Featured Cards: 1996 Leaf Signature Series Extended Series Autographs (no number), J.R. Phillips; 1996 Emotion-XL #248, Benito Santiago; 1997 Pacific #381, Ricardo Jordan; 1997 Starting Lineup Extended Series (no number), Ricky Bottalico; 1996 Fleer Ultra #517, Toby Borland; 1996 Score #230, Kevin Jordan (UER); 1996 Circa #168, Ricky Otero; 1997 Pacific Prisms Gems of the Diamond #GD-180, Ruben Amaro, Jr.
For the past two years, I’ve been fond of saying, “What happened to the Phillies I spent most of my life rooting for?” It’s meant as a statement of wonderful amazement. For most of my late teen years and adult life, the Phillies were either underachievers (2002-2006) or an awful team (1988-1992, 1994-2000). There was nothing in my life, or Phillies history, to prepare me for the pleasure of seeing the Phillies clinch their 5th straight division title against the Cardinals on Saturday night. As I watched some of the victory celebration on MLB Network, my mind drifted back 15 years, to the 1996 season — a far different time for the Phillies and me.
In 1996, I saw nine Phillies game in person. I know for a lot of fans in the Philly area these days, going to that many games in a season is no big deal. However, I was fresh out of college, and if it wasn’t for the cheap seats in the 700 level, I don’t think that I would have managed such a feat. Furthermore, I moved to New York City during that summer (sadly, 1996 marks the last time I lived in the Philly metro area), and I had actually attended my eighth game by early July. Looking back on that season, which was just a couple losses shy of being the nadir of the 1984-2006 period, it seems hard to believe that the Phillies were just three years removed from winning a NL pennant, but the 1993 team really was a freak occurrence whose particular magic could not be extended or recaptured by the front office. However, I was (and still am) a diehard fan, and for the first time in my life, I had the resources and ability to see that many games in person, and despite the Phillies’ on-field performance, I wanted to take full advantage of the situation
Being a Phillies fan in 1996 was the antithesis of what it means to be a Phillies fan today. Showing up to nine games that season cemented my diehard fan credentials. It’s easy to love a winner. Loving an ugly squad is altogether different. They weren’t just a bad team; they were a bad team fulfilling incredibly low preseason expectations and possessing a barren farm system. In other words, there wasn’t an end to the bad baseball in sight. Yes, they had Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen made his Major League debut that year, but this was also a team that was hobbled financially by bad/questionable contracts handed out to Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra and Gregg Jefferies. Yes, Mike Grace looked like a legitimate prospect (and he was, before arm injuries derailed him just as they have so many other legitimate pitching prospects throughout history), but management did an incredible disservice by placing Rich Hunter on the opening day roster and letting him start 14 games, even though he had just three starts above A ball in his professional career at that point. Sadly, he would never appear in the majors again, and his professional career ended after the 1999 season, when he was just 24 years old.
There were a lot of players on the 1996 squad sporting a Phillies career as ephemeral as Hunter’s. Given the team used a franchise record-tying 54 players that season, it’s easy to see how that happened. Mike Benjamin, Glenn Murray, Glenn Dishman, J.R. Phillips, Lee Tinsley, Howard Battle, Ricardo Jordan & Dave Leiper all saw their time in Philly begin and end during that season. However, Benito Santiago easily eclipsed all of them as the most memorable one-year Phillie on that squad. Although the Phillies explicitly signed him with the understanding that he was a just a one-year placeholder while Mike Lieberthal completed his apprenticeship, Santiago’s career-high 31 home runs that season made many Phillie fans to clamor for his return. It’s easy to see in retrospect that the Phillies made he right decision, but at the time there were many who felt that their refusal to resign Santiago was a sign that the front office was trying to run the team on the cheap.
The 1996 season also marked the last time the Phillies hosted the All-Star Game. Unfortunately, their lackluster play meant that Ricky Bottalico, in his first season as closer, was their only representative at the game. While it appeared that that season and his selection to the Midsummer Classic meant the fulfillment the organization’s projections of his talent, sadly it was the zenith of his career. He would play nine more seasons, four of them with the Phillies, and his 1997 campaign was nearly as good as that one, but he really spent the remainder of his career as a journeyman reliever.
For me, Bottalico wasn’t the only reliever of note on that squad. That was the season that I started really dreading Toby Borland. It was probably nothing more than dumb luck and a faulty memory, but it really seemed like that whenever he appeared in a game I was attending, all he did was add fuel to the fire or dig the Phillies deeper in a hole. It’s a nonsensical story, but early that season I started calling him “Mahi-Mahi Man.” I was ecstatic (far more so than when the Phillies signed Cliff Lee this past off-season) when he got traded to the Mets following that season and was even more thrilled when stunk up Shea Stadium for them. You can imagine my surprise then when I checked his Baseball-Reference page explicitly for researching this post and discovered that he actually provided above-average numbers during his Phillies years. Go figure.
Some other things about that season and the baseball cards I feel I must mention:
- One of the all-time great uncorrected errors on a Phillies card happened that year: Kevin Jordan’s Score rookie card shows Ricky Jordon on both sides of the card. Topps’s 1991 Wes Chamberlain/Louie Meadows error may be more famous because Topps actually corrected it, but Score’s faux pas is really the far more egregious of the two. If nothing else, you’d figure that the “2B” position designation on the card and the in-action shot at first base might have raised a red flag to someone in quality control.
- Because I have all the ticket stubs to the games I attended, I know that I somehow witnessed both of Glenn Murray’s only Major League home runs. I have no recollection of either of them, however. He is one of many to appear with the Phillies that season to not have a Phillies card — not even a team issued one.
- Despite playing in 104 games that year, Ricky Otero appeared as a Phillie in only the Circa set. Even more amazingly, he had an insert card in that set as well. He very likely appeared as an update in the Phillies Team Issue set, but thanks to my move to New York I never had the chance to purchase it, or even know if one was issued.
- I didn’t see the Phillies win until I went to my fourth game that year. Even then, I had to wait three extra innings to see the win because Bottalico blew the save on a 3-run lead that night. Much to my amazement, the box score shows that Mahi-Mahi Man got the win for that game.
- I was at the game where Alex Ochoa hit for the cycle against the Phillies. I’ve never been to no-hitter, but I have witnessed a cycle twice (the first being Gregg Jefferies’s the year before). Oh, once again Mahi-Mahi Man provided one very effective inning of work. What the hell?
- That season marked the first time I saw a Phillies game anywhere other than Veterans Stadium: their season finale at Shea Stadium against the Mets. Pitcher Glenn Dishman made his only start as a member of The Fightins, and Jon Zuber got the start at first. Neither would appear on a card as a Phillie. Poor Rich Hunter made the final appearance of his Major League career — as a pinch runner — and against his former club, Ricky Otero probably had the game of his career. Much to my amazement the box score shows that Mahi-Mahi Man received a Hold despite giving up a run on two hits over 1⅓. Maybe I need to recheck the box score from the games I attended to determine whether I was being unfair to the guy.
- Unlike so many others, J.R. Phillips did appear on a Phillies card that season. However, it was just one card — the only Phillies card of his career. Interestingly it was an autograph card in the Extended Series of Leaf Signature Series — a set that deserves its own post at some point in the future.
- Finally, a certain future Phillies General Manager was a reserve outfielder on that squad, and in the midst of the carnage he put together what was arguably the best season of his career. I’m sure that somehow his experience on the ’96 Phillies contributed to the mental makeup he now demonstrates in the front office. Clearly, this man never wants to witness anything like that season ever again. I don’t think any one can blame him, and Phillies fans today should be all the more thankful that his experiences on that team made him the GM that he is today.