World Series: Yankee Stadium? Yawn!

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

Who doesn’t love Jimmy?

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

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

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

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

Yes, we love Jimmy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game on: Hot dogs blown to bits

Usually when the choppers circle overhead, it’s a pretty good indication that something is up. At least three hovered over the ballpark during batting practice on Wednesday afternoon in attempt to get the perfect view of the potential crisis brewing just outside the first-base gate.

Three suspicious packages covered with duct tape and left unattended just outside the stadium near Pattison Avenue piqued enough interest from some diligent citizen to alert the authorities. Upon further review of the situation on the ground, ballpark authorities called in the bomb squad and the ballpark went into lockdown mode.

Early arriving fans in the left-field seats and on Ashburn Alley were ushered out of the stadium, while team employees and media types were forced to evacuate the portion of the ballpark closest to the first-base side.

The field, we were told, was the safest place to be. Fortunately, we were told this while we were standing on the field.

Meanwhile, as chaos raged outside the stadium, the Phillies were oblivious that a potential threat loomed. Instead, the ballplayers calmed took batting practice and prepared for the game against the Atlanta Braves. At one point, slugger Ryan Howard strolled over by a group of scribes and was told about the bomb scare occurring nearby.

“Oh yeah?” Howard said as he walked toward the batting cage to take his hacks.

With the ballpark sealed off and filled with just security, baseball players, team officials and sportswriters, the bomb squad detonated the curious package at approximately 5:08 p.m., emitting a muffled explosion that sounded like a man sitting on top of a pillow placed over top of a helium balloon.

Pffffffffffffffffft!

After assessing the scene and the remains of the mysterious box, the bomb squad gave the all-safe sign to allow folks to go about their normal, pre-game rituals.

So what caused the trouble that forced the bomb squad to show up and blow up stuff?

Why it was a package full of hot dogs, of course.

You know, delicious, heart-healthy hot dogs that were earmarked for the Phillie Phanatic to launch into the crowd during some between-innings capering on the field. Instead, those hot dogs were sent back to the ether from which they came.

Crisis averted.

Or was it?

Though many people enjoy a tasty hot dog from time-to-time (make mine a tofu pup, please), it is no secret that those plump tube steaks are silent killers. Laden with cholesterol, saturated fats and non-organic hormones, steroids and chemicals, a diet rich with hot dogs is a sure path to heart disease.

Oh sure, they look good now, but you will pay later.

Still, a meat hot dog remains a staple of the picnic scene and also a fun prop for many a comedian. In fact, I can’t resist thinking of Will Ferrell impersonating longtime Cubs’ announcer, Harry Caray, whenever I hear the word, “hot dog.”

So comically delicious!

So before you go slathering yourself up in spicy, brown mustard, take a look.

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.

Everything right where we left it

CBPYessir, everything is right where it was when we left this place last October. In fact, Citizens Bank Park and the Phillies’ clubhouse shows no real discernible difference from last year at all.

Oh sure, the carpet is a little frayed here or there and some of the paint is fading ever-so slightly. But other than simple wear-and-tear that rugs, walls and people go through the five-year old ballpark is just the same as it ever was.

In other words, not much has changed with the Phillies since I left them a few weeks ago in Florida, nor has anything really changed from the time was here for the last ballgame before jetting off to Denver to watch the season come to an end.

The Phillies and their ballpark are locked in. They look ready to go for real come Monday, though the complaints about the weather flowed like droplets from a leaky spout.

Florida weather in late March is much more forgiving than in South Philly. The same goes for the style of baseball, too.

Will the Phillies avoid yet another April swoon?

We’ll get our first answer on Monday.

Thome opens Citizens Bank Park with a bang


ComcastSportsNet.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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