Ibanez hurt? Who knew… aside from everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jackSurely there are second half VORP numbers out there to confirm or deny this claim.

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

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

You want the truth? Can you handle it?

Junge Gun

Eric JungeNearly seven years ago, Eric Junge pitched five innings of a 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a meaningless September game. In fact, September of 2002 was one of the last few final months that were meaningless for the Phillies. In 2004 all that was left to decide in September was when they would mercifully pull the plug on the managerial career of Larry Bowa.

Those were the days when the pitching coach got punched in the face by a player, and some wondered if it was simply a matter of time until the manager suffered the same fate. Nope, those definitely weren’t the golden days of Phillies baseball.

More like Blood Sport.

Anyway, Eric Junge started and won his first Major League outing over the Pirates in rather dramatic fashion. See, Junge was finished pitching for the year after going 12-6 with a 3.54 in Triple-A in 29 starts, until then-GM Ed Wade called him at home in Rye, N.Y. in the middle of a pizza feast. The Phillies needed some fresh arms to get through the year and since the roster had expanded, Junge got a phone call inquiring whether he wanted to pitch in the big leagues.

Sure, Junge said, but first he had to cancel some plans.

Junge joined the Phillies on Sept. 11, 2002, exactly one year after that day. So instead of going down to Ground Zero with his trumpet to play a tribute to the three friends from childhood that died on 9/11, Junge was the Vet waiting to make his big league debut instead of “preparing to mourn and remember.”

“I would have been playing my trumpet, playing Taps. It’s something I used to do on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. I would go down to the town square and all the veterans would be there,” he told us. “It would be my little way of saying thanks for our freedoms. Taps for me is emotional. I’d rather be pitching in the big leagues, obviously.

“I didn’t think I would get called up,” he said nearly seven years ago. “It’s all kind of surreal. I was getting ready to mourn and now I feel alive.”

I remember that day for a lot of reasons. First, there weren’t too many games in the 2002 baseball season that were too memorable. Brett Myers made his debut at Wrigley Field, pitcher Robert Person his a pair of homers and got seven RBIs in about two innings of a rout over the Expos, and Scott Rolen was traded.

Secondly, only two seasons into Bowa’s reign of terror, it was clear things had already come unhinged. Little did we know at the time that the franchise would have to take some decisive actions after some growing pains and old-fashioned time biding.

Otherwise, it was an underwhelming season.

But Junge was interesting. After he threw those five innings in which he gave up four hits and one run in his only big league start, I was all set to write about how he was the first Bucknell University alum to pitch in the big leagues since Christy Mathewson. Acquired in the Omar Daal trade with Los Angeles, Junge was the minor league surprise of ’02.

Instead of writing about the surprise start, the Mathewson angle and a promising future, someone saw three names scribbled on Junge’s cap while talking to him in the clubhouse after the game. The names “Fetchet,” “Mello” and “McGinley” were hard to miss there in black Sharpie just to the left of the Phillies “P” on Junge’s cap.

What was the deal with those words, Junge was asked.

Those three guys were Brad Fetchet, Chris Mello and Mark McGinley, Junge told us. All three died on 9/11 at the World Trade Center during the attacks. Mello grew up with the pitcher and the two played baseball and football all the way from little league to high school. He died when his plane struck the north tower.

Fetchet and McGinley were Bucknell classmates of Junge who were working in the Trade Center that fateful day and didn’t make it out.

Then there was Junge’s dad Peter, who was standing on the street corner adjacent to the buildings when the first plane hit, which was carrying Mello. A maritime attorney with offices a block away from Wall St., Peter Junge was on his way to court when the unthinkable happened. Junge was eating breakfast in a waffle house in Huntsville, Ala., preparing to pitch for the Dodgers’ Double-A club, Jacksonville.

“That was a hectic day,” Junge told us after his first Major League start.

It was a helluva story and forced a lot of us to re-do those Mathewson/Bucknell angles we were knee-deep in by the time we met with Junge. But aside from the emotional side of the story, there also was the work on the field. After all, it’s not every day a pitcher in his first big league start walks off with swagger. Junge might have been a surprise call up, but he was acting as if he belonged.

“Some guys might be apprehensive but he acts like he’s been here for 20 years,” Bowa said after that game. “With his makeup, he wanted the opportunity and he opened some eyes. He was walking around the dugout yelling, ‘Let’s go!’ and getting everyone fired up.”

Junge’s big league career lasted just 10 games. In 2002 he got another win when Vicente Padilla exited a game after just 13 pitches and Junge came on in the first inning and went into the sixth.

But injuries derailed whatever future he might have had with the Phillies or a chance to return to the Majors with another club. In 2003 he was shut down after 16 games between the Phillies and Triple-A. When he came back from  shoulder surgery, he pitched at three different levels in the Phillies’ organization before he was granted free agency at the end of the year.

Then came the life of the baseball nomad. In 2005 he pitched in Triple-A for the Mets and then released. In ’06 it was Triple-A with the Padres and then another release. For 2007 it was a handful of games in the independent Atlantic League until he wound up back at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with the Yankees.

And then, of course, another release.

Junge spent 2008 in Japan pitching for the Orix Buffaloes, which was the former team of So Taguchi and Ichiro, as well as the organization that featured an Amarican cleanup hitter named Chuck Manuel. They called Chuck, “The Red Devil.”

Now 32, the same age as former teammates, Marlon Byrd, Johnny Estrada, Geoff Geary, Nick Punto as well as a year older than his ex-third baseman, Chase Utley, Junge is still out there playing. As fate would have it, the lean, 6-foot-5 righty signed to play for a team with a stadium less than one-mile from my home as the crow flies.

Yeah that’s right, Junge was pitching for the Lancaster Barnstormers in the Atlantic League. The Atlantic League is baseball purgatory… or maybe worse. No matter, in his first month with the team the baseball lifer (think Chris Coste had he been a prospect) was the league’s pitcher of the month with a 4-1 with a 1.73 ERA and twice broke the franchise record with 12 strikeouts in a game. In 26 innings, Junge had 34 whiffs.

And then he was gone.

That’s what I learned this evening when I moseyed down to the ballpark with the kids to check out a game. I had hoped to see Junge, relive those days in Philly and see what’s shaking with Antonio Alfonseca, who is closing out games for the Barnstormers. However, Junge’s name was strangely omitted from the roster. A quick Google search later revealed he had left Lancaster to pitch for a team in South Korea.

How’s that for an indictment of the team, league and town? Junge would rather travel halfway around the globe to pitch in South Korea rather than for Tom Herr and Von Hayes in Lancaster, Pa.

You know, some days I know how he feels.

Nevertheless, good luck to Mr. Junge. Undoubtedly he could trade in the uniform for a career as a good baseball exec, but let’s hope his baseball journeys pay off with a trip back to the big leagues or at least some pretty kick-ass stories. He certainly gave us one seven years ago, and, as readers of the site know, it’s the stories that make the word go ‘round.

The Bird was The Word

fidrychIt’s an odd coincidence that two of baseball’s greatest characters – Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych – died on the same day. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be in some sense… who knows. Maybe people better versed in spirituality, religion, science or whatever else can explain it.

Needless to say, Mark Fidrych’s death kind of got lost in the shuffle here. When an icon dies – the pope of Philadelphia for a lack of better description – everything else kind of takes a backseat.

Besides, Mark Fidrych was a shooting star in the night in baseball. He was here for a moment – bright, shiny, beautiful and majestic – and gone. Snap… just like that. Fidrych owned baseball in 1976. He was the best pitcher in the game, started the All-Star Game for the American League at The Vet, won 19 games and then tore up his rotator cuff in 1977.

The thing about that was Fidrych had the gall to rip up his shoulder before the proliferation of arthroscopic surgeries. Undoubtedly the injuries that ended careers like Fidrych’s are nothing more than out-patient procedures these days. High school kids have Tommy John surgery the way they used to rub their faces in Clearasil in the good old days.

If Fidrych only would have waited a few years to rip up his shoulder he might have had a longer career. He might have been around long enough to make enough money throwing a baseball so that he would not have had to return to Massachusetts and go to work as a contractor or help out at Chet’s Dinner, owned by his mother-in-law.

But from all the stories, Fidrych probably would have done it the same way.

By now most people know all the stories about “The Bird.” He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated AND Rolling Stone (back when that meant something) with that floppy Tigers’ cap pulled over that crazy mop of curly hair with Big Bird. He talked to the ball, smoothed the dirt on the mound with his bare hands while on his hands and knees. He waved to the fans in the middle of the game and ran over to teammates to shake their hands after good plays.

Hell, he even told hitters where he was going to throw the ball and they still couldn’t hit it. Charlie Manuel’s old pal, Graig Nettles, tells a story about watching The Bird talk to the ball before delivering a pitch. As soon as he saw it, Nettles says he called time, hopped out of the batters’ box and began talking to his bat.

“Never mind what he says to the ball,” Nettles said he told his bat. “You just hit it over the outfield fence!”

But when Nettles struck out, he blamed the bat.

“Japanese bat,” the story goes. “It doesn’t understand a word of English.”

I missed Fidrych’s act. I was too young, but I caught bits and pieces of it at the very end when he staged one of his many comebacks with the Tigers. I also caught enough of the hype to understand what everyone was talking about, though how does one explain Mark Fidrych to people who missed it? How do you properly explain a pitcher who talked to the ball, told hitters where it was coming, yet still racked up 24 complete games and 19 wins?

Anyway, one part I remember was a game on TV at the end. It must have been in ’79 back before cable TV when the Game of the Week was the only chance us D.C. kids had to see teams other than the Orioles, and Fidrych was talking to Tony Kubek before a game about his return. Needless to say, it was so much different than any other ballplayer interview.

Fidrych looked like he was actually having fun. He looked like he liked to play baseball. He smiled when he played and bounced when he ran. It was a game, right? It was supposed to be fun.

markTo this day there was never anyone like Mark Fidrych. If there was someone like him, that personality would be stamped out and pulverized before he reached the big leagues. But thankfully there was The Bird. When they showed him on TV, even all those years after that summer of ’76, personality beamed from the set like trippy, psychedelic colors. It just oozed out there like dripping honey. Years later, any time there was a Fidrych sighting or even a story in a magazine, I stopped in my tracks and took notice as if in a trance.

Still, it was impossible to watch those old tapes and wonder about the “what if.” What if he never got hurt? Would the game be different now? Would it be more fun?

Fortunately, the “what if” never got to The Bird. Years after his comet had streaked out of view, they found him in Massachusetts on his farm with that crazy curly hair and that big goofy smile. He was still having fun, only without the sellout crowds and the baseball in his right hand. When asked who he would have over for dinner if he could invite anyone in the world, Fidrych was as goofy as ever.

“My buddy and former Tigers teammate Mickey Stanley, because he’s never been to my house,” he said.

Fidrych reportedly died approximately an hour after Harry Kalas. But unlike Philadelphia’s Voice, Fidrych was far away from the ballpark when his dump truck apparently fell on top of him. He was apparently working on his truck when it came loose and crushed him…

A strange ending for one of the neatest and pleasantly strange ballplayers ever.

Handle with care

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Cole Hamels is really, really good at getting injured. Actually, his ability to get injuries, pain, soreness, tweaks and twinges are the most consistent aspect of his pro career.

It’s what he does best.

Oh sure, Hamels also has a left arm that comes around maybe once a generation. He has an incredible knack to put together incredible stretches of games that conjure up memories of the all-time greats. Better yet it’s a Hall-of-Fame arm, which, if one asks Hamels straight out what he wants to accomplish with his baseball career, he’ll flat-out tell it without so much as blinking or a trace of arrogance.

The answer comes as if he had rehearsed it in front of a mirror for years…

He wants no-hitters, piles of wins, Cy Young Awards, a career that spans decades, and, of course, the Hall of Fame. The good part for the Phillies is that Hamels’ goals aren’t all that unreasonable. The odds are relatively favorable that the lefty could pitch a no-hitter or two or win a Cy Young.

But here’s the thing about that – Cole Hamels ain’t Steve Carlton. Hell, he’s not even Tom Glavine. Oft-injured lefty and changeup specialist John Tudor might be more like it.

Continue reading this story …

A swan song for Billy Wagner?

Good or bad, Billy Wagner always got people to react. Whether it was by defying Pat Burrell’s wishes by actually talking to the local press, or only throwing his fastball 99 m.p.h., Billy made people talk.

There are no areas of grey when it comes to sentiment about the ex-Phillies closer. Folks either love him or hate him – sometimes both at the same time. It was the same deal for teammates and the press as well as the fans.

But the bottom line is that Wagner always got it. Sure, sometimes he was a pain in the rear, but he never forgot that baseball is fun. When broken down to its core, Wagner’s knew his job was to entertain the fans. Knowing this, Wagner engaged everyone no matter the setting. If someone yelled something at him when he was in the bullpen, he yelled back. If someone wanted an autograph, he signed it. And if someone asked him a question, he answered it.

It’s kind of hard not to respect that.

Sadly, it will be a long time before we get to react to Wagner again. Yesterday the news came out that the hard-throwing veteran was headed for reconstructive elbow surgery. As a result it appears as if the earliest Wagner will be able to return to the mound is the 2010 season… if at all.

By the time he will be able to pitch in a big league game again, Wagner will be pushing 39-years old. Certainly that isn’t ancient and athletes from all types of different sports have proved that age truly is just a number. As Wagner goes on the shelf, another 36-year-old athlete is coming out of retirement (more on this in another post) in part because he was inspired by the likes of 41-year-old Olympian Dara Torres, amongst others.

Yet because he is a power pitcher who still relies on an above-average fastball and elbow-numbing slider, Wagner will probably have to reinvent himself of he makes it back. Sure, he will probably be able to throw just as hard as he did in the past, but nearly every pitcher who has undergone reconstructive surgery says the fine touch of their control doesn’t always come back so quickly.

In addition to making his living off the high strikeout totals, Wagner also was known for his control, so it will be interesting to watch his approach to pitching if he makes it back.

“There is nobody who will tell me that I will be the same as I was,” he said. “But there is nobody who will tell me that I can’t go out there and compete and be successful.”

And as to be expected, Wagner is positive he will return to baseball.

“There’s no other way to face this but as a challenge. I have to go out there and challenge to get back. And it will be a challenge to go out there and compete.” Wagner said. “This whole thing. My age, everything’s a challenge.

“What else do I do? My kids want me to play. My wife wants me to play. I want to play.”

Talking about his 10-year-old son, Will, is when Wagner broke down during a press conference on Tuesday. It wasn’t so much the idea that he wouldn’t play anymore that got to him – it was the mere idea that his kids are just as devoted to his career.

That was enough to set off the waterworks.

It won’t be easy. Then again, nothing really came easy for Wagner. Think about it — how many other 5-foot-9 lefties from Division III colleges have made it to the big leagues? Yeah, not many.

At the same time, Wagner’s former teammates with the Phillies are hoping for the best.

“You never want to see anyone get hurt,” Ryan Howard said. “You hope he can come back healthy.”

Besides, it will be a whole lot more entertaining if he makes it back healthy.

Schilling down to his last pitch

Curt SchillingThe news from Boston today that Curt Schilling is headed for surgery to repair his right rotator cuff, labrum and biceps should not come as much of a surprise. When spring training began the question was whether or not Schilling would be able to respond to a rehab program and throw a pitch in a big league game before going under the knife.

Decidedly, the answer was no. No way.

Now, after Schilling has given up on the 2008 season as well as his tenure with the Boston Red Sox, a new question rears its head regarding the former Phillie:

Is it all over?

“There’s a pretty decent chance that I have thrown my last pitch forever,” the 41-year-old ex-Phillie said. “I don’t want it to end this way, but if this is the way it has to end, I’m OK with that. If it’s over and my last pitch was in the 2007 World Series, I’m OK with that. I just can’t stress enough where I am mentally with this. I have not a regret in the world.

“None of this makes me bitter or angry. It is what it is. In that sense, honestly, it’s very, very easy for me, because of what I’ve been able to experience compared to what I wanted when I first started my career. But if I have some say in how this is going to end, I want it to be different than what it is right now.”

That much is obvious. After all, Schilling would not be having an elaborate surgery on Monday with Dr. Craig Morgan, the renowned shoulder specialist in Wilmington, Del. on Monday if he was thinking about hanging it up. Really, who has biceps tenodesis surgery (when the diseased biceps tendon is detached from the bone and reattached in another location) as well as arthroscopic surgery to determine if more surgery is needed to the labrum and rotator cuff if the only ball playing he does is with his kids in the yard? The rehab process for those surgeries is difficult for a guy just looking to handle the remote control with more alacrity, the fact that Schilling is going through with it means he wants to pitch again.

But whether or not Schilling will pitch again could be determined in Wilmington on Monday. According to Dr. Morgan, Schilling’s future as a big leaguer depends upon what is found when the right-hander is scoped.

“The key issue there is frankly the rotator cuff,” Morgan told The Boston Globe. “If he does not have significant rotator cuff involvement there’s a good chance, even at age 41, that he can come back and pitch. But he must accept the fact that this may be career ending.”

Schilling understands that last part very well.

“If I don’t have surgery, my career is over today,” he said.

Still even if the damage to his shoulder isn’t severe and a return to the mound is not ruled out, Schilling knows the rehab process will be much more difficult. Age is the damndest thing – if Schilling were 10 years younger there would be no question that his career could continue in 2009. But even if everything goes perfectly and the tendons in the big right-hander’s shoulder turn him into the $8 million man again, the fact that he was born in 1966 instead of 1971 or 1976 makes a HUGE difference.

So too does the issue of contracts and ability to pitch for an entire season. No longer the horse every five days as ex-Phillies GM Ed Wade once claimed, Schilling says he will not be able to go to spring training for a team to compete for a job. A better scenario, says Schilling, is a post-All Star return to a team in the playoff race. But of course, that’s putting the cart before the horse.

Nevertheless, it is an interesting to think hypothetically. Let’s suppose the Phillies are in a similar position in 2009 as they are today – one where they lead the division but starting pitching is still a glaring weakness – do you take a chance and sign up Schilling for a second-half run?

Clearly it’s one of those low-risk/high-reward situations that general managers love so much (hello, Kris Benson!), but in Schilling’s case the intriguing part is his history not just as a big-game pitcher, but also as a pitcher for the Phillies. Though his regular season statistics aren’t shoo-in Hall-of Fame numbers (he’ll get in), his body of work in the playoffs and World Series place him with the biggest names in the sport…

And that was before the bloody sock.

Here’s one more question to ponder about Schilling until his future is decided: which cap does he wear on his Hall-of-Fame plaque?

Actually, this question is probably more apt… how long until Schilling is working on baseball broadcasts? Aside from big-time outings in big games, Schilling’s legacy will be that of a guy who liked to gab just a little bit. In fact there may have been the rare occasion where he did not rehearse his interviews in the mirror beforehand. One time at Fenway Park I wandered over to the home team dugout to search out Schilling where I was told by a teammate to, “follow the cameras.”

Guess what? That’s where he was.

On second thought…

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

Hey, who wants to rush into things?

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

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

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

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

Yes, injuries stink.