Um… your town is cool, too?

Chi_phl Note:
Variations of this essay have been posted on this space in the past, but since the hacky, trite, tired “city rip” pieces are en vogue, we reworked it and we present it again like new. Sorry, folks, if it makes you feel good about putting down another civic body, you have other issues… you know, besides being a hack.

THE TOWN FORMERLY KNOWN AS ANGRYVILLE — They handle defeat well in Chicago. After all, the Blackhawks, White Sox and especially the Cubs have taught them well. Just think how good at losing they’d be if Portland would have done the right thing and drafted Michael Jordan.

But in Chicago they don't mope, freak out, or litter the field with D-sized batteries during the action. They really don't even complain, to be perfectly frank. Actually, they're used to it.

They just go home. They leave early and fight traffic. They put the crippling defeats out of their minds by skipping work to play in the sun. They just forget about it as they frolic in those glorious public parks beneath sculptures created by Picasso and Oprah with cool drinks and lots of pretty friends.

Loss? Nah, they don't deal with it at all in Chicago. Who has the time? They actually have a beach in the city in Chicago. Life is good and they pick up the trash off the streets, too. Nice place Chicago… it helps them swallow defeat so well.

In Philadelphia we know loss all too well. It's in our DNA. It's intense… no wait, that's wrong. It's intensity.

At least it was.

Back in the old days we all woke up before the dawn just as the rage had regrouped so we could wipe the bitter-tasting bile that has encrusted the corners of our mouths with the outer black sleeve of our spittle-coated Motorhead t-shirts. Then we dragged our sorry asses off the couch where we collapsed just 45 minutes earlier and instinctively thrust a middle finger at the rest of the world.

The day had begun in Philadelphia. The fury must be unleashed. We lost again.

But there is always a fleeting moment — one that usually occurs in the time it takes to get from one knee to a standing position after unfolding oneself from the couch — when stock is taken. A moment, as fast as a flap of a hummingbird's wing, enters our twisted and angry heads:

World weary. Saddened by my years on the road. Seen a lot. Done a lot. Loss? Yeah, I know loss. I know loss with its friends sorrow, fury and death. Yes, loss and me are like this… we're partners as we walk on the dusty trail of life.

But something happened in October of 2008 when Brad Lidge threw that slider past Eric Hinske. Beneath that tiney, porcupine-like exterior, glimpses into our souls were exposed. There was warmth, fear, insecurity…


Yes, victory. The Phillies won the World Series. The Flyers are going to the Stanley Cup (yeah, I said it). Both of these things are happening barely months apart. Kind of like it was 1980-81 all over again.

Is Bruce Springsteen still as popular as he was during the dawn of the Reagan Administration? Oh yeah, here in the dawn of the Obama Administration, an adapted Chicagoan no less, Springsteen is playing halftime at the Super Bowl.

In the old days during the B.C. Era[1], Chicago was a place that made it easy to look down upon with our sad, wretched lives of angry and failed dreams. In Chicago, with their manicured parks, gourmet restaurants, unimpeded gentrification, high-brow universities and gleaming skyscrapers the rest of us calls it the city of big shoulders. It burned down and rose again—bigger, better, cleaner, friendlier.

It gets cold and windy, true, but they take that in stride, too.

Lidge Those were the places Philly fans showed up en masse to watch our teams fight for our civic pride. Back in the old, B.C. Era, they saw us coming. We stuck out with that crippled walk of defeat, clenched jaws of stress and disgust, fists balled up and middle fingers erect. When we took the exit ramp off the boulevard of broken dreams to enter these happy, little towns, the local authorities were ready. They had been tipped off ahead of time and were prepared to set up a dragnet at a moment's notice.

But those condescending attitudes and the arrogance in which those people flit through life so carefree and cheery no longer sting. We don't turn them back with our jealousy and resentment. No, instead we take the hackery in stride. The mockery and stereotypes don't hurt any longer.

It's just one of those annoying things that championship cities are used to.

Hey, who knows… maybe there is a bit of respect coming our way? Oh sure, they still trot out the golden oldies:

Boo Santa. Cheer injuries. Snowballs at the Cowboys. Batteries for J.D. Drew. Cheesesteaks. Cracked bells. Anger and passion. Rocky Balboa.

But try this out… sportswriters are afraid of Philadelphians. At least that's (kind of) the contention of one mainstreamer writing for one of those new-fangled web sites.

Really? Uh… nice! So maybe this means that now that the proverbial shoe is on the proverbial other foot, the whole hacky city rip thing is finished? Instead maybe they'll write about the actual ballclubs instead of all the clichés?

Think so?

Of course not.

During the Phillies' run Charlie Manuel was often prophetic, but never more than when he said:

“Winning is hard. Nothing about winning comes easy,” the wizened sage of a baseball manager said. “… believe me, there's a price you pay for winning, too.”

That price can sometimes mean dignity, self-respect and the ability to think clearly.

We're inside the looking glass, people. The Phillies won, the Flyers need two more games…

All things considered, it ain't all that bad to be in Philadelphia. Let them say what they want because we win now. Someday we might even get used to it.

[1] B.C. is "Before Championship(s)"

The last list of the decade

image from Like the annual swimsuit issue, those end-of-the-year lists about the best and worst moments in our culture or history are quite odious. Worse than that, they seem pointless. Really, with the Internet and cable television available in mass quantities, who really needs to wait once a year to see old-fashioned swimsuit models?

Conversely, who doesn’t want to look at swimsuit models? It’s like eating candy. Yes, we all know eating candy isn’t good for us, but dammit it tastes so good.

I like candy, the swimsuit issue and those end-of-the-year lists. I like them despite the fact that they are stupid. But in this case the-end-of-the-year list this time around we also have the end of a decade to contend with, which makes those hacky lists of so full and rich.

So using the if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em model as my guide, here’s a list of my favorite/memorable moments of the past decade.

• Matt Stairs’ home run in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS

This was my favorite because it was so perfect almost in a Dave Henderson in the 1986 ALCS kind of way. In fact, the parallels are uncanny. With two outs and facing the Angels’ closer Donnie Moore, Henderson saved the Red Sox season with the go-ahead homer. He did it again in the infamous Game 6 of the ’86 World Series at Shea Stadium, but apparently they weren’t ready for a Dave Henderson statue in Boston.

The thing about Henderson’s bomb off Moore was it was set up with a homer from Don Baylor. Without Baylor, Henderson just pads his stats. That’s kind of how it was for Stairs, too. Everyone kind of forgets about that spinning line drive Shane Victorino laced into the right-field bullpen at Dodger Stadium to tie the game in the eighth inning. It was Victorino’s homer that set up the confrontation between Stairs and Dodgers’ closer Jonathan Broxton with two outs in the eighth inning.

So what happens if Broxton gets Stairs out? It’s not unreasonable to think that the Dodgers could have tied the series at 2-2 and forced it back to Philly for a Game 6 or 7. All bets are off at that point.

And with Stairs coming up to hit after just two plate appearances in the prior 15 days and zero in more than a week, it seemed to be a favorable matchup for Broxton and the Dodgers. To that point no one following the Phillies thought much of the late-season acquisition. Sure, we knew Stairs could hit, but with just 19 plate appearances in a month for the Phillies, some wondered why he had even been on the playoff roster at all.

Besides, the first time he showed up in a Phillies’ uniform in Washington on Sept. 1, Stairs looked like a coach. Charlie Manuel and Pat Gillick said they got Stairs specifically to hit home runs in late-game situations.

Guess they knew what they were doing.

Nevertheless, the interesting part about Stairs’ pinch-hit homer wasn’t so much about the distance it traveled (it was a bomb!) or that he slugged on off a pitcher who had not allowed a homer at Dodger Stadium all season. Sure, the blast helped the Phillies rally to wild, come-from-behind victory and a 3-1 lead in the NLCS, but more importantly it became the moment of a long baseball career.

Matt Stairs never needed to get another hit for the Phillies to have his place in team history. The truth is Stairs’ blast just might be the biggest pinch hit in team history—maybe even the biggest hit. His one home run did a pretty good job killing a lot of ghosts.

It killed a lot of stories, too. Ironically, Game 4 of the NLCS was on the 20th anniversary of Kirk Gibson’s famous home run against Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the ’88 World Series. Whenever they do all those lists for greatest homers of all time, Gibson’s homer is always in the top two or three even though it was just Game 1 of the series. Still, it was a pretty incredible irony that Stairs’ homer came on the same day as Gibson’s.

It also was quite ironic that 20 years to the day later, the Inquirer’s Phil Sheridan was sitting in approximately the same spot at Dodger Stadium for both Gibson’s and Stairs’ homers. Also more than a coincidence was that Sheridan was fighting those east-coast newspaper deadlines from nearly the same seat on the same day 20 years apart.

Earlier that day Phil told me that he really didn’t have the chance to enjoy Gibson’s moment because he had to quickly rewrite and send his story back to Philadelphia after writing about how Oakland and Eckersley were on their way after a victory in Game 1. Exactly two decades later Matt Stairs did it to him again. Worse, Stairs delivered a great quote in the post-game press conference to Todd Zolecki that will always be remembered:

My favorite part of Stairs’ homer aside from the post-game quotes, and expressions on the faces of the more seasoned writers sitting near me (clearly indicating that we were in unchartered waters) was that I called it. As Stairs strolled to the box, I told everyone sitting near me:

“He’s going deep right here.”

Nailed that one.

But before we get too full ourselves I should also mention that I thought Tampa Bay was going to win Game 5.

Shows what I know.

Hk • Harry Kalas

Here’s what I wrote the day Harry Kalas died:

WASHINGTON — So, yeah… Monday was a crazy day. It’s not every day when you are one of the last handful of people to see a man alive, let alone a baseball Hall of Famer like Harry Kalas. Strangely, had I not stopped at a Best Buy south of Baltimore off I-695 to replace the laptop power cord I accidentally left at home, I never would have stepped onto the elevator with Larry Andersen, Rob Brooks and Harry.

I also would never have taken the elevator all the way up to the top floor if we hadn’t been talking about the Mets opener at their new ballpark instead of the scribes’ floor one below.

And finally, if I hadn’t been for my forgetfulness I never would have walked along with Harry, L.A. and Rob to their respective booths before realizing I was on the wrong floor.

Crazy day all around.

I think everyone had the sense something wasn’t right when David Montgomery gathered all of the traveling media outside of the visitors’ clubhouse door at Nationals Park. Montgomery usually doesn’t address the press unless it’s really a big deal so by the look on the gathered faces and Monty’s demeanor meant something extraordinary had occurred.

Of course another tip off could have been that the clubhouse was closed up as soon as Cole Hamels, Rich Dubee and Lou Marson returned from the lefty’s bullpen session. A few of us were waiting out the pitcher for the latest on his progress as he prepares for Thursday night’s start. Initially, when we were summoned by the PR staff to the clubhouse, I thought Hamels was going to be brought into one of the side conference rooms for us.

Then I saw Monty and those faces.

When the events were explained to us – about how Brooks found Harry collapsed in the booth, alerted the emergency medics and then rushed him to George Washington University Hospital, there was a bad sense.

Unfortunately it proved to be correct.

So yeah, it wasn’t the typical day at the ballpark and I never did find out how Hamels felt after his bullpen session. It also struck me that it must have been remarkably difficult for Harry’s partners in the booth to call today’s game. How do they block that out and focus? How did they not want to copy the famous “Outta Here!” call when Ryan Howard hit that clutch three-run homer in the seventh inning?

How does baseball sound without Harry Kalas? I ask because I don’t know… I never heard it.

Gen Xers or kids born in the ’70s are prone to navel gazing and introspection. We love that “remember when” game. We love to talk about the first time we did this or heard that or what the air smelled like on a particular day something poignant happened. Maybe me more so than others, but damn, all those memories are flooding back.

I think I knew Harry Kalas’ voice before I knew what his name was or even before I knew I liked baseball. All I remember was being 4 or 5 years old and running around on a visit to my grandparents house in Lancaster, Pa. I remember a baseball game was on TV and how riveting it was – especially the part where a ball was hit and a fielder threw it to the first baseman.

I was hooked. I also thought the infielders were actually throwing the ball at the runner.
More than anything I remember that voice and the excitement. Since then I’ve learned that baseball can be pretty mundane from time to time. Not every game feels important – sometimes they just happen and that’s that. They don’t feel like a big deal.

But Harry Kalas never acted that way. To him, every game and every broadcast was important. Yeah, he lost a little off the ol’ fastball in the last few years. He missed a few here and there, but so what. Whose voice would you prefer to hear on a home run or a big victory?

There is only one I can think of.

My grandfather, Robert Johnson, was my hero. He died in 1986 when he was just 67 from cancer. Everything worth knowing, my grandfather taught me. He taught me how to tip, how to drink coffee, how to order off the menu, how to swing a golf club, how to throw a curve, how to spit, how properly use swear words, how to tell jokes and how to read the racing form. But, most importantly, he taught me how to treat other people. Sometimes I live up to the standard, other times I fall short… though with the swearing and the horse wagering is always pitch perfect.

The point is Harry was cut from the same cloth as my grandfather. In fact, they knew each other. One time at one of those sportswriters banquets at the Host in Lancaster, my grandfather walked over to Harry and said, “Hi Harry, how have you been?”

“Great, Bob. It’s good to see you…”

How did my grandfather know Harry Kalas? Needless to say, he went up a few notches in my book that day – if there were any more a mere mortal could climb.

But what made them the same was that they both knew how to treat people. The word, “no,” was not in their vocabulary. If Harry was ever annoyed, he never showed it and if he thought doing something was a drag, he never said anything. Ask him anything and he had a story to go with it. Ask him about his white shoes and he’ll tell you about Pat Boone. His favorite day in baseball? Anything with Mickey Vernon or his dearly departed pal, Richie Ashburn.

Too many stories and not enough time to tell them all.

As Scott Franzke said this afternoon:

“He never turned down an autograph. He never turned down a photo. He never turned down a request to record someone’s out-going voicemail message,” Franzke said. “As someone new in the game, he showed me that we do this for the fans. The fans are why we are here.

“The players come and go, but, ‘Outta here,’ lasts forever.”

Harry truly enjoyed his celebrity. He truly enjoyed the fans. It was never put on or phony. To him, he had the greatest job in the world and there is something romantic about a guy who has a calling and gets to do it until his very last breath.

Perfect. Just like one of Harry’s home run calls.

Other memorable moments worth mentioning (in no particular order):

• Scott Rolen’s two homer game in the first game back after Sept. 11
• The day Larry Bowa asked me, “Are you stupid?”
• Allen Iverson in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals
• The “practice” press conference.
• Scott Stevens’ crushing hit on Eric Lindros in Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals and how the Wachovia Center got oh so quiet.
• Keith Primeau’s goal in Pittsburgh during the fifth OT of Game 4 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals.
• Eagles losing to Tampa Bay in the final football game at the Vet.
• Eagles losing to Carolina in the first NFC Championship at the Linc.
• Eagles beating Atlanta to advance to the Super Bowl in 2004.
• The Jim Thome press conference.
• The “Next question” press conference with T.O. and his agent Drew Rosenhaus.
• Eric Lindros’ return to Philly with the Rangers.
• That dude who fell into the penalty box with Tie Domi.
• Cliff Lee in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series.
• Ryan Howard’s double with two outs in the ninth of Game 4 of the 2009 NLDS
• Jimmy Rollins’ game-winner with two outs in the ninth against Broxton in Game 4 of the 2009 NLCS.
• Chase Utley hitting a grand slam for his first big league hit at the Vet in 2003.
• Tim McGraw scattering some of his dad’s ashes on the mound before Game 3 of the 2008 World Series.
• Kevin Millwood’s no-hitter.
• Brad Lidge’s last pitch of the 2008 World Series.

Ibanez hurt? Who knew… aside from everyone

image from One of my favorite things about writing about sports is knowing something but still not being able to write about it. Call that a quirk or just an example of an off-kilter sense of humor because there are a lot of guys who get all bent about things like that.

Take the case of Raul Ibanez, for instance. A whole bunch of us knew that he was hurt/injured and that he was playing even though he was in obvious pain.

Just watch the guy run, for goshsakes. His form is all over the place like he’s compensating for the pounding one takes with each painful footfall. Swinging a bat couldn’t be easy, either. Just look at the difference between those first and second-half numbers for that proof.

Or better yet, when Raul first arrived in town he was always a fixture in the clubhouse before and after games, but during the second half of the season those clubhouse sightings were rare. It was deduced that he was getting treatment or going through a series of stretches, twists, shots or potions in order to get out on the field.

We didn’t know any of this because no one was saying anything. Even when Raul or Charlie Manuel were asked—point blank—if the left fielder was hurt, injured or needed surgery, the answer was always elusive and ambiguous. The best answer was always something about not being on the list of players getting treatment from athletic trainer Scott Sheridan.

The truth was Ibanez was beyond such mundane things as basic treatment.

So when the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated arrived in mailboxes, it was all there for all to read—Ibanez was hurt just like we knew, only more dramatically so.

According to the story, rather than have surgery and potentially miss a large portion of the season he toughed it out as we all saw.

He batted .312 with 22 home runs in his first 2½ months, a welcome splash of cold water for a team still groggy from a World Series hangover. But by the third week in June, Ibañez was suffering from a sore left groin and, unbeknownst to the public, a small but serious muscle tear near his abdomen. On a trip to Toronto he was confronted with an excruciating decision: He could have surgery to repair the tear and miss a large chunk of time, or he could return after a short stint on the disabled list and play his dream season hurt. “We all asked him if he would have the surgery,” Phillies first base coach Davey Lopes says, “and he told everyone, ‘I won’t do that. I’ll do anything but that.'”

After consulting with a neuromuscular specialist in Toronto and a surgeon in Philadelphia, Ibañez chose the DL, followed by aggressive rehabilitation. Every day he drops onto a mat in the Phillies’ clubhouse, performs core and hip exercises with trainer Scott Sheridan and then heads for the field. Lopes believes that Ibañez’s swing, speed and statistics have suffered because of the injury—he batted just .232 with 12 homers in 72 games after coming off the DL—but his clubhouse cred clearly spiked. “A lot of guys in his position would have said, ‘Oh, my God, I’ll just have the surgery,'” says Phillies utilityman Greg Dobbs, who played with Ibañez in Seattle. “But he’s the type who says, ‘You tell me I can’t, then I will.’”

So there are a couple ways to look at this, such as we can laud Ibanez for his toughness and his pain management. These are admirable traits for athletes—especially Philadelphia athletes—as long as the team doesn’t suffer because of it. Though Ibanez hasn’t been himself during the second half of the season, he hasn’t been a drain on the team.

Give the guy credit for going out there as often as possible. Charlie Manuel is the type of manager who rides his regulars and Ibanez got no special treatment despite the injury. He said he was OK, so he played… no complaints.

image from Surely there are second half VORP numbers out there to confirm or deny this claim.

Conversely, it kind of stinks that Ibanez and the Phillies held back a story that the local guys had already sniffed out only to confirm it for Sports Illustrated. In the meantime all some of us could do was drop some not-so subtle hints and force readers to do some between-the-lines reading about the assumed injury. There are other examples aside from this one, but this is what stands out for the moment.

So yeah, we knew something was up. We knew there was something more than what was being trotted out there. But apparently it pays to be a part of the national media as opposed to li’l ol’ Philadelphia.

You want the truth? Can you handle it?

Baseball Heaven

image from ST. LOUIS – Remember back when those quotes attributed to Scott Rolen surfaced? You remember, it was shortly after the third baseman was traded to the Cardinals from Philadelphia. It was something about his new team being located in “Baseball Heaven.”

You know, “I feel like I’ve died and gone to baseball heaven.”

Of course you remember. It just added a little more to that annoying self-image problem they have in Philadelphia.

Well, guess what? Maybe you want to come in a little closer so I can whisper this to you. Certainly I don’t want to get anyone worked up into a lather or hurt anyone’s delicate little psyche. But here it goes:

Rolen was right.

There, I said it.

St. Louis is baseball heaven. Take the way they feel about football in Texas, hockey in Canada and sprinkle in some surfing in Hawaii and then, maybe, you will understand how they feel about baseball and their Cardinals in St. Louis.

They’re nuts.

Oh, and it’s not just the kids, the 18-to-35 age demographic, or the grandfathers who saw Dizzy Dean and the Gas House Gang whip the Yankees at Sportsmen’s Park in the ’26 World Series, either. Nope. It’s everyone. They all dress in Cardinals red, they all cheer loudly for their hometown players and clap politely in appreciation for good play by an opponent.

Do they boo? Um, does the Pope date?

Actually, that’s not completely true. When Ted Lilly of the Cubs was introduced before Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, the fans sounded like Philadelphians when Rolen and J.D. Drew showed up on D-Battery night at The Vet. But before it was assumed an unruly St. Louis fan was going to reach for their flare gun and fire off a shot across the diamond, the booing stopped. Sure, it was loud, but it was good natured.

Darnit, it was friendly.

But c’mon… there is nothing more odious and ridiculous that comparing the fans of St. Louis to the fans of Philadelphia. It’s just a dumb exercise. Different folks, different strokes.

image from However, the friendliest people on earth just might live in St. Louis. Make that obscene friendly. It’s like cartoonish friendliness, the kind that makes Will Rogers look like surly ol’ Dick Cheney. So mix that with the Budweiser Beer that flows deeper than the mighty Mississippi just spitting distance away from the ballpark and the surprisingly majestic Gateway Arch, and it’s no wonder everyone is so tickled and happy.

And it’s no wonder they love those Cardinals.

I saw the strangest thing yesterday while walking from the hotel (which just so happened to be located on the spot where President Harry S Truman was photographed in one of history’s greatest moments of taunting when he held up the Chicago newspaper that read, “Dewey Defeats Truman) to the ballpark for an evening of All-Star baseball, rooftop sniper sightings and Pedro-mania! What I saw was an old lady, with an uncanny resemblance to Estelle Getty, strolling around town with a Willie McGee t-shirt.

Seriously, Willie McGee! I mean, who didn’t love Willie McGee – he was a terrific ballplayer. But who would ever put Willie McGee’s visage on a t-shirt and then sell it to people. It was the weirdest thing ever.

Maybe not as weird as the veritable throng of people that lined the downtown streets like it was V-E Day and tossed back some Budweiser and some Mardi Gras beads as the All-Stars paraded from their digs at the Hyatt to Busch Stadium. The players weren’t doing anything other than riding in a car. Some waved. Others scowled. Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ catcher, tossed baseball cards to the throng. Reports are his throws repeatedly fell short.

Oh, and get this: during the All-Star Game I crossed paths with the great Stan Musial. They called Stan, “The Man,” and for good reason. One look at his career statistics and it’s tough not to wonder why he was given the nickname of a mere mortal. Man? No, that guy could hit like 20 Men, but “Stan The Men,” doesn’t have the same ring.

Nevertheless, approaching his 90th birthday, Stan gets around in a wheelchair these days. He also doesn’t carry around a harmonica and inexplicably break into song the way he used to on those corny baseball reels. He also is depicted in his classic batting stance in 15-feet of bronze statue in front of the entrance of the new Busch Stadium located on a stretch of road named, Stan Musial Drive.

So yes, Stan Musial is kind of a big deal in these parts. People lose their minds when they see him up close even though he retired as a player at age 42 in 1963.

But get this, Stan gave me his autograph last night. It was a pre-emptive autographing. He just rolled over and handed me a postcard with his picture and signature on it. I didn’t ask – hadn’t even occurred to me that one should ask Stan Musial for his autograph – and I’m not sure it’s even something I need. However, Stan just assumed that people want his autograph so he travels with a pile of signed cards and hands them out like gum drops.

Unsolicited autographing? Really? Cool.

Maybe that just goes to show how crazy they are for baseball in St. Louis. After all, Stan Musial rolls with piles of autographs to drop onto the populace like confetti. In fact, he’s how goofy St. Louis is for baseball – old ladies who look like Estelle Getty wear Willie McGee shirts and young kids with iPhones in front of a PlayStation game at the massive baseball mall the constructed on the downtown streets, wear replica shirts with Musial’s No. 6 on the back.

St. Louis, thy name is Baseballtopia.

image from But for every Willie McGee and Stan Musial shirt worn, there are 9,173 people wearing something celebrating Albert Pujols. Stan is The Man, Albert is The King or, El Hombre. The truth is Albert Pujols is so popular and beloved in St. Louis that he could strangle a man to death in cold blood in front of thousands of people beneath the Gateway Arch and the town would be cool with it.

They would probably say the guy had it coming and hope that by strangling a guy Pujols didn’t mess up his swing in any way.

Yep, they love baseball in St. Louis. When describing Philadelphia fans as “frontrunners” last year on the now-defunct “Best Damn Sports Show,” Jimmy Rollins cited St. Louis and the love the citizens have for the Cardinals as an example of how ballplayers like the fans to behave.

Guess what? Rollins isn’t the only one with that sentiment. It is Baseball Heaven, after all.

Hitting The Wall

image from The Tour of California reported huge audiences both on television and along the course during its third annual race held last February. Part of that had to do with seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong riding with the big guns from Astana as well as a large contingent of the best riders in the world.

Levi Leipheimer won the race for the third year in a row and Floyd Landis made his return to sanctioned racing after his two-year ban. So needless to say, there was a lot to entice Californians to go out to watch as well as the rest of us to tune in.

Meanwhile, with Armstrong as the catalyst, cycling events in Europe (and the U.S.) have received heightened media exposure. That was especially the case when Armstrong wrecked and busted up his clavicle in a race in Spain. The pictures of the surgically repaired bone – complete with the screws holding it in place – were a hit on the Internets.

But the thing with cycling is that it ain't cheap. It costs a lot of money to get the equipment, and we aren't even talking about the bikes. Those helmets and riding kits can turn a great sport into a very expensive hobby.

Now imagine how much it costs to fund a team and put on races… that ain't cheap either. And despite a renewed interest in the sport and the fact that audiences are rolling in at greater numbers, things don't look so good for the domestic races.

That's especially the case here in Philadelphia, too. In fact, it seems very likely that an annual party along the Art Museum and Manayunk could be in jeopardy this June.

So much for Landis making his pro comeback to his home state?

According to reports, the annual TD Bank Philadelphia Cycling Championship, is on the verge of being cancelled for financial reasons. A story in The Inquirer reported that race organizers need to raise $500,000 by Monday or they will cancel the 2009 version of the race.

That could mean no party at the Manayunk Wall this June.

Actually, that's money used simply to put on the race. It does not include travel to Philadelphia, accommodations, prize fees, etc. Just like in baseball, football and every other team sport, cycling teams roll deep. In addition to the riders and the coaches, there are mechanics, drivers, doctors and a whole team infrastructure that will need to eat and sleep with the rest of the team.

Again, it ain't cheap.

As a result, the Pro Cycling Tour in the U.S. has canceled races in Allentown and Reading, which in past years served as the appetizer for the main course in Philly, which was (and is) the premier single-day race in the country and serves as the national championship.

In past years Lancaster also hosted a tour event, but passed up the event because (some) residents complained about the traffic the race caused, further exemplifying the residents' lameness.

Pretty much anyone who is anyone in top-level cycling – from Lance to Landis to Hincappie and beyond – has raced in Philly, Lancaster, Allentown or Reading. The best of the best of zoomed around our streets and now it might be coming to an end.

Here's the thing about the Philly race – it's a money maker. According to the Inquirer story, citing race organizers, the event brought an estimated $15 million to $20 million in revenue to the city. In tough economic times like these, that's nothing to sneeze at.

But because the city is so cash strapped, Mayor Michael Nutter has instituted a policy of charging events for cleanup, the police and other necessary elements of putting on a huge event. Plus, the race lost two big cycling sponsors (CSC and Rock Racing) that has put it in a position to find $500,000…

By Monday.

So it seems as if city businesses could lose a potential $15-20 million (probably less in these lean times) over $500,000… tough times indeed.

Nothing doing

Donovan McNabbIt’s easy to tell when there is nothing going on in the Philadelphia sporting scene. For one, media types begin to look at the blogs. Usually it’s the other way around. Blogger types[1] need the professionals or else there wouldn’t be any substance. It’s the commentary or the parsing of the information that makes each so-called blogger unique.

Or something like that… we generalize because we have nothing else to go on.

What? Do you think I’m going to dial up Conlin to ask what he thinks about the subject? He’s too busy chasing the neighborhood kids off his lawn.


Yet when there is nothing going on and media types read those blogs, sometimes they react to something. Take Donovan McNabb, the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, for instance. As most folks who follow this sort of thing have come to learn, Donovan McNabb is a blogger, too. And like most bloggers Donovan McNabb reacts to the news being reported by the pros.

Hey, a guy needs to dig up material from somewhere.

Nevertheless, in reacting to news that the Eagles were 8-8 during the 2007, McNabb opined that his team just might need a few “weapons” in 2008. No big news there. After all, McNabb had pointed out as much after the Eagles beat the Buffalo Bills in the final game of the season on Dec. 30. That was nearly two weeks ago. But in a struggle to fill space on his page, McNabb reiterated the idea that the Eagles need “weapons.”

Let’s digress a bit and give the situation some perspective, because it really is a “situation.” In most cities if the quarterback of an 8-8 team expressed a desire to add some better players to the team it might be met with a yawn or a rolling of the eyes with the comment, “Tell us something we don’t know” attached to it. That’s because in most cities 8-8 isn’t very good. Actually, in a lot of cities the fans and media of the local football team would admit that most 10-6 teams have a little room for improvement. Hell, even the New England Patriots have areas where they can get better and they went 16-0. For one thing, the Patriots have to do a better job at not getting caught when spying on the opposition. That little misstep cost them a draft pick.

But in Philadelphia it isn’t that the folks don’t agree with the notion that the Eagles – an 8-8 team that was lucky to be 8-8 [2]– it’s just that there isn’t anything else going on. Sure, there are other sports teams in town, such as the punchless 76ers who are in the midst of a season-worst five-game losing streak. At their current rate, the Sixers could end up 31-51, which would put them right there with the Charlotte Bobcats.

There is also the Flyers in the NHL, who might be a team to make a little noise in the playoffs. The Flyers are a young team and prone to streaks as well as multiple-game suspensions for things like unsportsmanlike conduct. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s hockey and this is the United States. It’s not exactly a fringe sport (though the national television ratings indicate otherwise), but it’s not the glitzy and glamorous Hollywood sport either. It’s more like non-fiction book publishing.

Romo/SimpsonCollege basketball is in full swing, too, but in a sports/media saturated market place it’s hard to get excited about things like conference play until March. Mix that with folks settling back into routines following the holidays and the new year, as well as the fact that Philadelphia lacks the excitement outside of sports such as places like Washington (it’s a presidential election year), New York (it’s New York), Boston (the Patriots are streaking to the Super Bowl and the World Champion Red Sox report to spring training in five weeks) or Baltimore (The Wire kicked off its new season last week) and it’s easy to see why a sigh or a leer from the quarterback of the local football team gets scrutinized.

How would have people reacted if McNabb wrote that the team was on the right track?

Perhaps he’s trying to talk himself out of town?

How would his blogging have gone over if the Eagles finished the season 7-9?

Better yet, how would have folks reacted if he and the gang had gone on a trip to Mexico with Jessica Simpson?

[1] What? Do you think I’m excluding myself? Hey, I might be a jackass but I’m a self-aware jackass.[2] Not only were the Eagles lucky to be 8-8, but also they could have very easily won 10 games. The truth is that every other team in the NFC East was not very good.

Not lookin’ good

Larry FineI didn’t want to say anything at first, but now that another publication finally pointed it out I guess it’s OK for me to jump in, too.

Ready? OK, here it goes:

The people of Philadelphia are ugly. And by ugly I’m not speaking metaphorically, I’m talking pure aesthetics. Worse yet, I’m not talking about the infrastructure or the colonial era architecture – it’s all about the people.

Yes, according to the world-wise and high-brow folks at Travel + Leisure magazine, Philadelphia is home to the least attractive people in America. Actually, Philadelphia ranked dead last amongst the 25 American cities for attractiveness in a poll of travelers. It’s all printed in the latest issue. Check it out.

Philadelphia also rated next to last in the stylishness of the people in the city, 23rd in safety and action/adventure getaway, 22nd or 21st in a place for a girlfriend’s getaway, cleanliness, athletic/active people, and a place for a romantic escape.

The city also rated poorly in the worldliness of the people, a place to go to relax, access to the outdoors and the friendliness of the people.

Yeah, it was pretty rough.

Be that as it might be, the attractiveness of the people is the one that hurts the most. After all, I can think of examples of how out-of-towners can get to some outdoorsy places to do their athletic-type things (though it might take a ride on the overly congested and unfriendly Schuylkill to get there), and romance is more of a state of mind than anything else. Plus, truth be told, there are friendly and unfriendly people everywhere. Perhaps Philadelphians are simply being penalized because they seem to enjoy taking delight in the failure of others more than any other group of citizens on the east coast.

And we generalize because we can.

But the ugly thing… ouch.

Here’s why that hurts: because it just might be true. Don’t believe me? Go hang out at the airport where folks are waiting to board plans. There one will find the craziest-looking array of people outside of a big top. Worse, when waiting to board my flight to Denver last week I didn’t have to wait too long to see the bearded lady – there were already three of them sitting at Gate C17.

I wish I was exaggerating, but it’s true – when at the airport last week I called my wife to ask her if there was a news report about a prison break or something. Later, when I arrived in Denver and checked in with all of the other baseball writers, I asked if anyone else had noticed the trend regarding Philadelphian’s uneasiness on the eyes.

I wish I had better results to report.

Fat, mean and ugly is no way to go through life.

Perhaps enhancing the epidemic of Philadelphia’s curse was the fact that I was jetting off to Denver where the folks rated in the top 10 in attractiveness, friendliness, fun and intelligence. In the athletic/active category, Denver was No. 1 overall.

Yeah, it was a tough room.

Nevertheless, I’ll apologize if I (or my relatives) ruined the city’s ranking. Certainly, I’m not the beau of the ball and truth be told, when the famous rock group KISS finally took their makeup off to reveal themselves, I said, “Look, it’s my uncles!”

But then again, Grace Kelly was from Philadelphia. So too were the Barrymores, Kevin Bacon, Will Smith, Tina Fey, Richard Gere, Maria Bello, Kim Delaney, Hall (but not Oates) and Wilt Chamberlain.

Just because Broderick Crawford, Ben Franklin, Norman Fell, Chuck Barris, Oates (but not Hall), W.C. Fields and Larry Fine come from Philly doesn’t mean it should be held against the rest of us. We’re doing all we can with what little we have.

Regardless, it wasn’t all bad for our homely brethren. Though we won’t be mistaken for the hottest Hollywood star or starlets, we have plenty to occupy our minds.That’s because when it comes to culture Philadelphia was hard to beat in the Travel + Leisure poll. Though Philadelphians might be boorish and rude and more interested in watching sports than actually taking part in them, the city ranked in the top five in classical music, museums, restaurants, cheap eats and farmers’ markets. Better yet, Philadelphia was No. 2 overall behind Washington, D.C. in the historical sites category.

In other words, Philadelphia is good to look at as long as one doesn’t look at the natives.

To read how Philadelphia rated in the categories of the Travel + Leisure poll, click here.

To see how travelers rated all of the American cities, click here.

We can’t see you

If the Eagles play a game and nobody is able to watch it, does it make a sound?

In other words, here in Lancaster, Pa. — just 60 miles from Center City as the crow flies — the Eagles game is not on TV. Nope, it wasn’t “blacked out,” nor was there a technical glitch. Simply, it was not broadcast in this area.

This is despite the Eagles thinking that Lancaster was fertile enough ground for their fandom to open one of their Eagles’ Stores in the touristy row of strip malls outlining the outer edge of Lancaster proper and the Amish/tourist zone. This is also despite the notion that Lancasterians believe their town is a de facto suburb of Philadelphia and within the Philly media market.

But the reason for the Eagles snub of the Lancaster viewing area isn’t because the cable company or TV networks are mean or have it out for the good folks in the Garden Spot. It’s simply the fault of geography, which can be a kick in the pants sometimes.

You see, CBS is the network in charge of carrying the Eagles game vs. Jacksonville on Sunday. Unfortunately, the TV station in Lancaster — WGAL — is an NBC affiliate. The CBS affiliate is in York or Harrisburg, which just over the Susquehanna River from Lancaster, is technically the Baltimore viewing market. That means the affiliate is bound by the NFL’s rules and regulations to show the Ravens-Saints game.

See, what did I tell you about geography?

The funny thing is that Baltimore is closer to most of Lancaster. In fact, a drive from my house to Camden Yards/Inner Harbor is much easier and quicker to make than one to Philadelphia… not to mention much more pleasant than battling traffic on the Schuylkill or Blue Route.

Yet there is no real connection with Baltimore here. Sure, there are a handful of Orioles’ fans, but they seem to have diminished considerably during the Angelos reign in the so-called Charm City. The Ravens? What are they? Where did they come from and what happened to the Colts?

The football team in that city is called the Baltimore Colts. You know, Johnny Unitas, Art Donovan, Don Shula, Lenny Moore, Bert Jones, Gino Marchetti, Earl Morrall and Raymond Berry. The name and colors should have remained locked up in Memorial Stadium when the Irsay’s packed up that Mayflower truck and snuck out of town in the middle of the night.

The Baltimore Ravens still have a USFL feel to them, and yeah, I know they won the Super Bowl a few years ago. The opposing quarterback in that game, Kerry Collins, is a former basketball and football standout in the Lancaster-Lebanon League.

Lancaster is Eagles and Phillies country, and it used to be the pre-season home for the 76ers, whose training camp was held at Franklin & Marshall College. Nevertheless, that doesn’t do anything for the folks who are bummed out that they cannot watch the local football team on Sunday afternoon.

So what’s the remedy? Maybe the NFL can start broadcasting their games on the Internet like every other major and minor sports league? Or, better yet, maybe they can allow the local affiliates to decide on their own which games they want to televise to their viewers?

Then again, it’s Sunday. Turn off the tube and hang out with the family.

Blasting away

This one felt like the old days, though I don’t remember feeling so refreshed after a 15-miler before.

Yeah, refreshed.

I wasn’t sure how the run was going to shape up this morning since my right calf was a little sore and I ran 18 miles the day before, but Thursday’s outing was very solid. My turnover, stride and breathing were as good as I can ever recall. This is despite another windy, gusty day that made the 50-degree temperatures feel much chillier. In fact, it felt like I didn’t run at all.

I guess I’ll have to double up.

Anyway, I ran the first five miles in 33:10, the second five in 31:57 and the final five in 30:55. The last 1.5 miles were run faster than marathon-race pace – maybe even 5k pace – yet I didn’t breathe hard at all. It was just smooth sailing.

Final stats: 15.3 miles in 1:39:02 (6:28 pace).

So I mentioned the old days? Actually, the run reminded me of the workouts my friend Tom Levering and I used to do along Kelly and West River drives behind the Art Museum in Philadelphia when he was going to Wharton in 1997 and training for the Philadelphia Marathon.

During those runs, Tom and I would take turns trying to beat the crap out of each other for 10 miles starting at the Penn Towers, through parts of West Philly before circling the trail to the Falls Bridge and back the other side. More often than not, Tom would push through the first part while I hung on for dear life. But as soon as I got my legs underneath me, I’d push to the end.

I can honestly say that I only really tried to drop him once, but it took a 5:10 mile seven miles into the workout to do it.

Those workouts were some of the most fun I had running, and looking back on my nearly decade-old logs I see a lot of 61 and 62-minute runs written down. The crazy part was that Tom was never a runner, though he was an excellent athlete and a standout high school basketball and baseball player before turning into a college rower.

But based on how he pushed during those runs, maybe he should have been a cross-country runner or a miler on the track.

Post script
Added a brisk 10k in 41:39 in the evening to give me 21.5 miles for the day and a little more than 79 miles for the week. I felt strong enough to really hammer during the evening run, but I reigned it in because my right calf is still achy.

Luckily, I have an appointment with my chiropractor for some ART treatments tomorrow afternoon.

Please go away

A very interesting thing occurred in Philadelphia yesterday morning, and, no, it had nothing to do with the Eagles rolling over and playing dead during the second half of the overtime loss to the Giants. This interesting event supposedly occurred at the Philadelphia Distance Run – one of the world’s marquee half-marathons – and it presents as many questions in its curiosity.

According to eyewitnesses and chatter on the insidious running message boards, race directors of the Distance Run literally pulled runner Asmae Leghzaoui off of the course before she could run. Leghzaoui paid her registration just like everyone else (even though the elite runners are usually paid just to show up), and started the race, taking the lead through the first five miles of the race. But Leghzaoui, a 30-year-old Moroccan living in West Chester, Pa., according to a profile in The Washington Post, recently served a two-year suspension for using EPO.

According to the story in the Post
, Leghzaoui searched for and knowingly took EPO. Needless to say, the drug seems to have had a very big effect on how surpringly well she ran on the U.S. road racing circuit, picking up five victories in six races with four course records.

Yet even though Leghzaoui served her suspension, she (obviously) has not been welcomed back into the running world. When she has been invited to road races in the U.S., “duped” directors either rescind the invitation or offer mea culpas for allowing Leghzaoui in the race.

Leghzaoui, for her part, has offered apologies to anyone who will listen and has passed all drug tests after her suspension. So far it hasn’t gotten her anywhere. Even paying her own way into the race in Philly wasn’t good enough.

According to the story in the Inquirer, here’s what happened on Sunday:

Asmae Leghzaoui, a 30-year-old from Morocco, was far ahead of the other women – running with the second pack of the top males. According to race officials, she dropped out between miles 5 and 6.

But according to people who were there, Leghzaoui was pulled off the course and escorted out of the race. Certainly the race directors at Elite Racing — the agency that organized the Philly Distance Run — can do whatever they want. It’s their race. and if they don’t want drug cheats in it, good for them. Actually, it would be interesting to see what would happen in baseball if, say, someone like Ryan Franklin, a pitcher who served a suspension for failing a drug test, was not allowed to enter a game in Pittsburgh because of his past.

Then again, that wouldn’t be like baseball.

As for Leghazoui, she served her time, shouldn’t she be allowed to get on with her career? And would race directors be doing something like this with someone like Mary Decker Slaney, the one-time darling of the track who controversially tested positive for high testosterone in 1996.

Or what about Uta Pippig, the three-time winner of the Boston Marathon who tested positive for high testosterone in 1998? Would she be welcomed into the race after serving her suspension.

I bet she would.

Nevertheless, it is refreshing to see one sport taking a stand against drug cheats. Lets just hope that they remain consistent.

Meanwhile, Abdi Abdirahman finished second in 61:07 and missed the American record by 12 seconds. Wilson Kiprotich of Kenya won the race by two seconds in 61:05 in a duel over the final 5k. According to Abdirahman, a misstep at Eakins Oval cost him the race and maybe even the American record.

Double X still in the lead

Ryan Howard may have set the Phillies’ record for most homers in a season, last night, when his 49th bomb landed in the upper deck at RFK to pass Mike Schmidt’s 1980 mark. But Howard still has some work to do in order to set the Philadelphia record for home runs in a season.

Remember the A’s? You know, the team that was in the city until 1954 with the white elephant, Connie Mack, Home Run Baker (he hit 12 in 1913) and Shibe Park? The A’s made it to the World Series nine times during their stay in Philadelphia — winning five times — while the Phillies got there twice before the A’s packed up and took off for Kansas City.

The A’s also had Jimmie Foxx, the right-handed rival to Babe Ruth as the Sultan of Swat, during the late 1920s and ’30s. In 1932, Foxx — on his way to 534 career homers — put together a season for the ages by smacking 58 homers and driving in 169 runs with a .364 batting average. Foxx missed winning the Triple Crown by a few hits, finishing second to Boston’s Dale Alexander by .003 in the batting race.

In 1933, however, Foxx won the Triple Crown (and his second of three MVP Awards) with 48 homers, 163 RBIs, and a .356 batting average.

Foxx left Philadelphia in 1936 when owner/manager Mack sold him for $150,000 to assuage the team’s debts. But after some solid seasons with the Red Sox, including a 50-homer, MVP campaign in 1938, Foxx hit the wall following the 1941 season. He scuffled arund with Boston and the Cubs for a few years before finishing his career as a pitcher with the Phillies in 1945.

Later, Foxx hit some financial and personal hardship. A series of bad investments, coupled with a reported drinking problem, left the Hall of Famer struggling with poverty before he died in 1967 at the age of 59 from choking on a chicken bone.

Interestingly, Tom Hanks’ character, Jimmy Dugan, in the movie A League of Their Own, was based on Foxx, who managed a team in the women’s baseball league.

Aside from his Philadelphia home run records, many of Foxx’s slugging feats held up until the steroid era hit its peak. His 12 consecutive seasons with 30 or more home runs was a major league record until Barry Bonds passed it in 2004, while his 58 homers in ’32 stood as the single-season record for a right-handed batter for 56 years until Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998.

Foxx is still the youngest man ever to reach the 500-home run plateau, doing it just a month shy of his 33rd birthday.

When Foxx retired, his 534 home runs placed him second only to Ruth on the all-time list.

So Ryan Howard has the Phillies record all to himself — he still has a ways to go to catch Double X for the Philadelphia record.

Philly ranked 9th

According to The Sporting News, Philadelphia is the ninth-best sports city in the magazine’s newest ratings. That’s down from No. 2 (behind Boston) last year. Chicago jumped up to the top spot in the rankings, followed by Miami… yeah, Miami. The city where they fill up the ballpark for Marlins games (insert sarcasm font).

Here’s The Sporting News’ full list of the 99 top sports towns.

Just for fun, I’m going to rate my top sports towns under the following criteria:

* Participating in sports is more important than spectating. If the city’s claim to fame is fighting at the parking lot tailgate party before the game or firing a flare gun across the field during Monday Night Football, chances are that town isn’t going to rate as high as the one with a 10K every weekend or a top-notch marathon or cycling race.

* The city has to be one that I have visited in the past decade. That eliminates most of the midwest right there.

Here we go:

1.) Denver-Boulder
This is the sports Mecca. There are at least 60 Olympics athletes currently living in Boulder County, which is less than 30 miles north of downtown Denver. For those who like playing sports, Boulder is the best city in the U.S., but for those who would rather watch others, University of Colorado, Colorado State and the Air Force Academy are very popular for the college fans, while the pros are represented in every major league sport, including the NHL.There’s also a fairly large PGA event, NASCAR races, and the weekend warrior bit happening constantly. That’s the way it is when there are 300 sunny days a year.

Of course, the entire state of Colorado shuts down when the Broncos play, but that’s nothing new.

2.) Washington, D.C.
Remember, this is my list. And yes, sports fans in D.C. are a rather apathetic lot since the real spectator sport in this industry town is politics. However, the Redskins are about as popular as sports franchise can get. I remember when I was a kid growing up in the area that the waiting list for Redskins season tickets was 154 years. People who wanted to watch an NFL game had to drive all the way to Baltimore.

They don’t have to do that to watch baseball anymore now that the Nationals have brought baseball back to the District. The attendance for Nats games isn’t the greatest, but the enthusiasm for the team is pretty high.

Fans in the District seem to get excited about their little niche as opposed to the NHL and NBA. Lacrosse is popular and so is the University of Maryland and Georgetown hoops. Bigger still are the D.C. United in the MSL. That one franchise could be keeping the entire league afloat.

More importantly, the D.C. area has some of the bst golf courses in the country and some of the best urban and cycling trails anywhere. Between Rock Creek Park and the C&O Canal path, runners and riders can take off for days without retracing their steps. For those who prefer to be in the heart of the city, the Mall is a great place to log those miles. The last time the Phillies travelled to D.C., I put in a 13-miler that took me around all of the monuments on the Mall, through Capitol Hill and past the congressional office buildings, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Capitol, before heading to RFK Stadium to loop back to the other side of the Mall.

Man, was that ever fun.

D.C. also has the Marine Corps Marathon, which, aside from the start and the transportation to the race, is one of the best organized races out there. Plus, the D.C. running scene is top notch, too. I remember watching Bill Rodgers win the Cherry Blossom 10-miler in the late 1970s (maybe ’79).

Enough of D.C.

3.) Boston
See Washington, but with more sports enthusiasm for its teams. Plus, the Charles River running path is a lot of fun, and the Boston Marathon is the greatest sporting event in the world.

No, I’m not exaggerating.

4.) Chicago
Actually, Chicago should probably be ranked higher, but I haven’t been there in a long time, unless the airport counts.

5.) Philadelphia
Yeah, why not. There are a lot of really good places to run/bike in Philadelphia. During the fall of ’97, my friend Tom and me put in some kick-ass, 10-mile tempo runs on the Falls Bridge loop that still rate as some of the best and most fun workouts I’ve ever done.

Best sporting event in Philly? The Penn Relays. There’s nothing like a sold-out stadium to watch some of the best athletes in the world.

There it is. Notice any west-coast cities? Me either.