Ricky Jordan Fan Club is pleased to bring you the debut of the Random Past Seasons feature. As you can probably imagine, there won't be as many of these as Random Past Phillies or Random Past Games, but we hope you enjoy nonetheless!
Record: 67-95 (5th in NL East, 29 games behind Atlanta Braves)
Manager: Jim Fregosi
Coaches: Larry Bowa, Dave Cash, Denis Menke, Johnny Podres, Joe Rigoli, John Vukovich, Jim Wright
General Manager: Lee Thomas
All-Star: Ricky Bottalico
Top Draft Pick: Adam Eaton (1st Round, 11th overall)
About 1996: When a Major League Baseball season gets underway for any team, there is always that sense of anticipation, that air of excitement. Some teams are prohibitive favorites and the fun of the season lies in seeing how well they can carry the weight of those enormous expectations. Many teams have a bunch of question marks, but you think maybe if things break their way, it could be a special year. Then there are teams who you know have absolutely no shot, whose seasons seem to be over before they even begin. We still follow them because they are our team and we know no other way, thinking maybe someday it will all be worth it. A prime example of that latter category would be the 1996 Philadelphia Phillies, a team that after a couple competent months to start the season soon found themselves living up (or down) to their cellar-dwelling expectations.
After boasting the National League's best record for much of the first half of the strike-shortened 1995 season, the Phillies limped through an injury-riddled second half en route to a 69-75 finish. In lieu of rebuilding, General Manager Lee Thomas opted to add several low-priced veterans to an aging roster, which did nothing to calm criticism of a front office often accused of being unwilling to spend the money necessary to become a legitimate contender. Among the new acquisitions were pitcher Terry Mulholland and outfielder Pete Incaviglia, who were both returning for a second stint with the Phillies. Third baseman Todd Zeile was brought aboard to man the hot corner at least until top prospect Scott Rolen was ready to join the big club. Catcher Benito Santiago was signed prior to Spring Training after Darren Daulton announced his knees could no longer handle the rigors of catching and he would thus be moving to left field. The pitching staff was full of uncertainty, as offseason shoulder surgery would cause Curt Schilling to miss the first six weeks of the season. Arm woes would wipe out the entire season for Tyler Green, who had been an All-Star as a rookie in 1995 after an excellent first half.
Speaking of All-Stars, the Phillies were chosen as the host of that season's midsummer classic. As the season got underway, it seemed as though that was all the ballclub's fans had to look forward to in 1996. Adding to the predictions of doom and gloom was the fact that Darren Daulton's knees had betrayed him once again, and he was shut down for the remainder of '96 before the season was even a week old. The injury bug also bit first baseman Gregg Jefferies during the first week, as he tore a ligament in his thumb during the third game of the season and would be out until June. Despite all this, the Phils came out of the gates somewhat strongly as they won 16 of their first 27 games. Included was a 6-3 victory over the Braves in Atlanta on May 3 in which Benito Santiago delivered the decisive blow with a ninth-inning grand slam off Greg Maddux. Nine days later, rookie righthander Mike Grace bested Maddux and the Braves in a 6-0 shutout at the Vet. Still, it was early, and by the end of May the team found itself hovering around the .500 mark, including a three-week stretch in which they were never more than a game above or below sea level. But then the month of June rolled around and the Phillies fell victim to a June swoon that they seem to be famous for even in the best of seasons. A 12-3 romp over the Chicago Cubs on June 4 evened the club's record at 28-28, but the Phils would fade into oblivion by losing 19 of their next 23 games. Perhaps the thought of hosting the All-Star game inspired the Phillies a little, as they won five of seven leading into the break and their first three games after. This 8-2 run improved the team's record to 40-49, but any chance at salvaging the 1996 season was lost when the Phils followed that up by losing 13 of 14.
With the season officially deemed a lost cause, the Phillies entered a rebuilding mode. Terry Mulholland was the first veteran to go, as he was shipped to the Seattle Mariners for shortstop prospect Desi Relaford. Scott Rolen would be called up on August 1, with Todd Zeile moving over to first base and Gregg Jefferies heading back to left field, which was where the Phils had signed him to play prior to the 1995 season. Zeile's tenure at first base didn't last long, as he and Pete Incaviglia passed through waivers and were sent to the Baltimore Orioles for pitchers Calvin Maduro and Garrett Stephenson in late August. A patchwork group of Phillies managed to go 13-13 over the season's final month, which of course didn't mean a whole lot when they were already 28 games under .500 entering September. In all, the 1996 Phillies finished the season with a record of 67-95. The day after the season ended, Jim Fregosi was relieved of his duties as manager. He'd been openly critical of the product he was being given to manage on the field, which strained his relationship with longtime friend Lee Thomas. It was assumed by many that Thomas would also be fired, but he was kept on and ultimately chose Terry Francona to succeed Fregosi.
As for on-field performances, there weren't a whole lot that stood out in a positive light. Jim Eisenreich was certainly an exception, as he hit .361 in his final season as a Phillie before missing the final month with a broken foot. Eisenreich signed with the Florida Marlins after the season, with whom he'd win the World Series in 1997. Benito Santiago hit 30 home runs, something that no Phillie had done since Mike Schmidt hit 35 in 1987. The 1996 season would be the only one for Santiago with the Phillies, who decided to move forward with Mike Lieberthal as their starting catcher. Todd Zeile's stint with the Phillies was also short and productive, as he blasted 20 homers and drove in 80 before being dealt to Baltimore. It wasn't a banner year for some old 1993 heroes. In addition to Darren Daulton's injury woes, Lenny Dykstra would go down for good with a back injury in May. The Dude would never appear in another MLB game, spending the entire 1997 and 1998 seasons on the disabled list before officially retiring following the '98 campaign.
On the mound, no Phillies pitcher won more than nine games, the first time since 1945 they failed to produce a double-digit winner. Curt Schilling led the National League with eight complete games, but had just a 9-10 record to show for it. Terry Mulholland was 8-7 before being shipped to Seattle, while Mike Grace fashioned a 7-2 record before an elbow injury ended his season in early June. The ballclub's lone All-Star came from the bullpen, as Ricky Bottalico notched 34 saves. It was the third of three consecutive seasons in which the Phils sent a different closer to the Midsummer Classic as Doug Jones had represented the team in 1994 and Heathcliff Slocumb did the same in 1995.
The 1996 season was a forgettable one for the Philadelphia Phillies. In fact, the most memorable events related to the Phils in '96 had nothing to do with them on the field. The National League posted a 6-0 win in the All-Star Game, with Los Angeles Dodgers catcher and Norristown native Mike Piazza taking home the game's Most Valuable Player honors. It was the third straight All-Star win for the NL, who would not emerge victorious again until 2010. Also noteworthy was Jim Bunning being elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, making 1996 the third straight year in which at least one inductee went in wearing a Phillies cap. Steve Carlton had been immortalized in 1994, while Richie Ashburn and Mike Schmidt were memorably enshrined together in 1995.
Personal recollection: I'm generally seen as a pretty positive and optimistic person, not just about the Phillies but life in general. When it comes to the 1996 team, however, I can't think of too many positives. It was gloomy, depressing, and really just a hopeless season. I suppose when Sid Fernandez is your Opening Day starter (he actually pitched quite well for the Phils in '95, but you know what I mean), you know you're in no danger of getting pennant fever anytime soon. Even when the team got off to a halfway decent start, you knew it was only a matter of time before it all came crashing down, which it eventually did. Things got so bad that pitching coach Johnny Podres had to retire due to health concerns early in the season. He was replaced by Jim Wright. Going to the Vet for games the second half of that season was almost a masochistic experience. The stands were empty and the diehards that were there were too depressed to even boo the team going through the motions on the field. It was always nice on those rare occasions where the team played well, though players like Gene Schall, Ricky Otero, Jon Zuber, etc. weren't exactly guys who gave anyone visions of a bright future ahead. Rich Hunter, Rafael Quirico, Carlos Crawford, Ron Blazier...ugh! Adam Eaton was the organization's first round pick in that year's Draft. Just thought I'd throw that in there.
How bad was the 1996 season for the Phillies? Well, during the late 1980s throughout the 1990s, they put out a Home Companion video following the season, similar to the Video Yearbooks they do now. The "Home Companion" name came about because the team pretty much always wasn't good enough to warrant an actual highlight film, so they focused on a lot of offbeat and behind-the-scenes stuff. In 1996, they didn't even bother to make a Home Companion. The only other years I can remember them not doing one were the 1994 strike year and 2000, when the Phils went 65-97.
Even in the worst seasons, though, there's always some positives here and there. I was at Scott Rolen's debut, which came during a doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals. Of course, things didn't end well for Rolen in Philadelphia, but man did it look like we had something special on our hands at the time. Jim Eisenriech was terrific amidst all the incompetence surrounding him. I was extremely happy when he and Darren Daulton won the World Series with the Marlins in '97. Mike Grace really burst on the scene early in '96, and looked like he was going to run away with the NL Rookie of the Year award. Unfortunately, he had a strange pitching motion in which he threw across his body, and that really took its toll. He was never the same after that injury.
I was also lucky enough to attend the 1996 All-Star Game and Workout Day, which concluded with the Home Run Derby. Barry Bonds defeated Mark McGwire in the final round, which I guess says a lot about that era of Major League Baseball. That and FanFest (which was held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center) were a blast, though. Hopefully we'll get another All-Star Game in Philly before too long.
That's my story on the 1996 Phillies season. Feel free to share your own recollections.