The 1986 Philadelphia Phillies presented fans with an unusual season. After an exciting decade from 1974-83 spent building a contender and then enjoying its fruits, the club had struggled through a couple of non-winning transitional seasons.
But in 1986 the winning returned. The Phillies won 86 games and finished in second place in the National League East Division. Had their been an NL Wildcard that year it would have been theirs.
Unfortunately there was no Wildcard playoff berth in those days, only divisional champions advanced to the postseason. And unfortunately for the Phillies, the division-rival New York Mets were a powerhouse team that won 108 games that year, leaving the Phillies a distant 21.5 games back.
The pitching representative for this ‘Phillies 50’ series from that 1986 club is right-hander Jeff Bittiger. He was a 24-year-old rookie who made three starts after being promoted when rosters expanded in September that year.
Bittiger had actually been drafted by the Mets in the seventh round back in 1980 as a third baseman. The Mets converted him to pitching in 1981. Then in January 1986 he was included as part of a four-prospect swap between New York and the Phillies in which none ever really made a mark in Major League Baseball.
The Phillies Triple-A farm club was in Portland of the Pacific Coast League, and Bittiger had a solid season there, which led to his final month promotion to the big-leagues.
On September 2, 1986 manager John Felske gave him that first opportunity, naming him the starting pitcher for a Tuesday night game against the visiting San Diego Padres at Veterans Stadium.
It didn’t go well for the rookie. The Padres put five earned runs on the board against him on six hits over five innings, with Bittiger walking one and striking out a pair. Four of the runs came on a pair of two-run homers, by Terry Kennedy in the 1st and Kevin McReynolds in the 5th inning. Bittiger left trailing 5-0 and took the loss in a game the Phillies would drop by a 6-2 final score.
There was one highlight on that night for Bittiger. With one out in the top of the 3rd inning he registered his first career strikeout in Major League Baseball when he fanned veteran Steve Garvey.
Three weeks later, Felske gave the youngster another shot. This time it went much better and would be a night he would remember forever. On September 22, 1986 at Three Rivers Stadium, Bittiger went 6.2 innings and earned his first big-league victory as the Phillies downed the host Pittsburgh Pirates by an 8-4 score. He allowed two earned runs on six hits while walking four and striking out five batters.
Along with the pitching highlight for Bittiger, there was an offensive one as well. The Phillies drove four home runs. There was a three-run shot by Glenn Wilson in the 4th that gave the Phillies a 4-0 lead. In the top of the 6th, a two-run blast by John Russell made it 7-1. And future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who would win his third NL MVP Award that year, ripped his 37th of the season in the top of the 7th to make it 8-2.
But it was the first home run that night that would be truly memorable for Bittiger. With one out in the top of the 3rd inning he lifted a pitch from 21-year-old Pirates southpaw Bob Kipper out deep to left field for his own first and only big-league home run.
That performance earned him one more start. On Saturday night October 4, 1986 at Veterans Stadium in the penultimate game of the Phillies season, Bittiger left a sour taste in his mouth when he lasted just three innings against the visiting Expos.
Montreal got to Bittiger that night for three runs, two of them earned, on four hits and a pair of walks. Two of the hits were RBI doubles by future Hall of Famer Andre Dawson in the 1st and 3rd innings. Bittiger left trailing 3-0, but the Phillies would rally to a 5-4 walkoff victory in 14 innings.
In early December the Phillies released Bittiger and two weeks later he signed with the Atlanta Braves, who released him at the end of spring training. 10 days after that release he signed with Minnesota and would appear in three games with them during a 1987 season in which the Twins would win the World Series.
Released by Minnesota following the season, Bittiger caught on with the Chicago White Sox, with whom he would see his most MLB action. Called up in mid-May of 1988 he would spend most of the year with Chicago, appearing in 25 games that season.
Bittiger would get two more big-league appearances with the Chisox in 1989, and then was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers the following off-season. He would never get back to the majors, bouncing through four organizations into 1993.
Other than a six-game stint at Triple-A in the Oakland A’s organization in 1995, Bittiger would spend the rest of his career playing independent ball. But unlike many players, that was a lengthy career. He pitched to age 40 in 2002, the final seven years with Fargo-Moorhead in the Northern League.
In 1998 he tied a Northern League record for victories with a dozen and led the RedHawks to the league championship. In 2000, Bittiger was named Baseball America’s Independent Player of the Decade for the 1990’s. He would further serve as the team’s pitching coach through 2003.
At the end of May, Bittiger was named a pitcher on the RedHawks All-25 Team honoring the best players in their quarter-century of existence as an independent franchise. Named as the catcher on the team was former Phillies backstop Chris Coste, who is now their interim manager. Bittiger remains with Fargo-Moorhead still as a player personnel consultant and is also a scout for the Oakland A’s organization.