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Phillies Might Appear to Be Crazy, but They Can Play, Too


PHILADELPHIA — Curt Schilling calls this concoction of a baseball team "a bowlful of flakes."

Mitch Williams says he is part of a band of "gypsies, tramps and thieves."

And John Kruk says, "We're throwbacks."

These are the Philadelphia Phillies, baseball's best story in spring 1993. Forget television contracts and labor squabbles and the uneven state of play in a game watered down by expansion.

Just stand and gape at the Phillies, who have hustled, homered and pitched themselves from last to first in the National League East.

This isn't a baseball team -- it's the infield at the Indianapolis 500.

Step underneath the stands at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, and this is what you see:

Dave Hollins, an intense third baseman, can be found in the tunnel leading from the dugout, warming up for games by throwing baseballs 90 mph.

Off the clubhouse door.

Williams, the bullpen closer whose locker is under a sign marked "The Ghetto," wears the No. 99 on the back of his uniform -- hey, they don't allow triple digits in baseball. He tops off a buzz haircut with not one but two rat tails. And he spends much of his time before games striding from locker to locker, swinging a bat and spitting tobacco juice into garbage cans.

His teammates tend to keep their distance.

And in a stadium where smoking is officially banned, Kruk sits in one corner of the clubhouse, lighting up cigarette after cigarette. That's before he plays. Afterward, the sweet-swinging first baseman, who looks about as athletic as a slow-pitch softball player, usually can be found inside the trainer's room.

Drinking beer, of course.

This daily scene of clubhouse mayhem is accompanied by a ear-pounding, heavy-metal soundtrack, provided by Schilling, the pitcher as DJ.

"Mostly guys are real quiet," Kruk said. "We kind of stick to ourselves. We don't play music. We don't have beards or long hair. I can't believe how everyone makes that mistake and says we're a bunch of crazy people. We aren't. I guess that blows your question out of the water."

Not exactly.

Kruk has a scruffy beard. And hair down to his shoulders. And a fondness for country music.

"We have a good time," he said. "There are a bunch of idiots here. We have talent, and we have fun with each other. It's hard to beat."

Minors and other impressionable baseball fans are advised not to emulate the lifestyles of these players.

"The whole team is insane," said 40-year-old relief pitcher Larry Andersen. "And there are some guys on this team who are more insane than I am. And that's scary."

But beneath the post-adolescent bluster beats the heart of a team that wants desperately to be taken seriously.

It's sort of like Madonna talking about her art.

After winning the World Series in 1980 and the National League pennant in 1983, the Phillies basically took the rest of the decade -- and then some -- off.

Once handicapped by a weak front office, their stars grown old and their minor-league system gone dry, the Phillies sank to the bottom of the National League East. When they landed with a 70-92 thud in 1992, it was their third last-place finish in five years.

But now, they are on top with a 36-15 record after beating Cincinnati, 5-2, Wednesday night, busting open the National League East divisional race before Memorial Day.

"This team has 25 guys who actually want to be here, who want to win and who don't care about anything else," said Schilling, a former Oriole. "Everyone has an ego. But you check your ego at the door."

The two men in charge of this crew actually know a thing or two about wild and crazy baseball teams.

General Manager Lee Thomas and Manager Jim Fregosi were not exactly angelic personalities during their major-league careers. Thomas went by the nickname of Mad Dog. Fregosi was called Loco.

"Jimmy and I liked to play the game and play it hard," Thomas said. "We enjoyed ourselves, before or after the game."

Baseball may not be a science, but Thomas, a former player development director with the St. Louis Cardinals, talks a lot about chemistry when he discusses how he put the Phillies together. On the first day of summer 1988 he inherited a team that was stodgy and still built around Mike Schmidt, a wondrous third baseman who could be downright prickly in the clubhouse. Schmidt's no-nonsense attitude rubbed off -- the wrong way -- on the rest of the team.

"I used to go in the clubhouse, just to see the atmosphere," Thomas said. "I didn't like it. I could probably hear somebody whispering. I had a few meetings and I'd yell, 'What the hell is going on here?' And nobody would get into it. I knew we needed a pulse going in the clubhouse."

Thomas went out and performed a heart transplant.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, you basically build baseball teams in one of three ways:

-- Grow your own in the minor leagues.

-- Outspend the other guy in the free-agent market.

-- Trade.

Thomas traded. A lot. In four seasons, he has executed more than 30 deals, while adding a few lower-priced free agents.

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