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Few and Chosen
Defining Phillies Greatness Across the Eras
By Gary Matthews, Phil Pepe
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Gary Matthews and Phil Pepe
All rights reserved.
Although I was his teammate for only a few months (I was traded to the Phillies on March 25, 1981, and he was sold by the Phillies to the California Angels eight months and 12 days later), Bob Boone and I have several things in common:
We both were born and raised in southern California, me in San Fernando, Boone in San Diego, some 125 miles away.
I was drafted in the first round of the 1968 amateur draft; Boone was drafted a year later.
I made my major-league debut on September 6, 1972; Bob made his major-league debut four days later.
We both have had the great joy and enormous pride of seeing our sons follow in our footsteps to play in the major leagues: Bret and Aaron for Boone, Gary Jr. for me. (Not only were Boone's two sons major-leaguers, his father, Ray, also played in the big leagues with the Tigers, Indians, White Sox, Athletics, Braves, and Red Sox, making the Boones one of the few families with three generations in Major League Baseball.)
When Boone retired after the 1990 season, he had caught more games (2,225, with 1,125 of them as a Phillie) than any other catcher in major-league history (he would be caught and passed by Carlton Fisk three years later and by Pudge Rodriguez 16 years after that). He made the All-Star team four times, won seven Gold Gloves (Rodriguez (13) and Johnny Bench (10), Boone's contemporary, are the only catchers who won more), and was the only catcher behind the plate for both a perfect game (pitched by Mike Witt) and a pitcher's 300th win (Don Sutton).
While he wasn't known for his bat — he carries a lifetime average of .254, 105 home runs, and 826 RBIs — whatever he contributed on offense was considered a bonus. Boone, who is the only catcher in the Phillies Wall of Fame, was a fierce competitor who was known more for his defense and his durability than for his offense. He was a student of the game. He was one of those guys who pitchers loved to throw to, although it's interesting to note that Steve Carlton elected to have Tim McCarver as his personal catcher. I don't know if that was a critique of Boone's ability by Carlton or if it simply was that Steve was comfortable throwing to McCarver, who was his catcher when Lefty broke in with the Cardinals.
Don Sutton called Boone "one of the most intelligent catchers I've ever seen."
That was Bob's reputation, and deservedly so.
The fact is, in 1980 Boone handled the Phillies pitching staff that won the World Series. Up to that time, no Phillies catcher had ever done that ... and it would be 28 more years before another Phillies catcher would do it again.
[Seminick] was my kind of guy — hard-nosed, a winner, a dogged competitor.
I truly regret that I never got to know Andy Seminick, but even though we never met, I feel like I do know him. I've had two tours of duty with the Phillies — as a player from 1981 to 1983, and as a television broadcaster since 2007 — and you can't spend any time around the Phillies without hearing about Seminick or knowing someone who was tutored, coached, scouted, or managed by him.
From what I have heard about him, I would have liked being managed by or playing alongside him. He was my kind of guy — hard-nosed, a winner, a dogged competitor — the kind of guy you would run through a wall for if he was your manager or the one you would want in your foxhole if he was on your team.
Known more for his home-run bat than for his defense, Andy Seminick nevertheless was the Phillies' primary catcher in 1950, guiding a young pitching staff that led the National League in earned-run average (3.50) and was second in shutouts (13). He was instrumental in delivering the franchise's first pennant in 35 years.
Along the way, Seminick caught 124 games, threw out 23 of 58 runners attempting to steal — an exceptional 40 percent (33 percent is considered above average) — batted .288, finished 13th in the National League with 24 homers, drove in 68 runs, and was 14th in the MVP voting.
Perhaps unfairly, what many longtime Phillies fans remember most about Seminick was not his glove, but his bat: 123 home runs and 411 RBIs in 985 games as a Phillie; 48 homers and 136 RBIs over a two-year span, 1949–50; and especially one unforgettable day, June 2, 1949, when the Phillies tied a major-league record by hitting five home runs in the eighth inning against the Cincinnati Reds. Two of those homers were made by Seminick, who had hit one earlier in the game in the second inning. As we like to say in the dugout, Andy Seminick had a good month that day.
Because he was a 29-year-old, eight-year major-league veteran in 1950, Seminick earned the trust of manager Eddie Sawyer with handling a young pitching staff that included 23-year-old Robin Roberts, 21-year-old Curt Simmons, 24-year-old Bob Miller, 25-year-old Bubba Church, and 26-year-old Russ Meyer. That was the staff for the famous Phillies Whiz Kids. Consequently, the Philadelphia writers dubbed Seminick "Grandpa Whiz."
Years later Roberts, the great Hall of Famer, said of Seminick, "If you had to pick a guy in our clubhouse who was our leader that year, it would be Andy. He always played hard, and that was his best year."
Sounds like my kind of player.
Although he was born in West Virginia and signed his first professional contract with the Pirates, Seminick was as much a Phillie as any player in the team's history. He was signed as an amateur free agent before the 1940 season, released and signed as a free agent a year later, and then returned to his minor-league club and was purchased by the Phillies from Knoxville of the Southern Association in September 1943.
After the 1951 season Seminick was included in a four-for-three trade with Cincinnati in which the two teams swapped catchers Seminick and Smoky Burgess. Three seasons later, the Phillies and Reds entered into a three-for-three trade, returning Seminick and Burgess to their previous teams.
At the time, Seminick was 34 and coming to the end of the line. He appeared in 93 games for the Phillies in 1955, in 60 games in 1956, and was then released. Apparently, it was hard for Seminick and the Phillies to say good-bye. They re-signed him on September 1, 1957, using him in eight games before releasing him once more.
Once again, it wasn't good-bye. The Phillies added Seminick to their coaching staff in 1957, and he remained an employee of the Phillies for the remainder of his career, serving for some four decades as a major-league coach, scout, roving minor-league instructor, and a minor-league manager during which time he coached or managed 90 players who eventually got to the major leagues, among them Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Ferguson Jenkins as well as Greg Luzinski and Bob Boone.
The guy whose defensive skills were said to be "below average" was credited with taking Boone under his wing and helping to convert him from a third baseman to a catcher who made four All-Star teams, won seven Gold Gloves, and had caught a record 2,225 games when he retired.
Had he not had knee injuries in the prime of his career, Darren Daulton might have been regarded as the greatest catcher in Phillies history and maybe even made the Hall of Fame. That's how good, and how productive, he was.
Daulton was a late bloomer. He was 30 years old and in his ninth big-league season in 1992 when he exploded with 27 home runs, a leagueleading 109 RBIs, and finished in the top 10 in the National League in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, home runs, walks, runs created, and extra-base hits. It earned him his first of three All-Star selections, a Silver Slugger Award (presented to the player who is the leading hitter at his position), and sixth place in the NL MVP voting.
He followed that up the next season with 24 homers, 105 RBIs, 117 walks, a second All-Star selection, and seventh place in the MVP voting — all while leading the Phillies to their first pennant in 10 years and being called "the greatest clubhouse leader the Phillies ever had."
He seemed on his way to baseball immortality when injury hit midway through the 1994 season. After 67 games, he was batting .300 with 15 home runs and 56 RBIs and a slugging percentage of .549 when he was felled by injury.
When he returned in 1996, his catching days were over. He would spend the remainder of his career as an outfielder, first baseman, and pinch-hitter. Over the next three seasons, he would play in only 187 games, hit 20 home runs, drive in 97 runs, and be traded to the Florida Marlins.
With the Marlins in 1997, he appeared in 52 games, batted .262, hit three home runs, and drove in 21 runs. But when the Marlins reached the World Series, Daulton turned it up a notch and showed his competitiveness. He appeared in all seven Series games against the Cleveland Indians, batting .389 with a home run and two RBIs. It would be his only World Series ring. It was a last hurrah for Daulton who, because of the condition of his knees, was forced to retire after the season.
Here's a quickie trivia quiz for you Philadelphia Phillies baseball buffs: Who caught the most games in Phillies history?
Here's a quickie trivia quiz for you Philadelphia Phillies baseball buffs: Who caught the most games in Phillies history? Which catcher hit the most home runs as a Phillie? Who holds the team record for the highest fielding percentage as a catcher?
You win the prize if you answered Mike Lieberthal, Mike Lieberthal, and Mike Lieberthal.
That may surprise you. It did me; I would have guessed that Bob Boone, Andy Seminick, Stan Lopata, Darren Daulton, Clay Dalrymple, or Jimmie Wilson held those records. Certainly not Mike Lieberthal, who flew under the radar.
But Mike spent 14 seasons with the Phillies, from 1994 to 2006, and most of those years as their No. 1 catcher. He caught 1,139 games as a Phillie, hit all but one of his 150 home runs as a catcher, and posted a phenomenal .997 fielding percentage in 1999, which set a still-standing Phillies record for a catcher and won Lieberthal the Gold Glove. He also batted .300, hit 31 homers, and drove in 96 runs in what many believe was the greatest season for any Phillies catcher. He was only the eighth catcher to bat .300 and hit 30 home runs in the same season, and he joined Johnny Bench, Lance Parrish, and Ivan Rodriguez as the only catchers to hit 30 home runs and win a Gold Glove in the same year.
Lieberthal twice made the All-Star team, caught Kevin Millwood's no-hitter in 2003, and had a career fielding percentage of .991 and a career batting average of .274. Even so, he never got the credit he deserved, probably because in his 13 seasons with the Phils, they never made it to the postseason. Ironically, the Phillies won the National League pennant in 1993, the year before Lieberthal arrived, and won the National League East in 2007, the year after Lieberthal left.
As a 4'11" shortstop and second baseman, Mike was a high school star in Glendale, California, until his junior year when he switched to catcher at the urging of several professional scouts, including his father, Dennis, who at the time was a scout for the Detroit Tigers.
When he graduated in 1990, he had beefed up to 155 pounds and sprouted to almost 6'0" and was drafted by the Phillies in the first round, third overall, behind just Chipper Jones and Tony Clark and ahead of such future stars as Mike Mussina, Rondell White, and Garret Anderson.
In 2007 Lieberthal signed a one-year, $1.15 million free-agent contract with the Dodgers with a club option for 2008, but a series of injuries to his ankle, knee, and elbow limited Mike to just 38 games. Instead of picking up their option, the Dodgers exercised their $100,000 buyout and Lieberthal's career was over. But first, he signed a one-day contract with the Phillies so that he could retire as a Phillie.
Since his retirement from baseball, Lieberthal has devoted himself to charitable works, including Lieby's VIPs, which aids children with cancer and their families, serving as the 2000 chairman of a fund-raising drive for Corporate Alliance for Drug Education.
I thought I was all set with Smoky Burgess as the fifth-best catcher in Phillies history, but the longer I spent around the Phillies and the more I talked to their pitchers about him, the more I became enamored with Carlos Ruiz. And that has caused me to alter my thinking and make Smoky Burgess and Carlos Ruiz a double entry in the No. 5 slot.
The Phillies pitchers just love pitching to Ruiz. To a man, they all have told me that they never have to shake him off. I mean never! When you hear things like that from successful veteran pitchers such as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Brad Lidge, that's impressive. It makes you sit up and take notice.
The interesting thing is that while Ruiz was coming up through the Phillies farm system, nobody in the organization doubted that he would hit — he batted .284 with 17 homers and 50 RBIs in 101 games at Reading in 2004, .300 at Scranton — Wilkes Barre in 2005, and .307 with 16 homers and 69 RBIs in 100 games with Scranton — Wilkes Barre in 2006 — but there were questions about his defense. The skeptics needn't have worried. With the Phillies in 2007, he caught 111 games and committed only two errors in 744 chances, posting a fielding percentage of .997. What's more, he continued to hit — .259 with six home runs and 54 RBIs. The accolades earned him a spot on the Topps Rookie All-Star team.
Ruiz has continued to improve on defense — one major-league scout called him "the best catcher in the game other than [the Minnesota Twins'] Joe Mauer, who's on a different planet" — and he's continued to hit, too. In fact, Ruiz has won over the demanding Phillies fans with his ability to hit in the clutch, producing some memorable big hits. For example, a bases-loaded infield single in the bottom of the ninth gave the Phillies a 5–4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 3 of the 2008 World Series, and a game-winning two-run double in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Dodgers gave the Phillies a 10–9 victory against L.A. in 2010 after they trailed 9–2 going into the eighth.
Smoky stayed around as an effective, reliable, lethal, and cucumber-cool pinch-hitter a decade before the arrival of the designated hitter.
I wasn't able to find anyone who could satisfactorily explain why the Phillies acquired Smoky Burgess from the Reds in a trade for Andy Seminick and then three years later traded Burgess back to the Reds for Seminick.
What I do know is that while he was with the Phillies, Forrest Harrill Burgess put up impressive enough numbers (averages of .296, .292, and .368), for me to put him on my list of all-time Phillies catchers, and the Phillies would have been wise to keep him.
After he left Philadelphia, Burgess went on to play 13 more seasons with the Reds, Pirates, and White Sox. At the end of his career he was considered by many experts to be the greatest pinch-hitter in baseball history.
You'd never think it to look at him. He's listed as 5[??]8[??], but I have to believe he cheated by two or three inches. And he had a potbelly that made him look like a beer-league softball player — but boy, could he hit.
In his early days, Burgess was a good catch-and-throw guy behind the plate, but it was his bat that kept him around for 18 major league seasons and 1,691 games, banging out 1,318 hits and being named to six All-Star teams. He was signed by the Cubs in 1944, traded to the Reds in October 1951, and then dealt to the Phillies two months later without ever having played a game for Cincinnati. In Philadelphia, Burgess platooned with Stan Lopata. A left-handed hitter, he had his best season in 1954 when he batted .368, hit four homers, and drove in 46 runs in 108 games, making the All-Star team for the first time.
When he could no longer do the job behind the plate, Smoky stayed around as an effective, reliable, lethal, and cucumber-cool pinch-hitter a decade before the arrival of the designated hitter. When he retired after the 1967 season, Burgess had accumulated 145 pinch-hits, a major-league record that stood for a dozen years before it was broken by Manny Mota.
Excerpted from Few and Chosen by Gary Matthews, Phil Pepe. Copyright © 2012 Gary Matthews and Phil Pepe. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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