Just hanging out on a Tuesday night

OK, where do I start first – Phillies or the Olympics?

Phillies, right?

It certainly should be an interesting evening at the ol’ (new) ballpark tonight. Despite taking two of three from the lowly Padres, it seems as if the fans are restless and fed up with the Phillies’ offense. But make no mistake, Charlie Manuel isn’t too happy with it either.

How can he be? A nine-week slump with the bats just might be what the Mets need to capture the NL East. However, the Mets’ bullpen is a mess. Worse, it was that way before closer Billy Wagner went out with left elbow inflammation.

Nevertheless, this is a big stretch for the Phillies. With nine straight games at home, including three against the lowly Nationals starting tonight, the Phillies can cut into the Mets’ 1 ½ games lead in the NL East.

Then there is Jimmy Rollins…

Yeah, that whole situation nearly reached its apex this afternoon when the reigning NL MVP talked to a healthy media throng about the comments he made on the late-night cable TV program, “The Best Damn Sports Show, Period.”

There weren’t too many interesting revelations from that little powwow other than Rollins telling the press that the one thing he has learned this season is how important he is to the team.

Certainly Rollins is correct about that. During the last seven game road trip, the Phillies struggled to a 3-4 record and scored just 22 runs largely in part because Rollins did not get on base. During that stretch Rollins hit .167 and had an on-base percentage of .194.

Then again Rollins isn’t the only player struggling with the bat for the Phillies.

However, when asked if he regretted the comments he made on the TV show, Rollins had a quick reply:

“No, not at all.”

Without naming names, Rollins also pointed out that he took one for the team.

“I was speaking for a lot of guys,” he said.

So there’s that.

***
Meanwhile, in the Far East it was a pretty good day for the American women distance runners. In the qualifying heats of the women’s 5,000-meters at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, Shalane Flanagan followed up her recent bronze medal in the 10,000-meters by turning in a quick, 14:59.69 to advance to the 5,000 finals on Friday.

Villanova’s Jen Rhines also advanced with a 15:15.12 over the 3.1 miles, while Kara Goucher made it through with a 15:00.98. Goucher was disappointed with her 10th place finish in the 10,000 even though she ran a personal best time and says she turned her focus on the 5,000 when she realized that she wasn’t going to medal in the 10,000.

Nevertheless, if Goucher, Rhines or Flanagan are going to finish on the podium on Thursday, it will definitely take a personal-best time. Both Rhines and Goucher have run 14:55 in the distance, while Flanagan has the American record with 14:44. By comparison, there are eight women in the field of 15 who have run times faster than Flanagan’s American record.

Beijing 2008: Logging on and tuning out

Some have presumed that the reason why the Olympics have lost some of its luster isn’t because it’s a professional sporting event as opposed to one showcasing the top amateur athletes. After all, even in the old days there was hardly such a thing as a true “amateur athlete.”

During the Cold War the Soviet Union and the East German teams were loaded with pros. Behind the Iron Curtain elaborate sports schools complete with special training and special “vitamins” weren’t just part of the sporting culture, they were accepted training practices.

Meanwhile the specter of the Soviet monster was the perfect foil for the U.S. and international athletics. It was very difficult not to look at that menacing and simplistic “CCCP” on the front of a jersey and not be scared shitless. Everyone knew what it meant, which was, “get ready – this might hurt.”

Coming from the United States it’s difficult to understand if that splashy and decorative, “USA” had the same affect. Oh sure, anyone can admit that the “U-S-A!” chant was obnoxious and annoying, but was it fearsome? Did strike worry into the opposition?

Who knows? Americans were always taught that “CCCP” was pure evil, while the Soviets saw the amateurs from America as weak.

It’s kind of funny – in an ironic way – that t-shirts or trinkets with “CCCP” on them are now viewed as “kitsch” or vintage throwbacks to the old days.

Sigh.

But the dissolution of the classic Cold War didn’t ruin the Olympics, either. Neither did the inclusion of non-traditional and fringe sports to the games like beach volleyball or BMX, events that took center stage in past television broadcasts. Instead it was NBC’s decision to focus less on the actual competition and more on the human-interest dramas. Apparently, NBC felt that sports – even Olympic competition – was not enough.

Not only that, NBC decided that the sports they did telecast would not be in real time. Worse, they chopped up the recordings of the events, edited out the nuance and details, and presented them as it would an episode of “Friends.”

For someone who remembered watching Sugar Ray Leonard and Bruce Jenner in Montreal in ’76, the Miracle on Ice in ’80 and the avalanche of American victories during the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles games in 1984, the made-for-TV vignettes forced down viewers’ throats was insulting.

Worse, it was a turnoff. Literally.

But for the Olympics starting today in Beijing, NBC won’t have the built-in excuse of time zones inconducive to American-viewing audiences. For the 2000 games in Sydney and the 2004 games in Athens, it was rare for fans in the U.S. to see a live event. Worse, Michael Johnson’s epic run in the 200-meters in Atlanta wasn’t even shown live.

But for the Beijing Olympics NBC can go live all the time. One reason is that the time difference is convenient. When it’s 7 p.m. in Beijing, it is 7 a.m. in Philadelphia. Sure, people have to go to work in the morning, but a die-hard sports fan can easily get up to watch the competition.

Better yet, more so than any other time in history technology will play an instrumental role. The proliferation of the Internet makes it impossible and even stupid to stage made-for-TV events. Apparently NBC knows this because it will stream events live on its web site. Plus, along with the growth of Internet, cable television has grown since the last Olympics. As a result, NBC will show 23 ½ hours of Olympic coverage a day on its various networks ranging from MSNBC to CNBC to Universal HD to Panavision.

Plus, NBC has to know that its reputation and culpability are on the line if they don’t give American viewers an honest, un-filtered presentation. A bad showing could push sports fans to the Internet in droves. Everything else will be on NBCOlympics.com – not that new high def TV you just bought.

Who could have predicted Twitter in 2004?

Nevertheless, by the time NBC got around to broadcasting the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night, all of the debris, smoke from the fireworks and debris had been swept away, the people had all gone home and the Olympic Stadium, called the Bird’s Nest, was being prepared to host its first events.

Aside: And no, when NBC showed President Bush talking to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, they were not talking about the drum number as Bob Costas suggested. It was probably something more like Putin’s decision to invade former Soviet republic, Georgia, on Friday.

Nice try, Bob.

But according to The New York Times, seven events will give medals on Saturday, but NBC will only broadcast two of them live. This begs the question:

How can an American broadcasting corporation be almost as restrictive as the Chinese government?

Maybe it’s time to get a satellite dish in order to get the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s unbiased, live and unpretentious coverage?

OK, nobody really gives a crap about Bob Costas or NBC. (In best Jim McKay voice) We, as sports fans, want the unparalleled human drama that is only captured in the Olympics. Once every four years athletes have a chance to capture immortality. Imagine having to wait that long for the World Series or the Super Bowl.

Moreover, just rooting for your home country isn’t enough. In a global society where more American products are made in China than around the corner, we root for the hometown heroes.

They say all politics is local. So too are international athletics.

Certainly those of us who write about sports in Philadelphia have plenty of topics. Here are the local folks to keep an eye on:

Kobe Bryant – Yeah most people have heard of the Lower Merion High grad who also is the diva of the NBA. After flopping with his Lakers in the NBA Finals against the Celtics, Bryant and LeBron James are in charge of returning the gold medal to the U.S. in basketball. Most pundits have picked Team Nike USA to win it in Beijing, but if they don’t expect plenty of criticism for the very precious Kobe.

Sarunas JasikeviciusThe Lithuanian basketball star made his fame when he torched the U.S. during the 2004 Athens Olympics. This time around he was the flag bearer for his home country. But aside from playing collegiately at the University of Maryland, Sarunas played his high school hoops for Solanco High in Lancaster County. Back then he was secondary offensive option for a prep team that featured short-lived Temple star, Johnny Miller.

Needless to say, it looks as if Sarunas has done OK for himself.

Jen Rhines ­- Coached by her husband and fellow Villanova All-American Terrence Mahon, Rhines has defied the distance runner evolution. After competing in the marathon in Athens in 2004 and the 10,000 in Sydney in 2000, she is running in the 5,000-meters in Beijing. Chances are Rhines will struggle to make the finals in a deep event, but berths on Olympic teams in three different events is pretty amazing.

Brian Sell The true cult hero in the running world. Though Sell didn’t even break 10-minutes for two-miles in high school, ran collegiately for Division III Messiah College near Harrisburg before transferring to little know D-I St. Francis in Loretto, Pa., he kept on running. As a result he improved year after year as the marquee runner for the Michigan-based Hansons-Brooks project.

And as Sell, from Woodbury, Pa., continued to improve by routinely ticking off upwards to 160-mile weeks, he got married to a girl from Lancaster County, had a daughter, bought a house, put off dental school and continued to work at Home Depot.

How many Olympians do that?

Sell isn’t expected to crack the podium in the marathon in Beijing. In fact, he’s not expected to be the top American finisher in the event either. Ryan Hall is America’s hope for gold. But Sell is looking for a top 10 finish after logging those 160-mile weeks in nasty conditions in anticipation for the heat and humidity of August in China.

“I’m hoping for the worst conditions possible,” Sell told Runner’s World. “It could be a big equalizer.”

Amanda Beard – She’s not local, but why not?

Michael Phelps – The new Golden Boy is kind of local. He’s from North Baltimore, which is closer to a lot of places considered part of the Philadelphia viewing area than Philly.

Other subjects of interest:

  • China – The Olympics are the biggest thing that happened to this mysterious country since Richard Nixon visited. It also sounds as if it’s just as important as all of the U.S. companies moving its manufacturing centers there.
  • Pollution/environmental issues – A few athletes, like Haile Gebreselasie, have backed out of the games because of health concerns. Reports are the Chinese government is pulling out all the stops to lower the smog and pollution rate, but how much is sure to be an issue.
  • Politics – Naïve types like to say that the Olympics are not about politics, but athletics. Yeah, right. If that was the case there would be no parade of nations – just the top athletes regardless of their nationality. Nevertheless, be prepared to hear about Darfur, Tibet and various other human rights issues… it’s about time.
  • Censorship – Marcus Hayes from the Daily News told me in an e-mail that he couldn’t access his web site from the media center in Beijing. Americans and journalists traveling to China for the games expect restrictions on civil liberties, but how much they stand for will be an interesting sub plot.
  • Doping – yeah.
  • Corporatization – Coke, Nike, General Electric, NBC, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, and Visa. Try this out: on the U.S. basketball team, 11 players are sponsored by Nike, one is with adidas. Nike is also the official sponsor of Team USA… and probably the entire games. That is if Coke lets them.

So now the choice is ours. Do we log on and tune out or just allow the pretty high-def hues on tape delay from NBC wash over us?

Sticking with it

Typically, a distance runner begins his competitive racing career in the shorter distances like the mile and two-mile on the track and 5k in cross country. When the runner gets stronger and more experienced they generally focus on track events like the 5,000 and 10,000-meters until they plateau or the speed starts to wane a bit.

That’s when siren call of the marathon is finally answered. That usually occurs just as the runner is entering their late 20s or early 30s. By then good runners are strong enough to handle the pounding of high-mileage training and longer (yet slower) speed sessions.

If a runner is still at it after the marathon speed has deserted them, that’s when it’s time to give those geeky ultra-marathons a whirl. Those types of races don’t necessarily require a lot of talent, just the ability to run long or the stupidity to not know when to quit.

But Villanova grad Jen Rhines seems to have to evolution of the classic distance runner backwards. A three-time National Champion in the 5,000-meters for the Wildcats, Rhines qualified for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney in the 10,000 meters. For the Athens games in 2004, she made the U.S. Olympic team as a marathoner, which jibed perfectly with the proper ascension. Rhines’ fourth-ever marathon was in the 2004Olympics as a 30-year old. Seemingly her future as a distance runner was as a marathoner. By the time the 2008 Olympic Trials came around, Rhines likely would have had a handful of solid marathon times under her belt.

Only it didn’t happen that way. In 2005 she was 18th in the New York City Marathon with a 2:37:07. That’s hardly a world-class time for a runner of Rhines’ pedigree. In 2006 she was fourth in the Rome Marathon in 2:29:32 and seventh in the Tokyo Marathon in 2:35:37, which is an improvement from 2005, but not a huge breakthrough.

Yet instead of piling up the miles at altitude in her new hometown of Mammouth Lakes, Calif. with the likes of Deena Kastor, Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi and a team filled with the best distance runners in America all coached by her husband (and former Villanova running star) Terrence Mahon, Rhines stopped the standard running evolution and went backwards. Actually, make that she went back to the distances that made her a star all those years ago out on the Main Line.

Beginning in 2007, Rhines forgot about the marathon and focused on the shorter distances and ran her best times in the 1,500m, 3,000m and 10,000m and went on to take seventh in the 5,000m at the 2007 World Championships. Instead of the marathon or the 10,000, Rhines focused on making her third U.S. Olympic team as 5,000-meter runner.

Actually, Rhines put all her eggs in one basket. If she did not make the team in the 5k, she didn’t have the 10,000 or marathon to fall back on despite the fact that she had the second-best qualifying time for the marathon trials.

But after finishing in second place in the 5,000-meter finals last night at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., Rhines’ gamble paid off.

“I am really excited to get to run in Beijing,” she said after running 15:02 in the 5,000-meter finals to finish a second behind Kara Goucher. “I’ve always like the shorter distances, but I’ve been getting better and better since I’ve come back down.”

Call it quite a feat: Three Olympic teams in three different running events. That’s a lot of range.

And who knows, by the time the London Olympics in 2012 roll around, maybe Rhines will be ready to give the marathon another try.

***
Speaking of giving it another try, how about that Dara Torres?

Since 1984 a lot has changed in sports. That’s especially the case in Olympic sports where the games have gone from a showcase for the top amateur athletes to another hyped up professional event.

Hell, entire countries have come and gone since 1984. There’s only one Germany now and no U.S.S.R.

But since 1984 the Olympics have always had one name involved…

Dara Torres.

Torres was 17 when she made her first U.S. Olympic swim team in 1984 for the games in Los Angeles and she was 41 with a 2-year-old kid when she made the team in 2008 on Friday in Omaha.

Now check this out: In winning the 100-meter freestyle at the Olympic Trials, Torres time was faster than her gold-medal winning effort in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 4.58 seconds faster than her fourth-place finish in the 1984 Olympics.

***
Look for Phillies stuff tomorrow, including the part where I traded Geoff Jenkins in the no-hitter pool for John Maine pitching a no-hitter against the Phillies.

Yes, I know the Mets have never had a no-hitter in their franchise history, but I figure the odds on Jenkins getting a hit to break up the no-hitter are about the same as Maine actually getting the no-no.

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.