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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Howard, Utley have something to fall back on

Utley_howard Ryan Howard and Chase Utley just sat there in straight back chairs with bemused looks on their faces as they watched two drunks wrestle on the floor. Not until they paused to catch a breath with their dress shirts torn open, did the winning lines from the ballplayers help put a bow on the scene.

“I just saw you bite that dude,” Ryan Howard said while appearing as Ryan Howard in the program It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

That was followed by an invitation to wrestle from two of the main characters of the show, played by Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day, who were sprawled out on the floor at PSPCA benefit. Needless to say, charity events for animals have a tendency to get out of hand with grappling and/or fisticuffs popping up throughout a ballroom. It’s a serious business and some folks need to give until it hurts.

However, the invitation to Howard and Utley to join in the wrestling match because they were, “wasted,” was met with a witty rejoinder from the All-Star second baseman.

“No we’re not,” Utley said.

“No, we’re completely sober. But you guys drink a lot though,” Howard added.

“You guys drink more than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Utley finished before the ballplayers shrugged their shoulders and exited, stage right.

And to think, Utley was teammates with Vicente Padilla and has been known to work blue when delivering comeback wise cracks to fans in New York City or the home crowd when expressing delight in winning a World Series. For this occasion, Utley had to defer to the writers to craft his lines—you know, FCC guidelines and all. Plus, he seemed genuinely enthused and didn’t speak in clichés straight out of Bull Durham, unlike in situations with the press at his day job. On an everyday basis, Utley has the charisma of a toilet seat, or maybe he genuinely means that he wants to “stay within himself,” or “take them a day at a time.”

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Phillies’ struggles stretch to manager, too

Charlie SAN FRANCISCO — We like to give credit where it is due. After all, it’s much more fun to heap praise and be positive than it is to whine, complain and sulk over things that can’t be controlled. Then again, that’s pretty obvious.

As a manager of the four-time defending NL East champion Phillies, positivity is Charlie Manuel’s best tactic. He builds up his players by telling them how good they are and always filling their heads with thoughts that the hits and/or great pitches are going to be there when needed the most.

In fact, Manuel says that before Game 5 he’s going to walk through the clubhouse, look each of his players in the eyes and have a little chat. It won’t be anything as extreme as a pep talk, but maybe just a few words with each guy on the team.

“I don’t know if it will be about baseball or not,” Manuel said.

So yes, Manuel is great at keeping his guys loose as well as gauging the mood of the club. It’s probably the not-so secret to his success.

But as far as the managerial battle of wits with Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy, Manuel is about to get swept out of the series. Indeed, some of the in-game decisions from Manuel have not gone down as his best work and that has been exposed during the first two games played at AT&T Park.

When a manager consistently makes the same types of decisions and they work out, it’s difficult to blame it on luck. Oh sure, it might seem like he’s falling backwards only to nimbly land on his feet like a cat at the last second, but there is a fine line between instinct and luck.

However, in Game 3 and 4 of the NLCS which finds the Phillies on the brink of elimination, Manuel’s instincts have not been at his best. In fact, the choices Manuel made with his bullpen in Game 4 began with seeds sown in Game 3 when he used right-hander Jose Contreras for two innings and 24 pitches. That would have been a fine move had the Phillies been in position to actually win Game 3 rather than be shut down by starter Matt Cain.

Nevertheless, when Contreras went to the mound for a second inning in Game 3, it didn’t take much of a hunch that it would come back to haunt Manuel. As fate unraveled in Game 4, every button pushed seemed to be the wrong one. Knowing that he had starter Joe Blanton for five innings… six if he was lucky, it didn’t seem too well planned out that Contreras finished the previous game. That was evident when Blanton was removed from the game with two outs in the fifth when he was due to bat third in the next inning.

Instead of double-switching or using another reliever, Manuel burned Contreras again when he promptly finished the fifth and then was pinch-hit for.

Perhaps the move in the fifth inning could have been lefty Antonio Bastardo on lefty hitter Aubrey Huff with two outs and the speedy Andres Torres in scoring position?  But we’ll never know because Manuel left Blanton in for one hitter too long and then wasted his most effective setup man.

As it turned out, Manuel called on Chad Durbin to give him an inning or more only to have it explode on him like one of those trick cigars from the old cartoons. The problem with asking Durbin to give some innings in a pivotal game is he’s more than a little rusty. In his lone postseason performance, Durbin walked the only hitter he faced with two outs in the sixth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS against the Reds, only to end the inning by picking off the hitter to end the inning.

Until Game 4, those six pitches and the pick-off was the only work Durbin had in 17 days. Knowing this, why didn’t Manuel divide up the work to close out Game 3 instead of burning out Contreras? Can’t pitching coach Rich Dubee elbow Manuel in the ribs while on the bench to remind him to give his relievers some work?

From there, Manuel used Bastardo and Ryan Madson for the seventh and the eighth, which worked out. Bastardo retired the lefty Huff (two innings too late) and then gave up a double to Buster Posey before Madson closed out the inning with a walk and double play.

If that would have been the end, it was enough. But then the hit… er, misses, kept coming. Like in the eighth when Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth led off the inning with back-to-back doubles to tie it up, it was reasonable to expect a big inning. Except when Jimmy Rollins came up with Werth on second and no outs he didn’t get the runner over to third. Worse, he popped up to third baseman Pablo Sandoval without even a pass at a bunt or a pitch pulled to the right side.

According to the manager, the idea was for Rollins to pull the ball even though he had explained his shortstop was struggling to hit from the left side.

“Rollins usually pulls the ball. If he hits the ball to the right side of the diamond, that’s one of his strong points, he'’ got a short quick swing to the left side that he usually pulls the ball,” Manuel explained after the game. “Not only that, if he pulls the ball, he also has a chance to get a hit or drive the run in, and that's how you play the game. And we do that a lot with Rollins. We let him hit there because that’s one of his big strong suits from the left side is pull the ball.”

It was a strong suit when Rollins was healthy. But in the NLCS when there is a chance to avoid going down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series, it’s the wise move to bunt the runner over when the hitter has struggled and been injured.

Finally, the choice to put starter Roy Oswalt in the game on two days rest after he had iced down following his 20-minute side-day session wasn’t the type of out-of-the-box thinking that Manuel is known for… and it wasn’t this time, either.

Oswalt saw the way the game was unfolding and figured if he didn’t step up, Kyle Kendrick would have started the ninth inning of a big playoff game with the score tied.

Then again, that all would have been avoided if Contreras had not been misused in Game 3. It also would not have been as magnified if Bochy had not been on top of everything. If the Giants finish it off, the manager should get a lot of the credit…

And the blame.

Just how great was Roy Halladay’s playoff no-hitter?

Roy The thing about unprecedented events is it’s difficult to place it in the proper perspective. Not only is there no historical context in which to measure something, but also it’s tough to wrap your brain around just what it was that occurred.

Then there is Roy Halladay’s no-hitter in his first playoff game on Wednesday night at the Bank against the Cincinnati Reds. Yes, there once was a no-hitter in the post-season—a perfect game, in fact. More notably, Don Larsen’s perfect game came before there was such a thing as divisional play. The first place teams in both leagues went from the regular season straight to the World Series. No fuss, no muss.

So Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series happened so long ago that it doesn’t really translate to a modern audience. Oh sure, a perfect game is easy to understand. It’s 27 up and 27 down. But can a no-no in the World Series be properly compared to a no-hitter in the NLDS 54 years later? The game is different than it was even a few years ago, forget about more than a half a century.

Plus, consider this… only five players who appeared in Larsen’s perfect game are alive today. Four of those players were on the Yankees (Larsen, Yogi Berra, Gil McDougald, Andy Carey) and just one was from Brooklyn (Duke Snider). Even the eye-witnesses to both Larsen and Halladay’s historical games are few and far between. Dallas Green, the former Phils’ manager and current senior advisor to GM Ruben Amaro Jr., says he saw them both putting him in a class not quite as elite as the other club he belongs to.

That even rarer group? Only Green and Charlie Manuel managed the Phillies to a World Series title.

Nevertheless, just how does Halladay’s no-hitter rank in the history of postseason performances? It wasn’t a Game 7 like the 10-inning, 126-pitch shutout Jack Morris pitched in the 1991 World Series to lead the Twins over the Braves. Nor was it a World Series game, like the epic 17-strikeout shutout the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson threw at the Tigers in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series.

Halladay’s gem came in the opening game of the first of three playoff rounds where teams can play as many as 19 postseason games compared to two rounds in Morris’ day and just one series in Gibson’s. If the Phillies go the limit in all three rounds, Halladay could start as many as seven games.

Halladay has never started more than six games in a single month in his career.

Indeed, the game is played much differently these days, and Halladay’s pitching line from his playoff debut speaks for itself. The only way it can improve is if he cuts down on the walks by one. But in using just 104 pitches, the one walk given to Jay Bruce wasn’t that significant. All it did was create a really weird moment when Halladay had to pitch from the stretch. Now that was awkward. While pitching with a runner on base Halladay looked like a newborn fawn attempting to take its first step. It just didn’t look right.

Anyway, stat wizard Bill James came up with a metric called “game score,” which attempts to measure a pitcher’s outing by giving him points for innings pitched and strikeouts and penalizing him for hits, walks and runs allowed. Game score is measured up to 100, a score never achieved.

What game score does not measure  or even consider is the magnitude of the game. It also eliminates the humanness of the game. For instance, Halladay’s 104 pitches were amazingly efficient, but he needed seven more pitches than Larsen needed in his perfect game in ’56.

Meanwhile, Morris’ effort in Game 7 scored only an 84. Larsen’s perfecto? That’s only a 94 with three games rated higher. In 2000, Roger Clemens’ tossed a one-hitter against Seattle in the ALCS to garner an all-time high of 98. The second-highest scored game was an 11-inning, three-hit shutout by Dave McNally of Baltimore against the Twins in Game 2 of the 1969 ALCS.

A 25-year-old rookie for Billy Martin’s Twins named Chuck Manuel had a pretty good seat on the bench for McNally’s gem.

No. 3 on the list is a 14-inning effort by Babe Ruth of the Red Sox against Brooklyn in Game 2 of the 1916 World Series. The Red Sox beat the Dodgers for their second straight World Series title that year.

Halladay’s playoff no-hitter is tied with Larsen’s epic with a 94. That supplants Cliff Lee’s 86 in Game 3 of the 2009 NLCS for the best postseason score by a Phillies pitcher in the postseason, but is four points less than the 98 Halladay scored during his perfect game against the Marlins on May 29 of this year.

It’s far from a perfect measurement, but given some semblance of a historical perspective only three games in 107 years of postseason history were better than Halladay’s effort in Game 1 of the NLDS.

AP101006059170 'Filthy. Filthy. Completely filthy'

Frankly, I prefer to measure great games with my newly devised “talk test.” This is measured by going into the clubhouses of both teams after the game and measuring the hyperbole. In fact, if a player actually uses the word, “hyperbole,” the way Joey Votto did on Wednesday night, give up a million bonus points.

So as far as the talk test goes, the best read comes in the losing team’s clubhouse. In that regard, the adjectives and awed expressions from the Reds were just like those from the Phillies.

“I wonder how many times I would have struck out if I would have kept going up there,” said Scott Rolen, who went 3-for-3 in strikeouts against Halladay in Game 1.

Rolen was a teammate of Halladay’s for parts of two seasons in Toronto and knows what it’s like to be in the field with the big righty on the mound.

“Being his teammate, [a no-hitter] could happen every time he goes out there. You know that,” Rolen said. “You don’t expect it, though. We didn’t draw it up like that in our hitters’ meetings, but we had our hands full. He’s the best pitcher in baseball in my opinion.”

That opinion was the consensus on Wednesday night. When asked what he thought about Halladay’s pitches from his spot at shortstop, Jimmy Rollins shook his head and searched for the words.

“Filthy,” Rollins said, adding that Halladay’s pitches were nastier on Wednesday than during his perfect game in May. “Filthy. Completely filthy.”

Votto probably explained it best.

“When you’re trying to thread a needle at the plate, it’s miserable. It’s not fun up there trying to hit nothing,” Votto said.

So again, what do we compare it to? Sure, it’s easy to compare statistics from games throughout time, but what about the repertoire of pitches? Is it possible?

Probably not, but let’s try anyway. From the Phillies side, rookie Dom Brown said it was like watching a video game the way Halladay’s curve swept from right to left and the way his cutter snapped like a branch breaking off a tree.

Jonny Gomes, the Reds’ left-fielder who struck out twice in three at-bats, said that while he didn’t waive the white flag, he pretty much ceded one side of the plate to Halladay so that he could concentrate on the opposite side in the odd chance that he might get something to hit.

I’ll liken Halladay’s cutter on Wednesday to the splitter Mike Scott threw in the 1986 NLCS for the Astros against the Mets. Scott pitched two complete games in the ’86 series, allowed eight hits against 19 strikeouts and one run. Fourteen of those strikeouts came in the Game 1 shutout and left the Mets scrambling to collect game-used balls in order to send them off to the league office as some sort of proof that Scott was scuffing them in order to make the splitter dance out of the strike zone so effectively.

The difference between Halladay and Scott, however, was the balls collected by the Reds were to keep for the trophy case to show people they were there. 

The 2010 Phillies: The greatest team that nearly wasn’t

Roy WASHINGTON — Although the Phillies have done nothing more than guarantee three more games on the schedule, there is already a buzz whether the 2010 team is the best in club history. With 94 wins and a chance to be the first National League team since the 1942-44 Cardinals to make it to the World Series three years in a row, the Phillies aren’t flirting with just franchise greatness… this is all-time stuff.

Of course the hyperbole alarm sounds whenever anyone puts out the “best ever” line, and even in this case the players are leery of celebrating anything more than what has already been accomplished. In fact, Jimmy Rollins said for this Phillies team to be considered great they have to win the World Series.

However, in the same breath Rollins says the 2010 team is the best he’s ever played on.

“Definitely. We’re better all around—less question marks. Not that question marks ever bothered us because we like to prove skeptics wrong, but coming into this year there were only one or two things people were iffy about,” Rollins said. “Then we had a great acquisition in little Roy [Oswalt] and that took the pressure off of Cole [Hamels], and then Roy [Halladay] took the pressure off of everybody. He just came in and shut the door. Lights out.”

The weird part is general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. says there were internal discussions with the team’s brass over whether or not it was time to cut bait. Struggling to score runs during an extended stretch in July where the Phillies lost three out of four in Pittsburgh and Chicago, Amaro said the idea of trading some of the integral pieces to the fourth straight NL East title had been broached.

“There was some concern that maybe guys were getting older, less productive,” Amaro said. “If you look up and down our lineup, I don’t know if there is any guy, other than maybe Carlos Ruiz, who is having a career year. We talked about this internally and yet we still are creeping up on 95 wins, which is amazing to me. I would have been the first to be able to tell you that I didn’t think we were going to get to 90 wins when we were right around the middle of July. So for us to kind of turn on the way we’ve turned it on, is even surprising to me. 

“What’s great about this is that, one, we really haven’t had the kind of production that we typically would have from even the guys in the middle [of the lineup]. Chase Utley hasn’t had his typical year. Ryan Howard hasn’t had his typical year. Jimmy Rollins obviously hasn’t had a great year, he’s had injury issues and such. We’ve got a lot of down production from a lot of guys and hopefully they can turn it on and come up with some offensive production as we get into the postseason.”

So call it the great break up that wasn’t. Following the team’s fourth straight loss and sixth in seven games to send its record to 48-46, the Phillies won eight in a row and 13 out of the next 15 games. They also made a deal to add Roy Oswalt to the rotation and became even more fearsome.

From that low point of 48-46 and seven games out in the NL East, the Phillies have gone 46-17 and six games up and winning games at a .730 clip. There was a game after a Friday afternoon loss in Chicago where Manuel sat at his desk in the cramped office and went over the math in his head while wondering aloud if his team could get it together. Less than a week later, hitting coach Milt Thompson was fired then, for whatever reason, the Phillies began winning at a rate that exceeded the more modest numbers Manuel charted in his head.

Yet paced by pitching with the hitters beginning to find their way, the Phillies are peaking at the right time. Still, the team knows that none of it matters unless they go the whole way. The great lesson learned during the current run is winning has a way of changing the way people look at things.

For history to judge the Phillies most favorably, they have to win.

After all, does anyone remember much about the Oakland teams that went to the postseason in four straight seasons but never made it past the ALDS? How about the Indians of the 1990s that made it the playoffs for five seasons in a row and the World Series twice, but never wore the ring?

Of course there are also the Braves that dominated divisional play for 14 years in a row, but have just one title—against the Indians in ’95—to show for it.

Going back a bit, the Orioles made it to the World Series three years in a row (1969, 1970, 1971), but won it once. The same thing happened with Oakland in 1988, 1989 and 1990. Those teams are remembered as dynasties that might have been had it been able to finish the deal.

Are the Phillies worried about how history might judge them?

“You play this game to try and win championships and that’s our focus,” Howard said. “We stay focused on the task at hand and let you guys tell us where it fits into the history books. That will sort itself out.”

Like Howard, Rollins isn’t ready for reflection. Just winning.

“I haven’t thought about it like that, but it’s something I’ll go through when it’s all said and done,” Rollins said. “It’s hard to do. Everything has to go your way, you have to have a good team, you have to have great pitching, you have to have timely hitting, you have to have guys who are having career years who are coming together where things are going your way. You don’t think too far into the future. You just try and blaze your own trail right now. And when the light is out, then you look back.”

Brown making his way in a familiar manner

Brown It was after the third inning of a Sunday afternoon game at The Vet on Sept. 17, 2000 when it was painfully obvious that Jimmy Rollins was never going to spend a minute in the minor leagues again. Only 21 that afternoon, Rollins hit a triple to lead off the inning for his first hit, but didn’t move too far from the bag afterwards as Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Travis Lee struck out in order to end the inning.

But the point was made. Rollins was a big leaguer. No longer did he have to defer to the likes of Desi Relaford, Tomas Perez and Alex Arias because he needed to spend time at Triple-A so he could get the chance to play every day. All Terry Francona—and then Larry Bowa—had to do was write his name in the lineup and let him go.

Actually, the third-inning triple was just for show. Rollins walked into the old clubhouse ready to go. There was no sense denying it any more.

Just about 10 years later, Rollins snuck a peak over at rookie Dom Brown as he fished through his locker for his batting practice gear, and was asked the same question. He’d sign his name on a bat, glance over at the 6-foot-6 outfielder, and then smile mischievously remembering what it was like back when he was trying to elbow his way into the big-league lineup for good.

“You’ll have to ask Ruben that,” Rollins said with a knowing smile when asked if Brown will ever have to go back to the minors to be a regular player.

In other words, the answer was no. Rollins didn’t say it because he didn’t need to. If the Phillies wanted to send Brown back to the minors for more seasoning, they had plenty of chances to do it by now.

So let’s ask the general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. about Brown’s immediate future.

“It would have been nice [to get Brown more playing time], but right now we’re trying to win as many games as we can and he has the ability to do some things that even if he’s not playing every day to help us,” Amaro explained. “He has the ability to run the bases and hit with some power from the left side as we’ve seen. He gives us the chance to have the best club out there.”

Certainly Brown is in a position Rollins never went through. When he came up from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to play shortstop he didn’t have to look over his shoulder or wait his turn. From Sept. 17, 2000 to today, Rollins has been the Phillies shortstop without question. In fact, there stands a good chance that the team will offer Rollins a contract extension simply because there is no one in the minors breathing down his neck. Plus, even though Rollins is the longest-tenured Phillie, it’s not like he’s old or getting old. He’s coming into his prime athletic years right now with contract that ends after the 2011 season.

Rollins_rookie “I’m only 31,” Rollins said. “And the only reason I’ve been here the longest is because Pat (Burrell) left. You have to give those guys credit for drafting guys, bringing them along and keeping them together.”

In other words, Rollins wants to stick around for a while. And who knows? Maybe if the right deal is struck Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels very well could spend their entire careers playing for just one team. Needless to say, in the free agency era players tend to bounce from team to team a lot so if the Phillies are able to keep their main guys together. It says a lot about the guys running the club and the players, too.

A few lockers down, the next great Phillie quietly prepared for a game where he might only get in to pinch hit. Interestingly, Brown has been called on to pinch hit as many times (9) as Rollins has since 2006. Chalk that up to an experience Brown will have when he is a veteran that guys like Rollins, Howard and Utley don’t know all that well.

Where they all have common ground is in the waiting. Like Brown and Rollins, Utley and Howard had to wait in line to get into the big leagues, too. For Rollins it simply was a matter of seasoning since it’s likely he could have skipped the 2000 season at Triple-A and hit .221 like Arias, Relaford and Perez combined for that year. But unlike those guys, Brown is attempting to establish himself on a team that went to the World Series for two straight years. Rollins joined a Phillies team that was on the way to 97 losses and replacing the manager. That’s about as different a situation as one can get.

In other words, it was a good idea for Rollins to spend the season playing for a team that went to the championship round of the playoffs. Just like it’s a good idea for Brown to take the ride with the two-time defending National League champs instead of dominating for a Triple-A club playing out the string.

Brown definitely will learn more in the big leagues than he would in Allentown for the rest of the season.

In the meantime, Brown will wait for his chance just like the other big guns on the team had to do. Of course before he realizes, he’ll blink and will be 10 years into his major league career just like Rollins.

“It feels like it was just yesterday,” Rollins said about that sunny Sunday in September of 2000 when he hit that first triple.

It always feels that way. No matter what.

Sign of respect

Dbrown WASHINGTON — Shane Victorino was incredulous when he saw the clubhouse attendants at Nationals Park walking to the locker to the right of his holding a couple of baseballs to be signed. The Phillies’ centerfielder just couldn’t get past it.

“I’ve been here for four years and never been asked to sign anything,” Victorino yelled in mock indignation. “He’s been here for one day and he’s already signing.”

It’s a common rite in baseball circles, actually. 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 signed those baseballs, too. It’s like a great sign of respect if a peer asks for an autograph (without actually asking), usually reserved for the big-time players. Word is Cal Ripken used to make special time just to sign items from the other team, and I once saw Red Sox old-time legend Johnny Pesky exhilarated by the fact that Jim Thome had sent two baseballs to have signed a few years back at Fenway.

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

This time it was a player on the Nationals who sent Victorino into a faux tizzy for asking Dom Brown to sign a baseball. After all, to that point Victorino had played in 775 career games including the playoffs and All-Star Game, while Brown had been in just three games with just two starts.

Here was a kid, just 22 and drafted in the 20th round from Stone Mountain, Ga. because scouts thought he was going to go play wide receiver for the University of Miami, signing autographs for other major leaguers. Moreover, when Brown entered the clubhouse at Nationals Park on his first road trip as a big leaguer, a guy with a rookie of the year award, an MVP, and four of the top most prolific home run-hitting seasons in franchise history, was the first to greet him.

“Hello, Mr. Brown,” Ryan Howard said.

Mister Brown?

So much for the rookie hazing.

Then again, the Phillies organization isn’t treating Brown like a typical rookie. No one is expecting the team’s untouchable prospect to just blend in to the background, with his eyes open and mouth shut. Instead, because of the injuries to nearly every starter this season, Brown is going to be treated like a 22-year old rookie in his first trip to the big leagues.

Nope… Instead, the Phillies are going to treat Brown like a major leaguer.

Actually, there aren’t too many major leaguers that had to have a press conference before his first game and then another for the TV audience as he jogged off the field after he got two hits in his debut. That kind of proves that the Phillies are expecting things from Brown they wouldn’t ordinarily expect from a kid called up from Triple-A in late July. Though manager Charlie Manuel says he’ll likely use Brown 70 percent of the time, and likely against just right-handed pitchers at that, the idea is for Brown to produce.

“Domonic Brown is going to have to come up and make an impact,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said last week. “I remember talking to Paul Owens about this. You've done your job if you have one or two players per year to have some kind of impact from your system on your major-league club. We have to have that happen. Otherwise, we won't be viable.”

In other words, there’s a lot riding on Brown’s production.

But so far he’s handling it well. He’s started four games and has two multi-hit games. He’s driven in a few runs, swiped a bag, and played solid in right field. After Brown made a diving catch last Saturday night at Nationals Park, center fielder Jayson Werth paused to watch the replay on the giant video screen hanging above the ballpark.

That’s just it… lots of the players are paying attention to Brown. Aside from asking for him autographs, the three wise guys of the Phillies—Victorino, Howard and Jimmy Rollins—marveled over the kid’s physique as much as the time he spent in the batting cage. None of the former MVPs or All-Stars on the team was built like that when they were 22.

And just like the rookie is expected, Brown smiled and took the good-natured ribbing from his older, wiser teammates. Hey, it’s his first big-league road trip and rather than head out on the town to dinner with teammates, or museums and sights in D.C. (“Yeah, I’m going to go to the zoo with Dom Brown,” Victorino mocked his inquisitors over his mentorship), Brown is just worrying about making a good impression.

“He’s very mature for his age. He has his head on right and he likes to play and he puts a lot into it so that’s going to help him,” Manuel said.

“Strawberry had the same type of body, he might be a bit taller. He’s a little like [Braves’ rookie Jason] Heyward, but a different style of hitting. [Brown] keeps his bat up higher and has different kind of a swing. It’s high and he comes down on the ball, but he’s bigger, of course.”

Bigger in many senses, too. Not even a week into his big-league career and Brown is being called Mister by Howard and signing autographs for his new peers, much to Victorino’s chagrin. Now all he has to do is go hit.

The (re)maturation of Cole Hamels

Hamels WASHINGTON — The busy-ness of the pregame clubhouse at National Park on Friday afternoon was slightly unnerving. With the Phillies gearing up to make a run at a fourth straight trip to the playoffs with newly acquired ace Roy Oswalt on the mound in his first day in a Phillies’ uniform, the visiting clubhouse was more crowded than usual.

On one side of the room shortstop Jimmy Rollins held court, commenting on everything from the X Games shown on one of the TVs hanging from the ceiling of the clubhouse while discussing everything from Sponge Bob Square Pants, Scooby Doo and the 1960s live action Batman series with Adam West.

Oh, it was deep.

Boom! Bash! Pow!

Meanwhile, in the opposite corner from Rollins, Cole Hamels sat slouched in a chair in front of his locker, with his Barnes & Noble Nook, lamenting the fact that if he would have waited he would have probably purchased an iPad, like most of his teammates, instead.

See, it’s never easy to be a ballplayer like Hamels. No, he’s in a financial situation where he can have a Nook and an iPad, but that seems a little superfluous to Hamels. Besides, in due time the next version of the computer gizmo will come out and it will likely be better and faster than the current one. In the meantime, he’ll get all he can out of the Nook.

No, where it’s not easy being Hamels is playing in a place like Philadelphia. Forget all the stuff about how he’s Southern California cool with so much talent brimming over the surface that he makes the game look effortless by default. Forget that he’s similar to Mike Schmidt in that sometimes it’s not cool to be cool even if that’s just the way the guy is.

He’s so cool that the cockiness and arrogance just oozes from every pore when he walks on and off the field. It’s not exactly a trait that works for everyone, but with Hamels it’s real. It’s him. There was never a time where he didn’t think he could routinely throw a baseball past the best hitters on the planet.

And we ought to know the guy by now, right? Drafted not long after he turned 18 in the first round of the 2002 draft, the first world out on Hamels was that he was damaged goods. Sure, he could throw 94-mph and developed an otherworldly changeup after his pitching coach, Mark Furtak, taught him the circle change grip, but the broken left arm when he was a sophomore in high school scared away teams. Even his hometown Padres shied away and took college shortstop Khalil Greene with the 13th overall pick.

Eight years after that draft Greene is out of baseball while Hamels is going through another resurgence of his own.

In fact, Hamels ought to be good at that by now. Five seasons into his big league career, Hamels has been damaged goods, a delicate injury-prone lefty, a knucklehead from breaking his hand in a bar fight that cost him much of the 2005 season, a phenom, a future Cy Young Award winner, the MVP of the NLCS and World Series, to struggling pitcher trying to find his game.

Now he’s a spoke in the wheel of one of the best starting rotations in baseball and working on his renewed focus and maturity. No longer is he just the cocky kid with injury problems, Hamels a father and a husband now. On one hand he says his four-year marriage and 10-month old son, Caleb, haven’t changed anything from the way he goes about his business or approaches a game, saying, “I don’t bring [family life] to work.” However, he added, being the father to an active, healthy 10-month-old boy changes a guy’s perspective.

On the field it has made him understand things a bit more. For instance, he’s not buying the hype about the Phillies’ new, “Big Three,” the top-notch pitching trio that also includes Roy Halladay and Oswalt. The Big Three play for the Boston Celtics, he said, giving a nod to Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce over the Miami Heat’s LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

“I feel like I'm building on things,” Hamels said. “I'm more aware of what I have to do, how to pitch guys, and I'm comfortable in throwing all the pitches I have.”

Truth is, Hamels talks like a veteran pitcher now instead of the young, brash guy who talked of pitching no-hitters, winning Cy Young awards, going to the Hall-of-Fame and gallivanting with Letterman or Ellen DeGeneres and appearing on his wife’s (second) reality show, as well as the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Those things are fun, but they really don’t mean too much. Take, for instance, the 10-strikeouts he got in seven innings against the Nationals on Sunday afternoon. Sure,

“That was great and all, but I left two pitches up, one to [Ryan] Zimmerman and one to [Adam] Dunn,” he said. “That kind of sums up the game. You can be on things, but you make that one mistake to those two guys and it's costly.”

See… so mature and only 26.

It doesn’t make Hamels less enigmatic, though. After all, some people find a path and that’s the only one they need. Hamels, on the other hand, has been all over the map, especially at the end of the 2009 World Series when the frustration of a mediocre season boiled over into bad body language on the diamond, a misconstrued (foolish) comment, and a minor tiff with a teammate. In Philadelphia, during the digital age, those things get blown up.

Philly ballplayers are supposed to take their beatings stoically. If a player like Chase Utley makes a throwing error, the pitcher has to be cool and can’t go skulking around the mound with bad body language or public displays of dissatisfaction. That’s especially the case during the playoffs where an error by Utley at Dodger Stadium sent Hamels into a mini-tizzy on the mound.

As the post-season wore on and the performances weren’t as good as they were the season before, folks started to turn on Hamels a bit. That was exacerbated by some post-game comments after a poor outing in the World Series when Hamels said he could not wait for the season to end. Sure, it came out harmless and was probably taken a bit out of context, but what ballplayer in the World Series wants the season to end?

How did things change so fast? How does a guy go from 4-0 in the postseason in one season to a combined 11-13 with a 4.61 ERA through the entire 2009 season?

Better yet, who cares? Based on the first half of the season Hamels has rewarded general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and manager Charlie Manuel for their faith in him. Aside from the strong numbers, Hamels has regained his cool even when things don’t go well. Take Saturday afternoon’s game in Washington where Hamels rebounded from Dunn’s homer to retired five straight with a pair of strikeouts. He also whiffed the next two hitters after Zimmerman’s two-run double in the fourth inning and racked up eight strikeouts between the fourth and seventh innings.

The 7-7 record is not indicative of the season Hamels has had. Obviously, the record and the 3.56 ERA show a lack of run support. Considering that the low run support was part of Hamels’ frustration in 2009, the fact that he’s been steady throughout 2010 with nearly a full run less of support from last year, Hamels has impressed his bosses.

“I think right now he’s very good. I can tell you this, he should have more wins than he’s got—without a doubt. He’s pitched good,” Manuel said.

Hamels_kid“Hamels is a big-time pitcher. If you sit there and watch how he pitches and things like that, hey, over the course of his career he’ll be known as a big-time pitcher. He’s a good pitcher and he’s smooth and he has a tremendous feel for how to pitch, and yeah, he gets hit some, but so does everybody else.”

As far as comparing the postseason of 2008 to now, don’t bother. Hamels, still far from his prime, hasn’t lost a thing.

“Talent is great. If you can’t see talent then something’s wrong with you,” Manuel said. “Hamels has got good talent and he’s a great pitcher. He might not have a 95-to-100 mph fastball, but he knows how to set up his fastball and when he’s throwing 93 or 94, he can put the ball by you. He can strike people out. That’s hard to find.”

It’s also hard to find a guy who realizes what needs to change and jumps on it. Hamels is still a work in progress — his metamorphosis is far from complete. Hamels refuses to remain static, which might be his best trait…

He’s not boring.

How bad does the (injury) bug bite?

Rollins When the Phillies showed up for spring training two months ago, it was difficult to imagine the team not winning the NL East for a fourth season in a row. With the core group heading into its athletic and physiological prime and the addition of Roy Halladay to the top of the rotation, the over/under on wins was placed at 95 by the swells in Vegas.

The Phillies will hit unlike no other Phillies team ever and they have a horse that has piled up at least 220 innings the past four years.

Truth is, things are so rosy with the Phillies as its hitters have bludgeoned the Nationals and Astros in the first seven games, that no one wants to jinx anything. Come on… why bring up something like the potential for injuries and be a mush? Why do that when the Phillies have used the schedule to their advantage in order to rush out to the best record in baseball?

Injuries are a tricky thing because no one in sports ever knows how the body is going to respond. Your calf injury recovers at a different rate than someone like Jimmy Rollins. See, as a shortstop whose speed and quickness is what helped get him to the big leagues in the first place, the calf muscle is that much more important. That’s the muscle that is the engine for Rollins. A balky calf means Rollins doesn’t go from first to third when Placido Polanco laces one to right field or goes from first to home when Chase Utley bangs one into the gap.

And without Rollins at the top of the batting order the entire dynamic of the offense gets knocked off kilter a bit.

Oh sure, even if it turns out that Rollins has a Grade 2 sprain of his calf like a source told CSNPhilly.com’s Jim Salisbury on Monday and has to serve some time on the disabled list, the Phillies still will win the NL East. The same goes for Jayson Werth, who likely will miss a game or two with a sore hip that “grabbed” him during Monday’s victory over lowly Washington.

Thanks to some wise off-season acquisitions, the Phillies have Juan Castro to play short if Rollins goes out for a bit instead of Eric Bruntlett. The Phils also have Ben Francisco, Greg Dobbs or Ross Gload to play the outfield for Werth if he needs a few games off.

Sure, losing those players will sting a bit, but they only mask the real concern that could cause the 2010 season to blow up like one of those trick cigars in the cartoons.

The concern: what if Brad Lidge doesn’t get it back this year?

No, I’m no doctor and chances are I would have flunked out of medical school within a week of attending a single class. However, a late March cortisone shot into his sore right arm mixed with two rehab outings at Single-A in which he has allowed five runs, five hits, a walk and no strikeouts in 1 2/3 innings is attention grabbing.

Yes, Lidge is coming off yet another surgery—his third since joining the Phillies before the 2008 season—and it probably will take a bit for him to get back his strength. But what happens if he doesn’t get it back? Or let’s say he gets it back and turns in another year like he did in ’09 when he saved 31 games, but allowed 51 runs in 58 2/3 innings?

Then what?

Ryan Madson, the Phillies’ acting closer, says there are no worries on his end. In fact, he pointed out after getting his second save of the year on Monday, talk of a thin bullpen is an annual rite of spring around these parts.

If there is ever one thing guys like me like to pick at as if it’s a mealy old scab, it’s the Phils’ bullpen depth. Madson has noticed.

“Every year I've been here, it’s about the bullpen,” he said. “It’s our weakest link. You're going to have something that’s not like the lineup we've got.”

The thing about injuries is they give guys like Madson a chance. When they hear the chatter or the put-on panic about the team’s chances when a key player goes down it only serves to motivate. Besides, Madson says, the bullpen was another one of those areas where a couple of off-season acquisitions just might pan out. Veteran Jose Contreras is making the transition from starter to reliever and just might have the stuff to close out games if needed. Rule 5 guy Dave Herndon has been impressive in limited action.

So far this season the Phils’ relievers have allowed just three runs with 18 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings. That comes to a 1.33 ERA, which is second-best in the Majors.

“We’ve got plenty of arms out there that have been throwing the ball really well,” Madson said. “It will be nice when they get back, but for now, we've got good arms out there. We’re happy.”

There’s no reason not to be. Not yet, anyway. The Phillies have worked over the lowly Nats and Astros, but that will change soon when they get deeper into the schedule.

That’s when we find out just how costly those aches and pains really are.

Hot time in the old town with the hot corner

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com Without so much as a flick of an eyelash, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. set the Phillies’ offseason into full swing. He didn’t have to issue a statement, hold a press conference or even sign anything.

Hell, he didn’t even have to answer any questions because that was already handled for the GM by other people. There was a quick e-mail sent out to reporters regarding Pedro Feliz’s option, and Brett Myers told people that Amaro told him that he oughta just go be a free agent.

So now Amaro needs to find a third baseman to replace the sure-handed Feliz, and a knucklehead to replace Myers. And of course, as written three times on this space already (this is the fourth), the Phillies hope to make a trade for Roy Halladay.

Whispers from Phillies sources is the deal for Halladay could include Cole Hamels.

That still leaves the team down a knucklehead with Myers’ departure. Perhaps they’ll go knucklehead-less?

Anyway, as Amaro hangs out at the O’Hare Hilton in Chicago—the very same hotel O.J. Simpson checked into after flying from L.A. the night of the murders—his off-season plans were laid out in appropriate order:

* Third baseman
* Relief pitcher(s)
* The bench

And if there is enough time or money left over maybe they can find a clubhouse knucklehead to replace Myers. But you know… only if they have time.

The search for a new third baseman is an interesting proposition for Amaro. After all, this is one of those rare cases in which it will be difficult for the GM to mess it up since there are plenty of quality free-agent third basemen. Certainly Chone Figgins of the Angels is the cream of the crop, but the Angels want him back and his asking price is reported to be 5-years for $50 million.

Five years for a guy about to turn 32 might be a bit much, but Figgins could be a valuable piece for the Phillies. No, he’s not much of a slugger, but he would be the perfect leadoff hitter in this lineup. Last year he walked 101 times and has an on-base percentage over .385 in the past three seasons.

Compared to Jimmy Rollins, well… there is not much of a comparison. Figgins’ OBP in 2009 was exactly 100-points higher than Rollins’. Plus, as a leadoff hitter Figgins sees 4.21 pitches per plate appearance. On the Phillies, only Jayson Werth saw more pitches (4.51) and he led the Majors.

Figgins also steals more bases than any player for the Phillies, and though he led the league in caught stealing in two out of the past three years, a spring with Davey Lopes could turn him into a 70-stolen base threat.

Figgins would be a perfect table setter for the Phillies’ sluggers and fits in nicely in that he strikes out a lot, too (his BAbip was .356). However, the addition of Figgins would probably rock the boat a little too much because Rollins, for some reason, is the leadoff hitter for life.

He might be the worst leadoff hitter in the big leagues, but Rollins’ is the leadoff hitter nonetheless. Egos are a helluva thing, especially within the space of a baseball clubhouse. Though the Phillies might be better served with Rollins hitting further down in the lineup—like second, seventh—manager Charlie Manuel has bought the idea that he has one leadoff hitter and one only.

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.comYes, Figgins is the best option for the Phillies. That’s especially the case considering his fielding, statistically speaking, was just as good as Feliz.

Other names that will be whispered into the wind like so many dandelion spores are Adrian Beltre and Mark DeRosa. The fact is, the Phillies have had the hots for both players for years and put the moves on DeRosa during the winter meetings last December. However, neither player is as consistent as Figgins.

Worse, Beltre and DeRosa have had their share of injuries. DeRosa, the former Penn quarterback, has never played more than 149 games in a season (he’s done it twice) and will be 35 in February. Plus, he had surgery on his wrist last week.

Beltre is 13 years into his career and is coming off his worst season. The Phillies can definitely do better.

And certainly they should do better. With the attendance numbers they posted (102 percent capacity for 89 games in the regular- and post-seasons), money isn’t an issue. Plus, with the ever fickle window of opportunity just an injury away from closing, the Phillies aren’t risking all that much by making a move on Figgins (or Halladay, a bullpen piece, and a knucklehead).

Besides, third base is one of those marquee positions for the Phillies, like left field for the Red Sox or center field for the Yankees. Dick Allen played third base. So too did Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen. They seemed to be in a good spot with Placido Polanco at third, but needed guys like David Bell, Tomas Perez, Tyler Houston, Shawn Wooten, Ramon Martinez, Jose Hernandez, Alex Gonzalez, Wes Helms, Abraham Nunez, Greg Dobbs, Miguel Cairo, Eric Bruntlett and Feliz to hold down the hot corner.

Hey, you had us at Polanco.

World Series: Bad beats

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com PHILADELPHIA—For a franchise that has lost more games than any other team in pro sports history, the Phillies have suffered through more than their fair share of humiliating defeats. In fact, if Philadelphia were the hoity-toity center of arts and letters like Boston and New York, there would be books, poems, curses and movies produced about some of the more devastating of these losses.

Of course the World Series victories in 1980 and 2008 have tempered some of the emotion of the losses, but if that were not the case chances are last night’s defeat in Game 4 of the World Series would take on a greater magnitude.

Instead, we’ll just label it a tough loss and wait to see how the rest of the series plays out.

Still, it’s worth investigating just where the Game 4 loss ranks. Upon reflection, the 2009 Game 4 defeat mirrors the one in Game 4 of the 1993 World Series. That’s the one where the Phillies took a 14-9 lead into the eighth inning only to have the Blue Jays rally for six runs in the inning against Larry Andersen and Mitch Williams. Just when it looked as if the Phillies were going to tie up the series at 2-2, one inning put the club in a 3-1 series deficit and paved the way for Joe Carter’s series-ending homer in Game 6.

Before that point, though, Curt Schilling pitched a shutout in Game 5. That’s a role the Phillies are hoping is reprised by Cliff Lee in tonight’s Game 5. In fact, the similarities are downright uncanny. I remember walking in the bowels of the Vet before Schilling’s first, true World Series gem and seeing the victory champagne, the championship t-shirts and a whole lot of Molson beer in boxes outside the Blue Jays clubhouse.

Schilling made them cart it all the way to Toronto and the Phillies were two outs away from forcing a Game 7 until Jim Fregosi called in Mitchy-poo.

The rest is history.

As for the ’93 Game 4, Andersen said he doesn’t think the mood in the clubhouse after that loss was too different than it was with the Phillies last night. Both clubs had been through so much during the long season that one difficult defeat didn’t affect morale.

Of course we all know how Game 6 shook up the ’93 Phils and the city. Williams was traded to Houston, John Kruk beat cancer, Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton began their descent marked by injuries and that team quickly broke up.

Roger Mason we hardly knew ye.

As for last night’s loss it seemed as if a few of the guys got fired up by the notion of doom and gloom. Cliff Lee walked into the clubhouse and a wry smile took over his face when he took in the scene of a media horde picking at Brad Lidge as if they were vultures picking at a dead animal by the side of the road.

mitch.jpg Of course Lidge’s teammates didn’t help matters by leaving the closer out there all by himself to answer question after question, but eventually a few trickled out. Heck, even Chase Utley misread the extended media deadlines for the World Series and had to entertain questions from the press.

Nope, Utley only has time for the media when he needs to promote his charity.

“We play like every game’s our last anyway,” Utley said. “So this should be no different.”

Regardless, Jimmy Rollins probably said it best about the Phillies’ attitude heading into their first elimination game since the 2007 NLDS. Don’t expect any rah-rah speeches or extra histrionics from the home team, he says.

“I guess that works real well in Hollywood movies,” Rollins said. “You make this grand speech and everybody turns around and becomes superheroes. But we all know what we have to do. We talked about it in the lunch room, what’s the task at hand. And Charlie, if he wants to say something, he’ll say something. Other than that, the focus and the job doesn’t change.”

Yes that’s true. However, the stakes have changed greatly.

*
While we’re on the subject of ugly losses in team history, where does Cole Hamels’ failure in Game 3 rank. Sure, we’re waxing on about Game 4, but Hamels and the Phillies were in an excellent spot in Game 3 before the fifth-inning meltdown.

As a result, it would be difficult for Manuel to send Hamels to the mound for Game 7 at Yankee Stadium should it come to that. Moreover, there just might be a swirl of trade talk regarding Hamels this winter… perhaps involving a certain right-hander for Toronto.

“This year has been tough on him,” Manuel said. “He’s kind of had a weird year. You’ve heard me say that over and over. What he’s going through right now, it’s going to be an experience, because he’s going through the part where he’s failed.”

Manuel pointed out that bad years on the heels of overwhelming success aren’t extraordinary. In fact, they happen all the time to really good pitchers. Hall of Famers, even.

“I think that’s just the way it goes. And I can name you pitchers that have had the same problem he has. Saberhagen, Palmer, Jim Palmer, Beckett. I mean, if I stood here and think, I can think of more,” Manuel said. “You go back and look, after they have the big year, it’s not something — Pat Burrell as a player, hit 37 home runs, and the following year I remember when I first came over here, one of my things was I worked with his hitting. And the reason is because he was having a bad year. That’s baseball, and sometimes that’s what happens. That doesn’t mean that a guy is not going to meet your expectations of him. I think it’s just a matter of him getting things going again and feeling real good about himself, and he’ll go out there and produce for you.”

Whether or not this affects Hamels’ role with the club for the rest of the 2009 season has yet to be determined. But make no mistake about it—the Phillies’ faith in Hamels just isn’t there any more.

World Series: Gotta get to Mo

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com PHILADELPHIA—It was back in Washington, probably in late August or early September when all we did was write about the proper way to use a relief pitcher and closers. Needless to say it was during one of Brad Lidge’s many rough patches of 2009 and there was a whole bunch of name dropping and philosophizing by the likes of me.

It wasn’t just willy-nilly name dropping, either. Oh sure, there was Eckersley, Sutter, Goose, Sparky Lyle, Mike Marshall and, of course, Fingers. But we also waxed on about Rawly Eastwick, Will McEnaney and the socialism of baseball with its division of labor and labels.

Labels, we decided, were bad. However, since the Phillies seem to have their label/labor issues figured out, there is no need to go overboard when discussing the best use of the so-called “closer.”

Besides, Mariano Rivera makes that Rawly Eastwick look like Will McEnaney.

Oh yes, Mariano Rivera. His two-inning save against the Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday night might have been a record-breaker, but it wasn’t exactly a study in the efficiency of pitching. The Phillies made Rivera throw 39 pitches in order to get his 10th career save in the World Series. They also brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth inning, and the tying run in the ninth.

These weren’t mere flash-flood rallies either. In the eighth with one out Rivera had to face Chase Utley with Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino on base. Utley had ripped two homers the night before to pace the Phillies to the win, but this time Rivera got the inning-ending double play.

Sure, the TV replays showed that Utley was safe, but it was significant enough that Rivera got Utley to hit into a double play considering the lefty hit into just five of them all year and has grounded into just 49 double plays in his entire career.

Indeed, the lefty hitting Utley got one of those cutters Rivera throws.

In the ninth Matt Stairs faced Rivera with two outs and a runner on with a chance to tie it. Stairs, as we know, has had some success against big-time closers, but this one ended just as it has so many times with Rivera.

As soon as Stairs made the final out of the game, the talk started. For instance, there are a few that suggested that even though the Phillies didn’t score against Rivera, they got to him a bit. They saw those 39 pitches, of course, and sent eight hitters to the plate in those two innings. The idea, as it’s been written and spoken, was that the Phillies got a good, long look at Rivera and will be ready for the next time.

“Now you have a game plan,” Rollins said. “We didn’t really see Mariano during the season. Spring training, he comes in, I’m out of the game. So, it’s a mystery. Like, we know what he’s going to do. It’s no surprise. It’s not a secret. You’re getting a cutter. All right. You’re getting another cutter. All right. Now here comes another one. That’s what makes him such a good pitcher, because he’s not trying to trick you. But when you see him, you figure out how much his ball is moving. Once you find your approach, you’ve got to be stubborn with it because he’s going to be stubborn with what he’s going to do to you.”

Manager Charlie Manuel was one of those who believed the Phillies’ long look at Rivera was beneficial.

“We can hit Rivera. We can hit any closer. We’ve proved that,” Manuel said. “He’s one of the best closers in baseball, if not the best. He’s very good. But I’ve seen our team handle good pitching and we’re definitely capable of scoring runs late in the game.”

Here’s the big question from all of this… what makes this time so different? What is it the Phillies get that no other team, for the last 15 years, couldn’t figure out?

What makes the Phillies so darned special?

Certainly the Phillies didn’t need to see 39 pitches to know all about Rivera. He throws the cutter and like Pedro Martinez, Rivera is a force of nature. Hitters know what he’s going to throw and when he’s going to throw it, but he still turns bats into kindling. The Phillies, like every other team in the world, send scouts to watch Rivera pitch, they’ve seen him on TV, during spring training and on a continuous loop on the monitors in the clubhouse.

Really, what makes those 39 pitches any different?

“I don’t think you can be scared of anyone in baseball,” Victorino said. “You have to have the resiliency to say, ‘This guy is good. but we can beat him.’ His numbers show how good he is, but you can’t go with that mindset because then you’re beating yourself.”

OK, fine. But in the carefully choreographed world of relief pitching, Rivera is just like all those names we dropped earlier. Actually, check that… he’s better than them. That’s because in 21 World Series appearances—one fewer than Whitey Ford’s all-time record—Rivera has pitched 33 innings, finished 16 games and notched 10 saves.

Needless to say the 10 saves are the best in World Series history, with Fingers second with six. More notable, Rivera has saved four World Series games with multi-innings outings. Again, that’s another record.

So why is it that the Phillies think they can do what only one other team has done in 21 tries?

Maybe it was the 11-pitch at-bat from Rollins in the eighth where he earned a walk (like he really earned it) after falling behind in the count 1-and-2 and then fouling off five pitches. That’s the harbinger.

After all, the last time Rivera threw as many as 39 pitches when going for a two-inning save, the Red Sox rallied for a victory in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS and began the greatest comeback in baseball history.

World Series: Yankee Stadium? Yawn!

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com NEW YORK—Jimmy has been out in full force since the playoffs began. JRoll? Haven’t seen him in a long time. Oh no, there’s nothing wrong with JRoll and he can be entertaining in a certain way from time to time. But Jimmy?

Who doesn’t love Jimmy?

I’m not sure who came up with it, but it fits perfectly—when dealing with Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, there is Jimmy and then there is JRoll. They aren’t Jekyll and Hyde-styled split personalities or even alter egos where one guy is sweet and thoughtful and the other is downright evil. Nope, it’s nothing like that. It’s more like a mood.

Surliness and a condescending attitude is all JRoll. That’s usually reserved for the dog days of the regular season where there might be a hitting slump, losing streak or an error involved. It also might be an attempt to get attention, too, because there aren’t too many things that gets the media to take notice than a surly athlete who doesn’t want to talk about a ballgame.

Jimmy, of course, is entertaining as all get out. He’s quick witted, happy and insightful. He’ll engage anyone, recognizes the local guys who have been with him every day since that September call up in 2000 and is downright gracious. Jimmy usually makes an appearance when the stage gets bigger. He might take an oh-fer or make an error, but unlike the dog days, there is an image to uphold.

With all the notebooks and microphones lurking around during the playoffs, Jimmy gets around.

Yes, we love Jimmy.

And Jimmy loved us right back with a day of perfect, quotable nuggets before and after Game 2 from Yankee Stadium. The pre-game stuff was dropped into a story I wrote about Jimmy’s (sort of) head’s up play on a double play in Game 1 where he “accidentally” caught a little line drive instead of allowing it to bounce to turn a double play, as well as his penchant for making waves whenever he hits New York City.

However, there were a few items that got lost in the shuffle when Rollins was talking about playing shortstop in front of left fielder Raul Ibanez. Though Raul has been hampered with a torn ab muscle as well as a relative dearth of foot speed, Jimmy says the Phils’ new left fielder is a big upgrade over ex-Phillie Pat Burrell. No, he didn’t come out and say Burrell’s name or even put it out there like Burrell is/was a lousy outfielder, but then again he didn’t have to.

“There were less balls falling in the outfield, so that meant teams were getting extra outs on balls that should have been outs,” Rollins said. “They were turned into outs this year. Although we were looking for a right-handed bat in the off-season, just picking up a great hitter can’t be overlooked. And the season [Ibanez] had, the production, especially prior to him getting injured, the man was a superstar.”

However, the quotes that really took off despite being delivered in the wee hours of the morning (who doesn’t love the Internets? Readers and fans would have missed these before the proliferation of digital media) are the ones Rollins dropped regarding the fans at Yankee Stadium.

Apparently Rollins looked out into the two largest crowds in the short history of the latest incarnation of Yankee Stadium and yawned.

Didn’t they realize the Yankees were in the World Series?

Based on what Jimmy saw, apparently not. In fact, when asked if this year’s World Series felt anything like it did last year when the Phillies played the first two games in sterile, lifeless Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., Rollins said: “When we get back to Philly it will [feel like the World Series].”

Zing.

Apparently Rollins can’t tell the difference between Rays’ fans and Yankees fans. From my perspective, I guess that’s a dig at Rays’ fans because they were much. Much louder in the first two games of last year’s World Series than it was in corporate, tony Yankee Stadium.

There weren’t so many empty seats at Tropicana Field, either.

Occasionally it got loud during Game 2 on Thursday night, especially when the organist prodded the fans into the “Who’s your daddy?” chant directed at Pedro Martinez. But it was hardly an ear-splitting moment and the fans settled back into their soft, comfortable chairs quickly. Who knows, maybe they even went up to the high-end butcher shop for a roast beef sandwich or the farmer’s market on the concourse while awaiting the next pre-programmed fan reaction.

You know, like when some guy put on a straw hat and performed a silly dance to disco music in the eighth inning.

“What I thought it would be like compared to what this is like, I would have to say it’s completely different,” Rollins said before Game 2. “They had a legacy over there from the hallways, the monuments, everything. Here, it’s brand new. It’s a different ballpark.”

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com Rollins is right to say the new Yankee Stadium is nice, because it’s very nice. The food is delicious, there are lots of choices, the concourses are wide and it’s easy to get around. In the press box during the regular season, the food is by far the best in the Majors.

But so what. It’s not Yankee Stadium anymore. It’s the Disney version of Yankee Stadium. It’s like the high-rollers lounge at the airport. Sure it’s nice, but it has the personality of a really nice toilet seat. In fact, even when the fans were yelling at Pedro or any of the other Phillies players it sounded as if it were canned in from the P.A.

Indeed, Yankee Stadium is dead. Long live the new Yankee Stadium.

“I’ve watched a game at Yankee Stadium, a playoff game, just all the mystique that came with it. What I thought it would be like compared to what this is like, I would have to say it’s completely different,” Rollins said. “They had a legacy over there from the hallways, the monuments, everything. Here it’s brand new. It’s a different ballpark. It’s prettier, big ol’ jumbo screens everywhere. I would have to say it’s a lot different from what I would have expected it to have been.”

All things being equal, Rollins would rather be in Philadelphia.

“It’s really more of a different atmosphere at our ballpark, which is so loud and rowdy. I expected that when I came here, but I heard one big cheer, and that was on a home run. Other than that…”

Rollins just let the last sentence hang there with a little shrug of the shoulders.

Maybe the reason why the atmosphere is so much different at Citizens Bank Park compared to the traditional baseball cities like New York and Boston is because in Philly, the real, true baseball fans haven’t been priced out yet. There also is a solid college-aged crowd and enough standing-room tickets to keep the diehards coming out even in a tough economy.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the Phillies are back in the World Series for a second straight season.

“It makes it a lot more fun because you know they’re your fans and how the sound can echo when they’re not your fans,” Rollins said. “We saw it in the NLCS.”

They’re waiting to see it in the World Series.

The NLCS: No blowing it for the Phillies

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com Watching Carlos Ruiz take that wide turn around second base with his short legs moving as fast as he could make them go, the first thought (obviously) was, “Wow! They’re really going to win this thing.”

It was as dramatic a victory as there could be in a postseason game without a home run. Needless to say it immediately conjured remembrances Matt Stairs’ home run to beat the Dodgers and Jonathan Broxton in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS, too. That homer, off course, was the seminal moment of the 2008 postseason where we finally realized that, yes, the Phillies were going to go to the World Series and win it.

Those old feelings surfaced again last night as Jimmy Rollins circled the bases only to be tackled by Ryan Howard and the rest of the team when Chooch finally made it to home plate.

Unlike last year it’s much easier to put the Game 4 heroics in perspective because there is a frame of reference. We’ve seen this all before, which caused some of us to be less stunned than when Stairs hit his homer. Oh, it was dramatic alright, because, really, how many times does a team get to win such an important game?

Once in a lifetime, maybe, if the team is especially lucky or good? But never in back-to-back years in the same game of the championship series against the same pitcher, right?

Well, obviously these are not your father’s Phillies. Or you grandfather’s Phillies. There simply is no precedent for what we’re watching with this team.

Oh sure, in 1980 the Phillies had some pretty crazy comebacks. Take Game 5 of the NLCS, for instance. Back then the series was just a best-of-five so when Nolan Ryan took a three-run lead into the top of the eighth at the Astrodome, it didn’t look so good for the Phillies.

But Larry Bowa hit a single to open the inning. Bob Boone followed with another before Greg Gross beat out a bunt to load the bases. When Pete Rose walked to force home a run, the Astros turned to Joe Sambito and Ken Forsch to try and stave off more damage.

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com Two outs and a two-run single by Del Unser followed by a two-run triple from Manny Trillo and the Phillies went from four outs from elimination to holding a two-run lead with six outs to go.

Actually, Tug McGraw was four outs away in the eighth before the Astros rallied. It took a two-out double from Garry Maddox in the 10th to finally send the Phillies to the World Series.

OK, so maybe there is a precedent, but not one with an exclamation point or a moment that folks will talk about forever and ever. Make that two moments now. Stairs and Rollins linked by generations by stories fathers and grandfathers will pass down.

Indeed, that is unprecedented.

So the next thought that came after wrapping my head around what had just happened on the field when Rollins laced his game-winner into the gap, was, “OK, how are they going to blow this? Are the Phillies going to cough up three straight to the Dodgers or go belly up against the Angels or Yankees in the World Series?

“Would something like that just render the glory of Game 4 useless?”

Well, yeah… but it’s not going to happen. The days of epic failures and catchphrases like “1964!” are long buried in the attic of hazy memories like a sweater that doesn’t fit and has gone out of style.

The Phillies are going to the World Series again. They might even win it…

What, are you surprised?

NLCS Game 1: Plenty of good seats still available

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com LOS ANGELES—When waiting to pick up my credentials, badges and cross through the security throng to get into Dodger Stadium yesterday, there were a handful of people who casually walked to the ticket window looking to get into tonight’s game.

No one was turned away because the games weren’t sold out. In fact, even now after Billy Ray Cyrus sang the National Anthem and Shane Victorino and Matt Stairs heard the loudest boos during the player introductions, there were big pockets of empty seats all over beautiful Dodger Stadium.

More notably, I didn’t spy a single well-known celebrity out on the field before the game unless Frank Robinson counts.

In other words, the ballpark is definitely too good for the LA fans. They have great weather, great food, plenty of things to do whenever they want and all day to do them. That’s why baseball seems to be nothing more than a casual thing here. Unlike in Boston, New York, Chicago and Philly, it’s not life and death.

“I tell the players they should all play in the northeast at some point then they wouldn't be so sensitive,” the notoriously insensitive Dodgers’ third-base coach and former Mr. Phillie, Larry Bowa said. “"It’s not life or death here. Nobody’s going to jump off a bridge.”

They probably won’t egg a players’ house after a bad game, either.

“There are so many movie stars here and so many things to do that the Dodgers are like fourth or fifth,” said Californian Jimmy Rollins. However, Rollins was quick to point out that he was really from California.

Northern California.

“No movie stars,” he said.

The coolest sighting at the ballpark?

Fernando Valenzuela.

You know he could breathe through his eyes like the lava lizards of the Galapagos Islands, right?

Yep, that was Fernando. And as I ate a light lunch in the media dining room and sat across from the ex-Dodger great and Cy Young Award winner, I was regaled with tales about the proper technique and arm angle of how to throw the scroogie.

These days Fernando is the Spanish-language announcer for Dodgers’ radio broadcasts, and looks just like he did when he was pitching during the 1980s and ‘90s, albeit with a few extra pounds. The shoulder-length hair brought back by Javier Bardem in “No Country For Old Men, has been neatly shorn.

Anyway, here are a few things I learned about Fernando this afternoon:

• No, he cannot breathe through his eyelids. This was a disappointing fact to learn.

• Fernando was once a teammate with Jamie Moyer in Baltimore in 1993.

• Nope, Fernando had no idea what a guy like me can do for fun in LA. Another disappointing fact to learn.

• Sarge Matthews chatted with Fernando earlier. I learned this when I walked up to Sarge and said, “Did you see that! That was Fernando Valenzuela!” He yelled back, "I know!"

• Fernando brought the heat at 90 mph and threw the screwball in the 70s. He had two pitches – a fastball which he changed speeds with and the screwball. If he threw the screwball to lefties, he’s plunk them, he said. Once, he drilled Roberto Alomar with one simply because he couldn’t control it.

• Fernando has no idea why pitchers don’t throw the scroogie any more.

• Leslie Gudel, the Los Angelino by way of Pasadena, was also a big Fernando fan back in the day. She also liked Ron Cey because she played third base for her school softball teams way back when.

So yeah, how about that? Fernando Valenzuela. Not bad.

Game 4: Rollins patience a virtue or overrated?

Jimmy_rollins DENVER — In the craziness of last night’s game here at Coors, there were a ton of interesting tidbits and subplots that got lost in the shuffle. Then again that’s kind of how it is in playoff baseball. It’s arriving at the destination that gets all the focus instead of the actual journey.

For instance, the 1-2-3 double play the Rockies pulled off with no outs and the bases loaded in the fourth inning had the potential to be a killer. The Phillies could have delivered the deathblow in that spot, but instead the Rockies wiggled out of big trouble when Pedro Feliz tapped one back to the mound.

Starter J.A. Happ’s three-inning stint turned out to be an afterthought, too. If the bullpen had not be able to step up, the 35-pitch first inning and 76 total tosses to get just nine outs could have been one of those things that came back to bite the Phillies.

Of course in stepping up where Happ did not were Joe Blanton and Chad Durbin, both whom were pushing into atypical roles. Blanton started 31 games during the regular season, but has been called on to pitch out of the bullpen in the past two games. Durbin, on the other hand, was pushed into the eighth-inning role and needed just 10 pitches to get three straight ground balls.

But the most overlooked part of the Game 3 victory were the plate appearances from Jimmy Rollins in the first and ninth innings. The typically impatient Rollins was truly doing a Rickey Henderson impression in each of those at-bats by forcing 13 pitches. The ninth-inning at-bat resulted in a 3-2 single that started the game-winning rally.

"It's about time he did something," No. 2 hitter Shane Victorino joked.

Here’s the big number… Rollins saw 29 pitches in five plate appearances. During the regular-season, Rollins averaged 3.56 pitches per plate appearance, but in the last three games he has seen 53 pitches for a significantly better 3.79 pitches per appearance.

The strange part is Rollins went into his ninth-inning at-bat riding a 2-for-13 in the series with four strikeouts and no walks. Rollins is seeing more pitches, but it hasn’t resulted in better results.

Maybe it’s better if Rollins isn’t patient at the plate?

Still, the Phillies have been pretty good at playing the so-called “small ball” during the series. That’s especially the case considering the Phillies led the Majors (by a wide margin) in most runs scored via the home run. However, in the first three games of the NLDS, the Phillies took a 2-1 lead in the series despite scoring just two of their 15 runs on the home run.

“Like I said in the last two or three days, we know how to play,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “Basically, I get back to it, baseball is a funny game. A lot of times how you play and who you're playing dictates how you're playing, if that makes sense. Follow what I'm saying? And I think we're playing a good team.”

In other words, the Phillies are doing the small-ball thing because they have to.

“You gotta do what you gotta do to win games,” said Howard, who led the club with 45 home runs in 2009. “Everyone knows we hit a lot of home runs, but we know that’s not going to happen every time. You have to figure out ways to play some small ball and get some runs home.”

Game 1: Day games, lineups and the Bay Area

hamels.jpg OK, is everybody ready? Does everyone all set up to watch the midday playoff ballgame? Apparently the start time for Wednesday’s opener of the NLDS against the Colorado Rockies was a source of contention because people have jobs and things like that.

What, it isn’t cool to watch baseball at work? If not, that’s just silly unless the worker is going to perform surgery or something. Then no, that guy should not be watching ball.

Nevertheless, I am a bit confused. After all, we always hear about how they don’t play enough day games during the playoffs and kids can’t stay up to watch. But then when they play a day game everyone complains about it because they have to go to work.

Which is it, dude?

From my point of view, the day game is great. These things tend to run a bit long as it is and we need all the time we can get to do some writing and that kind of crap. However, it seems as if Phillies’ pitcher Cole Hamels is not a big fan of the day games in the NLDS. In fact, he complained about it before the game during his formal MLB sanctioned press conference complete with microphones, hot lights and satellite feeds.

Using his “Who are you?” voice direct from that commercial that runs in a veritable loop on the TV, Hamels said: “I understand TV ratings, but I think at the end of the day, most players would rather play when they’re both comfortable and that’s kind of what we’ve trained at—either 1 o’clock or 7 o’clock, and I think it’s more fair for us than the TV ratings, because truly, I don’t think we mind as much for TV ratings.”

Wait… what?

“We can understand that people want to watch it on TV, but I don’t know too many people that are going to be watching this game at 11 on the west coast.”

Oh… in other words, Hamels is ready for his start in Game 2 on Thursday afternoon.

Here are the lineups for Game 1
Phillies
11 – Rollins, ss
8 – Victorino, cf
26 – Utley, 2b
6 – Howard, 1b
28 – Werth, rf
29 – Ibanez, rf
7 – Pedro Feliz, 3b
51 – Ruiz, c
34 – Lee, p

Rockies
24 – Fowler, cf
5 – Gonzalez, lf
17 – Helton, 1b
2 – Tulowitzki, ss
27 – Atkins, 3b
8 – Torrealba, c
11 – Hawpe, rf
12 – Barmes, 2b
38 – Jimenez, p

The key to the Rockies’ lineup is shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Jimmy Rollins, Tulowitzki’s counterpart on the Phillies, talked about the third-year star on Tuesday afternoon and marveled at the kid’s defensive prowess and throwing arm. Plus, Tulowitzki belted 32 home runs in 2009.

Though Rollins didn’t put Tulowitzki at the top of the list for young shortstops coming up in the game, he gave the most credence because like Rollins, the Rockies’ shortstop is from the Bay Area.

That’s when Rollins went on to list all the top ballplayers from his area of the country, such as Barry Bonds, Frank Robinson, Dontrelle Willis, Pat Burrell, Tom Brady, etc., etc. Of course Rollins’ favorite is Willie Stargell, the fellow Encinal High grad whose name was on the high school field Rollins and Willis played on.

“I thought one day they might name the field after me, but nope, it already has Pops’ name on it,” Rollins said.

Third inning: Settling in

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Just saw Richie Garcia here at the park. Remember him? Garcia was the long-time umpire who was one of the best in the game, but will always be remembered for the home run credited to Derek Jeter when the kid Jeffrey Maier practically pulled it out of Tony Tarasco's glove.

Tony Tarasco, of course, is Jimmy Rollins' cousin and Garcia is the supervisor of MLB umpires. The replay call went perfectly, he said.

Also got word from Atlanta that the Marlins took a 3-0 lead over the Braves. If it doesn't work out in the game against the Astros tonight, it just might work out if the Phils want to go in through the back door.

It doesn't matter how the team gets there as long as they get there.

Team physician Dr. Michael Ciccotti is giving an update on the severity of Jamie Moyer's injured groin. There is no truth to the story that he has a shot of whiskey and a bullet for the old-school pitcher to bite down on so the doctor and snap everything back into place.

Third inning: Astros 2, Phillies 1

Who needs a nap?

I'm tired,
Tired of playing the game
Ain't it a crying shame
I'm so tired

– Lili Von Shtupp

image from fingerfood.typepad.com MILWAUKEE — This is the time in the baseball season where the days grow longer, the nights shorter and the turnaround so much more quicker. Not only is there no rest for the weary, but also the only recourse is adrenaline.

Yes, we’re beat, but dammit we’re having fun, too. No one wants to go home because the action starts in October. Sure, we’re tired. All of us. The players, the coaches, the front-office types and, of course, the scribes. We’re beaten down to a bloody pulp like an aimless old boxer who just got his ass waffled. But really, what better place to be?

October baseball is why the players play and why the writers write.

It’s also why the scouts scout. For those who make the rounds from city to city with the Phillies, there are a few more regular faces on the scene. Like writers, scouts travel in packs even though they work for competing organizations. Call it safety in numbers.

But only one of these packs of people has any true bearing on the outcome of games and that ain’t the scribes. In fact, advance scouting offers so much insight into the opposition that birddoggers from all of the Phillies’ potential opponents have been at the ballpark for every game for the past two months. Shoot, even a scout from the Twins has been watching the Phillies in the outside chance that they meet in the World Series.

Most notable though are the guys from the Dodgers, Cardinals, Rockies and Braves, who happens to be ex-Phillies manager Jim Fregosi. Aside from Fregosi, the scouts from the National League-playoff clubs and a handful of American League teams have been out every day.

There are a couple of things to know about scouts. One is they watch the game differently than even the most astute fan or writer. They look for tendencies, nuanced little tells and tips that might not happen but one time in 100 pitches, but that one time could be the difference. Plus, the scouts look at the game objectively. Unlike coaches or the manager, the scouts are looking for what their team can exploit. They zero in on weaknesses like a big schoolyard bully.

At the core, though, the scout is an overt spy. As such, they trade in information and every once in a while they leak like a sieve. Because writers have access and insight that the scouts do not, there is often a quid pro quo between scout and scribe.

Wanna know what a few of them think about the Phillies’ chances in the playoffs? Well, it’s not really that much of a surprise.

“They’re going to have to ride their starting pitchers for as long as they can,” a scout said, noting that the Phillies’ bullpen is a mess.

This will be an interesting week for watchers of the Phillies because reliever J.C. Romero has been activated from the disabled list on Monday, Brett Myers could return to action this week along with Chan Ho Park, and Scott Eyre has not pitched in a game since Sept. 7. Before that, the lefty specialist had pitched just once since Aug. 16.

Then there is the issue of the ninth inning where it appears as if Brad Lidge will not see any significant action aside from mop-up duty to restore his fastball command and confidence. Ryan Madson pitched spectacularly in the ninth inning to save Sunday’s win at Miller Park, but if the lanky righty takes over the ninth, who gets the eighth?

Tyler Walker? Sergio Escalona? One of the guys trying to cram in some work before the playoffs begin? Not Brett Myers, says one scout.

“His stuff was pretty unimpressive in the few games he pitched when he got back [from hip surgery],” a scout said.

The biggest issue just might be the starting rotation, particularly Cliff Lee who is 2-3 with a 6.35 ERA in his last six starts. One of those six starts was a complete game shutout, which reveals how poor those numbers were in the other five outings. Meanwhile, Pedro Martinez missed his last start with a strained neck and J.A. Happ very well could be the answer in the bullpen.

Still, Lee and that rough patch with just one more start to go in the season is also something for folks to pay attention to.

“There are a lot of innings for those starters. Some of them look pretty tired,” another scout said. “But then again, there are a lot of guys out there that look tired.”

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Jayson Werth, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are a few names that pop to mind when talking about tiredness. Better yet, if a scout from another team notices how tired the Phillies look, Manuel ought to, as well.

Right?

Well, yes and no. Sure, Manuel acknowledges that a couple of his guys are a little burnt, but it’s too late to do anything about it. With a four-game lead with six to go, Manuel can’t give Werth a day off even though he is 3 for his last 30 with just three singles and 14 strikeouts.

The tiredness is even more noticeable in Utley, who, like Werth, is struggling at the plate. Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Astros, Utley is 3for his last 27 and batting .222 in September.

Manuel says his all-star second baseman is in need of a day off, but he won’t get one until the NL East is sewn up.

“I think he’s dragging some, but he’s trying really hard. When we don’t play well he takes it real hard and he tries to do too much,” Manuel said. “But at the same time he can come out of it. He can handle it.”

Can he, or is that just wishful thinking by Manuel? The old adage is the regulars get to take a break after the division is won, but even then the Phillies will have home-field advantage on the line. They don’t want to go to Los Angeles for the first round, do they?

Heck, the way the Braves are playing the Phils might have to go to St. Louis.

“A day of rest would be nice. Of course, we could have been getting plenty of days of rest. But things don't always go the way we want,” Rollins said about the Phillies’ inability to close out the division in a timely manner. “What happens is that at times you have lapses in concentration. You think you have the pitcher right where you wanted him and then, wham! You miss that one pitch.”

Wham!

Party like it’s 1976

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Baring a collapse of New York Mets proportions, the Phillies will clinch the NL East for the third season in a row. The Three-peat in the East has occurred just one other time in team history and continues a string of a dearth of champs in the East. Following the Phillies’ victory in 1993, only the Braves and Mets have won the division aside from the current batch of Phillies.

In other words, the NL East resembles the NBA Finals during the 1980s when only the Celtics, Sixers, Rockets and Lakers ever got there. Eventually the Pistons and Bulls broke through, but for a long time it seemed as if only a handful of teams ever made it to the big dance.

Nevertheless, the clincher for the Phillies will likely come this weekend in Milwaukee. And as a result of sewing things up with a week to go in the season (at least), it will go down as the earliest clincher in terms of games played. To capture their first playoff berth in 26 years in 1976, the Phillies wrapped up the East in Game 155.

If the Phillies clinch before Sunday, it will be the earliest the team ensured a playoff berth ever. Even in 1950, before the advent of divisional play, the Phillies needed the full slate of games to get to the postseason.

Anyway, here’s a look at the playoff-clinching games since Major League Baseball started divisional play.

2008
Game 161 vs. Washington at Citizens Bank Park (Sept. 27)

Box score

Remember this one? Remember how you felt when Brad Lidge loaded the bases with one out and the go-ahead runs in scoring position and how the shot by Ryan Zimmerman looked like it was going to ruin the closer’s perfect slate?

Kind of feels a lot like this year, doesn’t it?

Aside from Jimmy Rollins’ heroic diving stop to spin the game-ending double play, this one is remembered for Jamie Moyer’s second straight win in a clinching game. Aside from his effort in Game 3 of the World Series, the finales in 2007 and 2008 will be the old lefty’s legacy with the Phillies.

image from fingerfood.files.wordpress.com 2007
Game 162 vs. Washington at Citizens Bank Park (Sept. 30)

Box score

The fact that the Phillies were even in a position to win the East took an unprecedented collapse by the Mets. Couple the huge comeback (down 6½ games with 17 to go) with a 14-year playoff drought, and the clubhouse scene was one of the all-time great parties in the history of Philadelphia clinchers.

The truth is a lot of us never saw such a thing. Champagne corks popping and flying all over the room. Beer spray dousing everyone and anything that moves. Pharmaceuticals and English bulldogs show up and drag low-end celebrities and political chaff around, too.

In other words, it’s no different than the parties you threw in college only without the bonfire. Where this party had it over those from back in the college days is that Jade McCarthy and J.D. Durbin made it to this one, and, well… when Jade and J.D. show up then it’s a party.

Of course by the time the fog cleared and the playoffs began, the Phillies were gone in four days.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com
Game 157 vs. Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium (Sept. 28)

Box score

Get a load of this… I watched this one from the balcony at the Troc at a Fugazi show. Some guy sitting in front of me had a Sony watchman TV and we got to see Mariano Duncan crush the game-winning grand slam before the band took the stage.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Commonwealth, Harry Kalas was singing High Hopes after the Phils finally wrapped it up. But since this was the Macho Row era of club, the party didn’t end with the sing-a-long. Oh no. Check out the box score for the day after the clincher and check who IS NOT in the lineup.

That oughta tell you how long into the night this one went.

1983
Game 160 vs. Chicago at Wrigley Field (Sept. 28)

Box score

Who would have guessed that there would have been just one more clincher for the Phillies in the next 24 years after this one? Sheesh.

Regardless, this one was in the days before there were lights at Wrigley Field so it’s likely that Larry Andersen took the guys over to The Lodge after the clubhouse celebration ended.

Here’s what I remember from this one – Mike Schmidt hit his 40th homer of the season and Bo Diaz clubbed two of them all off ex-Phillie Dick Ruthven. The last out was caught by Greg Gross in left field with Al “Mr. T” Holland on the mound. I guess Holland looked like Mr. T to get a nickname like that. Seemed like a fun guy.

1981
Won first half

This was the strike year so by virtue of being in first place by the time the work stoppage occurred, the Phillies went to the first-ever NLDS. They lost in five games to the Expos, though St. Louis had the best overall record in the NL East.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com 1980
Game 161 vs. Montreal at Olympic Stadium (Oct. 4)

Box score

If we were ranking the best regular-season games in Phillies history, this one would have to be in the top three. Maybe even the top two. Frankly, it had everything. Comebacks, drama, suspense, crazy manager moves and then Mike Schmidt’s home run in the 11th to give the Phillies the lead they never gave up.

Oh, but if Schmidt’s homer were the only highlight.

  • Bob Boone laced a two-out single in the top of the 9th to tie the game and force extra innings.
  • Tug McGraw pitched the last three innings allowing just one hit to go with four strikeouts to get the win.
  • September call up Don McCormack came in to catch in just his second big league inning in the ninth when Dallas Green yanked Boone for a pinch runner. McCormack got the first of his two Major League hits after Schmidt’s homer in the 11th. From there, McCormack went on to play in just 14 big league innings the rest of his career over three game.

How did Don McCormack get into that game?!

  • The top four hitters in the Phillies lineup (Rose, McBride, Schmidt, Luzinski) went 11-for-19.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com 1978
Game 161 vs. Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium (Sept. 30)

Box score

Here was the scenario for this one – if the Pirates won, then Game 162 would decide the NL East. Instead, the Phillies wrapped up division title No. 3 thanks to a clutch three-run homer from Greg Luzinski in the sixth inning.

The game started rather inauspiciously, too. Willie Stargell hit a grand slam in the first inning to give the Pirates the quick lead, but pitcher Randy Lerch made up for his pitching with a homer in the second and another in the fourth to cut the deficit to a run and set the table for Luzinski’s homer.

The game was not without drama at the end, either. Tug McGraw game on in the seventh and was within two outs of closing it out until the Pirates rallied for four runs and had the tying run at the plate when manager Danny Ozark went to Ron Reed to close it out.

1977
Game 157 vs. Chicago at Wrigley Field (Sept. 27)

Box score

I don’t remember this one, but from a look at the box score it looks like one of those old fashioned Wrigley Field games that used to be unique. Now those Wrigley Field games can break out anywhere in any ballpark. And since they play mostly night games at Wrigley these days, those wild games are a thing of the past.

Still, the second clincher for the Phillies featured five RBIs and a homer (and seven solid innings for the win) from Larry Christenson and one from Mike Schmidt in a 15-9 final.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com 1976
Game 155 vs. Montreal at Parc Jarry (Sept. 26)

Box score

The was the first and maybe the best of the Phillies clubs that won all those division titles. The Phils won a franchise-record 101 games, but they didn’t quite match up well enough against The Big Red Machine, who were on their were to becoming the last National League team to win back-to-back World Series titles.

I suppose there is some irony in there somewhere that the Phillies are in the mix to match the 1975-76 Reds… just don’t feel like looking.

Anyway, this clincher was the first game of a doubleheader, highlighted by a complete game from Jim Lonborg. So needless to say the nightcap had a slightly different lineup after the Phillies wrapped up their first playoff berth since 1950. In fact, John Vukovich started in the second game for his season debut. Vuke went on to start in 13 more games over five years for the Phillies – all but three came in 1980.

So there it is… looking forward to adding the new one at the top of this list over the weekend. The good part is the clubhouse in Milwaukee is plenty big enough to find a dry spot from all party shrapnel flying around.

Ain’t it so cool?

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Hang around the ballpark everyday and you get to see and hear some really cool things from time to time. Hell, even the mundane is cool for baseball geeks like me. Still, the past couple of days have been a veritable treasure trove of coolness.

For instance, take the scene in the empty clubhouse after the Phillies’ 3-2 victory over the Braves last night. Though the Phillies continued their maddening insistence on leaving the bases loaded with no outs while also leaving men standing on second and third bases with less than two outs, they were able to pull out the victory because they paid attention to the details.

Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley made nice plays in the field; Pedro Feliz – with a cue from Charlie Manuel – laid down a timely and effective bunt; Scott Eyre appeared in a game for the first time in two weeks and got three outs against two hitters; and, of course, Brad Lidge closed out the game with a perfect ninth.

The Phillies may not be scoring runs without the aid of homers and errors, but they are doing the other things well. Exhibit A in this was pointed out by Mike Sielski (shameless plug for Mike – Buy His Book!) in the clubhouse long after most of the media took off. According to Mike, Jimmy Rollins currently has the best fielding percentage by a shortstop in the history of the game.

Yes, it’s true. With just three errors in 483 and 123 games, Rollins’ fielding percentage is .994. In 1990, Cal Ripken had a .996 fielding percentage, but a few more chances (Ripken had 680 in 1990) Rollins could be right there.

Anyway, the cool part took place a few minutes earlier when Brad Lidge walked into the room. Still basking in the positive vibes after a 1-2-3 ninth for his 27th save, Lidge walked into the room and immediately heard a few cheers and good wishes from Pedro Martinez. Pedro was all smiles and cracking jokes, of course. That’s just the way he is. But the next thing you knew, Lidge and Pedro were standing in the middle of the room pantomiming pitching deliveries and talking shop.

Think about that for a second… the closer who put together one of the best seasons ever for a modern-day reliever and the pitcher who had a string of the greatest seasons… well, ever, were standing just a few feet away talking about fastball motions.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com How cool was that? It was like watching two great scientists comparing notes in the lab.

Speaking of great scientists, Joe Posnanski’s book on the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds comes out in the next two weeks. It’s called, rightfully, The Machine. Frankly, I can’t wait to read it because Posnanski is a great writer and because I love that era of baseball. That’s when I first learned about the game and those guys from the ‘70s – Reggie, Rose, Johnny Bench, Schmidt, Seaver, Carlton, etc. – were my first heroes…

And then when I got older I met them. Yikes.

Anyway, part of the book was excerpted in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated and a particular passage about Johnny Bench caught my eye.

Check it out:

Baseball stardom, however, was not enough. As his fame and numbers grew, Johnny sang in nightclubs. He went to Vietnam with Bob Hope. He hosted his own television show. He became friends with stars, like the singer Bobby Goldsboro, who hit it big in 1968, during Bench's rookie year, with a song called Honey. He dated models and a Playboy centerfold. He was 27 years old, and he had everything. And then, on this April afternoon in Cincinnati, everything changed. Fifth inning, scoreless game, San Francisco's Chris Speier singled to leftfield with runner Gary Matthews on second base. Johnny stood at home plate and waited for Rose, who was playing left, to get the ball and throw it home. Pete did not have a strong arm. The ball slowly made its way to the plate, and so did Matthews, who was 6' 3", weighed about 190 pounds and was called Sarge. Johnny could see that the baseball and Sarge were going to get to the plate at almost the same time. He wanted to catch the ball, get out of the way and tag Matthews as he rushed by — nobody pulled that bullfighter maneuver better than Bench. But he did not have time. Instead, he stood in front of the plate, and he leaned forward to catch the ball, and he tried to protect himself. Sarge crashed into Johnny and sent him flying backward.

That's when Johnny Bench felt a sharp and biting pain deep inside his left shoulder. He groaned. Then he got up — nobody, not even the people who hated Johnny Bench, ever questioned his toughness. He stayed in the game. He waited for the pain to go away. Only it did not go away. And what Johnny Bench did not know that day in Cincinnati is that the pain would subside a little, but it would not go away. He would play the rest of the 1975 season in agony.

I was a kid when Johnny Bench was the best catcher ever to play the game. Sure, back then we knew he was good, but we didn’t know how good. We were just kids and figured Johnny Bench was the norm. We didn’t know he was an innovator and trendsetter. We just thought he was the standard-issue All-Star catcher whose signature was on Rawlings catchers mitts (I still have one). He also hosted “The Baseball Bunch,” and he batted cleanup for the fearsome Reds when catchers never batted cleanup.

Basically, in the late 1970s Johnny Bench was the man.

But Sarge… who doesn’t love Sarge? He’s funny, engaging, loves to laugh and needle Wheels, and he knows the President – personally. The President calls him “Sarge,” too.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com So when I saw Sarge the other day I told him about Posnanski’s book, the passage and if he remembered the game in 1975 where he had to knock Johnny Bench on his ass.

“Yeah, I remember it,” he said in a “hell yeah!” tone. “We had to have a few words after it.”

Chances are those words were pretty good, but when told that it sounded as if Bench wanted to pull a little olé! Move on him on that play nearly 35 years ago, Sarge told about how he rounded third base, saw Bench getting into position and knew, “there wasn’t going to be no olé-ing,” Sarge said with a smile before going on to explain how tough Bench was.

Come on… how bad can the days be when you get to hear story from Sarge about decking Johnny Bench? Not bad at all.

So yeah, hang around long enough and you get to see and hear some cool things. Actually, even the mundane is pretty cool.

Oh snap, son!

I am tough but fair and so I retract my entire notion that ballplayers are not funny. The fact is they are very funny…
More specifically, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard are very funny. Take a look at the latest Funny or Die installment called "Fantasy Camp:"

First Jimmy takes fastballs from an iron mike off the chest and Ryan drops an "Oh snap, son!" on the White House chef
Pedro is going to have to pick up his game.
(links fixed)

Doubling up in The Pen

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Between posting it up against episodes of “Hung,” “True Blood,” and “Entourage” on Sunday nights and no onDemand presence, the MLB Network’s show, “The Pen,” didn’t get as many eyes as it should have.

That’s a shame, too, because baseball fans love to see their favorite players humanized. In covering baseball, those humanizing stories are probably the only aspect of coverage that TV does well since almost all of the real news gathering is still done by the writing media.

That’s neither here nor there, of course. The point is too many people missed a pretty decent show about the Phillies. So in this region, Comcast SportsNet will pick up the slack by re-airing the entire series.

Here are the scheduled air times:

Episode Date Airtime Replay Date Time
1 Mon., Aug. 3 7:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29 12:30 p.m.
2 Mon., Aug. 10 7:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29 1:30 p.m.
3 Wed., Aug. 12 7 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29 2 p.m.
4 Mon., Aug. 17 7:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29 2:30 p.m.
5 Mon., Aug. 24 7:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29 3 p.m.
6 Sat., Aug. 29 3:30 p.m. Mon., Aug. 31 7:30 p.m.

Unfortunately I couldn’t dig up any episodes of the show on the Internets, but as far as MLB programming with the Phillies goes, here’s Jimmy Rollins pretending to be Rickey Henderson…

And by pretending to be Rickey Henderson, I mean imitating his home run strut, not his on-base percentage.

If they could re-do the show I’d like to see more of the witty banter between the relievers in the bullpen and the fans out on Ashburn Alley. From what I hear from some of the guys that hang out there, it’s like a comedy routine.

Big time in the big city

image from fingerfood.typepad.com As far as divisional series in June goes, the Phillies’ three-game stand in New York City against the Mets is pretty big. The Phillies, of course, have a three-game lead in the NL East while the Mets are doing what they can to hang on in the wake.

With all the injuries and typical drama that plagues the New York teams, the Mets aren’t doing all that badly. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the Phillies overcame a six-game lead in late September of 2007 to win the division by a game.

Besides, the Mets don’t flop until the end of the season.

Nevertheless, despite the key injuries to reliever J.J. Putz and overrated shortstop Jose Reyes, things aren’t all that bad for the Mets. Sure, Chipper Jones claimed that third baseman David Wright was complaining about the pitching-friendly dimensions at Citi Field, it could be worse for the Mets. The funny thing about that is Charlie Manuel says back in his day, every stadium was the size of Citi Field.

Hey, it can always be worse.

What the Mets have going for them (of course) is Johan Santana. He’s been as good as the Mets had hoped and has already stuck it to the Phillies once already this season.

Still, if the Phillies can get Brad Lidge and Jimmy Rollins squared away, this race could be over quickly. Oh, they might not say Rollins’ and Lidge’s slumps are concerning, but that can’t be totally accurate… right?

Maybe. After all, despite his 6-for-36 (.167) in his last eight games and demotion out of the leadoff spot for Sunday’s victory in Los Angeles, the Phillies’ offense appears to be potent enough to withstand an extended jag by Jimmy Rollins. That doesn’t mean Charlie Manuel doesn’t need Rollins to start hitting, because he does. The numbers bear that out. When Rollins gets on base and scores, the Phillies win. It’s as simple as that.

Not so simple is the slide by the closer Lidge. Apparently he is making up for lost time on the blown saves front after going a perfect 48-for-48 last season. This year the stats don’t look too great after he blew back-to-back saves last weekend and is 13-for-19 in save opportunities with a 7.27 ERA.

However, Lidge spoiled the Phillies last year because blown saves are inevitable. Just look at Mets’ closer Francisco Rodriguez, who set the Major League record with 62 saves last season. To get those 62, Rodriguez needed 69 chances. In fact, the so-called K-Rod has never blown fewer than four chances a season during his career and though he’s a perfect 15-for-15 this year, his save percentage is just 87 percent. That’s slightly better than Lidge’s career mark, though it is worth noting that K-Rod saved eight games last year in which he didn’t go a full inning.

Moreover, the last time Rodriguez went more than one inning to get a save was July 1, 2007.

Goose Gossage he is not.

Regardless, it should be a pretty interesting showdown in the fancy, new Citi Field (new Yankee Stadium it is not).

Matchups:

Tonight: LHP J.A. Happ (4-0, 2.48) vs. LHP Johan Santana (7-3, 2.00)

Tomorrow: LHP Cole Hamels (4-2, 4.40) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (4-2, 4.85)

Thursday: LHP Jamie Moyer (4-5, 6.27) vs. RHP Tim Redding (0-2, 6.97)

Working on the weekend
The popular sentiment during the weekend was that the Dodgers-Phillies matchup was a preview of this year’s NLCS… sure, sounds right to me.

Nevertheless, if the season were to end today (it doesn’t) the playoff matchups would have the Dodgers hosting the Mets and the Phillies in a rematch against the Brewers in the NLDS.

In the American League the matchups would pit the Yankees against the Tigers and the Red Sox vs. Rangers.

Why mention this? Well, 28 years ago tomorrow playoff spots actually were decided on June 10.  Yep, on this date in 1981, the players went on a two-month strike that did not end until July 31. As a result, the owners decided to split the 1981 season into two halves, with the first-place teams from each half in each division (or a wild card team if the same club won both halves) meeting in a best-of-five divisional playoff series.

It was a terribly flawed system because the Cincinnati Reds finished with the best record but didn’t make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals snuck in with a 50-53 record.

The Phillies also got in thanks to being in first place when the players walked out on June 10. Eventually, they lost in an entertaining five game NLDS series to the Montreal Expos even though the St. Louis Cardinals finished the season with the best record in the NL East.

Weird, wild stuff.

Just a little shave

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Perhaps the best part about Brett Myers’ effort in the victory over the Yankees in the Bronx on Friday night came on the second pitch he threw of the game. That’s when he reared back and hummed a fastball behind leadoff hitter Derek Jeter as if to call out Yanks’ pitcher A.J. Burnett and say, “OK punk, if it wasn’t for this stupid DH rule, that fastball would have been in your ribs.”

But most importantly, that pitch said, “That [crap] stops right now.”

That’s how Myers answered Burnett’s second pitch of the game after that pitch plunked Chase Utley between the shoulder blades. His first pitch, of course, ended up over the short porch in right where Jimmy Rollins knocked it to get things started.

So much for a professional courtesy…

Either way, there was no doubt to the intent on the pitch from Burnett. Sure, he’s wild and all of that jazz, but Chase Utley isn’t exactly a tough target at the plate. Plus, in the American League pitchers can get away with that kind of stuff because they don’t have to fear repercussions. But the whole premise of the bean ball is just a little chicken bleep. A guy like Burnett gets upset and throws a ball at another player?

Lame.

A long time ago – back in The Vet days – longtime scribe Kevin Roberts and I were discussing the dynamics of beanballs and beanball fights or maybe just fighting in general. You see, get a couple of writer types in the media dining room a good hour before game time and the topics run the gamut. And the insight!

Anyway, Kevin’s argument made a lot of sense (but then again that’s no surprise):

“If you do something I don’t like, I’m not going to throw an apple at you from across the room,” Kevin said. “I’m going to get up, walk over to you and punch you in the face.”

Like a man.

Manly is the only apt description for Kev, but that’s beside the point. No, the issue is Myers took care of Burnett’s jackassery immediately and there was no more incidents the rest of the way.

There weren’t any quotes about the pitches from Myers (or Burnett) on the record because baseball players rarely talk about those types of things on the record. Off the record they’ll tell you about clubhouse rifts and friendships lost if a pitcher doesn’t respond in kind.

Sometimes they even react the same way Shane Victorino did during Game 3 of last October’s NLCS. You remember…

Apropos of nothing, the two players from that video who went the most bonkers and attempted to escalate matters, (and were fined) are two of the players currently serving suspensions for testing positive for banned substances. Coincidence, right?

Anyway, I like a good bench-clearing brawl as much as the next guy, but they do kind of have that British Navy element to them, don’t they? Remember when the Brits invaded the Falkland Islands during the ‘80s and sent the Royal Navy into the southern hemisphere after them? What did they do, say, “Oh, it’s on Falklands… see you in a week!”

A hitter running those 60-feet, six inches to get after a pitcher is hardly a stealth attack. Plus, all baseball players do is grab each other and dance around a bit. They don’t have to throw bean balls at each other if all they want to do is dance.

‘… we all have to share the same pair of pants’

jimmyThis current group of Phillies really get around. Think about it… the TV commercials, the MVP Awards, the playoff runs and parades, as well as a the WFC.

Always making speeches and always entertaining the fans.

But get this — Jimmy Rollins became the third Phillie on the current roster to appear on Late Night with David Letterman, joining Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels. It surpasses the previous record of two set by John Kruk and Lenny Dykstra of the ’93 Phils when they yucked it up with Dave.

Here’s Jimmy and his Team USA WBC buddies:

In 1981, Steve Carlton, Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt appeared in 7-Up commercials and Real People with co-host Fran Tarkenton.

OK, I made that last part up, though it illustrates a point… it’s pretty sweet to live in the digital age, huh? Imagine if there was a proliferation of cable TV, and multimedia back during the first Golden Age of Phillies baseball… sure, Pete Rose would be able to handle himself well with the press. Say what you will about Rose, but give him credit where it’s due — the guy can tell some stories. Having had the chance to spend an afternoon with him in Las Vegas (I know!), Pete is a classic storyteller, if not one of the best ever in baseball.

Schmidt, though not in Rose’s class, is always good for some stellar quotes or two. Just ask Pat Burrell about that.

But Carlton… sheesh! Thank goodness there was no Internet during his playing days. How would he handle playing in this era of baseball with guys like me trolling around. Good luck with that, Lefty.

Carlton, of course, famously did not speak to the press. If I have the story correct, the reason why he stopped talking to sportswriters about pitching a baseball had something to do with Conlin… that and taking himself waaaay too seriously.

But after having seen some of Carlton’s media work over the last few years, he definitely did us all a favor. Besides. could you have imagined Carlton on the Mike Douglas Show.

Nope, me either.

Nevertheless, maybe Letterman will have an entire panel of Phillies on his show sometime the way he did with U2 this week. It could be rating gold … in Philadelphia, at least.

Oh, and while we’re posting clips, this one from Wednesday’s Daily Show was awesome!

Jimmy can take one to the sternum

The reward for winning the World [bleeping] Series? Why it’s the endorsements, of course.

Check out Jimmy Rollins doing an ad (and taking a few for the team) for the sporting goods retailer, Dicks.

Take a look

The fear, of course, is that the exposure and the attention go to Jimmy and the Phillies’ heads. But now that Pat Burrell is gone, guys like me don’t have to worry about Jimmy rising from Pat’s ashes…

Do we?

Anyway, Jimmy has some pretty sweet acting chops. If this baseball thing doesn’t work out maybe he’ll have something to fall back on?

Going Hollywood

The old-timers in baseball have a term for it – it’s called “Going Hollywood.” Generally it describes a ballplayer who used to be a great quote and was blessed with a down-to-earth personality that teammates, fans and the press adored.  Nobody can resist the guy. The fans cheer and buy the little things that fans buy to celebrate the player’s awesomeness; teammates go to war for the guy; and the media swoons by producing gushing and positive reviews of the player’s work on and off the field.

Basically, the player is a celebration.

Current examples of this phenomenon are: Josh Hamilton, Grady Sizemore, Evan Longoria, Mark Reynolds, Ryan Braun, Dan Uggla and Brian McCann to name a few.

However, after a year or two of such treatment, the down-to-earthiness dissipates. Maybe the player gets to do a few commercials, or a shoe company contracts him to wear its goods. Interview requests from the well-known national outlets roll in – maybe there’s a cover-shoot for a magazine thrown in.

Perhaps the ESPN or FOX will ask him to wear a microphone during the game so the viewers get to experience the full aura of his personality. Frankly, the possibilities are endless.

But when the media-hype equals the performance on the field for a few seasons, sometimes the players’ head swells. With all the friends and family hanging around telling him how great he is, the ego inflates like hot-air balloon. Finally, when the multi-year deal is proffered with the rows of digits and a tiny bit of post-season award bling is accumulated, it’s all over. The player is too good to stoop down to talk to the local press when ESPN and Sports Illustrated have already called. Autographs for the fans? Have they paid up yet? Will the personal appearance properly highlight all of the corporate sponsors?

And for the love of all that’s holy, there can be no press relations unless the story has been cleared by the publicist and/or the agent.

Yes, the guy has gone Hollywood.

Recent examples of this phenomenon are: Barry Zito, Sammy Sosa, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada and, of course, Jimmy Rollins.

Most importantly, what the old-timers always say about the guy who goes Hollywood is that they never, ever come back. Once he’s gone, he’s gone for good.

Bye-bye, J-Roll?

Coincidentally, it was actually in Hollywood where Jimmy Rollins’ latest misstep in a season defined by such matters occurred. On the nationally syndicated cable TV program called, “The Best Damn Sports Show, Period,” Rollins, along with teammate Ryan Howard, sat on a couch wearing a fashionable shirt with equally fashionable torn jeans and told hosts John Salley and Chris Rose that the baseball public in Philadelphia are… ready for this one… “front-runners.”

Pause…

Pause…

Crickets…

Yes, you and I, the Phillies fan and media dude, are, in fact, “front-runners…”

I know, it didn’t make sense to me, either. The only explanation is that Rollins misspoke when he said:

“…it’s one of those cities. I might catch some flak for saying this, but, you know, they’re front-runners. When you’re doing good, they’re on your side. When you’re doing bad, they’re completely against you. For example, Ryan (Howard) is from St. Louis. St. Louis, it seems like they support their team. They’re encouraging.”

Certainly it seems like the Phillies fans have been nothing but encouraging for Rollins and his teammates this season. After all, the fans have registered sell-out after sell-out all season long in the four-year-old, taxpayer-funded ballpark. Despite the fact that the Phillies have won just one World Series title since 1883 and have not won a playoff game since Game 5 of the 1993 World Series, the “front-runner” fans have helped the Phillies host the fifth-most attended games in Major League Baseball this year.

Despite the fact that the Phillies have lost more games than any other team in the history of organized professional sports (this is not hyperbole, it’s fact), Citizens Bank Park has been filled to 97 percent of its capacity in 59 dates this year. Only the Red Sox, Tigers and Cubs have better percentages.

And God forbid that fans in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Beijing, Timbuktu or Machau might actually boo a player after his manager has to bench him for lack of hustle and failure to show up to work on time. After all, they would never do that in St. Louis.

Perhaps the difference is that people in Philadelphia believe that a guy who wins the MVP one year should put out the effort every year.

But maybe that’s asking too much.

OK, let’s be fair. Jimmy Rollins used to be the go-to guy when looking for information on the nuance of an at-bat or a play in the field. He also is quietly aware of the game’s history. He loves it. His eyes actually light up when talking about meeting Buck O’Neil and the old Negro League players. He knows the struggle those men went through not just in playing baseball, but also in everyday life.

Rollins understands baseball and can shed light on subjects that others cannot. For instance, after a game at the Vet during his first or second year in the league, I asked him how he was able to stop so quickly when running the bases at full speed. Really, it seemed as if he went from 60 to zero in a half a step. So there in the clubhouse, Rollins actually demonstrated how he “sat down” in full stride so that he could stop quickly and avoid over-running a base or a ball.

Frankly, it was as riveting and eye-opening a demonstration I have ever seen.

But that was a long time ago. That conversation would never occur these days. There probably will not be anymore demonstrations.

Hollywood.

Nevertheless, Rollins went back on “The Best Damn Sports Show, Period” on Thursday night where he didn’t exactly offer up a mea culpa. Why should he – he doesn’t believe he said anything untrue. Instead he clarified that “front-runner” term and expressed surprise that such words about Philly fans would cause a stir…

Insert your sarcastic, “yeah, right,” here.

“The term front runner and what it actually means and to what I was using it, what was going through my mind, they weren’t accurate. Front runners is like people who only show up when you’re winning. Hey, we’re going to cheer you if you win. That’s not it about Philly fans. They’re passionate. They show up – like I said, 45,000. We’ve got like 42 sellouts. They announce it every night. That’s not what I meant. Like I said, it’s the fact that here we are at this point of the year, come out and be supportive. Don’t necessarily get on us. We can use that positive energy. And you know that positive energy can lift you, that negative energy can bring you down.”

In other words, J-Roll, like Mike Schmidt before him, doesn’t like the boos. Instead, when the Phillies fail to score runs unless someone blasts a home run, J-Roll wants a group hug. He wants people who just paid $10 to park, $16 for the cheapest seat in the park, $4.50 for a veggie burger, $4 for a gallon of gas all after the team hit the city up for tax funds to pay for the place, to be happy when he doesn’t run to first base.

“There are definitely games, don’t get me wrong, where I’m like, ‘Damn, you know, we are getting booed and we need to get booed because we’re not doing well.’ But there are a lot of times where it makes it harder to play at home when they’re against you – or it feels like they’re against you. They’re never really against you, but it feels like they’re against you – they’re venting against you and it doesn’t help. So, like I said, they show up. You asked about the West Coast, I’m from Oakland, I’m like, ‘They don’t show up.’ That has nothing to do with it.

“The whole thing was, look, here we are in the playoffs, we’re at home, we’re in first place. There’s really nothing to boo about. We’re not going to win every game. As long as we win by one when it comes down to the finish. But, go out there and support us. When Carlos Ruiz comes up to the plate, don’t boo him because you want (Chris) Coste in the game. This man has a job to do today. Encourage him to do his job to the best of his abilities.”

When I was a kid I never remember George Brett talking about the fans booing. Likewise, I don’t recall a quote attributed to Kirk Gibson where he said he needed more encouragement from the paying customers. I doubt Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver ever went on national TV and told the viewers that the hometown fans were “front-runners,” in any type of context.

But then again those guys weren’t divas. They weren’t always seeking approval from the national media so they could find their smiling face on the cover of a video game. Yeah, they probably wanted the fattest contract they could get from their clubs, but they probably figured that if they were good at their job, the rest would take care of itself.

As far as I remember, those guys never went Hollywood.

On second thought…

Jimmy RollinsThe Phillies decided Jimmy Rollins might need more than a day or two to recover from his ankle injury… nearly two weeks after the injury occurred.

Hey, who wants to rush into things?

Nevertheless, the Phillies finally decided that Jimmy Rollins’ ankle wasn’t getting better any time soon so they placed him on the 15-day disabled list. But because Rollins was used as a pinch hitter three times since the injury occurred on April 8, the Phillies won’t be able to backdate the DL stint. That also means Rollins isn’t eligible to come off the disabled list until May 5.

It’s an odd situation. Rollins’ injury isn’t getting any worse, but it’s also not getting much better. The reigning NL MVP said he was “75 percent” before the series against the Mets began, but that might only be about 76 or 77 percent today.

Plus, Rollins had been testing the ankle in batting and fielding practice daily. The ankle, as we all know, is an enigma wrapped in a riddle – then there’s the bone and ligament throwing a monkey wrench into the deal. Ankle injuries can linger and reappear out of the blue like a bad bowl of chili. That’s especially true even if a ballplayer believes he’s 75 percent.

So a break just might be the ticket for Rollins, who will head to the DL for the first time of his career.

Yes, injuries stink.

Rollins sits again

RollinsThere are a few interesting things going on around baseball (OK, I made that up, but bear with me) but the big chatter around the ballpark this afternoon is that Jimmy Rollins will sit out of his third straight game with an injured ankle suffered during Tuesday’s game against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.

Rollins did not start the past two games, but pinch hit during last night’s extra-inning loss to the Mets.

With Rollins out again, Eric Bruntlett will get another starting nod at shortstop.

Here’s the Phillies’ lineup for Friday night’s game against the Chicago Cubs and pitcher Carlos Zambrano:

8 – Shane Victorino, cf
19 – Greg Dobbs, 3b
26 – Chase Utley, 2b
6 – Ryan Howard, 1b
5 – Pat Burrell, lf
10 – Geoff Jenkins, rf
51 – Carlos Ruiz, c
4 – Eric Bruntlett, ss
39 – Brett Myers, p

Here’s a little secret: I’m going to write about Brett Myers and his outing this evening. Myers is looking for his first good start of the season after two pretty bad ones. I wrote about those, too.

I thought you said I was OK, Spider

Richard NixonWhen I was a kid I believed nearly everything adults told me. Well, I believed almost everything they told me until I was about 10. After then, I questioned everything because that’s about the time I learned about Richard Nixon. I figured if the President of the United States could be less than forthcoming, maybe other adults could, too.

That’s also about the same time I learned about Santa Claus, though truth be told the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy never made any sense. That’s especially the case with the Tooth Fairy because that just sounds a little too Uncle Eddie-ish to me. Really, what kind of a person or fairy wants little kids’ ripped out and bloodied teeth? Do they make necklaces out of them like those sharks’ tooth ones people wore in the ‘70s and stuff? Remember Turk Wendell, the Phillies’ former relief pitcher? Yeah, well he had a necklace made out of elk’s teeth and other wild animals he may or may not have shot. Actually, the necklace was kind of gaudy, but not in a P. Diddy kind of way.

Perhaps Turk Wendell was the tooth fairy for the Marlin Perkins set?

Anyway, the point is that I believed what adults told me, but then I stopped and then, for some reason, I believed them again. At least I believed what adult general managers of Major League Baseball teams told me. Seriously, why would they make up stuff? They weren’t after my teeth (as far as I knew) and they weren’t going to bring me or my family gifts every December under the cover of darkness. Better yet, I don’t think there is a single baseball GM who secretly bombed Cambodia or was less than forthcoming about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters back in ’72. Based on that criterion, baseball GMs are a reasonably trustworthy lot.

That doesn’t mean they tell the truth all of the time. For instance, I recall a time when Ed Wade revealed that a slumping Marlon Byrd was the team’s centerfielder and leadoff hitter for the foreseeable future – who would have guessed that Byrd was living in the future and was to be optioned to Triple-A after a game in which he served as the centerfielder and leadoff hitter? Hey, I’m not saying Wade didn’t make the correct move, I’m just saying that if the end of the game was as far into the future as he could see, then he needs to re-do that Lasik surgery.

DeNiroSo what’s this have to do with anything? Well, it doesn’t. I just like writing about it. Plus, it’s a nice little segue way into the whole Mike Lowell thing, who, as most readers of this site and other like it (could there be others like this one?) will tell you, is the newly re-signed third baseman and MVP of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. Lowell is a pretty darned good third baseman who played for the Marlins when they won the World Series in 2003 and I remember sitting at Citizens Bank Park the time he hit three home runs in one game for the Marlins. The last of the three came off Billy Wagner and it made me laugh out loud… not one of those obnoxious laughs like DeNiro chomping on a cigar in the movie theater like in Cape Fear, which by itself is a ridiculous scene. But it was a laugh that slips out at an inappropriate time, like say the time your friend was an altar boy at mass at Sacred Heart in 1984 or something and he knocked over a candle that he had just lit. You don’t want to laugh out loud, but you do for that briefest of seconds before anyone realizes that you are the one who a.) Has a bad sense of humor and b.) Can’t control himself in solemn places.

Not that any of that ever happened, of course.

Anyway, Nixon bombed Cambodia, Marlon Byrd was sent to Scranton and Pat Gillick told us not to believe everything we read on ESPN.com. Which one thinks about it, is a rather ambiguous statement. Just look at it:

“Don’t believe everything you read on ESPN.com.”

cigarOK. I guess that’s good advice. But it’s kind of like, don’t dance with a circus bear wearing a Shriner’s hat after it just pedaled a tricycle 50 yards. Or don’t rub the belly of an alligator that was just fed ostrich burgers for a mid-afternoon snack. Does it really mean something or is it just a broad, sweeping statement that is common amongst politicians and large retailers to homogenize us?

Perhaps what Gillick meant to say was, “Don’t believe everything you read on ESPN.com about badminton. But the stuff about the Phillies attempting to sign Mike Lowell to play third base for the team in 2008… yeah, well that stuff is as solid as your Uncle Tim’s brass spittoon.”

So how about that? Despite all the reports that indicated that the Phillies had just a limited amount of cash to spend this winter, and GM Gillick’s contention that the team was focusing on acquiring pitching and that third base was not a “priority,” it comes out that the Phillies are like Diamond Jim picking up the tab for everyone in the saloon. They’re lighting big, fat cigars with $20 bills while trying to figure out how they can spend more money and make offers to guys like Mike Lowell.

Good for them.

But here’s the question: why the subterfuge? Why all the, “Mike Lowell? Who is Mike Lowell? We wouldn’t know Mike Lowell if he walked right up and spit into our mammy’s hand purse…” Doing stuff like that is going to give a guy a reputation. It’s going to make the honest, chaste and diligent folks in the local sporting press to believe the worst in a person. They’re going to think that when Pat Gillick says, “No, no, no,” he really means, “Yes, no, yes!”

I don’t know much about poker or the game’s colorful jargon, but I do bad bluffing when I hear it. Based on this, the Phillies should swoop in and steal away A-Rod from the Yankees at any minute.

***
If the Phillies can’t get A-Rod (or Scott Rolen), maybe they can get Randy Wolf? The former Phillie lefty has received an offer from the team about returning for 2008. The team has made a bunch of other offers to other players, too, including right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, who has pitched for the past decade in the Japan.

***
Most of my friends don’t follow sports too closely so they sometimes ask inane questions about how I must be a big fan of the Phillies. I don’t think they get it when I tell them that, “I root for the story.” You see, like the stereotypical, self-centered athlete, I just look out for myself.

Anyway, though I don’t really care one way or another which team wins or loses, I do find myself rooting for the success of certain people in the game. In that regard, a hearty congratulations goes out to Jimmy Rollins for being voted the National League’s MVP in 2007 by the dangerous (and fascist) secret society called the Baseball Writers Association of America. If there is one player who respects, understands and reveres the history of the game, it’s Rollins and I’m certain he will represent the award and the new fame that goes with such an honor well.

Kudos to Jimmy.

We like you… we really, really like you

Jimmy RollinsUndoubtedly, whenever Jimmy Rollins steps into the batters’ box during the first two games of the NLDS, the packed house at Citizens Bank Park will scream, “M-V-P!” over and over again as if they have some odd social disease.

Likewise, when we go to Coors Field in Denver for the second pair of games (if necessary), the friendly fans will also shout, “M-V-P!” from the mountaintops whenever Matt Holliday comes to bat.

On one hand it’s kind of neat to hear so many people scream in unison, mostly because it’s not something that occurs in normal life. For instance, I’m sure you have never gone to the grocery store with a bunch of friends to gather in the produce section so that you can scream, “BROC-COLI!” until you begin to hyperventilate, turn blue and pass out on the floor at the feet of the cart checker. Frankly, it’s just odd behavior.

Plus, the folks at the Whole Foods don’t like it – trust me on that one.

But what makes those chants seem so odd instead of neat is that, essentially, the fans are screaming, “WE LIKE YOU!” at one person. Actually, they aren’t just walking up to a person they know to say, “You know, we’ve known each other for a long time and we’ve been really good friends throughout the years and because of that I just wanted to say… well, I like you.”

That’s it. One, “I like you.” It’s not shouted by the liker to the lickee with such an ardor that it seems angry or until someone has to get a restraining order or a taser. A simple, solitary, “I like you” goes a long way.

But there is nothing about sports fandom that is normal. We all know that. Compared to the soccer fans in Europe or the Broncos fans in Denver, Philadelphians are a relatively tame bunch. They also don’t have any trouble revealing their true feelings toward the Phillies’ shortstop either, which is nice. I think Jimmy thinks it’s nice, too, even though he says he tries to block out all sound when he goes to the plate.

Kevin Costner & Oprah!You know, kind of like in that really bad Kevin Costner movie… wait, that didn’t narrow it down. I meant like that really bad Kevin Costner movie about baseball… that didn’t narrow down either, did it?

Anyway, I think you know which one I mean.

So what’s the point of all of this? It’s simple. I’m going to reveal which players I’d vote for in the Baseball Writers Association of America ballots for the post-season awards. Truth be told, I don’t actually vote because I’m not a practicing member of the BBWAA. Dogmatic organizations are such a turn off, though I have to admit I enjoy a good, ol’ secret society. And when it comes to secret societies, the BBWAA is right up there with the Skull & Bones, Masons, Elks and Stonecutters.

Here are the votes (without comment):
MVP
1.) Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia
2.) Matt Holliday, Colorado
3.) Prince Fielder, Milwaukee
4.) Chipper Jones, Atlanta
5.) David Wright, New York
6.) Hanley Ramirez, Florida
7.) Aramis Ramirez, Chicago
8.) Chase Utley, Philadelphia
9.) Miguel Cabrera, Florida
10.) Todd Helton, Colorado

Manager of the Year
1.) Charlie Manuel, Philadelphia
2.) Clint Hurdle, Colorado
3.) Ned Yost, Milwaukee

Cy Young Award
1.) Jake Peavy, San Diego
2.) Brandon Webb, Arizona
3.) Carlos Zambrano, Chicago

Rookie of the Year
1.) Ryan Braun, Milwaukee
2.) Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado
3.) Kyle Kendrick, Philadelphia

Next stop: Cooperstown or indictment?

I always looked at events like Hank Aaron’s 715th home run as “where were you” moments. In that regard I can recall where I was when the ball rolled through Buckner’s legs, when Tug threw the final pitch to Willie Wilson and recently when the Red Sox finally won the World Series.

No, sports moments don’t hold the same cache as truly historical events, but it’s fun to remember the mood, time and place of certain significant sporting moments. Why not? If one is going to invest time in this stuff they might as well do it the correctly by chronicling it.

So when Hank Aaron blasted No. 715 off Al Downing in April of 1974 I was younger than my son is now. Chances are that I was fast asleep or crying or whatever it is that 2-year olds do when Babe Ruth is pushed aside for Hammering Hank.

Thirty-three years and four months after Hank beat Babe, Barry Bonds and his Body by Balco, hit home run No. 756. He did it in the one city that appeared to actually give a damn (or at least they force ticketholders to suspend all logic and rational thought before admitting them into whatever corporation holds the naming rights for that stadium now) while the rest of the sporting public yawned.

Or slept.

When Bonds hit the homer off the Nationals’ Mike Bacsik last night to become the all-time home run leader and officially render all baseball statistics totally and utterly worthless, I had totally forgotten that there was even a game going on in San Francisco. In fact, I was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on the way home and listening to the audio book of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s, All the President’s Men. I hadn’t read the book in at least a decade and figured it was time for a refresher seeing that I fancy myself a bit of a Watergate buff.

What? You thought I’d be listening to local sports talk radio?

Anyway, I suppose there is some irony in listening to the book about the ultimate downfall of Richard Nixon while one of the most beguiled men in America was desecrating the record held by a man who is his polar opposite in nearly every way imaginable.

Other ironies? Bonds passed Hank on the fifth year anniversary of the MLBPA agreeing to (limited) drug testing in the collective bargaining agreement. Meanwhile, commissioner Bud Selig was meeting with former Senator George Mitchell regarding his investigation into baseball’s drug issue.

By the time I finally got home and flipped on the television to see if a Congressional sub-committee had held an emergency hearing to force Major League Baseball to dissolve itself, I couldn’t help but wondering one thing:

Which comes first: Bonds’ 800th home run or his indictment?

***
Speaking of much ado about nothing, Jimmy Rollins expanded on his quote about the Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez, which from the beginning sounded like Dontrelle Willis was having a little fun with his teammate. My guess is that it became a big deal to the scribes following around the Marlins because they have nothing else to write about.

After all, how often can Scott Olsen get arrested?

***
There was an interesting item out there regarding Citizens Bank Park. Apparently our little ballpark in South Philly rates tops amongst PETA’s survey of top 10 vegetarian-friendly ballparks.

Really?

PETA, of course, is the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which could mean they have an interest in vegetarianism. Frankly, I have always looked at PETA and its message as more than a little pedantic, but if it works for them, yay!

But what really interests me about this declaration is that as someone who is labeled as a vegetarian, finding something to eat amongst the waddling masses is always difficult. As a result, it was quite interesting to learn that Rick’s Steaks on Ashburn Alley offered something called a “veggie steak.” After all, it seems as if the addition of the so-called veggie steak is what lifted Citizens Bank Park from an also-ran into the top slot on PETA’s poll.

The veggie dog and flame-grilled Gardenburger were enough to earn Citizens Bank Park a place on the roster of last year’s survey. But this year’s addition of the Philly mock-steak sandwich–and the rave reviews it has received from vegetarians and nonvegetarians alike who pile on the grilled onions, mushrooms, peppers, and hot sauce–put the Phillies over the top. The stadium also offers vegetarian subs and wraps, tomato pizza (no cheese, please), fruit cups, salads, and, for the kids, PB&J.

“Citizens Bank Park’s great vegetarian selection benefits both animals and the health of Phillies fans, who will be less likely to keel over from a meat-induced heart attack as they cheer Ryan Howard’s next longball,” says PETA Assistant Director Dan Shannon.

Look, I suppose vegetarians have to take their victories where they can find them and the “mainstreaming” of such things as veggie dogs, burgers and steaks, I suppose, is a good thing.

But truth be told, there is nothing appealing to me about “veggiefied” versions of steaks, hot dogs and burgers. In fact, I find it all a little insulting and poorly thought marketing. As someone who has made a conscious choice to be a vegetarian, I do not want to eat meat. Hard to believe, huh? That means the idea of burgers, hot dogs and steaks is not something I miss and a trumped up faux version of those things are equally undesirable.

Come on, do they really think that a veggie burger is going to make a vegetarian feel more assimilated and less of a misfit in the American culture? If so, that’s just dumb. Perhaps what the marketing wizards who came up with those ideas don’t understand is that – lean in closer here – VEGETARIANS DO NOT WANT TO EAT MEAT.

There, I said it. And if you want a list of reasons why this vegetarian chooses to be the way he is, you will have to wait or ask nicely. I’m not going to explain my choices for the same way the dude who chooses to gobble up steroid/cholesterol/fat/chemical/feces/carcass-laden dead animals doesn’t find it necessary to explain himself.

Anyway, I have tried the veggie steak and was not really impressed. Mostly that had to do with the fact that the “steak” was made of textured vegetable protein. Unlike tofu, TVP does not take the flavor of what surrounds it. Instead, it tastes like TVP no matter if it’s supposed to be chicken, steak, or duck.

But just like a cheesesteak, the veggie steak has the onions, cheese, roll and grease, which isn’t exactly a drawing card, either. Frankly, a person would be better off just getting a jumbo grilled cheese… that is if they are not vegan.

Sadly, what has been missed in the novelty of the veggie steak is that Planet Hoagie, also on Ashburn Alley, offers a veggie hoagie, which – get this – consists of vegetables.

Imagine that! Vegetarians might want to eat vegetables!

Without the TVP, the veggie hoagie has eggplant as the base and other sandwich-type vegetables that make it quite hearty. It is a little oily, but at least it’s Omega-3 type oil instead of basic cheese-type grease. Baring that, rumor is there is cheese-less pizza around the park, or better yet, drive up to Tony Luke’s on Oregon and Front and get the Uncle Mike – it’s served vegan or non-vegan style.

I wonder if the folks from PETA have ever been to Tony Luke’s?

***
Bob Barker’s vegan enchilada bake (per Esquire)

• 12 oz frozen vegan burger-style crumbles (Morningstar Farms’ work well)
• 1 packet taco seasoning
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1/2 cup finely chopped scallions
• 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 1 cup low-sodium vegetable stock
• 2 cans black or pinto beans, rinsed
• 2 cans enchilada sauce
• 1 bag corn or flour tortillas
• 3 cups vegan cheddar cheese, shredded
• One 4-ounce can green chiles
• 1 small bag of Fritos, crushed

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees; spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with Pam.
2. In a bowl, coat crumbles with seasoning.
3. Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat; add scallions; cook 3 minutes. Stir in flour; cook 1 minute.
4. Add stock; stir 1 minute.
5. Stir in beans; set aside.
6. Cover bottom of pan with enchilada sauce.
7. Place one tortilla layer over sauce; pour bean mixture on top.
8. Follow with a third of the cheese and half the chiles.
9. Add more enchilada sauce and another tortilla layer.
10. Add burger crumbles, more cheese, the remaining chiles, and enchilada sauce.
11. End with the remaining tortillas, enchilada sauce, and cheese.
12. Cover with foil; bake 30 minutes.
13. Remove foil; sprinkle Fritos on top.
14. Pop back in the oven for 15 minutes.

Serve with vegan sour cream. Reheats in the toaster oven really well. My wife made this for me on Monday without the fritos. It was pretty damn good.

What did you say about my shortstop?

It’s always something whenever the Phillies and Marlins get together. In what is heating up as one of the biggest rivalries in baseball amongst teams not fighting for the division leadership and not battling for the wild-card berth, the Phillies and Fish simply do not like each other.

So they say, anyway.

At least that was the sentiment of Marlins’ left-handed starter Scott Olsen, who told the press during the stretch run of the 2006 season that he really didn’t like the Phillies. Of course it should also be noted that there were also reports that Olsen’s teammates didn’t much care for him, either, and that came before his recent arrest for driving under the influence, resisting an officer with violence and fleeing and eluding a police officer. He’s the same guy who was given a black eye last season from former teammate Randy Messenger during a confrontation. Olsen also got into dugout dust-ups with teammate Miguel Cabrera and former manager Joe Girardi.

In other words, consider the source.

But the word around the sweaty and sultry ballpark on a Tuesday afternoon where the air was so hot and thick that it felt as if it were closing in like the walls of a trash compactor, was that the shortstops had a bit of a beef going.

Not that media types pay attention to that sort of thing.

Nevertheless, the apparent flap began when Marlins’ pitcher Dontrelle Willis cut out a story in Tuesday’s edition of the Philadelphia Daily News containing a quote from Jimmy Rollins said Marlins’ shortstop Hanley Ramirez cannot be ranked amongst the best shortstops in the league because, well, he plays for Florida.

“Hanley (Ramirez), in Florida, is just Hanley in Florida,” Rollins told the Daily News. “I can throw him out of the books. Jose (Reyes) in New York – he’s the man. He’s in New York.”

Everyone seemed to laugh it off as nothing more than good-natured ribbing, except, of course, Ramirez. So when Ramirez pasted the first pitch of the game from Jamie Moyer over the left-field fence, a few of the folks sitting in the press box claimed that Ramirez gave Rollins an old-fashioned stare down on his way around the bases.

Because nothing says, “if I played in this band box I’d have many more homers than you,” like a good evil eye.

Needless to say, we probably haven’t heard the last of this one. Judging from the way the marlins react to everything, something is sure to get them bent out of shape for one reason or another.

Everything, that is, except the results on the scoreboard.

Just waking up and everything has still gone crazy

After getting home at 3 a.m. after being at a baseball game that lasted 14 innings and nearly five hours, it’s safe to say that I’m a bit fried today. But rest is for the week, right…

Man, do I ever need a nap.

Anyway, because I’m struggling to string together cohesive sentences this afternoon, I’ll just ramble on with a few observations about the Phillies and the latest from the sports world.

• After last night’s win over the Nationals the Phillies have a 24.5 percent chance to make the playoffs. Really? Yes, really. At least that’s math according to Ken Roberts, who created an “Odds of making the playoffs” web site.

Here’s what Ken does: after every game – and we mean every game – the odds of a teams’ chances to make the playoffs are calculated and posted on his site. Then, a glimpse into the future is proffered showing not only how the odds change if the Phillies win or lose their next game, but how the odds change pending every result on the full schedule of games.

Yes, it’s good stuff and you should check it out by clicking here.

• To start it off, I had never seen a game go from a sure end to tied up and headed for extra innings like the way last night’s ninth inning played out. For those who didn’t see it, speedy shortstop Jimmy Rollins raced around the bases when his relatively routine fly ball just short of the warning track in left-center field was jarred loose when outfielders Ryan Church and Ryan Langerhans bumped in to each other. Standing at third, Rollins raced home when Church’s relay throw skipped away from shortstop Felipe Lopez to force extra innings.

The most surprising thing about Rollins’ dash around the bases? That it wasn’t ruled an inside-the-park home run by the hometown official scorer.

• Meanwhile, when Ryan Howard hits a home run, he really wallops it. Not only do his homers sound different than other players’, there really is no doubt that they are going out – he doesn’t hit too many that scrape into the first row.

• No one with the Phillies will say it — though Charlie Manuel’s body language was downright funereal — but Chase Utley’s broken hand is just about the worst thing that could happen to the team right now. Forget about his statistics and the fact that Utley is an MVP candidate, and his hard-nosed style of play… it was because of Utley that the Phillies were able to stay in the playoff race despite injuries to Freddy Garcia, Tom Gordon, Brett Myers, Jon Lieber and Ryan Howard.

Yes, losing Utley is very significant. And that just might be the understatement of the year.

• The Phillies gave out a Cole Hamels bobblehead figurine last night and had a sold-out crowd. Here’s my question: What is the allure of that stuff? I can understand baseball cards and other memorabilia-type collectibles (kind of), but why are bobbleheads still popular? Just chalk it up to the every growing pile of things I don’t get.

On another note, last year (or maybe the year before, I forget) the Nationals gave out a Chad Cordero bobblehead figurine at a game at RFK. Within hours of bringing it home my son ripped the head clean off the body and for the past year or so there has been the head of Chad Cordero, complete with that geeky unbent brim of his cap, staring up from the bottom of the toy box in our living room. Perhaps that’s the appeal of the bobblehead doll… ripping the heads clean off.

• Speaking of ripping the head clean off and one man’s inability to understand events occurring in the world, I’m still attempting to grasp just what the hell happened at this year’s Tour de France. Frankly, I haven’t been able to come up with anything other than some non-sequitors and random ideas.

For instance:

— Perhaps it’s because I am an American and believe in a persons’ right to due process, but I just don’t understand how a man who never failed a drug test or violated any laws or rules of the sport could be bounced from an event he was about to win. Look, I know never failing a drugs test isn’t the best argument and I know all about Michael Rasmussen’s reputation, but if the Tour, the UCI and whatever other governing body is attempting to destroy cycling really disliked the dude and had valid reasons to boot him from the race, they should have never allowed him to start.

Now look what they have on their hands. It’s nothing more than a race that no one views as legitimate.

— I always am amused by American sportswriters whose idea of exercise is actually getting up to manually turn the channels on the television opining about cycling. I also do not understand how one can legitimately write about sports without a basic understand of training and performance-enhancing drugs. Get these people out of the press box now, because writing intelligently about sports doesn’t really have much to do with the games any more.

Alexandre Vinokourov? Wow. Who would have thought the Tour could have sunk lower than that fiasco?

— Along those lines everyone is quick to point out how “dirty” cycling is. But here is a fact: if MLB and the NFL acted like the UCI and the Tour de France, there would be more than 1,000 new players in those leagues tomorrow. It seems as if all cycling officials have to do is point at a guy and he’s out. Forget facts and protocol. The players in MLB and the NFL should be thankful every day that they have a union that supports them.

Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Michael Rasmussen were all booted from the Tour de France this year despite never failing a drug test. Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and Mark McGwire have admitted to using performance-enhancing substances and got new contracts.

Which sport is “dirty” again?

— I’ve been asked if the current scandal in France will affect Floyd Landis’ case at all. My knee-jerk reaction is, “No, because they are mutually exclusive. Floyd’s case has to do with one specific test from one stage of last year’s race. This year’s scandal, they say, is about the ‘culture of doping.’”

Since I don’t believe Floyd is a part of that culture, nor do I believe he is a doper, I didn’t think it has anything to do with him.

But upon retrospect, maybe it does in the always fickle court of public opinion. Maybe Floyd suddenly becomes guilty because he rides a bike and won the Tour de France?

Either way it makes me happy to be a runner instead of a baseball player or cyclist.

— Meanwhile, other folks have asked me why they just don’t cancel the rest of the Tour. What’s the point anymore? It’s a valid question, but the answer comes down to the bottom line. The rest of the ride to Paris is economical, complete with all of the pomp, circumstance and corporate sponsorships.

They don’t put those corporate logos on their uniforms because they look nice.

The reason the Tour continues is the same reason why Bud Selig doesn’t go all French on Barry Bonds and pull the cheater from the field. It’s why the Giants re-signed Bonds – he makes a lot of people money…

Especially people like WADA president Dick Pound.

Integrity? Ha!

New York state of mind

Just how are we expected to sleep at night knowing that a menace to society like Paris Hilton is out of the slammer and under house arrest? Someone please answer that question…

***
Speaking of slammers and dubious fame, Jimmy Rollins, author of the “team to beat” quote that whips the partisans into a lather whenever he shows up at Shea Stadium, had a pretty big game last night.

And it’s pretty safe to assume that he enjoyed every second of it.

“It’s a great place to do it, in New York against this team,” Rollins said after the game.

Rollins, of course, slugged a two-out, two-strike three-run home run in the top of the seventh to resuscitate the Phillies’ silent offense and lead the way to a 4-2 victory. The most important part is that the Phillies climbed over the .500 mark again and have a chance to go for the sweep over the Mets tonight when Cole Hamels pitches against John Maine.

For any fan of young, stud pitchers, tonight is the game to watch.

For now, though, Rollins gets another game at Shea until mid-September which means the fans there get to boo him for his game-winning homer and innocuous comments.

Seriously, why do fans get worked up over something so mundane as a guy believing his team is good? Someday, perhaps, I’ll get it… then again, probably not.

Be that as it may, the idea of Rollins becoming a villain to the New York sports’ fans has been floated out there, though Rollins says he doesn’t think he’ll ever reach the heights of hatred that Reggie Miller or someone like that.

“I think I smile too much,” Rollins laughed. “Maybe if I was a mean guy I’d make for a good villain. But I enjoy playing the game. Eventually you get tired being mad at a happy guy.”

Nah, Reggie Miller seems to be a happy-go-lucky guy and it didn’t seem as if the New Yorkers ever got tired of booing him. Then again, Michael Jordan used to carve the Knicks apart and that didn’t stop anyone in the Big Apple from buying Nikes.

Nevertheless, Rollins says he wouldn’t mind becoming an assassin like Reggie Miller.

“I hope I could be a Reggie Miller. Shoot, that would be great.”

Of course Reggie Miller was disliked for what he did to the New York fans during the playoffs. Rollins and the Phillies will have to get there for the rivalry to really bloom.

***
If there is one thing we learned about Jose Mesa back when he was saving more games than any pitcher in Phillies’ history it was the big fella was really in good shape. It might not have looked that way to an outsider, but there were very few players on those Phillies’ teams that worked out as much or as hard as Joe Table.

Perhaps that’s why Mesa, listed as 41 years old, is getting another look-see after being released from the Detroit Tigers. Nothing is promised now, but reports are that the Phillies will work out the veteran reliever to see whether he could be a worthy addition to the front-end of the bullpen.

Hey, what does it hurt?

Mesa saved 111 games for the Phillies from 2001 to 2003and he saved 320 games (including 70 for the Pirates in 2004 and 2005) during his 19-season career. But after putting together a solid season for the Colorado Rockies in 2006 (3.86 ERA in 79 games), Mesa has struggled for the Tigers this season. So far he’s been in 16 games and has a not-so sharp 12.34 ERA.

Nonetheless, if the Phillies like anything about Mesa it wouldn’t be too difficult to find a spot for him in the ‘pen.

***
Here’s some good news if you like to drink coffee… it’s really, really good for you.

According to a new meta-analysis in the magazine Gastroenterology, there is a strong likelihood that caffeine consumption decreases your risk of liver cancer. Even better, according to a study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, caffeine consumption could make you a faster runner – actually 1 percent faster if you have a penchant for distance running.

The best part: a 23-year study of 13,000 Californians in Preventive Medicine found that moderate caffeine consumers had a significantly reduced risk of death.

So get out there and get drinking. It will make you faster for a long time.

Could Rollins outgrow leadoff spot?

If one looks at it literally, Jimmy Rollins was correct in saying the Phillies were the team to beat in the National League East. At 2-8, boy are they ever the team to beat.

Yet despite sparking his teammates to back his words with winning baseball, Rollins has more than stood out through the early going of the season. Notoriously a poor starter during most of his career with the Phillies, Rollins leads the league with six homers, is second with 12 runs and is third in OPS (1.201) and slugging percentage (.783). Meanwhile, he slips into the top 10 in RBIs (11), on-base percentage (.418) and walks (8). A season after setting career highs in all of those statistical categories save for on-base percentage, Rollins, 28, appears to be settling into his prime.

But that’s where it gets curious. Is Rollins settling into his prime as a leadoff hitter or as a middle-of-the-order slugger? Certainly all followers of the Phillies have opinions on the topic, but the only one (or two) that matter aren’t budging.

The fact of the matter is that Jimmy Rollins is the Phillies’ leadoff hitter now and for the foreseeable future.

“I’m not saying I want to do anything,” manager Charlie Manuel said on Friday with his daily powwow with the writers. “I haven’t even thought about (a lineup change).”

Certainly Manuel has more important things to worry about than moving Rollins out of the leadoff spot, and frankly, Manuel seems to be taking the if-it-ain’t-broke approach where he can. In fact, since Manuel took over as skipper from Larry Bowa one of the first things he did was put Rollins at the top spot and to stop worrying about it. After bouncing around from the top third and bottom third of the order with Bowa in charge, Rollins has just 35 at-bats outside of the leadoff spot since Manuel took over before the 2005 season.

No doubt there were plenty calling for Manuel to move Rollins out of the top spot based on his pedestrian on-base percentage and his long stretches where he drew nary a walk. But now it seems as if Manuel’s patience has been rewarded.

“I feel like for me to want to move him we would have to need something down in our lineup,” Manuel said. “But I wouldn’t do that (now). … I don’t plan on doing that. I’m not saying I won’t do anything, but I haven’t thought about (moving Rollins).”

Rollins, Manuel says, is a lot like his boyhood hero Rickey Henderson except for the walks of course. The quintessential leadoff man, Henderson bashed nearly 300 home runs during his long career, which was a terrifying dichotomy for the opposition when his all-time best stolen bases and second-best walks are measured in.

At the same time, Alfonso Soriano swiped 41 bags and smashed 46 homers hitting mostly in the leadoff spot for the Washington Nationals last season.

With stolen base numbers that hover in the mid-30s to low 40s, could a season like Soriano’s be in Rollins’ not-so distant future?

“He hit 25 last year. I’m not setting an amount on him and hopefully he’s not setting an amount,” Manuel said. “If he hits the ball out front with a good short swing, that’s what a home run is.”

Rollins, it seems, definitely knows what a home runs is. But will he get so familiar with the round-tripper that he outgrows his spot at the top of the Phillies’ batting order?

Kudos MLB, kudos

We like to give credit where credit is due even if it’s to a entity that seems to enjoy bad press, bad decisions and sticking it to its best customers and fans. But when Major League Baseball decided that it would allow any player (one per team, though) who wishes to wear No. 42 in tribute to Jackie Robinson on the 60th anniversary of his debut on April 15 (as well as the 10th anniversary of the league-wide retirement of the number), it was a great move and a smart decision.

For the Phillies, Jimmy Rollins will wear No. 42, which makes sense. Rollins has always been a big proponent of the old Negro Leagues, its history and lore.

But for as smart as MLB was in allowing players to pay tribute to Jackie Robinson, don’t expect too much more of it – especially in the NFL. According to The Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon, who appeared on ESPN Radio with Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann this week, the NFL does not want to celebrate its history as it relates to individuals.

Said Wilbon:
“Baseball gets it right. Baseball understands individuality. Football understands it, too – football doesn’t want it. Football wants not to have it. That’s how they can trot out replacement players, because if there is no individuality, players can never have strength. They can never be equal (because) the team is always greater. The jersey is the greatest thing that football offers. Major League Baseball does understand this and I’m glad they have relented and will allow any person who wants to wear No. 42 on April 15 to wear it. … The NFL doesn’t want to pay tribute to anybody.”

There certainly are a lot of examples of how the NFL beats down on any type of individuality rearing its head. Remember when Peyton Manning wanted to wear black high tops as a tribute to Johnny Unitas or when Jake Plummer wanted to wear a small No. 40 on his helmet as a tribute to Pat Tillman? The NFL warned the players that if they strayed beyond the vanilla ordinances of the league’s bylaws by the slightest centimeter they risked fines, suspension or no recess.

Baseball surely has screwed up royally in this regard, too, but at least they recognize (like the NBA) that the players are the best public relations they have.

Everybody’s workin’ for the weekend

Another weekend, another big series for the Phillies. Actually, make that two big series in a row. The reason why the three games against the Brewers and Nationals are so important — aside from the obvious for a 24-22 club standing four games off the pace in the NL East at Memorial Day weekend — is that after this set of games ends, the Phillies hit the road for 11 games in a row.

Either way, I’m going to miss the series vs. the Brewers, but more on that later. For now, lets chat about Bobby Abreu’s defense during the series against the Mets. Or perhaps more appropriately, how about his lack of defense?

For years now, fans, commentators, and the press have been quite critical of Abreu’s defense. Actually, critical would be nice. But it’s not wrong.

Abreu mishandled two balls hit near the rightfield fence this week that proved to be costly to the Phillies. One play, a drive off Jon Lieber on Tuesday night, resulted in ESPN baseball analyst John Kruk to say on Daily News Live that someone on the team should confront Abreu.

Maybe that’s what “Gold Glover” Abreu needs when his defense appears as disinterested as it was this week. But to suggest that Abreu should “run into the wall” is just silly. It just isn’t going to happen (and who wants the best hitter on the team injured), just like Abreu hitting leadoff is not going to happen.

ed. note: Looks like it could happen based on the reports from Shea. Looks like I’m wrong and Bobby is ready to slide up the batting order.

Nevertheless, there was a time when Abreu played inspired defense. He ran down fly balls with reckless abandon and displayed a strong right arm that kept runners in check. But in July of 2000, Abreu went into the wall for a flyball at Yankee Stadium and came out of the play a little banged up. He didn’t miss any games from that crash landing, but he has shied away from all contact since.

But he can still hit.

As far as the leadoff stuff goes, there was a stretch of 19 games during the 2000 season (Aug. 20 to Sept. 9) when Terry Francona put Abreu at the top of the order and just let him go. The numbers from those 19 games?

AB – 71
R -12
H- 22
RBI – 11
2B – 4
3B – 1
HR – 5
SB – 4
BB – 18
K – 13
AVG – .310
OBP – .449

Those numbers look like someone who can handle the leadoff spot. Who knows, maybe Abreu was Rickey Henderson all along?

Yeah, but can it tie my shoes?
Nike and iPod announced that it has joined forces to create a new wireless system that allows your spefically desgned Nike running shoe to communicate with your iPod to give pertinent feedback such as distance travelled, pace and calories burned. Not only will it record the information on your iPod, but also it will speak to you and tell you exactly what you are doing.

More than that, later you can hook your iPod up to Nike’s web site to keep track of your workouts.

So much for the old running log or getting in the car to drive off your mileage.

The shoes ($100 to $129) and the wireless unit ($29) hit the market in July with the Nike Zoom Moire with more models to follow. There will also be other Nike+iPod accessories, too, such as spefically designed outer wear that will hold your devices and cords to keep your hands free.

Interestingly, according to business writer Darren Rovell, Nike’s stock jumped up two percent after the announcement of the new products.

Needless to say, I know people who will buy this, and it’s hard to deny the coolness factor of this gadget. In fact, I would hop on board if I didn’t have to wear the Nikes.

Now I have nothing against Nike (aside from the reported sweatshops, of course) and as a one-time competitive runner just out of retirement (or a five-year hiatus… that sounds better) I wear Nike clothes for workouts and dare anyone to find a finer marathon racer than the steady and austere Mariah. But as long as adidas continues to make the Ozweego trainer, Phil Knight and Steve Jobs won’t be able to send me any subliminal messages.

In July of 1996 I got my first pair of Ozweegos and haven’t worn anything else since. This weekend I’ll wear a pair of Ozweegos in the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington, Vermont as I travel with friends John May and Luke Smith as they take their maiden voyage over 26.2 miles.

It will be No. 12 for me, but the first one since the 2001 Boston Marathon. So instead of Phillies vs. Brewers over a holiday weekend, we’re going for self-imposed discomfort.

Perhaps we’ll be able to check in at some point this weekend or at least provide all sorts of updates, if not, enjoy the weekend, the baseball, and the holiday.

One down, 161 more to go…

Last year on Opening Day, Charlie Manuel sat on top of the bench in the middle of the dugout and fielded question after question about why he chose to start Placido Polanco at second base over Chase Utley during his pre-game meeting with the writers. Actually, if an interview session were a prize fight, someone would have come in and stopped it.

But no more than 30 seconds later, Manuel walked up the dugout steps to talk to the TV folks who asked wistful inanities like, “Charlie, does Opening Day ever get old?”

This year, Manuel was asked why he chose to start Abraham Nunez at third base over David Bell, but there was none of the rancor or a challenging nature to the questions. It seemed as if everyone was OK with the skipper’s decision even though Bell was a little unhappy with sitting on the bench.

What a difference a year makes.

Either way, Opening Day always reminded me of going to church on Christmas. The press box is always packed with people who aren’t going to be back next time. They take care of their yearly obligation early and might show up at the end if there is a pennant race.

Etc.
Jim Salisbury had an interesting story in Tuesday’s Inquirer about Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa’s role in Jimmy Rollins’ final at bat. According to the story, LaRussa told his pitcher Adam Wainright to quit nitpicking and throw something around the plate after the count had reached 3-0.

Also in the Cardinals’ clubhouse, Scott Rolen heard sarcastic boos from some teammates when he exited the training room and headed toward his locker. It seems as if they find the Philly fans’ treatment of the former Phillie very funny.

Which, of course, it is.

Rolen told me that he thinks his former teammate Jimmy Rollins has a really good chance to threaten Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. The reason, Rolen said, is that Rollins has the ability to beat out an infield hit with his speed, and he can bunt for a hit.

“He has all the tools,” Rolen said.

But, it’s not all about simply having the tools. There’s a mental part to it, too.

“Give him credit because he has to go out there and do it.”

When with the Phillies, Rolen and Rollins had different ways of doing things that sometimes caused a bit of (very minor) friction between the pair, but one thing for sure is that Rollins has a ton of respect for Rolen. Before a game in Washington last season, Rollins talked about how much he admired his former teammate as a player.

Then again, Rollins is a true fan of the game and anyone who is a fan of baseball has a real admiration for Rolen.

Apropos of nothing, Rolen and Randy Wolf are probably the most interesting and entertaining ballplayers to talk to. Rollins is up there, too, especially when talking about certain minutia of the game. Once, probably in late 2001 or 2002, he demonstrated to this writer how to come to a quick stop after running at full speed. It seems as if there is a proper technique and form to everything in baseball.

He has a point…
Before Sunday’s exhibition against the Red Sox, Manuel talked candidly about his lack of double switches last season. It seems as if Charlie didn’t think he had the artillery to yank a starter out of the game.

In fact, when Manuel contemplated a double switch, he said, he’d look to his right from the corner of the dugout and didn’t think Tomas Perez or Endy Chavez could get it done.

It’s hard to disagree with that.

New Season begins with old streak

Part of the allure of baseball’s Opening Day is the idea of renewal. For at least one day every team is in first place and every team has a chance to win the World Series. It’s that baseball-as-a-metaphor-for-life wispiness that pervades public radio and Roger Angell’s dispatches from The New Yorker. All baseball fans get caught up in that saccharin sweet romanticism at one point or another.

It’s hard not to.

But this year’s Opening Day for the Phillies was marked by the notion of continuation or extension rather than rebirth. Actually, the baseball world had its eyes trained on the Phillies opener against the Cardinals to see if something that began last season could break the invisible force field of a new season in an idea that flies in the face that everything Opening Day represents.

We’re talking of the streak, of course.

Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins coolly carried his epic, 36-game hitting streak that was momentarily halted for five months only to pick up right where he started. With a flair for the dramatic, Rollins dramatically added on to his streak by lacing a double to right field on a 3-0 pitch in his very last at-bat of the day to make 2005 morph into 2006. In fact, the build up to that final pitch offered to Rollins was so mind numbingly exciting that it made nearly everyone in the park forget that the Phillies lost by eight runs.

Think of it: Rollins’ streak could have ended if the pitch was just mere inches away from home plate. Rollins could have drawn a walk – a very good thing for a leadoff hitter to do – but his chance at making a run for immortality would have vanished into thin air faster than the trot from home to first base. He could have done his job yet been penalized for it.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way, but Rollins, unselfishly, says he would have taken the walk.

“If he would have thrown one I couldn’t get, I would have taken it,” Rollins said earnestly. “I wasn’t going to give the at-bat away. Luckily, he gave me something to hit.”

Do you believe him?

No, me neither.

Yes, we believe Rollins’ goal is to help the Phillies win games so they can finally advance to the playoffs. And yes, we believe that he is sincere in this sentiment. But if reliever Brad Thompson kept the 3-0 offering anywhere in the vicinity of the 215 area code, Rollins was going to swing.

Believe that.

That’s not a knock on Rollins. Au contraire. The very idea that Rollins is just as excited about his streak as the fans are is quite refreshing. Want to talk about it? Just walk up to Jimmy and ask him about it, he won’t be hiding in the training room to dodge the questions and attention. This is a once-in-a-lifetime feat. Why shouldn’t it be fun?

“It’s fun to talk about it,” Rollins said. “It’s brought a lot of attention to the team, which is the best part. As far as the streak goes, I’m not any more excited about it now than I was. I was blessed to be in this position and you have to be willing to accept that if you are in this position. That’s one thing I think I’ve been doing. You have to be willing to talk about it.”

Better yet, Rollins said if the streak becomes the focal point of the game and helps brighten the looming dark cloud brought about by the Barry Bonds steroid controversy, then bring that on, too.

“Hopefully, I can be a major part of what’s going on in baseball,” Rollins said. “Barry Bonds is going through a situation. He’s from the Bay Area, which is my hometown. Two stories are running together. Barry’s trying to accomplish something. I’m trying to accomplish something. He’s in a controversy. Right now, I’m on everybody’s good side. Hopefully, I can keep that going and going, and everybody can concentrate on what’s good about baseball.”

Certainly that can never get old.