The Middle Three at Home

Major League Baseball decides the World Series and both League Championship Series with best-of-7 game series that utilize a 2-3-2 home game format. This means that one team is at home for two games, then the other has the middle three at home, and finally the first team hosts the final two games.

Often, and the results of this decade prove it out, any team which opens with two games on the road, manages to win at least one of those road games, and then comes home for the next three has a serious advantage. That is the position that the Phillies now find themslves in after splitting two games at the Yankees home ballpark.

Since the year 2000, counting all World Series, NLCS, and ALCS matchups, there have been 30 different series played. In 16 of those series a team opened by either gaining a split or actually getting a sweep of the first two games on the road, returning home for the next three games at least tied. Of the 16 teams doing so, 11 went on to win their series.

Most of the instances where a team split on the road only to eventually lose the series happened in the American League, where it happened four times. The ’00Mariners split but lost to the Yankees in 6 games. Each of the ’03 Red Sox,’07 Indians, and ’08 Red Sox gained road splits only to eventually lose in 7 games.

Three times a team opened on the road and won both games: the ’00 Mets in the NLCS, ’01 Yankees in the ALCS, and ’02 Giants in the NLCS. As you might imagine, all went on to win their series. Only twice has a team managed a split, gone home for three, and been swept out at home: the ’01 Braves in the NLCS by Arizona, and the ’05 Angels in the ALCS by the White Sox.

In the World Series played over the past decade, no team has been able to gain a sweep on the road in the first two games, as the Phillies tried to accomplish last night. But there have been four series that featured a team gaining a split to open on the road, including last year when the Phils split the first two games in Tampa.

Only the 2002 San Francisco Giants, who gained a split with the Angels, went on to lose the series. In fact, those Giants even came home and won 2 of 3 to go up by three games to two. The Angels rallied to win that epic California series in 7 games, including a dramatic late-game rally in Game Six, dashing Barry Bonds only hope of winning a World Series.

In 2003, the Florida Marlins split against the Yanks in New York and went on to win the series in 6 games. In 2006 it was the Saint Louis Cardinals gaining a split in Detroit, going on to win the series in 5 by sweeping at home. The Phillies then did their part, splitting in Tampa in 2008 before coming home to win in 5 games by also sweeping at home.

What you have done by managing to at least gain a split of the first two games on the road in a series is that you have stolen away the ‘home field advantage’ from your host. The Yankees were scheduled originally to host 4 games of a 7 game series. With those first two split, the series effectively starts over again in Philly, and the Phillies will be home at Citizens Bank park for 3 of the 5 games left.

All the Yankees need to do is win one game here in Philadelphia, and they regain their home field advantage. They also would ensure that even in a worse-case scenario where the Phils win the other two, they will get to return to Yankee Stadium for at least one more game. But the Yankees will find that win difficult to come by, with the home crowd and field conditions helping the Phils to an 11-1 record in their last 12 home playoff games.

The Phillies on the other hand did what they had to do, they got that split in New York. The now return home with the knowledge that, if they win their home games, they will not have to go back to New York at all. At the very least, the odds of them getting knocked out at home are very long. Again, only 2 of the 16 teams to gain a road split have been subsequently swept at home. In fact, 10 of the 16 teams went on to win at least 2 of their 3 home games.

The odds are in the Phillies favor to take 2 of 3 and move within a game of a repeat title. By actually winning all three of the middle three games at home, the Phillies will repeat as World Series champions in front of a delirious home crowd. It is that very home crowd that they are hoping helps provide the difference in these games.

1-0 Means A Little; 2-0 Means A Lot

The Fightin’ Phils received a magnificent performance from Cliff Lee, who has been superb throughout these 2009 playoffs, and a “you ARE the man” 2-homerun show from Chase Utley to lead the way to a big 6-1 victory and a one game to none lead in last night’s Game One of the World Series.

For the Phillies that means an awful lot. Much has already been written and spoken in other venues this morning relating to the fact that the last 6 teams to win Game One went on to win the World Series.

Some have even pointed out that, even more ominously for that loser of the opener, 11 of the last 12 teams to win that first game have gone on to win the Series.

The one time in the past dozen years that the team winning the opener did not ultimately win was in the epic 2002 all-California World Series between the Barry Bonds-led San Francisco Giants and the Anaheim Angels.

The GMen took the opener that year, lost the next two, then won games four and five to take a 3-2 series lead back to Anaheim.

There they took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the 8th before the Angels rallied to win, then won the 7th game and the franchise’ only-ever World Series.

But tonight when Pedro Martinez takes the mound at the new Yankee Stadium he will be trying to tie an even tighter knot in the collar around the Yankee necks.

The World Series began in 1903 and has been held every year with the exceptions of 1904 and 1994, making this the 104th Fall Classic. Only 11 times has a team fallen behind by 2 games to none and gone on to rally and win the World Series. Do the math – that’s an 11% success rate.

So if the Phillies can somehow, in any way, fight their way to another victory tonight in the Bronx and take that 2-0 lead in the series, they odds tilt enormously in their favor with an 89% probability that they will win the World Series.

Those numbers would actually likely be even a bit higher considering that the next three games will move to their home field at Citizens Bank Park.

This is the position that the club has put itself in by winning the opener last night. But nothing is guaranteed in tonight’s 2nd game, and their own recent playoff history should remind these Phillies of that fact. In last season’s run to the World Series championship, the Phils took the first game of each of their series’ against Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and Tampa. Only in the Milwaukee series did they win Game Two.

This year they won the openers vs. Colorado in the NLDS and LA in the NLCS, but lost Game Two. That makes them 1-4 over the past two seasons in 2nd games of series. Go back to their sweep at the hands of the Rockies in the 2007 NLDS and the Phils are 1-5 in Game Two of their recent playoff series. There is usually a reason for these things when they happen, and there may be for this club as well.

These Phillies seem to thrive on being the underdogs, and on having their backs against the wall. Like the fictional hometown boxer Rocky Balboa, they relish in rising from the canvas to knock out their seemingly unbeatable opponents, especially with their home crowd roaring them on in support. These Phillies have proven much over the past couple of seasons, now they must prove that they have learned how to step on an opponent’s neck once they have them down.

Perhaps more than at any other time in their recent playoff runs, they may have the right man in the right place at the right time. When Pedro Martinez takes the mound for them tonight there is absolutely no chance that the Yankee Stadium crowd or any of the other distractions of a World Series will shake him up. The future Hall of Famer is unflappable. The only two questions will be whether he has his good stuff, and whether the Phils bring their big bats to the contest.

The Phillies are one more good night, likely one hard-fought night, away from stepping on the Yankees necks and demanding the respect that they deserve as champions but have not yet been given by the national media and the odds-makers. One good night from Pedro, or the Phillies bats, or both, and Citizens Bank Park should again become the scene of a major World Series victory party this weekend.

I Don’t Hate New York

Like the vast majority of folks here in Philly, I grew up with a certain intense dislike for New York sports teams, even though the vast majority of the time they were not the biggest rivals of our local Philadelphia pro teams. One thing that I can tell you for sure, World Series against the Yankees or whatever, I don’t hate New York.

The Phillies became regular contenders during my pre-teen and teenage years, but the Mets were rarely a good team in those days. The main rivals for the Phillies were the Pittsburgh Pirates, who played in the NL East division at that time. It seemed as if the Phils and Bucs were battling every year between 1975 and 1980 for the supremacy of the division.

The Yankees, once baseball’s glorious dynasty, had fallen on hard times as of the mid-70’s, but they began to emerge again as contenders at the same time as the Phillies. Though the Phils and Yanks made the playoffs in both 1977 and 1978, the Phils and Yanks would never meet. The Phils lost in the NL playoffs to the Dodgers despite being favored both seasons, and there was no Inter-League play during the regular season in those days.

Over the next couple of decades, baseball changed it’s divisional format, and the Pirates moved away to the new Central Division, effectively killing the once-great intra-state rivalry with the Phils. But the Phillies and Mets still did not develop much of a rivalry because the two teams were almost never good in the same seasons. That truly ended in 2007 and 2008 when the Phils ran down the favored Mets from behind to take the NL East crown both years, winning the World Series a year ago.

In other sports there have been more bitter rivalries. As the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ version of the Flyers developed into Stanley Cup contenders in the 1970’s, the Rangers and Islanders each turned out to be frequent playoff opponents. In football, the Giants and Eagles have had a spirited rivalry, highlighted by the Birds “Miracle in the Meadowlands” victory.

Again though, those rivalries have not been the primary focus of Eagles or Flyers fans. There is no hiding the glee that Birds fans take at beating the Dallas Cowboys, even in seasons when the Eagles may not be contenders, which has not been often over the past decade. And right now the Flyers simply do not have a primary heated rivalry going. The Devils and Penguins have filled the role, but it seems to change with each season on the ice.

New York’s other sports teams have never been true rivals of the Philly teams, or at least not for a long time. Even when the Sixers and Knicks were both good, it always was the Sixers-Celtics rivalry that was far more prominent. The Jets and Nets? Forget about it. Even these Yankees have never been Philly rivals, despite the teams having met in one World Series previously.

That previous World Series meeting was in 1950, between Philly’s lovable “Whiz Kids” bunch led by Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts and the Yankee dynasty of the day which was led in that incarnation by Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford. The Yanks swept those Phils, winning each of the first three games by just one run. But while the Yanks continued their dynasty, those Phils never returned to the Series.

So with all of this, it has been hard for me personally to work up much of a sports hatred for New York, outside of those 1970’s Rangers and the recent year Mets rivalry. Some say that Philly has an inferiority complex about New York due to the Big Apple’s population size and it’s financial, cultural, and artistic importance combined with being so close in proximity to The City of Brotherly Love, but I never got that feeling.

After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, I promised myself that I would never again “hate” New York, and would never express hatred towards the city or it’s people in a sports context or any other. My genuine feeling is that New York City is completely representative of everything that makes America great, and I will not allow some sports rivalry to change that feeling. But that’s me. I know and accept that every Philly fan is not going to be quite so magnanimous.

None of this is to say that I’m going so far as to slap on an “I Love NY” button. I hope that the Phils sweep the Yanks, and in fact am now picking the Phillies to win the World Series in five games. But I am glad that it is the Yanks we are facing, not because it’s New York, but because their team was the best in the AL this season, just as Tampa was the best in the AL last season. You always want to beat the best in order to be called the best.

The Yankees play the game similar to the way our Phillies play it: hard for 9 innings with a no-quit attitude. You may not like Alex Rodriguez, but you must acknowledge that he is one of the three best baseball players of the past decade. In Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, C.C. Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and A.J. Burnett they have some of the most talented players in the game.

To me, this World Series is only about the Yankees insofar as they make for a more interesting opponent. It is more about rooting on an extremely exciting, talented, and lovable band of Phillies players. Chase, Chooch, JRoll, JayDub, Lights-Out, Rauuuuul, the Flyin Hawaiian, the Big Piece, Hollywood and the rest have legitimately won the hearts of this sports-crazed city. This is about rooting them on and cheering their exploits, not rooting against anyone else. It really doesn’t matter who is lined up across the diamond, the story is on our side.

So I am rooting hard against the New York Yankees this week, and rooting for my own beloved Philadelphia Phillies to bring home their 2nd consecutive World Series championship. But I’ll leave it to the idiots at the New York Post and the crazies in the Yankee Stadium stands the next two nights to do the hating. My belief is that when the Series returns to Philly for the weekend, there is gonna be a whole lot more love for the Fightin’ Phils expressed than hatred for any New York team.

Three Aces Are Keys to Phils Series Success

Pedro Martinez. Cliff Lee. Cole Hamels. One righthander and a pair of lefties. Three different levels of experience. All have filled the role of a true ‘Ace’ for their respective baseball organizations in the past.

And now together, these three aces represent the absolute keys to the Phillies repeating as World Series champions.

There is much being said and written about the two team’s offenses in this matchup. The top offense in the National League featuring Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, and Raul Ibanez. The top offense in the American League featuring Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada, and Hideki Matsui.

There is talk about the importance of the bullpens, especially the Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, possibly the best at his craft in baseball history and the Phillies closer Brad Lidge, last year’s hero turned this year’s goat, but now apparently born again hard. And pitchers such as Phil Hughes and Ryan Madson will certainly play a big role in at least a couple of games.

It says here that no matter who the Yankees run out to their mound, from starters C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte to Rivera, this Phillies offense will find a way to get to them. The Phils will score enough runs to win four games in this series. The key will be keeping the Yanks’ offense from outscoring them. That will fall largely on the shoulders of Martinez, Lee, and Hamels.

When the Fightin’ Phils charge out on to the field in the bottom of the first inning at new Yankee Stadium for tomorrow night’s Game One of the 2009 World Series against the New York Yankees, it will be Lee who will be taking the hill. As far as age and experience go, Lee is the middle man of the three. But in reality he fills that ‘Ace’ roll on this current team, and his start will set the tone.

Cliff Lee is 31 years old, and this year he pitched in his 6th full season with the Cleveland Indians, his 8th overall in the big leagues, before coming to the Phillies in a trade deadline deal for a package of prospects. He was not the pitcher that Phillies fans wanted. That object of affection was Toronto’s Roy Halladay. But Lee was the pitcher that the Phillies team needed.

Starting for the first time on July 31st, Lee twirled a complete game 4-hitter to beat the San Francisco Giants and their ace Tim Lincecum. It was a statement game for a Phillies team that appeared only to be lacking a true ace to go up against the opposition’s top starter. Lee would not only go 7-4 for the club after being acquired, but would star in the NL playoffs, helping the club to the World Series for the 2nd straight season.

Pedro Martinez is one of the greatest pitchers of his era and a likely Hall of Famer. Martinez starred mostly for the Boston Red Sox earlier this decade, helping that club win two World Series titles. Now apparently in the twilight of that great career, Martinez was signed by the Phils when no one else wanted to take a shot on the now 38-year old. All he did was go 5-1 for the Phils after making his debut on August 12th, then spin a tremendous game in a losing cause in the NLSC vs. the Dodgers.

Manager Charlie Manuel has not yet announced what his starting rotation will be in the series beyond Lee’s first game start. But if it were me, and Charlie and I have been seeing eye to eye on most things this season, it would be Pedro taking the hill for Game Two. The combination of his career experience and the excellence with which he has been pitching make him my logical choice. And there is no way that the crowd and atmosphere in New York will intimidate him.

Cole Hamels has been as much of an enigma as the older veterans have been a revelation. The 25-year old seemed to blossom into a superstar a year ago, winning both the NLCS MVP and World Series MVP Awards while leading the Phils to their first title in 28 years. But he never seemed to get untracked as this season began, first due to a combination of injuries and bad weather, and later possibly to fatigue. In the playoffs, the tall lefty became a dad for the first time, and has continued his inconsistency on the mound.

Slotting Hamels in to the #3 slot behind Lee and Martinez allows him to take the mound in front of the more friendly crowd at Citizens Bank Park. In my opinion the young once and future Phillies ace is more likely to experience success in that atmosphere in his first start of this year’s World Series. He is familiar with the surroundings, and the home crowd is likely to be strongly supportive to Hamels. If he gets it going his track record is that he will feed off their energy.

A key question then becomes whether the Phils should utilize a 4th starter, or opt for a giving three starts to Lee and two apiece to Martinez and Hamels. Personally, I have never been a fan of starting pitchers on short rest. I have seen it fail far more frequently these days than succeed. The Phillies have two good options in Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ to take the ball in a 4th game, depending on their usage out of the bullpen earlier in the series.

I would go with Lee, Martinez, and Hamels in that order, then would likely come back with Blanton in the 4th game, allowing Happ to continue providing a strong lefty relief option for the enirety of the series. I would then like to see the Phils come back with Lee in Game 5, and Martinez in a big Game 6 back at Yankee Stadium. That would leave a deciding Game 7 assignment for Hamels. I see the kid focusing and stepping up in the ultimate game, if necessary.

Together this trio represents the Philadelphia Phillies best chance to repeat as world champions. If the club receives 3-4 strong starts from these three, then it says here that they will beat the Yankees and win the World Series once again. If these three struggle, the Phils will be forced to try to out-slug New York in order to repeat. They have that capability, but strong starting efforts from Cliff, Cole, and Pedro is far more likely to be a recipe for success.

The Greatest Philly Team of All-Time

You may have noticed from the title of this article that I didn’t say the greatest “Phillies” team of all-time, but instead the greatest “Philly” team of all-time. That was on purpose, because as of right now, despite what might be stated on local sports talk radio or television, this current 2009 Phillies team is not that greatest team.

At least they are not that “Greatest Philly Team of All-Time” in the opinion of this educated fan of almost four full decades, a fan who loves the Phillies more than all of the other local teams combined, and who believes that this team has a chance to be mentioned in the same breath as that greatest team. At some point. But not yet.

Before I name and describe that team, let me state what my personal criteria are for becoming the greatest. First, the team needs to be a professional sports team, competing at the highest levels of competition against the greatest athletes in their sport. Second, the team needs to be a champion. So to be in the conversation, teams need to have been a pro sports champion at the minimum.

Enough of the pussy-footing around, since the picture accompanying this article likely gave it away to you already. For my money, the title of “Greatest Philly Team of All-Time” as of right now has to belong to the Broad Street Bullies, specifically the incarnations of the Philadelphia Flyers teams running from 1973 through 1976.

The current Phillies team has a ton of young fans who have been flocking to Citizens Bank Park ever since it opened for the 2004 season. They have fallen in love with the current team led by Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins. But it is only those of us born in the 1960’s and prior who truly remember with clarity and a sense of reality, only those who experienced it first-hand, who can tell you about how great, exciting, and beloved those Flyers teams really were.

The Flyers went to the Stanley Cup Finals all three years, winning back-to-back Cups the first two seasons before falling to one of pro hockey’s all-time greatest dynasties, the Montreal Canadiens of the late 70’s. Those Les Habitants would win four consecutive Cups beginning with the ’76 win over the Flyers. Those Flyer teams were not only great, winning teams on the ice, but they were also exciting, and they captured the hearts of this town the same way today’s Phillies have captured it.

But not only would those Flyers beat the best professional teams that money could put together, they also would beat the acknowledged best team in the world at the time, a team that no other NHL club could defeat, including those Canadiens. I am talking of course about the Flyers legendary winter 1976 victory over the Soviet Red Army team. But let’s come back to that game and begin with the first Cup.

Going into the 1974 Cup Finals, the Flyers were prohibitive underdogs against the Boston Bruins. That Bruins team had legends skating for them all over the ice. They were led by Bobby Orr, perhaps the most exciting player in hockey at the time, who had recorded an astonishing 122 points from the defenseman position. Their leading scorer, center and captain Phil Esposito, had scored 68 goals and recorded 145 points during the season, leading the NHL in scoring for the 4th straight year.

Esposito’s right winger, Ken Hodge, had scored 55 goals. The Bruins also had two other 30-goal scorers in forwards Wayne Cashman and John Bucyk, rugged defenseman Carol Vadnais, tough guy enforcer Terry O’Reilly, flashy forward Derek Sanderson, and a steady goaltender in Gilles Gilbert. They had won the Cup just two years earlier, and had led the NHL standings in both wins and points. And that dominance extended to the Flyers, whom they had fashioned a 17-0-2 record against in their previous 19 games dating back for years.

The Flyers were known for three things: scrappy center Bobby Clarke, shutdown goalie Bernie Parent, and for fighting. The nickname ‘Broad Street Bullies’ was well earned, with 7 individual players recording more than 100 penalty minutes. The ‘Bullies’ were led by ‘The Hammer’, Dave Schultz, who had an unreal 348 penalty minutes and would fight at the drop of a hat. They also included Andre ‘Moose’ Dupont (216 mins), Don ‘Big Bird’ Saleski (131 mins), and Bob ‘Hound’ Kelly (130 mins) among their colorfully nicknamed members.

The Bruins took the first game in a spirited contest by a tight 3-2 margin, and the second game at old Boston Garden was just as close. Entering overtime, the Flyers faced the possibility of a sudden-death loss and an almost insurmountable 2-0 series deficit against a team they hadn’t beaten in years. And then it happened, perhaps the single most important moment in Flyers history. Clarke took a rebound and slid it into the net for a game-winner that stunned the Beantown crowd, and the joyous Flyers mobbed their captain in celebration of the series being tied.

The Flyers gained considerable confidence from finally beating the ‘Big Bad Bruins’, and that confidence was bolstered with their return home to the Spectrum and their maddeningly loud and partisan home crowd. In the pre-game ceremonies, the team’s official anthem of “God Bless America” by singer Kate Smith was played in place of the national anthem. The Flyers had an unreal record of winning when the song was played, and it remains a team good-luck staple to this day.

Behind their hometown crowd and with the new found confidence, the Flyers outplayed the Bruins in both games at the Spectrum behind some stunning goaltending by Parent. They won both games by scores of 4-1 and 4-2, and suddenly the impossible seemed within reach. A return to Boston Garden showed that the Bruins were far from dead, as they recorded a huge 5-1 drubbing. With the series now headed back to the Spectrum for Game #6, the Bruins seemd to regain momentum and hoped to tie things up and force a Game 7 at the Garden.

I clearly remember the day of Sunday, May 19th, 1974. My dad had driven myself and my brother, Mike, down to Wildwood, New Jersey for the day, and we were watching that 6th game of the Stanley Cup Finals at a house that my family had on Leaming Avenue in the little Jersey Shore community. It was there that I watched as in the pre-game ceremonies, Kate Smith stepped out onto the Spectrum red carpet for a live rendition of “God Bless America” that whipped the crowd to a fever pitcher.

When center Rick MacLeish tipped home a shot in the first period, the Flyers had a 1-0 lead, but no one thought that goal would hold up and be enough against the Bruins fire power. But time and time again, a Bruins scoring rush would be ultimately thwarted by Bernie Parent, who split and dove for one acrobatic save after another. As the game moved towards it’s conclusion, the Bruins threw a desparate pass towards the Flyers end of the ice, and a historic countdown began.

The puck reached Parent, who lightly tipped it behind the net as the television screen flashed the countdown to 7 seconds remaining. Defenseman Jimmy Watson skated in to pickup the puck, raised his head to make sure that no Bruins players were near, and handled it with his stick as the clocked ticked down and the crowd counted off “…four, three, two, one…” On radio, Flyers legendary broadcaster Gene Hart (whose daughter Lauren now often sings before games) shouted out the dramatic moment: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Flyers have won the Stanley Cup! The Flyers win the Stanley Cup! The Flyers win the Stanley Cup!” The team mobbed one another and the crowd went delirious.

The mighty Bruins had been vanquished. Philadelphia was celebrating it’s first pro sports champions since the 1967 Sixers had won the NBA title. Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent skated around the Spectrum ice with the Stanley Cup raised, the ice flooded with fans who had streamed out of the stands. Little did anyone know that it would not be a one-time fluke, but the beginning of sustained greatness.

In 1975, the Flyers returned to the Stanley Cup Finals to defend their title. This time they had another weapon in right winger Reggie ‘the Rifle’ Leach, an amateur hockey teammate of Clarke who came to the team in a trade and became a prolific goal scorer. Their opponents this time around would be the upstart Buffalo Sabres, who had missed the playoffs the year before with a losing record.

The Sabres were led by one of the most exciting and prolific scoring lines in history. Known as ‘The French Connection’ line, Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert, and Rick Martin were dynamic scorers and playmakers. But it was the Flyers who had the championship experience, and more importanly who had Parent on their side. With Bernie playing at his acrobatic best, standing on his head for save after save against the high-scoring Sabres, the Flyers took the first two games at the Spectrum by 4-1 and 2-1 scores.

Seemingly on their way to an easy Cup repeat, the Flyers took that 2-0 series lead to Buffalo. But something happened on the way to the party, and that something was fog. In an incredible set of circumstances, faulty air conditioning and unseasonably warm weather resulted in fog conditions developing inside of the Buffalo arena. Though both teams had to play through it, it seemed to be the Flyers who were rattled, and the Sabres took advantage to gain first a dramatic 5-4 overtime win that kept them alive, and then a 4-2 win that evened the series at two games apiece.

Returning to the Spectrum ice, the Flyers regained their composure in front of the home fans and the normalcy of the Spectrum playing conditions. They romped to a 5-1 victory that left them one win away from another Cup title. Back in Buffalo, the two teams skated through the first two periods without scoring. I will always remember how the scoring opened for a very unusual reason. I missed the Stanley Cup-winning goal.

There was a Phillies game vs. the San Francisco Giants being televised at the same time as the Flyers. The Phils were finally exciting to watch in just their 5th season at Veteran’s Stadium with young homegrown players like Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, and Bob Boone emerging in the season before they would win their first division title and begin their own winning tradition. I flipped to the Phillies game between the 2nd and 3rd period of the Flyers game on the television at our family home on American Street in South Philly.

Now remember, these were the days before remote controls and cable television. You had to actually get your butt up and go over to the television, and then flip a dial to change the channel on the TV set. I tried to time my return to the Flyers action, but the Phillies game was at the Vet, and with nothing at all going on in the ballgame, the Phils’ crowd suddenly let out a roar. I knew what I had missed. Quickly, I jumped up, ran to the TV, and turned back to the Flyers game. There the team was congratulating Bob Kelly for having scored a goal just seconds into the 3rd period to put the Flyers on top 1-0.

Late in the 3rd period the Flyers added a breakaway goal by Bill Clement to seal a 2-0 win and clinch their 2nd consecutive Stanley Cup championship. It was just the third time in history that a Philly pro sports team had repeated as champions, following the 1929-30 Athletics in baseball and the 1948-49 Eagles in football. It is also the last time that any major pro sports team from Philadelphia has won back-to-back titles to this day.

So let’s take a break right here, and make a point. Those great A’s and Eagles teams deserve acknowledgement for winning consecutive titles. However, their accomplishments have to be honestly evaluated against the fact that minorities were basically black-balled from the competition. There were tons of great amateur baseball and football players, including black ‘pro’ players in baseball’s Negro Leagues. Other great Philly teams such as basketball’s 76ers of both 1967 and 1983 and the 1980 World Series champion Phillies only managed one title. The Flyers ability to not only become champions, but then to repeat, has to rank them higher.

But it is not the end of the line for those great Philadelphia Flyers ‘Broad Street Bullies’ era teams, and not the end of the argument for their ranking as “The Greatest Philly Team of All-Time”. Those Flyers returned to the Stanley Cup Finals for a 3rd consecutive season in spring of 1976. However, their run at a 3rd straight Cup ended with a four game sweep at the hands of a budding dynasty in Montreal. But that run at the top of the hockey world did not end before the Flyers put an exclamation point on their greatness.

On January 11th, 1976, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers, the best team in North American professional ice hockey, took to their home ice at the Spectrum to take on the seemingly unbeatable Red Army team from the Soviet Union. This was at the very height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviets, and the game took on incredible social and political implications, as well as taking on the unofficial title of ‘World Championship’ of hockey.

That winter, the Soviet Union had sent two teams over to North America to play a series of games against teams from the NHL. One of those teams was the ‘Soviet Wings’, the defending championship team from the Russian Superleague, considered at the time to be the 2nd best league in the world behind only the NHL. The Wings were scheduled to play a ‘2nd level’ tier of NHL teams, and won 3 of their 4 games. But this was only the appetizer in what was known as the ‘Super Series’ of world hockey.

The main event involved the top Soviet team, the ‘Moscow Central Red Army’ team, a veritable all-star team stocked with the very best players in the Soviet Union and considered by many to be the best hockey team in the world, certainly the most dominant team in all of Europe. This team was sent up against the NHL’s elite. They beat both the New York Rangers (7-3) and the Boston Bruins (5-2), and tied the Montreal Canadiens (4-4). Winless against the Soviet powerhouse, with the pride of the entire NHL on the line, for one of the rare times in their history during the ‘Bullies’ era the Flyers found themselves being supported by fans across North America.

The game was not only for NHL pride, but was frought with personal tensions. Flyers star Bobby Clarke had become infamous in the Soviet Union for a slash against Russian star Valeri Kahrlamov during an earlier 1972 series between the Russians and and Team Canada. Before this game, thanks to Clarke and the ‘Bullies’ reputations, the Soviet press portrayed them as goons in it’s writing and editorial cartoons. Clarke famously stated that he “really hated those bastards.”

When the game began, the Flyers took the play to the Soviets, hitting early, often, and hard. The Soviets, used to a more wide-open and creative pace, were frustrated. The tension finally came to a head and ironically it was the same Kharlamov, whom Clarke had slashed four years earlier, at the center of it all. The Soviet star skated into the Flyers zone, and in a perfectly clean move Flyers’ veteran defenseman Ed Van Impe laid him out with a tremendous mid-ice check. Kharlamov lay prone on the ice for an extended period, and when he finally was able to arise the Soviets coach pulled his team off the ice in protest of the Flyers rough play.

The Russians left the ice to tremendous booing from the notorious Philly ‘boo-bird’ crowd, and remained in their locker room for an extended period as a huge international TV audience watched in shock. Finally lured back by threats of witholding their pay, the Soviets returned to the ice and the enraged and inspired Flyers played with almost reckless abandon, taking the play to the Soviets at a furious pace.

Within moments of the resumption of play, Reggie Leach tipped a shot past legendary Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak for a 1-0 Flyers lead. Before the period was out, Rick MacLeish would drive home another goal. The Flyer lead grew to 3-0 before the delirious crowd when low-scoring defenseman Jimmy Watson scored a short-handed goal. The Soviets got on the scoreboard in the 2nd period, but then defenseman Larry Goodenough fired in a shot from the point in the 3rd to complete the scoring. The Flyers had outshot the unbeatable Russians 49-13, beaten them on the scoreboard 4-1, and secured a legendary victory for the franchise.

With their back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, three straight Finals appreances, and historic win over the Soviets, the 1973-1976 Philadelphia Flyers have earned my own personal ranking of “The Greatest Philly Team of All-Time”. Anyone who does not consider them in the conversation is a fool not worth listening to for sports advice or conversation. Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain. All great. All Philly champions. But in this category, all take a back seat to Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent and the ‘Broad Street Bullies’.

The current Philadelphia Phillies, a team beloved and respected by myself and the entire Philly region, are putting themselves into that conversation. Their rousing victory in last year’s World Series is really what makes that at all possible, but it is strongly supported by the club having won 3 straight NL East titles as well as back-to-back National League pennants. But this team still has that one more step to go to overtake the mid-70’s Flyers champions.

Win the upcoming World Series, especially if it is a ‘signature’ type win over a legendary New York Yankees organization featuring stars such as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and Mariano Rivera? Do that, and these Fightin’ Phils would almost certainly have to move to the top of the heap, and take over the title of “The Greatest Philly Team of All-Time” for themselves.

NOTE: As always, the title of this article is a link to more information on the topic. In this instance, click on the title and you can enjoy all the highlights of that first Flyers Stanley Cup victory!