Baseball: Unfancied Phillies canter ahead: With half the season gone, Philadelphia and Kirk Gibson are proving hustle can beat the rustle of money

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The Independent Online
BEFORE the season began the major league owners brought in a series of measures designed to cut the length of games to under three hours. The Philadelphia Phillies could not have been listening. Ten days ago they played a double-header with San Diego that, with the help of a couple of long rain delays, finished 12hr 5min later at 4:42am. Then, last week, they beat the Dodgers 7-6 in a 20-inning game that lasted 6hr 10min.

Going against the grain comes naturally to the Phillies, who lead the National League East by five games but whose stamina for the long haul will be fully tested after the All-Star break. Setting a scorching pace from opening day, they went 11 1/2 games clear, but any thoughts of a cruise to the play-offs have been disabused by recent reverses. Their nearest rivals, the St Louis Cardinals, took three out of four games from them, and at the weekend the NL West leaders, the San Francisco Giants, repeated the dose in temperatures that reached 140F on the artificial turf of Veterans Stadium. 'I hope they feel like they're in a race now,' the Cardinals' pitcher Bob Tewksbury said.

Whatever October holds in store, the Phillies' revival - they finished bottom in three out of the last five years - has made for heady times in the City of Brotherly Love. In an age of multi-million-dollar signings, the Phillies are a low-budget collection of oddballs, a blue-collar team for a blue-collar town. 'We're all throwbacks,' their first baseman John Kruk said. 'We've all been thrown back by other organisations, and here we are.' Kruk, described by a team-mate as 'out of shape, overweight and built like a plumber', is third in the batting averages and will start for the NL against the American League in tonight's All-Star Game in Baltimore.

On the West Coast San Francisco is celebrating no less a resurrection. They were reading the last rites at Candlestick Park last September as the Giants were ready to head back east for a new life in Tampa Bay. Then their owner, Bob Lurie, was forced to accept a lower bid from a local group led by the Safeway stores' chairman, Peter Magowan. Magowan promptly issued a statement of intent to the bewildered fans by bringing in Barry Bonds from Pittsburgh for dollars 43.75m ( pounds 29.56m) spread over six years. Bonds has the surliness and arrogance that seem a by-product of being described as the best player in baseball, but his performance with the bat in the season's first half - he is in the league's top five in eight offensive categories - has paid instant dividends.

Dusty Baker, in his first season as manager, has also inspired the Giants' pitching staff to play above themselves, with a hitherto journeyman starter, John Burkett, setting the pace with a major-league high 13 wins, tied with Jack McDowell of the Chicago White Sox. The result is that the Giants now have a nine- game lead over Atlanta, only two of whose five supposed aces on the mound - Tom Glavine and Steve Avery - have lived up to expectations. The other three - last year's Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Pete Smith - have looked more like chumps than trumps.

In the American League both races are much tighter. Toronto, last year's World Series champions, overcame a shaky start in the AL East and have their own answer to Bonds in first baseman John Olerud, who is threatening to become the first player since Ted Williams in 1941 to hit over .400 for the season. But the Blue Jays' recent slump has put them under renewed pressure from the big bats of Detroit and the resurgent Yankees, who for once have given their irascible owner, George Steinbrenner, little to complain about.

In the AL West it is anybody's race. The White Sox have had their memorable moments, like Bo Jackson's homer in his first at-bat after hip replacement, but even Oakland, trailing in last place for much of the first half after their firesale of high- salaried players caught up with them, are only six games behind and still have a shot at the pennant.

Finally, proof that nothing succeeds like failure. When Denver won one of this year's expansion franchises, one sniffy Washington DC columnist wrote of the coup: 'They'll have to truck in every bighorn sheep from Salt Lake City to Laramie to make it look good.' Wrong. The Colorado Rockies, trailing in the NL West, are set to break all attendance records as baseball- starved fans from up to 600 miles away flock to see the real thing. As one local writer put it: 'We may be the first team to draw four million fans and give up four million runs.'

(Photograph omitted)

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