Inside Sports - April 30, 1980
This article is interesting since, even though it appeared in a national magazine, it was authored by Philadelphia's own Bill Conlin. He said that the Phils could finish "anywhere from first through fourth," but pegged them as the third best team in the division, behind Pittsburgh and Montreal.
Baseball Preview ’80: NL East
By Bill Conlin
Tim Foli spent a sullen April watching Shea Stadium grow a little grayer and more disheveled, like the team that plays in the National Leauge’s Attica. Three thousand miles to the west, Bill Madlock leaned grimly into the wind of Candlestick Park, the National League’s Alcatraz.
Neither player had the faintest suspicion that the new order of things would unite them in Pittsburgh, that on a chill October evening they would celebrate a seventh-game World Series victory.
The new order- free agency, long-term contracts and the players’ right to refuse a trade down any old river- has turned today’s general manager into a commodities trader. The risks are great, and there has never been a more urgent need for inspired judgment. But the rewards can be enormous for the gambling GM.
Harding Peterson, a man who became as popular as a steel strike in Pittsburgh after subtracting hitting stars like Richie Zisk and Al Oliver from the Pirates’ traditionally prolific offense, picked up Foli, the defensive shortstop Chuck Tanner lacked, and Madlock, the righthanded buttress Tanner needed. Foli, whose mood in New York often approached autism, became docile in the Pirates’ rocking clubhouse. Madlock had his normally introspective personality drawn upward and outward in the disco atmosphere Tanner encourages.
There seem to be few reasons to predict that Foli and Madlock will spend October any differently this season- not the acquisition of Ron LeFlore by the exciting young Expos, not the “Repair and Prepare” program Phillies manager Dallas Green promises will restore his invalids to East Division contention and not an offensive improvement by the Cardinals.
“If you picked the Phillies to win last year, then you should pick us to win again,” Pete Rose spent the winter telling banquet audiences. “There ain’t no way we can have all those injuries again. Montreal is going to miss a lefthanded pitcher like Dan Schatzeder and a leader like Tony Perez. The Pirates are going to miss Bruce Kison in September, and there’s no way all those guys who had their best seasons are all going to have them again.”
The Phillies remain the division’s least predictable team- they could finish anywhere from first through fourth. This season, every member of the starting eight will be at least 30 at the end of the year. Rose is correct; rarely has a quality team suffered such a bizarre run of injuries. On a slow day last summer, deposed manager Danny Ozark lost lefthander Randy Lerch to a Society Hill mugging, righthander Larry Christenson (just coming back from a pre-season bicycle spill) to a groin tear and righthander Dick Ruthven to a lower-back injury. Every starter but Rose lost significant time. Every pitcher but reliever Ron Reed missed at least a week.
The bottom line on the Phillies is that even in the pink of health, even with Greg Luzinski matching Mike Schmidt’s 45 homers and any other pitching matching Steve Carlton’s excellence, the Pirates and Expos are better teams.
The Expos already had the best outfield in the National League, and the addition of the swift LeFlore means that a third of it, Warren Cromarte, will be at first base. The starting lineup is potent, with the middle infield the only area of suspicion. But righthander Steve Rogers has trouble staying healthy. Bill Lee is getting old, and although manager Dick Williams performed bullpen miracles last year, Elias Sosa seems to follow a good season with a bad one. More relevant, the Expos enjoyed health in direct proportion to the Phillies’ injuries- uncommon health. For Montreal to go from near-miss to pennant, Ellis Valentine, the unfulfilled rightfielder, must do more in September than occupy space.
The Expos may be outplayed on occasion, but they will rarely be outmanaged. Williams is the best baseball strategist north of Earl Weaver. He demands obedience and respect from his athletes, not popularity. Williams is a master at extracting the last ounce of efficiency from a pitching staff, and pitching will win it or lose it for Montreal.
Any team with Ted Simmons, Keith Hernandez, Garry Templeton and Bobby Bonds is dangerous. But without one lefthanded pitcher of note, the Cardinals will be hard pressed to match their 86 victories of 1979.
The Cubs and Mets are a light year behind the competition. The Cubs will probably make traditional first-half noises before their annual swoon. Dave Kingman will hit a ton of majestic homers.
The Mets, a slim paperback purchased by publishing giant Doubleday for a hard-cover price, will pay for past front-office ineptitude for years to come. However, the new owners took a bold first step by hiring Frank Cashen, a certified empire builder from the brilliant Baltimore organization. Cashen will feel like a city planner entrusted with rebuilding Hiroshima.
It will take an exceptional team to dethrone the Pirates. They have achieved the elusive balance between offense, pitching, defense and bench. The only change the Bucs need to make is in their theme music. Sorry, Sister Sledge.
Bill Conlin covers the Phillies for the Philadelphia Daily News.