The characters proved to have character. Or as pitcher Larry Andersen, the poet-laureate of the Philadelphia Phillies, put it, "They brought in 25 degenerates and we generated something not many people expected. Now we hope to generate something more."
A team you wouldn't want to invite to dinner, as first baseman John Kruk reiterated the other day, will be in your living rooms starting tonight, representing the National League East against the Atlanta Braves in the playoff opener.
Who would have thought it? Only the Phillies, according to relief pitcher Mitch Williams.
"The Braves were expected to be here," he said. "We were expected to be in prison. We exceeded expectations by finishing the schedule. The pressure is all on the Braves."
The brash and unshaven Phillies went from worst to first in the NL East, generating an almost wire-to-wire run to win their first division title since 1983 with a group of transients that Williams, "the Wild Thing," has described as "gypsies, tramps and thieves."
Said Pete Incaviglia, one of the gypsies: "Every player gets a wake-up call at some point in their career. A lot of us heard ours this year and responded. You have to credit (General Manager) Lee Thomas and (Manager) Jim Fregosi. They did a great job of acquiring gamers, guys who play hard and play for pride, almost the way it was in high school.
"I mean, with this cast of characters, it's more like a loony bin, but you've got guys who can distinguish game time from clubhouse time, and who are always pulling for each other. That's very unusual in this day and age."
Sparked by Lenny Dykstra, who took his focus off the baccarat tables of Atlantic City long enough to have an MVP-caliber season, the Phillies led the National League in runs and on-base percentage and were fourth in home runs. A lineup that features the division's best 3-4-5 hitters in Kruk, Dave Hollins and Darren Daulton, the Phillies were shut out only twice, had only one complete game pitched against them and had three players with 100 or more walks.
The rotation of Curt Schilling, Tommy Greene, Terry Mulholland, Danny Jackson and Ben Rivera--"We're the Drifters because we drifted in from all over the U.S.A.," Schilling said--led the league in strikeouts and complete games and was second to the touted Atlanta rotation in earned-run average. Each of the starters won 12 or more games and each threw more than 190 innings, except Rivera.
Behind them lurked Williams, who set a club record for saves with 43 while creating palpitations with his erratic control and eight blown saves.
"If I ever have a heart attack, I'll know who to blame," Kruk said.
Said Andersen: "There's no question we have some unique personalities. I mean, the Phillies' clubhouse is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live here. At the same time, all of that "Animal House" talk tends to obscure what we do on the field.
"There's a lot of talent here, and I think it's important that success hasn't come easy for any of us. None of us had it handed to us and we haven't lost sight of that. The result is that we tend to be more focused and take less for granted. We tend to push each other because we all remember where we came from. We almost all have something to prove to one club or another."
Thomas, the former Angel outfielder who received his personnel training under Whitey Herzog with the St. Louis Cardinals, has operated a revolving door since becoming general manager of the Phillies on June 21, 1988, the second of six consecutive years the Phillies finished below .500.
Only catcher Daulton remains from the team Thomas inherited, and only Daulton, second baseman Mickey Morandini and rookie shortstop Kevin Stocker, among the regular pitchers and position players, are products of the Phillies' farm system. The Phillies made 33 more errors than the Braves, but Stocker filled a major defensive void after his midseason recall and batted .324.
The remaking of the Phillies began in a 16-day span in 1989, when Thomas acquired Kruk, Dykstra and Mulholland in trades that have proved to be heavily tilted in the Phillies' favor. He took advantage of Atlanta's pitching depth to trade for Greene in 1990 and Rivera in '92, when he also pilfered Schilling from Houston for the now forgotten Jason Grimsley. He swiped Hollins from San Diego in '89 when the Padres inexplicably exposed the third baseman to the Rule V draft, and he stole outfielder Wes Chamberlain from Pittsburgh when the Pirates exposed Chamberlain to the waiver wire in an administrative blunder.
The emphasis has been on pitching.
"If I wasn't dealing specifically for pitching, I always tried to get a pitcher thrown in," Thomas said. "We've been lucky with some, unlucky with others, but if you keep coming up with arms, some are going to pan out."
The Phillies thought they would be ready to move up last year, but 17 players visited the disabled list and the club used a total of 48, among them 24 pitchers.
"We brought up anyone from the minors who could walk and breathe," Thomas said.
Fregosi added: "Out of the adversity, we learned that Hollins and Morandini could play every day, and Schilling and Rivera got the chance to start regularly. We finished last, but we were second in the league in runs and third in home runs. We had the best stolen-base percentage in baseball, and we led the league in complete games. It was a frustrating year, but we knew there was a solid foundation."
And to it, Thomas said, they added the acquisitions of last winter. He bolstered the pitching by trading for starter Jackson and reliever David West. He also signed four modestly priced free agents who were basically unwanted elsewhere--Andersen, the 40-year-old set-up man who has a 2.91 ERA in 61 appearances, and outfielders Incaviglia, Jim Eisenreich and Milt Thompson.
"We took a lot of criticism from the fans and media because everyone wanted us to sign that one big free agent for $30 million, but one player wasn't going to be the answer," Fregosi said. "We needed to improve our pitching depth and we needed to improve our outfield depth with some veteran role players to fit in with the nucleus we had.
"It isn't as important in the American League with the designated hitter, but if you don't have a good bench in this league, you're dead. We scored a lot of runs last year, but our outfield production was awful. We wouldn't be where we are without the five or six players we brought in."
Incaviglia and Thompson basically platooned in left field, contributing 28 home runs and 133 runs batted in, 24 and 89 by Incaviglia. Eisenreich and Chamberlain platooned in right, contributing 19 home runs and 99 RBIs.
And with all the additions, Thomas wanted a certain type player. Tough skinned to handle the love-hate fervor of Philadelphia fans, he said, but "wacko enough" to pump up what he found to be a dead clubhouse.
Thomas, known as "Mad Dog" when he played, smiled and said, "We may have overdone it a bit, but that's fine. These guys appreciate each other and have compassion for each other, and they're not afraid to jump each other if they screw up or don't hustle."
Said Fregosi: "Lee understands the importance of the clubhouse. These guys come early and stay late. You don't find that anymore. You can shoot a cannon up the middle of most clubhouses five minutes after a game and not hit anyone."
Of course, he added, it's not a good idea to be too sensitive around this group. They cut up everyone, from the beer-bellied Kruk to the passive Eisenreich, whom they call "Dahmer" because of his resemblance to the mass murderer of Milwaukee.
There's "Mikey," the name they have given to the alter ego of third baseman Hollins, whom they feel becomes the most intense man on earth about an hour before the first pitch.
There's Schilling, who has a dog named Slider because he can't throw one and is a World War II historian who thinks Erwin Rommell, the German field marshal, was a lot like Oakland A's Manager Tony La Russa, always hiding something up his sleeve.
There's the dude, Dykstra, who proudly says he was the original, the one who got all the craziness started here, and there's Daulton, or "Bubba, the godfather," leader of the band. Fregosi met with Daulton and Dykstra in spring training and told them they had to set the tone, be the leaders, and they have.
Williams went on to set his save record after Daulton had heatedly advised him to grow up when Williams threw a clubhouse tantrum after being pulled from a May game. Schilling and Greene were a combined 13-2 in the second half after Daulton had told reporters that the Phillies had a couple of pitchers who seemed to be bowing to pressure that didn't exist.
Mix in "Inky," who says the Phillies are a throwback because they were all thrown back by other teams, and Andersen, whom they call "Grandpa" and who taped three segments of "The Shallow Thoughts of Larry Andersen" for a local TV station. Then add the Wild Thing, who at one point gave Kruk two cases of beer for his uniform number, 28, and then switched to 99 because it was worn by Wild Thing counterpart Charlie Sheen in the movie "Major League."
With that blend, there's little wonder that Schilling often warns clubhouse visitors to be careful because "the animals are out of their cages" and insists, "No one joined this club without a letter from his psychiatrist."
Said Daulton: "You can talk about the personalities all you want, but personalities don't win games. You win games with talent, hustle and hard work."
It's a bond Fregosi understands and responds to with a loose leash, knowing he has veterans who will police themselves.
His only rules: Be on time and play hard. He has already been rewarded with a contract extension, as has Thomas, his friend and former Angel teammate, although Thomas had a major blowup with owner Bill Giles during negotiations and almost quit.
"Jimmy is the perfect manager for this group," Incaviglia said. "He allows the clubhouse to be our second home. We can relax, scream, play cards and break our eardrums on the stereo. I think he enjoys the camaraderie as much as we do."
The camaraderie often extends past midnight. Andersen, Kruk, Dykstra and others are often still sharing a pitcher of beer and discussing the game in the sanctity of the trainer's room several hours after the final out.
"I have a tough time explaining to my wife why I'm so late after games, but this is my 23rd year and I haven't had this kind of fun anywhere," Andersen said. "I tell the young guys on the club to enjoy it, they may never experience anything like it again. It's a dream come true. I mean it. This clubhouse is our field of dreams."