Jan 27, 2022

The Phillies Infield That Could Have Been

Ryne Sandberg
Philadelphia Phillies (1981)
Just about every list of the worst baseball trades of all time will include this disaster, which took place 40 years ago today, but the reality was even worse than it appears on the surface.

York Daily Record (left) and Gettysburg Times (right) - January 6, 1982

In order to tell the story properly, I'm going to channel the spirit of Sophia Petrillo.  Picture it - Philadelphia 1981.  At the end of the season, it was questionable if Larry Bowa would be returning to Philadelphia in 1982.  Bowa wanted a three year contact, and at 36 years old, the Phillies were reluctant to give it to him.  With one year left on his contract and two top infield prospects getting close to being promoted to the big leagues, it was decided that the smart move would be to trade Bowa while they could still get something for him, rather than risk losing him to free agency at the end of the 1982 season.

The Phillies weren't the only team with a malcontent at shortstop prior to the start of the 1982 season.  Two time All-Star Garry Templeton was one of the fastest and best hitting shortstops in the league over five and a half seasons in St. Louis.  The switch hitter led the league in triples three times and batted .305 with 128 stolen bases in his time with the Cardinals.  He is still the only National League player to have ever gotten 100 hits from each side of the plate in a single season (1979).  Despite this, the 25 year old shortstop had clashed with his manager, his teammates and the fans, and by the end of the 1981 season, the writing was on the wall that he would not be back in 1982.

At the same time, the Padres ownership was in the middle of a financial dispute with their 27 year old shortstop, which ultimately led to an order to the general manager to trade him.  That shortstop was future first ballot Hall Of FamerOzzie Smith.  At the time, Smith's production at the plate was nothing to write home about.  He hit .231 with one home run in his four seasons in San Diego, but was a two-time Gold Glove winner and one of the best defensive shortstops that anyone had ever seen.
New York Daily News - January 3, 1982

The Padres and Cardinals agreed in principle to swap Templeton for Smith at the 1981 Winter Meetings in December, but Ozzie Smith had a full no-trade clause, and he wouldn't agree to a trade to St. Louis without an agreement on a one year contact to pay the shortstop $750,000.  The Cardinals balked at these salary demands, and the general consensus in early 1982 was that a trade between the Cardinals and Padres wasn't going to happen.

Philadelphia Inquirer - January 7, 1982

This series of events opened the door to a potential trade that could have brought either Garry Templeton or Ozzie Smith to Philadelphia at the start of the 1982 season.  The front office had interest in both players and were in communication with the Cardinals and Padres, but it's not clear how strongly they pursued them or how close they may have come to an agreement with either side.  There were potential roadblocks in both cases.  Templeton strongly disliked playing on artificial turf, and with several large contracts already on their books, the Phillies front office may have backed off of their pursuit of Ozzie due to his salary demands.  However, these sort of obstacles are overcome all the time, as evident by the fact that the Cardinals and Padres finally managed to complete their shortstop swap on February 10th.  But two weeks before that happened, the Phillies pulled the trigger on a deal with the Cubs that would haunt the franchise ever since.

Philadelphia Inquirer - January 28th, 1982

On January 27th, 1982, the Phillies agreed to a trade that would send Larry Bowa to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Iván DeJesús.  Why the Phillies front office wanted DeJesús in the first place is something I will never understand.  Granted, he was one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, having led the league in double plays turns by a shortstop, but he finished the 1981 season with a reverse triple crown, with a .194 batting average, zero home runs, and 13 RBI - the lowest in each of these categories among qualified batters in all of Major League Baseball.  If they were content with a slick fielding, light hitting shortstop, Ozzie Smith was right there for the taking, if only they would have been willing to open their wallet.

source: Baseball-Reference

The trade would have been underwhelming even if it was an even swap of Bowa for DeJesús.  While DeJesús did bounce back from his horrible 1981 season, he was never able to reach the level of production at the plate when he was the leadoff bat for the Cubs in the late 70's.  He was a marginally better offensive player than Larry Bowa, but that's not saying much when you consider that Bowa was seven years older and in the twilight of his career.  Had the Phillies given Bowa the three year deal that he was asking for, they would likely have gotten close to the same offensive production to what DeJesús brought to the table, as well as his veteran leadership as a mentor to the next generation of Phillies infielders.

However, this trade was not an even swap... not by a long shot.
Chicago Tribune - October 23, 1981

Dallas Green, who had managed the Phillies from 1979 to 1981, was lured away from Philadelphia to take a job as the vice president and general manager of the Chicago Cubs.  The man who had led the Phillies to their only championship in 100 years was very familiar with the talent in Philadelphia.  He hired Phillies bench coach Lee Elia to manage the Cubs.  He also brought over utility infielder John Vukovich, who had been released by the Phillies in August, for a role on the Cubs coaching staff, as well as Phillies scout Gordon Goldsberry to serve as the Cubs director of player development and scouting.

Green completed a trade with the Phillies before the holidays that brought Keith Moreland and Dickie Noles to Chicago in exchange for Mike Krukow.  That trade worked out pretty well for the Phillies, but the Bowa-for-DeJesús trade did not.  Before Green would sign off on the trade, he negotiated the inclusion of a Phillies prospect in the deal - a 22 year old infielder who had just been promoted to the Phillies in September and who only had six Major League at bats.  His name was Ryne Sandberg.

Philadelphia Inquirer - January 28, 1982

To the media, the fans, and the Phillies front office, Ryne Sandberg was little more than a footnote in this trade.  I'll save you some time and eye strain by pointing out that in the article written about the trade in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sandberg's name is mentioned only twice, with almost nothing said about what the loss of Sandberg might mean to the Phillies prospect depth.  In fact, the article mentions more about Julio Franco, another Phillies prospect who the team would eventually trade away, than it does about Sandberg.

Philadelphia Inquirer - January 28, 1982

And the rest is history.

Ozzie Smith would go on to develop into one of the greatest shortstops of all time.  In a coaching move similar to Lou Brown's approach with Willie Mays Hayes in the 1989 classic Major League, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog worked with Smith to change in his approach at the plate to hit the ball on the ground.  

He helped to lead the Cardinals to a World Series Championship in his first year with the team, and he spent the rest of his 15 year career in St. Louis where he won a Gold Glove and made the All-Star team every season for the next ten consecutive years.  In total, he was a 15 time All-Star with 13 Gold Gloves, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame on his first year of eligibility with 91.7% of the vote.

Injuries played a role in Garry Templeton's career not reaching the heights of the man he was traded for, but he had a remarkable run with the Padres for nearly ten seasons.  He helped the Padres reach the World Series in 1984 and was an All-Star the following season.  In a moment of bitter irony for Phillies fans, he was named team captain in 1987 by his manager, Larry Bowa, who was in the first year of his managerial career after retiring as an active player at the end of the 1985 season.  While Templeton's career didn't end with a plaque in Cooperstown, he was honored alongside teammate Benito Santiago as a member of the San Diego Padres Hall of Fame in 2015.

Last, but not least, is Ryne Sandberg.  While Ozzie Smith and Garry Templeton are players that the Phillies could have acquired, Sandberg was ours until we gave him away.  The Cubs originally planned to play Sandberg in center field, but they ultimately decided to have him play third base in 1982.  He had a great season at third base and finished sixth in the Rookie Of The Year voting, but the Cubs acquired six time All-Star third baseman Ron Cey in a trade with the Dodgers after the 1982 season, which necessitated a position change.  Sandberg shifted to the other side of Larry Bowa for the start of the 1983 season where he began a run of nine consecutive Gold Glove seasons at second base.  He won the NL MVP award in 1984 and was a ten time All-Star with seven Silver Slugger awards over his 15+ year career, all of which was spent with the Cubs except for the dozen games he played for the Phillies prior to the trade.  He was inducted into the Hall Of Fame and had his #23 retired with the Cubs in 2005, joining only three other Cubs to have had this honor in the history of a franchise that dates back to 1876.

Sandberg would return to Philadelphia as a manager, first for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs in 2011 until he was promoted to manage the Phillies in 2013, taking over for Charlie Manuel.  Unfortunately for the Phillies, Sandberg's career as a manager paled in comparison to his playing career, as he failed to live up to the expectations that were set by his success in Lehigh Valley.  He abruptly quit on June 26th, 2015 with a Phillies team that, at the time, had the worst record in baseball.

And what about our guy that the Phillies front office just had to have so they could get something for Larry Bowa?  Well... the less that is said about Iván DeJesús, the better.  He played three seasons for the Phillies (the same three seasons that Bowa had asked for in his request for a contract extension) until he was unceremoniously traded to the Cardinals (along with Bill Campbell) for relief pitcher Dave RuckerRucker didn't set the city on fire either, appearing in 58 games out of the Phillies bullpen over the next two seasons with one save and a 4.66 ERA.

The Bowa-for-DeJesús trade is even more heartbreaking in retrospect when you consider what the Phillies could have been.  At the time of this trade, both the Cardinals and Padres were committed to trading Garry Templeton and Ozzie Smith respectively.  If the front office had been more aggressive and willing to spend, there was a golden opportunity for the team to trade Bowa for one of them in a deal that didn't have to include Ryne Sandberg.  Imagine what could have been in 1982 and '83 with an infield of Pete Rose, Ryne Sandberg, Ozzie Smith and Mike Schmidt.  Even if the team had bit the bullet and given Bowa the extension he wanted, they could have had Rose, Sandberg, Bowa and Schmidt, with either Julio Franco competing for a job to replace Rose, or the 5-for-1 trade going down as it did to bring Von Hayes to town.  It's possible that the Phillies window of contention could have continued well beyond the Wheeze Kids of 1983.

If this story has a moral, it is this:  When you decide to become a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies, you should know what you're in for, because the Ryne Sandberg fiasco was arguably not even the worst trade we ever made with the Cubs.