05/06/2003 8:38 PM ET
First time for everything -- in 1976
PHILADELPHIA -- It seemed a rather innocuous win for the home team, an early May triumph over the Dodgers.
Just a simple case of either Dodgers starter Doug Rau not having his best stuff or Philadelphia batters swinging heavy lumber. Larry Bowa drove in three runs and Greg Luzinski added his fourth home run off the left-hander, who lasted 4 2/3 innings.
Symbolically the 10-3 whipping represented much more. Coupled with a Mets loss, the Phillies found themselves again with a share of first place, something they held sporadically during the 1976 season's first five weeks, yet couldn't sustain any momentum.
That was about to change. For the next few days, the Phillies either shared or held first before grabbing the pole position for good on May 14 -- never to see second place again -- on the way to capturing the first division title while calling Veterans Stadium home.
The Phillies blazed through the month by going 21-4 and opened up a 6 1/2-game lead by the end of May. They followed that up with a 20-9 June and left the rest of the NL East -- including the 1975 division winning Pittsburgh Pirates -- in the dust.
"My memories of [Veterans Stadium] are as the place where we all came up together," said Bowa. "We learned how to play together and win together."
Most of the players on the 1976 team came through the minors together and took some hits on the 59-win team of 1972. Steve Carlton arrived from St. Louis before that season and somehow managed to win 27 games, nearly half of the team's total.
In 1974, the team finished third, then grabbed second place in 1975. By 1976, a core group of young players -- Bowa, Mike Schmidt, Luzinski, Bob Boone, Carlton, Dick Ruthven and Larry Christenson -- were ready to blossom. And relative newcomers Garry Maddox and Tug McGraw also brought some fire.
"You saw a team that got better every year -- played together for a long time -- and eventually came together," said Bowa. "We came up through the minor leagues."
"We were really starting to feel like we could compete with anybody," added Boone.
The Phillies Express rarely lost steam, entering the All-Star break with a 10-game lead. Even at the All-Star gala, which was held in Philadelphia that season for the country's bicentennial, there seemed to be more excitement than usual.
The Phillies shut off the cruise control in late August when an eight-game losing streak turned a 15-game cushion into a 6 1/2-game edge by Sept. 5. Entering a Sunday getaway game against the third-place Mets, the players were starting to hear whispers of 1964, when a 10-game September swoon cost the team the division.
Christenson would hear none of that.
"We had really hit the skid. We couldn't win and everybody was talking about the collapse of '64 and it was coming back," he said. "That was the way everybody was approaching it. I wasn't there in '64 and didn't know what they were talking about."
Judging from Christensen's horrendous batting practice on his day to pitch -- he broke both his bats on inside pitches from coach Bobby Wine -- it was hard to see this game as a turning point.
"I used to swing a 36-ounce bat -- one of the biggest in the game," Christensen said. "So here I was without a bat and wondering what I was going to do. So I walked over to Dick Allen and asked to borrow his 42-ounce bat. He said, 'Son, if you can swing it, you can use it.' That thing was a monster."
Shortly after escaping a first-inning, bases loaded, no-out jam, Christensen put that Allen monster to good use. He slugged two home runs off Mickey Lolich and drove in two of the Phillies' three runs in the win. On the mound, the right-hander allowed one run in 8 1/3 innings.
"The headline said, 'Christenson 3, Mets 1,'" said Christenson. "Then we got back on track. The game [against the Mets] started out like a nightmare, but ended up being a big deal."
A collapse averted, the Phillies coasted the rest of the way and won the NL East by nine games over Pittsburgh. Though the Reds swept Philadelphia in the NLCS, the seeds for several winning seasons had been planted.
Philadelphia won the NL East in 1977 and '78, and lost to the Dodgers both times in the NLCS. The Phillies finally got over the hump with a five-game victory over the Astros in '80, then toppled the Royals in six games to win the World Series.
And some of the credit belongs to 1976.
"That's where it all started," said Christenson. "It was a pretty good time to be in Philadelphia."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for
MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball
or its clubs.
By Ken Mandel / MLB.com