The 1980 Philadelphia Phillies carried the banner for a franchise and a fan base that was marked with frustration, both short-term, long-term and even beyond the baseball diamond. The Phillies had never won the World Series. They had lost the National League Championship Series each year from 1976-78.
And within the framework of 1980 in Philadelphia sports, the 76ers in the NBA and the Flyers in the NHL had each reached their respective Finals and come up short (and if we could look ahead, the Eagles were on their way to losing the Super Bowl). Somebody in Philadelphia had to win a title didn’t they?
It was up to the Phillies. They had moved aggressively prior to 1979, signing Pete Rose away from Cincinnati, but terrible pitching let Philadelphia down. They came back in 1980 with mostly the same cast, but a new manager in Dallas Green who had taken over for the final month of ’79 and gone 19-11.
Hitting was the Phils’ cornerstone, and they were second in the National League in runs scored, excelling equally at getting men on base and hitting for power. No one was better than third baseman Mike Schmidt who hit 48 home runs drove in 121 runs and won the NL MVP award.
Schmidt’s big numbers supported an array of other players who had various areas of strength, but no standout stars. Rose, now 39-years-old, finished with a .352 on-base percentage. Bake McBride posted respectable numbers of .342 OBP/.453 slugging. Greg Luzinski, the big leftfielder, saw his power dip, but still hit 19 home runs.
Philadelphia was very good defensively. Veteran catcher Bob Boone, standout centerfielder Garry Maddox, shortstop Larry Bowa and second baseman Manny Trillo made the Phillies the classic team that’s strong up the middle. None of them hit very well, though Trillo’s .334 OBP was respectable, but when you look back on how many close games the Phillies won it’s hard not to look at this consistent defense.
The pitching made a big leap forward, jumping from 11th in the National League in ERA in 1979 to 3rd in 1980. When you have one of the great pitchers of your generation, it goes a long way toward making improvement.
Steve Carlton was now 35-years-old, but the lefthander still had the nasty slider that ultimately took him to the Hall of Fame. And in 1980 he won 24 games, worked over 300 innings and posted a 2.34 ERA. It was good enough for the Cy Young Award, as the Phils swept the two major individual awards.
The back end of the bullpen was in the hands of another capable 35-year-old. Tug McGraw had the best year of his career, with a 1.46 ERA and saving 20 games.
With Carlton and McGraw as his anchors, Green was able to piece the rest of the staff together. Dick Ruthven was a reliable #2 starter, winning 17 games and finishing with a 3.55 ERA. The bullpen was aided by one young arm, Kevin Saucier and one veteran, Ron Reed.
The rotation was filled out by mostly mediocre performances from Bob Walk, Randy Lerch, Nino Espinosa and Larry Christenson. But the Phillies got a big lift from 21-year-old Marty Bystrom who came up late in the season, made six starts and went 5-0 with buck-fifty ERA.
It took a month and a half for the team to get untracked. Philadelphia was under .500 on May 13 when they won seven of nine games against the Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros, each contenders in the NL West. By Memorial Day, the Phillies were 20-15 and just a game out of first place.
The pace in the NL East was being set by the defending World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates and not far behind was the Montreal Expos, who had chased Pittsburgh to the final weekend in 1979.
Philadelphia then lost nine of sixteen games and fell four games back. A six-game win streak against NL West competition stabilized the Phils and they pulled into a first-place tie on June 18. They hovered within a game or two of first place and they reached the All-Star break with a pedestrian 41-35 record, but one that was only a half-game back of the Expos with the Pirates just one game out. The NL East race was red-hot.
The period right after the All-Star break was not kind to the Phillies. They had a 4-7 stretch against the Reds and a poor Atlanta Braves team. Philadelphia went to Pittsburgh for a four-game set and got it handed to them, losing all four games and by a combined score of 21-8. On August 10, the Phils were six games out before a 9-2 stretch—highlighted by a five-game sweep of the lowly Mets in old Shea Stadium pulled Philly back to within 1 ½ games.
On Labor Day, the basic dynamic of the race had not changed. Montreal was in first place, Philadelphia was one game out and Pittsburgh was in hot pursuit, only two back.
The Phillies beat the Pirates in a two-game set, the second a 14-inning walkoff. It started the fade of the defending champs and the race narrowed to Philadelphia and Montreal. They met in Philly on the season’s penultimate weekend for a three-game set, with the Phils up by a half-game.
Ruthven pitched the opener and went seven solid innings, departing with the game tied 1-1. McGraw held the fort for two innings and McBride won it with a walkoff blast. But the rest of the weekend didn’t go quite as well.
Carlton took the mound with a chance to put his team firmly in control of the race, but gave up four runs in seven innings, losing 4-3. And Walk was hit hard in the finale, with Saucier and Dickie Noles unable to stop the bleeding out of the bullpen. The 8-3 loss left Philadelphia a half-game back with a week to go.
The good news was that at least the Phillies controlled the half-game. So even though the Expos swept the Cardinals in a three-game sweep, the Phils were able to counter with a four-game sweep of the Cubs. The NL East race was tied, with Philadelphia and Montreal poised to settle it head-to-head with a three-game series north of the border.
Ruthven again pitched a Friday opener and again pitched well, though he came out in the sixth inning with a 2-1 lead, keyed by two hits from Rose and a home run by Schmidt. Sparky Lyle, a veteran lefty and former Cy Young winner with the Yankees in 1977 had been acquired in September for games like this.
Lyle got four big outs when the Expos were threatening, and McGraw threw two more shutout innings. The 2-1 lead stood up. Philadelphia needed just one more win and they had Carlton reserve for Sunday.
Christenson started on Saturday and pitched six good innings, though he trailed 2-1. In the top of the seventh, Rose, McBride and Schmidt all singled to load the bases with one out. Luzinski delivered a two-run single to give the Phils the lead, but in a bizarre baserunning circumstance, both he and Schmidt were thrown out on the bases on the same play.
The game stayed at 3-2 and it looked like that might be costly, because Ron Reed and Lyle gave the lead back in the bottom of the inning. Philadelphia still trailed 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth.
Rose drew a walk to start the inning and was replaced on the bases by McBride after a force out. McBride moved up to second on a groundball out, and with two down Boone singled in the tying run.
The game stretched to the 11th inning and one more time Rose was in the middle of things. He led off with a single. Schmidt came to the plate with one out and put the punctuation mark on his MVP campaign. He homered to left. McGraw slammed the door in the bottom of the inning and the Phillies were NL East champs.
The drama was just beginning for the Phillies. They met the Houston Astros and the National League Championship Series ended up being arguably the greatest postseason ever played. What was then a best-of-five series went the full five games. The last four games went to extra innings. In Games 4 & 5, the lead changed hands in the last two innings. It was an epic and the Phillies survived.
It was fitting that the Kansas City Royals were the opponent in the World Series. The Royals were partners in frustration with the Phils through the late 1970s, with each team losing the LCS in 1976-78, then having a disappointing year in 1979. Each finally broke through to the Fall Classic in the game year.
The World Series wasn’t one for the ages, like the NLCS had been, but it was still pretty good. The Phillies won come-from-behind games at home in Games 1 & 2, and then won an exciting Game 5 in Kansas City to put themselves on the brink. A victory behind Carlton in Game 6 brought the long-awaited Series title to Philly.
Philadelphia continued to be good in the early part of the 1980s. They won the “second half” NL East title in 1981, when a players strike resulted in MLB using a system that took the first place teams before and after the strike and had them meet in the first-ever Division Series round. The Phils lost to the Expos.
The Phillies returned to the World Series in 1983 and 1993, but it would be 28 years before they won it all again. At least the 1980 Phils had provided enough memories to last a generation.