While the team owners and players are currently involved in baseball’s version of a living chess match as they negotiate a hoped-for return in 2020, we fans of the Philadelphia Phillies are forced to watch replays from the 2017 season.
An odd choice, but it is a reminder of the evolution of a roster that was so terrible by 2015 that it caused their manager to resign after just three months. Watching these games, I cringe as errors of commission and omission are made time and again. The baserunning is terrible and the players are so very young. How does a manager have patience for this? Let’s go back in time a bit further.
On September 22, 2013, Ryne Sandberg was named manager of the Phillies after taking over as interim manager on August 16 of that year. Sandberg had a tough job winning over fans from the start. After all, he was replacing beloved longtime skipper Charlie Manuel, a fan favorite who was the winningest manager in Phillies history and the leader of the 2008 World Champions.
Sandberg struggled through 2014 and the beginning of 2015 before giving it up abruptly on June 26, 2015. The team registered 119 wins and 159 losses with a .428 percentage for under his managerial guidance. The Hall of Famer clearly was not used to losing and couldn’t figure out how to turn it around.
I never liked Sandberg as a manager anyway. And to just quit in mid-season makes it even worse, no matter how frustrating the situation. The fans can’t just walk away. We’re stuck here with the team, good or bad.
The transitional period underway saw the aging stars of 2008 such as Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, and Cole Hamels traded away one-by-one. Injuries to Ryan Howard, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee further destroyed the chances of a turnaround for a team that had won five straight divisional championships from 2007-2011.
After Sandberg’s resignation, bench coach Pete Mackanin was named interim manager. He inherited a terrible ball club. I remember the 1972 Phillies team that won only 59 games. The highlight of that year was Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton, who won somehow rose above the mediocrity surrounding him to win 27 of those games.
The 2015 team had few highlights. This team went 63-99 for a .389 winning percentage, 27 games behind the division-winning New York Mets. It was the first Phillies team with a winning percentage below the .400 mark since that horrible 1972 edition of the club.
2015 is a horrible memory for Phillies fans for many reasons. This was the first year without Rollins at shortstop since 2000. Hamels fired a no-hitter, but was traded to Texas days later. One of the few happy personnel moments came when Jonathan Papelbon, who had worn out his welcome, was dealt late in the year to the Washington Nationals for Nick Pivetta. Outfielder Ben Revere was sent away to Toronto at the trade deadline after hitting .298 with 24 stolen bases.
Emerging players that year included 23-year-old rookie center fielder Odubel Herrera, who seemingly came out of nowhere to hit .297 with 30 doubles and 16 stolen bases. 22-year-old Maikel Franco took over third base and hit .280 with 14 homers and 50 RBI in just 80 games.
On the mound, 24-year-old Ken Giles took over as the new closer after the Papelbon deal, finishing with a record of 6-3 and 15 saves. Top prospect pitcher Aaron Nola was called up from the minors at age 22 in late July and became the only starting pitcher with a winning record at 6-2.
An evaluation of the statistics produced by the rest of the 2015 Phillies players reveals a ball club that would try the patience of a saint. Enter St. Pete.
As manager of this transitional team, one that was clearly at just the beginnings of a full rebuild, Mackanin seemed to have the right temperament for a mostly young group of ball players. He had a great deal of experience as a minor league manager under his belt. Also, Mackanin had been an interim manager twice previously, in 2005 for the Pittsburgh Pirates and in 2007 for the Cincinnati Reds.
Mackanin joined the Phillies organization and served as the bench coach under Charlie Manuel from 2009-2012 then returned as a member of Sandberg’s coaching staff in 2014. He would be named the Phillies’ permanent manager for 2016.
For that season, players such as catcher Cameron Rupp, shortstop Freddy Galvis, second baseman Cesar Hernandez, and first baseman Tommy Joseph have emerged as regulars. Ryan Howard plays out what would be the final year of his career and ‘Chooch’ is traded to the Dodgers in mid-August, putting the official final nails in the coffin of the long-dead championship era.
The 2016 team was still making errors in the field and on the bases and the pitching was average at best. Jeremy Hellickson led the staff with 12 wins, followed by rookie right-handers Jerad Eickhoff (11-14) and Vince Velasquez (8-6). Nola went just 6-9 before being shut down at the end of July. The team improved by eight wins to finish at 71-91 and after two straight years in the division basement they jumped the Braves to finish fourth in the standings.
As a player, Mackanin had been unremarkable. Drafted by the Washington Senators all the way back in 1969, he went on to play nine years in Major League Baseball for four different teams. That includes 18 games with the Phillies over the 1978-79 seasons. A light-hitting infielder with a career .226 batting average, his best years came with the Montreal Expos for whom he started at second base in 1975-76. But his experiences as a player allow him to relate well to the players and they seem to enjoy his style of leadership.
Enter 2017, the current games being aired on television during this COVID-19 stoppage …
Aaron Nola now leads the pitching staff. Pivetta has entered the scene. Zach Eflin comes up later in the year. Rupp, Joseph, Galvis, Hernandez, Franco, and Herrera are joined by Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams as regulars. There are no stars on this team and it is not a popular group with the fans. Yet the first half of the season goes fairly well, and the Phillies find themselves 42-48 at the MLB All-Star break.
Unfortunately, the team falters, going just 29-43 after the break. For the third time in four years the Phillies end up in last place in the NL East Division, finishing with 66 wins and 96 losses.
Highlights? Rhys Hoskins comes up from the minors in mid-August and takes over in left field. Before the year is out he will push Joseph out as the starting first baseman. Hoskins breaks a rookie record by hitting 18 home runs while producing 48 RBIs in just 212 plate appearances, finishing fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year vote. Jorge Alfaro appears in his first 29 games as a big-league catcher and hits .318 with five homers in just 114 plate appearances. His defensive work behind the plate is clearly not as developed as his bat, however.
The average age of the team was around 26, so there remained plenty of room for growth and improvement. And it was nice to see a manager who didn’t rely solely on statistics. Truthfully, the statistics here weren’t much to rely on, anyway. But someone had to be blamed, and since you can’t fire the players…
On the last Friday of the 2017 season, Mackanin was told that he would not return as manager for 2018 even though he had been given a contract extension four months earlier. Most of the players were upset. Because of his personality, Mackanin would not allow those players to get down. Matt Gelb at The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted the skipper: “I want you guys to play hard like you have been. If you win the last three games they might want to change their mind.” General manager Matt Klentak would not change his mind.
I attended the final game of that 2017 season. The fans all knew that Mackanin was managing his final game. The Phillies were playing the New York Mets and their manager, Terry Collins, was also not returning the next year. As both men brought out the lineup cards, something amazing and very touching happened. Players from both dugouts stood up and gave their respective managers (managers of the 4th and 5th place teams in the standings) a long, heartfelt ovation as a final tribute. This was followed by all of the fans standing as well to give Mackanin a huge, tearful, standing ovation in appreciation for gutting it out and helping developing the players into major leaguers.
Jim Salisbury at NBC Sports Philadelphia quoted him following the game: “I almost started crying…It was really special. It meant a lot to me. I looked at bench coach Larry Bowa and said, ‘Is this for me?’ He said, ‘Yeah, tip your cap.’ I didn’t know what to do. My wife and son were in the stands in the second row and I couldn’t look at them. I knew my wife would be crying. I didn’t want to start crying myself.”
Many of us felt that Mackanin deserved a chance to remain while the Phillies brought in more talent and tried to recapture the old magic. He didn’t question Klentak’s decision, instead becoming a special advisor to the GM. In that role, Mackanin enjoyed a 50th year in professional baseball during the 2018 season while still with the Phillies organization.
“One thing I am proud of is, I’ve been a minor league player, a minor league manager, a minor league field coordinator, a major league advance scout, a coverage scout at the big league level. … I’ve been a coach in the Major Leagues, third-base, bench coach, interim manager, manager,” Mackanin said per MLB.com’s Ben Harris.
Many fans have certainly had second thoughts about the last two disappointing years under his successor, Gabe Kapler, who had more experienced and talented players at his disposal than Mackanin was provided. This past off-season the Phillies turned the page on Kapler and brought in Joe Girardi as the new manager.
Girardi began his own playing career back in 1986 with the Low-A Peoria Chiefs in the Chicago Cubs organization. His manager was none other than Pete Mackanin, who would also manage him in winter ball down in Venezuela as well as during Girardi’s further development in the Cubs’ minor league system.
Girardi brought in Mackanin as a guest instructor at Phillies spring training this year prior to the shutdown. Pete was very happy to be back in uniform and close to the team. It was somewhat a full-circle moment for both of them. Mackanin has nothing but praise for his former pupil. “I was so happy for him and for the Phillies when I found out he was going to be our next manager,” Mackanin said per Bob Brookover at The Inquirer. “He’s a hell of a manager and I don’t think they could have gotten anybody better.”
I sure hope he’s right, for Pete’s sake.