Just last Saturday Jim Bunning, the baseball Hall-of-Famer turned soon-to-be-former U.S. Senator, talked about being one of two Phillies pitchers to throw a perfect games during the Phillies annual alumni weekend where the highlight was Darren Daulton’s induction into the club’s Wall of Fame.
Otherwise, when the Phillies host a reunion the public events always seem to come off rather tame. After all, aside from honoring Freddy Schmidt because he just so happened to play 29 games for the Phillies in 1947 and has remained alive long enough to be the fourth-oldest living Phillie.
Hey, maybe if we’re lucky we’ll all get to be old someday, too. Just like Freddy Schmidt.
Nevertheless, the alumni weekend only reinforced the notion that we are in the midst of one of the two golden ages of Phillies baseball. There were the years from 1976 to 1983 when the Phillies went to the playoffs six times and the World Series twice, and now. So no matter how popular Dutch and John Kruk were, or how often we get to hear from Mitch Williams and Ricky Bottalico, it’s not as if we’re celebrating some transcendent victory that will never be forgotten. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
No, apparently it’s when ex-Phillies get together as members of the coaching staff for another team where true chaos ensues. At least that’s the way it looked in Pittsburgh last weekend with ex-Phillies coaches Joe Kerrigan and Gary Varsho. While the Phillies trotted out the oddest trio of Hall-of Famers out there in Bunning, Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt (they were not introduced in order of craziness, but then again that’s debatable), Kerrigan and Varsho were being relieved of their duties on the coaching staff with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Even though the Pirates will finish with a losing season for the 18th year in a row, ex-Phillies catcher and Pirates manager John Russell could no longer work with Kerrigan or Varsho with published reports coming out of Pittsburgh indicated there were “personality clashes and differences of philosophy.”
According to a report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
According to multiple accounts Sunday, Russell's call was motivated by a perceived lack of loyalty, though Russell declined to discuss any specifics. Several players and others inside the team described scenes on recent road trips to Texas, Oakland and St. Louis where Kerrigan and Varsho either were openly critical of Russell or having mini-meetings with some coaches or players away from Russell.
Russell tends to be the patient, unmoved type, but that apparently changed in St. Louis. Management began discussing the firings as early as Wednesday, and action was taken early Sunday morning.
“It was a very gut-wrenching decision,” Russell said, seated in his office with Huntington standing at his side. “There are some issues I've been working through for quite some time now that could not be resolved in a way I felt would be for the betterment of this organization. I respect both men greatly. I lost two friends today. That's tough to deal with. But my main focus is this team, and I felt moving forward that this was the time to do this. With two months left in the season, I wanted to accomplish something this year moving into next year.”
Now if this were an isolated incident maybe it would be a surprise, but, well… you know.
Both Kerrigan and Varsho worked together on the Phillies staff under manager Larry Bowa, who, incidentally, is in Philadelphia on Tuesday night working as the third-base coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Should it come as a surprise that two of Bowa’s coaches were fired for being, “backstabbers?”
Where there is smoke…
Varsho was Bowa’s bench coach from 2001 to 2004 and even managed the last two games of the ’04 season after Bowa was fired. Along with Mick Billmeyer, Varsho was the lone holdover from the underachieving Bowa Era to the wildly successful Charlie Manuel regime. However, Varsho lasted just a season with Manuel before being let go for similar circumstances that occurred in Pittsburgh. The whispers indicate that Varsho was maneuvering behind the scenes to take credit for the Phillies success and undermining Manuel in the process.
Meanwhile, there have been few instances where Kerrigan did not leave under cloudy circumstances. In 2004 he announced he would resign from his job as the team’s pitching coach rather than have the indignity of not having his contract renewed. It certainly was no surprise that even Kerrigan saw the writing on the wall following a tumultuous two-year run where he nearly came to blows with pitcher Brett Myers in 2003 and was punched in the face by reliever Tim Worrell hours before a game in 2004.
Funny story: during a spring training game between the Phillies and Pirates in Clearwater in 2009, Kerrigan went to the mound to talk to a pitcher only to be heckled from the dugout by Myers who shouted, “Don’t listen to him, you won’t learn [bleep]!”
Even in one of his first press conferences as a Phillie, Pedro Martinez took a shot at Kerrigan for no other reason than to do it. Why not? For years Kerrigan claimed to have taught Pedro his hall-of-fame changeup from his days with the Expos and Red Sox though according to the pitcher, he didn’t so much as speak to the coach for years.
“I was never part of any back-and-forth with anybody. I never have,” Pedro said last summer. “The person who I probably got into an argument with one time was Joe Kerrigan and that was in the best year I ever had.”
Imagine that… a guy on the way to a Hall-of-Fame career with three Cy Young Awards who went 41-10 with a 1.90 ERA in his two best seasons in Boston got into a tiff with Kerrigan? Say it isn’t so. Hey, the guy really knows pitching and as far as analysts go, he's baseball geek to the highest order. That's a compliment. But knowing that Pedro argued with him and knowing this years after the fact and it’s no wonder there was nearly a fight with Myers. After all, if Pedro Martinez wasn’t good enough during his days in Boston, it would take a pitching coach with riot gear or a strong jaw to preside over the 2003 and 2004 Phillies.
Bowa the mentor?
No one only ever accused Bowa of being the nurturing type. However, Jimmy Rollins is quick to give the former irascible manager some credit for helping his development, and Alex Rodriguez worked closely with Bowa when they were both with the Mariners and the Yankees.
A guy can do a lot worse than J-Roll and A-Rod.
And maybe that’s where Bowa’s post-playing legacy lays? The fact is there are very few people on the planet who know as much about baseball as Bowa, and he very well could be the finest third-base coach in the game.
But in two relatively short stints as a manager, Bowa was a failure partially because of the atmosphere of chaos he fostered. Say what you will about the chemistry in the clubhouse and how it relates to winning. No, the players don’t need to like each other, but they should trust and respect one another. Since a particular pitching coach nearly got his lights knocked out by two different pitchers, it’s safe to assume that chaos reigned under Bowa.
He has been in a good role working in the shadows cast by manager Joe Torre and bench coach Don Mattingly since their days together with the Yankees. Bowa can work with infielders, coach third and be the bad cop in certain situations. For instance, in a recent interview with T.J. Simers of the LA Times, Bowa tried to light a fire under underachieving outfielder Matt Kemp and the struggling Dodgers.
Oh yes, Bowa still wants to win. Nothing has changed there. But at the same time, Torre doesn’t have to look over his shoulder and wonder if Bowa is selling him out. The thing that appears to make Bowa different from Kerrigan and Varsho is that he just wants to win the World Series every year and doesn’t care who gets the credit.
Check out this bit from Simers’ story:
On Friday night after Andre Ethier had been thrown out at home plate by a few feet, Bowa returned to the dugout screaming and throwing things.
"No one said anything, but it was like they were all looking at me and saying, 'What's Bowa mad at?'
"It cost us a run," snapped Bowa...
There is the reason why Bowa has had a job in baseball every year going back to the 1960s. The guy loves the game more than anyone else. Loves it so much it’s downright painful.
It used to be that Bowa’s old teammates from the first golden age used to be needed in order to get a big crowd for a ballgame in Philly. Winning has a way of making the sideshows unimportant.
Still, the Phillies alumni weekends are always good for some unintentional comedy. For instance, amidst guys like Schmidt, Carlton and Bunning, a player like Doug Clemens or Keith Hughes trots out onto the field to be introduced before the game. Looking back at the records, Hughes played in exactly 37 games for the Phillies – 93 over the course of four seasons with Baltimore, New York and Cincinnati.
No one needs to see old ballplayers like Keith Hughes or even Jim Bunning to trot out onto the field from a historically moribund franchise to realize that these are the good ol’ days. Right here, right now.
That’s the thing isn’t it? By winning the World Series the Phillies have made alumni weekends useless. Sure, it’s neat to see Mike Lieberthal and Dick Allen around the ballpark again, but really, if there is anything that the Phils prove with their old players is that they weren’t very good for a long, long, long time.
Besides, it used to be that the team needed to summon Schmidt from the golf course in Florida and Carlton from his underground bunker near the Four Corners region of Colorado in order to get folks to come out to the ballpark. That little glimpse at members of the team’s only championship used to put fannies in the seats before folks realized that a contending ballclub was far more interesting than a trip down amnesia lane.
Hey, there’s Greg Luzinski! Didn’t I just see him out in right field eating ribs?
 Apropos of nothing, is there another franchise that has a weirder collection of Hall of Famers than the Phillies? Now that Robin Roberts has passed on and one of the true gentleman is no longer walking the earth, the Phillies players enshrined in Cooperstown are a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. This has nothing to do with politics or the “elders of Zion,” but really, what gives with those guys?
Plus, why is Jim Bunning in the Hall of Fame to begin with? He never pitched in the World Series and was the ace pitcher on a team responsible for one of the greatest late-season collapses in sports history… hey, winning matters. That’s why they keep score. If Bunning is a Hall of Famer, then so too are Jim Kaat, Tommy John, Jack Morris, Luis Tiant and Bert Blyleven.