Now is the time: Phillies open camp filled with high expectations

John R. Finger

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Quick, has anyone seen any story, TV clip, or mention of the Phillies’ opening of spring training that did not start with the phrase, “Now is the time.”


Didn’t think so.

When Larry Bowa placed those red t-shirts in every locker of the spanking-new clubhouse at Bright House Networks Field, he not only put his players (and himself) on notice, but he also provided the local scribes and talking heads with a ready-made lead.

Not bad.

Nevertheless, t-shirt philosophy and cliché-addled copy be damned, is there a better slogan for the 2004 Phillies? After all, now (thanks Larry) really IS the time.

What? Does “World Series or Bust” sound a little too bold?

Regardless of what the Phillies wear while they soak in the warm Florida sunshine as they begin their eight-month pursuit to play baseball in October, it is hard to cloak the high expectations enveloping every aspect of this club. Yes, failure to reach the post-season for the first time in 11 seasons would be bad. Very, very bad. Hey, Now is the Time.

And why shouldn’t it be? New players, new stadiums, new outlook…

“We’re supposed to win,” new closer Billy Wagner told Comcast SportsNet. “I’m supposed to play good and everyone in that clubhouse is supposed to play good. It’s not like it’s something that’s just on my shoulders, it’s going to take an effort from 25 guys to go out there and win the World Series.”

Yeah, it always does. But the 25 players the Phillies will head into the season with are as talented as any nine a Philadelphia club has fielded since… well, ever. Gone are Jose Mesa, Terry Adams, Turk Wendell, Brandon Duckworth, Mike Williams, Dan Plesac, Carlos Silva and Nick Punto. Arriving are Roberto Hernandez, Todd Worrell, Eric Milton, Shawn Wooten, Doug Glanville and Wagner, while Kevin Millwood, Jim Thome and David Bell return with mainstays Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Mike Lieberthal, Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf.

Simply adding Wagner, probably the best lefthanded closer ever, would have been enough, but the Phillies, with general manager Ed Wade calling the shots, added starter Milton, re-signed Millwood and shored up the ‘pen with former All-Star closers Hernandez and Worrell.

Geez. Who owns this team? Steinbrenner?

“It’s pretty exciting to see the evolution of the team from ’99 until now,” Wolf told Comcast SportsNet. “There was no secret that when I came up, we weren’t a very good team and we went through really tough times. I think the progress of us getting players like Jim Thome, Billy Wagner and the development of a lot of young guys coming up — such as myself, Brett Myers — is pretty cool. To see the culmination of the ballplayers with the new ballpark here in Clearwater and the new ballpark in Philadelphia is pretty cool to see. Everything is coming together at once.”

Ah yes, like boastful t-shirts and lofty goals, optimism oozes like lava from a volcano during spring training. Everyone is healthy and happy with unlimited potential. Tough-minded questions and the notion of what could go wrong hasn’t even entered into the conversation yet. In fact, the perception that there is pressure on this team to win, and win now, was quickly dismissed by Bowa.

Never mind those t-shirts he was passing out.

But since we’re working with an unoriginal concept here, let’s play the question game. Perhaps when the club heads north in six weeks, the answers will be that much clearer.

· Has Pat Burrell fixed the problems that ruined his 2003 season? Is he the 37-homer, 116-RBI guy from 2002 or the guy who batted .209 last season?

· Is David Bell’s back and hip healthy?

· Can Jimmy Rollins grasp the concepts that have made Juan Pierre one of the most exciting players in the game?

· Will the team cut down on all of those strikeouts that have plagued the club like walking pneumonia since Bowa took over in 2001?

· Will Marlon Byrd avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump”?

· Are the rumors about Vicente Padilla’s alleged drinking problem truly fiction?

· Can Jim Thome hit 50 homers?

· Can Placido Polanco stay healthy?

· What’s going to happen with Chase Utley?

· How many post-game pies will Tomas Perez dish out this season?

· Burrell?

· Is Milton’s knee ready for 34 starts?

· Can Wolf maintain his All-Star form?

· Is Abreu ready for the breakout season people are touting?

· Will the Phanatic be allowed to ride his motorcycle on the new grass at Citizen’s Bank Park?

· Are veterans Hernandez and Worrell ready to go the entire season injury free?

· Can Rheal Cormier encore his strong 2003 season?

· Will Bowa and his players get along?

· How good will the view from the new press box be?

· Burrell?

· Is Millwood in good enough shape to be able to crank it up during the stretch run?

· Finally, is it possible for a parade down Broad St. in October? Has there ever been a season so eagerly anticipated than 2004? “There’s a lot of excitement because of what we’ve brought in,” Wagner told Comcast SportsNet. “Being part of a trade and the expectation to win a World Series is something that’s new to me. Each year in Houston we took one step forward and two steps back, get one guy, get rid of two, but here it seems like they have made a commitment to doing what they want to do.”

Play Ball!

Hey, now is the time.

E-mail John R. Finger

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