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DODGERS IN TOWN, BLACK FRIDAY STILL HURTS, WELCOME TO LIFE AS A PHILLIES FAN

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

With the Dodgers in town, no better time to dredge up the most disastrous moment in Phillies history.  Which is saying something, because this franchise has been involved in more disasters than Godzilla. 

You can have your Mitch Williams/Joe Carter moment in the ’93 World Series, or your epic collapse in September 1964, I’ll take the Black Friday playoff debacle against the Dodgers any day.  October 7th, 1977 was the single worst day in Phillies history.  And I’ll prove it.

Depending on your age, you’ll no doubt have your favorite.  And rest assured, the Phillies have a meltdown that suits your needs no matter how old you are.  They’re that accommodating.  Sort of like a family board game – agita from the Phillies is for kids of all ages: from 8 to 80.  No joke – Eight-year-old Phillie fans probably had their stomachs turned for the first time just a few days ago, when Hector Neris ruined their fireworks night by blowing Saturday’s game against the Nats.  But that’s kids’ stuff. 

Let’s talk about the true contenders: 1964, 1993, and Black Friday, 1977.  The 1964 ten-game late-September collapse that cost the Phillies the pennant is generally considered the worst moment in franchise history but, really, it was little more than a ballclub coming down to Earth after soaring to wildly unexpected heights for a few months.  The Phillies had been a terrible club for years, bottoming out in 1961 when they managed to nauseate the few fans they had left by losing a big-league record 23 straight games on their way to 107 losses and a finish that fell a scant 46 games off the pace. 

They then decided to put together something resembling a Major League team for a change.  Finally willing to sign and promote nonwhite talent, the club, under the direction of GM John Quinn, became respectable.  And when Dick Allen showed up in September 1963, they looked to be a bit more than that.  Combined with Johnny Callison and Jim Bunning, Allen’s Phils surprised everyone by taking control of the National League out of the chute and hanging on until the last couple of weeks.  Yes, it was heartbreaking when they finally collapsed but, really, few thought they were anything special going into the season.  Respectable, yes.  Good, maybe.  But special?  No way.  And the years that followed confirmed such suspicions.  That group never seriously contended again.

The 1993 Phils weren’t all that different.  In ’92 they finished last and they had been mediocre for nearly a decade by that point.  They caught fire in ’93 and this time made it all the way to the World Series before a spent Mitch Williams offered up the gopher ball that ended the season.  I’ll admit that I nearly put my foot through my flimsy apartment wall as Carter’s ball arced its way over the fence but after the hurt came the realization that the season overall had been a blessing and a blast.  True, it didn’t end well but nobody would have traded the raucous fun of the preceding six months for anything. 

Black Friday was different.  Oh, man, was it different.  The ’77 Phils were a juggernaut.  In an era that included Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, the Reggie Jackson-led Bronx Bombers, and even the Big Blue Wrecking Crew of the mid-70s Dodgers, the Phillies were better.  They may not have had a better starting lineup than the Reds, or even the Yanks, but they were deeper than any team in baseball that season.  Yet, in the end, they had nothing to show for it.

Looking back with four decades worth of perspective, it’s clear that the ‘70s were a transitional era in baseball.  The starting pitcher was still dominant but bullpens were just beginning to be thought of as something more than receptacles for washout pitchers who couldn’t cut it in the rotation.  As a result, pitching staffs, as a whole, were deeper than they ever had been – or are now, what with the role of the dominant starter largely diminished in today’s game.  The Phils had a 10-man staff that was stacked with both dominant starters as well as relievers.  Steve Carlton won the Cy Young Award that year, Larry Christenson won 19 games, Jim Lonborg had won 18 in ’76 and was still effective, and Jim Kaat – a borderline Hall of Famer – was the fourth man in the rotation.  The bullpen included four relievers who later, when the term came into vogue, would have been considered closers – Tug McGraw, Ron Reed, Warren Brusstar, and Gene Garber.  No other team in baseball had a pitching staff nearly as deep.

Because in '70s baseball the starter was still sacrosanct, though, pitching staffs had yet to expand to the 12-man staffs we see today.  Which meant that the benches were deep.  And without question, the Phils’ was the deepest.  The other night Gabe Kapler had one legitimate move off his bench – Jay Bruce – and when he used it too early he had no bullets left when he needed them most.  In ’77, manager Danny Ozark could call on either Bake McBride (.339) or Jay Johnstone (.284), depending on which of the two wasn't starting in right that evening, Tim McCarver (.320), Davey Johnson (.321), and Tommy Hutton (.309) as bats off the bench.  He also had Jerry Martin, Barry Foote and Terry Harmon for defensive purposes.  In short, he had bullets.  A seemingly unlimited stockpile of them.  The NRA would have been proud.

The ’77 Phils won 101 games and were much better from top to bottom than a very good Dodgers club.  Unlike in ’64 and ’93, nearly everybody thought the Phils were the team to beat in the National League, if not all of baseball.  Hell, a few people even considered the ’76 squad to be, if not better than, at least nearly as good as the Reds club that beat them in the ’76 NLCS and which is generally considered one of the greatest of all time.  And nobody thought the ’76 Phils were better than the ’77 version.

So when the 63,719 fans rocked the Vet to its foundation and unnerved Dodgers pitcher Burt Hooton to the point where he became unable to throw strikes that Friday afternoon in Game 3 of the ’77 NLCS, things were as they should be.  The Dodgers were good, the Phillies were great.  This was our Big Red Machine.  Our Big Burgundy Machine, perhaps. 

The game was a two-and-a-half-hour celebration of everything Phillies fans knew about themselves and their ballclub.  A vindication of sorts.  We were better then they were.  It didn’t even matter who “they” were.  Pick any team.  Our guys were better.  We knew that for roughly 150 minutes.

Then the ninth inning began with Ozark forgetting to use one of his defensive bullets.  Jerry Martin remained on the bench as a confused Greg Luzinski ran out to left after inquiring as to why he was going out there.  After the first two outs it didn’t seem to matter that Ozark had broken with his season-long protocol.  Then came the ten minutes that undid everything.  The ten minutes that left not only a club but an entire city wondering what the hell had just happened.  Black Friday shook both the Phils and their fanbase to their cores.  Neither would ever believe quite the same way again. 

I won’t go into the details.  Frank Fitzpatrick wrote a great article on the specifics of the debacle just a few weeks ago; I wrote an entire book about it (The Fall of the 1977 Phillies); others have memorialized it as well.  No matter which take on it you read, though, the ending is always the same.  In Black Friday, Phillies fans experienced a true baseball nightmare.  Up was down, down was up, the Dodgers won, the Phillies were on the brink of another playoff elimination.  Unlike in ’64 or ’93, the best team lost, and in the worst possible way. 

Testament to the quality of that Phillies club was that it won the East the next year despite the scar.  Then folded again against the Dodgers.  Yes, the Phils finally won it all in 1980 but if you remember that -- and you’re being honest with yourself -- you know that the feeling you got when McGraw struck out Willie Wilson in the ninth inning of Game Six of the World Series was not quite elation but exhausted relief. 

Black Friday was the reason for that muted response.  Elation was simply beyond the grasp of those who had suffered in their souls just three years earlier.

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