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1980 Phillies unsung heroes: Marty Bystrom capped dream rookie season by starting most important game in team history

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 8/5/2022 Scott Lauber, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Editor’s note: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Phillies’ first World Series championship. Over the next few weeks, we will look back at some of the unsung heroes from that 1980 season.

First in an occasional series.

Marty Bystrom had no idea that he would start the most important game in Phillies history until 24 hours before it began.

The Phillies had just completed a come-from-behind 5-3 victory in 10 innings over the Houston Astros on Oct. 11, 1980, to square the best-of-five National League Championship Series at two games apiece. Amid the exhilaration in the visitors clubhouse, Bystrom sat at his locker when manager Dallas Green approached and said, “You got the ball tomorrow, kid.”

If springing the news on the 22-year-old that he’d be going up against Nolan Ryan in winner-take-all Game 5 at the Astrodome was Green’s way of easing the pressure, well, nice try.

“I didn’t sleep much that night,” Bystrom said by phone earlier this month.

But Bystrom handled everything else that was thrown at him that year. Called up on Sept. 1, he pitched a scoreless inning in his major-league debut at Dodger Stadium. He twirled a five-hit shutout against the Mets at Shea Stadium in his first big-league start on Sept. 10, then won his next four starts to finish 5-0 with a 1.50 ERA. The Phillies won the NL East by one game.

On a roster teeming with unsung heroes — veteran pinch-hitters Greg Gross and Del Unser, backup catcher Keith Moreland, and rookies Lonnie Smith and Bob Walk come to mind —Martin Eugene Bystrom, undrafted out of Miami-Dade Junior College and largely forgotten after tearing his hamstring in spring training, came from perhaps the furthest out of the blue.

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“It all happened so fast and I was so young,” Bystrom said. “I really didn’t have any fear.”

That didn’t mean he was immune to anxiety before Game 5.

To a man, the Phillies realized the stakes. They had gone to the World Series twice in 97 years and not at all since 1950. And after falling in the NLCS in 1976, ’77 and ’78, another near-miss would surely prompt changes to a core that was getting older.

“Plus, somebody also said [Astros second baseman] Joe Morgan made a comment in the media like, ‘There’s no way a rookie is going to beat us,’ ” Bystrom said. “A lot of things were fueling the fire. I just remember it being intensely loud. I took a tip from Steve Carlton and put cotton in my ears.”

Not that you could tell with the fright-wig hairdo poking out the sides of Bystrom’s cap. Besides, he oozed calm. Never mind that the Astros reached base against him in every inning, or that he allowed seven hits before being lifted with one out in the sixth, or that he left with the score knotted at 2-2. On the mound, he was expressionless.

It was a classic bend-but-don’t-break performance. Bystrom got help from his defense, with Manny Trillo making a perfect relay to throw out Luis Pujols at the plate in the second inning and Pete Rose cutting down another runner at home in the fifth. But he also wriggled out of a two-on, two-out jam in the third inning and overcame a leadoff single in the fourth.

“I remember I had a couple guys on and [shortstop Larry] Bowa comes to the mound and says, ‘Just relax, man. There’s only like a million people watching this right now.’ I said, ‘Thanks, Bow,’ ” Bystrom recalled, chuckling. “You could feel the intensity, you could feel the pressure, but I wasn’t nervous. I was confident.

"A lot of that came from the eight guys behind me. Just make ’em hit the ball on the ground. You don’t have to strike everybody out and make perfect pitches. Just hold ’em close. Man, what an intense game that was.”

Bystrom had either iced his arm already or chosen to forgo the process entirely when the Phillies staged a comeback for the ages in the eighth inning. Trailing 5-2 against Ryan, they scored five runs to grab a 7-5 lead.

But the Astros promptly tied it in the bottom of the eighth against closer Tug McGraw, which only made the celebration sweeter when the Phillies surged ahead in the 10th on doubles by Unser and Garry Maddox, and Dick Ruthven got Enos Cabell to fly out to clinch the pennant.

“It’s got to rank as the best series that I ever participated in,” Bystrom said, noting that four of the five games went into extra innings. “I can’t imagine what it was like for the fans in Philadelphia that endured so many losing years. It’s got to rank at the top for me, no doubt.”

Bystrom’s start in the World Series — a no-decision in Game 5 in Kansas City — was similar to his NLCS start. He allowed 10 hits but only three runs in five innings, then watched the Phillies come from behind late to win on a rally fueled by another Unser double.

Two days later, on Oct. 21, the Phillies won the World Series.

“A lot of guys weren’t going to go to the parade,” said Bystrom, who was out late partying the night before. "We were like, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just a parade.' Boy, did we underestimate that. The jubilation you saw on everybody’s faces, and then we got to JFK [Stadium] and, what, 100,000 people? Tug McGraw holding up the [Daily News] — ‘WE WIN.’ Oh my God, what a day that was.”

For Bystrom, it never got better. He injured his shoulder in 1981, struggled in ’82 and ’83, and got traded to the Yankees for Shane Rawley midway through the 1984 season. By 1986, he was back in triple A, never to return to the big leagues. He retired with a 29-26 record and 4.26 ERA in 84 games, including 79 starts.

Bystrom sold swimming pools in the early 1990s and tried to make a comeback as a replacement player with the Phillies in spring training of 1995. He spent 25 years working for a health insurance provider in Lancaster County. Now 61, he works for Renewal By Andersen and lives in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., near Daytona.

And if Bystrom didn’t already realize the good fortune of winning a championship as a baby-faced rookie, it dawned on him when he joined the Yankees and teamed with Phil Niekro, the Hall of Fame knuckleballer.

“I’m 26 and he’s 46, and he’d never won a World Series,” Bystrom said. “I don’t know how many years he played in the major leagues, but it was a lot. I’m looking at him and I’m going, ‘How lucky am I? Forty-five days [in the big leagues], something like that, and I’ve got a ring.' It’s crazy.”

It doesn’t happen for the Phillies without Bystrom, either.

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