Last night I stopped and thought: How did the Phillies get here? How did the Phillies become the best team in baseball? It didn’t happen overnight; this team has been on an upswing for years.
The story itself starts in 2004, as the gates to Citizens Bank Park opened for the first time. Larry Bowa had been removed as manager of a team that closed Veterans Stadium with an 86-76 record. Charlie Manuel entered, leading his team to the same record. That book read like the 2003 edition — great offense, OK bullpen, bad starting pitching. Youthful energy gave the 2005 team a spark, but an 88-74 record wasn’t enough to win the division. The team constructed by Ed Wade just didn’t have it — Wade was relieved, Pat Gillick came in.
The 2006 Phillies ended July with a paltry 49-55 record. That’s when Gillick pulled his trigger on a couple deals that dissolved the Wade era. The largest, of course, was the trade of Bobby Abreu to the Yankees. That was the beginning — the true beginning of the world championship run.
The first game after the Abreu trade was July 31, a 15-2 drubbing by the Marlins. With that series out of the way, the Phillies traveled to Saint Louis, and the team started to fly. One player took the reins hard: Jimmy Rollins.
Aug. 1, 2006-Oct. 1, 2006: .303 AVG / 16 2B / 5 3B / 13 HR / 47 RBI / 14 SB
And there was another big contributor: Ryan Howard.
Aug. 1, 2006-Oct. 1, 2006: .365 AVG / 23 HR / 62 RBI / 58 BB
Together, Rollins and Howard willed the 2006 Phillies to a respectable finish, though they lost out on the Wild Card. But their run three years ago was the indicator of what has made this team so good. The Phillies go as far as Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard take them. They’re different in their mannerisms: Rollins runs his mouth, makes flashy plays on the field and swaggers around like he owns the joint; Howard keeps quiet, makes flashy plays at the plate and uses a soft trot to show his power.
I still find it amazing that despite Rollins’ admission of fans as “frontrunners,” he wasn’t really booed that badly. And after a couple games of abuse, the fans completely ended the jeers. After making the comment, Rollins’ team went 24-12 to win the National League East. And Howard backed his leader, slowly building to a terror run that began in Chicago and ended with the 2008 flag in his beastly hand.
Rollins’ first days in Philadelphia signaled the start of a promising career and the start of a potential playoff run. He was the first piece in a foundation that took a decade to become a skyscraper. Howard, meanwhile, was the first piece of the post-Wade era, the new blood that usurped Jim Thome and began a new, thrilling period for the Phillies. Both men have desired to be jaw-droppingly elite players, and both have hit their goals. Together, they’ve brought a title to Philadelphia.
Back when Rollins made his immortal comments, I nicknamed Rollins and Howard “The Frontrunner Bros.” Pop red and green overalls on these guys and watch them stomp on flowers and throw fireballs at Venus fly traps. They’re joined at the hip — the teddy-bear and the rat, the George and Lenny, the big kid and the little kid. In late 2006 they solidified their correlation to the team’s success. And in 2008, the Frontrunner Bros. stormed the castle, beat that last level and became legends. Together.