PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The news spread quickly like wildfire. Within hours, it seemed, everyone knew. “He” was arriving. “He” would throw the Phillies, already a very good team with a No. 1, lights-out starting pitcher, over the top.
Only back then, major sports news unfolded through radio, newspapers and TV. Not with the flick of a thumb.
But all of Philadelphia went crazy on an early December night in 1978 over the news: Cincinnati Reds superstar Pete Rose was signed as a free agent by the Phillies, the three-time defending National League East champs, giving them baseball’s best infield, with Rose at first base, Manny Trillo at second (who the Phillies would later pick up in a trade in February 1979), along with stalwarts Larry Bowa at shortstop, Mike Schmidt at third and catcher Bob Boone. Add in slugger Greg Luzinski, and outfielders Garry Maddox and Bake McBride, plus arguably baseball’s best starter, Steve Carlton, and the Phillies were considered strong favorites to win their first World Series.
Last week, all of Philadelphia went crazy again over a free-agent signing that was as impactful to the area and the Phillies as Rose, when they inked Bryce Harper to a historic 13-year, $330 million deal.
In 1979, the Phillies started 14-5 and on May 17, after the historic 23-22, 10-inning victory over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field with a 30-mph wind blowing out to left field, they were 24-10 and in first place by 3.5 games over the Montreal Expos.
Over the next 98 games, they went 41-57.
By Aug. 29, the Phils went from first to fifth, 65-67, and 12.5 behind the eventual World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates. Injuries to Trillo, Bowa, and Luzinski during the season contributed to their downfall, not to mention injuries to starters Larry Christenson and Dick Ruthven entering the season. The season was punctuated by losing both ends of two doubleheaders in a three-day span in August to the Pirates, who swept the Phils over five games.
The mild Danny Ozark was fired as Phillies manager on Aug. 31 and replaced by the fiery Dallas Green, who led them to a 19-11 finish in 1979—and ultimately to their first World Series the following season.
The point is—nothing is guaranteed. With Harper, the 2019 Phillies are World Series contenders—like the 1979 Phillies were.
There are similarities. This team has All-Star-caliber players in Harper, shortstop Jean Segura, first baseman Rhys Hoskins and catcher J.T. Realmuto. They have one of the major’s best in starting pitcher Aaron Nola. But like the 1979 team, pitching gets thin after Nola, as the 1979 Phillies were after Hall of Famer Steve Carlton.
Jake Arrieta is on the down side of his career. Since winning the Cy Young in 2015, Arrieta’s victory totals have gone 18, 14 and 10 over the last three seasons. His 11 losses last year was a career high. Vince Velasquez is consistently inconsistent. Nick Pivetta and Zach Eflin combined to go 18-22 last year. David Robertson is a fine addition as a closer, but he’s also 33, coming off a season in which he threw more innings than he ever had before (career-high 69.2 innings pitched, also giving up a career-high 30 runs and tied a career-high giving up seven home runs).
The 1979 Phillies had a collective team ERA of 4.16, which was tied for 11th overall in the National League. Their 666 earned runs that they gave up was the most in the National League and the 135 homers they surrendered was the second-highest in the NL.
The 2019 Phillies are going to be fun to watch. The way they’re currently constituted, they’re going to score a ton of runs. They may also give up a ton of runs the days Nola isn’t on the mound.
The Washington Nationals added pitchers Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez to a staff that already has Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Signing catcher Kurt Suzuki and trading for catcher Yan Gomes bolsters that area, and though the Nationals have to fill the void left by Harper, they do have great young talent in outfielders Victor Robles and National League Rookie of the Year runner-up Juan Soto.
How strange this may sound, the Nationals may be better without Harper this year than they were with him last year.
The Nationals were building to be competitive with the idea that they would be losing Harper.
The Atlanta Braves, the defending National League East champs, are a young team that could be even better. And the New York Mets, who signed Wilson Ramos and traded for Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz, have three very solid starters in NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard.
The 1979 Phillies finished 84-78 and 14 games out of first place.
Signing Harper, who’s 26 and already has seven years in the majors and some history of being injured, will bring home runs and fill a lot of seats at Citizens Bank Park.
But his arrival comes with no postseason guarantees.
It’s a 40-year-old history lesson, courtesy of the 1979 Philadelphia Phillies.