The Philadelphia Phillies lost 96 games last season. They boasted only one pitcher with a winning record--if that’s what you call Mike Maddux’s four wins and three losses--and did not have even one hitter with 20 home runs.
Can Mad Dog restore some bite? Lee Thomas shakes his head and preaches patience, suggesting that an occasional bark may have to do for a while.
Maybe as long as three years, he implies.
As a productive hitter in the early years of the Angels, Thomas displayed the bite and bark resulting in his nickname.
He is now 54 and vice president-general manager of the Phillies, having resigned as director of player personnel with the St. Louis Cardinals to accept the Philadelphia offer last June.
Whitey Herzog, the Cardinal manager who was also the general manager when he appointed Thomas to the influential role in what has been an assembly line of St. Louis talent, says that Thomas will be an outstanding general manager.
In Philadelphia, however, Thomas has found the assembly line in need of overhaul.
“It will take three good drafts to fill in the gaps and develop some consistency,” he said. “The minor league system is fairly devoid of regular players with major league potential until you get down to A ball (the lowest level).
“We do have some good young arms, but they’re probably a year and a half away. The idea is to get competitive for that year and a half.”
“To play .500 would be a nice step forward and I think we can do that,” he said.
“I mean, we’re looking at 96 losses. It took time for the organization to reach that level and it’ll take time to turn it around.
“We’re trying to be honest. We’re trying to cultivate an understanding among the fans that it isn’t going to be done overnight.
“I know it’s a tough town, but I think the people of Philadelphia have accepted the situation.”
If they haven’t, Thomas is certain to hear about it.
Babies along the Main Line are taught to boo before they learn to talk.
And there have been more boos than usual in recent summers.
The Phillies won five National League East titles and a World Series in the eight years from 1976 through 1983, but have finished better than .500 only once since.
How bad was 1988?
The Phillies were last in the league in hitting and pitching and just missed being last in fielding.
They were so bad that Thomas went into the clubhouse shortly after his hiring June 21 and displayed some Mad Dog fury.
“I told them I was tired of seeing this club hang its head, that they all seemed to be overpaid and that if they didn’t want to be here they could get out,” Thomas said, adding that his rhetoric failed to inspire a miracle.
“I don’t think Miller Huggins and Casey Stengel combined could have straightened the attitude out,” he said. “I just wanted to let them know where I stood.”
In one way or another, James Leroy Thomas has been doing that since he signed with the New York Yankees after graduating from Beaumont High School in St. Louis in 1954.
He was a right fielder whose progress would be impeded eventually by a Yankee outfield of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra.
In May of 1961, the year that Maris hit 61 home runs and Mantle 54, the year that the Los Angeles Angels were created through expansion, the Yankees traded Thomas, relief pitcher Ryne Duren and pitcher Johnny James to the new American League franchise for outfielder Bob Cerv and pitcher Tex Clevenger.
Thomas quickly provided credibility to a team of castoffs. He hit 50 homers and drove in 174 runs in the Angels’ first two seasons. He made the All-Star team in 1962, when he and Leon Wagner became the first Angels to drive in 100 runs or more in a season. He was also the first Angel to hit three home runs in a game, the first to hit a grand slam and the first to go five for five.
Injuries hampered his play in 1963 and ’64, and he was traded to the Boston Red Sox for Lou Clinton before the 1965 season, when he hit 22 homers and drove in 75 runs, his last hurrah.
He went on to play for the Milwaukee Braves, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros before ending his playing career in Japan in 1969. But Mad Dog’s name remains etched in Angel lore.
Manager Buck Rodgers of the Montreal Expos, a catcher with the Angels then, roomed with Thomas on the road.
Rodgers recalled playing golf with Thomas on the day Thomas wrapped a three-wood around a tree and was promptly dubbed Mad Dog when Rodgers told the story in the clubhouse.
“We used to have a room with a punching bag near the dugout, and I can remember a lot of bag punching and bat breaking,” Rodgers said. “He’d throw his helmet, kick the water cooler and disappear in that room for five minutes at a time.”
Said Thomas: “It didn’t take much to set me off. I had a good temper, or a bad one, depending on how you looked at it. I could go two for two or three for three, and if I didn’t get a hit in my last at-bat I’d be more upset than if I’d gone zero for four.
“I can still blow if I have to, but I did it a lot more then. I know when to pick my spots now.
“The thing is, I never really hurt anyone except myself.”
Indeed, Mad Dog’s fire seemed to characterize the Angels’ early spirit.
“We were a group of guys no one wanted and were out to prove we could play,” Thomas said. “A lot of us had better years than we ever did before or after.
“We worked hard and had fun.
” Between Rig (Manager Bill Rigney) and (owner Gene) Autry, it was like being part of a big, happy family.”
Thomas said he never made more than $32,000. A player who now hits 26 homers and drives in 104 runs, as Thomas did in 1962, is soon a millionaire.
“Sure I wanted to stay in the game. What else did I know?” Thomas said.
He managed for two years in the Cardinal system, served a year as the bullpen catcher in St. Louis, spent time in the promotion and sales departments and became traveling secretary in 1976.
As former Yankee farmhands, Thomas and Herzog had been acquaintances for 20 years. The relationship tightened when Herzog joined the Cardinals. The two went golfing and fishing while traveling the country with the team.
Herzog allowed Thomas to sit in on the meetings.
“What are you doing as a traveling secretary? You should be on the other end of things,” Herzog recalled saying to Thomas once.
“I want to be on the other end of things,” Thomas replied.
In 1980, when the Cardinals fired Jim Bayens, director of scouting and player development, Herzog divided the job. He appointed Thomas player development director and brought in a top scout, Fred McAlister, to serve as scouting director.
“I don’t know that I made a better decision as general manager than to put those two guys in those spots,” Herzog said.
Between 1980 and 1988, despite drafting low because of the Cardinals’ high finishes, each of the team’s No. 1 choices reached the majors.
At least two players from the St. Louis system have made the big league team in each of the last five years.
McAlister and his scouts found them.
Thomas put them in the right place at the right time with the right instructor. Many were taught to switch-hit. All were indoctrinated in the running game that is Herzog’s style.
It was Thomas’ recommendation, Herzog said, that a young infielder named Terry Pendleton be moved from second base to third, where he has become a Gold Glove winner. Herzog said it was also Thomas who recommended that Todd Worrell become a relief pitcher, though Jim Fregosi, managing at Louisville then, received credit for that move.
“It was Lee who called me and asked what I thought and I said, ‘By all means do it.’ It was the smartest move we ever made,” Herzog said, Worrell having become one of baseball’s top relievers.
Herzog added: “The guy in charge of player development doesn’t just make one move here or there. He manages six or seven clubs at the same time. He has to have a feel for every player at every level.
“I used to be in player development with the Mets, and I still think the best compliment I ever got was after we won in ’69 and (Manager) Gil Hodges jumped out of his chair to congratulate me even before I could congratulate him.
“He told me that every time we were thinking about bringing up a player during the year and he called me to ask about him, what I said turned out to be right on the nose. Lee Thomas did the same thing for me. He gave me the right answer every time I called to ask if a certain player or pitcher was ready.
“That’s what you want from a guy in that position.”
Others were also impressed with Thomas.
Owners Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, looking to replace Ken Harrelson as general manager after the 1986 season, met with Thomas, then decided to hire Angel scouting director Larry Himes, possibly because Fregosi, the White Sox manager then, might have been lobbying too hard for the appointment of his former farm director and Angel teammate.
A similar situation developed before the 1988 season when Thomas was interviewed by owner John McMullen of the Houston Astros. McMullen eventually promoted a member of the organization, Bill Wood, to general manager, despite urging by then-Manager Hal Lanier, who had previously coached for the Cardinals and managed in their system, that he hire Thomas.
Wood eventually fired Lanier, and Himes eventually fired Fregosi.
Thomas went on to receive a three-year contract from the Phillies after Bill Giles, president and general partner, fired Woody Woodward, the general manager he had hired only seven months earlier.
Giles said Woodward pushed for too many changes too quickly, indicted too many members of the Phillies’ organization with public statements about the deterioration of the system and was too aloof.
“Call it a personality conflict, but I knew in the long run I couldn’t be comfortable with him,” Giles said. “I knew I’d have had to stay close. With Lee, I’ve delegated just about everything to him because I have confidence in him and I’m comfortable with him. He can be firm, but not grating.”
Other than journeyman catcher John Russell, the still unproven first baseman, Ricky Jordan, and pitcher Pete Smith, who was traded to the Atlanta Braves for relief ace Steve Bedrosian, the Phillies have not had a No. 1 draft choice reach the majors since Lonnie Smith, selected in 1974.
From 1976 through 1983, they never drafted higher than 20th.
Giles ascribed the team’s collapse to a combination of the low drafts, bad drafts and poor instruction, leaving few replacements for the architects of the previous success, such as Steve Carlton, Larry Bowa, Greg Luzinski, Garry Maddox, Gary Matthews and those stopgap free agents: Pete Rose and Joe Morgan.
Asked if there had been a bottom line on the hiring of Thomas, Giles said: “It was his strength in the area of player development, our weakest link.”
Thomas has since hired new farm and scouting directors, a new minor league field coordinator and new major league pitching and batting coaches.
At all levels, from the hiring of Nick Levya as manager to the appointment of Frank Coppenbarger as equipment man, Thomas has shown a tendency to paint the Phillies in Cardinal red.
“I guess that’s been said so often that it’s starting to get on my nerves,” Thomas said. “If you’re getting good people, what difference does it make where they come from?”
Levya had been Herzog’s third base coach. He succeeds Lee Elia, who was fired by Thomas after Thomas had extended Elia’s contract through 1989.
The extension fulfilled Woodward’s commitment to Elia and was offered shortly after Thomas took over.
“We did it because we wanted to remove some of the uncertainty,” Thomas said. “We did it because we wanted the players to know where we were coming from at a time when we intended to bring Elia back.”
But the more he watched, Thomas said, the more he began to think that Elia “wouldn’t be able to get the players’ attention enough to restore a positive attitude.”
Said Thomas: “I didn’t want to bring him back and then decide to make a change in April or May.”
Levya was hired Oct. 3. Many were surprised that Thomas hadn’t hired Fregosi or Lanier, but both were still under contract to their respective clubs and in situations that left it unclear as to their future availability.
“I didn’t want to wait,” Thomas said. “I wanted a manager in place so we could get to work on the things we had to do over the winter. Nick would have been a leading candidate even if Jimmy and Hal had been available.”
Thomas has since rid the clubhouse of two players perceived as negative influences, trading pitcher Shane Rawley to the Minnesota Twins for second baseman Tom Herr and left fielder Phil Bradley to the Baltimore Orioles for ex-Dodger pitcher Ken Howell.
He traded catcher Lance Parrish, who was certain to leave as a free agent, to the Angels for their No. 1 choice in the supplemental draft of 1987, pitcher David Holdridge.
He filled gaps by trading Milt Thompson to the Cardinals for catcher Steve Lake and outfielder Curt Ford, and he displayed courage and a gambler’s heart in a major deal with the Montreal Expos. Thomas traded Kevin Gross, a proven pitcher, of which he has few, for Jeff Parrett, a reliable relief pitcher to complement Bedrosian, and Floyd Youmans, who at 24 has a history of drug and alcohol abuse but the potential to be a desperately needed pitching ace, the staff stopper.
Thomas knows it’s only a start. He knows there are dark days ahead.
Of his prospective rotation, no one has won more than 13 games in a major league season. Outfielders Von Hayes, Juan Samuel and Chris James were all signed as infielders and played the infield last year. The most reliable power source, Mike Schmidt, is coming off shoulder surgery and may not make the club. The new shortstop, Dickie Thon, is still occasionally troubled by clouded vision, the result of a beaning.
The Mad Dog in Thomas is certain to surface at some point. Herzog, his mentor, laughed in recollection of all the thrown golf clubs he has picked up.
“It didn’t take long before I had a full set,” he said. “It didn’t take long before I learned that Lee will let it go in meetings, too.
“If you’re a guy who doesn’t have ideas and plays the middle of the road, you’re not going to make it.
“Lee is not afraid to speak up and do what needs to be done. He’s going to be an outstanding general manager.”