by Len Lear
Now that the World Series with the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals is upon us and the Phillies were light years away from being in it since they had the worst record in Major League Baseball in 2015, I cannot help but think of the mental anguish so many Phillies fans have suffered because of the Fightins’ long history of ineptitude. The team was founded in 1883 and had the longest streak of consecutive losing seasons in the history of American professional sports — 16 straight from 1933 to 1948 — until that dubious record was broken by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009.
As Phillies fans know only too well, the Phillies also went 97 years after their founding before winning their first World Series in 1980. (They were in the World Series in 1915 and 1950 but lost both.) The Phillies were the last of the 16 teams in the Major Leagues from 1901 to 1960 to win a World Series. (As we all know, the Phillies also won the World Series in 2008 against the Tampa Bay Rays.) In the late 1990s I had the good fortune to run into one of the heroes of that unforgettable 1980 World Series, “closer” Tug McGraw, once a year for four years in a row at Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. A charity that aided victims of child abuse would hold its annual fundraisers there, and Tug McGraw would always volunteer his time to make Irish coffee for the donors. Each year I would ask “The Tugger” questions and take notes on his answers, which were mostly quite funny, but for some reason I put away the notes and never got around to writing the article. Tragically, Tug died on Jan. 5, 2004, at the age of just 59 of a malignant brain tumor. The year before he died, Tug started the Tug McGraw Foundation to help the victims of brain tumors and other brain disorders.
Last week, however, when I found the photo I took of him that accompanies this article, I was reminded of the article I never wrote about Tug. You could not help but like Tug, who had a permanent smile on his face and who schmoozed and joked with every person waiting in line for his legendary Irish coffee (which was as good as any Irish coffee we’ve ever tasted, by the way).
“I’ll never forget striking out Willie Wilson on the slowest fastball ever thrown in Philadelphia to win the World Series in 1980,” Tug told me. (The scene is also etched in the memory of every Phillies fan who saw it on TV or in person.) “I always tell kids that just in case they wind up in the Major Leagues someday, they should practice autographing baseballs. This is a skill that’s often overlooked in Little League.”
When asked about his reputation for being a wild and crazy guy, Tug said, “Ninety percent of my money I will spend on good times, women and Irish whiskey. The other 10 percent I’ll probably waste.” Tug said that one umpire made so many bad calls that Tug nicknamed him “the dumpire” (but not to his face, of course).
When asked about his devil-may-care, free spirit attitude and the observation by certain sportswriters that he did not take the games seriously enough, Tug said, “Ten million years from now, when the sun burns out and the Earth is just a frozen iceball hurtling through space, nobody’s going to care whether or not I got a certain batter out.”
He did not say it to me, but the man who popularized the phrase “Ya gotta believe” was once asked by a sportswriter if he preferred baseball fields that were grass or Astroturf. He answered, “I dunno. I never smoked any Astroturf.”
Tug told me that weather can play a big role in a baseball game. “In fact,” he said, “it was so foggy today that the Cubs couldn’t even see who was beating them … I don’t know if you read about it, but the Cubs installed a new pitching machine the other day. Unfortunately, it beat them, 4-1.”
Of course I cannot say I knew Tug McGraw well after just a few brief interviews, but those who did know him well apparently all loved him. After his death, Phillies’ former pitcher Randy Wolf said, “It’s hard to lose anybody, but to lose somebody like Tug is devastating. Losing him is like losing a superhero because he’s one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met. It’s a sad reminder that bad things happen to good people.”
Another Phillies legend, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, said, “Tug and I drove to the ballpark together before that final game (Game 6 of the 1980 World Series), and I made him promise that if he was on the mound for that final out to wait for me. Both of us knew whoever was on or near that mound for the final out would probably be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Sure enough, it worked. Tug struck out (Willie) Wilson and then turned to look at me at third base. Of course I came running in and jumped on him.”
After the horrific last two seasons the Phillies have had, it’s a shame we don’t have The Tugger around any more to make us laugh and remind us that games are not all that important.