Obviously, it is no easy task to decide who is the best Philly athlete I’ve ever seen play. Except for Rocky (sorry, Mike), all of the athletes so far selected have crossed my mind, as have a few others: Reggie White, Bernard Hopkins, Ron Hextall. One reader mentions Wilt Chamberlain. Clearly, Wilt is the most naturally gifted athlete ever to come out of Philly, but for the purposes of this debate, he came too early – I never saw him play. Another reader mentions Brian Dawkins – a great call, which made my decision even harder. But in the end, everyone who enters this debate designs their own qualifications for the best Philly athlete, and while I think it’s cute how everybody so far has picked an athlete who makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside, I’ve chosen a winner. My selection is a man who was utterly focused on winning and didn’t care if he looked good doing it, didn’t care if anybody liked him for it, didn’t care how he’d be remembered. My pick is Steven Norman Carlton.
The stats are there: a 3.22 ERA over 24 seasons, 4,136 strikeouts, and 329 wins. The consistency is there: no less than six times he won 20 games or more, 8 times he struck out more than 200 batters in a season (and once more than 300), and 16 times he pitched more than 10 complete games in a season (and in one season he pitched 30 of them). The accolades are there: 4 times he took home the Cy Young Award, 10 times he represented the Phils in the All-Star Game, once he was granted a Gold Glove, and he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994. And, of course, the championship is there. In 1980, the only season in the history of Major League Baseball that ended with the Phils as World Series Champs, Lefty went 24 and 9, struck out 286 batters, and held down an ERA of 2.34. More than that, in the 1980 postseason, Lefty went 3 and 0, putting the nails in the coffins of both the Astros and the Royals.
And might I also mention that over the course of his career he cranked out 13 home runs and 140 RBI and once batted .291?
But the clincher for Lefty is that he excelled at the hardest position in sports – and, I don’t mind saying, a position at which Philadelphia is often sadly lacking. He didn’t care if he was a fan favorite, didn’t care how many Carlton jerseys they sold at the Vet, didn’t care if people were mimicking his style or talking about his accomplishments. All he cared about was winning, and he did it often and with authority.
Oh, OK. You want a little charisma? You want to know that he had a little fire in his gut? Fine. Steve Carlton remains the only man I have ever seen swing at a pitch-out. I’m unable to remember what bizarre circumstances once led to his being intentionally walked, but it happened, and Lefty was so furious that he actually stepped across the plate and took a chop at it. How can you not like that?
Plus, he was a lifeguard. Bet you didn't know that.
Sir Charles was a fun guy to watch and listen to, Schmidty remains the best third-basemen of all time, Rocky ended Communism by punching out a roid-stuffed Russian, and Dr. J ushered in the most exciting era in the history of the NBA. But Steve Carlton was the best Philly athlete of my lifetime.