It finally happened. In his eleventh season of major league baseball, Bryce Harper, who is probably the subject of the most ballyhoo ever created for a player not representing the city of New York, propelled his team, the Philadelphia Phillies, to the World Series with a two run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning last Sunday. The Phillies, a remarkable story in a dizzying 2022 season, are looking like the Team of Destiny. They are reminding us of things like the 2003 Florida Marlins. Those Marlins were a wild card team that finished ten games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East. Jeff Torborg managed that team to 22 losses in their first 38 games before losing his job to Jack McKeon, a 72 year old veteran suddenly in charge of a bunch of guys in their twenties, including a 20 year old Miguel Cabrera and 21 year old Dontrelle Willis. They won 75 games with McKeon to win that wild card berth. They were shut out by Jason Schmidt and the San Francisco Giants in their first playoff outing but won the next three. Then they dispatched Dusty Baker and the Chicago Cubs in seven games to earn the right to get plastered in the World Series by the New York Yankees that, like the Braves, had won 101 games. Except that didn’t happen as the Marlins won it in six games with 23 year old Josh Beckett completing a shutout in the clincher.
Can the Phillies keep going? Now they are facing a veteran, solid Houston Astros team that is yet to lose a playoff game after fairly well cruising to the American League West division title. The improbable results have been piling on this year, but despite winning “only” 87 games and being the last team to qualify for the playoffs, this is a tough Philadelphia team. They played a third of the season without Harper, whose left thumb was fractured by a Blake Snell pitch in San Diego at the end of June and whose elbow ligament injury had already forced him to be a designated sitter rather than an outfielder. Their own mid season managerial hire, Rob Thomson, got good results letting young infielders Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott develop in a pennant race, Harper is being Harper with his first chance at all the marbles and J.T. Realmuto is like having Houston’s Martin Maldonaldo defensively plus he can hit and he can run. After Zach Wheeler and Aaron Nola, the pitching is a bit iffy.
The Astros are the sentimental favorite in this corner. Sentiment doesn’t win games but Dusty Baker does. We’d like to see him win a World series in his third try. The Houston shortstop, Jeremy Pena, is really good. His father, Geronimo Pena, was a journeyman infielder for St. Louis in the 90s but the son’s future looks very bright. All aspects of the game are capably covered by this team, which is the only division winner to survive. Power, deep, deep pitching, and solid defense takes you to the top. Baker’s player career and his managerial resume are both top notch and much of his success is due to the fact that he gets universal respect and affection while being tough as nails. Then there is Justin Verlander. The 39 year old amazed us all with his won-loss record of 18 and 4 after pitching one game in 2020 and none last year. Accomplishing that after Tommy John surgery shows us a competitive fire that bodes well for Houston and explains Verlander’s 244-133 career record with a 3.24 earned run average.
Harper turned 30 October 16 and, if the injuries do not begin to accumulate, he may well be headed for a Hall of Fame career after all. He’s got 285 home runs in his 11 seasons, a sparkling .390 on base percentage, and a slugging percentage of .523. His best year was early on as a Washington National in 2015 but his second best was last year so he’s not old yet.
Baker’s first team as a manager was the San Francisco Giants in 1993 when they won 103 games as one of the best non playoff teams ever. He spent ten years there capped by the 2002 disappointment in the World Series versus Anaheim. He then managed the Cubs for four years and the Nationals for two and now three in Houston. If he sticks around next season he will compete with former Giants skipper Bruce Bochy in the A.L. West. It’s hard to fathom why a well off certain Hall of Fame candidate like Bochy wanted that job but we all like a challenge. Baker’s career record as a manager is 2093-1790.
It’s television that helps all these gifted athletes and their owners make all of that money and prevents young schoolkids from having to call in sick. Let’s hope that the weather in Philley is more like Labor Day than Thanksgiving. We can hope that some day some way those wealthy folks will remember that this game got popular and fun to play in the sunshine. I have my doubts, but in the meantime I will remain grateful for people like Baker, Verlander, and yes, Harper. It’s a prime time world whether we like it or not.