#4 Most Underrated Athlete in Philly Sports History: Ricky Watters

The defining moment of Ricky Watters career in Philadelphia came in his first game as an Eagle.  On September 3, 1995, the Eagles opened up the season at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During the second-half, Ricky Watters alligator-armed not one, but two Randall Cunningham passes over the middle of the field.  It didn’t help that the Eagles lost 21-6, and Watters was held to 37 yards rushing with two fumbles.  Sure, Watters was booed by the hometown fans for not sacrificing himself for the team, but those boos were nothing compared to the aftermath of Watters’ postgame comments to the media.

Watters was honest, maybe too honest:

“Hey, I’m not going to trip up there and get knocked out.  For who? For what? I mean, there’s another day. I’m going to make a whole lot of plays. I made a whole lot of plays where I was at before. I’ve always made plays.”

“For who? For what?”   Those four words damned Ricky Watters in this town.  He had committed a cardinal sin.  The fans and the media jumped on Watters.  The Inquirer labeled it “Wattersgate.”  His words were spread in large print on the back cover of the Daily News.  No matter what Watters did from that point forward, he didn’t have a chance to be accepted in Philadelphia as one of our “Philly guys.”  And it’s a shame, because his on-the-field play stood in stark contrast to that comment.

His numbers are staggering.  After scoring three touchdowns in a winning-effort for San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIX, Watters came to Philadelphia as a free agent.  It didn’t take long for him to make an impact.  In 1995, he rushed 337 times for 1,273 yards and 11 touchdowns.  He also added 434 yards on 62 receptions.  In ’96 he amassed 1,855 yards from scrimmage with 13 total touchdowns. In ’97, he had 1,550 total yards and 7 touchdowns.  He never rushed for fewer than 1,110 yards and never caught fewer than 48 passes.  From ’95-’97, he carried the ball 975 times, more than any other player in the NFL.  In ’95 and ’96 he was selected to the Pro Bowl team and named All-Pro.

Even though he spent just three seasons in Philadelphia, Watters ranks 6th in franchise history in rushing and 5th in rushing touchdowns.  He is the Eagles all-time leader in rushing yards per game.

Based on his numbers, Watters is clearly one of the best running backs in Eagles history.  But he didn’t let his numbers speak for themselves, and so he lands on this list as the 4th Most Underrated Athlete in Philadelphia Sports History.

Previously:

#15- Byron Evans#14- John LeClair#13- Von Hayes#12- Freddy Leach#11- Brad McCrimmon#10- Del Ennis#9- Eddie Plank#8- Dick Allen#7- Kimmo Timonen#6- Bobby Abreu#5- Joe Frazier


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When Lefty Lost a 10-Inning Shutout

On Wednesday, April 18th, Cliff Lee threw a remarkable 10 inning shutout. He was the first Phillie to throw a 10 inning shutout in over 30 years, since Lefty did it in a game against the Expos in 1981. The Phillies also lost that game, 1-0. Here’s the story of that loss.

It’s impossible to overstate Steve Carlton’s greatness. His 1972 season is mentioned in the same breath as Bob Gibson’s 1968 and Doc Gooden’s 1985. He won 329 games and has the 4th most strikeouts in MLB history. He won 4 Cy Young’s and played in 10 All-Star games. Another testament to his greatness? The game he threw on September 21st, 1981, that was strikingly similar to Cliff Lee’s on Wednesday night, with perhaps an even crueler ending.

The 1981 season was cut in half by a contentious strike, and when play resumed the owners decided to split it into halves and declare winners from the first and second halves. (The result was disastrous, with Cincy and St. Louis sporting the two best records in the NL, but neither making the playoffs). The Phillies had won the first half, and thus had nothing to play for in the 2nd half. Therefore, it was no surprise that they went 34-21 in the first half, then went 25-27 in the 2nd half. One of those 27 losses was more painful than the others, however.

Carlton faced off against journeyman pitcher Ray Burris, who would throw for 6 teams over 15 season, winning more games than he lost only four times in his career. But on this day, he was unhittable, shutting down the Phillies frame after frame. Carlton was even more dominant. While Burris only recorded one K, Carlton, put up 12. After 9 innings, the two teams were tied at zero, and they went into extra frames. Burris came out for the 10th and sent the Phils down 1-2-3. Carlton came out in the bottom of the 10th and did the same. And so, after 10 innings, each pitcher had given up 3 hits and had nothing to show for it. They were both pulled for pinch hitters in the 11th.

The game went into the 17th inning, still scoreless. With two outs in the top of the 17th, the Expos sent in a young man named Bryn Smith who had pitched all of 8.2 innings in his career. After giving up a single to Manny Trillo, he induced Len Matuszek to fly out to left and end the inning. In the bottom of the 17th, Andre Dawson singled home Rodney Scott, and the Expos got the win. Bryn Smith faced two batters, retired one and got the win. Steve Carlton faced 35 batters, retired 29, struck out 12, and got an ND. Baseball can be a funny game.

Smith went on to have a very nice career, winning 108 games and finishing with a very respectable 3.53 ERA. But his first one came fairly cheap. Here’s the box score to that game. A very fun box score to look at, as both team had some all-time greats on their roster.

RELATED STORY: Former Phillies pitcher Joe Oeschger throws 20 innings and gets a no-decision.


#5 Most Underrated Athlete in Philly Sports History: Joe Frazier

I think I pretty much summed it up in this column I wrote for Philyl Mag a few months ago. If you haven’t already read it, please do. I honestly think it’s one of the best pieces I’ve ever written.


#6 Most Underrated Athlete in Philadelphia Sports History: Bobby Abreu

Abreu is a really interesting case study in Philadelphia. He was quite similar to Donovan McNabb: grossly underrated in Philly, slightly overrated nationally. Abreu’s biggest sin was his laissez faire attitude in a city that simply doesn’t accept that. It’s fine for fans to be upset about the attitude, but to ignore his skill and contributions to the Phillies while he was here is to be so blinded by irrationality that you simply miss the big picture.

Bobby Abreu is on the fence for the Hall of Fame. That’s not because he’s overrated, it’s because he’s an elite player. His numbers with the Phillies are simply staggering, and he is undoubtedly one of the greatest players to ever wear a Phillies uniform (Phillies Nation has him ranked 10th all time).

  • Bobby Abreu has the 4th most doubles in Phillies history (348), behind Mike Schmidt, Jimmy Rollins, and Big Ed Delahanty. Pretty heady company.
  • Abreu has the 9th most homers in Phillies history (195) with 7 more than number 10 on the list, Chase Utley.
  • He has the 9th most RBIs in Phillies history (814).
  • He has the 9th most runs scored in Phillies history (891).
  • Of the 3 guys with a higher OBP than Abreu in Phillies history (Abreu’s is .416), none has played since 1911. The highest OBP on the Phillies last year was .355, by Victorino. And keep in mind, .416 wasn’t Abreu’s high. That was his career average on the Phils.
  • Since the end of WWII, only two players have had a higher career batting averages while with the Phils, John Kruk and Richie Asburn. Abreu’s average was .303.
  • He’s 7th all time in steals in Phillies history with 254.
  • Abreu has the 12th most hits in Phillies history (1474).

So, who else in Phillies history is in the career top 10 of homers, RBIs, runs scored, doubles, OBP, and steals? Nobody. In fact, nobody is even close. So if you want to get mad because he didn’t charge facefirst into walls, go right ahead. But don’t ignore the fact that he is one of the 5 greatest offensive players in Phillies history. Babe Ruth was a mediocre defensive right fielder who didn’t crash into walls either. That didn’t mean that his offensive numbers should be completely discounted. Should we be mad at Mike Schmidt because he didn’t steal more bases? No, I’m not comparing Abreu to Babe Ruth or Mike Schmidt. My point is that it’s unfair to judge a player because of one weakness and completely ignore everything he contributed positively to the team.

There is also a notion that he “isn’t clutch”. But the numbers simply don’t back that up. According to baseball reference, in games that are late and close, he hits .282 with a .411 OBP  (I cannot find exclusive Phils stats on this split, only full career stats). Compare that with “Captain Clutch” Derek Jeter, who with a very similar number of at-bats hits .292 with a .384 OBP .  The slight edge goes to Jeter, but it’s hardly a blowout, and he’s considered to be the most “clutch” player in the game.

Abreu was one of the greatest players in Phillies history, and yet bring up his name in this town and you’ll get a rolling of the eyes and muttering about hustle because he didn’t sacrifice his body on every play. There was no doubt that Abreu hustled on the basepaths, and no doubt that he excelled in every phase of the game that didn’t have to do with crashing into walls. But this being Philly, that’s all that matters. I appreciate hustle as much as the next guy, but at a certain point talent needs to be appreciated too. Because his talents at the plate and on the basepaths are completely ignored due to his mediocre defense, Bobby Abreu is #6 on this list.


Most Underrated Philly Athletes of All-Time: #7 Kimmo Timonen

Kimmo Timonen was underrated from the start of his career.  He was selected in the 10th Round (250th of 286 total picks) by the L.A. Kings in the 1993 Entry Draft.  In today’s NHL, there are only 7 rounds in the draft, so it’s pretty easy to see what NHL front offices thought of Timonen. That being said, there’s a reason the Flyers haven’t missed the playoffs since Kimmo joined the team.

After playing several years in Nashville, the Flyers acquired Timonen in what now looks like one of the more lopsided trades in team history.  As part of the deal that sent an aging Peter Forsberg to the Predators, the Flyers obtained a 1st round pick which they then traded back to Nashville in 2007 for Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen.

In hockey, it’s easy to underrate good defensemen.  The guys you don’t notice are likely the ones who are most effective.  Timonen fits that description to a tee.  Night in and night out, Timonen is paired against the best offensive lines of the Flyers’ opponents and he puts in his work, quietly. Even when an HBO camera crew was following around the team for weeks prior to the Winter Classic, Timonen didn’t want any part of the spotlight and made himself an extra.

He’s not the type of player who’s going to deliver bone-crunching hits, or picks fights, or dazzle the fans with flashy play, or fire 105 mph slapshots from the point.  At 5’10″ and 194 lbs, he surely doesn’t stand out because of his size.  But he brings his mistake-free play, both mentally and physically, to the rink every game.  And I do mean every game.  Although he’s built like a finesse winger, he is one of the more durable players in the league.  Since joining the Flyers in 2007, he’s never missed more than 6 games in any season.

His decision making, puck movement, and positional skills are probably his greatest assets on the ice.  As a Flyer, Timonen has averaged 36 assists and 41 points per year.  He’s also a plus 38 over that span.  This year, he hit both the 100 goal and 500 point milestones in his career.  Timonen shines on the power-play.  From ’06-’07 to ’07-08 (Timonen’s first year in Philly), the Flyers power-play success rate shot up from 14% to 22%.

He’s won three Barry Ashbee Awards, given to the Flyers’ most outstanding defensemen as decided by a panel of sportswriters.  He’s just the third Flyer to take home that honor three times (Eric Desjardins- 7, Mark Howe- 4).  Over the course of his career, he’s been selected to 5 All-Star teams (3 with the Flyers).

Just as important as his durability and play is the leadership that Kimmo brings to the Flyers.  In years past, he was a locker room and on-ice leader, but with Chris Pronger’s injury this year, Timonen has had to become team spokesman.  With his direct, no-nonsense approach to the Philadelphia media, his teammates know they are going to be held accountable for mistakes or lack of effort.  For example: When he was asked what the difference was between the Rangers and Flyers this year after the Rangers 4th straight win against the Orange and Black, Timonen had two words: “The goaltending.”  After a February loss to those same Rangers, Kimmo didn’t mince words about the effort: “The emotional level, playing against the top team in the conference…league…to be honest I think we got half the guys going half the guys not.”  Hearing those kinds of quotes in the land of “upper body injuries” and “maintenance days” speaks volumes about how much respect Timonen has in the Flyers locker room.


First Opening Day in Phillies History

129 years ago, on May 1, 1883, Philadelphia’s National League team was opening up its season, the first in the team’s history.

John Coleman was the Quakers opening day starter, and thus, the first opening day starter in the history of Phillies baseball. He’s shown to the left holding a bat like, well, a pitcher.  The Quakers opponent that day was the Providence Grays, who threw Charles Radbourn.  Facing Radbourn in their first ever game was a challenge for the Quakers.  Radbourn would win NL’s Pitching Triple crown the next year with 59 wins, an ERA of 1.38, and 441 strikeouts.  His 59 wins is a major league record that will never be broken.  He was also the first major leaguer to flip the bird during a team photo.  (If you can’t see it, here’s a closeup.)

The upstart Quakers got off to a hot start at Recreation Park with some small ball and scored 2 runs in the first inning.  Blondie Purcell led off the game with a single and Bill McClellan followed that up with a double.  With runners on second and third with no outs, two consecutive infield grounders led to two fielder’s choice RBI. The score remained 2-0 until the 7th inning, when a 2-out single by catcher Frank Ringo scored third baseman Bill Harbridge to give the Quakers a 3-0 lead.

In the top half of the 8th, the Grays finally got to Coleman.  A leadoff walk surrendered to Radbourn was followed by consecutive singles and a double.  After forcing a groundout, Coleman gave up another single before finally ending the inning.  All told, the Grays put up 4 runs to take a 4-3 lead.

The game wasn’t without the type of nostalgic controversy that we all love about old-time baseball. In the Quakers’ half of the 8th, Purcell led off with a single.  On his way to first, he sprained his ankle. After reaching safely, he requested to have another player run for him because of the injury. However, he needed not the umpire’s permission, but rather that of the captain of the Grays. Purcell’s request was denied, leading to the 1,000 or so in attendance to voice their displeasure with the visiting Grays. Next up, Bill McClellan reached first on an error and Purcell limped safely into second.  Two pop-outs later, there were runners on first and second with two outs.  Radbourn threw a wild pitch and in the words of an Inquirer article:

“Purcell started for third, and fairly reached there, but was decided out at third, a very unjust decision, which was vigorously hissed.”

In the ninth, neither team scored.  Opening Day for the history of the Phillies ended with a 4-3 loss at the hands of the Providence Grays.  Things wouldn’t get much better for the Quakers in 1883, but the fledgling franchise got its start and National League baseball has lived in this City ever since.


Most Underrated Philly Athletes of All-Time: #8 Dick Allen

Our 8th Most Underrated Philadelphia Athlete of All-Time is Dick Allen.  Allen’s relationship with the fans of this City was unlike any other.  The picture above is definitely worth 1,000 words: you’ve got Dick Allen playing first base at Connie Mack Stadium for the hometown Phils, he’s traced “Boo” into the dirt in front of him in response to the crowd’s relentless booing, and he’s wearing his batting helmet in the field- not because he had suffered a head injury, but to protect himself from the batteries, pennies, fruit, and garbage thrown at him from the stands.  Merely calling Allen “underrated” doesn’t do any justice to how Philadelphia fans treated the star.

The Phillies signed the 18-year-old Allen as an amateur free agent in 1960.  He worked his way through the minor league system and by 1963 he was ready for AAA ball.  The Phillies AAA affiliate at time was the Arkansas Travelers, based in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Allen asked the organization to send him anywhere but Little Rock, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.  Obviously, with it’s history of violently fighting desegregation, Little Rock wasn’t the greatest place in the world for an African-American in the early 60′s.   Throw in the fact that Allen was the first black player in Little Rock’s minor-league history and you can imagine that his welcome wasn’t unlike Bart’s introduction as the new Sheriff of Rock Ridge (NSFW). Outside the stadium before his first game, Allen was greeting with a fan protest that included a picketing line and signs like “Don’t Negro-ize Baseball” and the ultra-created “Nigger Go Home.” During his time in Little Rock, he was chastised by the fans and the community.  His car was vandalized.  He received death threats.  Thankfully, his talent on the field made for a short-lived career in Little Rock and he was sent up to the majors as an everyday player in 1964.

Although Allen’s stint with the Travelers lasted only a year, it affected him for the rest of his career. First, he started drinking for the first time in his life.  And second, it made him angry.  Angry at the Phillies brass that sent a 21-yr-old black kid into the racial powder keg that was Little Rock against his wishes.

Allen broke in with the Phillies in style.  The rookie batted .318 with 29 HR, 91 RBI, 13 triples, and 125 runs.  He led the majors in triples and runs and was the runaway winner for Rookie of the Year.  His offensive prowess continued and over the course of the next three seasons he was selected to the All-Star Team each year.  He played six years with the Phillies before being traded after the ’69 season. Over the course of that time in Philadelphia, he batted .300 while averaging 30 HR, 90 RBI and 98 runs per year.

Those numbers put him in the upper echelon of sluggers in Phillies history, and should put him in the upper echelon of fan favorites.  But that’s not where he sits.  Instead, partly due to things outside of his control and partly due to his own behavior, Allen drew much more of this town’s ire than its awe.

One of the things out of his control included the size of his contract.  In 1960, he signed with the organization for $70,000 and then in ’67 he was given $82,000 (making him the highest-paid 4th year player in baseball history).  With big contracts come big expectations.  Although Allen produced offensively, he also struck out…a lot.  He was no Ryan Howard, but he averaged 141 Ks a year.  He also wasn’t the best defensive player, committing 41 errors in his Rookie of the Year season. Strikeouts and errors aren’t what fans look for in a high-priced athlete and so the boos started early in Allen’s career.

During the next season, Allen’s relationship with the fans took a drastic turn for the worse.  Veteran Phils slugger Frank Thomas taunted Allen and his black teammate Johnny Briggs by calling them “boy” and referring to Allen as “Muhammed Clay.”  Things boiled over after Thomas called Allen a “Nigger SOB” at batting practice before a game.  Allen went after Thomas and the two fought, Richie Allen with his fists and Frank Thomas with a bat.  After the two were separated, then-manager Gene Mauch approached Allen and told him that he’d been looking for a reason to dump Thomas but that he’d fine Allen $1500 if he ever leaked that fact.  Mauch told the press that he had to choose between a 36-year-old and a 23-year-old.  Not surprisingly, the fans blamed Allen for the departure of the favored veteran.  Allen described the fans’ reaction to Life:

The next day, I stuck my head out of the dugout and I’d never heard such booing…People yelled ‘Nigger’ and ‘Go back to South Street with the monkeys’ and it hasn’t stopped yet.

While the fan’s mistreatment of Allen wasn’t justified, the slugger didn’t do anything to help the situation.  Always at the forefront of controversy, Allen was both the victim and the culprit.  He began showing up late for batting practice, not because he was stuck in traffic, but because he stopped at the bar first.  He was fined and benched a number of times for his tardiness (read: showing up to the park after batting practice was already over, and being hungover or drunk). Not that it affected him. One of his teammates was quoted as saying, “He’d be all glassy-eyed and still hit one 450 feet.”  He showed up to spring training in 1968 in a state described by reporters as “hopelessly drunk.” He missed team flights, was accused of faking injury to get out of playing, and became a divisive character in the locker room.  The media blamed Allen for the firings of consecutive managers Gene Mauch and Bob Skinner.  He dressed by himself in an equipment room separate from the rest of his teammates.  In 1969, he missed a double-header in New York and was suspended indefinitely. In retaliation, he held out for 26 games and returned only when he was promised a trade out of Philadelphia.  He said,  “I can play anywhere; First, Third, Left field, anywhere but Philadelphia.”

The press took whatever ammunition Allen supplied and buried him with it, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly.  He was painted as a trouble-maker, as a player with entitlement issues.  The stories wouldn’t have been as interesting if the reporters divulged that Phillies management granted the star certain privileges (driving to games, taking time off, etc.), so that never made it to print. And so with the blessing of the fan base, Allen was traded.  

After his trade, he didn’t stop producing.  He earned 4 more All-Star selections.  He was awarded the MVP in 1972, a year in which he batted .308, with 37 HRs, 90 runs scored, 113 RBI, and 19 steals for the Chicago White Sox.  He did return to Philadelphia in 1975 for two more seasons with the Phillies before finishing his career in Oakland in 1977.  

Instead of going down in history with the likes of Schmidt, Roberts, and Carlton, Dick Allen is remembered more for being controversial than for being talented.  Because Philadelphia couldn’t look past his off-the-field issues and see his on-the-field skills, he remains one of the most underrated athletes to play in Philadelphia.