The annual, rambling essay on Jim Thome (and why the Phillies should get him)

Thome

It usually comes around once per baseball season that I will find a reason to write something about Jim Thome. Sometimes it's actually newsworthy, like if he had just joined a team ready to play the Phillies in the playoffs. But mostly it just has to do with the occasion of him showing up in town or appearing on the cover of a magazine.

See, it's easy to write about Jim Thome. It's easy because he's so likable and genuine. He's one of those guys that if you ask him a question, he's going to try as hard as he can to give you a good answer.

Case in point:

We were at Shea for a day game in 2003, which was Thome's first season with the Phillies. It was kind of an odd time in team history because the Phillies were supposed to be really good with guys like Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu coming into their primes along with players like Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins solidifying their standings as top-shelf talent. Mix in Thome and Kevin Millwood and the sky was the limit.

The problem was the Phillies didn't quite know how to be good. Worse, the manager, Larry Bowa, liked to talk about "winning" as if it were a character trait. He seemed to believe that abrasive behavior and misplaced anger was synonymous with being a leader. He was the exact opposite of Thome because Bowa could never get out of the way of his own ego. Thome was the biggest slugger in the game during the 2003 season and he was practically ego-less. Thome thought mutual respect and a positive attitude were synonymous with being a leader and always seemed to have dozens of teammates following his every move.

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Aaron Rowand saw this coming

Rowand It’s amazing what a guy can do with his time when he’s been away from the ballpark for almost a week. For me, for instance, I have allowed the charms of the Pacific time zone to wash over me even though it’s been several days since we returned from San Francisco.

Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Nevertheless, in trying to figure out just how the San Francisco Giants beat the Phillies in the NLCS and why we’re not headed to Dallas/Fort Worth for Game 3 of the World Series on Friday, I have been re-reading some notes and old stories searching for ideas and clues. And while I’m not sure if I found an answer, I did find a bit of prophecy from a conversation I had with Aaron Rowand in September of 2009.

Rowand, of course, is the popular ex-Phillies center fielder whose claim to fame was his penchant for recklessness in the field and his ability to hit well at Citizens Bank Park. Though he spent just two seasons playing for the Phillies after being traded from the White Sox for Jim Thome, Rowand was unforgettable. Specifically, the catch at Citizens Bank Park where he smashed his face into the exposed metal on the center field fence remains the greatest catch I’ve seen.

He also broke his ankle trying to make a tough catch at Wrigley Field and belted the ball around as an integral member of the 2007 club that broke the long playoff drought for the Phillies.

My favorite Rowand injury was the one he got while playing with his kids at his daughter’s birthday party. That little shoulder injury tells you all you need to know about Rowand—whether it was a big league game or his daughter’s birthday party, he went all out.

“The next day I got shot up a little bit and went back out there and it was fine,” Rowand remembered for us about hurting himself at the birthday party.

Nevertheless, Rowand left the Phillies for the Giants after the 2007 season as a free agent when San Francisco ponied up the years in a long-term contract he was looking for. The Giants gave him a five-year, $60 million deal that runs out in 2012, while the Phillies countered with three years. The Giants also gave him a $8 million signing bonus though he hasn’t come close to producing the types of numbers he posted in his two years with the Phillies.

Interestingly, when Rowand jumped to the Giants he took quite a bit of flack for it because it was seen as a money grab. Considering that San Francisco finished last in the NL West in 2007 and improved by one win and one spot in the standings in 2008, it’s not tough to understand why it looked like a rush for a pay day.

But all along, Rowand held fast to the theory that when the core group of young pitchers for the Giants—Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez—developed properly, things would change quickly.

He nailed that one.

Not that it was tough, of course. Anyone could see that Lincecum and Cain were the real deal, though the right-handed Cain's current scoreless innings streak through the playoffs is pretty extraordinary… make that downright Christy Mattewson-esque.

Still, the part that stood out was that Rowand didn't give off any false bravado of a guy bragging about his team. He was calm and matter-of-fact. He also knew that the Giants were better than most of us realized.

Though the Giants finished in third place and faded in September in 2009, they won 88 games and the young pitchers began to show their promise. Lincecum won his second Cy Young Award, Cain pitched exactly 217 2/3 innings for the second straight season with 14 wins, and even veteran Barry Zito showed flashes of his old form.

Teams like the Phillies saw what was going on in San Francisco and took notice. Better yet, Rowand, once again, reminded folks about the Giants’ pitching.

“When you look at teams that have success in the postseason, a lot of it has to do with how they pitch,” Rowand said before a game at the Bank in September of 2009. “And when you have a pitching staff like us that you can line up for a five-game series or a seven-game series, you know you have a chance to win every game.”

Not-so secretly, folks in my line of work wondered what would happen to the Phillies if they had to face the Giants in a wild-card series. There was a chance the Phillies would have used Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Pedro Martinez against Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez in ’09 in the same way they sent Roy Halladay, Hamels and Roy Oswalt out there in the 2010 NLCS.

Would the result have been the same a year earlier? Probably not. After all, the Giants’ offense got a serious upgrade with Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff, which speaks to how bad the Giants were with the bats in 2009. They finished toward the bottom in runs and batting average, next-to-last in homers and dead last in on-base percentage in 2009.

Clearly, pitching will take a team only so far. The Phillies learned that lesson the hard way in 2010.

Interestingly, Rowand told us in September of 2009 that he had spoken with Phillies manager Charlie Manuel about the prospect of a Philadelphia-San Francisco playoff series, which is another bit of Rowand prophecy that came true. Stranger still, Rowand said his Giants reminded him a lot of his 2005 White Sox that tore through the postseason by winning 10 of 11 games to win Chicago’s first World Series since 1917.

“[The Giants] reminds me a lot of the team we had with the White Sox in the year that we won. We had a decent offense but we weren’t a powerhouse by any means,” Rowand said back in ‘09. “We had a couple of guys who could hit home runs, but we were a pitching and defense team. In the postseason the pitching staff stepped up and it carried us.”

That’s the way it’s going in 2010 with the Giants. Rowand may have been a year early with his predictions, but he’s right on time now.

Cliff Lee’s influence on Cole Hamels

Cliff lee SAN FRANCISCO — Let’s discuss Cliff Lee for a moment…

Alright, alright, we get it. No one wants to talk about Cliff Lee like that. It hurts too much or something. But after he fired a 13-strikeout, two-hitter in Yankee Stadium to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead in the ALCS, we’ll just leave that stuff with one, short and sweet point…

It’s not like the Phillies would be in any different position than they are right now if Cliff Lee were still on the Phillies. They swept the Reds, Roy Halladay lost Game 1 of the NLCS, Roy Oswalt won Game 2, and Cole “Roy” Hamels is ready to go in Game 3. It wouldn’t matter if the Phillies had Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Grover Cleveland Alexander—they still would be tied with the Giants headed to Game 3 with Hamels ready to take the ball.

Instead, let’s discuss what Cliff Lee left behind when he was traded to the Mariners last December for Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez, barely a month after he put together the best postseason by a Phillies’ pitcher since ol’ Pete Alexander. But, strangely enough, Lee’s lasting impression on Hamels and his resurgence in 2010 all starts with a September gem pitched by Pedro Martinez against the Mets.

Remember that one? Pedro dialed it up for eight scoreless innings with just six hits and 130 purposeful pitches. Frankly, it was an artistic and masterful pitched game by Pedro against the Mets. In baseball, there is the nuance and the minutia that the devout understand, but the genius supersedes all. It stands out and hovers over the season in a way that a highlight film cannot capture.

Pedro painted that Sunday night game in September at the Bank. Sure, it was the 130 pitches that opened the most eyes, but that’s just half of it. It was the way he showed off those 130 pitches. For instance, David Wright saw nothing but fastballs in his first three at-bats without so much as a sniff at an off-speed pitch. But in his fourth at-bat Pedro struck out Wright after starting him off with a pair of change ups before turning back to the heat.

After strike three, Wright walked away from the plate like he didn’t know if he was coming or going.

Wright wasn’t alone. After throwing nine total changeups to every hitter the first time through the Mets’ lineupexcept for Wright, of courseno hitter saw anything more off-speed than a handful of curves the second time around. That changeup, Pedro’s best pitch, wasn’t thrown at all.

So by the third and fourth time through the Mets could only guess. By that point Pedro was simply trying not to outsmart himself or his catcher Carlos Ruiz, who seemed as if he was just along for the ride. In fact, Pedro said that the he purposely bounced a pitch in the dirt (a changeup) that teased Daniel Murphy into making a foolhardy dash for third base that led to the final out of the eighth inning.

Yes, he intentionally threw one in the dirt on a 0-1 offering. Whether or not he did it thinking Murphy might make a break for third is a different issue, but not one to put past Pedro’s thinking.   

So mesmerized by the audacity, fearlessness and the brilliance of Pedro’s pitching, that I thought it would be wise to ask one of the team’s pitchers to offer some insight from a pitcher who could better understand the nuance of the effort better than me. Sure, it’s possible I was over thinking the performance, but it really was quite fascinating trying to figure out the chess match that occurred on the mound. Needless to say, Cliff Lee was my first choice to pepper with questions, but he had already bolted for the evening.

Then Hamels walked into the room. Certainly Hamels would be able to satisfy my need for overwrought analysis. After all, he is a pitcher, right? A pitcher has to be fascinated by the art of pitching…

Right?

What I learned was that Hamels didn’t see things my way when I asked him my questions.

I said something like, “do you look at a game like the one Pedro just pitched the way a painter or a musician might admire another artist? Was it fun to just watch the pitch sequences and wonder what he might do next?”

The answer?

“No.”

“I don’t look at things that way. I just saw it as a guy going out there and doing his job,” Hamels said.

Certainly there is something to be said for a guy doing his job. That’s an admirable trait for a man to have. But we weren’t talking about a guy who spent all day working in the mines and then went home and helped his neighbor put in a patio. This was Pedro Martinez we were trying to talk about. If Sandy Koufax was the Rembrandt of the mound, Pedro certainly was Picasso.

But at that stage of his development, pitching was just hammer-and-nail type stuff to Hamels. Not even a year after he had won the MVP in the NLCS and World Series, Hamels had just won a game two days before Pedro’s work of art to improve his record to 9-9 and his ERA to 4.21. Clearly those were the numbers of a pitcher fighting against himself.

Eventually Hamels got it. Yes, it took some time away for the field and maybe even some work with a mental guru/coach, but Hamels finally understood what pitching coach Rich Dubee and manager Charlie Manuel had been trying to tell him.

Hamels_card He needed more tools in his belt than just the hammer and nail. Hamels’ arsenal of fastball and changeup just wasn’t enough anymore.

“He’s added a cutter,” Manuel said during Monday afternoon’s workout at AT&T Park on the eve of Game 3. “His fastball, his velocity is up from last year. Basically he sits there right now I’d say he sits there like 92, 94, 95 consistently, and whereas before he was like 88, 92. And I think the cutter’s helped him.”

It doesn’t hurt that Halladay throws a cutter—a pitch that is held very much like a four-seam fastball except for the pitcher’s thumb, which rests closer to his index finger. Halladay (obviously) has had great success with the pitch this season. Mariano Rivera could go down as the greatest closer and the greatest breaker of bats because of his hard cutter. Just like the split-finger fastball that Bruce Sutter and Mike Scott made famous in the 1970s and 1980s, the cutter is the pitch these days.

Still, the light bulb didn’t go off above Hamels’ head until he watched Cliff Lee throw it during the postseason of ’09. Actually, Lee’s cutter has been so good during the 2010 postseason that the Yankees’ announcers have accused the pitcher of cheating by using rosin on the ball. But it was such a silly premise that Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi debunked it.

Adding on his latest gem, Lee is 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 24 innings this season. Coupled with his run for the Phillies in 2009, Lee is 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA with 67 strikeouts and seven walks in 64 1/3 innings.

Now the question is if Lee gets some inspiration points to his stat line for his influence on Hamels.

“I think being able to watch Cliff Lee last year throwing the cutter and how much it really helped out this game, and having Roy Halladay come over and seeing what a significant pitch it is to his repertoire, I felt it could be a very good pitch for me to add especially because it goes the other direction as a change-up,” Hamels said. “It’s just a few different miles an hour off in between a fastball and a change-up so it’s just kind of makes it a little bit harder for hitters to really pick a pitch and a specific location to really get there type of better approach.”

Hamels picked it up quickly, too. By the third game of the season his cutter was good enough that the lefty could throw it confidently in any situation or any count. Better yet, the addition of the cutter with a curveball for show, too, has made Hamels’ best pitch better.

And to think, all he had to do was watch what the pitchers were doing out there.

“He can throw the ball inside effectively and it opens up the strike zone for his best pitch, the change up,” said ex-teammate and current Giants’ center fielder, Aaron Rowand.

Of course it’s just one pitch and the selection of when and where to throw it is always important. However, Hamels finally added to his repertoire just like Manuel and Dubee wanted, and all he had to do was watch what was going on.

Everyone loves Big Jim Thome

Jim

Not to sound too sappy, but whenever Jim Thome hits a home run, the world actually seems like a better place. Maybe someday we’ll learn that Jim Thome’s home runs cure certain infectious diseases, or, like something from Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, “angels get their wings.”

That would only make sense. In fact, try this experiment some time…

Go to a ballgame. Or hell, go to a movie, a show or the store. Anything. Just go some place where you will be surrounded by people you know. Now when you’re going through the rite of watching a game, shopping, etc., make sure to keep close tabs on the Twins game so that when (if) Big Jim goes deep you can announce it to your friends.

Big Jim just hit a home run!

After making this declaration, run to a mirror and look at your face because there is a 99.999 percent chance that you will be smiling. Ear to ear, baby.

In 20 years of hitting baseballs, Jim Thome has made a lot of people smile. Sure, there is the 589 home runs he’s belted in his career, which is the fifth-most in the asterisk era. Baring a historical hot streak, Thome will join Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. as the only players to unsuspiciously bash 600 homers, next season. That’s a long shot for this year, however, there weren’t too many people in baseball who thought Big Jim would turn in the type of season he did in 2010.

In fact, even though he has played in just 105 games as the DH in his first season with the Minnesota Twins, he should tally a vote or two for AL MVP. Interestingly, Thome’s 25 homers this season are the same as the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, and he also leads the AL Central champion Twins in the category. It has been Thome, even more than reigning AL MVP Joe Mauer and 2006 MVP, Justin Morneau, who has most turned the team into a serious World Series contender.[1]

But it’s not just the home runs that make people smile. No, that’s barely scratching the surface. Everything about the guy is smile –inducing. Shoot, just say his name… Jim Thome… maybe it ought to replace the word, “cheese,” before pictures get taken.

OK, everyone look here and say, “Jim Thome!”

People just love Jim Thome. Actually, they just don’t love him as much as they celebrate him. That’s pretty much a universal sentiment in the baseball world where folks can get pretty jaded and cynical rather quickly. In a business that only goes deeper into the corporate abyss filled with hypocrisy, double standards and a dog-eat-dog mentality, it’s the genuineness of Thome that stands out. And the thing about that is all Big Jim does is subscribe to a theory concerning basic decency.

Joe Posnanski, the Sports Illustrated writer, dropped a cover story on us in the latest issue of the popular magazine that should have been delivered to mailboxes stuffed with gumdrops and lollipops, nailed it. The stuff about the guy we tried to convey to readers during his three seasons in Philadelphia only to figure out that Thome’s kindness wasn’t just relegated to those in baseball, is now available to a mass audience. Folks that might not otherwise know about Big Jim are greeted with passages like this one:

"I really do try hard to be a good teammate," Thome says. "I can't run very fast, but I try to always run hard. I may strike out a lot, but I try to walk to set up the guys who are hitting after me. The other day I didn't score from first on a double. I cost my guy an RBI. I felt terrible about that. I told him, 'Look, I really tried, but I'm old and I'm slow. I hope I can make it up to you in another way.'"

Teammates know he is sincere, and they love him for it. No, he can't run. He has played all of eight innings in the field (at first base) since 2007. His defense was the main reason the White Sox decided not to re-sign him. "[Manager] Ozzie [Guillen] wanted flexibility in his lineup," general manager Kenny Williams says. Guillen himself says, "Go ahead, blame me… . But I'll tell you I love Jim Thome. I wish I didn't. I wish I f—— hated the guy. But I can't hate him. Nobody can hate him."

Ex-teammates still talk about Thome lovingly in Cleveland (he does get booed a bit by Indians fans, but that's for leaving in the first place) and in Philadelphia and Chicago. He is relentlessly positive. Perkins remembers his first or second day back with the Twins this year after a long stretch in the minors. He was walking by Thome, who was taking his slow, methodical phantom batting practice. "And suddenly, he just stops," Perkins says, "and he smiles and gives me a fist. I mean, it's not like I'm Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau. He barely knows who I am. But that's the kind of guy he is. He's the best teammate I've ever had… . I think everybody thinks that."

Thome smiles in his sheepish way when the story is recounted to him. "I think you just want to be a good person," he says. "I'm getting to do what I've wanted to do my whole life. I'm getting to do what millions and millions of people would like to do."

Quick story: a few years back when Aaron Rowand was still playing for the Phillies (he was traded for Thome, of course) and holding court in the clubhouse, he told a story about the first time he ever met Big Jim. At the time Rowand was still playing for the White Sox and finally coming into his own as player. So there he was on the field before a game, stretching and doing some calisthenics when suddenly, a man snuck up on him and wrapped him up in a vice-like bear hug.

When Rowand finally was let free by Thome, Big Jim launched into a stream of consciousness in which he heaped piles of praise on Rowand. But that wasn’t the part of the story that send folks into a gigantic smile… that comes with the kicker.

“I had never even met him before,” Rowand said with a fake incredulousness.

And, of course, a gigantic smile.

Mark-mcgwire-jim-thome-1999 From Posnanski’s latest:

Jim Thome holds out his left hand toward the umpire as he asks for a second to gather himself. He digs his cleats into the dirt, steadies himself. And then, like Robert Redford in The Natural, he points his bat past Thornton, toward the centerfield bleachers.

No, really, like Redford. Roy Hobbs was his inspiration. When Thome was a minor leaguer, he could not quite open up his hips when he swung. He was a 13th-round pick of the Indians in 1989; nobody saw all that much in him. His first year in the minors he batted .237 in rookie ball, and he did not hit a single home run. Then—"because I'm the luckiest guy in the world," he says—he happened to run into a hitting guru named Charlie Manuel. Manuel, who was Thome's manager in Triple A, told the kid that he had to open up his hips to power the ball to all fields. Thome tried, but he didn't really know how to do it.

"He saw something in me I didn't," Thome says. Manuel kept hammering away at him—open those hips, open 'em up—until finally they were in the clubhouse in Charlotte one day, and they were watching The Natural, and they saw Roy Hobbs point the bat toward the pitcher. "Let's do that," Manuel said.

Life is not often like the movies, but the Roy Hobbs gesture worked. It reminded Thome to keep his stance open and to drive the ball to left center. His power emerged. His strikeouts emerged. Jim Thome the slugger emerged.

Here’s another quick one on Big Jim:

It’s a common rite in baseball circles for players to quietly ask each other for autographs. What happens is one player on an opposing team gives a shiny, new baseball to a clubbie and sends him over to the other clubhouse to have it signed by a certain player. Players love signing those baseballs, too. It’s a huge thrill to sign for another player and a true sign of respect if a peer asks for an autograph (without actually asking).

Nevertheless, it’s usually something reserved for the big-time players. Word is Cal Ripken Jr. used to make special time just to sign items from the other team. All opposing team requests had to be made before the series against Baltimore began and Ripken would honor them before the opponent left town. But that was nothing like the one request I actually witnessed with my own two eyes and ears.

Sitting with Red Sox old-time legend Johnny Pesky in the home team clubhouse at Fenway Park, ol Mr. Red Sox summoned a clubbie to fetch two brand new balls to have signed by Thome. No big deal, right? Well, when the clubbie returned no more than 10 minutes later with two signed balls from Thome along with two more clean ones with a counter request.

“Jim would like you to sign these for him,” the clubbie told Pesky.

Pesky took a long moment, clearly taken aback by the request. Then, exhilarated by the fact that Jim Thome had sent two baseballs to have signed, Pesky looked at the clubbie before fixing a stare on me and asked:

“Are you joking with me,” Pesky said, amazed that Thome wanted the balls signed. “Jim Thome wants me to sign these?”

Needless to say, Pesky had the biggest smile on his face…

And Big Jim had just hit another home run.

He's 40 now. For a ballplayer, that's the age when everyone officially looks at you as ancient. Age 40 means the end is days away instead of years.

Still, based on a conversation with Thome in Clearwater, Fla. this spring, and reiterated in Posnanski’s story, Thome warns that there is still plenty of baseball left for him to play. For now at least, Thome says he isn’t taking one last lap around the track.

“I don’t think so,” Thome said when asked this spring if 2010 will be his last season. “For me, not yet. Maybe soon. I have kids and I want to be with my kids, but I think you know it [time to retire]. When the time is right maybe I’ll wake up and say, ‘You know what, maybe this is it.’ It’s not there yet. I love the game and I have an appreciation toward the game and I respect what’s been given to me.”

The 600 homers is looking him right in the face, but it still takes a lot of effort to get his body pieced back together to serve as a big league DH. But you know what, if there was ever a guy who has accepted his place in the game and is the personification of aging gracefully, it’s Thome.

“I think it’s difficult, but sometimes it’s the reality,” he said. “I don’t want to say you aren’t young forever, but you play the game and you work hard and you do what you gotta do to prepare, but there is a time you’re body feels different. My body doesn’t feel the way it did when I was 30. I’m going to be 40 this year and I’ve come to grips with that. I’ve had to work hard to stay where I’m at, but you try to approach it as it comes.”

Then again, Thome always says things like that. It’s why he’s been beloved wherever he’s played and why everyone will miss him when he’s gone.

But he’s not gone yet. Soon, yes. But the Twins are headed to the playoffs marking the third year in a row for Big Jim, with three different teams. Amazingly, Thome has gone to the playoffs with every team he has played for, except for one…

Philadelphia.

Crazy, right?

“You try and look at your career and you realize you’ve played a long time. It’s one of them things that you want to keep playing and your heart is there, but this is probably going to be a little bit of a different role for me,” Thome explained that day in Clearwater. “But I still wanted to play. I still wanted to go out and compete. It’s a great situation, it’s a great organization and it has great people — the manager is great. I’m happy. I’m really just happy.”


[1] Can you imagine a World Series in Minnesota? In the first season in an open-air ballpark since leaving the Met for the Metrodome in 1981, the Twins could host Games 3, 4 and 5 of the World Series, which would be played on Oct. 30, 31 and Nov. 1. The average high temperature during the daylight hours in Minneapolis in late October/early November is 40 degrees. With the games slated to start long after the sun goes down, a Minnesota World Series could be quite chilly to say the least. 

Rowand remembers, ‘For who? For what?’

Ro It was the greatest catch many of us saw and that was before we understood the aftermath. Like a receiver on a fly pattern, Aaron Rowand ran as hard as he could to a point where he thought the ball was going to land, which was amazing enough.

The situation called for it, Rowand said. With the bases loaded and two outs and pitcher Gavin Floyd nearing his 30th pitch in the first inning, the May, 2006 game was hanging in the balance. Xavier Nady’s long fly had escaped Rowand's glove, he could have run for days.

It was when his momentum carried him that extra half-step and he looked up where things went wrong.

In retrospect, maybe it didn’t all go wrong. Sure, Rowand got hurt pretty badly. Who can forget Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu frantically waving for the training staff to rush out to the center field warning track to help as blood poured from Rowand’s face? Very quickly, he was helped from the field by some paramedics to an ambulance waiting to rush him to Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Center City. In that short time, Rowand went from just the very capable center fielder that arrived in town as part of the Jim Thome deal to a cult hero.

And all it took was a face plant into an exposed metal bar, a broken nose that required surgery, stitches for his mouth and nose, a plastic splint to protect his still-tender nose, dark violet bruises ringing his eyes and cheeks, and two weeks on the disabled list.

It was a few days later when Rowand truly became the cult hero when he dropped the retort to Ricky Watters’ infamous explanation as to why he developed alligator arms while going for a pass from Randall Cunningham over the middle.

“For who? My teammates. For what? To win,” Rowand said without hesitation or wavering. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Looking back on it, a writer for Baseball Prospectus named Clay Davenport surmised that Rowand’s catch was the equivalent to him hitting two home runs in the game. Had Nady gotten a double or triple on that play, the Phillies would have had just a 30.8 percent chance to win the game based on Davenport’s situational data. But making the catch gave the Phillies nearly a 60 percent chance to win, Davenport wrote. In other words, for a team that missed the playoffs by one game in 2005 and had not seen post-season baseball since 1993, “The Catch” was something that could have transformed the team.

Of course the Phillies barely missed the playoffs in 2006, though they rallied for a strong second-half when Abreu was traded to the Yankees. In 2007, with Rowand playing 161 games, the Phillies finally made it to the playoffs, though the trip lasted just three games.

Interestingly, Rowand missed one game in 2007 because he injured his shoulder playing tag at his daughter’s birthday party. Oh yes, no matter what the game was Rowand went all out.

“The next day I got shot up a little bit and went back out there and it was fine,” Rowand remembered for us before Tuesday night’s game between the Phillies and Giants at the Bank.

So as he’s getting closer to the end of his current five-year deal with the Giants and his career creeps closer past the middle toward the end, how does Rowand feel about that one play — one that sent him to the hospital and kept him out of action for a couple of weeks — defining his legacy? Yes, it was the greatest catch some of us ever saw, but a baseball player with a World Series ring with the White Sox in 2005, a Gold Glove and an All-Star Game berth should be known for more…

Right?

Then again, if that’s what it is, Rowand doesn’t mind.

“I look at it more along the lines as there are a lot worse things you can be or be remembered for,” he said. “If it’s going to be me being remembered for playing the game hard and being a good teammate, I don’t think anyone could ask for more than that. If that’s what I’m remembered for, after I retire and I’m bleeping long gone, so be it. It’s a good thing to be remembered for.”

Looking back, that’s not too far off from what Rowand told us in the moment. Clearly Rowand was more valuable to the Phillies on the field than rolled up in a heap on the warning track with blood pouring from his face like it was a spigot. After all, he was a player who knocked himself out cold when he ran into a cinderblock wall in college and separated his shoulder colliding with a wall in Chicago — didn’t he understand the concept of restraint?

That answer is obvious, and here’s how Rowand explained it:

Aaron_rowand “That’s why [the critics] are sitting behind a desk or a microphone,” he said tersely with his purple-ringed eyes narrowing. “I enjoy doing what I’m doing and my teammates enjoy it, too. I want to win. That’s how I play. People can call me stupid. I don’t care. I’m sure the fans got a kick out of it and I know my teammates did. Think what you want I’m here to play and play hard.”

Rowand was clearly the heart and soul of those Phillies teams, just as he was when he was playing for the White Sox, too. More interestingly, Rowand became a “Philly Guy” in a relatively short time. Think about it… Rowand spent two seasons playing for the Phillies, just missed out on winning the World Series here (“hell yes I’m jealous!”) and took the five years offered to him from the Giants, which was better than the deal offered by the Phillies.

Still, does Rowand ever wonder how he became so beloved in Philadelphia?

“The thing about these fans is they are some of the smartest baseball fans in the country,” he said. “I think everyone knows they can be rough sometimes, but it stems from a good spot. It stems from passion, it stems from their infatuation with this team. It’s a blue collar town, people here work hard and they come out and watch their sports teams play and they can relate with the guys who have the same mentality they have when they go to work.”

When Rowand was here he went to work. No doubt about that. So when the Phillies fans cheer the return of Pat Burrell, don’t doubt for a second that they will cheer for Rowand, too.

Missing out on Big Jim

Jim ThomeFor about a week I’ve wanted to write something about Jim Thome and how it just might be worth taking a flyer on the guy for the final month of the season. It was going to be this whole thing very much like how I suggested Barry Bonds might not be a bad pickup last year and how Pedro Martinez might be worth a look this year.
You know… trying to stay ahead of the curve.
So growing that big hand to pat myself on the back, I knew Pedro would be good a fit for the Phillies even though general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the team had no interest in the future Hall of Famer initially.
Kudos. Kudos to me, though the Bonds idea was probably a bad one.
Anyway, snagging Thome away from the White Sox before the Dodgers got him would have been a good idea. One reason is because he is still playing out the contract he signed when he joined the Phillies before the 2003 season. Another is because with Matt Stairs fighting a two-month hitless slump and Greg Dobbs on the disabled list/in the manager’s doghouse, Charlie Manuel will need another lefty bat for the bench.
And who knows, maybe he could play first base if really pressed to it.
When the news broke about Thome joining the Dodgers earlier this week, the sentiment from Manuel and ex-Phillie turned Giants’ centerfielder Aaron Rowand was that they hoped the new Dodger was happy. Moreover, both Manuel and Rowand thought Thome would be a huge asset late in games for LA.
“He brings over 500 career homers off the bench,” Rowand said when asked what Thome gives the Dodgers.
Certainly 564 career homers sitting on the bench waiting for a late-game clutch situation isn’t easy to dig up. Plus, in signing Thome it’s obvious the memory of Stairs’ series-changing home run in the eighth inning of Game 4 NLCS still haunts the Dodgers. Besides, pinch hitting isn’t an easy job for young ballplayers. That’s why wily types like Stairs thrive in the role and it’s why Thome might just be a key component for the Dodgers in October.
As the former big league pinch hitter Manuel said, seeing a guy like Stairs and Thome lurking in the dugout or on-deck circle drives opposing managers crazy. It makes them do things they normally wouldn’t do and that right there compromises the strategy of the game.
“Even if he’s 0-for-20 or 0-for-25, you never know when he’s going to hit one for you to win a game,” Manuel said.
So yeah, Thome would have been sweet for the Phillies given the current state of their bench. Sure, Amaro indicates that the team is tapped out in terms of adding to the already-record payroll for the remainder of the season, but hell, the Phillies are already paying Thome.
“Similar to the Yankees teams [Dodgers manager Joe] Torre had when [Darryl] Strawberry came off the bench. I think you’re kidding yourself if you’re a manager and he’s sitting on the bench that you don’t think twice before making a move,” Rowand said. “He’s a professional hitter – he doesn’t need four at-bats a day to stay sharp.”
Thome on the Dodgers doesn’t guarantee anything, but he is a slight difference maker. It would have been the same deal with the Phillies, too.
And on another note, who doesn’t want Jim Thome around? Sure, he’s just a hitter these days and nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, but man… what a good dude. That should count for something.

Catching up with Aaron Rowand

rowandBefore yesterday’s game a bunch of us had a chance to catch up with Aaron Rowand over in the Giants’ clubhouse, who, as Phillies fans know, is one of the all-time good guys in sports.

Certainly Rowand’s time with the Phillies was eventful to say the least. During his first season with the club the team essentially folded up stakes and wrote off the season when Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle were traded before the deadline. In announcing the trade general manager Pat Gillick said he couldn’t see the team contending for another two years.

He was kind of right.

With Rowand the Phillies took the wild-card race all the way to the final weekend of the season. In 2007 they finally broke through for their first postseason appearance in 14 years. Better yet, Rowand had a career year in ’07 with 27 homers, a .309 batting average and an out-of-character .889 OPS.

But when the contract expired and he became a free agent, the Phillies couldn’t compete with the five-years, $60 million deal he got from the Giants. Those two years were short and sweet for Rowand in Philly and when his former teammates won the World Series last October, their biggest fan might have been the team’s former centerfielder.

“I told those guys that I hoped they won every game except for when they faced my cousin [Ray’s starting pitcher James Shields],” he said, noting that he would have been jealous about the Phillies’ run had he not already got a ring with the White Sox in ’05.

Nevertheless, in two years filled with over-the-top hustle and meaningful games, nothing tops this:

catch

About this year’s Phillies’ club, Rowand gave kudos to general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. for bolstering the pitching staff and admits a possible Phillies-Giants playoff series could be a blast.

“When you look at that team over there it’s tough to say you could see them struggle against anybody. They have an opportunity to win every game,” he said. “They have that offense, but look at their pitching.”

Catching up with Aaron Rowand

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Before yesterday’s game a bunch of us had a chance to catch up with Aaron Rowand over in the Giants’ clubhouse, who, as Phillies fans know, is one of the all-time good guys in sports.

Certainly Rowand’s time with the Phillies was eventful to say the least. During his first season with the club the team essentially folded up stakes and wrote off the season when Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle were traded before the deadline. In announcing the trade general manager Pat Gillick said he couldn’t see the team contending for another two years.

He was kind of right.

With Rowand the Phillies took the wild-card race all the way to the final weekend of the season. In 2007 they finally broke through for their first postseason appearance in 14 years. Better yet, Rowand had a career year in ’07 with 27 homers, a .309 batting average and an out-of-character .889 OPS.

But when the contract expired and he became a free agent, the Phillies couldn’t compete with the five-years, $60 million deal he got from the Giants. Those two years were short and sweet for Rowand in Philly and when his former teammates won the World Series last October, their biggest fan might have been the team’s former centerfielder.

“I told those guys that I hoped they won every game except for when they faced my cousin [Ray’s starting pitcher James Shields],” he said, noting that he would have been jealous about the Phillies’ run had he not already got a ring with the White Sox in ’05.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com

Nevertheless, in two years filled with over-the-top hustle and meaningful games, nothing tops this:

About this year's Phillies' club, Rowand gave kudos to general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. for bolstering the pitching staff and admits a possible Phillies-Giants playoff series could be a blast.

"When you look at that team over there it's tough to say you could see them struggle against anybody. They have an opportunity to win every game," he said. "They have that offense, but look at their pitching."

Another whiff

Ryan HowardThroughout the team’s history, the Phillies have always been attracted to those hitters that always seem to swing and miss a lot. Mike Schmidt was one of those guys. During his career he whiffed 1,883 times, which is the seventh-most in the history of the game.

Schmidt’s teammate Greg Luzinski averaged 133 strikeouts per 162 games. That duo of Schmidt and Luzinski led the National League in strikeouts five times.

Dick Allen, Lance Parrish, Bobby Abreu, Juan Samuel, Pat Burrell, Scott Rolen and Darren Daulton all routinely whiffed more than 100 times per season, though those guys were hardly in the same league as Jim Thome and Ryan Howard.

Thome, the heir to Schmidt, is third on the all-time strikeout list and set the club record for whiffs in a season with 182 in 2003. Like his time in Philadelphia, Thome’s reign on the top of that list was short when Howard racked up 181 strikeouts in 2006 before establishing the new Major League record in 2007 when he nearly became the first man to reach the 200-strikeout plateau with 199.

Just think what type of numbers Howard would have posted if he hadn’t missed nearly all of May.

But they wouldn’t be the Phillies if the strikeouts were exclusive to the batters’ box. Oh no. Actually, the entire franchise is kind of one big caught-looking enterprise. They do strikeouts well. After all, no professional team in the history of sports has surpassed 10,000 losses like the Phillies have and it seems as if there is no executive in league history to have been spurned more than Pat Gillick has this winter.

In terms of striking out on the free-agent market, Gillick and the Phillies have made Howard, Thome and Schmidt look like Wee Willie Keeler.

Yes, it happened again on Wednesday afternoon. In what has become a weekly rite during the winter the Phillies were told thanks but no thanks by a player that the team really could use in order to recapture the National League East. First it was Mike Lowell, who would have been the team’s answer at third base. Instead of signing on with the Phillies to play in cozy little Citizens Bank Park where he once slugged three homers in a game, Lowell took a lesser contract offer to remain with the Boston Red Sox.

Apparently, there was just something about all the money and the years that turned off Lowell about the Phillies.

Then there was Randy Wolf, the left-handed starting pitcher who came up through the Phillies system, pitched for the team for eight seasons and earned his first (and only) All-Star appearance with the club during the 2003 season. But after recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2006, Wolf took a lesser deal to pitch for the Dodgers in 2007. Two weeks ago the Phillies came knocking again and – once again – Wolf took a incentive-laden (in the parlance of the game) one-year deal to pitch for San Diego.

Gillick and Wolf’s negotiations went something like this:

Gillick: We really like you, Randy, and we really want to sign you to a multi-year deal. Is that something you would be interested in?

Wolf: Well, Pat, I grew up in Southern California and all my family is here and I would really like to be closer to them. Plus, the ballpark is a little more conducive to my style of pitching. It’s nothing personal and I really liked pitching for you guys for eight years, but I think I’m going to go to San Diego.

Gillick: Whore.*

Aaron RowandNo one wanted to sign with the Phillies. Not even Tadahito Iguchi, the second baseman who asked for his release and eschewed arbitration, passed up a chance to be the Phillies’ everyday third baseman by signing a one-year deal with San Diego, too.

So let’s add it up. Lowell to Boston; Wolf to San Diego; Iguchi to San Diego; Melvin Mora – no dice; Curt Schilling back to Boston; Geoff Jenkins, maybe; and Scott Rolen, anywhere but Philly or St. Louis.

What do the Phillies have to do? Move the franchise to San Diego? Configure a more pitcher-friendly ballpark on the parking lot where the Vet used to be? Give Kyle Lohse or Carlos Silva the worst contract in the history of Major League Baseball?

All of the above?

Really, though, the more interesting question is how does Aaron Rowand fit in here? If they just could have lured Rowand back into the fold it all would have been OK. Right…

Sigh!

By all accounts, Aaron Rowand, the fan and media favorite, really, really wanted to return to the Phillies for 2008 and beyond. It’s just that he didn’t want to do it for less than five years. Only the Phillies offered three and apparently there was no middle ground. They couldn’t split the difference and get together on four years.

And what’s four years in the scheme of things? Come on, really… Four years is a presidential term? It’s 80 percent of one’s collegiate work? It’s just four years! That’s it. It goes by in a heartbeat.

Instead, Rowand got his five years (and, he says, the cash he was expecting) from the San Francisco Giants – a team that came in last in the NL West last season at 71-91. With Barry Bonds gone and a young corps of pitchers still finding their way around in the unforgiving world of Major League Baseball, the Giants should be slated for the cellar again in 2008. But Rowand will be there, crashing into walls, charming the fans and doing what he can to help the Giants get better.

It’s doesn’t seem as though Rowand will duplicate the offensive statistics he posted for the Phillies during the 2008 season at whatever corporation currently owns the naming rights for the Giants’ ballpark these days. But does that really matter? All that matters is that he won’t be doing anything for the Phillies anymore and that’s the really big whiff.

One thing is for certain – the “sources” were only off by a year and $25 million. But, again, that doesn’t help the Phillies much.

——————————————————————————————

* Actually, Gillick said: “Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. We went after him a couple times, and it didn’t work out last year and this year. So, it’s pretty evident that he doesn’t want to play for our team. If someone doesn’t want to be part of the team, it’s better if he plays somewhere else.”

Paying attention is hard – Part II

Aaron RowandWhile perusing the sports pages on the Internets today, one local report caught my eye. No, I’m not going to mention any names or give any links or anything like that, but the story contained a line in which the Phillies’ free-agent centerfielder, Aaron Rowand, was pursuing a six-year, $84 million offer from the team this winter.

What?!?

Citing the all-knowing “sources,” the story indicated that most in baseball place Rowand’s value somewhere in the 3-years for $30 million range, which is right in line with what Eric Byrnes got from the Diamondbacks earlier this year. Rowand, according to most folks who have actually spoken with him, will return to the Phillies for something in that price range.

But those “sources” claimed Rowand and his representatives were seeking a six-year, $84 million deal, nonetheless.

Really?

And no one called B.S.?

Here’s why they should have: Chase Utley did not get a deal as lucrative as the one Rowand reportedly wants when the All-Star second baseman and MVP candidate got a contract extension last February. Better yet, Jim Thome only got a six-year, $85 million contract from the Phillies in December of 2002 when the potential Hall-of-Famer was the top free-agent on the market.

Look, Aaron Rowand is a very nice player and if the Phillies re-sign him this winter they will be better for it. But Aaron Rowand is not stupid. He knows who he is and what he’s worth. He pays attention to that kind of stuff. That means he is not going to be asking for a deal more lucrative than the one the best player on the team just received, or one in line with a guy who just hit his 500th career home run.

If Rowand asks for six-years and $84 million the Phillies should tell him to go run into an unpadded outfield fence… again.

Pay attention, folks.

Matsui in the mixKaz
So, the National League playoffs carried on without the Phillies last night, but not without some of the spirit[1] that made the Philadelphia fans famous (infamous?), and that wily Kaz Matsui.

Oh yes… that Kaz Matsui is at it again.

Not only did he help the code orange, reactor-level hot Rockies beat the Padres in the wild-card playoff game last week, or to whip the Phillies in a three-game sweep by going 5-for-12 with that grand slam and six RBIs. But also, Matsui singled in the go-ahead run in the third inning of the Rockies’ latest victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks at INSERTYOURCORPORATENAMEHERE Park.

The RBI single would have been enough, but Matsui, apparently, is hell-bent on putting his fingerprints all over the playoffs. The fact that the one-time maligned New York Met is so integral to the Rockies’ fortunes shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Hey, he isn’t as good as the New York media gushed when he came over from the Seibu Lions, but for the Rockies he blends right into a pretty good lineup.

Pretty good means they have won 18 of their last 19 games and likely won’t lose again for the rest of 2007.

But what everyone is talking about [2]is the play that caused the normally staid and late-arriving Diamondbacks’ fans to throw garbage onto the field at INSERTYOURCORPORATENAMEHERE Park. They don’t pull that kind of crap in Philly or Shea – plus, the game is sold out long before the day arrives. That’s not the case in Phoenix, where, according to reports, there were still tickets available for Game 1 of the NLCS yesterday morning.

ANYWAY, back to the throwing of the garbage… here’s how ESPN.com described the incident involving Matsui:

The play that drew fans’ ire started with runners on first and second with no outs. Arizona’s Augie Ojeda hit a grounder to Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins, who promptly threw to second. Justin Upton slid hard into Kaz Matsui to break up a potential double play, but Upton hit the second baseman’s leg with his shoulder. Second-base umpire Larry Vanover ruled that Upton interfered with Matsui and called both him and Ojeda out. Chris Snyder, who had advanced to third base, was forced to return to second.

And then:

Though the official attendance was 48,142, when the first pitch was thrown, there were thousands of empty seats, an embarrassment for a championship series game. Most of the seats were eventually filled, but that didn’t mean the scalpers were having much success.

For an environment that usually doesn’t elicit much intensity, watching the bottles hurled onto the field was a strange sight for most of the players.

“I was shocked because I’ve never seen anything like that from these fans,” said Rockies reliever Brian Fuentes, who said it was equally bad in right field, where his team’s bullpen is. “It didn’t show very much class. … Usually, I would expect that out of Shea [Stadium] or Philly.”

Wait a second… how did Philly get involved in this? Do you think Fuentes heard a few good-natured barbs when warming of for the first two games in the NLDS at the sold-out CBP last week? That elevated vistors’ bullpen is in perfect spitting distance from Ashburn Alley. Not that anyone would ever do something like that, of course.

Sic semper tyrannus.

Next: the Chicago Marathon and a trip to the B&N.


[1] They like to call it “passion.” Others call it a $5,000 fine with up to three days in jail.

[2] At least those who watched the game and/or follow this sort of thing – for instance, no one in my house cares. Nor does anyone I converse with on a regular basis. In fact, if I were to bring up the name, “Kazuo Matsui,” they probably would think I was talking about that annoying little green dude from the Fred Flintstone cartoons. Remember that guy? He sucked. Nevertheless, the Fred Flintstone was a helluva actor.

The Philadelphia MASH Unit

Aaron Rowand is out of the lineup for Friday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates because he hurt his shoulder playing tag with the kids from his neighborhood last night after the loss to the Nationals at the Bank.

There are a lot ways to go with this one, such as was the kid wearing a suit of armor? Good thing he wasn’t playing kick the can or else he could have ended up like Jon Lieber…

You see, the possibilities are endless.

Either way it’s good to know that when Aaron Rowand plays tag with the kids from the neighborhood, he leaves it all out there. Frankly the Phillies are lucky he didn’t run into a fence when chasing down some kid.

“I guess it’s be careful when you play with your kids,” manager Charlie Manuel said.

Nevertheless, when it rains it pours with the Phillies. Earlier today Chase Utley had surgery to repair the broken fourth metacarpal in his right hand in which a pin was inserted to the damaged area. The entire procedure took 20 minutes at Methodist Hospital by Dr. Randall Culp and the MVP candidate is expected recovery time is four weeks.

Joe Thurston’s contract has been purchased to replace Utley on the roster, though it appears as if the Phillies will have to make another move soon since the team announced that they had acquired Tadahito Iguchi from the Chicago White Sox this afternoon.

Along with a full cadre of Japanese media, Iguchi brings a .251 batting average, six homers and 31 RBIs in 90 games with him from Chicago. He also brings along a World Series ring from the 2005 season where he and Rowand helped the ChiSox to their first title in a long, long time.

Interestingly, Iguchi and Manuel are both veterans of Japan’s Pacific League. Manuel played for Kinetsu while Iguchi played for Fukuoka and Daiei.

To get Iguchi, the Phillies sent Single-A right-hander Michael Dubee – pitching coach Rich Dubee’s son – to the White Sox.

Iguchi is expected to arrive in Philadelphia tomorrow.

Anyway, with Rowand out, Michael Bourn will lead off and play center against the Pirates tonight. Abraham Nunez is at second for Utley, Pat Burrell was bumped up a spot from sixth to fifth, while Jimmy Rollins moved from leadoff to third. When Rowand returns – he’s day-to-day – Manuel says Shane Victorino will leadoff, Greg Dobbs will hit second and Rollins will remain in the No. 3 hole.

No deal

Trade Aaron Rowand?

For who? For what?

Though he’s in the last year of his contract, has a reputation for being one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game, and is having the best year of his career at the plate, Rowand’s name still persists in all of the trade banter relating to the Phillies in their push to add an arm to the thin pitching corps.

Rowand, needless to say, has heard the talk and was asked about it after he won last night’s game with a two-out, eighth inning solo home run and, frankly, he isn’t too concerned. If the Phillies are going to remain in the playoff race all the way up to the July 31 non-waivers trading deadline, it doesn’t make sense to deal away Rowand.

Why? Well, there’s the matter of his defense. When he first joined the Phillies Rowand went gap-to-gap as well as any centerfielder I had ever seen for the team. Of course he’s being compared to Doug Glanville, Marlon Byrd and Kenny Lofton, but the fact is Rowand can go get it. Plus, he has the scars to prove it.

There’s also the matter of his hitting and is place in the Phillies’ lineup. Because he hits fifth and offers “protection” for slugger Ryan Howard, Rowand is that much more important to the team’s playoff chances. Of course it doesn’t hurt that he’s ninth in the National League in batting average (.330) and on-base percentage (.400) and is on pace to drive in close to 100 runs.

Those numbers make it difficult for the opposition to pitch around Howard.

Still, the trade talk persists despite the Phillies maintaining that Rowand isn’t going anywhere as long as the team is in the race. Rowand doesn’t expect to go anywhere either.

“I expect to be here this season. If they end up trading me by the deadline it will be a surprise to me because I haven’t heard anything. Right now, I feel like I’m a part of this team and this team is the one I hopefully get to end the season with and play the postseason with. All of that stuff that is going to go on is going to go on in the off-season. It’s not going to be something that’s done during the regular season. I can tell you that right now.

“I’m concentrating on these guys right now. I’m concentrating on trying to win.”

Next year, though, is a different story.

***
Nobody asked but Antonio Alfonseca has done a pretty good job filling in for Tom Gordon/Brett Myers the last couple of months.

***
Stage 16 of the Tour de France is closing in on the final 10 kilometers of today’s final mountain stage and I just don’t feel like waiting until the end to summarize it. That’s a damn shame because this really should have been the most telling and dramatic day of the race where the champion is finally revealed in a beautiful sport in a race that is way more exciting than a football game.

The Tour de France is a lot like the Super Bowl except for instead of a bye week and a week of media hype, it’s 23 straight days of racing over unforgiving terrain. So yeah, today should have been The Day.

Instead, well, yeah…

It seems that the riders are a little peeved over what’s going on their sport as well. A bunch of riders staged a little protest this morning by standing still at the starting line when the stage began. A few riders started the race in earnest, namely Tour leader and accused doper Michael Rasmussen.

Could you imagine this happening in baseball? Suppose a pitcher refused to throw a pitch when Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi or any other admitted doper came to the plate. Better yet, why haven’t the rank and file members of the MLBPA staged a protest of some type?

Still, a full day after digesting the news regarding Vinokourov and the Astana team and the alleged positive test for injecting someone else’s blood, it’s still very difficult to wrap my head around it. The UCI – the cycling union – is clearly hell bent on destroying its sport and its riders’ reputations. The lab used by the Tour is – to be fair – really, really bad.

As for Vinokourov, if he did dope, what was he thinking? Didn’t he know that it wasn’t just his reputation and career at stake? Doesn’t he know that unlike other sports cycling doesn’t protect its dopers?

Regardless, it’s all very amazing. Imagine, as a frame of reference, that Alex Rodriguez tested positive in a doping test and the New York Yankees immediately cancelled their remaining games… that’s what happened yesterday with Vinokourov and Astana.

Anyway, Mayo, Leipheimer, Rasmussen and Contador are duking it out up the final climb of this year’s Tour. As long as Rasmussen doesn’t win, it’s OK.

Putting it to bed

Phew! What a crazy few days it’s been around here. Firstly, as was well-publicized here and other places, I did the whole Landis thing last weekend, which culminated with an appearance with Floyd on the Daily News Live show on CSN yesterday. That was crazy enough until one throws in all the e-mails I received (all positive, which I wasn’t expecting, but thanks), mixed with normal life, marathon running and work.

Truth be told, I am horrible at multitasking so a normal day for most people wipes me out… so bookended between a 15-mile run in Lancaster and a 9-mile run along the Schuylkill in Philadelphia was a 30-minute outing on TV. In that regard, everyone says it went well (of course it did – would anyone tell you if you sucked… well, some might but most have a semblance of couth) but it definitely could have taken the entire 90-minutes and there are a few more things I would have liked to say.

One is that if Floyd Landis played baseball or football instead of being a professional cyclist, he never would have tested positive. Never. That’s a fact.

Conversely, if Barry Bonds were a cyclist (and what a huge cyclist he would be), he would have been banned from the sport a long time ago and he could even be looking at personal bankruptcy.

As written here before, it’s lazy, stupid and irresponsible for journalists to write how cycling (or running) cannot be taken seriously when the doping issues in baseball and football are perhaps more rampant and yet they can somehow take any of those games seriously. My guess is a lot of them used to cover baseball and football regularly and either missed the steroids stories, ignored them or were a decade late in coming to the table and have now decided to take it out on sports that have no unions and pro-active and Draconian doping policies.

During the 1990s, the only thing differentiating Major League Baseball from professional wrestling was the script.

Anyway, I think it would have been neat to talk about Floyd training and crazy stunts, such as how he decided to ride to France from Spain before the 2004 Tour de France. I could talk about training and racing stuff all day long.

OK… one last time. Here are a few snippets from Floyd on DNL:

* Floyd Landis talks about why he decided to write a book
* Landis talks about spending the past year trying to clear his name
* Landis on what happened with the testosterone tests
* Landis says he is still planning on racing in the future

And here are the links to the Landis stories:

More: Floyd Landis on Tour to Clear His Name

I also added it here: Finger Food: Floyd Landis on Tour to Clear His Name

And here: Finger Food Columns: Floyd Landis on Tour to Clear His Name

And now I’m done. Thanks for indulging and we will return this to its normal lunacy as soon as possible.

OK… here’s stage 17 from last year’s TdF:

And of course…

And then…

***
Here’s a funny one – I was catching glimpses of the Phillies game from Houston on television last night while having dinner at John Turner’s resplendent U.S. Hotel in Manayunk, when I quipped, “Geez, watching Burrell walk up to the plate to hit is like watching Saddam’s hanging. You’re sitting there the whole time thinking, ‘are they really going to go through with this? This is not going to be pleasant to watch.’”

Then sure enough, he smacks a home run. Take that, me.

On another note, it’s nice to see Aaron Rowand get an All-Star nod. Kudos to him.

***
Not that anyone else cares, but the only proper way to top off yesterday’s action-packed day would have been to roll down I-95 to Washington, D.C. to see Joe Lally and The Evens show at Fort Reno Park. I don’t want to even think about it because I know it was probably a really good show and I’m bummed that I couldn’t be there.

***
I’m not sure where I read it, but it is worth a note…

According to someone (not me and I’m upset I wasn’t smart enough to come up with it, but I wasn’t watching anyway), Florida basketball player and newly drafted Joakim Noah showed up at the NBA Draft in a suit and look that made him look like, “all of the villains from Batman rolled into one…”

Can you see Joakim getting dressed before heading off to the draft? I imagine him looking in a full-length mirror, tugging at his lapels and saying, “Wait until they get a load of me…”

Hey, if he can get away with it, let your freak flag fly.

Buying or selling?

As we enter the last week of June, thoughts typically turn to things like training for a fall marathon, the summer road racing circuit and the Tour de France (me); or the big Fourth of July picnic, the family vacation and which players from the local team will make the All-Star Game (normal people).

But the start of July also means selling and buying in the chic parlance for certain baseball clubs. In that regard, are the Phillies selling, buying or both? Even though they enter the homestand against the Reds and the hated New York Mets just three games off the pace in the NL East, it seems like a fair question.

Clearly the Phillies need pitching help and that fact has nothing to do with the statistics or anything else. It has to do with other types of numbers, such as the Phillies only have three starting pitchers with any real Major League experience and that glut in the rotation that once saw Jon Lieber and Brett Myers moved to the bullpen is gone.

It’s funny how that happens.

Nevertheless, the Phillies are facing a crucial portion of their schedule with Cole Hamels, Adam Eaton, Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick holding down spots in the rotation. With 13 games in 13 days and just one day off between now and the All-Star Break, the Phillies can probably get by with one of their arms in the minors, but chances are that won’t get them to the playoffs.

That means if the Phillies are serious about breaking the streak of Octobers spent at home, a trade should be in the offing.

But there are a lot of other teams looking for the same type of pitching as the Phillies, too. The Mets, for instance, are said to be looking to add an arm or two and will spend what it takes to do so – after all, simply making the playoffs is not an accomplishment for the Mets.

The Red Sox and Yankees will probably be foraging for some pitching as well, which means that if the Phillies want someone, say, like Mark Buehrle, it will cost them.

Maybe it will cost them something like Aaron Rowand.

Trading Rowand for pitching help didn’t seem like that huge of a deal at the beginning of the season, but now things have changed. For one thing it’s hard to say what type of pitcher Rowand could get for the Phillies, and for another thing, the centerfielder is the only right-handed hitting threat the team has.

If only they could trade Pat Burrell for something like reimbursement on the transportation to get him out of town…

While Rowand has rated at the top of the list amongst National League outfielders in batting average, on-base percentage and OPS, Burrell has been simply horrible. In 71 games Burrell is hitting .205 and is on pace to hit just 18 homers with 69 RBIs and to strike out 111 times. Since the start of May, Burrell is 21-for-133 (.158) with 13 extra-base hits and 31 strikeouts.

Worse, against lefties the right-handed Burrell is hitting just .155, so why Charlie Manuel continues to put him in the lineup is simply foolhardy.

Aside from the $13.25 million salary for this season, Burrell’s nearly non-existent production could end up costing the Phillies someone valuable like Aaron Rowand.

***
If you’re looking for the Phillies to go after Rangers’ reliever Eric Gagne to shore up the bullpen, stop right now. According to published reports, the Phillies are one a handful of teams on Gagne’s do-not-trade list.

***
Our current obsession, Floyd Landis, kicks off his book tour tomorrow with an appearance on the CBS Morning Show and Late Night with David Letterman. From there Floyd stays in Manhattan for a reading/signing at the Bryant Park Reading Room along with one-time CSN.com columnist John Eustice on June 27.

Also on the 27th, Floyd hits Ridgewood, N.J. before going to Huntington, N.Y. on the 28th.

Then comes the big stop… Lancaster!

There is a reason Led Zeppelin never came to Lancaster and it has nothing to do with the fact there wasn’t a venue big enough to accommodate them…

***
Speaking of the Tour, if I was pressed right now I’d predict Alexandre Vinokourov will win, but don’t sleep on Montana’s Levi Leipheimer.

Winds of change? Part deux

As the Phillies continue to look for ways to improve their thin bullpen, it’s interesting to note that one player seems to acknowledge that he’s the bait for the big fish. According Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, Aaron Rowand appears to have accepted the notion that there is a very good chance that he will not be in Philadelphia for Opening Day.

Is he heading back to Chicago? If so, Rowand is saying… at least not in Cowley’s story:

MORE ROWAND: In the wake of a Sun-Times report last week about a possible trade to bring Aaron Rowand back to the Sox, the Phillies outfielder appeared on Mike North’s morning show on WSCR-AM (670) on Tuesday and had a few interesting comments.

One that stood out was when Rowand, who always had a close relationship with Sox general manager Ken Williams, was asked if Williams ever told him that he’d bring him back to the South Side.

“I don’t know if I should disclose any of that information,” Rowand responded.

Meanwhile, in the same story former Phillie Gavin Floyd’s spring struggles are documented.

More: Knuckleballer Haeger making case for 5th spot

Rowand deal off

There were a few (published) rumors coming from San Diego that indicated the Phillies and Padres were talking about a deal that was to include centerfielder Aaron Rowand for the Padres’ reliever Scott Linebrink. Apparently, those talks have flamed out.

Interestingly, I asked a couple of people with the Phillies about the rumored deal and they had no idea what I was talking about.

Go figure.

What have you done for us lately…

Heard and seen at the Phillies media luncheon on Tuesday:

It seems as if the Phillies have cooled on Chris Coste. With the arrival of Jason Werth, Karim Garcia and Rod Barajas, the Phillies’ bench is packed. That could mean that Coste, who hit nearly .900 (actually.463) last spring training and .328 in 65 games with the Phillies, could be on the outside looking in.

“I like Chris Coste, and the reason I like him is he played good for us,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “The big thing is what happens in spring training. He had a job at the end of last year. Now, he’s got to keep it. I’m not going to take it away from him.”

This is different from past comments where Manuel said that Coste didn’t look pretty swinging the bat but he got the job done and lauded him how he caught a lot of big games down the stretch.

Still, as Charlie says, “this game changes every minute.”

Since players like Coste are only as good as their last AB, baseball’s most interesting and a true feel-good story of 2006 seems destined to start 2007 in Ottawa.

  • Pitching prospect Scott Mathieson showed up at the luncheon after his check-up with team doctor Michael Ciccotti. Mathieson, who underwent Tommy John surgery in September after pitching in nine games for the Phillies in 2006, says he could start throwing in the next two weeks though he isn’t expected to pitch in minor league games until July.
  • Aaron Rowand says Phillies fans and the writing press will enjoy Freddy Garcia. Not only is he a big-game pitcher, according to Rowand, but also Garcia likes to have fun.

    Rowand also said that one of the biggest reasons for the Phillies success in 2006 was the manager.

    “He’s a big reason the chemistry on this team is as good as it is,” Rowand said about Manuel. “You guys don’t get to see it, the fans don’t get to see it, because you guys aren’t in the clubhouse all the time. You guys aren’t in the dugout during the game when he’s talking to the guys, when he’s conversing with people, helping guys out, pumping guys up. He’s one of the best managers I’ve ever had a chance to play for, and I would have been very sorry to have seen him go after last year.”

  • Like Coste, newly-signed reliever Antonio Alfonseca has to prove he belongs on the team this spring. Still, the veteran closer could have the inside track on the set-up job in front of Tom Gordon though Manuel says he likes some of the guys already on the roster.

    “We need one of our guys to step up. Somebody like Madson or Geary. I definitely think Madson can compete. You guys always talk about how good he could be in the back of the bullpen. I hear our organization talk about how good he could be in the back of the bullpen. The door is open for him,” Manuel said. “[Alfonseca] can definitely take over that job right now. We might have that guy in-house. We need to beef up the back end of our bullpen. The more depth we get in the bullpen, the better we’ll be.”

    Whoever the set-up man will be, Manuel says he will lean heavily on him in order to keep Gordon fresh and healthy for the entire season.

  • Winter Meetings: Cleaning up

    Who would have guessed that the team that made the biggest splash at the winter meetings was the Phillies?

    Anyone?

    But unless Barry Bonds decides to snap his fingers for that mysterious deal to conjure itself from thin air, it appears as if the trade to bring Freddy Garcia to Philadelphia was the thunderclap of the week.

    That doesn’t mean there aren’t all sorts of stories floating around. Like that one that has Jon Lieber on his way to the Brewers in a trade that may or may not include both reliever Derrick Turnbow and slugger Kevin Mench.

    Or the one that has the Phillies in the mix to make a deal with the Blue Jays for Vernon Wells or the Nationals for Ryan Church.

    Finally, how about the one in which Aaron Rowand – even though he didn’t wind up back in Chicago – could be on the move to Texas for one of the Rangers’ relievers.

    According to a story by Joe Cowley in the Chicago Sun-Times, Rowand has mixed emotions about the trade talk:

    Now hearing that the Phillies have been shopping him this week during the winter meetings, with both the Sox and the crosstown-rival Cubs as possible suitors, Rowand is doing his best to keep his emotions in check.

    “There is reason to speculate that I could be traded because [the Phillies] have a guy in Shane Victorino that can fill my spot and comes a lot cheaper than myself,” Rowand said Tuesday. “And I know they wouldn’t mind bringing in another pitcher to try and make the club better.”

    Sox general manager Ken Williams often talks with Phillies GM Pat Gillick, and Williams said of Rowand: “Would I be interested in somebody like that? Yeah, I would.”

    Gillick told Philadelphia reporters that trading Rowand would leave the Phillies short on outfielders, but he said he would like another starting pitcher — of which the Sox have a surplus.

    The major stumbling block in a Rowand reunion? Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.

    “I love Aaron Rowand,” Guillen said of the trade talk. “[But] I wouldn’t trade Rowand for one of my pitchers. Hell, no, he’s not that good. And I love Aaron, and he knows that.”

    So for now, Rowand sits and waits.

    “I was a rumor for five years before [a trade] happened,” he said, “so I’m not going to get emotional over rumors one way or the other.”

    Sorry, Freddy
    Jayson Stark had a great quote from White Sox GM Kenny Williams on the Garcia trade:

    “Man, Freddy Garcia was so great,” the White Sox GM said, his voice literally quivering with emotion, Wednesday night, “he thanked me for the opportunity to come over and win a World Series. He asked me, if he saw me in a bar, could he sit down and buy a drink for me. By the end of the conversation, he had me apologizing for trading him.”

    One man’s opinion
    I’m not a big fan of overweight right-handed pitchers. I figure that if a person’s job is to be an athlete, being fit is the easiest thing to do. That’s especially the case with baseball, football, basketball and hockey players who have the best facilities and the best health care in America. Get in shape… how hard is that?

    I’m funny like that, I guess.

    Nevertheless, when Jon Lieber is healthy and pitching well he’s tough to beat. In fact, the Phillies might be a better team with Garcia and Lieber… if Lieber is fit.

    But relief pitchers aren’t free. Sometimes they cost a lot.

    Add Brett Myers into that mix, too. Aside from his legal trouble, Myers’ fitness was a serious question mark as well. Plus, Cole Hamels has pitched just one complete season of professional ball – is he headed for an injury?

    Along those lines, when has Adam Eaton ever been healthy?

    It’s kind of funny that the guy in the best shape (Jamie Moyer) in the Phillies rotation is the team’s weakest link.

    Elsewhere

  • Barry Bonds to the Cardinals? If that happens would there be a team that Philadelphia fans dislike more this side of the Cowboys?

    The funny thing is that when asked if the Cardinals were interested in Bonds, GM Walt Jocketty said, “No.”

    It’s hard to read anything else into that.

    According to a report on ESPN:

    The Giants appear to be the only option for Barry Bonds at this point. The Cardinals are out of the running, and the A’s, Angels, Dodgers, Padres, Rangers, Orioles, Red Sox, Devil Rays and Mariners — all teams loosely considered open-minded — did not take a meeting with the seven-time MVP when he was in Florida for the winter meetings, the San Jose Mercury News reports.

    Bonds is seeking a one-year, $18 million contract with a vesting option that could bring a similar salary in 2008. The Giants don’t want to pay that much and are offering around $10 million in guaranteed money, so the two sides remain far apart on a deal.

    How funny would it be if the only offer Bonds gets is from the Devil Rays?

  • Could Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens be on the way back to the Yankees? It seems possible.
  • Three years and $34 million for Vicente Padilla?
  • Winter Meetings: Naming names

    The names leap off the page so quickly that they make you dizzy.

    Freddy Garcia.
    Derrick Turnbow.
    Akinori Otsuka.
    Octavio Dotel.
    Rod Barajas.
    Preston Wilson.
    Rondell White.
    Kevin Mench.

    According to reports there is a good chance that at least one of those players could be with the Phillies by the close of the Winter Meetings in Disney World this week. More interestingly, all of the players listed fit one or more of the team’s needs. Garcia, of course, is the top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher that general manager Pat Gillick has coveted since the first day he took the reigns with the Phillies.

    Turnbow, Otsuka and Dotel are relievers who meet the team’s criteria of a set-up man, which, according to manager Charlie Manuel, means they have all been closers at one point or another.

    Barajas is a catcher who could take over the starting job, while Wilson, White and Mench are veteran hitters/outfielders that provide a little depth.

    In a nutshell, the Phillies would be smart to get any one of those players.

    But everything has a price. In this regard the names that pop off the page are equally as compelling.

    Jon Lieber.
    Gavin Floyd.
    Aaron Rowand.

    According to the dispatches from Florida, Lieber could be dealt to Milwaukee for Turnbow. To get Garcia from the White Sox, it could cost the Phillies Rowand and Floyd.

    Yikes… on Rowand.

    Losing Lieber, if Garcia is acquired, is no big deal. Oh sure, Lieber won 20 games once upon a time for the Cubs, and he won 17 for the Phillies in 2005. When the big right-hander is healthy he’s a steady and consistent a pitcher capable of turning in seven innings every time out. But Lieber has been injured a lot during his 12 seasons. He has pitched 200 innings just four times, missed a full season after Tommy John surgery, and looks as if he’s a step away from a pulled hamstring or groin.

    And frankly, the Phillies are a little concerned about Lieber’s growing waistline.

    Floyd, simply, is a huge disappointment. Yet for as much as the Phillies don’t feel as though Floyd is a part of the team’s future, they also don’t want to simply give him away.

    Rowand is the tough one. Yeah, he gets injured a lot, and yes, his offensive numbers aren’t stellar. But it’s hard to deny Rowand’s influence in the Phillies’ clubhouse. Plus, it’s so clear how much the guy loves baseball. No one needed him to smash his face into a fence to see that.

    Nonetheless, if the Phillies can get Garcia, the relievers they need and the extra bat or two, Rowand might have to be the casualty.

    Baseball is tough like that.

    ***

  • On another note, the best blog from the Winter Meetings is Scott Lauber’s.
  • Winter could be warm for Phillies

    For the past two seasons, the Phillies scored some runs. Actually, the Phillies scored a lot of runs. Last year the Phils led the National League with 865 runs, and hold the distinction as the league’s most prolific run-scoring team over the past three seasons.

    Needless to say, the Phillies’ hitters have provided ample support for the pitching staff. But according to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, general manager Pat Gillick is interested in adding even more punch to the offense.

    When the free-agent signing period official opens on Nov. 12, the Phillies are expected to offer Nationals’ free agent Alfonso Soriano a big, fat contract. According to The Washington Post, Soriano is looking for a deal similar to Carlos Beltran’s seven-year, $119 million pact inked with the Mets two years ago. The Phillies’ response: how about five years for $80 million?

    Soriano, of course, hit 46 homers and swiped 41 bags in 2006 with 95 RBIs despite serving as the Nationals’ primary leadoff hitter. In 2006, Soriano’s OPS jumped to a career-high .911, but his strikeouts also soared to a new high of 160.

    Regardless, Phils’ GM Pat Gillick has coveted Soriano all the way back to his days in Seattle. According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, Gillick tried to trade for Soriano when he was with the Yankees, offering reliever Jose Paniagua.

    Though the Mets are also reportedly interested in the 40-40 man – the Orioles too, but they are likely a long shot – the Phillies should view Soriano as a perfect middle-of-the-order hitter to provide the supposed need for protection for Ryan Howard.

    How much protection does a guy who hit 58 homers really need?

    Now here’s the rub – according to sources and published reports, the Phillies could make the offer to Soriano even without trading much-maligned left fielder Pat Burrell.

    Burrell and Soriano in the same lineup as Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins? Yeah, that could work.

    Nevertheless, there are still many issues and bridges to cross here. The Phillies still are very interested in dealing away Burrell and the $27 million owed on the final two seasons of his deal. And of course he has that pesky no-trade clause to contend with, too.

    Suppose the Phillies land Soriano and fail to deal Burrell… does that mean Soriano is the right fielder? Playing right field is considerably tougher than playing left, and Soriano struggled in his first season as an outfielder for the Nats last season. Sure, Soriano led all outfielders with 22 assists last season, but he also committed 11 errors, which was one behind Adam Dunn for the league lead.

    Still, if nothing else it appears as if the Phillies will be very active this winter. The team is still very interested in re-signing left-handed starter Randy Wolf though it seems very likely that he will test the open market. There also have been rumors regarding the Phils’ interest in Gary Sheffield, though the Phillies would not be able to have both Soriano and Sheffield without dealing Burrell.

    More free agents
    The Phillies have one spot open in their rotation and they want to fill it with Wolf. However, if Wolf decides he’d rather pitch for a different team, the Phillies have plenty of other options. Here’s a list of free-agent starters that could pique the team’s interest:

    Jason Schmidt
    Ted Lilly
    Barry Zito
    Mike Mussina
    Gil Meche
    Jason Johnson
    Mark Mulder
    Jamey Wright
    Greg Maddux
    Andy Pettitte
    Shawn Chacon
    Miguel Batista
    Roger Clemens
    Rodrigo Lopez
    Chan Ho Park
    Jeff Suppan

    No thank you
    Aaron Rowand and the Phillies each declined their options for the 2007 season. As a result, Rowand is eligible for arbitration. Rowand turned down a $3.25 million player option, while the Phillies did not pick up the $5 million club option.

    Rowand joins Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, Geoff Geary and Chase Utley as the Phils’ other arbitration-eligible players. The Phillies still control Rowand’s rights and can either negotiate a new deal with the center fielder or take him to salary arbitration.

    Unless there is a trade, it seems very unlikely that Rowand will be elsewhere in 2007.

    Horn honking
    Off the bat: Bryant Gumbel’s Real Sports is the best sports program on TV. In fact, there is no competition and it’s unfair to compare the HBO show with anything else out there.

    When I get a chance to watch it, I do. Sometimes more than once.

    So imagine my surprise when Mr. Gumbel’s final thought to close the show touched on a lot of the same themes examined in this post.

    I doubt Mr. Gumbel reads these pages, so it’s probably just a coincidence and a case of a pair of sharp minds (well, he is much more sharper than me) thinking alike. But if does read this site, we’re very flattered.

    And his thoughts were right on the money.

    Rowand and Gordon on D.L. II

    Of all of the players that could have suffered a season-ending injury, Aaron Rowand’s might have the most dire affect on the Phillies’ lineup. Yeah, the Phillies say Rowand is only expected to miss 4-to-6 weeks with a broken ankle, but let’s not kid ourselves… it will be very difficult for Rowand to return to his typical pinball-style of play in centerfield this season.

    Sure, it’s easy enough to simply plunk Shane Victorino into Rowand’s spot in center, but what about the bench? Surely, the Phillies aren’t nearly as fearsome with Danny Sandoval, Chris Roberson, Michael Bourn and Joe Thurston on the bench.

    And what happens when the Phillies face a lefty? David Dellucci, who had been sitting out against left-handers, will now be forced to play every day regardless of pitching matchup. Surely Dellucci is capable and he came through with 29 home runs in a full-time role with the Texas Rangers last season, but 28 of those homers were hit against righties.

    This season, two of Dellucci’s 12 homers have come off lefties. But aside from those two bombs, Dellucci has just one other hit against left-handers.

    Then there is Rowand’s defense in center. It’s hard to find too many other players who go gap-to-gap as well as Rowand. Victorino is capable, and is a fun player to watch because of his energy, but he’s still a little raw.

    Either way, Rowand’s style of play has already affected the team with two stints on the disabled list for running into things. An unpadded centerfield wall is one thing, but just think if Chase Utley would have been injured during Monday night’s collision.

    Meanwhile, Gordon’s injury shouldn’t be too serious, but it is clear that the 38-year-old veteran needs more rest between outings after admitting that he has pitched with some pain since the All-Star break. That’s really not that big of a deal — Gordon just has to be used more judiciously by manager Charlie Manuel.

    Don’t Ask Rowand ‘For Who? For What?’

    ”For who? For what?”
    — Ricky Watters, following a 21-6 loss to the Buccaneers on Sept. 3, 1995

    In the moment, it seemed like an eternity. A gung ho ballplayer smashes face-first into an outfield wall, crumbles to the ground like… well, a guy who just ran face first into a wall. There was the moment where the centerfielder, almost in slow-motion, gamely held the ball aloft to show that he had, indeed, caught the ball after running full speed into the inanimate, pitiless barrier.

    Within minutes, Aaron Rowand rolled over to all fours, bled all over the rubberized track lining the field, and was helped from the field by some paramedics to an ambulance waiting to rush him to Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Center City. In that short time, Rowand went from just the very capable centerfielder that arrived in town as part of the Jim Thome deal to a cult hero.

    And all it took was a face plant into an exposed metal bar, a broken nose that required surgery, stitches for his mouth and nose, a plastic splint to protect his still-tender nose, dark violet bruises ringing his eyes and cheeks, and two weeks on the disabled list.

    Certainly within the throes of the situation, Rowand thought his daredevil act was precisely what needed to be done. With two outs and the bases loaded in the first inning of last Thursday’s game against the first-place New York Mets, Rowand chased down a sure game-breaking blast from Xavier Nady. But at the last minute, Rowand reached out as far as he could with his gloved hand, pulled the ball in, took a half step and crashed – nose first – into the exposed bar beneath the green padding near the 398-foot sign.

    “I knew I was going to run into (the fence),” Rowand said during a meeting with the press on Monday afternoon in the basement conference room at Citizens Bank Park. “I saw it coming. It was a situation where the bases loaded with two outs and [pitcher] Gavin (Floyd) had been prone to giving up big innings so I knew I had to catch it.

    “It’s one of those things that happens. I needed to catch that ball in that situation. I’ve run into a lot of walls in my day, never with this consequence. But I knew I was going to run into it. That’s just how I play the game.”

    Obviously, the ever contrarian press wondered if such a valuable player like Rowand – who smacked three home runs, 10 RBIs and .333 batting average during a stretch in which the Phillies went 9-1 – should have thought twice before running into the wall. Wasn’t he more valuable to the team on the field than rolled up in a heap on the warning track with blood leaking from his face like water dripping from a faucet?

    Shouldn’t a guy who once knocked himself out running into a cinderblock wall in college and separated his shoulder colliding with a wall in Chicago consider some… ahem, restraint?

    Well, Aaron?

    “That’s why [the critics] are sitting behind a desk or a microphone,” he said tersely with his purple-ringed eyes narrowing. “I enjoy doing what I’m doing and my teammates enjoy it, too. I want to win. That’s how I play. People can call me stupid. I don’t care. I’m sure the fans got a kick out of it and I know my teammates did. Think what you want – I’m here to play and play hard.”

    That blood-and-guts style more than wins over the fans in town that often saves its affection for players that display grit than graceful skill. But Rowand is more than a battering ram. According to the number crunchers at Baseball Prospectus, Rowand’s catch certainly did save the game against the Mets. In fact, writes Clay Davenport, “The Catch,” as it’s now known, was equal to Rowand hitting two home runs.

    Had Nady gotten a double or triple on that play, the Phillies would have had just a 30.8 percent chance to win the game based on Davenport’s situational data. But making the catch gave the Phillies nearly a 60 percent chance to win, Davenport writes.

    In other words, for a team that missed the playoffs by one game a season ago and has not seen post-season baseball since 1993, The Catch could have some long-term effects.

    “I think it can be contagious,” Rowand said of his all-out style. “I said it before about last year (when he was with the World Champion White Sox): When you have everybody playing together and pulling on the same end of the rope, it’s easy to win. You create your own bad hops.”

    More importantly, Rowand answered a burning question that has plagued the sporting public in Philadelphia since it was first asked more than a decade ago.

    “For who? My teammates. For what? To win,” Rowand said without hesitation or wavering. “That’s what it’s all about.”

    Rowand update

    Following his heroic catch in centerfield in which he smashed nose first into the outfield fence, Aaron Rowand was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a fractured nose and non-displaced fractures around his left eye. He had surgery this morning at Thomas Jefferson Hospital where his nose was reduced and readjusted, according to the Phillies assistant general manager Ruben Amaro in a press release.

    Rowand also received 15 stitches for lacerations to his face, but is expected to be released from the hospital this afternoon.

    To take Rowand’s place on the roster the Phillies called up Chris Roberson from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. In the minors, Roberson was hitting .287 (39-136) with 19 runs, 10 doubles, one triple and eight RBI in 34 games.

    For those who missed it, here’s what happened:

    Rowand, the Phillies’ blood-and-guts centerfielder who once described himself as more bulldozer than fence climber, took one for the team and then some in the rain-shortened, 2-0 victory over the New York Mets.

    After starting pitcher Gavin Floyd had walked the bases loaded with two outs in the first inning, his 3-2 offering to Xavier Nady – his 28th pitch of the opening inning – was launched deep toward the far center-field fence that surely was slated to be at least a bases-clearing triple. It’s also very likely that Nady’s blow would have spelled the end for the reeling and delicate Floyd.

    But at the last minute, Rowand reached out as far as he could with his gloved hand, pulled the ball in, took a half step and crashed – nose first – into the exposed bar beneath the green padding near the 398-foot sign. Somehow he had the wherewithal to show that he held onto the ball, then rolled over on all fours and bled all over the warning track.

    “I’ve seen some great plays, but that one definitely ranks up there with the best of them,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “That might be the best effort and determination I’ve ever seen.”

    Outfielder Pat Burrell frantically waved toward the dugout to summon help upon reaching his fallen teammate as manager Charlie Manuel and several other Phillies dashed out to the centerfield warning track to Rowand’s aid.

    Finally, Rowand walked off the field with the aid of trainer Mark Andersen and several paramedics where he was taken to Thomas Jefferson Hospital.

    On Tuesday Rowand had X-rays taken for his left hand after he was drilled by a pitch from the Mets’ Pedro Martinez. He had spent the past few days with an ice pack tied to his hand to reduce the swelling, but did not miss any game action with that injury.

    Acquired in the trade that sent Jim Thome to the Chicago White Sox, Rowand is hitting .310 with six homers and a .516 slugging percentage in 33 games. In the Phillies’ last 10 games, in which they are 9-1, Rowand has been a catalyst, going 11-for-34 at the plate with three homers and 10 RBIs.
    ***
    Here’s the catch with Harry and L.A. from last night’s broadcast on CSN:

    ***
    FYI: Here’s an interesting story about everyone’s new favorite player in the New York Times.

    Also: Here’s an interesting note from Paul Hagen in today’s Daily News:

    When the Padres saluted the Negro Leagues on May 6 by wearing throwback uniforms, San Diego starter Jake Peavy found his own way of paying tribute. On his first pitch to Cubs leadoff hitter Juan Pierre, he went into a double-pump windup reminiscent of Satchel Paige.

    “It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Peavy explained. “I just wanted to say, ‘I know what you guys did and who you are.’ “

    His African-American teammates appreciated the gesture.

    “For a young guy, he’s way ahead of his time,” said first-base coach Tye Waller. “Jake’s so aware of things. He knows history and the game. He loves the game and respects it. It was like he reached out and touched our heritage.”

    Fence 1, Rowand 0

    Let’s start this by saying Aaron Rowand is great. Not only is he a fun ballplayer to watch, but also he’s a treat to deal with on a daily basis and is always engaging when approached to talk about any subject. Better yet, the guy loves to talk about baseball and is a real professional — one of many on this current Phils’ club.

    That said, I hated watching his catch that potentially saved Thursday night’s game against the Mets in the first inning. Worse, I hated watching Pat Burrell frantically wave to the dugout for help as Rowand lay on all fours in front of the center field fence as blood poured out from his broken nose like an overactive faucet. I also hated watching him walk off the field with the aid of trainer Mark Anderson and a couple of paramedics.

    It just wasn’t any fun.

    But boy, what a catch.

    For those who missed it, here’s what happened:

    With two outs and the bases loaded thanks to Gavin Floyd’s walks in a 28-pitch first inning, right fielder Xavier Nady launched a 3-2 pitch deep toward the far center-field fence that surely was slated to be a bases-clearing triple. It’s also very likely that Nady’s blow would have spelled the end for the reeling and delicate Floyd.

    But at the last minute, Rowand reached out as far as he could with his gloved hand, pulled the ball in, took a half step and crashed — nose first — into the exposed bar beneath the green padding near the 398-foot sign. Somehow he had the wherewithal to show that he held onto the ball, then rolled over on all fours and bled all over the warning track.

    It was the greatest catch by a Phillies player in the six years I’ve been watching every day, and probably the best catch by a Phillie in a long, long time.

    Now here’s why I didn’t like it: Rowand broke his nose on the play and has cuts all over his face. No one is sure how long he will be out, but any game without Rowand in the lineup other than a routine night off is bad, because he is clearly the heart and soul of the team.

    That’s why I never understood why fans are so hyped up on players running into the fence — why? Who wants the best players to get hurt? Scott Rolen used to run into anything that got in his way and will end up having a shorter career because of it.

    When it comes to players running into fences and other inanimate objects, the fence will always win.