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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Nationals go familiar route, but can Werth lead the way?

Werth_halladay Stick around baseball long enough and you’re bound to hear something new every once in a while. That is the beauty of it, after all. Nothing stays the same, which is good because it chases away the boredom. Still, it was a remarkable thing to hear some of things Roy Halladay said just about a year ago.

“This is where we wanted to be,” Halladay said during last December’s introductory press conference at Citizens Bank Park. “It was an easy decision for me.”

Halladay just didn’t say it that one time either. Oh yes, the big right-hander made it point to drive home his point that more than anywhere else, he wanted to be in Philadelphia.

My, how far we have come.

“He did say that his was the place where he wanted to be,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. pointed out the day the Halladay trade went down. “A player of his caliber saying that? I’m not sure [if that’s happened].”

Remember how it used to be, though? Ballplayers used to go out of their way to avoid our fair city. Some even had it written into their contracts that they could be traded anywhere in the world as long as it wasn’t to Philadelphia. Then there was J.D. Drew and Scott Rolen, for whatever reasons, needed to play anywhere else. In fact, with Rolen it was turned into something personal instead of what it really was…

He was sick of losing.

But even Rolen admitted that in order for the Phillies to get to the level they enjoy now where players like Roy Halladay beg to be sent here, he was the one who had to go. See, before the 2002 season then general manager Ed Wade reportedly offered Rolen a deal that he would still be playing out. Oh sure, with Rolen at third base and healthy, the Phillies never would have had David Bell, Wes Helms, Abraham Nunez, Pedro Feliz or Placido Polanco. Chances are they would be trying to find someone take the last few years of the 10-year, $140 million that was said to be offered.

See, it was OK that the Phillies had a veritable revolving door at third base because that meant players had changed their minds about going to Philadelphia. Plus, 10-year contract aside, if Rolen had taken the deal, he said.

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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. 

Thome departs the same way he entered

Thome Jim Thome wanted to step out of the batter’s box, wave to the crowd and doff his Twins’ batting helmet to the fans at the Bank on Friday night. As the cheers grew steadily louder as he walked from the visitor’s on-deck circle to the plate, Thome pointed out that the time wasn’t right.

Returning to the ballpark he helped open with a home run into the second deck for the first (unofficial) hit with his third different team, Thome wished there was some way he could have acknowledged the Philly fans. But as a pinch hitter in the top of the fifth inning with the game still very much in the balance, it would have been very odd. See, Thome worries about things like respect for the game and the opponent as well as the proper way to play the game.

Yes, baseball really matters to Jim Thome.

He thought about it again on Saturday night, too, when his two-run home run in the ninth inning started a five-run rally for the Twins that lead to the ugliest loss of the season for the Phillies. This time the ovation for the rocket Thome belted into the second bullpen (estimated at 466-feet) was mostly nostalgic. Sure, it was the future Hall of Famer’s 570th homer and was a shot off the 30th different team, but it was kind of a farewell to his old hometown fans. The standing ovation was a tribute for a guy who got the whole thing started for the Phillies.

Would this new golden era of Phillies baseball been possible if Thome hadn’t signed with the Phillies before the 2003 season? When he left Cleveland after 12 years and 334 homers it sparked a resurgence that turned Philadelphia from a place where ballplayers ran from as soon as they could, to a destination.

Could the Phillies have gotten Pedro Martinez, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay or been able to keep Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels if Thome hadn’t first shown up? Would Charlie Manuel have come to Philly if it hadn’t been for Big Jim? Hell, would Ryan Howard ever been a five-year, $125 million man without Thome?

Short answer… no.

“We needed to do something at the time,” Rollins said. “He brought excitement back to Philly baseball.”

It was a long time coming, too. So if the fans want to give Thome a standing ovation even though he helped the Twins beat the Phillies on Saturday night, it’s OK. For a pretty obvious reason, it felt right.

“That was pretty special. For the fans to do that, it was their way of showing respect and me telling them that I thought it was pretty cool,” Thome said after Saturday’s game. “The home run [Saturday] brought back a lot of memories.”

Thome hit his 400th homer at Citizens Bank Park and is closing in on the rare 600-home run plateau. In fact, if Thome gets to 600 he will be just the eighth player to do it (assuming Alex Rodriguez beats him there), but just the fifth slugger to reach the mark having never been linked to performance-enhancing drug use.

In other words, there’s no other way to view Thome other than as one of the greatest home run hitters to ever live.

“For me, it's humbling to talk about,” Thome said, acknowledging that he was at the “latter” part of his career. “When you get to this stage, it's something. It's pretty surreal to me. I'm just humbled and blessed.”

Actually, his homer on Saturday very likely could be his last plate appearance in the ballpark he christened with that homer back in 2004. After all, he’s going to turn 40 in August and is pretty much just a pinch hitter and a DH these days. He’s not the threat he once was during his two full seasons with the Phillies—where he hit 89 homers—or the first couple of seasons with the White Sox.

But you know what? Thome is cool with all of that. He understands that he has to make some changes and he’s willing to slide into a support role for the Twins’ stars, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Whatever it takes to get another shot at some October baseball, Thome will do what it takes.

“I'm a team guy, and this whole group here is filled with team guys,” he said. “It's nice to talk about home run records. I'm humbled by that. I'm really excited to talk about winning.”

Yes, the end is creeping ever so closer, and the names Thome passes on the all-time lists get more impressive every time he hits the ball. For instance, home run No. 570 pushed him past Rafael Palmeiro into sole possession of 11th place on the all-time homer list. Harmon Killebrew is just ahead at No. 10 with 573 homers.

Plus, with 1,584 RBIs Thome is tied with Killebrew and Rogers Hornsby for 35th all-time. Six more ribbies ties him with Andre Dawson and 11 more equal Mike Schmidt and George Brett. Interestingly, two more seasons could push him past Reggie Jackson for the most strikeouts ever, as well as into the top 5 in walks.

Indeed, it’s been a pretty nice career for Big Jim, though he warns there is still plenty of baseball left for him to play. Last weekend very well could have been Thome’s last stop at the Bank, but not his last lap around the track.

“I don’t think so,” Thome said when asked 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.”

And where would the Phillies be without him? Probably not where they are now.

Thome not ready to hang ’em any time soon

Jim_thome CLEARWATER, Fla.— It doesn’t matter what it says across the front of the jersey or even what color the whole ensemble is because Jim Thome always looks good in a baseball uniform. For one reason or another, the guy was born to wear the uniform.

The Twins makes it a cool 5-for-5 for Thome, who showed up today at Bright House Field in a dark blue uni with grey pinstriped pants, and, of course, those trademarked bloused pants showing just enough sock. You know, old school.

Hell, Thome is a ballplayer and he makes any uniform look the way it should.

Maybe for Thome it’s enough to leave out the “school” in that last phrase. After all, he’s going to turn 40 in August and is pretty much just a pinch hitter and a DH these days. He’s not the threat he once was during his two full seasons with the Phillies or the first couple of seasons with the White Sox. In fact, Thome has not hit a home run since last Aug. 21 and had just five singles in 22 pinch-hitting appearances with the Dodgers. Even with 564 career homers, there weren’t too many takers for Thome’s services last winter before he caught on with the Twins.

But you know what? Thome is cool with all of that. He understands that he has to make some changes.

“I think it’s difficult, but sometimes it’s the reality,” he said before batting cleanup as the Twins DH on Saturday afternoon. “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.”

It’s tough to imagine what would have happened to the Phillies if Thome had not left Cleveland before the 2003 season, just as it’s difficult to see how things would have been different had he not been injured during the 2005 season and played out his contract in Philadelphia. Had Thome not been injured it’s pretty reasonable to think that Ryan Howard would have been traded.

Nevertheless, don’t write off Thome as simply being a brief exit point until Howard was ready. Not at all. Thome really got the ball rolling for baseball in Philadelphia. He legitimized the notion that the Phillies could be a competitive ballclub in the NL East.

“We needed to do something at the time,” Jimmy Rollins said. “He brought excitement back to Philly baseball.”

Now the end is creeping ever so closer, though 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 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.”

Perhaps two more seasons puts Thome at 600 career home runs, but of course that depends on how many chances he gets to swing the bat for the Twins this season. As it stands now, lefty Jason Kubel is tops on the Twins’ depth chart at DH and he’s coming off a season in which he hit 28 homers and got 103 RBIs.

Don’t expect Thome to play much at first base, either. Not only do the Twins have perennial All-Star and the 2006 MVP in Justin Morneau playing there, but also Thome has been at first base four times since leaving the Phillies in 2005.

But you know what? Thome has accepted the fact that the Twins’ offense isn’t going to lean on him too much. Call it aging gracefully.

“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. “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. You look around here and see Morneau and [2009 MVP Joe] Mauer and they are good people and I think that’s a reflection on the organization for sure.”

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.

Just don’t expect him to go anywhere too soon.

Halladay the latest to join greatest era in Philly sports history

Presser Sometimes it’s easy to get excited about the littlest things. Maybe it’s a new episode of a TV show, or a favorite meal. Or it could be a small gift or a short trip to a favorite place.

You know what they say—sometimes it’s the small things that matter the most.

So when the team you’ve written about for the past 10 years gets the game’s best pitcher who just so happened to be the most-coveted player on the trade/free-agent market, it should be pretty exciting…

Right?

Yawn.

Sitting there and listening as Roy Halladay was being introduced to us media types during Wednesday’s press conference in Citizens Bank Park, a different feel pervaded. Usually, during such settings it’s not very difficult to get swept up in the emotion. After all, teams usually trot in family members, agents, front-office types and other hangers-on. In rare cases, like Wednesday’s Halladay presser for example, the national cable TV outlets turned out to aim cameras at the proceedings.

But when a team introduces its third former Cy Young Award winner since July after trading one away, there’s a tendency to become a little used to big events like introductory press conferences. Think about it—this year the Phillies have added Pedro Martinez, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. That’s five Cy Young Awards right there.

At the same time, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Charlie Manuel, Jayson Werth and Ruben Amaro Jr. all got new contracts since the Phillies won the World Series. Not to mention, the team signed Placido Polanco, Brad Lidge, Raul Ibanez and, of course, had that little parade down Broad Street.

In other words, you can see why it was easy not to get too worked up over Halladay’s arrival. That’s doubly the case considering the Flyers fired a coach and the Sixers welcomed back Allen Iverson within the past two weeks. Add in the facts that the deal for Halladay took three days to come together after Amaro spent the week in Indianapolis denying involvement of anything and it’s easy to get a little jaded.

Wait… is Ruben denying he was even in Indianapolis now?

Of course with success comes boredom. In fact, a wise man once told me that championships were boring and bad for business. Perhaps he is correct, because while people are excited about the recent developments with the Phillies, they also are expected now. It’s not quite complacency, but during the past decade every Philadelphia team has been in the mix to acquire the top players on the market. Sure, we’re still getting used to all of this largesse and therefore go a little wild for guys like Halladay, but really…

Been there, done that.

That brings us to the grand point—this is the greatest time ever to be a Philadelphia sports fan. Ever. Since 2001, every team but the Flyers have been to the championship round of the playoffs and every team has made gigantic, stop-the-sports-world acquisitions.

Just look at the list of names:

Roy Halladay
Pedro
Cliff Lee
Jim Thome
Larry Bowa
Jeremy Roenick
Chris Pronger
Peter Forsberg
Chris Webber
Elton Brand
Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo
Terrell Owens
Asante Samuel
Jevon Kearse
Michael Vick

If the team wants them, they are pretty darned good at getting them.

Certainly that wasn’t always the case. A friend’s dad often tells the story about how he and his friends were amazed that a Philadelphia team could get a player like Julius Erving, and I remember watching on TV when Pete Rose signed his four-year, $3.2 million deal with the Phillies. The fact that the Pete Rose signing was on live TV proves how big it was because, a.) there weren’t a whole lot of channels on the dial back then. Just 12 and none of them offered all sports programming. Cable? What?

And, b.) I didn’t even live in the Philadelphia region when Rose signed. Hell, I didn’t even live in Pennsylvania.

Oh, there were other big deals, too. Like when the Sixers traded Caldwell Jones to get Moses Malone, for instance. But they were few and far between. For every Moses, there was always a Lance Parrish lurking at the podium ready to take questions about how he will deliver the championship.

Thome_cryAs far as those big moves go, the mid-season trade for Dikembe Mutombo was the first major move for us at the CSNPhilly.com site. We had three people on the staff back then and the trade came down on a snowy February afternoon that kept us cooped up in our little corner of the second floor in the Wachovia Center. Better yet for the Sixers, the deal for Mutombo was one of the few that worked out as designed. Mutombo gave the team the defense and presence in the middle it lacked and made it to the NBA Finals.

With Shaq and Kobe in mid dynasty, a trip to the finals for a team like the Sixers was as good as winning it all.

Jim Thome’s arrival was bigger yet. Not only was Thome the biggest name on the free-agent market, but also he was a symbol that there were big changes coming. Of course the unforgettable moment of Thome’s first visit to Philly was when he popped out of his limo to sign autographs and pose for pictures with the union guys from I.B.E.W. who held an impromptu rally outside the ballpark to try and sway the slugger to sign with the Phillies.

Moreover, Thome’s introductory press conference was memorable because the big fella was reduced to tears when talking about the switch from the Indians. It was a scene that hadn’t been repeated in these parts until Allen Iverson got a bit weepy when talking about his return to Philadelphia.

Oh yes, Philadelphia will make a guy cry.

Or maybe even do a bunch of sit-ups in the front yard.

Maybe in a different era, the acquisition of Roy Halladay would be a bigger deal. Maybe when the contract plays itself out—potentially five years and $100 million—we’ll view it differently. Until then he’s just another big name in a veritable cavalcade of superstars that seem to wind up in our town.

The NLCS: Are the Phillies in the Dodgers’ heads?

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com LOS ANGELES—Lots of interesting plots and subplots to last night’s Game 1 of the NLCS here at Dodger Stadium. The biggest, of course, was the Phillies’ ability to get clutch hits against the Dodgers’ lefties.

Both of the three-run homers and a key double from Ryan Howard came against lefties Clayton Kershaw and George Sherrill. The notable one there was the blast off Sherrill by lefty Raul Ibanez. After all, no lefty had homered off Sherrill in 98 games and nearly two seasons.

For a team that went out and got Sherrill specifically to pitch to the Phillies sluggers in late-game playoff situations, Ibanez’s homer was huge. Deeper than that, five of the Phillies’ eight hits in the Game 1 victory were from lefty hitters against lefty pitchers.

So it begs the question… are the Phillies in the Dodgers’ heads?

Yeah, yeah, it’s only Game 1, but if Pedro were to dial it up in Game 2 and the Phillies go home with a two-game lead and Cliff Lee ready to pitch in chilly and rainy Philly, this one might be over before it gets started.

So are the Phillies in the Dodgers’ heads? Certainly based on some of the moves the Dodgers have made it’s not an unreasonable idea. After all, in addition to trading for Sherrill, the Dodgers got Jim Thome to do what Matt Stairs does for the Phillies. In fact, Dodgers’ GM Ned Colletti cited Stairs when talking about the move to bring in Thome.

The thing about that is people barely knew Stairs was on the Phillies until he crushed that ridiculously long homer at Dodger Stadium in Game 4 of last year’s NLCS. Reliever Jonathan Broxton has been known to get salty when talking about Stairs’ homer and the Dodgers fans booed Stairs louder than anyone else during the player introductions.

So maybe the Phillies are in their heads?

We’ll see as the series wears on, but in the meantime Tommy Lasorda (the greatest phony in baseball history according to those in the know), is already chirping. The old Dodger manager was reportedly talking trash about the 1977 NLCS where the Phillies took Game 1 only to lose it in four games.

Really, 1977? That was generations ago. As one of Lasorda’s old players Davey Lopes said in regard to Larry Bowa harboring ill feelings about a controversial call in the 1977 NLCS:

“It was 31 years ago. Quit crying and move on.”

Maybe they can’t. Maybe they’re too wrapped up on what happened last year.

Here’s a few fun facts:
• The Phillies are 1-6 all-time in Game 2 of the NLCS. The only Game 2 victory came last year at the Bank against the Dodgers.

• The Phillies and Dodgers are meeting for the fifth time in the NLCS, which is tied for the most championship series matchups with the Pirates and Reds. Chances are those two teams won’t be playing each other in the NLCS any time soon.

• The Phillies have won 15 of their last 21 games in the NLCS dating back to 1980.

• Dodgers manager Joe Torre is making his 14th straight trip to the playoffs. He has not been to the World Series since 2003 and hasn’t won it since 2000.

The NLCS: Phillies in five

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com LOS ANGELES — Let’s just put it out there on the line—Dodger Stadium is my favorite ballpark. It isn’t so much about the actual facility as it is what it represents. Of course the reality of how Dodger Stadium was built compared to its ideals of manifest destiny and a veritable garden party don’t exactly mesh, but still… the views!

That’s the part that’s amazing—sitting in the actual ballpark one can see palm trees and flowers with the picturesque San Gabriels looming just beyond the pavilion. Yet when one goes to the very top of the park to exit and looks out at the skyline of Los Angeles with its hulking post-modernist buildings and the Hollywood sign off to the right it’s hard not to think of the opening scene from “Blade Runner.”

Dodger Stadium is the second oldest ballpark in the National League, but it represents the future. It always has.

So we’ll go to Dodger Stadium on Thursday afternoon for the first game of the 2009 NLCS. There’s a pretty good chance that we’ll be back later next week, too, in order to figure out which team will go to the World Series.

If the Phillies won the National League at Dodger Stadium last year, why can’t they do it again?

Well, they can do it again. After all, in Game 1, Cole Hamels will face 21-year old Clayton Kershaw in a battle of young lefties. The interesting caveat in this matchup is Kershaw is 0-3 with a 6.64 ERA in four starts against the Phillies. Plus, three years ago he was still in high school. Of the teams that he has faced at least twice in his short career, Kershaw is the worst against the Phillies.

Moreover, the Dodgers will send ex-Phillie Vicente Padilla to the mound in Game 2. The Phillies know him well and understand that he is full of weaknesses and can easily be intimidated. As Jimmy Rollins said during Wednesday’s workout:

“When he’s good, he’s really good. If not, he’s way off.”

Take away his win against the Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLDS and Padilla hasn’t pitched seven innings since the middle of July. Besides, that Game 3 was Padilla’s first appearance ever in the playoffs so who’s to know if he can keep his focus long enough to be known a s a big-game pitcher.

Hiroki Kuroda is known to the Phillies and not in a good way. Sure, everyone remembers that incident with Shane Victorino during last year’s NLCS, but more telling is that the Phils are 6-for-60 in three games against the Japanese righty.

Then there is Randy Wolf, the ex-Phillie who pitched the first-ever game at Citizens Bank Park. Pitching for other teams at the Bank, Wolf is much better than he was as a Phillie. However, Wolf’s playoff debut wasn’t too good and he was pushed out of a Game 1 start to go in Game 4.

So it will come down to the bullpens. If the Phillies can get a lead and hold it, they will return to the World Series. But if they let Kershaw, Padilla, Kuroda and Wolf hang around, it could prove to be a tough road for the Phillies.

I’m not sure that will happen. That’s why I’m going with the Phillies in five games. Yeah, that goes against the conventional wisdom, but these aren’t the Phillies of yore. These guys know how to win and so they won’t have to return to Southern California until the end of October when they face the Angels in the World Series.

Yeah, that’s it—Phillies vs. Angels in the Fall Classic.

Can the Phillies repeat? It’s tough, says Dodgers manager Joe Torre who was guided the last team to do it in 1998-2000 with the Yankees.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com “Well, first off, you’ve got a bulls-eye on your back,” Torre said. “That’s one. Everyone seems to put on their Sunday best to play you. You always get the best pitchers matching up. And then if you have a young pitcher that nobody knows, it seems to be a challenge to that young man to show what they can do against the world champs or those teams.

“So, I think when you repeat, you basically have to go through a tougher season to get there. And the Phillies, they’ve experienced those ups and downs. They go through and have a good streak, and I think they went down to Houston and got swept. But the thing about it, when you have a ball club that has been as consistent, knowing they’re good, they rebound from things like that. I think that’s the main thing about Philadelphia is how resilient they’ve been. Early in the year this year they didn’t win any games at home. It didn’t seem to bother them. They just kept plugging away. I think that’s why they’re so good. Not to mention the talent they have. When you look down that lineup, a couple of switch hitters at the top and then a couple of left-handers and then (Jayson) Werth who’s that blue-collar guy, you may compare him a little bit to Casey Blake type of individual, they’re going to fight you every step of the way. They’re a ballclub that has a purpose—they have a purpose out there, and we certainly are aware of it.”

Let’s pause for a second and think about the notion of Charlie Manuel becoming the first manager to repeat as World Champion since Joe Torre and the first National Leaguer to do it since Sparky Anderson and the Big Red Machine of 1975 and 1976…

Yeah, Charlie Manuel.

“You like to be able to look over your shoulder and know that your manager believes in you. He’s there for you,” ex-Phillies and now Dodgers pinch hitter Jim Thome said. “Charlie does that. He keeps it relaxed so all you have to do is go out and play. You can’t explain how important that is.”

It starts on Thursday afternoon from here in California.

Is everyone ready?

Just Manny being Rickey

image from fingerfood.typepad.com WASHINGTON – I have Brad Lidge fatigue. No, I’m not tired of Brad Lidge. In fact, he’s a great dude. He’s nice, polite, personable, Thoughtful, funny and smart. Generally, those aren’t the best qualities for a closer, but it seemed to work out pretty well last year.

Hey, Lidge might be the only ballplayer in history to pursue an advanced degree in biblical archaeology. Think he and Brett Myers are sitting around discussing that?

Anyway, I have Lidge fatigue because I’m tired of writing about closers, the ninth inning and saves. Lately, it seems like that’s all we do. Charlie Manuel is tired of being asked about it, too, but frankly it’s the news. In the news business, one tends to focus on those types of things.

And apropos of that, I asked Charlie if he’d consider allowing a pitcher to go more than one inning to nail down a save because he labeled himself a “throwback guy.” The answer, of course, was no because with a bullpen thinned out by injuries and Lidge’s struggles. Remember the stretch run in September of 2007 when Manuel rode J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon and Brett Myers? If it seemed as if those guys pitched every game in the rush to take the NL East from the Mets it was because they did… practically.

Myers pitched 16 games that September, Gordon pitched 18, and Romero got into 20 games.

Fortunately for Manuel, he has a better starting staff this year so he won’t have to reprise that tact with Myers, Ryan Madson and perhaps Chan Ho Park until Lidge gets it together.

Regardless, the closer/Lidge issues are just filling the time until we start diving the fight for home-field advantage in the NLDS. As it stands now, the Phillies would go to Los Angeles for the first two games of the opening playoffs series while St. Louis would host Colorado. If the Phillies survive that scenario, they would host Colorado but travel to St. Louis for the NLCS opener.

Of course there are still 24 games to go and the Dodgers’ starting pitchers are struggling. Undoubtedly the Phillies would not want to trade their Lidge problems for ones with a starter.

Anyway, to put the Lidge (and playoff seeding) chatter on hold for a bit, I picked up a funny little blog post sent from a friend about the Dodgers, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome.

Apparently, according to the post, Manny has no idea who Jim Thome is. Never mind the fact that Thome and Manny were teammates for 10 years in Cleveland.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Conjuring the famous and debunked story about Rickey Henderson and John Olerud in which Rickey was said to explain to Olerud when both players were on the Mariners that he once was teammates with a guy who wore a helmet in the field with the Mets.

“Yeah, that was me, Rickey,” Olerud said in the myth.

So now we have Manny, who according to the author of Diamond Hoggers, just couldn’t figure out who the hell some guy named Jim Thome was.

To wit:

This comes from a guy we know who works in the Dodgers organization. He wrote us an e-mail because he thought the story would please us. He was right.

Hey fellas,Hope all is well. Had a story for you that you might find kind of funny and that might go well on your site. Just leave my name out of it. So here goes:Alright so we all know that Jim Thome was traded to the Dodgers at the end of August, reuniting him with Ramirez after all those years in Cleveland. That’s all fine and dandy and all, but get this….. hours before the trade is made official news to the media one of the clubhouse coaches goes over to Manny and says “hey we’re bringing Jim Thome back here to play with you”. Ramirez looks at him, stares off into the distance for a few minutes. Our coach starts to realize that either Manny isn’t happy or he’s got no fucking clue what is going on. Our coach couldn’t believe it was that though, since they played together for almost 10 years in Cleveland. Finally our coach says “Manny aren’t you happy about Jim coming to LA?”Ramirez looks him dead in the eye and says “I’ve never played with anyone named Jim.” Gets up, and walks away. No [bleep]. Our coach left it at that.


Wonder if that coach is a certain ex-Phillies manager?

Nevertheless, add this to the absent-minded legend that is Manny Ramirez. Or add it to the pile of Manny stories that Manuel likes to tell from their days in the Indians’ organization. Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon for Manny to show up at the ballpark with no money to pay for a taxi, no suitcase for a road trip or equipment.

Call him Manny Gump – the baseball hitting savant.

Or just call this episode a case of Manny being Rickey.

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.

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.

Breaking up the band

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Sometimes breaking up the band isn’t such a bad thing. Imagine the stuff the Beatles or Led Zeppelin would have trotted out there if they were just playing out the string and trying to fulfill a contract. I’ll get to the point in a bit, but first some blather…

Guess what? The Phillies did add to the payroll by trading for Cliff Lee. The tally is an extra $2 million, which is approximately twice the salary Pedro Martinez will get paid for this season.

So yeah, figure this one out – according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Phillies added two pitchers to their roster that have a combined four Cy Young Awards and it cost them around $3 million for 2009. That means Lee is eighth on the club in salary and Pedro 18th. Pedro gets approximately the same paycheck as Scott Eyre and significantly less than Chan Ho Park.

Meanwhile Lee is getting a little bit more than Joe Blanton and significantly less than Jamie Moyer.

Isn’t baseball great like that? A meritocracy? Well, kind of… maybe. Put it this way – the MLBPA protects its members just as long as their names don’t appear on an ambiguous list that should have been destroyed or even compiled in the first place.

Nevertheless, the interesting part about the salaries isn’t the names attached to them or the high figures that make them seem so unreal. Nor is it the fact that all of those contracts are guaranteed and often have incentives built in, too.

Who cares about all of that.

No, the interesting part is that the Phillies can afford to pay out those salaries in a depressed economy and not too long after the team never gave out that kind of cash. Remember when the Phillies claimed to have offered Scott Rolen a 10-year contract worth more than $140 million? In reality, the Phillies never offered the 10-years and $140 million they keep touting. Instead, it the guaranteed portion of the offer was six years, $72 million. The deal stretched to 10 years and to $140 million only if one included all the options and incentives and buy-outs in the package, all structured in the club’s behalf.

If Rolen had signed that deal he would have been a Phillies last season. Had that occurred the Phillies never would have signed Jim Thome nor would they ever have had Placido Polanco. That means the paths to the Majors for Ryan Howard and Chase Utley would never been blocked.

How different would it have been if Utley would have gotten a chance to play every day in the big leagues when he was 24 instead of 26? Perhaps Howard would have been with the Phillies in 2003 or 2004. Coming off a minor league season where he belted 46 homers between Reading and Scranton in 2004, Howard played 61 games in Triple-A in 2005. That was 61 too many.

So imagine if Rolen had remained in Philly instead of escaping to St. Louis and then Toronto.

Howard, Utley, Rolen and Rollins?

But who knows – maybe it wouldn’t have worked out after all. Bobby Abreu, an offensive statistical fiend in his days was the Phillies, was dumped by Pat Gillick because, apparently, he made everyone around him worse.

Of the Turn of the Century Phillies that were supposed to be long-shot contenders for the wild card in aught zero, only Mike Lieberthal, Pat Burrell and Randy Wolf were able to collect all of their Ed Wade graft in a Phillies uniform. When they were free to go elsewhere, the Phillies let them.

And somehow it worked out.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com But since Gillick was so quick to give kudos to his predecessors after the World Series for drafting the likes of Rollins, Howard and Utley, what kind of credit would they have gotten if the long-term, big-money contracts they gave out weren’t cleared out?

Suppose the Phillies traded Howard and stuck with Thome. Or maybe they could have dealt Utley and gone with Polanco.

And maybe Rolen could have signed that deal in 2002… if so would we be talking about Cliff Lee, Pedro Martinez and a repeat in ’09?

*
Speaking of Rolen, the big fella was beaned on the helmet by Jason Marquis on Sunday in just his second game with the Reds since being dealt at the deadline from Toronto. After crumpling in a heap to the ground, Rolen quickly sat up and immediately began yapping about it…

Apparently he was discussing his on-base percentage.

“I was a little dizzy. It stunned me. But it helped my on-base percentage, even though I still haven’t touched first base (as a Red),” Rolen said after Sunday’s game. “I talked to Jason. I’m fine. I motioned to him when I left the field to let him know that I wasn’t dead.”

Take a look at the video here.

“He’s lucky,” manager Dusty Baker said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ball ricochet that far. That ball went out to third base.”

Rolen still hasn’t actually stepped on first base since joining the Reds.

“I was just happy to get on base,” Rolen said. “I still have yet to get to first base. I haven’t met (first base coach) Billy Hatcher yet.”

Baseballtown, USA

image from fingerfood.typepad.com The first time I ever walked into Fenway Park, I thought to myself, “Hey, this is just like Reading, only bigger…”

And older, of course. Fenway Park opened shortly after the Titanic went down in 1912. Reading Municipal Stadium, as it was known when it opened, has been hosting baseball games since 1951. That makes it a relic by today’s standards, but the ironic thing is the movement in stadium building (which ought to be about finished now, right? Doesn’t every city, town and hamlet have its own new ballpark by now?) is to be both old and new at the same time.

Reading appears to have gotten that part right in 1951.

I was the last Philly-area scribe out of the ballpark last night following Kyle Drabek’s 10th outing for the R-Phils, and on the way out I flashed back to a few of those times at Fenway. Walking those empty corridors in search for an exit was reminiscent of a time in 2004 when Jim Thome and I (name-dropping!) did the same thing. See, at Fenway, the visitors’ clubhouse opens right out on the main concourse and the ballplayers have to walk through the same halls the fans traipsed through during the game. So when looking for the way out – me to an elevator to write a story before walking back to the Marriott, Thome to his waiting town car – Thome talked about the ambiance of the joint and I mentioned how it reminded me of Reading, Pa.

Back when Thome played in the Double-A Eastern League, he probably saw the same thing. Just like Fenway, the clubhouses at FirstEnergy Stadium (as it’s called now) open right onto the concourses. The difference is that the ballplayers actually have to wade through the fans in order to get back to the showers and training room. Another difference is that the home clubhouse in Reading is larger than the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway.

Another difference is at Fenway they sell chowder and lo mein on the concourse. At Reading it’s funnel cake and Yeungling.

Anyway, Reading’s moniker as, “Baseball Town” is well deserved. In fact, the web site Minor League News rated FirstEnergy as the second-best ballpark in the country. The funny thing about that is all the other minor-league parks rated in the top 10 all opened since 2000. To me that should give Reading more points since those other places seem to be attempting to create what FirstEnergy has naturally.

It looks like a smaller, chowder-less Fenway inside, a little like old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on the outside, which opened around the same time as the park in Reading, but was demolished in 2001. But comparisons aside, the little ol’ ballpark in Reading, Pa. is pure baseball through and through.

For those into the game at its bare essence, it’s tough to beat Reading, Pa.

*
image from fingerfood.typepad.com Along those lines, Coca-Cola Park in Allentown is nothing to sneeze at either. Chances are Pedro Martinez will be working in his second rehab assignment this Friday in A-town, so some folks who rarely venture out of the city confines might make the trip up the NE Extension, too.

Which brings up an interesting point…

Here in Lancaster they have an Atlantic League ballclub managed by ex-Cardinal/Twin/Phillie Tom Herr where they play games in one of those nouveau minor-league parks that pop up everywhere like a big box store in a strip mall. Truth be told, it’s a pretty nice way to spend an evening in a place where there are a dearth of truly exciting things to do.

Nevertheless, Lancaster’s ballpark will never be a destination for the hardcore baseball fan simply because there is no reason to watch a game there. In Lancaster, the pro team will never have Major Leaguers in town for a rehab game or the hot prospects around for a summer or two on the path to the big leagues. With no affiliation with a big league club in a city that could very well support a Double-A club, the team is filled with guys just hoping for one last chance or just playing for the love of the game.

Nothing wrong with that.

But it doesn’t make for quality baseball. Sure, the majority of folks don’t go to baseball games for the quality of the game, but, you know, I do. And there are other seamheads out there into the same thing.

Quality… why is that so difficult a concept to accept these days? And that just ain’t for baseball, either. Give people something good instead of a sales pitch and they'll beat down the door.

That's guaranteed.

Just Manny being Barry?

image from fingerfood.typepad.com NEW YORK – I had planned a whole thing on the brand-new Citi Field and the Phillies’ first visit to the new digs in Queens, but Manny Ramirez kind of ruined that. Besides, at this point when new ballparks are popping up every season, including two of them in New York City, the shine is off the penny a bit.

So think about this – would there have been more fawning over places like Citi Field or the new Yankee Stadium if they were built 5-to-10 years ago? It’s been nearly 20 years since Camden Yards kicked off the whole retro-ballpark craze and now it appears as if every city that wants one has either built it or is set to begin construction.

Heck, even the Marlins are getting a new park for their six fans.

Here are a couple more things to ponder… are we going to be back replacing all these new ballparks in another 30 years like we were with the multi-purpose parks of the late 1960s and early ‘70s?

And if we keep shelling out the cash to build all these stadiums, are city skylines only going to hold the light fixtures and facades of ballparks? It seems like the only public funding put to the vote are to build stadiums… you know, screw bridges and roads.

Anyway, the Phillies and manager Charlie Manuel – a former mentor to Ramirez – were about as excited to talk about the latest drug suspension as they were the new ballpark. The most interesting part was while expressing sadness over the situation and fear over the harm the drug issues could cause to the sport, players generally indicate that players tied to performance-enhancing drug use <em>have not</em> had their accomplishments diminished.

They also don’t believe the game has suffered despite saying they want it cleaned up.

Meanwhile, baseball’s revenues and attendance has never been higher (excluding New York City, of course, where sellouts only occurred at the old ballparks), which seems to say that the fans don’t really give a damn about baseball’s issues.

Anyway, we’re not going to add to the pile of reflexive commentating regarding Ramirez and his positive test/50-game suspension since the finger waging appears to be taking care of itself. However, it is worth noting that the three top hitters of this era have all been tied/admitted/suspended for performance-enhancing drug use. In fact, one of the three has been indicted for perjury for his grand jury testimony about his alleged drug use.

Barry, Manny and A-Rod is hardly this era’s Willie, Mickey, and The Duke, huh?

Since baseball is a numbers game, let’s look at a few. For instance, nine of the top 20 home run hitters of all-time have played this decade, and six of those nine have been tied to PED use. The three who have not are Jim Thome, Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr.

What do you think of that trio’s careers now?

How about this set of numbers – 22 players who have been on teams managed by Joe Torre have been associated with PEDs. Joe’s 22 are:

Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Gary Sheffield, Mike Stanton, Dan Naulty, Darren Holmes, Jason Grimsley, Chuck Knoblauch, Glenallen Hill, Matt Lawton, Denny Neagle, David Bell, Kevin Brown, Jason Giambi, Randy Velarde, Ron Villone, Ricky Bones, Rondell White and David Justice.

Can't wait to dive into Tony LaRussa's list…

Easy like Sunday morning…

Easily the best thing about Jon Lieber’s complete game, three-hit shutout over the Kansas City Royals last night wasn’t the Phillies’ victory or the pitcher’s relative gabfest post-game chat with the scribes. Nope, easily the most important part of Lieber’s outing was the time of game:

Two-hours, ten minutes. That’s 2:10.

That is outstanding.

With deadlines and the pressure to compose coherent stories closing in on the writers like the walls in that trash compactor scene in Star Wars, it’s nice to see the gang get a little break. After all, without the writers covering the team leading the way, the folks on TV and the radio wouldn’t have anything to talk about.

So big thanks goes out to Jon Lieber for his uber-efficient outing last night…

He must really like the writers.

Nevertheless, Lieber spent some time talking to the broadcasters after the game and had a few interesting things to say. One nugget he later reiterated with the writers was that he was feeling good while pitching, but because he’s such a location-type pitcher, he’s been getting tattooed a bit lately.

“I know it’s been, ‘Here we go again. He’s pitching like it’s 2006.’ I’m not even close to that,” Lieber told the scribes. “The results can be deceiving, especially if you watch the game. I don’t think I’ve done anything differently. It’s just being able to throw the ball, get strikes, pitch ahead, and get the guys on and off the field.”

He certainly did a swell job of the last night. In fact, it seems as if Lieber got everyone out of the ballpark before the sun went down. Not bad for a 6:05 p.m. start time.

Apropos of nothing, does anyone think Lieber’s new buzz cut makes him look like Brando as Colonel Kurtz?

***
There has been much speculation regarding the end of The Sopranos series tonight on HBO. Is Tony going to live or die? Will he flip to the feds or come out ahead in the war with New York?

Visit any message board and there are tons of theories and ideas floating around though I’m not really sure they’re based on anything tangential. Because show creator David Chase never ever wastes anything on his show (all dialogue and music has explicit meaning to the plot) anything could happen tonight.

That means I have no idea what will happen, though it’s hard not to think about an interview I read with Little Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante) where he said a movie based on The Sopranos series would have to be a pre-queal.

But it’s no fun not predicting anything. In that regard, I say watch out for Janice. Everyone seems to be forgetting her and she’s could be trouble.

***
Jim Thome returns to Philadelphia tomorrow.

***
The big bike race is underway in Philadelphia today, and the Tour de France kicks off on July 8. Nonetheless, we neglected to update on Floyd Landis’ first outing since last year’s Tour de France and his hip-replacement surgery in the Teva Mountain Games. There, riding a mountain bike (of course), Floyd finished an 49th in a two-hour ride through the mountains in Vail, Colorado.

“I haven’t suffered in a while,” he said when it was over, happy he simply finished his first mountain-bike race in nearly nine years. “I figured this was a good place to start.”

Without a much of a chance to train or work out with arbitration hearing in full swing, Landis will race again in Leadville, Colorado in August in the well-known Leadville 100. But that race will come after a book signing tour that will bring him home to Lancaster and to West Chester later this month.

Meanwhile, listen to Floyd talk about his first public ride in nearly a year.

Oprah, Thome. Thome, Oprah

From the, “Yes, I have now seen everything there is to see in this life and there is no longer a need to climb Mount Everest or visit the Taj Mahal,” comes Jim Thome’s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. While visiting the show as member of studio audience, good ol’ Jim kept up with Oprah in a conversation about, well, let’s go to the video tape:

On another note, once — back in 2004 — while Thome and I were in the course of a casual conversation he used the term, “butthole.”

Ah yes, those are the things I remember the most.

Thome opens Citizens Bank Park with a bang


ComcastSportsNet.com

 
  Jim Thome smashes the first hit in new Citizens Bank Park over the right-field fence for a home run on Saturday afternoon. (AP)
 

Let the record show that the very first chorus of boos in Citizens Bank Park drowned out every word of mayor John Street’s pregame address at exactly 1:03 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

That Philly cheer morphed into the first standing ovation a minute later when Jim Thome stepped to the microphone to thank the fans and the construction workers for their role in opening the spanking new ballpark.

But the real ovation came barely 25 minutes later, and this one came complete with a curtain call, to boot. That’s when Thome smashed a 2-1 offering from the Indians’ Jeff D’Amico into the seats in right field for the first ever hit at Citizens Bank Park.

Yeah, it was exactly like a corny Disney movie. The team’s blue-collar, Paul Bunyan-esque slugger with that everyman/aw-shucks demeanor coming back from an injury to sock a homer against his former team for the very first hit in his new team’s brand-new stadium? Come on. That’s too hokey.

The only thing that would have made the blast more Hollywood was for Thome to step out of the batter’s box, point his bat toward the outfield fence and call his shot.

“Yeah, I knew it,” pitcher Randy Wolf said. “I knew he was going to hit [a home run in his first at-bat].”

Wolf, who called the blast from the dugout, believes Thome sensed something was about to happen, too.

“I think he knew it was his moment,” Wolf said.

Certainly, Thome has a flair for the dramatic. Last spring, the slugger smashed an opposite-field homer in his first plate appearance as a Phillie off coincidentally enough D’Amico in Bradenton, Fla. In his first regular season appearance with the Phillies, Thome smacked a screaming liner that missed clearing the fence at ProPlayer Stadium by two feet. A few days later, he came just as close to knocking one out in his home debut at the Vet.

So was a home run for the first hit at the new ballpark really that shocking? Come on, you could see this coming from a mile away.

“You couldn’t have scripted that any better,” manager Larry Bowa said.

Said catcher Mike Lieberthal: “It was pretty incredible. He didn’t just hit a home run, he hit a bomb.”

Meanwhile, Thome played down the big blast. After all, Saturday’s game, which ended in a 6-5 victory for the Indians, was nothing more than an exhibition and a dress rehearsal in the brand-new ballpark. Thome played just five innings while Bowa tried to get his bench players some game action before the season starts on Monday. Admittedly a bit behind schedule after missing three weeks of spring training with a broken finger, Thome says he went to the plate with the intent to get his timing down.

“It is an exhibition game, but it means a lot because of what they’re trying to do here,” Thome said.

But a Jim Thome at-bat is more than a mere workout even during spring training. With the buzz from the sellout crowd growing louder with every pitch, the atmosphere in the park was more like a game during a hot pennant race in late September than a silly exhibition in early April. Thome, still just out for a workout, felt the excitement.

“The atmosphere here was great,” he said. “You can build a new ballpark, but it’s still all about the crowd.”

But it wasn’t just the crowd that got a chance to be impressed on Saturday.

“He the one guy who turns me into a fan in the dugout,” Wolf said.

First time out
Not only did the fans get their first glimpses of Citizens Bank Park, but also the Phillies got their first opportunity to check out their new digs. Though it’s hard to judge a ballpark after just one game, Citizens Bank Park seems to be on its way to becoming a bandbox. During batting practice, players had very little difficulty smacking the ball into the seats, and they did not have too much trouble making the transition to live action. Aside from Thome’s bomb, Pat Burrell clubbed a three-run shot that he did not think was going to reach the seats.

“I don’t think it would have gone out at the Vet,” Burrell said.

For the Indians, Casey Blake and Chris Clapinski both homered to left, while the Omar Vizquel and Jody Gerut knocked out doubles. For the Phils, David Bell and Lieberthal both skied long drives to the warning track that just might find the seats when the chilly air turns warm in the summer.

“It seemed to be carrying very well,” Thome said. “It was not that cold today, but still for the most part in April the ball does not carry very well in any park. I remember when we opened the new ballpark in Cleveland, the ball did not carry very well and it carried pretty well today.”

The Phillies at least the hitters seemed to enjoy how well the ball carried.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen down the road, but judging from BP, it’s a hitter’s park,” Burrell said.

Needless to say, the pitchers aren’t exactly overjoyed by this development.

“I’m going to enjoy hitting here,” Wolf said. “But it looks like I’m going to have to try to keep the ball down.”

As for making the switch from NeXturf (phew! Thank goodness we aren’t going to have to use that word anymore) to natural grass, the reviews were good.

“The grass is soft,” said Jimmy Rollins, who had seven chances on Saturday. “It played true. It’s good dirt for running. It’s a pretty fast track.”

Rollins also noticed that the outfield grass played slower than the infield sod and added that there are definitely slower infields in the National League.

“This infield is faster than Wrigley,” he said. “I’m sure in the summer when it’s warmer and after they’ve cut it a few times, it will play a little quicker.”

Final cuts
Following the game, the Phillies sent Chase Utley, Geoff Geary, Lou Collier, Jim Crowell and A.J. Hinch to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. That means the team will carry six bench players and seven relief pitchers. It also means that the club could not find another team willing to make a trade for Ricky Ledee and that veteran Doug Glanville and rookie Ryan Madson earned spots on the team.

“I still can’t believe it,” Madson said after learning his fate. “I’m going to take it all in, call my family and celebrate a little bit.”

Though the moves do not come as much as a surprise, Bowa says the decision to send Utley down was one of his most difficult as manager of the Phils. In the end, Bowa says, it came down to both what was best for Utley and Glanville’s versatility.

“The toughest (cut) for me was Utley. But getting 10 at-bats a month wouldn’t do him any good. He was the player probably most disappointed. But, barring injury, it would’ve been tough getting the at-bats.”

Glanville will, more than likely, see most of his action as a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch runner.