National League independence

It seems like a long time since we were at ol’ Citizens Bank Park, but here we are on an easygoing Independence Day Friday. Depending on how quickly we get out of here tonight, I might roll by the Graff House as a little tribute to Thomas Jefferson (as well as John Adams and Benji Franklin) for the fantastic document they wrote here in Philadelphia back in the summer of 1776.

But more on the task at hand here at the Bank where the Phillies can seek their independence from the rest of the NL East with a good weekend against the Mets. In fact, there’s some talk in these parts that the Phillies can properly bury the Mets with a four-game sweep…

Perhaps, but there remains a ton of baseball left to be played. However, a sweep by the Phillies puts the Mets 8½ games back and increases the intensity of the bickering and fighting amongst members of the league’s most dysfunctional club.

Regardless, the Mets will trot out their top pitchers this weekend with Johan Santana working tonight, John Maine slated to go Saturday night, the delicate Oliver Perez set for Sunday, and Pedro Martinez in Monday night’s finale.

The Phillies counter with J.A. Happ in his second big-league start, followed by Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton.

Yes, with that lineup a sweep will be difficult.

But this ain’t APBA or Strat-O-Matic… let’s see what happens.

***
Between the top and bottom of the first inning, the Phanavision showed Chris Wilson in the crowd. Chris Wilson, of course, is the excellent drummer for Ted Leo & the Pharmacists.

I’m sure I was the only person who picked up on the deserved celebrity of Chris Wilson…

That’s a damn shame.

***
Finally, it’s a big night in Eugene for the Olympic Track Trials. In addition to the semifinals of the men’s 1,500-meters, Hayward Field will be blazed up for the finals of the women’s 5,000 meters and the men’s 10,000 meters.

Villanova’s Jen Rhines is a favorite to make her third straight Olympic team in the 5,000, while Millersville University’s James Carney is a legit darkhorse in the 10,000.

Maureen McCandless from Nazareth Academy had one of the fastest qualifying times in the 5,000 and should be a threat, too.

Apropos of that, the 2008 track Trials have been some of most entertaining ever. If you aren’t watching you are missing out.

Searching for a way back home

Apparently, Brett Myers’ outing in Allentown last night was a big deal. In fact, there were more people at Coca-Cola Park to cover the exiled Phillie than were in the Coca-Cola city to chronicle the Major League Phillies. According to published reports, there were six writers and zero television people in Atlanta with the Phillies, but there were eight writers that regularly cover the Phillies in Allentown along with at least three local TV outlets.

Anyway, I wrote all about it from the cozy press box in the brand-new ballpark before finding my car and proceeding to get lost at least three different times in search of Route 222 back to The Lanc.

I guess I should have checked the directions before I left, but I figured it could be fun just to wing it.

Guess what? It wasn’t much fun, though had I remained on Route 22 it would have taken me to 100, which would have easily linked me up with 222 through Reading and points south.

Yeah, sure… I know all that now.

Nevertheless, last night’s drive home was a lot like Brett Myers’ fastball against the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. Sure, we might have been heading in the right direction in the most general sense, but we sure were taking our time getting there.

In Brett’s regard that amounted to splitters in the dirt, two-seamers well off the plate and some rather pedestrian velocity. The last part is probably the biggest concern to the Phillies because it could signify that something is wrong, be it physical or mechanical. According to all concerned parties, they all believe it to be mechanical.

How quickly those issues get ironed out are another matter all together. The Phillies seem to be banking on the mental rehab trip to Triple-A as well as some insight from Pigs’ pitching coach Rod Nichols to be just what the doctor ordered.

Interestingly, Nichols just might be the one pitching coach Myers hasn’t butted heads with. In the case with Joe Kerrigan, the head butting was almost literal. Then again, Myers isn’t the only pitcher who threatened to take a poke at the ex-pitching coach.

Anyway, while Myers tried to find the plate with his fastball his lot seemed much better off than some guy trying to find his way home but instead ended up on the side of the road halfway toward Tamaqua.

***
If you have missed the U.S. Olympic Track Trials, you ought to be kicking yourself now. In fact, Monday night’s event card was worth the price of a full-event pass by itself. Actually, just the men’s 800-meters final was worth it.

Photo Finish

In what was widely being hailed as the greatest 800-meter race on U.S. soil, viewers got to see just about every element of middle-distance running and sports drama rolled into one.

Here, take a look.

Nick Symmonds of the Oregon Track Club won the race with a blistering kick over the final 300 meters. University of Oregon sophomore Andrew Wheating finished second to earn a spot on the team bound for Beijing next month. The interesting thing about the lean and lanky Wheating is that he has been a runner for just two years. He’s only 20 and he’s already going to the Olympics.

Meanwhile, four-time world champion Khadevis Robinson finished fourth and missed a spot on the Olympic team by centimeters when he was edged on a dive for the finish line by Christian Smith.

Yeah, that’s right… the two runners dived for the line for the last spot on the Olympic team.

Lopez Lomong came in fifth place but missed the last spot for Beijing by .11. Yeah, point-11.

After the race, Smith was sprawled out on the track with blood dripping off his arm from the huge brush burn on his shoulder from the dive. All the while, Symmonds said afterwards that the noise from the crowd at Hayward Field in Eugene was so loud that he couldn’t hear himself breathe.

It was just an awesome, awesome race. Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden was trying to think of a more thrilling track race and (rightly) came up with the epic duel between Haile Gebreselasie and Paul Tergat in the 10,000-meters in the Sydney Olympics of 2000.

My most memorable (not in order):

  • Geb edging Tergat in 10,000 meters in 2000
  • Zola Budd vs. Mary Decker in 1984 Olympics
  • Michael Johnson setting the 200m World Record in 1996 Olympics
  • Ben Johnson’s dirty 100 meters in Seoul in 1988
  • Prefontaine finishing fourth in the 1972 Olympics 5,000 meters (I only saw the tape)
  • Prefontaine winning an indoor mile in the 1974 LA Times meet
  • Ryan Hall obliterating the field in the 2007 Olympic Trials Marathon
  • Bob Kempainen winning the 1996 Olympic Trials Marathon despite some pretty evident stomach distress

Meanwhile, Bernard Lagat ran away with the 5,000-meter title in the Trials to make his first ever U.S. Olympic team. He’ll bounce back on Sunday night in the 1,500-meters, too.

Locally, Villanova’s Bobby Curtis finished sixth in the 5,000 meters to cap off a brilliant senior season in which he won the NCAA Championship in the event.

Villanova undergrad  Frances Koons runs in the women’s 1,500 preliminaries tonight along with ‘Nova alum Carrie Tollefson. On the men’s side, Penn grad Sam Burley runs in the 1,500 meters after a disappointing finish in the 800.

The women’s 5,000-meter finals on Friday night will feature ‘Nova grad Jen Rhines who went to the 2004 Olympics as a marathoner. Rhines is one of the favorites to make the team in the shorter event, but will face a deep field that features Maureen McCandless from Nazareth Academy.

Interestingly, Philadelphia Will Do’s Dan McQuade boasted that he smoked McCandless in high school cross country meets and caught her on the final straightaway in a local road 5k.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say DMac has no shot these days.

Also tonight, Jeremy Wariner takes on LaShawn Merritt in the 400. Friday night is the men’s 10,000-meter finals where current U.S. half-marathon champ and Millersville University alum, James Carney, should be a contender.

Time to stretch

Will & HeidiI’m not an expert on much, but it seems to me that there is much more anticipation about the official opening of spring training this year than in the past. Folks are charged up about baseball and spring training as if the day pitchers and catchers are expected to report to camp has some sort of significance. I don’t know – maybe it is significant. But it’s kind of like the first day of summer or something in that it might be hot for weeks leading up to the “official” day, but it’s not really summer until the third week of June.

Spring training “officially” begins this Thursday, but it’s largely ceremonial – a made-for-TV moment, if you will. The fact is most of the ballplayers have been working out since November and shifted their regimes to Florida or Arizona earlier this month. This Thursday teams like the Phillies will stretch and run formal drills with the wags from the press in attendance. But really, nothing changes for another few weeks when they kick-off the exhibition season.

Still, who doesn’t like the first days of spring training? Watching ballplayers stretch and go through old-timey calisthenics under sun-soaked skies from snowed-in northeastern cities is a way to mark the seasons. TV folks trot out the standard clichés while the newspapermen get to work on the issues facing the club, such as when will the team add another arm to the pitching staff and when will they come to terms on a contract with the top slugger.

New year, same themes.

So while the ballplayers go through their stretches and cover-first drills, I’m going to hang out up here in the snow and cold until Feb. 25. That’s when I’ll go to Clearwater for all the color and pageantry of spring training. Besides, spring training is the best part about baseball.

Until then, it’s back to the ol’ grind.

Here are a few sports-related stories that actually turned my attention away from the stuff I normally read about for a spell:

***
Bryant GumbelBryant Gumbel’s Real Sports on HBO is easily the best sports show out there. The reasons for that are myriad and too long to get into now, but it’s always enjoyable to watch and listen to topics that get into issues.

One of the issues tackled by Gumbel in the latest episode of the show was the ethics of Roger Clemens’ lobbying of Congressmen ahead of tomorrow’s hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Gumbel questioned whether Clemens’ overt wooing of specific Congressmen would affect the legitimacy of the hearings and closed the show with this:

“Finally tonight, a few words about flattery. Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state and notorious self-promoter, once observed that ‘Those who say flattery doesn’t work have never had it practiced on them.’

“That quote would seem to have registered with Roger Clemens, who, facing congressional hearings this week into his alleged steroid use, suddenly became civic minded last week, and made a number of personal house calls on Capitol Hill. Given Clemens’ well-earned reputation for surliness, his transparent charm offensive was to many— exactly that. Aside from the obvious question about why elected officials would consent to meet with a freshly deposed witness in advance of his testimony, you’ve also got to wonder just how much Roger’s shameless slurping may have compromised the objectivity of those slated to question him.

“Following some face time with the accused, one California Republican came away gushing about how much Clemens was the kind of guy you’d want as a neighbor. Since neither party has a monopoly on bad judgment, a Democratic congressman from Brooklyn named Edolphus Towns, all but fell at Clemens’ feet. Parroting the pitcher’s defense after their meeting, Towns claimed his half hour personal visit had made him a believer in Clemens’ character.

“Now I obviously have no idea if Roger Clemens is guilty of that which he is accused. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. But you do have to wonder why someone who’ll be under oath and claims he’s innocent would engage in what looks like the political equivalent of jury tampering to try to influence his reception before a House committee. You could argue it’s good insurance. Or you could conclude that on the heels of an interview, a press conference, a taped phone call and a deposition…he doth protest too much.”

It makes one wonder not only about the relevancy of Congress tackling the issue of steroids in baseball, but also if the hearings are nothing more than the typical political dog-and-pony show. The New York Times examined the issue, noting Congressmen in charge of questioning the pitcher posed for pictures and got autographs during Clemens’ lobbying jaunt.

***
According to published reports, The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was released this week. Hey, who doesn’t like swimsuits? But really, does the SI swimsuit issue really matter anymore? With all the stuff out there on the Internet – swimsuit or not – is the issue just another media anachronism from another tired magazine?

Hey, I’m not telling them to stop…

***
One of my favorite sporting events takes place this weekend in San Diego where some of the best runners in the country will battle it out over the hills and dales in the U.S. Cross Country Championships. This being an Olympic year with the Trials in Eugene quickly approaching, some runners decided to sit out, like defending champ Alan Culpepper. But the top two finishers in last November’s Marathon Olympic Trials will be there.

Undoubtedly, the 12-kilometer championship race will be hyped as the match-up between tough Dathan Ritzenhein and the American distance running’s great hope, Ryan Hall. Runners Dan Browne, Andrew Carlson, James Carney, Anthony Famiglietti, Jason Lehmkuhle and Jorge Torres will also be in San Diego fighting for both a national championship and a spot on the national team for the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 30.

Livan HernandezSo who’s going to win? Certainly it’s hard to bet against Ritzenhein and Hall, who clearly are the class of the field. Dan Browne is another Olympian and a veteran of some big-time races, while Torres is an excellent cross runner and Famiglietti has the pedigree, too. But my dark horse is James Carney, a graduate of Millersville University, who won the U.S. championship in the half-marathon last month in Houston.

With the way he has been racing, Carney could make the Olympic team in the 10,000-meters if he isn’t careful.

***
Speaking of the Olympics, there was an interesting story in The New York Times on how the USOC will supply athletes with American food and chefs while in Beijing for the games. Now we all know that holding the Olympics in China is wrong for thousands of reasons, with pollution, environmental and human-rights concerns right at the top.

But according to the story in The Times, an American delegation traveled to Beijing and tested out the food sold in Chinese supermarkets… let’s just say it didn’t go well.

While in China, USOC caterer Frank Puleo picked up a 14-inch chicken breast and had it tested – the results:

“We had it tested and it was so full of steroids that we never could have given it to athletes. They all would have tested positive.”

That’s really saying something considering how full of hormones and steroids (and other things) meat sold in the U.S. is loaded up with. That is, of course, if author Eric Schlosser is wrong… which he is not.

***
Finally, it’s interesting to note that the Twins signed Livan Hernandez for $5 million for one year. An innings-eating right-hander, Hernandez hasn’t missed a start in years and routinely piles up 200-plus innings every season. Even last season when his Ks-per nine innings were way, way down, Hernandez still threw close to 220 innings (counting the playoffs).

Knowing that it only took $5 million to get Hernandez, 32, to sign with the depleted Twins, would it have been wise for the Phillies to take a shot at the righty? I say yes because I like sure things. Hernandez is almost guaranteed to turn in another 200-innings season in ’08.