The 1983 Philadelphia Phillies were a mostly aging ball club entering a transitional phase. That 1983 team became known as the ‘Wheeze Kids’ as a play on the 1950 pennant-winning ‘Whiz Kids’ team, which had been made up largely of young players.
After a loss in the first game of a doubleheader on Monday, August 29 the Phillies found themselves just a game over the .500 mark. But from that point onward the club caught fire, winning 26 of their final 35 games to finish 90-72 and win the NL East by six games.
Perhaps the most surprising player to appear with the club during that final month is also one that the vast majority of Phillies fans around back then will never remember. That would be the pitching representative for this ‘Phillies 50’ series on the most random players with the team from 1971-2019, a right-hander named Tony Ghelfi.
A Wisconsin native, Ghelfi had been chosen by the Phillies in the first round at 14th overall in the 1980 MLB Draft January-Regular Phase out of Iowa Western Community College.
Working as a starter, Ghelfi enjoyed a fine season in 1982 at High-A Peninsula of the Carolina League. In 1983 he was solid at Double-A Reading and was promoted for eight less-than-stellar appearances with Triple-A Portland. It turned out that Ghelfi was experiencing shoulder troubles all year at Reading that would ultimately begin to derail his career.
Still, those shoulder troubles were yet to be diagnosed, and when rosters expanded the Phillies had seen enough that they thought he might be able to provide some help as the club was trying to compete in a tough NL East Division race. You can never have enough arms with some talent, right?
Ghelfi was given three starts during September to help out a rotation that had lost Larry Christenson to injury and lost Dick Ruthven to a trade earlier in the season, and that was relying heavily on a pair of rookies already in 24-year-old Charles Hudson and 22-year-old rookie Kevin Gross.
On September 1, 1983, Ghelfi was sent to the mound by manager Paul Owens to make his first big-league start. It came against the visiting San Francisco Giants at Veterans Stadium on a Thursday night on what was supposed to originally be an off-day for the team in the middle of a long 12-game homestand. However, with the Giants coming to town, Major League Baseball was using the date to make up an earlier rainout between the two teams.
Ghelfi would hold his own that night, lasting five innings and earning a win as the Phillies downed the Giants 4-2. He allowed seven hits while walking four and striking out six, surrendered two earned runs.
Five days later on September 6, 1983 at Shea Stadium against the host New York Mets, Ghelfi again took the mound. He was even sharper on this Tuesday night, shutting out the Mets on five hits while walking none and striking out four over 4.1 innings. Tug McGraw and Al Holland followed up to continue the white-washing as the Phillies won 2-0.
In what would be not only his final start of the 1983 season, but also the last of his MLB career as a whole, Ghelfi next took the mound exactly one week later back at The Vet. On September 13, 1983 he allowed just three hits but also walked three batters over five innings against the Mets.
A 21-year-old Mets rookie by the name of Darryl Strawberry had three hits that night including a home run off Ghelfi as New York earned a 5-1 victory. Ghelfi was hung with the loss, giving him a final 1-1 record in the big-leagues.
Owens would go with veteran ace Steve Carlton, Marty Bystrom, and John Denny, who would capture the NL Cy Young Award that year, along with youngsters Hudson and Gross the rest of the way. Ghelfi never got another opportunity to take the mound. But at least he was there for the celebration when the Phillies clinched the division at Wrigley Field on September 28.
Following an injury-shortened 1984 campaign due to the first of three rotator cuff surgeries, Ghelfi came back to pitch a full season with Triple-A Portland in 1985. After being out of baseball in 1986 he returned to pitch in the Cleveland Indians farm system in 1987 and 1988, and then at Triple-A in the San Diego Padres system in 1989, after which he retired at just age 27.
“I had a cup of coffee, and it tasted good,” Ghelfi told Jeff Brown of the La Crosse Tribune back in 2006. “There were more lows than highs in my career, but the highs were sure great. I can’t complain … I got a win in the major leagues. … I met my wife in Reading (Pa.), in AA ball, and we’re still married. Still, I’m not sure I wouldn’t trade it (baseball) for a college education.”
Ghelfi revealed to Brown that the shoulder troubles, surgeries, and rehabilitation took the energy and fun out of the game for him. And then came what was to him a sudden and unexpected release by the Phillies after he had worked to return.
“Being released in the spring of 1986, that was a shock. That was a low point. I ended up coming back to La Crosse. I did not go to college. All I was prepared to do was nothing, at least at that time. I had no prospects for work. I had to have somebody help me, and luckily, my dad had his trophy business.“
Tony and his brother, Andy Ghelfi, also a pitcher and who made it to pro ball from 1985-89 but never got out of the lower minor leagues, now help operate that trophy business, Fifth Avenue Awards, in their hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin. The brothers took over for their dad, Dick Ghelfi, who had pitched in the Cardinals system back in the 1950’s.