World Series: When Reggie met Chase

110409-reggie_chaseNEW YORK—When people think of Reggie Jackson’s baseball career, inevitably the three-homer performance in Game 6 of the 1977 is the first moment that comes to mind. Three pitches have not just defined a man’s professional career, but also his life.

Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth are the only players to hit three home runs in a World Series game, and Jackson was the only player to hit five homers in a single World Series.

Until now.

Chase Utley, playing for the team Jackson followed as a kid while growing up in Wyncote, Montgomery County, tied the all-time record for homers in a series when he belted a pair in Game 5 at Citizens Bank Park. For Utley, it was the second multi-homer game of the series, which also ties a record set by Willie Mays Aikens who had a pair of two-homer games in the 1980 series against the Phillies.

But aside from the home runs and the clutch performances in the World Series, there really isn’t much that Jackson and Utley have in common. Oh sure, both players are known for their streakiness and strikeouts. After all, not only has Utley homered in five straight regular-season games during his career, but he also struck out five straight times in the 2007 NLDS, including four times in one game on 13 pitches.

Jackson, of course, struck out more times than any player in the history of the game. The thing about that is Jackson’s strikeouts were just as epic as his home runs. Nope, Jackson did not get cheated.

“I was known for postseason, not what I did in the regular season and I had great years,” Jackson said. “But you play to win. Our club, our organization is just hell-bent, from our ownership to our general manager. They’ve built it to win here. The conversations that we have are about winning a championship.”

Utley hasn’t been cheated either. Though Jackson pointed out that the ballparks in Philadelphia and New York are “small,” Utley hasn’t hit any squeakers. The homers Utley hit in Game 5 were gone by the time he made contact. In fact, Utley uncharacteristically pulled a bit a Reggie on his first-inning homer on Monday night when he flipped his bat aside and watched it sail toward the right-field fence ever-so briefly.

Jackson, of course, was famous for posturing on his homers. His style was the antithesis of Utley’s but as far as that goes, Jackson is a huge fan of the Phillies’ second baseman. In fact, Jackson greeted Utley when the Phillies came out on the field for batting practice before Game 6 on Wednesday to congratulate him on tying the record.

As far as the comparison between the two World Series home run kings go, that’s about all they have in common. Jackson demanded attention on and off the field. Utley gets the attention because of what he does on the field. He’s not interesting in having it any other way.

“We’re different type of players,” Jackson said. “But he hit 30 home runs, [and] that’s a lot of home runs. I don’t want to compare he and I. He’s a great hitter. But it’s not about style—it’s about winning. That’s what is important.”

Said manager Charlie Manuel about Utley: “Actually he don’t like for you to say a whole lot of things about him. But he’s one of the most prepared, one of the most dedicated, he has the most desire and passion to play the game that I’ve ever been around.”

After the brief conversation with Utley, Jackson walked away even more impressed, especially when Mr. October was told that the record only matters if the Phillies win the World Series.

Otherwise, who cares?

reggie_1977“He’s old school,” Jackson said about Utley. “When you talk to Chase Utley and hear what he focuses on, he really doesn’t care to talk about it much. They’re down 3-2 and that’s where he’s at, and I admire that. I admire that professionalism.”

The notion that Utley could become the first World Series MVP to come from a losing team since Bobby Richardson got the award when the Yankees lost to the Pirates in seven games, has been quite popular. Certainly Utley has to be a candidate on the strength of belting five homers in the first five games, but Jackson got the sense that the All-Star second baseman wouldn’t want the award if the Phillies did not win the World Series.

“You have to win the World Series,” Jackson said. “I don’t want the MVP award if I don’t win. I don’t care—I’d want to win [the award], but you play to win. What was it that Herman Edwards said, ‘You play to win the game.’

“It’s all really about winning. You’d rather hit three home runs and win the World Series then hit seven and not. You have to win, the rest of it doesn’t matter much.”

Utley is trying to make it all matter. Plus, he could have two more games to break Reggie’s record… if he does it, will Utley get a candy bar named after him, too?

Game 2: Utley integral

Utley_sbA few notes and observations before Game 2…

I had hoped to write a little ditty about Chase Utley last night, but a couple of things happened. One, we were informed by the Phillies that the All-Star second baseman would be available on the podium at 11 a.m. on Thursday.

Yeah, Chase Utley on the podium. Imagine that.

Normally, Chase Utley is about as interesting as shoving a Bic pen into your middle ear when it comes to talking about baseball. The guy is just not into it, which I don’t understand but accept. Some people don’t like talking about their jobs—what are you going to do?

However, upon waiting to see if Utley would come into the clubhouse after the victory in Game 1 on Wednesday evening, I was told that he would not be discussing his work with the big media throng. Or even the smallish one that waited around, for that matter.

“He didn’t really do anything,” I was told.

For a second I thought it was me. Maybe I shouldn’t believe my lying eyes? Maybe something occurred in the game that I completely missed… you know, whiffed on. But then I took a nanosecond to scout the outline of the ballgame in my mind, and blurted out.

“He got a key hit, swiped a base that was huge and played defense,” came the blurt. “Plus, the last time he faced the Rockies in a Game 1 of a playoff series he struck out four times on 13 pitches. He’s an All-Star with a .154 average in the NLDS and a .213 playoff average.

“He was integral!”

By that point I was standing by myself in the middle of the clubhouse bantering out loud like a crazy person on the street. It could have been worse, though. Instead of talking about baseball I could have been imitating trumpet noises as if I were the acapella version of Chet Baker because who doesn’t like to do that when they are alone and talking to themselves?

The point remains, though—Chase Utley was a big part of the Game 1 victory for the Phillies. Yes, he rode a 3-for-37 from the regular season into the playoffs and struck out in his first two plate appearances to stretch his hitless streak to 18 at-bats.

“Zero-for-a week,” I said to no one in particular when Utley struck out a second time.

But his leadoff single and stolen base in the sixth inning broke the game open like a piñata. To that point the Rockies’ hard-throwing righty Ubaldo Jimenez had been dealing. He needed 46 pitches to buzz through the first four innings and looked as if he was going to settle in nicely. However, in the fifth inning an eight-pitch leadoff walk to Jayson Werth resulted in a pair of runs to set the table for Utley’s table-setting. With the second baseman in scoring position after the stolen base, Jimenez was like Randall “Tex” Cobb in that fight against Larry Holmes. Sure, he was standing, but please, for the love of God, someone throw in the towel or stop it or make the guy go down.

A long double by Ryan Howard and a crazy triple from Werth delivered the knockout punch.

And it all started with Utley…

Who didn’t really do anything.

Statage: Utley is 2-for-12 in opening games of the NLDS and 6-for-20 with two homers in opening games of playoff series.

93 wins and more holes than a slice of domestic Swiss

It wasn’t that long ago that Game 162 meant the end of the line for the Phillies. In fact, we were used to it that way. As September morphed into October, that was pretty much it for the baseball season. If the Phillies could make the season last up to the last few days of the regular season, then it was a pretty successful year.

That was then, though. Now, we’re beginning to get spoiled with baseball. Game 162 is nothing more than a dress rehearsal or when the season really begins to get interesting. Sure, the regular season is important, but the post season is what we’ll all remember.

It’s what we expect, because we’re spoiled.

Don’t believe me? OK, the Phillies won 93 games this season, which is two more than the World Series champs in 1980 and one more than the 2008 champions won. Ninety-three wins are the most by a Phillies team since the 1993 club won 97. Since 1883, the Phillies have had just four team win more than 93 games in a season—in 1899, 1976, 1977 and ’93.

In other words, the 2009 Phillies won more games than 122 other teams in franchise history. Yet strangely, we’re kind of disappointed with the Phillies.

Go ahead; admit it… there was a bit of disappointment in how this season played out. Sure, the Phillies won the NL East rather easily, but the rational fan is worried about the NLDS against the Rockies. That’s especially the case with Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels pitching the way they have lately. And the bullpen in the shape it has been in this year.

Can you believe the ‘pen had 22 blown saves this year? Actually, make that 17 blown saves for the two guys (Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson) that likely will be closing out games in the playoffs.

And then there is the matter of hitting with runners in scoring position. Sure, the Phillies led the league with 224 home runs this year, but they hit .253 with runners in scoring position, including just .216 with runners in scoring position and two outs.

The most worrisome aspect of the hot-and-cold offense has been Chase Utley, who finished the season bone tired. In fact, manager Charlie Manuel should have told his All-Star second baseman to spend the week at home sleeping and replenishing for the playoffs. Think about it—not only did Utley play in 156 games in 2009, but also he did so after spending the winter busting his rear to rehab his surgically repaired hip in order to be ready for Opening Day. Add this onto the fact that Utley played a month longer than normal in 2008, had surgery, rehabbed from it and then played in all put six games in 2009…

lidge_howardYeah, he’s whipped.

Need proof? Look at how Utley finished the season. With a 0-for-2 on Saturday, Utley ended the year hitless in his last five games and 17 at-bats. Actually, Utley finished 2009 with a 3-for-37.

Notably, Utley hit just two homers in September/October and none since Sept. 12.

Though Utley finished the season in an ugly slump, Ryan Howard solidified himself as the team’s MVP by capturing the RBI crown for the third time of his career with 141 and belted 45 homers.

So for the third year in a row, Howard slugged at least 45 homers and got 140 RBIs—only Sammy Sosa and Babe Ruth have done that in Major League Baseball history.

No, Howard is not the top MVP candidate in the NL. That’s Albert Pujols all the way. But since the end of May, Howard improved every month culminating with a final month where the lefty slugger batted .302.

And whereas Utley can’t buy a hit, Howard has a hit in 10 of his last 11 games.

Still, the fifth-most winningest team in franchise history heads into the playoffs with more holes than a slice of domestic Swiss. There are just so many question marks and they all are fairly significant. From the injuries to the offensive production. From the end of the ‘pen to the middle of the order.

So many questions and so little time… it starts for real on Wednesday.

Who needs a nap?

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

– Lili Von Shtupp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wham!

Come on out and meet the Mets

tug_mcgrawNEW YORK – Compared to the last time the Phillies came to New York to play the Mets, a lot of the pizzazz has been stripped off the rivalry. Mostly that has to do with the Mets since they can neither stay healthy nor win ballgames.

Perhaps that’s what separates the truly good teams from the paper tigers – when the Phillies had piles of injuries they still figured out a way to get it done. The Mets? Not so much.

Still, the last time we were here all sorts of trouble broke out. That whole Raul Ibanez/small-time blogger thing was in full fester. Plus, the New York-based scribes were trying to get something from Chase Utley to fuel some sort of fracas. The problem was there wasn’t anything there.

Remember that?

As Pelfrey explained it at the time, he was upset about Utley stepping out of the box just as he was about to deliver a pitch. As such, Pelfrey barked at Utley, who returned with ignorant surprise that someone was talking to him.

“I was about to step into the box and it seemed like he was ready to pitch,” Utley said after taking a second to figure out what the hell was being talked about. “I wasn’t trying to make him frustrated. I was trying to put a good at-bat together.”

Pelfrey kind of said the same thing

“I don’t even know the guy,” he said. “It was too much adrenaline, I guess.”

The funniest part was when Charlie Manuel was asked about the non-controversial controversy. Instinctively Manuel thought Pelfrey was upset with Shane Victorino because usually, at any given moment, there is someone peeved at Victorino about something. He certainly drives Charlie nuts sometimes.

So there it is. Thanks for trying.

Nevertheless, the visiting clubhouse at brand-new CitiField was filthy with media types last June. They were crawling out of lockers, videotaping things with cell phones, saying silly things and basically just cluttering up the place like guests who refused to go away.

This time… not so much.

No, there were just six of us Philly guys hanging with the ballclub last night and there are only five of us today. In fact, just to fill out the space Scott Franzke and Tom McCarthy joined in, which was nice.

But this does not mean the New York media is not out in full force. Oh no. They’re crawling all over the place again – getting into things and sullying up the landscape.

Tonight they are here for the big ceremony to celebrate the Mets’ World Series title of 1969. All the old Mets are here, including Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Tug McGraw’s sons, Mark and Matt.

We don’t get to see too many of those ceremonial events in other places mostly because it’s a crap shoot. Besides, opposing teams don’t need to trot out the special ceremonies when the Phillies are in town because the defending World Champs pack ‘em in.

So it will be kind of cool to see the old Mets strut around and take in the cheers.

mrmetSpeaking of old Mets, surely the large media contingent will be back out on Sunday afternoon when Pedro returns for the Phillies. Actually, Pedro (and then Cliff Lee going on Monday) might sway some more Philly folks to venture north up the Jersey Turnpike and into the hinterlands of Queens.

If they were smart they’d train it up here, because there is no easy path. Thank you Robert Moses, thank you…

Needless to say it will be a bittersweet moment for Pedro when he gets on the mound in Queens tomorrow. He wishes it could have worked out better with the Mets, but seems to be getting a redemption of sorts with the Phillies.

“I left last year in a sad way,” Pedro said. “Not only that we lost in a bad way, I didn’t perform like I wanted to for the Mets. It wasn’t the way a pitcher like me should have gone away. After working through so much to regain my health, it wasn’t fair to me or my dad’s wishes to leave the game on such a sad note.

“The better I felt, the more committed I was to making it back and giving my dad the opportunity – I guess from heaven — to see me in a different way, having fun, healthy and refocused on the game. That was my biggest motivation.”

Breaking up the band

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who cares about all of that.

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

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

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

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

Howard, Utley, Rolen and Rollins?

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

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

And somehow it worked out.

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

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

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

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

Apparently he was discussing his on-base percentage.

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

Take a look at the video here.

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

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

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

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

benatarYou wanna when you realize they have nothing to work with? It’s when they trot out Jack Clark with the Home Run Derby trophy to the raucous strains of Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot.

Do these folks know how to party or what?

Actually, they introduced Jack Clark as “Jack The Ripper.” As far as nicknames go, that’s a little too obvious. Kind of boring, too. “Jack The Ripper?” C’mon St. Louis, you’re better than that…

Well, maybe not. Stan Musial was, “Stan The Man.”

Duh.

What’s it going to be, “Stan The Boy?” Of course it’s “Stan The Man.” Why not get a little creative and try something with Musial?

Come on, work with me, folks.

After taking a gander at Jack Clark, “Jack The Buffet Line” is probably more apt. Still, to take nothing away from Clark, he was the Runnin’ Red Birds’ slugger. In three years with the Cards, Clark hit 66 homers. That’s 22 in ’85 and 35 in ’87. Clark was a slugger in an age where 35 homers was a lot. In fact, 35 homers was the most Clark ever hit in his career.

In comparison, Chase Utley has clubbed at least 30 homers in two of the past three seasons and already has 20 this year. No one considers Utley a home run hitter, but in the past two-and-a-half years, Utley has cracked 75 homers. Clark’s best three-year homer stretch was 87 between 1987 to 1989.

Utley will crush that with an average second half.

Should we start calling him “Chase The Ripper” or just marvel in how much the game has changed in a relatively short time.

OK, someone crank up the Benatar.

It ain’t about the numbers

shane-victorinoI can’t help it. I know all about the objectivity of the job and all of that, but I really can’t help it.

I really hope Shane Victorino makes it to the All-Star Game next week in St. Louis.

There, I said it. In fact, I told Victorino as much before Monday night’s game against the Reds. Of course I told him this after I busted his stones about Pablo Sandoval having far superior statistics and that the Giants’ rookie really suffered an injustice when he wasn’t named to the National League squad.

“It ain’t about numbers anymore,” Victorino said. “It’s a popularity contest.”

He has that right, but then again it’s always been a popularity contest. But my motives for Victorino getting to St. Louis are completely selfish. Oh sure, Victorino is as worthy of an All-Star nod as anyone in the league. Though his numbers don’t pop off the page, they are above average and he has been a consistent cog for a team that has been wildly inconsistent.

But I told Vic that I hope he gets there even after he explained how he spent Monday afternoon going door-to-door along Oregon Avenue with Mayor Michael Nutter. Of course he had to endure more teasing about the mayor of Philadelphia taking time out of his busy day to help him get to the All-Star Game.

“What, are you going to go help him with his budget deficit after the game? You’re doing all of this just to spend three days in St. Louis?”

Victorino knew why guys like me want him in St. Louis. He understands the media-player dynamic and has seen how stodgy and scripted ballplayers are in press situations. It’s like they are coached to be as uninteresting as possible, which is no fun for anyone.

Nope, there is no altruism about wanting Victorino to get to the All-Star Game and he knew it.

“You just want me to do something bleeping stupid at the All-Star Game,” he said.

“Well, yeah…”

Oh, but it was much more than that. Certainly if Vic were to “do something bleeping stupid,” it would be very entertaining. In fact, it was a blast to see him in the World Baseball Classic and the madness he must have spewed into the notebooks of the scribes covering those games. However, if Victorino were to get to St. Louis there would actually be someone (gasp!) to talk to. That’s downright revolutionary in this age of verbosity.

Besides, the other Phillies in St. Louis won’t be free to cut loose like Victorino. Chase Utley doesn’t have much to say unless he’s dropping F-bombs before large crowds and Ryan Howard will be in his hometown and surely will have a limited amount of time to hang around and chat. Manager Charlie Manuel likely will only be able to offer official comments from a podium or to the right’s holders, though we’re pretty sure Chuck will offer up some nuggets to the hometown scribes.

Charlie is good like that.

Nevertheless, it’s Victorino who might be the go-to guy. Hey, the guy just can’t help himself. Here’s an example of that:

After Game 3 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium last October, I waited out Victorino. Taking his time to emerge from the off-limits areas, Victorino knew media types wanted to ask him about the bench-clearing incident with Hiroki Kuroda. Word had been sent out that he wasn’t going to talk about it, but c’mon. We all knew how he was.

So when he walked over to his locker in that old visitors’ clubhouse in Los Angeles, I kind of held up my palms, shrugged my shoulders and said, “Yo Shane, what’s up?”

“What’s up with what?”

“You know what I’m talking about.”

“Yeah.”

“Well…”

“I’m not talking about it.”

That’s when he talked about it for 15 minutes.

Hey, the guy just can’t help himself and bygolly, get this guy to the All-Star Game so we have someone to talk to.

And just to be sure, I won’t cast a vote for Victorino. I’ll root for him to get there, but won’t cross the line to actually cast a vote.

Besides, have you seen Sandoval’s numbers? How did he get left off the roster?

*

Oh yeah, has anyone seen the big No. 8 on the big Amtrak building next to 30th Street Station? Obviously the city is rallying to try and get Victorino that trip to St. Louis, but what about the guys who actually made the team already? Charlie, Utley, Howard and Raul Ibanez are in… where’s their building?

Stick to the script

utleyNEW YORK – One gets to learn a lot about the media, drama and hype on a trip to New York City. Here in the big city they really have a knack for mythmaking whereas the writing press from Philadelphia are pretty good at seeing something for what it is and leaving it at that.

This time we’re not talking about Raul Ibanez and the inanity of the lathered up media reaction from the made up controversy. Though I will admit I kind of liked Joe Posnanski’s take on it.

No, this time we’re talking about Chase Utley and Mike Pelfrey and the apparent exchange of words the pair had during an at-bat in the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s game. As Pelfrey explained it, he was upset about Utley stepping out of the box just as he was about to deliver a pitch. As such, Pelfrey barked at Utley, who returned with ignorant surprise.

“I was about to step into the box and it seemed like he was ready to pitch,” Utley said after taking a second to figure out what the hell was being talked about. “I wasn’t trying to make him frustrated. I was trying to put a good at-bat together.”

After the game, both Pelfrey and Utley were asked about it. Utley said Pelfrey said something to him but wasn’t sure what it was about. Pelfrey explained that he was peeved at Utley stepped out, told him and that was it. Everything ended right there.

“I got upset and told him to get in the box,” Pelfrey explained. “I don’t even know the guy. It was too much adrenaline, I guess.”

When asked, manager Charlie Manuel thought Pelfrey was upset with Shane Victorino. Why not? Isn’t someone always upset with Victorino? He certainly drives Charlie nuts sometimes.

So there it is. All over, right?

Wrong.

During the Mets’ post-game show on SNY, they showed the footage of Pelfrey shouting toward Utley over and over again with in-depth analysis of some sort of fabricated rift between the two archrival teams. While this was going on, New York-based reporters combed the Phillies’ clubhouse to pose questions to the team members about their little fantasy fight. Was something going to happen next time? Why do these teams hate each other so?

Who wins in a fight between Utley and Pelfrey?

Apparently, the fact that it was all a heaping pile of bullbleep really didn’t matter. There was going to be a story, dammit, just like there was going to be a story with Ibanez and some unknown dude in the Midwest somewhere.

To paraphrase a quote from Joe Piscopo in the movie Johnny Dangerously, “I’m embarrassed to be a media member these days. The other day someone asked me what I do for a living, and I told them I was a male nurse.”

(Thanks Deitch).

Anyway, there is a pretty good rivalry between the Phillies and the Mets but it’s likely that the New Yorkers are pushing it harder than needs to be. After all the Yankees have the Red Sox and the Mets are second fiddle in town. Frankly, they might be afraid to admit that the Phillies and the Dodgers is a much better and more interesting rivalry.

But that one doesn’t fit into the manufactured scripts up here.

Shot from the hip

ans7_labrumBrett Myers joins teammate Chase Utley, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Lowell, Alex Gordon and Carlos Delgado (amongst others) who have (or will) undergo surgery for a torn hip labrum. And that’s just in baseball. Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals and Floyd Landis are two more notable athletes who had hip surgery recently.

That’s not all, either. Hip pain and injuries are the bane of distance runners and soccer players and it appears to have replaced the knee as the injury in baseball.

Of course shoulder injuries in pitchers are the biggest of the big, so the hip has a ways to go to catch up.

Nevertheless, with Myers acknowledging that he has to have hip surgery – whether it’s now or later is to be determined – the question has arisen about all the labral tears and hip surgeries.

What’s the deal with that? Is it something sinister or related to nefarious acts? Are these ballplayers built differently or doing something their predecessors did not?

Well, no.

Ballplayers in the old days had hip injuries and labral tears, too, only back then they called it a groin injury or some other catchall phrase. But with sports medicine and athletic training reaching new heights of insight and with technological advancements of the diagnostics, things like labrum tears and spurs are found much more easily.

Think about how many careers could have been saved if certain players were simply born in a different era. Or think about how much pain some players went through just to play their game. We know that tons of pitchers would have been able to have longer careers if Tommy John surgery had existed before 1975. That’s just one example – what was it like before arthroscopic procedures?

What if Mickey Mantle (for example) would have been able to have modern medical procedures instead of the slicing and dicing he underwent?

Anyway, Myers will need surgery and the consensus from a few medical folks who I described his situation to seem to think he will be best served to have the surgery now instead of later. Of course Myers is going to see Dr. Bryan Kelly, who just might be the Michael Jordan of hip ailments.[1] Clearly Dr. Kelly will steer Myers to the right path.

myersNevertheless, a few medical folks seem to think that Myers’ shoulder injury from 2007 might have led to his hip problems. The reason they think this is because of the significant drop in the velocity of his fastball seems to point to Myers pushing off harder with his right leg in order to throw pitches as hard as he did before the shoulder injury. By having the surgery as soon as possible – and hoping that the damage isn’t too bad – Myers could be recovered in time for the stretch run and should be throwing as hard as he once did.

Of course Myers wants to pitch now. The best season of his career came when he pitched out of the bullpen when he pitched nearly every day in September of 2007. His durability was his strength and would have been attractive on the free-agent market this off-season.

The guy likes to pitch and even when he was in pain on Wednesday night, he didn’t want to come out of the game.

Certainly it makes the decision for Myers that much more difficult.

**

I watched Randy Wolf pitch for the Dodgers against the Cubs at Wrigley Field last night and it appears as if the ex-Phillie is finally 100 percent healthy. It was easy to think about Myers and the medical issues he faces when watching Wolf pitch. Several surgeries and lots of perseverance has Wolf looking like the strongest cog in the Dodgers’ rotation.

That 3-1 record and 2.84 ERA and .221 batting-average-against would look sharp for the Phillies these days.

Still, count on the Phillies being active on the rumor mill from here on out.

**

I missed this the other day, but last Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of the greatest baseball game ever pitched. That’s when Pittsburgh’s Harvey Haddix, a Phillie for two seasons, threw 12 perfect innings in Milwaukee, gave up a hit in the 13th inning and lost, 1-0.

Boggles the mind.

Anyway, check out Albert Chen’s story on Haddix’s game in the recent SI. The amazing part was the Milwaukee Braves were stealing Pittsburgh’s signs with binoculars and still couldn’t get a hit.


[1] Hey Doctor Kelly… I’m a distance runner who can’t shake the hip tightness and pain. Am I ever going to be fast again? Damn hip!

Just a little shave

myers1Perhaps the best part about Brett Myers’ effort in the victory over the Yankees in the Bronx on Friday night came on the second pitch he threw of the game. That’s when he reared back and hummed a fastball behind leadoff hitter Derek Jeter as if to call out Yanks’ pitcher A.J. Burnett and say, “OK punk, if it wasn’t for this stupid DH rule, that fastball would have been in your ribs.”

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

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

So much for a professional courtesy…

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

Lame.

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

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

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

Like a man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Presidential visits and hitting streaks

pete-roseLike an old catcher with creaky knees, ball writers don’t bounce back like they used to. That’s especially the case when they play day games after night games that take nearly 3½  hours to play.

Yes, life is hard. I know.

However, tomorrow morning comes early for the Phillies, too. After this afternoon’s series finale against the Dodgers, the Phillies board an Amtrak train to ride the rails to The District to be ready for the World Champion visit to the White House.

It should be a fun afternoon even though several members of the team and traveling party have already been to the White House and even the Oval Office before. Back when George W. Bush was president, baseball players used to be summoned for tours and audiences often. Bush, of course, was a former owner of the Texas Rangers and dreamed of being the commissioner of baseball until Bud Selig out-maneuvered him for the gig.

Fool him once…

Anyway, the main purpose of the trip to Washington is to play four games in three days against the last-place Nationals. Certainly the visit couldn’t come at a better time for the Phillies because they really need a winning streak to kick start things.

If they do so it should be in front of a friendly crowd since the Nationals rank 28th in attendance, averaging just 19,416 fans per game. Certainly those numbers will dip even further as the summer progresses since the Nats likely face mathematical elimination quicker than the other teams in the league.

Worse, unless the team drafts college phenom Stephen Strasburg with the first pick in the June 9 draft (and sign him) and call him up, there probably won’t be too much of a buzz about the baseball team in Southeast DC.

Of course Ryan Zimmerman’s hitting streak could have helped that if it had continued past 30 games.

Zimmerman had his hitting streak snapped yesterday against the Giants with an 0-for-3 including a pair of walks. One of those walks was an intentional pass that came with first base open in the seventh inning. Sure, it stinks that Zimmerman’s streak came to end with an intentional walk in there, but it was the baseball move by manager Bruce Bochy.

Nevertheless, Zimmerman could have been the only draw for the Nats if the streak could have continued past this weekend. In the meantime, Zimmerman’s streak was the longest since Moises Alou hit in 30 straight in 2007 and Chase Utley hit in 35 straight in 2006.

Not that Chase talked about it, of course.

Ever superstitious, Utley refused to talk about hitting and the streak during his run that year. It was the exact opposite tact of Jimmy Rollins who chattered away about his 38-game streak through the end of 2005 and the start of 2006.

And of course the master of post-DiMaggio hitting streaks, Pete Rose, yapped away non-stop about his streak during the 1978 season. In fact, Pete is still chattering away about it. Last December I visited with Rose in Las Vegas during the winter meetings and he told me about his hitting streak (amongst other topics) and even said he doesn’t like the way Utley refuses to open up to the media. He pointedly took Utley to task for his superstitious approach during his hitting streak in 2006.

Here’s what I wrote in December:

But Rose does not understand Utley’s reluctance to open up to the media about himself or baseball. Different personalities, perhaps. Rose was an open book and revealed all even when he was keeping a secret about his gambling on baseball. One of the secrets to the success of those juggernaut Phillies teams in Rose’s day was that he was the one who stood up and took on the media. With sensitive personalities like Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt on the club, Rose was the go-to guy for a quote or some insight. By doing that, he took the pressure off the team’s best players.

Rose simply did not understand why Utley refused to talk to the media during his 35-game hitting streak during the 2006 season. Not talking about baseball is just a foreign concept to him. Worse, he says, fans – particularly kids – don’t get a chance to know their heroes without some type of media insight.

“Kids might want to know more about baseball and they will listen to what a guy like Chase Utley has to say,” Rose said. “But when he’s up there all he says is, ‘Yep.’”

Interestingly, Rose said nearly the same thing about Utley to Dan Patrick on his radio show yesterday when he talked about Zimmerman’s streak. Take a listen here.

Pete also said he believes Alex Rodriguez is a Hall-of-Famer, but that might be a bit of a political statement.

Oh yes, Pete Rose definitely wants to be in the Hall of Fame.

All rock all the time…

moyer_cardIt’s definitely going to be a crazy week around these parts. Not only do we have Villanova heading to the Final Four and all the pomp that goes with that, but also the Phillies return to Philadelphia this week for a pair of exhibition games against Tampa on Friday and Saturday before kicking off the season for real on Sunday night against Atlanta.

Who knows, the most anticipated Phillies season ever could be sandwiched between ‘Nova’s national semifinal game and a National Championship on Monday night.

Hey, crazier things have happened.

Anyway, we’ll have a bunch of ‘Nova and Phillies stories all week leading to the big weekend. Until then, here’s a short list of the things I won’t write about this baseball season.

Before I start, I know how lame the list is. After all, don’t you hate those radio ads in which a station defines itself by what it doesn’t play? Then they cue them up and play programmed and contrived crap. I heard one the other day where the station’s big calling card was, “We aren’t iTunes, we are your tunes.

What? This is what they announce before they launch into Don Henley.

No, take them… they’re definitely your tunes.

So from here on out I’m drawing a line and painting myself into a tidy little corner. These are the stories I’m going to work as hard as possible not to write this baseball season:

1.) Jamie Moyer’s age

Yes, we all know that Jamie Moyer is old. In fact, he’s 46 and there have been just a select few ballplayers that had careers to that age. It’s remarkable, sure, but not necessarily such an anomaly anymore.

The fact of the matter is that 46 isn’t as old as it used to be. Better yet, a ballplayer only gets old if he allows himself to be that way or injuries add up. Ask Don Wildman about how limiting his age is. Or Dara Torres. Or Chris Chelios. Or Jamie Moyer.

Better yet, don’t.

“Some players get injured and others just lose the desire,” Moyer told me last August. “Then some, for one reason or other, are told to quit because they reach a certain age or time spent in the game. Some just accept it without asking why.”

Along the same vein, Moyer’s age won’t be used as a crutch, either. He’s 46. So what? He’s as fit as any player in the league and he hasn’t lost a thing off his fastball (tee-hee), so if he’s walking out there he’s no different than anyone else.

He’s 46? Big deal.

2.) J.C. Romero’s suspension

Oh yes, this is an important issue. It’s especially important since the Phillies won’t have their workhorse reliever for nearly a third of the season. But stories knocking it down as no big deal or some type of insignificant or unfortunate occurrence don’t get it. The truth is MLB did not want Romero to pitch in the playoffs, but they allowed him to do so anyway.

Why? And why not?

3.) Lefty lineup

Chase Utley to Ryan Howard to Raul Ibanez… deal with it. Certainly the opposing managers will have to figure out a way to deal with it. Last year Utley his .277 with 13 homers against lefties, while Howard hit 14 homers (just .224 though) and Ibanez batted .305 with seven homers vs. lefties.

Oh sure, in the late innings the Phillies will face a ton of situational lefties, but any time a manager goes away from his regular habits to rely on a pitcher generally used to facing just one hitter just might level the odds a bit.

For that middle of the order trio, even odds are pretty good.

chuck4.) Charlie Manuel’s managerial acumen

These are the facts: Charlie knows more about baseball than you. Actually he’s forgotten more about baseball than you have ever known. To top it off, he’s funnier than you and tells far better stories.

Plus, the way he handled that great comeback against the Mets last August in which he used to pitchers to pinch hit, had Carlos Ruiz play third base and put Chris Coste into the game in the eighth inning and watched him get four hits. The guy is always looking at the big picture and sometimes, just for fun, he’ll play a hunch.

What he doesn’t do is try to over think or out-fox the game like Tony La Russa or some other new age type. He’d rather beat you Earl Weaver style – sit back and wait for a big home run – but if he has to get some base runners moving with some steals or hit-and-runs, that works, too.

Meanwhile, he likes to put his pitchers into firm roles. Yeah, sometimes that can get him in trouble, but the good part is that everyone on the roster understands their role. Big league ballplayers love that.

And if that doesn’t work, Charlie will pull out the old, “Just hold ’em, guys… I’ll think of something.”

It’s worked so far.

5.) Raul Ibanez vs. Pat Burrell

Stat heads aren’t going to like this one, but Ibanez’s superior batting average and lower strikeout rate will matter. It mattered in Seattle and it will matter at cozy Citizens Bank Park, too.

The reason is as simple as the triple-digit RBI totals over the last three years – Ibanez hits the ball a little more. With Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Utley and Howard hitting in front of him, the 20 fewer times Ibanez strikes out as opposed to Burrell could be significant. Figure there are 26 weeks to a season with the potential for one more run a week produced from one spot of the lineup could add up.

Right?

There you go. Now I’m going to go put the iPod on shuffle… yep, my tunes.

Whatever the hell that means.

It all pays off in the end

utley1LANCASTER, Pa. – Last week while in Florida, I had the pleasure of bumping into both David Montgomery and Bill Giles.[1] Mr. Giles moved in and out of the area like a flash – he dashed in and rolled out after he had done and seen what he needed to do.

Mr. Montgomery, along with PR director emeritus Larry Shenk joined Todd Zolecki and I to watch Chase Utley’s spring debut during a minor-league game on one of the back fields of the Carpenter Complex. Actually, I joined them. They were standing there at the one spot along the sidelines that separated us from the actual field/benches.

Still, despite a pleasant conversation with the guys, I couldn’t help to think that, once upon a time, the Phillies were (internally) considered a small-market team. In fact, until recently the team collected cash from the so-called luxury tax put in place during the 2002 collective bargaining agreement.

The interesting part about the notion of the Phillies being a “small-market team” is the semantics. Technically, the Phillies play in the fifth-largest media market in the U.S. Only New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco are larger. Though back when the Phillies were playing in the Vet and the “small-market” statement was floated out there, Philadelphia was the fourth-largest market.

But largesse and largeness are clearly two different things.

Or at least they were until, (ahem) the Phillies got good. It’s really an elementary phenomenon – when the Red Sox got good, re-worked their business plan and ballpark and really formed a Nation, they were essentially the same free-spending team as the Yankees.

Red Sox, Yankees… same difference. If either team wanted a player, they went out and bought a player.

Poaching from a David Murphy tweet (@HighCheese), the Red Sox are set to open the 2009 season with a player payroll of $120 million. It will be the lowest rate for Boston since the 2003 season.

According to Murph, the Phillies’ Opening Day payroll will be $10 million higher than the Red Sox, while, according to research by Paul Hagen, the Phillies raised their payroll by approximately $26.7 million to $130,844,098.

For the Phillies it seems as if this winter was a perfect storm of arbitration-eligible players come home to roost. Better yet, Hagen dropped this from a story last month:

Closer Brad Lidge, who could have been a free agent at the end of the season, signed a 3-year extension in the middle of last season, got the biggest raise. His base salary went up $5.2 million to $11.5 million. He was followed closely by first baseman Ryan Howard, who is now the team’s highest-paid player at $15 million after getting a $5 million bump.

Righthander Brett Myers ($3.5 million increase) and second baseman Chase Utley ($2.75 million) got bumps that were scheduled as part of multiyear contracts.

The biggest winner percentagewise was lefthander Cole Hamels. He got an 870 percent increase from $500,000 to $4.35 million as part of his new 3-year contract. Centerfielder Shane Victorino got a 651 percent increase from $480,000 to $3.125 million.

At the same time, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told us during the winter meetings in Las Vegas that the Phillies were largely unaffected by the current world economic crisis largely because they won the World Series. Had they fallen short, perhaps the payroll might not have gotten close to $130 million?

Still, as Nate Silver pointed out last week, baseball is a really, really good investment. Looking to make some money? Buy a baseball team. Just look at what happened to Messers Montgomery and Giles…

Sure, you might be small market now, but it will pay off very quickly.


[1] Yes, this is shameless name-dropping. Make that unapologetic name-dropping.

Utley to play… again

bpCLEARWATER, Fla. – Just catching up on some reading here at sunny Bright House Field before the Phillies take on the St. Louis Cardinals with Chase Utley hitting leadoff. Chances are Utley will get a handful of ABs before calling it an afternoon, but the Phillies have to feel good that their All-Star second baseman is trying it out for a second straight game.

This one, though, is an actual game without bloused uniform pants and mucho sock exposure, so it will be interesting to see how Utley performs in the formal structure.

Chances are he’ll do well.

Meanwhile, Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus and his own FiveThityEight blog, wrote an interesting story in the latest edition of Esquire sizing up different investment strategies. The premise of the story was if a person put $1,000 in the stock market, cash, real estate, etc. in 1998, how much would they have made in 2008?

Across the board the returns were pretty consistent, except for one entity:

Major League Baseball.

A $1,000 investment in a big-league ballclub in 1998 would have quadrupled one’s investment in ’08. Better yet, though such high returns have slowed slightly, count on the growth to continue.

Writes Silver:

A catastrophic collapse of the baseball market remains unlikely, however, for two reasons. First, major league baseball is a monopoly with a legal exemption from antitrust laws, and therefore it’s not subject to the ordinary laws of supply and demand. In 1908 – the last time the Cubs won the World Series – there were sixteen major league baseball clubs for about 89 million American citizens, or one team per 5.6 million potential fans. But now there are thirty clubs for around 300 million Americans – just one to go around per 10 million of us. If not for its monopoly status, there might be forty or sixty major league baseball clubs, and the individual franchises would be less valuable. But because of it, buying a piece of a baseball club is a bit like marrying into the Rockefeller trust.

Second, and a little surprisingly, the sport has already begun to do something that so many other industries have struggled with: rationalize its pay structure. In the winter before its 2007 season, the industry spent a total of about $1.7 billion in commitments to free-agent contracts. But that amount dipped to “only” $1.1 billion last winter and should finish at around the same total this year.

So there you go. Take your money and put it into baseball.

Batting practice time… be back in a few.

Welcome to Camp Sleepy Time

CLEARWATER, Fla. – The sun is high up in the sky just beating down on everything beneath it. The thermometer on the scoreboard reads 76, but with the sun unblocked by the clouds it feels 20-degrees warmer.

It’s freaking hot for us dudes who prefer the cooler climes of the Northeast in mid-March. Some of us like to ease into the hot weather. Some of us need to run to the drug store to get stronger sun screen.

But unlike in Philadelphia, there is nothing happening with the WFC Phillies. All is quiet here at Bright House Field. It’s so quiet, in fact, that players actually played duck-duck goose during the morning stretch before heading back into the clubhouse to watch the country music video countdown on TV before Sunday’s Grapefruit League game against Cincinnati.

Looked like Keith Urban or Taylor Swift was No. 1.

Who is better and what’s the difference? Seriously, these are the big questions to ponder surrounding the Phillies these days.

Nevertheless, it was quite difficult to find topics to small-talk about these days. Ryan Madson only grunted a few “yeahs” and “I don’t know about thats” when asked ambiguously about the vagaries of Grapefruit League action.

Yes, welcome to the dog days here at Camp Sleepy Time ‘09.

Continue reading this story…

Best week ever…

Apparently we are in the midst of last days of something called “Hockey Week” here in Philadelphia. According to the rumors, there was an official declaration with a proper certificate adorned with a big gold ribbon and that fancy calligraphy writing.

Yep, they went all out at City Hall. After all, public officials don’t go about making edicts and issuing ribbons all willy-nilly like. But after having had the chase to talk the mayor, the Honorable Michael Nutter, it’s evident that the man has a wicked sense of humor. Oh yeah, it doesn’t show, but Mayor Nutter gets jokes and has a tremendous laugh – you know, one of those laughs that makes the funny thing even funnier.

So, the idea that the mayor decreed that this was “Hockey Week,” and not even in an Olympic year, to boot, is knee-slapping hilarious.

Mayor Nutter… what a hoot!

What also is funny about the concept of “Hockey Week” is that how quickly the attention went elsewhere. After all, it is almost the third full week of February and there is a chance that the Eagles could sign a taxi-squad punter. Sure, Sav Rocca seems to have the punting position nailed down, but what about in a couple of years?

But more than the Eagles, the looming minicamp, Sav Rocca, punting and punters, “Hockey Week” took a back seat to the fast-approaching NBA trading deadline, which potentially could reshape the look of the 76ers for the rest of the season and beyond. It’s quite a decision GM Ed Stefanski has to make on Andre Miller. Definitely a pickle, indeed.

The biggest news hitting the ether regards the local baseball club and how the New York Mets have reacted to the WFC-ness of the WFC Phillies.

Apparently the Mets can’t keep their mouths shut. Or, better yet, to use a hockey term, “yaps.” Those Mets sure are yapping up a storm. During the past week we’ve heard from Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and newly acquired closer Francisco Rodriguez. The interesting part about the Mets’ trash-talking has been the boringness of it. Almost as boring as getting all worked up for “Hockey Week.”

Continue reading this story…

Visiting with Pete Rose in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS – Needless to say, there is a lot of baseball talk at the Winter Meetings. It’s never ending, actually. Banter over the latest free agents, trades, the economy of the game is the reason why everyone showed up at The Bellagio in the first place.
Yet despite all of the talk and rumor-mongering no one at The Bellagio took the time to bolt out of the resort
and out into the sun-soaked Thursday afternoon in the dry December desert air to Caesar’s Palace. Seperated by just mere steps, the baseball Winter Meetings were so close to a lonely figure who knew a thing or two about the game.
At the same time he may as well have been on the other side of the moon.
But this was where he was hiding in plain sight, sitting behind a long, narrow table with a pile of Sharpie pens of various sizes while fiddling with the Bluetooth ear piece for his iPhone. He looked much older sitting there with an assistant behind the table and red ropes that cordoned his area away from the rest of the room.
Wearing a weathered leather ball cap with white leather ankle boots, a Nike dri-fit top, all accessorized by a large gold watch and gold bracelet, baseball’s all-time hits leader sat so close yet so far awy from the epicenter of the game he loved so much. His face was weathered by sun and late nights, but not as old as his years. The extra weight he carried was striking to anyone who saw him three decades ago, but then again, that’s life.
We should all be so lucky as to get old.
So Pete, is it OK if we talk some baseball?
“Sure,” he said. “Come on over and sit down.”
Finally, some baseball talk with a guy who still loves the game as much now than he ever did. Here was a guy who knew a little about it, too. Judging by the photos of other folks displayed behind the table that also made the pilgrimage to see the man (Roger Clemens, Li’l Jon, Paris Hilton, Ice-T, etc., etc.) it appeared as if I came to the right place.
Charlie Hustle
“I watch more baseball than anyone I know,” said Pete Rose, without a trace of self-doubt. “I live out west so the East Coast games are on at 4:30. The midwest games come on by 5 and then the West Coast games are on at 7:30.”
He also pointed out that he had a television set up on the table so he could watch games at work in the sports memorabilia shop called, “Field of Dreams” in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. So yeah, not only did he watch a lot of baseball and talk a lot about baseball, but he also capitalized off it by signing his name to baseballs, shirts, bats, photos or whatever else fans requested. After the signing, where Rose usually personalized the item before writing his name, the phrase “Hit King” and “4,256,” he invited the fan to the other side of the red ropes to sit for a picture and some peppery banter.
Sorry, he signs “Charlie Hustle” only on Cincinnati Reds jerseys.
After being told that a man requesting a signature and photo was named Lester, Rose said, “Lester? Lester the Molester?” Then he turned to the man’s wife and said, “She’ll never tell.”
Needless to say, the couple and Rose had grins ear-to-ear for the camera phone photo.
With the ropes and the table, it was almost as if customers showed up at the zoo and were allowed to hop in the cage.
So between autographs, photo sessions, the occasional handshake and call on the iPhone, we sat there talking about baseball. More specifically, we sat there on the other side of the ropes and talked about the Phillies. Along the way various other tangential topics arose from the serious – such as his suspension from baseball, steroids, his prison term for income tax evasion and the global economic crisis and how it relates to baseball – to the absurd – such as how no one in prison admitted guilt (“When I was in there there were 245 guys in there, but I was the only one who was guilty. They all told me their bleeping story, but I was the only one who was guilty.”) and his job as a prisoner at the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Ill.
Talk about traveling all over the map – we redrew the borders. And yes, the irony about talking to Pete Rose in a shop at Caesars Palace was not lost.
“When I was in there it was the only Level 6 [federal prison] in the entire system in the U.S.,” Rose said about his jail term. “I had to work in the main prison. I had to go every day and the people in Marion were in the cage 23 out of 24 hours a day. We were the only camp who didn’t have cable TV, because then every bleeper in there would have had to have it in every cell.
“I worked in the welding department. My job was to have the bleeping hot chocolate made by 8:15 a.m. every day. That was my bleeping job. And every time the warden was coming back [to the welding department] they had me back as far back as I could go. Because I was a high-profile guy. They’d also say, ‘The old man is on the way back,’ and every time he came back I was in my little kitchen sweeping the floor. He said, ‘Pete, you know something, this is the cleanest damn floor in this entire prison. Because every time I come back there you’re sweeping this damn kitchen.’ I said, ‘Hey, I gotta keep it clean!’
“A couple years ago we we’re selling Pete Rose cookies with a company out of St. Louis. The only place you could get these cookies is in prison. They can’t sell them in a supermarket. A couple years ago I went to North Carolina for a convention of all the commissaries and all the wardens came. That warden came and got my autograph.
“I should have signed the broom for him.”
“Better yet,” I added. “You could have signed it from the ‘Sweep King.’”
Yeah, it was a bona fide chuckle fest.
But the intent was to talk only baseball. That’s it.
Look, by now everyone has heard Rose’s story and has formulated an opinion. There are no more surprises, spins, stories or theories. Pete Rose bet on baseball. As we sat there in Caesars Palace, he looked straight into my eyes and told me that he bet on his team every night.
“That’s how much confidence I had in my team,” he said.
I certainly didn’t show up in Las Vegas to get an admission from Pete Rose. Nor did I show up to kick dirt on the biggest pariah in the history of professional sports or listen to him state his case. Everyone gets it by now, and even though I told Rose I believed his suspension was proper, it does seem odd to note that if he had committed murder he might have served his sentence by now.
“I just want a second chance,” he said, sticking to his mantra. “I’ve been suspended for 19 years already.”
“And how long did you play?”
“Twenty-four years.”
We just let that hang there for a moment.
Talking baseball
But the point was baseball, and since Rose says he watches religiously, the topic turned to the Phillies and manager Charlie Manuel, who was rewarded with a contract extension that will carry him through the 2011 season. After a rocky start as manager of the Phillies, even Rose was impressed with how far Manuel had come to win over the fans.
“I can see how they didn’t like him in Philadelphia at first,” Rose said. “He made some moves that no one understood but him. But give him credit. His team likes him and they play for him. That’s the hardest thing to do. Look, I managed and I know that a team takes the personality of the manager. He keeps them relaxed so they can play. He takes all on the media and the fans and lets them do their jobs.”
Managing is tough, Rose said, so he has an appreciation for Rose was able to accomplish.
“As a manager you have to have one set of rules for all 25 guys,” he said. “But you have to treat each guy individually. When I was managing and I said we have batting practice at 5, you better be there at 4:30.”
Charlie had a few issues with tardiness from shortstop Jimmy Rollins.
“I don’t get that. Rollins is a great player,” Rose said. “He must not like the game.”
Told Rollins is an astute student of the game and its history, particularly the Negro Leagues, Rose had a quick reply.
“I guess he doesn’t want to be in the clubhouse.”
Rose admitted he didn’t know so much about the modern-day big league clubhouses, since his ban from the game prohibits him from so much as attending a game without purchasing a ticket. In fact, he expressed surprise when a friend with the Astros organization told him the team employs a chef for the clubhouse. He also couldn’t get over how far technology had become entwined in the modern game.
“I got 4,256 hits and I never hit a ball off a tee and I never watched myself hit on video,” he said. “Neither did Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron.”
But Chase Utley does. Tirelessly. Rose likes Utley and allowed himself a little laugh when told about Utley’s speech at Citizens Bank Park following the World Series victory parade. Rose appreciates how Utley played much of the 2008 season through a hip injury that was worse than he let on, though the Hit King noted the price.
“He’s paying now if he’s out through May,” he said. “But I guess he got his ring so it’s OK.”
But Rose does not understand Utley’s reluctance to open up to the media about himself or baseball. Different personalities, perhaps. Rose was an open book and revealed all even when he was keeping a secret about his gambling on baseball. One of the secrets to the success of those juggernaut Phillies teams in Rose’s day was that he was the one who stood up and took on the media. With sensitive personalities like Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt on the club, Rose was the go-to guy for a quote or some insight. By doing that, he took the pressure off the team’s best players.
Rose simply did not understand why Utley refused to talk to the media during his 35-game hitting streak during the 2006 season. Not talking about baseball is just a foreign concept to him. Worse, he says, fans – particularly kids – don’t get a chance to know their heroes without some type of media insight.
“Kids might want to know more about baseball and they will listen to what a guy like Chase Utley has to say,” Rose said. “But when he’s up there all he says is, ‘Yep.’”
Rose always has time for the fans, it appeared. He was genuine, easy going, friendly, a kidder and bawdy. He sang a few bars of “Oh Canada,” to a couple from Saskatchewan, asked a man in a cowboy hat if he was in town for the rodeo and talked about boxer Manny Pacquiao with a woman from the Philippines.
When told that he was good at interacting with people, Rose agreed.
“Yes, I am,” he said.
Alone with the fans
Still, there was a sense of sadness in the room. A burden of sorts. All Rose wanted to do was be a part of baseball again. Just next door from where Rose sat, his old friends gathered to compare notes and get to know each other away from the diamond. Joe Morgan was there. So was Rose’s former pupil Eric Davis. It wasn’t uncommon to see Lou Piniella and Tony LaRussa chatting in a hallway or scouts and agents lined up at the craps tables.
But Rose was left alone with his Sharpies and the curiosity seekers behind the red rope and long, narrow table.
Sad. Not sadness in a condescending way, but in truest sense of the word. Sad because a man who had accomplished so much was now reduced to shaking hands and signing his name while his old friends got to be on the inside of the game that defined him for all of his life.
“I don’t mind working,” said Rose, noting that he drove from his home in Los Angeles to Las Vegas 15 times a month to work at Field of Dreams. He also seems to genuinely enjoy interacting with baseball fans. It is the fans, after all, that keep him tethered to the game.
“Baseball needs the fans,” he said. “Without the fans, what’s the point?”
When asked if he saw any of his old teammates or friends from baseball this week, Rose said one person made it over.
“Dave Raymond,” he said. “Do you know who he was?”
The original Phillie Phanatic.
Rose likes his life, he said. He goes to all the big fights in town, he watches baseball and he gets to meet new people every day. He gets to talk about the game, though. He’s also hoping to open up a steakhouse in Vegas, soon. Maybe, just maybe, baseball will allow him to formally ask for a second chance.
That’s not too bad.
At quitting time, Rose stacked the pens, bundled them and put them away. The assistants who snap pictures for the fans and give the memorabilia to sign slipped out of their Cincinnati Reds’ shirts and tidied up. Rose got up, gathered his things in a small bag and walked with me to the door.
We shook hands and I thanked him for his time and the stories. Especially the stories.
“Just quote me accurately,” he said.
Then he turned and walked down the ornately decorated shopping mall toward his car for the drive back to Los Angeles.

Seventh inning: Utley breaks out… anyone else?

LOS ANGELES – Chase Utley has officially ended his slump. I am making that decree. Sure, Utley could post a Golden Sombrero tomorrow night and spiral back into another funk, but based on the home run in Game 1, the four walks in Game 2 and the walk, smoked ground out to first and a double to left in the seventh, it appears as if the All-Star is back to being a threat.

Now all he needs is for the rest of the club to join him.

Ryan Howard got involved with a single to right, followed by an RBI single from Pat Burrell. After Burrell’s hit, manager Joe Torre decided Hiroki Kuroda was finished and summoned righty reliever, Cory Wade.

Torre brought Wade in to face the correct hitter in Jayson Werth, who has struggled at times against righties in the playoffs. Against Wade, Werth was punched out on a questionable check-swing call for the first out.

With two outs and runners on the corners, Charlie Manuel called on lefty Greg Dobbs to pinch hit for Carlos Ruiz. When Dobbs grounded out to short, the sell-out crowd here at Dodger Stadium let out a loud roar.

The Phillies could only get one.

A louder cheer was deserved for 12-year-old singer Ellie Smith, who nailed “God Bless America” and turned out one of the best “Star Spangled Banners” of the year.

But when they showed Tiger Woods on the jumbotron, the place really went nuts.

Does anyone cool go to Phillies’ games?

Meanwhile, Russell Martin’s body must look like a pin cushion right about now. With one out and the bases empty, Chad Durbin plunked him on the back with a curveball. Obviously, the umpires did not believe there was any intent with Durbin’s pitch because he wasn’t tossed from the game. Since warnings were issued to both clubs after Hiroki Kuroda tossed one over Shane Victorino’s head.

Nevertheless, the Phillies missed another chance.

End of 7: Dodgers 7, Phillies 2

First inning: Early TKO?

LOS ANGELES – The conventional wisdom around these parts is that the fans here at Dodger Stadium are loyal, friendly and laidback. Moreover, they are really into their team – they stick with the Dodgers no matter what.

However, that same conventional wisdom indicates that Dodger fans are nowhere close to being as loud as they are at the Bank. The one thing the fans in Philadelphia do well is loud.

Since I’m sitting outside high above home plate, I have to admit that it’s pretty loud. There is a Shea Stadium feel to this place (or is it that Shea had a Dodger Stadium feel since this park is/was older?), only not as loud.

The fans are prettier, too.

The Phillies’ first at-bats weren’t what anyone would call pretty. In fact, Hiroki Kuroda’s first six pitches were strikes which got him two outs. Chase Utley drew another walk (his fifth in the last two games), but made the third out of the inning when he was nailed trying to steal.

The replay appeared to show Utley sneaking in safely under the tag, but Rafael Furcal blocked the bag with his foot before slapping down the tag.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers wasted no time getting after Jamie Moyer. Rafael Furcal, Andre Ethier and Manny Ramirez singled on three straight pitches, with Manny driving in the first run. Moyer loaded the bases when he drilled Russell Martin on the knee with one that got a little too down and in.

Certainly Moyer was in a great spot to come undone. Instead, the old lefty battled Nomar Garciaparra for a strikeout and got ahead in the count to Casey Blake until his lined one into right for the second run.

Clearly the Dodgers have a pretty good plan for facing Moyer. Either they are looking for specific pitches or certain locations. Sometimes they jump on the first pitch or they wait. Who knows, maybe the Dodgers watched the tape from Game 3 of the NLDS where the Brewers handled Moyer and decided just to copy that.

Either way, it looked like the early knockout punch was delivered when Blake Dewitt knocked in three runs with a double (triple?).

No movement in the Phillies’ ‘pen though J.A. Happ probably should get limber.

End of 1: Dodgers 5, Phillies 0

Fifth inning: Working the count

Out of nowhere, Brett Myers posted his first goose egg on the board since the first inning. He also climbed over the 100-pitch plateau with two outs in the fifth.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Myers will not get a complete game. Heck, he might not even see the sixth inning.

Meanwhile, things appear to have settled down a bit with James McDonald on the mound for the Dodgers. Since entering the game with two outs in the third, McDonald has given up a pair of hits, walked one and took a turn at the plate.

Otherwise, we’re just reveling in the joy of a scoreless and quick inning here at the Bank. In the meantime it’s worth noting that Chase Utley got his fourth walk of the game and we’re just a little past the halfway point.

I bet he gets another chance.

End of 5: Phillies 8, Dodgers 5

Sixth inning: Big swings

Yes, the Phillies continue to struggle with the bats. Derek Lowe entered the sixth having thrown just 75 pitches, which puts him in excellent position to give the Dodgers’ bullpen a big rest tonight.

However, the Dodgers’ offense isn’t exactly lighting it up either. Though the Dodgers have put five runners in scoring position (resulting in a pair of runs), they are just 1-for-6 with the ol’ ducks on the pond. Because of that the Phillies are a lucky break and a big swing away from changing things around.

In the sixth, the lucky break came when Rafael Furcal’s throwing error on (another) ground ball hit by Shane Victorino gave the Phillies their first real threat.

The big swing came a few pitches later when Chase Utley knocked one into the right-field seats to knot the game at 2.

Earlier this week manager Charlie Manuel said he believed Utley was very close to breaking out of his second-half and post-season malaise. Earlier tonight I wrote that Utley will be the key to this series…

Looks like the second baseman made Charlie and me look smart.

How about that?

Pat Burrell made Mike Gill look smart by popping a 3-1 pitch into the left-field stands to give the Phils a one-run lead. At the same time, the homer forced Joe Torre to summon reliever Chan Ho Park to finish the inning.

Just like that Derek Lowe’s gem turned into a short night… sometimes it’s funny how fast fortunes change in this game.

Lowe’s line:

5 1/3 IP, 3 R, 2 ER, 6 H, 1 BB, 2 K, 2 HR – 90 pitches, 55 strikes

Let’s see how Hamels handles pitching with a lead.

End of 6: Phillies 3, Dodgers 2

Second inning: Settling in

The time between the innings is a little longer during this series as compared to the rest of the year. The reason, of course, is that Fox needs a few more ticks to sell some stuff and show those commercials.

Commerce, man. Commerce.

Longer inning or not, Cole Hamels settled in and breezed through the second inning on just X pitches. He whiffed both Casey Blake and Derek Lowe for his first clean frame and third strikeout.

Whatever jitters Hamels had in the first were worked out in the second.

On another note, I was on the Mike Gill Show this afternoon where the host, Mike Gill, made an interesting point. I said the difference in this series could very well come down to the ability of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to produce against the Dodgers’ right-handed heavy pitching staff. To that, Mike said the Dodgers likely would take a similar tact as the Brewers in the NLDS and pitch around Howard, forcing Pat Burrell to the plate in some key situations.

You know what? That Mike Gill knows his stuff. If the Dodgers aren’t going to allow Howard to beat them, Burrell’s at-bats become that much more important.

But when Burrell led off the second with a single down the line to left, he was quickly erased when Jayson Werth grounded into a double play.

That’s a pretty good indicator that Derek Lowe’s patented sinker is working well.

End of 2: Dodgers 1, Phillies 0

Manny being Manny… or something like that

Big crowd here at the ballpark. All the seats are filled and they all stood and gave a rousing ovation to Charlie Manuel and the gang during the pre-game introductions.

I’m sitting here in the press box in the third row near next to Gonzo, who I hope won’t get the urge to punch me in the face tonight.

Really though, who can blame him? Gonzo and Bowa seem to have a lot in common in that regard. Nevertheless, the press box and the ballpark are as packed as I have ever seen it. Chances are the attendance record could be set tonight.

Luckily, the fans got to see Garry Maddox and Gary Matthews, the MVP of the 1983 NLCS when the Phillies beat the Dodgers, throw the ceremonial first pitches.

Then it got really loud with the “BEAT LA!” chant.

From talking to a few of the LA and national writers, it seems as if their read on the series is similar to ours – both clubs are very even and could see it going either way.

However, they all seem to think the Manny vs. Boston World Series is destined to happen. I say don’t forget about Nomar… certainly he left Boston just as unceremoniously as Manny.

Of course Manny made his presence known early when he followed Andre Ethier’s one-out double with the longest RBI double in the history of the park. Ramirez bashed an 0-1 fastball high above the 409-foot sign in the deepest and highest part of center field off starter Cole Hamels.

Interestingly, Hamels’ first eight pitches were fastballs, including the one Manny nearly hit through the chain-link fence in deep center. It also appeared as if he threw a fastball to cross up catcher Carlos Ruiz on a passed ball with two outs.

Call it an auspicious first inning for Hamels. It could have been worse, but the lefty grinded it out.

Meanwhile, Dodgers’ hurler Derek Lowe got through the first inning on just 14 pitches, compared to 23 by Hamels. However, a significant occurrence of note for the Phillies that inning came when Chase Utley roped a single to center with two outs.

End of 1: Dodgers 1, Phillies 0

Enough talk, let’s get it on

First things first… the Phillies announced their NLCS roster this morning and despite the speculation, reliever Rudy Seanez was not added. Just like the previous round against the Brewers, manager Charlie Manuel will go with 11 pitchers against the Dodgers

The Phillies:
Pitchers: Joe Blanton, Clay Condrey, Chad Durbin, Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and Brett Myers Scott Eyre, Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, Jamie Moyer and J.C. Romero.

Infielders: Eric Bruntlett, Greg Dobbs, Pedro Feliz, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.

Outfielders: Pat Burrell, Geoff Jenkins, Matt Stairs, So Taguchi, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth.

Catchers: Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz.

The Dodgers:
Pitchers: Jonathan Broxton, Cory Wade, Hong-Chih Kuo, Joe Beimel, Chan Ho Park, Greg Maddux, Clayton Kershaw, James McDonald, Derek Lowe, Chad Billinsgley and Hiroki Kuroda

Infielders: James Loney, Blake DeWitt, Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake, Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, Angel Berroa and Pablo Ozuna

Outfielders: Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Juan Pierre

Catchers: Russell Martin and Danny Ardoin.

OK, so is everybody tired of talking and contemplating Manny hitting cleanup for the Dodgers? The face that Ryan Howard and Chase Utley (especially Utley) have not hit with much alacrity during the playoffs?

Yep, it’s old. It’s tired. But it’s what we do. No, Davey Lopes wasn’t too keen on talking about the events of three decades ago, but what about the rest of us? Yeah, we know most of the Phillies weren’t even born – or didn’t care – about the Phillies and “Black Friday” and we know that occurrences of last week have no affect on a game today, let alone games played 31 years ago. But here in Philadelphia it’s part of the communal suffering. Why should the Red Sox and Cubs corner the market on the little cottage industry of sports lament?

Go sing “Sweet Caroline” or blame a Billy Goat for another loss or something. We’re in the playoffs over here. This is serious business.

So how will it play out? Yeah, good question. In that regard I guess I’m with everyone else in that the Dodgers and Phillies are incredibly evenly matched. It’s just uncanny. In fact, if the Dodgers looked in the mirror the reflection looking back at them would be the Phillies. Both clubs pitch well – the bullpens and starting corps are equally solid. They both use speed well and have decent hitters that roll off the bench. For the Dodgers guys like Nomar Garciaparra are the go-to, late-inning bat. For the Phillies it’s Greg Dobbs.

Tactically, Joe Torre and Charlie Manuel square off, but in the playoffs most managers will make all moves by the book anyway. If it comes to playoff acumen, though, Torre has the edge.

The Phillies have the advantage with the power hitters – that is if they get it going. During the NLDS the Phils won two games with the long ball and they have been scoring runs with homers all season long. Sure, the Dodgers piled up the runs in the NLDS against the Cubs with their new-look lineup, but come on… it’s going to come down to the pitching and defense.

It always does.

In that regard the difference could be how well the Dodgers’ right-handed heavy pitching staff performs against the Phillies’ power-hitting lefties. That means the series will come down to Utley and Howard. That’s where the Phillies are pinning their hopes.

“You look at Chase Utley, you think him getting four hits every day, but that don’t work that way,” Manuel said. “Baseball is 162, get in the playoffs how many games is it. So therefore that’s the way you look at it.

“We’re getting back to that even keel. That up and down. Like guys they don’t hit every day. Human nature plays a big part of the game. It’s hard to sit and explain to someone how you feel and like what’s going on and like with you and all that, and that’s the mental part, and also that’s the part we have to work through and that’s the part where guys on some nights they can go four for four, they have hot and cold nights and they have hot and cold weeks. Sometimes they have a cold month.

“Sometimes they have a season cold. But at the same time, I mean, that’s the way the game goes.”

Utley and Howard. There it is… Phillies in 7.

Eighth inning: Burrell blasts and Utley’s swoon

MILWAUKEE – Take away that double off Mike Cameron’s glove in Game 1, and the single early in Game 3 is the only hit for Chase Utley during the NLDS. Certainly the middle-of-the-order struggles have been well chronicled by folks like me, but it seems as if at least one guy got it going just in the nick of time.

Pat Burrell greeted new pitcher Guillermo Mota with a home run that just cleared the left-field fence for his second blast of the game.

Yes, talk about perfect timing…

With the two bombs and three hits in Game 4, Burrell has four RBIs after going 0-for-8 in the first three games of the series. Needless to say, the Phillies will need a few more games like this one if they are going to be successful in the NLCS against the Dodgers. At the very least, Burrell could earn himself a nice new contract somewhere if he puts together a nice postseason.

Meanwhile, Utley’s performance during the playoffs (as well the second half of the season) has to be a concern for manager Charlie Manuel. Then again, it’s not like Utley’s playoff malaise is confined to just this season. So far, Utley is 4-for-26 (.154) in seven career playoff games.

However, Utley is going to get some more chances to get some hits in the playoffs this season. That means the Phillies are winning ballgames.

Who cares about the numbers when the team wins?

Right?

Ryan Madson gave up a run on two hits in the eighth, but at this point the Phillies are just playing for outs.

End of 8: Phillies 6, Brewers 2

Hello Wisconsin!

Programming note: We are in Milwaukee and will offer the same live updates during tonight’s game from Miller Park.


MILWAUKEE – The first thing one notices about a domed stadium is that the view from the floor is very similar to that of a basketball or hockey arena. The stands feel very close to surface and pushed forward for great sight lines. Yet at the same time the coziness is also offset by wide corridors plenty of elbow room and a ceiling that seems vaster than it actually is.

Perhaps that’s because when a person looks up into an open air arena he is looking into infinity. It’s unknown and never ending so therefore the mere human mind struggles to come to grips with that vastness. He simply ignores it.

But slap a roof up there and there is context. Everyone can figure out how high the ceiling is… why it’s all the way up there, of course. It’s a really long way away.

Yet because it’s a basketball arena with a baseball diamond laid out on it, the dimensions seem tighter than they really are. Actually, the closeness of the stands and the roof up top make the place feel like the quirky wiffle ball stadium you probably built in the backyard when you were a kid.

That’s exactly what Miller Park feels like.

Better yet, it has a feel. It’s unique in a sense because the place is completely fabricated, which is a paradox. That’s it – Miller Park is a paradox. Dropped into a wide parkland section just west of downtown Milwaukee, the stadium looks as if it was dropped down from outer space. From the outside it looks like a futuristic clam with its folding retractable roof, and on the inside it looks like a scene from a snow globe.

So that’s where the Phillies will try to win their first playoff series since beating the Atlanta Braves in the 1993 NLCS. The consensus around the ballpark is that the Phillies will sew it up on Saturday to quickly turn their attention to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team in a similar position.

It won’t be easy for the Phillies. Oh sure, they seemingly cruised through the first two games of the series, but they did so despite themselves. In the 16 innings in which they came to bat, the Phillies have only scored in two of them. Moreover, they left the bases loaded twice in Game 2, once more in Game 1 and have stranded 17, including 11 runners in scoring position.

Worse, the heart of the order – Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell – is a combined 1-for-17 with eight strikeouts. If Brewers’ centerfielder Mike Cameron had gotten a better bead on a fly ball hit by Utley with two outs in the third inning of Game 1, it would be 0-for-17.

Meanwhile, the Brewers are hoping to repeat the same path from the last time they were in the playoffs back in 1982 when they dropped the first two games of the ALCS only to come back and sweep the last three games from the California Angels.

So here we are in Milwaukee waiting to see where we’ll go next.

Marson goes the distance

Baseball can be pretty darned fun sometimes. Forget about the party following clinching victories and all of that kind of stuff, sometimes it’s just fun to watch a game.

Take Game 162 for instance. With the NL East already wrapped up and nothing to play for other than some statistics, manager Charlie Manuel filled Sunday’s lineup with September call ups. Because of that, Greg Golson, Mike Cervenak and Lou Marson have proper Baseball-Reference pages.

That’s certainly no small feat. In fact, the underlying theme of the movie “Field of Dreams” was all about a ballplayer named Moonlight Graham and his not-so spotty entry in the encyclopedia. Graham, as made famous in the film, played just one inning of one game in right field for the New York Giants in 1905. He didn’t get a chance to bat, nor did he make a play in the field. When the game ended, Graham never again played in the Majors so his record consists of one little notch under the games heading and that’s it.

As a result, Graham has the most rudimentary and mysterious professional record in the books.

Contrarily, if Lou Marson never gets a shot to play in the big leagues again his ledger will look pretty full. Now this isn’t to say that Marson will never again play in the Majors – quite the opposite. Clearly Marson should be tabbed as the Phillies’ catcher of the future after a summer in which he stood out at Double-A Reading and was an integral player for Team USA in the Beijing Olympics.

“He’s going to be a good big-league player,” Manuel said.

Obviously, the Phillies like Marson very much though he likely seems to be slated to spend most of 2009 seasoning himself at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Nevertheless, in his first (and only) Major League game, Marson batted eighth as the starting catcher against the Washington Nationals on Sunday. Better yet, he caught all nine innings, picked up his first hit and – oh yeah – clubbed a two-run homer in the eighth inning to help the Phillies put the game out of reach.

So if you go to that Lou Marson Baseball-Reference page, it looks pretty gaudy with the career .500 batting average and 1.720 OPS. Better yet, he averages out to 162 homers and 324 RBIs for a full season.

See, told you it was fun.

“He has a chance to be very good. He hits the ball a lot to right field, but today he pulled his home run to left,” Manuel said. “It’s just a matter of time until he learns to really handle pitches and hit the ball out front more. He’s got a chance to be a real good hitter.”

Marson was pretty good for Reading where he hit .314 with five homers in 94 games. For Team USA, he hit .308 in five games during the Olympics and even threw out two of three would-be base stealers. However, when Marson joined the Phillies in early September, he didn’t do much more than take batting practice before the games. He also had a pretty good spot to watch from the dugout, serving as an emergency catcher in case of an injury to Chris Coste or Carlos Ruiz. Marson will reprise that role during the playoffs when he heads off to the Arizona Fall League to be ready if the Phillies need to add him to the playoff roster.

In the meantime, after nearly a month of hanging around the team Marson finally got a chance to play. Needless to say, he made the most of it.

“It was great for me to be around the guys and see how they go about their business in a pennant race and what they do every day and how they prepare – everything  like that,” Marson said. “Just watching guys play helps me a lot.”

Perhaps he picked up the home run swing from watching Ryan Howard?

“I never imagined I’d hit a home run my first time,” Marson said.

Though he homered in his first game, Marson singled for his first hit. That is unlike Chase Utley who hit a grand slam for his first big-league hit.

“I was excited when I came in today and saw my name up on that board,” Marson said. “I just wanted to make the most of it.”

***
It’s been pointed out in other places, but how much fun is it that the White Sox are hoping to save their playoff chances by sending Gavin Floyd to the mound against the Tigers’ Freddy Garcia?

On another note, Garcia (1) and Floyd (16) have combined for 17 wins this season. That’s more than twice as many as the pair combined for in 35 career starts for the Phillies.

Just getting there not enough

As far as zaniness goes in the wake of NL East-clinching celebration on Saturday night at the Bank, Chris Coste took top honors when he zipped around the field on a borrowed (at least we hope so) police bicycle.

Other than Coste’s tomfoolery, the celebration was slightly muted. Oh sure, Brett Myers took perverse pleasure dousing anyone and everyone with beer and Pat Burrell made sure his bulldog, Elvis, made it to the party.

Otherwise, the Phillies acted as if clinching celebrations was old hat. After all, last year’s wild bash was 14 years in the making and it took the Phillies until the very last day of the season to sew it up. This year manager Charlie Manuel retreated to his office after the game while the party simmered in the clubhouse and out on the field.

Only when the remaining fans called for him with an echoing chant of, “CHARLIE! CHARLIE! CHARLIE!” did the manager work his way back out to the field to tip his cap and celebrate ever so briefly with his players.

Been there, done that appeared to be the theme as the celebration quickly morphed into a neighborhood cocktail party. Though pulling off the repeat wasn’t easy, the Phillies believe there is much to prove during the second season.

“I think we got a little taste last year of it, short and sweet,” Chase Utley said. “There’s a lot of focus, a lot of drive, a lot of intensity. We’re definitely not done.”

Last year the Phillies were finished in the playoffs pretty quickly. In fact, the team barely got warmed up before the Colorado Rockies sent them packing in three straight. Utley, in particular, went through some growing pains in his first playoffs where he struck out four times on just 13 pitches in Game 1.

It wasn’t just Utley who had trouble, either. In three games the Phillies collected just 16 hits and batted .172 with 26 strikeouts. Of the eight runs the Phils scored during the series, five came on solo homers.

“We didn’t really know what to expect going into the playoffs last year,” Utley said. “This year, you have more of an understanding of how everything works. It’s no different, it’s still baseball. You have to prepare and go out there every day. I never played baseball in October before last year.”

Shortstop Jimmy Rollins says the Phillies worked so hard just to get into the playoffs last season that once they got there they didn’t have much left.

“I think we were so hell bent on that and so focused to win the division that we kind of ran out of steam heading into the playoffs,” Rollins said. “There’s no such thing as pacing yourself, but we know that there is more than just winning the division. We won the division last year and three games later we were watching with everyone else. We don’t want that to happen again, so we’ll be a little more under control and hopefully bring home a championship.”

There is a big difference between the maiden voyage in 2007 and the return trip in 2008. For one thing, every player expected to be on the playoff roster – except Geoff Jenkins and Chad Durbin – have post-season experience. Better yet, six players (Brad Lidge, Eric Bruntlett, Tadahito Iguchi, So Taguchi, Pedro Feliz and Scott Eyre) have appeared in the World Series.

For a change, the Phillies will have experience as an asset.

“Our focus is different this year,” Howard said. “This is the first step, making the playoffs. We didn’t like the feeling [of losing] last year, but we got the experience. We know what to expect this year.”

In fact, manager Charlie Manuel says there won’t be a repeat of last season.

“Believe me – we’re going to go farther in the playoffs than we did last year,” Manuel said.

Nevertheless, the Phillies still don’t know who they will play come Wednesday in Philadelphia. Though Cole Hamels will get a second consecutive Game 1 start in the NLDS, the Phillies must wait for the Brewers and the Mets to settle the wild-card race. If the Mets survive to make the playoffs after blowing a 3 ½ games lead in the NL East just two weeks ago, the Phillies will host the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But if the Brewers come out on top, they will head to Philadelphia to open the playoffs with the memory of the four-game sweep that led to manager Ned Yost’s firing still fresh in their minds.

Manuel says the Phillies matchup pretty well against either the Brewers or Dodgers.

“It doesn’t really matter. All the teams we play we match up well against them,” Manuel said. “The Cubs have a lot of right-handed pitchers and our left-handed hitters match up against them. It doesn’t really matter to me who we play. We’ll see.

“I’m really looking forward to it.”

Jenkins, who had been ranked fourth amongst active players in games played without a playoff appearance, spent the first decade of his career with the Brewers. Needless to say, the irony of facing his old team when he finally gets to the playoffs was not lost on Jenkins.

“I’ve been waiting to get into the postseason for so long. It’s just a happy, unbelievable feeling about getting here. I’m just excited about keeping it going,” Jenkins said. “You picture how it might be, but until you go through it, you can’t even picture how great this is.”

Yeah, the Phillies already know. Now they want to find out just how much better it can be.

“We all have a little experience at this,” Rollins said. “We can hopefully go a little further into the playoffs. We know winning the division doesn’t guarantee you anything. It just means you have a chance to go win the World Series.”

The second trip starts Wednesday.

Fifth inning: Finding the groove

One of the worst-kept secrets around the Phillies during the second half of the season was that Chase Utley had been playing through some type of injury. Close observers of the game – like scouts for instance – knew something was up based on how the All-Star took his swing or ran to receive a ball.

Clearly something was bothering Utley because he went from 25 home runs during the first half of the season, to just eight after the All-Star Break. In fact, all of Utley’s power numbers waned, though his batting average remained steady.

Utley ripped a few loud fouls off the lefty John Lannan, but went down on strikes when the pitcher fooled him with a slider. Regardless, Utley’s stroke seems solid.

The Nats got on the board in the fifth when Jayson Werth could not hang onto a long drive hit by Anderson Hernandez when he crashed into the right-field fence. Werth appeared to be shaken up a bit on the play, taking an extra minute to loosen up his shoulder and/or catch his breath after relaying the ball back to the infield.

Moyer, meanwhile, is up to 72 pitches. He should be able to get through seven innings.

Nevertheless, fears that Werth was a little banged up were allayed in the bottom half of the frame when he led off with home run just over the out-of-town scoreboard in right.

Call it a “Citizens Bank Park Special.”

Lannan survived big trouble when Shane Victorino’s long drive was caught at the fence.

The Phillies are 12 outs away from wrapping things up.

End of 5: Phillies 3, Nats 1

Fourth inning: Phillies on the board

Just walked into the dining room to get a diet coke when I caught one of the attendants singing “Strangers In the Night…”

Do be do be do…

Meanwhile, the old-timer Jamie Moyer had a relatively quick inning for a change. In sitting down the heart of the Nationals’ order, Moyer used just 10 pitches.

Perhaps he’s settling in?

In addition to a packed house in the seating area, the press box is stuffed, too. In fact, a writer two with no paper on Sunday turned out to properly describe the action of the local nine. And from what I have heard, Scott Lauber is also offering live updates on his site.

It’s Scott’s birthday so go check it out.

If you decide just to stay here, I’ll tell you that Scott is probably writing about how Chase Utley appears to be finding his swing again. Utley picked up a leadoff single and dashed to third when Ryan Howard followed with another single.

Utley scored the first run of the game when Pat Burrell lifted a sacrifice fly to right and then Howard came in to make it 2-0 when Carlos Ruiz also hit a sacrifice fly to right field.

Call those productive outs… do it.

Moyer walked with two outs to re-load the bases, but Jimmy Rollins could not break it open off John Lannan.

Nevertheless, the scoreboard has been dented. Is it enough for Moyer?

End of 4: Phillies 2, Nats 0

Sixth & seventh: Chowing down

Sorry about the delay, folks. I had to get up out of my seat and grab a drink to make sure I stay hydrated in this humidity. Hopefully we get a break from this oppressive, sultry weather soon. Truth be told, I’m a cool weather guy.

It should be noted that there is/was free food in the media dining room this evening. The Phillies served hot dogs, pizza along with the usual salad bar offerings. Not bad – all for free, too. Usually it costs $10.

Still, the concepts of “free food” and “the media” should send a cold shiver down your spine. Frankly, it’s a scary sight in which it’s quite possible for a guy to be mauled, run over, smacked with a pointy elbow by someone boxing out for position or lose a digit if grabbing for something.

Here in the press box they bite first, think second. Do yourself a favor and stay out of the way.

On the field Myers cruised through the sixth with another clean frame, including his second whiff of the game. But in the seventh, Prince Fielder broke up the shutout with a line-drive home run that reached the first row in right field.

It should be noted that Ken Mandel just walked by and said, “It should be noted that the Phillies ‘Never surrendered’ against a team with Corey Hart.”

Yes, I will apologize for Ken. Sorry.

Anyway, Fielder homered twice this series after not hitting one for a month. The big slugger is up to 30 now and it seems to me that the Brewers chances will ride on his wide back. Who knows – maybe he’ll get it going in Chicago this week.

For the Phillies, Jimmy Rollins walked in the sixth inning to reach base for the fourth straight time in the game. When Jimmy goes, the Phillies go. The team’s record is remarkable in games in which Rollins scores a run.

Meanwhile, Chase Utley has hit in eight straight games though he is really hitting. Who knows, the numbers in the box score to lead to something. After all, I recall during Jimmy Rollins’ long hitting streak that he really was scuffling despite the fact he had a hit in 10 straight games. But once he found a groove it was lights out.

It’s lights out here for the Brewers… stick a fork in ‘em?

Leslie chimes in
I’m sitting 20 feet from John and I can tell you it’s not nearly as hot out here as he perceives it to be. I’m thinking you need to take the Starbucks drip out of your arm, John… the caffeine has your sweat glands working overtime.

The conversation on this end of the press box has shifted from Brett Myers to Sarah Palin. A 6-0 lead can have that effect on people.

I guess you have to be from Southern California to enjoy this type of weather, huh? I guess your seatmates are helping to fan you off with those flapping gums.

Phillies 6, Brewers 1

First inning: Picking up where they left off

Ed. Note: Comcast SportsNet’s Leslie Gudel is here at the ballpark and sitting directly to my left. As such, it appears as if she might have a few thoughts to offer to the array of posts during tonight’s game. Certainly Leslie’s keen insight will offer a different slant to things.

The scene in the Brewers’ clubhouse following the opening game of the split doubleheader certainly told the story – those guys are cooked.

Well, maybe not. Certainly a lot can happen in the two weeks remaining in the season, but it’s quite evident that the Brewers are tighter than a drum. After the late-inning blow up to lose the opening game, no one talked or even glanced in the direction of another player. One writer – a veteran of some tense and bad-vibe filled clubhouses – called the scene “surreal.”

That bodes well for the Phillies.

Conversely, there is nothing that seems to make the Phillies tense. Since Charlie Manuel came aboard as manager, the ballclub has been loose and fancy free. Players know that their manager is going to allow them to do their jobs without interference or second-guessing. For instance, when Chase Utley bunted with Jayson Werth on first base and no outs in the eighth inning of a tied game, Manuel didn’t go into his post-game meeting with the scribes and wonder aloud, “What was Chase thinking? By sacrificing in that situation he took the bat out of the hands of the hottest hitter in the game… geez!”

Instead, Charlie talked to Utley on the spot. Nothing lingered or carried over to create undue animosity. Charlie told Utley to hit away and give Ryan Howard a chance to smash a homer.

Nevertheless, the move ended up working out for the Phillies anyway. Howard was intentionally walked and Pat Burrell singled in the go-ahead run. All is well that ends well.

Perhaps all is well that starts well, too. Brett Myers got through the top of the first on just eight pitches – and two long, loud outs – while the offense picked up right where they left off this afternoon.

After Jimmy Rollins stretched a single into a double to start the frame against Jeff Suppan, and next season’s everyday left fielder (OK, speculation on my part, but educated speculation) Jayson Werth singled, the Phillies opened the scoring with a run despite a double play from Utley.

One in the books. The Phillies are 24 outs from a tie for the wild card.

Phillies 1, Brewers 0

Don’t believe your lying eyes

Frankly, I’m kind of tired of writing about the Phillies’ recent offensive struggles. It’s getting quite boring and ordinary. It’s just the same old thing day in and day out – strikeouts, failure to advance the runners, hanging around and waiting for that home run, more strikeouts.

Yawn.

Even though the Phillies scored eight runs in the victory over the Dodgers last night, the top hitters – cleverly called The Big Four, though “The Gruesome Foursome,” or “The Silent Majority” might be more apt – continued the slide. Oh sure, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard clubbed home runs, but add that up with the other pair of slumping hitters and it comes to a rousing 3-for-15.

Seemingly, the Phillies offense is becoming more and more one dimensional by the day. Unless someone homers, the production is minimal.

Both before and after last night’s game, manager Charlie Manuel discussed Howard and the skipper’s desire for him to return to his 2006 and 2007 form. Interestingly, though, Manuel seemed to indicate that Howard could regain MVP-type prowess if he worked harder.

“I told him [after the game] that he ought to grab his film and look at it, especially [from his MVP year] when he was hitting the ball really good and was consistent,” Manuel said. “It always reminds you of how you’re swinging, and that right there is what we have to have out of him.”

There have been whispers for a little while that the Phillies’ brass was a little underwhelmed by Howard’s off-the-field work ethic. Actually, following the 2006 MVP year the popular story was that Howard showed up for spring training overweight because he indulged in the celebratory banquet circuit. Sure, maybe he had one too many rubber chicken dinners, but how would that interfere with off-season workouts?

Nevertheless, Howard said he did watch video tape of his at-bats, but seemed lukewarm on how important that type of preparation was.

“I’ve watched [tapes from 2006] a couple different times throughout the year,” Howard said. “It helps to a certain extent.”

Then again, it’s not as if there were too many other players like Howard willing to talk about anything after nearly every game. In a not so recent development, the Phillies’ standoffishness with the local media, seemingly led by a couple of longtime Phillies’ veterans, has reached epic proportions.

Here are two very accurate descriptions from Randarino:

It’s hide-and-seek most nights in Phils clubhouse
Another near-empty winning Phillies clubhouse

Certainly I’ve written about the Phillies’ verbosity in the past, as well as my reluctance to speak to vapid ballplayers – I’m a snob like that. So if the players don’t want to correct my assumptions or tell me what they think is going on, I guess I’m up to my own devices.

***
My wife summed it up perfectly…

“This is your Super Bowl isn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“It,” of course, is the Olympic Marathon, which will be beamed live from Beijing at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. But unlike the Super Bowl, which occurs every year, the Olympic Marathon, the traditional closing event of the games, happens once every four years.

Yes, I’ve written a bit about the big race in the past and I’m sure I’ll have more to add to the pile afterwards.

So, yeah, guess where I’ll be at 7:30… and check my Twitter page because I’ll be offering blow-by-blow updates during the race.

No more fun of any kind

When Steve Garvey smacked a clutch home run in the 1984 NLCS to help the Padres force another epic choke job by the historically laughable Chicago Cubs, he circled the bases with one fist in the air. It was a simple gesture for the biggest hit of a series that ultimately sent the Padres to their first ever World Series.

Kirby Puckett famously circled the bases with a fist in the air after hitting a 12th-inning homer in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Puckett’s homer helped the Twins stave off elimination and force a Game 7 against the Braves that might be the greatest game ever played.

What about Kirk Gibson’s histrionics after launching a walk-off piece off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series? It was as if Gibson were limping around the bases and pretending to start a phantom lawnmower all at the same time.

And of Reggie Cadillac-ed every home run he ever hit – whether in the World Series or the regular season. Reggie also had that distinctive home run trot in which he usually adjusted his wire-framed glasses with a push of his index finger to settle the frames back onto the bridge of his nose.

Who would have ever thought a guy adjusting his glasses could ever be so cool?

Nevertheless, when we were kids we loved all of these shows. Sure, Reggie was a player fans loved to hate – mostly because he was a Yankee – and Garvey seemed to grate on folks, too. But who didn’t like watching ballplayers rise to the occasion? Who didn’t like a show?

Better yet, who doesn’t like to watch people have fun? Baseball is supposed to be fun, right?

So when Jose Reyes ran the bases with one finger raised following his game-winning, three-run blast off Ryan Madson last night at Shea Stadium, the hand wringing was inevitable. You just knew it was coming. A showboat like Reyes running the bases like he was excited about hitting a homer in a key spot…

For shame!

Reyes is a showboat whose antics irk even his teammates, some blathered. He’s unprofessional, others said. Perhaps he should be plunked with a pitch the next time he comes to the plate for “showing up” the Phillies.

Yeah, he was showing up the Phillies by trying to hit a home run. Maybe he should have struck out, gently replaced his bat and helmet in their proper receptacles, poured himself a cool drink from the corporately licensed barrel and found a comfortable seat in the dugout.

After all, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley never do anything showy when they hit home runs. They are the models of professional decorum when they circle the bases…

Come off it!

Then again, the self-righteous blatherings from us media types are part of the show, too. We’re all actors in the same game only they jocks like to pretend they are just modest athletes trying to make a living, and the press likes to pretend it is above it all and is merely a conduit to the fans.

Insert sarcastic comment here.

Look, Reyes’ act is clownish and a little embarrassing with the array of dance steps, ridiculous handshakes and other juvenile sideshows. But really, who cares? He’s a baseball player getting paid a lot of money to play a game. If Reyes had an important job maybe the jitterbug routine would be offensive, but he doesn’t. Baseball players are entertainers.

Most people get this. In fact, no one in Philadelphia seems to mind when Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins pull off their tributes to Reggie whenever they really get a hold of one. Heck, even Utley’s speedy dash around the bases is a type of showboating. After all, sometimes no style is, indeed, style. Truth be told, I’m surprised Rollins doesn’t ratchet up the theatrics to an Ozzie Smith-level of hotdogging with the flips and other stuff.

Better yet, maybe Rollins could do a series of cartwheels around the bases after a home run. Why not? I’ve seen it before. After a particularly meaningful home run in a wiffle ball game at the ol’ backyard diamond on Wilson Drive, my friend John performed a cartwheel as he reached each base. The cool thing about this “trot” was that even as a high schooler (as John was at the time) he was still quite a bit bigger than Jimmy Rollins. So to see a young man like John able to pull off these acrobatics was a sight to behold.

Sure, it was a bit over the top, but it was a really big home run. Still, if Rollins doesn’t want to do the cartwheels, maybe we can settle for an interpretive dance or something.

Still, the old-school baseball establishment will continue to look down on fun of any kind because it is “disrespectful” to the game and “shows up” the opposition. Never mind that these are the same people that are descendents of baseball’s other traditions such as an industry-wide ban on players of specific races… don’t get these same folks started up on Sabremetrics.

Yeah, baseball has (and had) bigger problems than whether or not Jose Reyes enjoys hitting home runs. Heaven forbid if someone enjoys their job.

How are you going to get that out?

Wouldn’t you know it… there is a high-school girls distance running camp here in Estes Park this week. Melody Fairchild, regarded by some as the best high-school cross country runner ever is the director.

I suspect we’ll see a few of the campers galavanting around town.

Anyway, I will report back tonight while watching Chase Utley in the Home Run Derby in Yankee Stadium. I also may report on the Phillies first half, a trip to Boulder as well as other adventures.

The truth about the Home Run Derby is that I’ll watch until the local guy goes out and then I’ll turn it off. Oh, I might stick around a little longer tonight because it’s at Yankee Stadium and the visages are bound to be much more interesting than any other ballpark, but really, who can stand to listen to Chris Berman.

Generally I don’t care about the announcers of sporting events at all. It’s easy to block them out as long as the focus is on the actual game, but Chris Berman… man is he awful.

Listening to Chris Berman is a lot like trying to put your entire fist into your mouth. Not only is it difficult and a tremendous waste of time, but if you succeed and get those knuckles past an incisor and/or molar and actually get your fist in your mouth, now what? All you are is some jackass sitting there in front of the TV with your fist in your mouth… how are you going to get it out?

My advice? Don’t listen to Berman — turn down the sound if you must. And please, for the love of all that’s holy, do not put your fist in your mouth.

***

Measuring up

CharlieDuring the past month it’s been very difficult not to get excited about the Phillies. They have scored runs with impunity, won games at nearly a 1993 rate all while the bullpen corps established itself as one of the better groups in the game. When it comes to rallying for a lead in the middle to late innings before the relievers come in and nail it down, the Phillies are as good as any team in baseball.

In the process, the Phillies have established themselves as the best team in the NL East and baring a collapse of New York Mets-like proportions, the Philllies should return to the playoffs in 2008.

But that’s where it gets complicated.

Yes, the Phillies are a playoff-caliber team. And, yes, the ’08 Phillies are better than the version that slipped into the playoffs during the 2007 season. Those two points are given. But what complicates things is that the Phillies are now forced with a pretty difficult decision that must come to a conclusion by the end of next month.

What are they in this for?

Do the Phillies simply want to improve on last season’s short ride through the playoffs, or are they going for the rings, trophies and champagne?

Sure, it sounds like an easy question to answer. Every player on every team – even the ones who secretly know they have no shot – say they won’t be satisfied unless they win the World Series. That’s the whole point of playing, they say. But the facts are much more austere. Some teams just aren’t built for the long haul of a 162-game season. Others are built to win a division or a wild-card berth, but flame out in the playoffs.

But only a couple of teams every season are built to go all the way. With some clubs the brass gets together to compile the components that will carry the team during late October. Sometimes those teams even go on autopilot for the first few months of the regular season.

The Phillies saw firsthand what those really good teams look like when the Boston Red Sox came to town for three games this week. The players and the management got to see how the Red Sox set up the Phillies’ pitchers, patiently waiting for a pitch to bash for extra-base hits or base-clogging walk. The Red Sox made the Phillies hurlers work and then they exposed all their little, tiny weaknesses.

If that wasn’t enough, the Sox pitchers worked over the heart of the Phillies’ batting order and held Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell to a combined 1-for-24 (.042) during the final two games of the series and 6-for-36 (.167) during the entire three-game series.

No, the Red Sox didn’t come right out and embarrass the Phillies. After all, Cole Hamels pitched splendidly in the Phillies’ 8-2 victory last Monday where Howard, Burrell, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino spurred the offense. Instead, the Red Sox treated the Phillies as if they were a tiny winged insect there for amusement and all they had to do when they got finished plucking the wings off one-by-one was stomp on them.

“Obviously they’ve been successful a long time and there’s a reason why. They have some good players over there,” Utley said. “I thought we played well the first game. We faced a tough pitcher the second game and today we had some opportunities we didn’t capitalize on.”

This was the Red Sox with Jon Lester and Justin Masterson and not Josh Beckett or Dice-K. It was the Sox with Sean Casey and J.D. Drew leading the way and not sluggers David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez or Kevin Youkilis.

It wasn’t exactly the B-team… that was the Phillies. Better yet, it was a Phillies club that came away from the series with a handful of lessons.

“The first night, we went out and won and everybody’s talking about the Phillies finally proving they can do it. Then, we lose the next two,” Victorino said. “It’s not a learning process. It’s just a matter of seeing what they have.

“I think we match up with them. I know we can.”

Thinking it and doing it are two different things. As a result it has become quite clear that if the Phillies are interested in playing the Red Sox again this season, they need to make an addition or two. That’s because the only sure thing the Phillies have in the starting rotation is Hamels. After that, it’s pray the bats are hot.

Fortunately for the Phillies and their fans, management was hip to the team’s weaknesses all along. In fact, reports have surfaced which indicate the team has dispatched scouts specifically to watch the Indians’ C.C. Sabathia and the Padres’ Greg Maddux pitch. Both players could be available for a trade before the July 31 deadline, though the price won’t be cheap.

Meanwhile, the proverbial gauntlet has been thrown down for Opening Day starter Brett Myers, who thus far has limped to a 3-8 record with a 5.58 ERA. Both manager Charlie Manuel and assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. have stated that the big right-hander has to improve quickly…

Or what?

Fortunes turn fast in baseball. Suddenly the Phillies have lost three straight series and six out of their last nine immediately on the heels of a stretch in which they won 12 of 14 games. Plus, the first-place Los Angeles Angels head to town this weekend. Like the Red Sox, the Angels are another tam built for games to be played when the leaves have dropped from the trees and the air takes on a chilly bite.

Have we seen the real Phillies or are they still on the way?

“I’m concerned, I’m not worried,” Manuel said. “We got three more games on this homestand. I’d like to see the Angels come in here and finish this homestand real well. I’d to see us get some things going.”

Going, going, gone?

Chase UtleySo far, the 2008 season has bordered on “magical” for Phillies’ all-everything second baseman Chase Utley. Last night he slugged his Major League-leading 21st home run in the first inning and then chipped in with a pair of singles and two diving catches to save the Phillies’ 5-4 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

More than that, Utley smashed a homer in the fifth straight game to tie the franchise record for homers in consecutive games. Better yet, it was the second time this season that Utley has homered in five straight games.

More?

Well, check it out:

  • He is second in the league with 38 extra-base hits.
  • He is hitting .419 (13 for 31) with seven homers and 20 RBIs in his last eight games.
  • He is second in the National League with 52 RBIs, runs with 48 and slugging percentage at .680.
  • He is fourth in the league in OPS at 1.083.
  • He is 11th in the league in hitting at .320 and doubles with 16.

Moreover, Utley leads all National Leaguers in the balloting for the All-Star Game and has to be one of the top two early candidates for the MVP voting even though there are nearly four months left in the season.

If Utley weren’t (intentionally?) the worst interview in all of professional sports, maybe we’d be witnessing a Jeter and/or A-Rod in the making. You know, a HUGE superstar…

Nevertheless, it has been Utley’s home-run hitting that has been the most eye-opening facet of his game this season. With 21 bombs, he has already equaled last season’s total and can tie his tally from 2006 with one more blast. Prior to that, Utley slugged a career-best 32 in 2005, which is right about where the Phillies’ brass had him pegged when he was drafted in the first round out of UCLA in June of 2000.

“I didn’t envision him being able to get up around 30,” assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle told ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick. “As he matured and developed more strength in his hands and forearms, he generated more bat speed. That was the element we were light on.”

Charlie Manuel, one of the game’s most notable hitting gurus, gets as giddy as a schoolgirl when talking about Utley’s smooth, compact and pure swing. After last night’s game he talked about the alacrity in which line drives rocket off his second-baseman’s bat and how those liners seem to be just high enough to find the seats beyond the right-field fence.

“He’s hitting line drives high. He’s hitting it hard and they’re high enough to go out,” Manuel said, noting that statistics like batting average and home runs usually have a way of evening out in the end, as well as his theory that “a home run is nothing more than a well-hit fly ball that lands on the other side of the fence.”

So what about those “well-hit fly balls?” How does wiry and sinewy Chase Utley rip all those homers?

Maybe it’s the ballpark?

According to the great Hit Tracker web site, Utley is tied for the Major League lead for “Lucky Homers” with Alfonso Soriano, and is third in the Majors in “Just Enough” blasts. Based on the way the good folks at Hit Tracker crunch the numbers and figure in all the variables, Utley probably should have just a maximum of 16 homers.

Sixteen home runs on June 2 is a total that would be second in the National League and certainly nothing to sneeze at. But perhaps a bigger factor is that 16 of Utley’s 21 homers have come in Citizens Bank Park, though two of his “Just Enough” homers have come on the road in Cincinnati and Milwaukee.

Still, Manuel probably says it best:

“If we didn’t have Chase Utley we wouldn’t be where we’re at,” Manuel said.

Threepeat?

Chase UtleyWhen Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins were awarded the MVP in consecutive seasons, it was hardly original. After all the fact is there were different players from the same team that won back-to-back MVP awards lots of times. Actually, it’s not even all that uncommon.

But if, say, Chase Utley were to be the MVP for the 2008 season – now that would be something.

Since the Base Ball Writers Association of America wisely started handing out post-season awards, three different players took home MVP honors in consecutive seasons just four times.

In the National League, from 1938 to 1940, the Cincinnati Reds had Ernie Lombardi, Bucky Walters and Frank McCormick were first to pull off the feat. After a Brooklyn Dodger won in 1941, the St. Louis Cardinals’ triple threat of Mort Cooper, Stan Musial and Marty Marion did it.

In the American League, Yankees Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon and Spuds Chandler won the MVP from 1941 to 1943. Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard did it again for the Yanks from 1961 to 1963. Add in Maris’ MVP Award from 1960 and that’s the only instance where three different players from the same team won four MVP Awards.

Are the Phillies next? Certainly Utley is making a strong case, though, of course, there are 111 games remaining in the season. Actually, though, Utley still leads the National League with 16 homers (on pace for 49) and is fourth with 42 RBIs (128 pace) despite scuffling through a 12-game span where he went 6-for-43(.1395).

In the eight games since snapping his funk, Utley is 10-for-31 with two homers and 11 RBIs. Not bad. Obviously, though, yesterday’s six-RBIs outing with three hits inflated the numbers, but that’s baseball.

The point is Utley is good. With Lance Berkman and Chipper Jones, Utley is right there.

No comment

Ryan HowardI have a theory that if you need someone like Ryan Howard or Chase Utley to say something insightful to make or break your story, you are, indeed, a [bleepy] writer.

It’s not a well-thought out theory or one that I’ve ever really tested in a controlled environment. Truth be told and based on my observations from going into the Phillies clubhouse and hanging around the team for the better part of the last nine seasons, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are the least interesting ballplayers I have ever seen address a group of people about their profession.

The right side of the Phillies’ offense has nothing to say to the press about baseball.

Nada.

Nothing.

Zilch.

Ryan Howard and Chase Utley probably will go down as the most prolific hitters in Philadelphia baseball history, and are clearly two of the most exciting players in the game right now. But, you know, just don’t ask them about it.

When told that the President of the United States of America said that Utley would be the first player he would select if he were putting together a baseball team, Utley said: “That’s a nice compliment to have. It’s kind of cool.”

Gee… OK.

From Jerry Crasnick in the latest edition of ESPN the Magazine in a story on how Utley has established himself as a bona fide hitting threat at the plate:

The one skill Utley has yet to master is self-promotion. He relies on monotonal cliché-speak when reporters approach for insights into his game. His approach brings to mind the Zen of Greg Maddux, who goes out of his way to be dull to avoid providing glimpses into his baseball soul. In Utley’s world, success is almost solely a reflection of hard work. That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. “The more you practice, the better,” he says. “The more at-bats you have and pitches you see, and the more ground balls you take and game situations you’re in, the more comfortable you get.”

OK. But, there are a few problems in that short paragraph. Sure, Utley may (indirectly) invoke the “Zen of Maddux,” but the stories of Greg Maddux’s wacky personality are legion and probably not for re-telling where innocent ears (and eyes) lurk.

What’s more, Utley’s quote about the more one practices equates to the amount of success one has is, frankly, condescending. For starters, Utley is ignoring the importance of talent all while suggesting that players who haven’t had the same success as him yet have been identified with better “tools” only need to work harder. Of course he cites the traditional notion of hard work because Utley has been identified as a “baseball rat,” “dirtball,” and “hard worker.” The truth is that I know for a fact that Jimmy Rollins is a hard worker and a student of the game. Why isn’t he ever described that way?

Better yet, there isn’t a single player in the Major Leagues who simply gets by on talent.

Everybody works hard just like everyone has talent. To that regard, there has to be something more to players like Utley and Howard and they just aren’t too keen on allowing anyone to see it.

As Bobby Brown once astutely pointed out, that’s their prerogative.

To be fair, public speaking is not for everyone. Frankly, it can be unnerving at times. The truth is that the few times in which I have actually appeared on television I was slightly nervous until I told myself that if they are putting me on TV the producers probably are not expecting a ratings bonanza. From that point on it was if I was simply speaking to another inanimate object, only this one beamed my head out to a regional cable TV audience… or whatever there was of one.

However, when it comes to being a professional athlete these days, self-analysis and deconstruction is part of the job. No, we’re not asking for a stand-up routine or even something so insightful that we have to ponder it on the long drive home – after all, it’s just baseball and sports. How complicated can it be?

This criticism isn’t just for Utley and Howard, but also folks like Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb and perhaps 50 percent of the athletes making money in Philadelphia. The main criticism isn’t what they say, but how they say it. Hey, no one is expecting Utley or Howard to be insightful, just engaged in the process.

Again, I’m not saying Howard and Utley aren’t interesting people. I’m just saying that I don’t know if they are. Perhaps that’s because when it comes to talking about baseball they offer no insight, no nuance and no depth. If given the choice between talking to the press about baseball and having a nail driven into their head, Howard, Utley (and many others on the team) would take the nail.

I just don’t get that. How can that make sense? If I were a baseball player and were as passionate about the game as nearly every baseball player says they are, you would not be able to shut me up. I’d put a lectern in front of my locker and give sermons from up high. I’d drive everyone crazy talking about baseball, my workouts, the other players, the shape of the ball, the grain of the wood on the bats, the hue of the ivy growing on the batter’s eye in center field, the fit of the uniforms, the clubhouse spread, the water pressure in the shower, the temperature of the whirlpool last Tuesday in the visitors’ clubhouse in Nationals Park… I’d talk about everything.

Go ahead and ask me an innocuous question about running and marathoning… and then be prepared to sit quietly for at least 30 minutes while I wax on and ramble off into one tangent or another.

So that’s what I don’t get – how can a baseball player not want to talk about baseball?

Chase UtleyActually, the better question is why does anyone care? Are insights from professional athletes so vital to the national discourse? I certainly hope not. But in the proliferation of the celebrity culture, athletes need not apply. In 2008 there is no difference between Chase Utley and Ryan Howard than there is between George Clooney and Denzel Washington. And, in an odd bit of irony, athletes are being chided for not speaking out on issues as well as for their general verbosity, while movie stars are ripped for speaking out too much.

As if such a thing was possible.

Nevertheless, the real reason for the long-winded essay and knee-jerk observations is because of the latest from former Sports Illustrated writer Pat Jordan, who detailed the good old days of sports writing in a piece for Slate Magazine. Even with the proliferation of all media fans and writers have even less depth and nuance from the athletes. At least that’s what Jordan has observed in his 40 years in the business.

Read the story from Jordan. It’s good.

From my end, I can only relate writing about mainstream professional athletes in comparison to writing about politicians and business leaders from a decade ago. Back then the subjects of my stories wanted to be partners in what I wrote. Not only did they want a say in what information I used and how I used it, but also they wanted full control of the message. They parsed everything and nit-picked everything including something as trite as the use of a comma or semi-colon in the copy.

To say most folks were engaged in the process didn’t cover it. They wanted minutes on the process. They wanted sample paragraphs and to be alerted when the story went to press.

Conversely, athletes don’t care about any of it. Strangely, I think most professional baseball players believe that the guy holding the camera to the guy with the microphone to the guy with a pen and a pad all work for the same TV station. They simply don’t care enough to differentiate between writers, let alone the scribes and TV reporters.

As I once explained to someone working in a small-town newspaper about the differences between covering the news in a place like Lancaster and covering the Philadelphia Phillies: “The guy you write about in Lancaster might cut out the story and hang it on his wall or put it in a scrapbook. It’s meaningful to him.

“But Travis Lee doesn’t give a [bleep].”

For that matter, neither do most ballplayers…

Or fans.

More: “Josh Beckett Won’t Return My Phone Calls” by Pat Jordan (Slate)

Monday night rewind

CheruiyotMonday was one of those epic days in sports where everything kind of fell into place the way everyone expected.

Robert Cheruiyot dominated the Boston Marathon… again.

The Flyers went from a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series to a do-or-die Game 7… again.

And Chase Utley hit a home run and made some clutch plays to lead the Phillies to a victory… again.

You know – no big whoop.

Anyway, Cheruiyot won his fourth Boston against a weaker field than in past years. One reason for that is because the top American runners either ran in the Olympic Trials last November (or London two weeks ago) or will run in the track Trials in July. So unlike the past handful of years where the elite Americans showed up and ran with Cheruiyot for a little bit, this year there were other things going on.

Additionally, guys like Ryan Hall and the fastest runners in the world went to London where the course is much more forgiving, the competition fierce and fast times are inevitable. Boston’s course beats the hell out the quads and calves with the undulating terrain. No, Boston isn’t exactly a slow course – there is a net downhill, after all. There are parts of the route from Hopkinton to Boston where runners actually have to hold back to avoid going too fast.

In contrast, the uphill climbs in Newton come at a point where a runner’s glycogen stores are just about gone. They don’t call them Heartbreak Hill for nothing. Hell, I recall doing workouts through the Newton hills and attacked the famed (infamous?) Heartbreak Hill fresh and it gave me a little kick in the ass. Imagine spending miles 16 to 21 of a marathon trying to get over those hills.

Lance ArmstrongLance Armstrong, who mastered Alpe d’Huez (among others) during his seven Tour de France victories, ran his first Boston yesterday. From the sound of it, Armstrong got a little boot to the rear in Newton though it should be noted that he ran negative splits for a respectable 2:50:58.

According to the Associated Press:

Armstrong said there’s no comparison between running a marathon and cycling, either physically or mentally.

“You can’t compare the pounding or running with the efficiency of a bicycle,” he said. “Nothing even comes close to comparing the pain, especially it seems like this course, with a significant amount of downhills … that really take their toll on the muscles.”

But Boston is not exactly a world-record course, either. Cheruiyot was on course-record pace yesterday, casually ripping through miles 3 to 19 in 4:53 or faster. That includes a 4:37 at mile 19 that obliterated the rest of the field. However, Cheruiyot “slowed” over the final 10k to finish in 2:07:43, well off his record 2:07:14 he set in 2006. Interestingly, Cheruiyot’s fourth victory in Boston was only the fifth winning time under 2:08 in the 112 years of the race.

Compare that to the London Marathon this year where the top six in the 2008 race ran under 2:07 and it’s easy to see why the best runners don’t show up to Boston (or New York) any more. Why go get beat up when Chicago, London and Berlin have (relative) cakewalk courses?

Nevertheless, Boston and its sponsors might have to dig into the coffers to lure the big guns away from London in the spring. The fact that Haile Gebrselasie, Paul Tergat, Martin Lel, Khalid Khannouchi – and worse – Ryan Hall, have not lined up on Patriot’s Day in Hopkinton proves that Boston is missing something.

Sure, runners like London because of the speedy course and the chance for fast times. But more than anything else runners go where the best competition is. That hasn’t been Boston for a long time.

***
Elsewhere, it’s Game 7 night in Washington where most folks seem to have a bad feeling about the fate of the Flyers.

There. That’s the depth of my hockey analysis.

***
Chase UtleyHad Chase Utley not broken his hand last season, Jimmy Rollins probably wouldn’t have won the MVP Award. Chances are Utley would have been in the top three with Prince Fielder and Matt Holliday. So noting that it was Utley’s injury that pushed Rollins into the MVP discussion in 2007, it’s kind of ironic that Rollins’ injury has the spotlight on Utley.

Then again, six homers in five straight games kind of gets a ballplayer noticed…

Plus, it’s only April 22, too. There is a lot of baseball to go.

Nevertheless, Utley is off to one of those stop-what-your-doing-when-he-comes-up starts. So far he has reached base in all but one of the Phillies’ 20 games, has posted gaudy numbers in categories that all the stat geeks love, and seems to have his hand in the outcome of every game.

Things happen whenever Utley is on the field. But then again that’s not new.

Remember when Ryan Howard used to be that way?

Anyway, during his pre-game powwow with the writers prior to last night’s game at Coors Field, the Wilmington News Journal’s Scott Lauber reports this quote from manager Charlie Manuel:

“Chase Utley is a very, very, very tough player. I’ve been in the game a long time, and he’s as tough as any player I’ve seen. I’m talking about old throwback players, guys like Pete Rose and Kirby Puckett. You could put Utley in that category. He could play with any of them.”

So there’s that… which is nice.

Fully engaged?

Barack & HillaryToday is another Super Tuesday of sorts in the Presidential primary races. It gets the all-encompassing “super” moniker simply because of the implications the races in Vermont, Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island. For the Republicans it means that shoo-in nominee John McCain will collect the necessary delegates to put him over the top.

On the Democrats side, a four-state sweep by Barack Obama could push Hillary Clinton’s Presidential bid to the brink. However, if Clinton wins the two delegate-rich states in Texas and Ohio, be ready for a full-court press by both candidates before the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Here comes the understatement of the week: There is a lot at stake today.

But that fact has been known for a very long time. In fact, media reports indicate that the 2008 bid for the White House has galvanized voters of all ages in ways that have not been seen in a very long time. People are engaged in the process, they are listening to the speeches out on the campaign trail, dial up the relevant news on the Internet, and have turned out to the polls in record numbers.

Everyone is engaged, especially 20-something year-old voters, who, according to reports, have turned off the ridiculous YouTube videos and dived into the national discourse. Better yet, those folks are asking questions and confronting conventional wisdom… these are all very good things. Frankly, it should make all citizens, regardless of political philosophy, to see so many people engaged.

It is an exciting time in our history.

But according to an ESPN.com story by Jeff Pearlman, there is one subset of folks whose precarious bubble has not been pierced to allow reality inside. That group?

Major League Baseball players.

According to Pearlman’s story, there are little fraternity houses in every ballpark around the country where Maxim magazine, the lack of fuel efficiency of one’s Hummer, and the run-of-the-mill superficiality of the bling-bling culture have not been offset by a true historical moment. Yes, according to Pearlman, baseball players are as dumb as ever.

Chronicling his visit with the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals and the lack of political discourse therein, Pearlman charted the top 10 topics of discussion. They were:

Indeed, a top 10 list of spring training topics discussed by ballplayers would look something like this:

1.Baseball
2. Free sunglasses
3. Breasts
4-5. Jesus/golf (tie)
6. Dinner options
7. The Kyle Kendrick YouTube video
8. Britney Spears
9. Strip clubs
10. More Jesus/golf (tie)

C.J. WilsonNot every player is so switched off, though. One who was not shy about discussing his disdain for his teammates’ apathy was reliever C.J. Wilson, a left-hander who has been described as a Taoist and adheres to the Ian MacKaye-inspired “Straight Edge” philosophy of personal politics. When asked who amongst his teammates is as interested in the Presidential races as he, Wilson glumly answered, “No one.”

“It’s frustrating,” Wilson told Pearlman. “I’d say there are two reasons. One, there’s a general lack of education among us. But two – and most important – you’re talking about a population that makes a ton of money, so the ups and downs of the economy don’t impact whether we’re getting paid. Therefore, we often don’t care.”

“It’s not that complex,” Wilson says. “Baseball players think about baseball.”

That’s true. Baseball players get paid a lot of money to play a game and there are always dozens of players just waiting to get a chance to bump off another from the lineup. Understandably, there is a lot of pressure involved in keeping such a high-profile and high-paying job.

Yet at the same time there is a ridiculous amount of downtime for professional athletes. Games don’t last all that long and there is only so much time that a player can devote to workouts and treatments and whatever other job-related tasks. As a result, Pearlman’s list is pretty apt, though he seems to have missed on the ballplayers’ devotion to gambling, card playing and crossword puzzles as favorite pastimes.

At the same time, maybe Pearlman picked the wrong clubhouse? The Phillies have a few players switched on to issues, if not elective politics. Chase Utley is a budding conservationist and has lent his name to environmental and animal-rights initiatives. Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins, the team’s player representative, is quietly aware of history regarding civil rights and baseball.

Jamie Moyer runs his Moyer Foundation, which created and funds Camp Erin, the largest national network of bereavement camps for children and teens; Camp Mariposa, for children affected by addiction in their families; The Gregory Fund, for early cancer-detection research; and The Moyer Foundation Endowment for Excellence in Pediatric Palliative Care for Seattle’s Children’s Hospital.

Additionally, Moyer’s father-in-law, Digger Phelps, worked for the Office of National Drug Control Policy and also served as an observer in the 1993 elections in Cambodia.

Those things are little more involved than simply following along with the process. Still, baseball players have – and various athletes in general – have picked up the label as being nothing more than “dumb jocks.” Some have chided golfer Tiger Woods for refusing to take a stand on various racial and political issues. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan famously failed to endorse African-American democratic senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt in his early 1990s race against arch-conservative Jesse Helms in North Carolina, because, as Jordan stated at the time, “Republicans buy sneakers, too[1].”

That’s hardly as inspiring as Ali’s, “I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong,” but perhaps Jordan and Woods have to protect their corporate interests first? If that’s the case, how does one define ex-cyclist, turned marathoner, Lance Armstrong, who has been nothing if outspoken in endorsing political candidates and calling out others for their failure to work for improved cancer research and better health care?

Greg Odenwhat about Greg Oden, the top pick in last summer’s NBA draft? Out with an injury for the entirety of the season, Oden has spent his time following the campaigns and musing about them on his blog. In a recent interview with The Washington Post’s, Michael Wilbon, Oden admitted some of his naiveté about politics, but said he is committed to being fully engaged in the process.

“I can’t even imagine that now, knowing enough to govern a city or a state,” Oden told Wilbon. “I’m just at the point where I’m watching CNN more than I ever have, listening to the candidates. I’m not the most educated guy in the world on the issues, but I’m getting there.”

During various campaign stops, Oden has had a telephone conversation with Obama and introduced First Lady Laura Bush at a campaign event. He admitted that both events were quite nerve-wracking.

Nevertheless, Oden has come out with an endorsement for Obama on his blog and says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I can’t say I know every single one of his policies by heart,” Oden told Wilbon, “but I’ve done enough homework to know what I like about him. I really feel more strongly about young people voting, about making an educated decision. I’m not trying to tell people what to do or who to vote for, just to educate themselves and participate. What could be the harm in that?”

None. None at all. Perhaps all this engagement could have some sort of influence on our democracy and maybe even get a few more folks involved.

***
Also by Pearlman: Nomar is a creep.


[1] To be fair, Jordan contributed money to Gantt’s campaign and has also been a contributor to Bill Bradley’s and Obama’s run for the White House. Plus, people have the right to shut-up, too.

Arbitrarily speaking

Ryan HowardThe Phillies and Ryan Howard are beginning yet another contract dance as the slugger is poised to enter the arbitration process for the first time. Of course the big question is whether or not the Phillies and Howard will avoid the arbitration hearing and iron out a multi-year contract. Though he isn’t eligible to become a free agent until after the 2011 season, Howard is expected to fetch at least $7 million in salary in 2008 if a long-term deal isn’t brokered.

That’s where it gets fun because it’s not as if the Phillies don’t want to have Ryan Howard play for them for a long time. Why wouldn’t they? In his first two full seasons in the Majors, Howard smashed 105 homers, including 47 last year when he missed a most of the month of May. In 2006 he smashed the club single-season home run record on his way to winning the MVP Award. Kids wear Phillies shirts with his No. 6 on the back and everything seems to come to a halt at the ballpark whenever Howard comes to the plate.

Simply, Howard is one of the biggest reasons why folks pay money to go out to the ballpark.

When one considers that the Phillies signed Chase Utley to a multi-year deal worth $85 million in his year of arbitration eligibility, it would make sense that Howard would get a big offer, too.

Right?

Well…

There’s a big difference between players like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. For instance, if he can stay away from accidents like running into his centerfielder, getting in the way of inside pitches before they break his hand and avoid overtraining at Athletes’ Performance with Mark Verstegen, Utley should be able to play well into his late 30s and early 40s. With five years already under his belt before he turned 29, Utley looks to be putting together a long career. A seven-year contract could be a bargain for the Phillies.

On the other hand, guys like Howard don’t last as long. Already 28, Howard is seemingly in the prime years for a big, slugging type of player. The truth is the big fellas just don’t last that long – especially if they have to play in the field. Baseball history is littered with guys like Howard who were washed up before their 35th birthday. Greg Luzinski was washed up at 33; Boog Powell at 34; Mo Vaughn at 34; John Kruk at 33; Kent Hrbek at 34… the list goes on and on. The one big guy who has lasted a long time is Frank Thomas and that comes in part because he’s played just 36 games in the field since 2001, and missed nearly 2½ seasons because of injuries.

Need more? Baseball Prospectus suggested that Howard could be peaking in its 2007 yearbook:

Historically, players like Howard, big-bodied guys with limited defensive skills such as Mo Vaughn and Boog Powell, tended to have high but brief peak periods. Their legs just couldn’t carry that much mass for very long, and around 30 their defense plummeted, their playing time dropped due to nagging injuries, and their singles dried up and disappeared. The Phillies should have a three-year window in which they can expect this kind of production from Howard, but should not plan beyond that.

Based on how the contract-negotiations are going – word is Howard and the Phillies are $3 million apart – the Phillies are not doing anything more than they have to.

Strike three, con’t…

Matt HollidayTom Gordon remained in for the eighth where he struck out Tulowitzki only to follow that up with a home run to Matt Holliday that might strike the earth’s surface by sunset.

The foul Holliday hit was a rocket – his homer was a bomb.

It also spelled the end of the work day for Gordon. J.C. Romero came in and pitched two-third of an inning to extend his scoreless games streak to 21.

Tadahito Iguchi pinch hit for Romero to start the eighth and grinded out a six-pitch walk. Things always seem to happen when Iguchi gets into a game… maybe that’s a story for later in the series. The premise will be: Things happen when Tadahito Iguchi gets into the game.

Call the Pulitzer people.

But things haven’t been happening when the meat of the Phillies’ order has stepped to the plate. Jimmy Rollins is 0-for-3 with a whiff, a double play and a walk. Shane Victorino is 0-for-4 with a whiff. Chase Utley was punched out looking against another lefty – reliever Brian Fuentes – for auspicious Golden Sombrero.

Mix in the 0-for-3 with a pair of whiffs for Ryan Howard and the top four hitters for the Phillies are 0-for-14 with eight strikeouts.

Wow.

Strike three

Cole HamelsApparently, the second inning was nothing more than a apparition for the Phillies’ Cole Hamels. That’s the case because since that 40-pitch second inning, Hamels has mowed down 13 straight on 47 pitches. As a result, he has given his high-powered offense a really good chance to win this game.

But Chase Utley whiffed to open the sixth. For Utley, it was his third straight strikeout against the lefty Jeff Francis. As a result, it appears as if Utley is in a bit of a slump since he only has four hits in his last 24 plate appearances.

Meanwhile, the whiffs appear to be stifling the Phillies’ offense. Utley and Ryan Howard have whiffed five times in six plate appearances. That’s five of the team’s eight strikeouts.

That’s too many.

King Kong, the second baseman and the big ‘clean up’

While cleaning out a closet that had become nothing more than a container for junk that I had refused to throw away for “sentimental” reasons, I came across some old baseball cards I’d saved from the 1980s. Rather than pitch them into the trash pile, or placing them up for sale on eBay (I’m saving them for my son because they’ll be valuable one day, right?), I decided to sit down and look at them.

You know, a little stroll down amnesia lane.

As I thumbed through all of the old names – George Hendrick, Frank Tanana, Tippy Martinez, Chet Lemon, Ron Cey, etc., etc. – it felt like it was 1985 again and there was nothing to worry about.

But there were two things that were particularly revealing about those old cards. Firstly, let’s hope that there is never a ’80s retro trend. For anyone who survived the style trends of this particular era of our culture, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

For those of you still hanging on with the hope that parachute pants make a stylish comeback, God bless you.

Secondly, and more importantly, the most fascinating part about looking at those baseball cards was how skinny the players looked. It wasn’t an unhealthy skinny where it appeared as if the ballplayers needed to chow down on a few more carbohydrate-heavy dinners, but it was a fit skinny.

Though dressed in those crazy uniforms for the bright colors zooming at you from all angles, the players looked athletic – like a college miler or someone who spends three-quarters of their time at the gym on cardio instead of the weights.

It’s a look that is nearly non-existent amongst the current crop of ballplayers, and, certainly, no explanation is needed.

With the curious case of one-time Phillie Jason Grimsley suddenly dominating all the seedy chatter about baseball these days, as the Steroid Era finally enters into the darker, uglier Human-Growth Hormone Era, it was striking to see the 20-year old images of sluggers Dave Kingman and Jack Clark.

Kingman and Clark, as followers of baseball remember, were two of the most-feared home run hitters of their era. At 6-foot-6 and a wispy 200 pounds, Kingman was known as “King Kong” for routinely bashing 30-plus homers per season and for smacking the ball a long way.

In 1985, Clark was slugger and catalyst for the St. Louis Cardinals and such a power threat that he often walked more times during a season than he reached base on a hit. But during that ’85 season in which Clark struck a menacing fear into all pitchers, he hit just 22 home runs, and during his 18-year career Clark hit more than 30 homers just once.

In 24 combined big league seasons, Clark and Kingman reached the 40-homer plateau just once.

These were your sluggers, folks.

And yes, both players were blade thin. In fact, Clark and Kingman had the same type of physique as second baseman Chase Utley, a strong hitter who smacked 28 homers a season ago and is on the way to duplicating that total this season.

Those are definitely strong statistics, but how many people would consider Chase Utley a home run hitter?

Right. Not many.

So what exactly then is the point? That strength training, nutrition, performance-enhancing drug abuse, and fashion sense has come a long way in 20 years? That baseball’s statistics are about as valuable as the paper they’re printed on? Yes, we already knew that.

But what about this: baseball, like those old cards buried in the back of a closet, is a fun diversion. A night at the ballpark or in front of the tube watching a game and talking about the strategy, the players and those forgotten heroes is a pretty good way to spend an evening. And based on attendance figures and TV ratings, a lot of other people think so, too.

Even with Congressional hearings where nothing meaningful was learned about steroid abuse other than a few ballplayers were less than honest, or an investigation and the chance that one of the game’s most prolific sluggers might have perjured himself in front of a federal grand jury, interest in the game has not waned.

Perhaps Phillies catcher Sal Fasano is correct when he says the only thing he remembers turning off the fans from the game was the strike in 1994.

“We know the substances are being used, and we know baseball is doing what it can to clean it up,” said Fasano before last Thursday’s game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., just two miles away from where the Congress vowed to “clean up” baseball. “But do fans want to hear about it all the time? I don’t know.”

A night out, some good and affordable food and maybe even a few homers from the home team… what’s better than that? Who cares if King Kong is the same size as the second baseman?

King Kong, the second baseman and the big ‘clean up’

While cleaning out a closet that had become nothing more than a container for junk that I had refused to throw away for “sentimental” reasons, I came across some old baseball cards I’d saved from the 1980s. Rather than pitch them into the trash pile, or placing them up for sale on eBay (I’m saving them for my son because they’ll be valuable one day, right?), I decided to sit down and look at them.

You know, a little stroll down amnesia lane.

As I thumbed through all of the old names – George Hendrick, Frank Tanana, Tippy Martinez, Chet Lemon, Ron Cey, etc., etc. – it felt like it was 1985 again and there was nothing to worry about.

But there were two things that were particularly revealing about those old cards. Firstly, let’s hope that there is never a ’80s retro trend. For anyone who survived the style trends of this particular era of our culture, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

For those of you still hanging on with the hope that parachute pants make a stylish comeback, God bless you.

Secondly, and more importantly, the most fascinating part about looking at those baseball cards was how skinny the players looked. It wasn’t an unhealthy skinny where it appeared as if the ballplayers needed to chow down on a few more carbohydrate-heavy dinners, but it was a fit skinny.

Though dressed in those crazy uniforms for the bright colors zooming at you from all angles, the players looked athletic – like a college miler or someone who spends three-quarters of their time at the gym on cardio instead of the weights.

It’s a look that is nearly non-existent amongst the current crop of ballplayers, and, certainly, no explanation is needed.

With the curious case of one-time Phillie Jason Grimsley suddenly dominating all the seedy chatter about baseball these days, as the Steroid Era finally enters into the darker, uglier Human-Growth Hormone Era, it was striking to see the 20-year old images of sluggers Dave Kingman and Jack Clark.

Kingman and Clark, as followers of baseball remember, were two of the most-feared home run hitters of their era. At 6-foot-6 and a wispy 200 pounds, Kingman was known as “King Kong” for routinely bashing 30-plus homers per season and for smacking the ball a long way.

In 1985, Clark was slugger and catalyst for the St. Louis Cardinals and such a power threat that he often walked more times during a season than he reached base on a hit. But during that ’85 season in which Clark struck a menacing fear into all pitchers, he hit just 22 home runs, and during his 18-year career Clark hit more than 30 homers just once.

In 24 combined big league seasons, Clark and Kingman reached the 40-homer plateau just once.

These were your sluggers, folks.

And yes, both players were blade thin. In fact, Clark and Kingman had the same type of physique as second baseman Chase Utley, a strong hitter who smacked 28 homers a season ago and is on the way to duplicating that total this season.

Those are definitely strong statistics, but how many people would consider Chase Utley a home run hitter?

Right. Not many.

So what exactly then is the point? That strength training, nutrition, performance-enhancing drug abuse, and fashion sense has come a long way in 20 years? That baseball’s statistics are about as valuable as the paper they’re printed on? Yes, we already knew that.

But what about this: baseball, like those old cards buried in the back of a closet, is a fun diversion. A night at the ballpark or in front of the tube watching a game and talking about the strategy, the players and those forgotten heroes is a pretty good way to spend an evening. And based on attendance figures and TV ratings, a lot of other people think so, too.

Even with Congressional hearings where nothing meaningful was learned about steroid abuse other than a few ballplayers were less than honest, or an investigation and the chance that one of the game’s most prolific sluggers might have perjured himself in front of a federal grand jury, interest in the game has not waned.

Perhaps Phillies catcher Sal Fasano is correct when he says the only thing he remembers turning off the fans from the game was the strike in 1994.

“We know the substances are being used, and we know baseball is doing what it can to clean it up,” said Fasano before last Thursday’s game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., just two miles away from where the Congress vowed to “clean up” baseball. “But do fans want to hear about it all the time? I don’t know.”

A night out, some good and affordable food and maybe even a few homers from the home team… what’s better than that? Who cares if King Kong is the same size as the second baseman?