Here’s the pitch

Giorgio We all knew about Giorgio Chinaglia, though I’m not sure
if it was because he played for the New York Cosmos, or if he may have been the
best player in the world, or if it was because he was on a poster that could be
seen (and purchased) in any sporting goods store.

There was Doc, George Gervin sitting on blocks of ice,
Darrell “Dr. Dunkenstein” Griffith, and Giorgio.

Of course the Cosmos also had Pelé, the greatest player
ever, for a few seasons and attracted a diverse New York glitterati fandom,
like Mick Jagger, Stephen Speilberg and Henry Kissinger. It wasn’t just Pelé
they all came to see, either. Of course he was the main attraction since we
weren’t used to superstars going by just one name in those days — be they Brazilian
or not — but the Cosmos were very much like the Yankees.

But Chinaglia was a scoring machine and that’s why he was
on a poster. In 213 career games with the Cosmos, Giorgio scored 193 goals. Add
in the playoffs and he tallied 242 goals in 254 games.

That’s ridiculous.

So when the Cosmos came to The District to play our
Washington Diplomats in a key regular-season NASL matchup in 1980 at RFK
Stadium, we had to be there. Calendars were marked, parents were begged, and
friends were bragged to about going to the game to see the Cosmos play the
Dips.

Now we all know what it’s like when the Yankees or Red Sox
show up in another city (or the Phillies go to DC to play the Nats). There’s a
tendency for the bandwagon-jumpers and the displaced natives to show up and
make a lot of noise in the foreign ballpark. That was always the way for the
Yankees since they have always been equally despised as much as beloved.

Needless to say it was a bit different for the burgeoning
Cosmos of the NASL. First of all, the league eventually went out of business
three seasons later. The reasons for that are myriad, of course, but mostly come
down to the fact that it was soccer and the United States. It also was a league
filled with guys with funny names and even funnier haircuts and mustaches. That
had to count against it, too.

However, the Cosmos were so loaded with talent that no
one hated them as much as they were impressed. It wasn’t quite the
Globetrotters vs. the Generals when the Cosmos played other teams, but it was
close.

Aside from being really good, the Cosmos were the only
other team from which we could name the players. Oh sure, we knew all the
Diplomats and followed the games very closely. Plus, the Dips did an excellent
job of promoting the team to us kids. Just by going to a game we were rewarded
with high quality balls and jerseys that we used until they wore out. In fact,
the other night in The District I was talking to a guy my age who remembers kicking
around a ball while wearing the shirt he got at a Dips game[1].

Yes, we loved the Dips and the NASL brand of soccer. But
damn if we weren’t impressed by the Cosmos.

 Needless to say, we couldn’t take our eyes off of Giorgio
when he dashed across the turf at RFK that sunny Sunday afternoon in 1980. In
fact, he scored that day and the Cosmos won the game. But that wasn’t before an
Englishman named Alan Green stole the show.

Green scored two goals for the Dips during the second
half to tie the game and whip the old football stadium into a frenzy. Better
yet, Green made a ton of fans that day and made a lot of us think that he was as
tenacious as Giorgio Chinaglia. That may not have been the case, but thanks to
Green we got to stay at RFK for overtime and then a game-deciding shootout,
where the Cosmos finally prevailed.

Still, what a perfect day. Kids never want the game to
end no matter what, and the fact that the Dips and Cosmos put on a big show
that day made it even better. The truth is I went to a bunch of Dips games that
year and watched even more on TV (including one from the Vet against the
Philadelphia Fury), but the one I remember most vividly was that game where
Alan Green and Giorgio Chinaglia got busy.

Maybe the reason why I remember it is because it was the
very last pro soccer game I had ever attended… until today. This little story
is being written from Lincoln Financial Field where the latest team from
Washington (and latest version of the Cosmos?), D.C. United, will play in the
home debut for the Philadelphia United of the MLS. The sporting landscape has
changed incredibly since 1979 and the NASL was trying to make it with an aging Pelé
as the drawing card. Soccer in the U.S. can survive as long as it remains in
its niche. Actually, it very well might get better ratings nationally than the
NHL.

But yes, it has to know its place.

As for Giorgio Chinaglia, last we heard he had gained his
U.S. citizenship and was wanted in Italy on extortion and laundering charges
linked to shares of the Lazio soccer team.

Alan Green also became a U.S. citizen and played for the
national team for a game in 1984, and Pelé is still Pelé.

Soccer, of course, is doing quite well, too. The sport in
this country is even getting its own stadiums, too, and those things are much
more difficult to tear down than an entire league .


[1] Impressively, I decorated my Diplomats
jersey with an authentic patch from the English football club, Arsenal. It was
a gift from friends who lived in England and I still wish I had the patch and
the shirt… only in my size now.

Of coincidences and bowl games

Al_golden WASHINGTON—As a kid growing up on those rough and tumble streets here in The District, we dreamed about one day lining it up at RFK Stadium for some big university to play in the storied Eagle Bank Bowl. Then again, that dream probably wasn’t relegated to the kids from DC.

Name one kid who didn’t want to play in the Eagle Bank Bowl?

OK, no one likes a smart ass. That’s especially true when it comes to some hard-working kids doing something damn-near unprecedented. Besides, the Eagle Bank Bowl is only two years old and unless you’re talking about the Redskins, there really isn’t much history to RFK. Sure, John Riggins played here and so and throughout these pages on this little site, I have opined about Washington’s RFK Stadium and the time I spent there in my youth. Though we could never go to see the Redskins play in the ol’ ballpark (the waiting list for tickets was something like 155 years), I can recall in vivid detail of watching the Grateful Dead and the NASL’s Washington Diplomats.

And, of course, there were three years worth of Phillies games that I saw up close.

Oh yes, RFK Stadium and I go way back.

But it’s kind of odd to see a college bowl game in the old joint, particularly one involving Temple University, and I was pretty sure that I’d never step foot inside the place ever again. Sometimes a life writing sentences about sports takes you on some crazy trips.

So speaking of weird trips and bowl game dreams, it’s worth noting that Temple’s coach Al Golden was just 10 years old the last time Temple was in a bowl game. Golden grew up in Red Bank, N.J. so if he was any type of a sports fan, particularly a college sports fan, he probably knew all about Temple University.

The chances he had even heard of the Garden State Bowl of 1979 played between Temple and California is likely slim. I was one of those sports junkies (and not all that much younger than Golden), and I never knew what the Garden State Bowl was until I read the final result in some sports encyclopedia my mom bought me in a grocery store or something like that.

Hey, there was barely cable TV back then—forget about Wikipedia. We had to go to places like Peoples’ drug store or a grocery chain in order to get our sports reference guides.

Perhaps more than making fun of attending the Eagle Bank Bowl at RFK Stadium in disinterested Washington, D.C. was all the chatter about the parallels and odd coincidences for the Temple team. The last (and only) time a Temple team won 10 games was when they beat California in the Garden State Bowl to finish the 1979 season, 10-2.

Golden’s Owls can finish the 2009 season 10-3 if they beat UCLA.

Yes, it takes going to a Bowl game for Temple to get double-digits in wins for a season—just like it takes the second year of a bowl game for Temple to get an invitation to a post-season game. Temple appeared in the second Garden State Bowl just as they are in the second ever Eagle Bank Bowl.

That fact doesn’t bode well for the organizers (or sponsors) of the Eagle Bank Bowl since after Temple showed up there were only two more Garden State Bowls before it vanished.

Yes, Temple football is the proverbial “mush.”

Of course there is not a heavy sample size from which to draw upon, either. Temple went to the very first Sugar Bowl in 1935 against Tulane as the No. 3 ranked team in the country and got upset. Needless to say it’s pretty much been downhill from that point.

It’s not unreasonable to pinpont the 1935 Sugar Bowl as the high-water point for the Temple football program. After all, since then the program has just 18 winning seasons in 74 years.

Worse, since that 1979 Garden State Bowl, Temple has had exactly two winning seasons. One of them was the 0-11 season that was actually a decent year until it was learned that star running back Paul Palmer had an agent, but that isn’t explained on the Wikipedia entry or in the grocery store reference guide. There it’s just an 0-11 mixed in with a bunch of one-win seasons.

In fact, since the 1979 bowl game, Temple has had nine zero or one-win seasons. Even Al Golden has one of them on his ledger. But at this stage of the program, those typical seasons could disappear for a little while. Better yet, if Temple shows up at the Eagle Bank Bowl at RFK in 2010, they might be a little ticked off.

A return to the Sugar Bowl on the 75th year anniversary of the first game would be more like it.

Someone cue Tom Petty

down go the MetsWASHINGTON – the first thing I thought of as I pushed myself out of bed this morning was, “OK, where do I get coffee?”

The second thought was, “Look, there’s the Starbucks. Could a place that sells Gatorade be nearby?”

After that I wondered if Courier Post columnist Kevin Roberts had made it back to Philadelphia OK. Kevin, you see, came to The District last night to write all about the Phillies’ comeback victory over the Nationals, which pushed them to 1½ games of the lead in the NL East. After going down to the clubhouse to discuss matters with the winning team and then back to the press box to compose his story, Kevin was scheduled to take the 3 a.m. train from Union Station back to Philadelphia. And since he wrapped things up a little after midnight, a few of us thought we’d take Kev into town to help him wile away the time until his train arrived.

Who would have guessed there was no all-night bingo parlor in all of Washington, D.C.?

Nevertheless, Kevin made it to Union Station with time to spare.

But the really big question that was baffling me the most this morning is one that supporters of the Philadelphia Phillies are not asking themselves – at least they aren’t asking themselves with any great concern (nor am I).

The question:

What in the Sam Hill is wrong with the New York Mets?

Carlos RuizIn the midst of a freefall of monumental proportions, the Mets, as Phillies’ fans are well aware, have lost six of their last seven and seven of their last nine. During that span, the Mets’ lead over the Phillies in the East has shrunk from 6½ games to 1½ heading into Friday’s games.

Mets’ skipper Willie Randolph delivered one of the understatements of the season when talking about the latest loss with reporters last night.

“We’re definitely making it tough on ourselves, huh?”

Indeed. But not without some help. Last night’s game – as viewed from the press box at RFK on MLB.com’s Gamecast – seemed as surreal as it was dramatic. The Mets rallied to take a three-run the lead in the ninth when Marlon Anderson hit a bases-loaded triple with two outs, only to give those runs back in the bottom of the ninth when reliever Jorge Sosa could not close it out.

What? No Billy Wagner? Nope, according to reports ol’ Billy had back spasms and couldn’t take the ball.

Could Wagner finally be helping the Phillies get to the playoffs?

Anyway, it looks as if the Mets are getting a little tight and even the front-office types are feeling it. According to a story in Sports Illustrated, owner Jeff Wilpon is casting the blame for the Mets’ recent play on… well, everyone.

“I’m disappointed with the way the team is performing overall, and that’s everyone, top to bottom,” Wilpon told Sports Illustrated. “I’m disappointed in Omar (Minaya), Willie, the players … that’s everyone. We shouldn’t be in this position. But we are. We’ve got to fight our way out and pull this out.”

But no one has been able to explain the basic, simple question:

What in the Sam Hill is wrong with the New York Mets?

To figure it out, I put in a call to Mets’ pre- and post-game host on SNY, Matt Yallof. When Matt and I get to the bottom of this issue, I will report back right here.

The ‘pen is mighty?
Posh Spice While the Mets are preparing to roll over and expose their pink, rounded belly for the Phillies to claw apart, it’s interesting to note that the Phils are making their sprint for the finish line thanks largely to the bullpen.

Yes, the Posh Spice-thin bullpen.

To follow up Tuesday’s 14-inning victory in which the relievers tossed 11 frames one-run ball, the ‘pen went seven scoreless innings last night against the Nats. Of course the memory of Monday night’s near debacle where the relievers almost coughed up an 11-run lead, but since then they have been pretty good. In the last three games the bullpen has allowed just two runs in 21 2/3 innings.

Nevertheless, 21 2/3 innings is a lot of work in just three games… especially at this point of the season.

Closing up shop
In the past on these pages, I have opined about Washington’s RFK Stadium and the time I spent there in my youth. Though we could never go to see the Redskins play in the ol’ ballpark (the waiting list for tickets was something like 155 years), I can recall in vivid detail of watching the Grateful Dead and the NASL’s Washington Diplomats.

But not to bore any with more rhapsodizing over the last weekend of major league sports at RFK, I’ll turn that chore over to The Washington Post’s Tom Boswell, who writes about the lovable dump.

And it is a dump.

Finally…
Chris and Julie Stover of Lancaster, Pa. finally added a girl to the Stover/Gerfin/Finger brood. The little lady arrived this morning and has yet to receive a name, but her uncle (me!) and the rest of the clan are giddy about her birth and hope that she can show her big brothers and boy cousins who the boss is.

And here we thought Chris couldn’t make a girl. Good work, big guy!

Choking in the Big Apple

So here’s the question: Are the Mets choking or are the Phillies about to take the NL East away from them?

How about both?

What about the Padres? Can they keep up their winning ways in order to fend off the Phillies in the wild-card race?

Will the Phillies ever lose again?

The short answer…

Who knows.

We’ll attempt to answer some of those questions, but first let’s figure out what in the hello is going on with the Philadelphia baseball team. Last night’s 7-4 victory in 14 innings[1] over the nearly-X’d out St. Louis Cardinals pushed the Phillies to 1½ games behind the Mets in the East and kept them 1½ games behind the Padres in the wild-card race. What makes this crazy is that the Phillies have picked up five games in five days against the free-falling Mets, who, as they begin to feel their drawers bunch up, called a team meeting prior to going out and getting whacked by the Nats at RFK last night.

Needless to say, that meeting could not have been fun. Anyone who has seen the visitors’ clubhouse at RFK can report that it is a very unpleasant room. First of all, the stench of laundry, sweat and shower mold permeates through the dank and cramped hallways. Then there is the feeling that the walls are going to close in on you kind of like that trash compactor scene in Star Wars. I swear I’ve seen a big, futuristic-looking snake slither out of the shower area and into the make-shift kitchenette.

The worst part about that clubhouse at RFK, of course, is how cramped it is. A player can barely get changed into his uniform without knocking over the buffet perched precariously on a small ledge near the big-screen TV and fake-leather couch. Being in that room is almost as bad as sitting in coach of a trans-continental flight with the sudden, screaming urge to take a leak. Only you can’t get up because the two clowns sitting next to you on the left are fast asleep. And because they have banned water bottles on flights, you are SOL in trying to find relief that way.

So imagine having a team meeting in such a place. How bad must it make a team feel that while in the throes of a crippling losing streak, they have to sit in such a place and talk about how awful things are going? It’s like psychoanalysis with Ted Nugent. No wonder the Nationals whipped them again to extend the Mets’ freefall.

Meanwhile, in the posh new space in St. Louis at ballpark that was opened just last year, the Phillies reportedly spent the time before the 14-inning victory over the Cardinals watching Wedding Crashers.

There is no truth that after the game, Aaron Rowand proclaimed: “Cheesesteaks and baseball… THAT’S WHAT PHILADELPHIA DOES!

But such a thing wouldn’t be extraordinary.

Anyway, according to the math wizards at Sports Club Stats, the Phillies have a 42.9 percent chance to make the playoffs this season. If I had to guess (and my guessed change with the wind) it will take 90 wins for the Phillies to get into the playoffs.

With seven of the final 11 games against the Nationals and six of that 11 at the cozy hometown bandbox, 90 could be very doable.

Gone and probably forgotten
The Phillies will play the Nationals in the final baseball games at RFK Stadium this weekend, which is a pretty good thing. Clearly, as mentioned above, the old ballpark on the banks of the muddy Anacostia River has seen better days.

Next season the Nationals will play in a new ballpark near the DC Naval Yard along the banks of the Potomac River, which, friends report, will offer stunning views of the city’s skyline and will be a major upgrade from RFK.

As if a shoebox isn’t an upgrade.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll wax on about RFK this weekend because that’s kind of what I do. Apparently the plan is to demolish the old stadium as soon as the DC United builds its new arena.


[1] this was a game in which the Phillies finally decided to hit the ball at 1 a.m. … come on guys, help us out. We have to stay up late and watch these games. How about an early big lead so that we can… wait, you guys already did that. OK. Never mind. Just do whatever it is you do and I’ll get back to my late-night channel flipping.

Is he really that slow?

For the first time since the Expos moved from Washington to become the Nationals I will miss all the games of a Phillies series at RFK. Oh, I’ve missed specific games before, but until now I’ve been to at least one game of every series the Phillies have played in The District.

I was there when Chase Utley hit the ball off the foul pole and had it called foul. I was there when the game started close to midnight because MLB had no contingency plan for weather events. I was there the final weekend in 2005 when the Phillies swept the Nats only to miss out on the playoffs by one game on the last day of the season. I was there in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the feeling of anger was palpable in the city.

And of course I was there when Ken Mandel, dressed as Thomas Jefferson, took his failed dash down the first-base side of the field. Actually, The Mandel Run could go down as the most memorable moment in my long history of watching baseball games.

Yes, it was epic.

The thought is that Mandel should put that big, oversized Jefferson head back on, station himself back at the top of the ramp beyond the right-field fence, and keep running until he completes the course. If he falls again he should get back up start all over.

In the meantime Ken will probably be watching Julie Moss in the 1982 Ironman Triathlon for motivation because every criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. Ken will run, dammit! He has to.

Anyway, I’m sticking close to the house for the foreseeable future because my wife – God bless her – could go into labor at any moment. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if she is in labor right now as I type this… just checked and we’re OK.

In other words, when the word comes I’m gone. In the meantime, get cozy with Lauber and The Zo Zone! It’s spelled with an exclamation point, right? Isn’t that what the Inquirer does?

Anyway, because of her state, my wife – God bless her – has been watching baseball on the teevee lately. An inquisitive sort, my wife – God bless her – keeps a running dialogue with whomever is around when she’s parked in front of the tube. If she’s alone she has her laptop nearby to give the rundown via instant messenger to keep the conversation going, and if my son or I am in the room, the banter, inevitably, turns to an inquisition.

This happens with movies, too, which usually leads to me responding with, “You’d know what’s going on if you stopped talking and paid attention,” a little too loudly.

Seriously, how complicated was Syriana? Really? Then again, I have watched that one at least four times so I guess I have figured it out by now.

Anyway, last Sunday night the old girl was lounging on the couch and taking in the Phillies-Braves matchup when the incessant chatter on Pat Burrell started up. Burrell, it seems, is an interesting and enigmatic character to casual fans, hardcore fans as well as the scribes the regularly write about the ballclub. Certainly there are other adjectives that could be used to describe Burrell, but enigmatic seems to cover them all like the giant parachute that we used to like to play with in gym class back when we were kids.

So as we were discussing the enigma that is Pat Burrell and his incumbency as the so-called “midnight mayor of Philadelphia,” Jayson Werth lined a two-out, bases-loaded single to right field. Running on the pitch because Werth faced a full count and there were two outs, Burrell got a good steam of momentum off second base as the pitch was delivered and wasn’t just going to stop running when he got to third base. The problem, though, was that the ball his struck quite hard and right fielder Jeff Francoeur, known for his very strong arm, fielded the ball cleanly and was in perfect position to make a solid throw to the plate.

As a result Francoeur’s throw to the plate beat Burrell by about five yards. However, despite this the result of the play was still in doubt. Burrell is a big dude and had a full head of steam gathered by the time he reached the plate. Catcher Brian McCann could drop the ball if jarred even though he caught it, turned and was waiting as Burrell approached.

But Burrell avoided the contact with the catcher. Instead of taking the force of his 225-plus pounds into the plate, he launched into a floaty-kind of slide about three yards away from the plate as if he was a running back diving over the top on a goal-line stand.

Needless to say he had no chance.

But that was just the beginning. The commentary shifted to such intense questioning that I now know what it’s like to be sitting at a small wooden table on a hard-back chair with a couple of investigators playing good-cop/bad-cop. The only thing missing – besides the table, chair and detectives – was the naked light bulb beating on my skin and making my face sweat like a fountain. By the end of it I was the innocent man ready to sign the confession just so the questions would stop like Daniel Day-Lewis as the would-be IRA flunky in In The Name of the Father.

“He was running before the pitcher threw the pitch and he was still out?” she asked, incredulously.

“Yes.”

“How can that be? Is he slow?”

“Yes”

“How can he be that slow?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is he the slowest guy on the team?”

“He’s up there.”

“You mean there are guys slower than him?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“Johnny Estrada is really slow. Wes Helms is slow, too.”

“But are they slower than Burrell? He’s really slow.”

“I don’t know.”

“How can he be that slow? Is he hurt?”

“He has had some foot trouble. Last year he showed me the orthotic he wears in his spikes and it looked like a boot. It had ties and clamps on it and everything.”

“You mean it wasn’t like the normal type of orthotic that runners wear?”

“No.”

“It’s not like that little orthotic that you got when your Achilles was hurting and that guy stole when you were at that race?”

“No.”

“How can he be that slow? Don’t they know he is slow?”

“Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear that he’s really slow.”

“But that slow… come on.”

“What do you want me to say? He’s slow.”

“Does the guy in the outfield have a good arm?”

“Yes, he has a really good arm.”

“How good?”

“Really good… one of the best.”

“So why did they send him home if they know he’s slow and the guy has a good arm?”

“That’s a good question.”

“And what was with that slide? That was pretty wimpy.”

“Yeah, I agree.”

Then came the really good question.

“Why didn’t he knock over the catcher? They’re allowed to do that, right?”

“That’s a really good question. I was wondering the same thing.”

“They are allowed to do that, right?”

“It used to happen all the time.”

“When?”

“When there was a play at the plate.”

“No, I mean when did it happen all the time?”

“I’m not sure. Some players would have run over the catcher.”

“Like who?”

“Chase Utley.”

“Yeah, I can see that. So why didn’t Burrell run over the catcher?”

“Good question.”

“Is he a wimp?

Pause

***
POST SCRIPT: My wife pointed out that she was also not-so fleet afoot. In fact, she pointed out, she was often the slowest player on her sporting teams.

“I once hit a ball to deep center and was thrown out at first base,” she admitted.

Sadly, she’s not making that up.

***
The Nationals are one of those teams that always seems to give the Phillies fits no matter where they are in the standings. But noting where the Phillies are in the standings and the fact that the Nats have won nine of their last 13 games, it should be an interesting three games at good ol’ RFK this week.

Perhaps more questions about the Phillies will be answered… or asked.

Game 5 2nd inning

According to a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch today, the BBWAA is disappointed with the quality of the press box at the brand-new Busch Stadium. All I can say is it’s a good thing the Washington Nationals didn’t make it to the playoffs.

Also, I didn’t hear too many complaints from the BBWAA about Shea Stadium, which is the worst press box I have ever been in, excluding the one at Conestoga Valley High School.

The biggest complaint about the new Busch is that unless one is sitting in the first row of the press box, certain portions of the outfield and the scoreboard cannot be seen.

To that I say that based on my seat in Citizens Bank Park, I never knew there was a scoreboard.

Still, I guess I can understand the problem. The BBWAA wants proper working conditions, which is fine. But I also think the BBWAA is attempting to keep some semblance of a firm grip on the coverage of the game while readers and writers slip away to the growing influence of the Internet and blogs.

Sorry guys, you are nearly irrelevant.

Aside from this cutting edge blog (he said with tongue firmly planted in his cheek), the NY Times – the voice of the establishment – has a live blog going, too. I’m sure the dude at Deadspin is busy tap, tap, tapping away on his keyboard in front of the TV, too.

As someone straddling both sides of the fence between the new media and the establishment, I honestly can say I much more excited about the new stuff. Sportswriting and journalism must adapt.

Or die.

But as a member of the corporate media, all I really want is access. I want to be able to see someone’s face when they answer a tough question and hear the tone of their voice. I want to be able to have the chance to shoot the breeze with a player and get inside what they do to prepare, recover and the process in which makes them a professional athlete practicing their craft.

At Citizens Bank Park, all I can do is watch the game on TV like everyone else. The view from the press box stinks, but the bathrooms are nearby and it doesn’t take too long to get to the clubhouses or field.

Anyway, the Cardinals took the lead in the bottom of the second on a throwing error by Brandon Inge. David Eckstein (he’s small and scrappy) grounded a broken-bat grounder to third with two outs and Yadier Molina at third. Inge fielded the ball close to the line, but in his haste to throw out Eckstein, chucked the ball past Sean Casey at first and into right field.

It’s 1-0 Cardinals. They need 21 more outs to become World Champions.

Down go the Phillies

The Phillies have the odds stacked against them and, no, that has nothing to do with the fact that they are two games behind the Dodgers in the wild-card race with three games left in the season. Obviously, that doesn’t help, but it appears as if the hill is too steep to climb.

For starters, the team was still waiting in buses to go to the airport when I walked out of RFK at a shade past 3 a.m. this morning. Though they went through security clearance at the ballpark and the buses will drive right on to the tarmac so that the players can hop get on their chartered flight to Florida, a best-case scenario has the team getting into the air at 4 a.m. at the very earliest.

And that depends upon if they went to National, BWI or Dulles.

There’s more, too. It was 2:30 a.m. when I walked into the tight and cramped visitor’s clubhouse at RFK where the first person I saw was Jamie Moyer, tonight’s starting pitcher, sitting in his locker waiting to head to the airport. Moyer had the option of flying ahead so that he could be properly rested for tonight’s important game, but the veteran thought it would be better to wait the night out with his teammates.

Make no mistake about it — Moyer was going to wait. According to sources and Charlie Manuel, the Phillies were going to play the game against the Nationals no matter what. It would not have mattered if the rain finally stopped at 2:07 a.m. (which is when the game ultimately ended); the game was going to be played before the Phillies left for Miami. That, they say, was the edict from MLB in New York. Apparently, they did not leave themselves any wiggle room in next week’s playoff schedule, which seems to be their M.O.

No wiggle room on performance-enhancing drugs and no wiggle room on the TV schedule. Way to go, MLB!

Nevertheless, the Phillies clubhouse was as quiet as a crowded room could be. Forget that it was 2:30 a.m. and there was another ballgame looming after they arrived in Florida as the sun was rising. The Phillies, it seems, see the graffiti on the wall.

“I’d say [the team’s mood] is down, yeah,” Manuel said at 2:24 a.m., standing against some dungeon-like corridor wall in the bowels of RFK. “But when you don’t hit and don’t play real well, I don’t know what you can do about it. That’s the way baseball is sometimes. But it’s hard to live with it.”

Sometimes it’s hard to live without, too. That seems like the way it will be for another October in Philadelphia.

Fair, not foul

From our vantage point in the press box at RFK Stadium, we can’t see the right-field corner where Chase Utley’s “foul” ball apparently landed. Better yet, from the press box at RFK, we can’t see the outfield.

At all.

Last night I had a view of most of the infield, but not of the second baseman because there was a big, white pillar blocking my view. That wasn’t as bad as the view Phil Sheridan of the Inquirer had sitting directly to my right. If he wanted to see the pitcher, he had to lean hard to the left.

Then again, Phil used to come to RFK to cover Eagles-Redskins games back in the old days. Based on what I’ve seen of the old ballpark, I imagine those games made for cozy conditions with the press corps.

From the Phillies first-base dugout, the view is equally as bad though they can see most of the outfield. However, the one spot they can’t see is the right-field corner – exactly where Utley’s home run landed.

So when Manuel says he couldn’t see where the ball went and couldn’t confront the umpires over the poor call, he isn’t exaggerating. There is no way he could see anything going on in the right-field corner. From Manuel’s spot in the dugout, right field is nothing but a rumor.

The point is, a lot of people in the press had no idea Utley’s shot had struck the foul pole because we couldn’t see it. Meanwhile, we didn’t get the Nationals TV feed in the press box. Instead, we could only see the in-house scoreboard feed, which wasn’t about to show a replay contradicting the call on the field.

So when I got down to the clubhouse after the game, I was a little taken aback by Charlie Manuel’s anger. Obviously, he was able to see something we (or I had not) and that drastically changed things. It wasn’t until I got home and watched the highlights shows that I saw that first-base umpire Rob Drake blew it.

Nevertheless, while Manuel expressed his displeasure at the bad call – as well as his team’s inability to get a hit with runners in scoring position – all I keep thinking to myself was, “It’s always something with this team… this is the way it’s going to end for them, isn’t it?”

Maybe.

But maybe not. The one thing that stood out amidst the hand wringing by the Phillies’ officials was Utley’s demeanor and attitude. He was not going to break character or allow himself to lose his focus on the task at hand. Sure, he recited all of the usual clichés, but the thing with Utley is that he believes what he says.

“When you look at the replay in regular [speed], it’s hard to tell,” Utley explained. “When you slow it down, it’s easy to tell. Everybody makes mistakes. We have to put this behind us and come out tomorrow ready to go.”

He will put this episode behind him and come back the next day and try to win.

Back to D.C.

A lot has changed with the Nationals since the last time we were in D.C. For starters, the ball club has an owner – that was evident as soon as one walked through the doors. For starters, the old stadium has been cleaned up a bit and the concessions have taken a major and noticeable upgrade. More importantly, those changes have taken affect in the press dining area as well.

Gone is the slipshod and minimalist manner in which MLB ran the Nats. Now we have a pasta station to go along with the regular fare – including staples like veggie burgers for non-meat eaters like me. On Tuesday night I had a delightful penne with grilled broccoli, green peppers and onions with a marinara with a side of green beans and carrots. Good stuff and definitely worth the $10.

Obviously, it was much better than what the Phillies offer at their ballpark.

Maybe because I spend so much time in the antiseptic and characterless Citizens Bank Park, I have developed a soft spot for the old-timey ballparks in Washington, New York, and Boston. Actually, even Baltimore can be considered older at this point especially since it set the standard and has been copied to death since it opened in 1992.

Now there’s nothing wrong with the ballpark in Philadelphia, and it’s definitely nicer than the Vet. Anything would have been better than the Vet. But the park hasn’t developed a personality yet… actually, watching a game at Citizens Bank Park feels like sitting in an airport terminal.

I’m sure I’d have a different opinion of the ballpark if I were a fan sitting in the stands, but I have never had the pleasure of sitting back and watching a game there yet. Some day, perhaps, but most people don’t want to spend a day off going to the office to be a spectator.

Anyway, regular readers of this little site know what I think about the city of Washington, D.C. and of all the time I spent in the city – including time growing up there in the 1970s – nothing compares to the atmosphere I felt in the city when we were there exactly one year ago.

I don’t think I have to explain why.

Walking around on the streets of the Downtown and Foggy Bottom neighborhoods one could feel an entire city unified in its anger. Everyone was on the same page and felt the same way about what was going on along the Gulf of Mexico. Better yet, the outside world even penetrated the insular world of baseball and I even got a knowing and approving nod from one player when I told him I took my iPod on my run that morning and played Kanye West as I dashed down the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue.

On another note, here’s a touristy tip for those going to D.C.: the monuments are open 24-hours a day and there is nothing more chilling than walking along the Vietnam Memorial and up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at night. Looking out over the city with Abe Lincoln and imaging Martin Luther King Jr. standing in that spot during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963 is mind scrambling.

And I’m not really a sentimental person.

The view from RFK

Needless to say, Washington is a great city and we all enjoy travelling down here for a set of games. And obviously, those trips will be much better as soon as the new ballpark opens in 2008.

So how bad is RFK? Well, check out my view from the press box:

Sure, sportswriters are prone to whine — a lot. But look at those views… talk about tough working conditions.

First in war, first in peace, last in the National League…

Based on a very informal poll of the scribes covering the ball club, Washington, D.C. is quickly becoming the most popular stop on the circuit. For anyone who has spent any time in our nation’s capital, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – there is tons of stuff to do in the District away from the museums and touristy-type places.

But throw all of that stuff into the mix and it’s quite a place.

I’m hardly a sentimental person (OK, others will disagree with that, but whatever), but it’s hard not to get a tingle from standing on the top steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looking out upon The Mall and wondering what Martin Luther King Jr. felt when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1964.

Or a walk through the Vietnam Memorial at night is downright chilling. Certainly I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic or saccharine sweet type of way. You really have to see it to feel it.

Oddly, the first name I focused on after scanning the list that seemed to stretch through the landscape all of the way to the Washington Monument was of a man named Sanford I. Finger. For years I was always interested in Sanford Finger’s story – who he was and what he liked to do. What was he interested in and what did he look like? And how did he end up in Vietnam where he met his untimely death in 1971.

Finally, after all of the years spent wondering and thinking about some guy who died before I was born who just so happens to share the same last name as me, I stumbled across this on the Internet.

Anyway, last night after the Phillies’ loss to the Nationals, I took some time to unwind by taking a midnight stroll past the White House, down to Constitution Ave. and back up 15th St. for a quick pit stop at The Old Ebbitt Grill.

This morning I loaded up the iPod with DC-type songs (late ‘70s and Dischord Records stuff) before heading out on a run to see if our old wiffle ball field was still entact (a big tree was planted where the pitchers mound was, but the paint we used to mark the home run fence was still visible on the bricks).

From there I circled The Mall on the way out to RFK Stadium and back for a spirit-reviving 13-miler.

I’m sure my mom is going to love hearing about the trip through our neighborhood and stomping grounds.

Sadly, though, RFK has seen better days. The clubhouse is a dungeon, and the dugout has a Veterans Stadium-type odor. Worse, the view from the press box is severely obstructed and any time a ball is hit out of the infield we have to watch the result on TV.

More than a few writers had trouble with the wireless Internet connection, which made it difficult to send their stories in to the office.

Still, it’s always a blast to make it back to D.C. and until something sways my point of view, I’ll say RFK is so bad that it’s charming.

No one can call Shea charming.