allowing the Pirates an opportunity to rally.
Mike Diaz led off the bottom of the 5th with a homerun, the first chink in Carman’s armor.
In the bottom of the 7th, Bobby Bonilla‘s 2-out rbi single scored Jim Morrison, and the Phils lead was cut to 5-2.
In the bottom of the 8th, Felske brought in his closer Bedrosian for what was then a not uncommon two-inning save opportunity. The Bucs countered with a pinch-hitter, a 22-year old outfielder by the name of Barry Bonds.
Bonds worked a walk. That was followed by a Sid Bream single, and when Bedrosian then walked John Cangelosi, the bases were loaded with nobody out.
A sacrifice fly off the bat of Andy Van Slyke made it 5-3, but Bedrosian had gotten a key out. He wouldn’t get out of the inning. The next batter, 2nd baseman Johnny Ray, ripped a 3-run homer that gave Pittsburgh a 6-5 lead and sent the Three Rivers crowd into delirium.
With the lead blown, the Phillies came to bat in the top of the 9th for their last chance, in very real danger of slipping to a 2-9 start to their season.
Don Robinson came on to pitch for the Pirates. The now 30-year old veteran had been an important member of the “We Are Family” 1979 World Series-winning Bucs team, making 25 starts that year as a 22-year old rookie.
Robinson had been moved to the bullpen by Pittsburgh a couple of years earlier, and was brought in here to close the Phillies out.
Things looked good at first, as Robinson got two of the first three batters to hit into ground outs.
Samuel had reached first, and the speed threat seemed to unnerve Robinson. Sammy stole 2nd, and then went to 3rd when the Pittsburgh hurler uncorked a wild pitch.
Distracted, Robinson walked Hayes, bringing to bat perhaps the last man who the Pirates wanted to see get a shot with the game on the line, the Phils’ all-time homerun leader Schmidt.
Sitting on 499 career homers, Schmidt looked for his pitch, and jumped on it. He turned on a Robinson down-and-in fastball, driving it deep into the left field stands.
As Schmidt watched the ball’s trajectory, starting down towards 1st base, he did a little dance, rolling his arms and smiling in celebration of what he knew was a huge moment.
Schmidt jumped on 2nd base as he rounded the bags, and was mobbed at the plate by all of his Phillies teammates. Besides being the 500th of his career, the blast had put the club in front, 6-5.
Of course, the game wasn’t over. The Pirates would get their last chance at-bats, hoping to ruin Schmidt’s party.
It wasn’t to be, as Tekulve, Pittsburgh’s former longtime closer, came on to close things out for the Phils. The lanky right-handed submariner yielded a 1-out single to catcher Mike LaValliere, but then got Bonds and Bream on easy fly balls to wrap up the Phillies come-from-behind victory.
Unfortunately for Felske, the team would continue to struggle early, never meeting their contending expectations over the first couple of months. A 29-32 start led to his firing in mid-June after more than two seasons at the helm.
Felske finished his Phils career with an overall 190-194 record as skipper. He was the NL Manager of the Year for that 1986 season, but would never get another chance to manage in the big leagues.
Felske was replaced in the dugout by veteran Phillies insider Lee Elia, who would not immediately turn things around. The Phils would lose their first four games under his watch, six of his first seven, and seven of his first nine.
Following a 5-4 loss to the New York Mets on Saturday, June 27th, the Phillies had sunk to 31-39, 12 1/2 games out in the division race in an era where there was no Wildcard.
The following day, the Phils trailed 4-0 headed to the bottom of the 8th, and seemed destined to continue their slide to mediocrity. But they rallied to win with 3 in the 8th and a pair in the 9th in front of more than 52,000 fans at The Vet, beginning a streak of five straight victories and a string of 10 wins in 12 games.
Those 1987 Phillies would go 49-43 after the Felske firing and Elia’s own slow start. The would, in fact, claw back within 6 1/2 games of the division lead in late August.
They got a season-high nine games over the .500 mark at that point, but could get no closer. In fact, at the end they began to lose once again.
A 14-25 finish over the final seven weeks of the 1987 season would signal the beginning of a dismal losing period in club history.
Aside from the magic of 1993, that losing would last all the way through to the early part of the 21st century.
The losing, the lack of enough talent around him, and his own deteriorating skills would finally drive Schmidt out of the game in May of 1989.
But on that early season April afternoon in 1987, with Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn still in the booth calling the games, and with the Phillies still having high hopes, Michael Jack Schmidt won a game and made some history, becoming at that time just the 14th man in MLB history to join the career 500 Homerun Club.