The NLCS: Are the Phillies in the Dodgers’ heads?

George SherrillLOS ANGELES—Lots of interesting plots and subplots to last night’s Game 1 of the NLCS here at Dodger Stadium. The biggest, of course, was the Phillies’ ability to get clutch hits against the Dodgers’ lefties.

Both of the three-run homers and a key double from Ryan Howard came against lefties Clayton Kershaw and George Sherrill. The notable one there was the blast off Sherrill by lefty Raul Ibanez. After all, no lefty had homered off Sherrill in 98 games and nearly two seasons.

For a team that went out and got Sherrill specifically to pitch to the Phillies sluggers in late-game playoff situations, Ibanez’s homer was huge. Deeper than that, five of the Phillies’ eight hits in the Game 1 victory were from lefty hitters against lefty pitchers.

So it begs the question… are the Phillies in the Dodgers’ heads?

Yeah, yeah, it’s only Game 1, but if Pedro were to dial it up in Game 2 and the Phillies go home with a two-game lead and Cliff Lee ready to pitch in chilly and rainy Philly, this one might be over before it gets started.

So are the Phillies in the Dodgers’ heads? Certainly based on some of the moves the Dodgers have made it’s not an unreasonable idea. After all, in addition to trading for Sherrill, the Dodgers got Jim Thome to do what Matt Stairs does for the Phillies. In fact, Dodgers’ GM Ned Colletti cited Stairs when talking about the move to bring in Thome.

The thing about that is people barely knew Stairs was on the Phillies until he crushed that ridiculously long homer at Dodger Stadium in Game 4 of last year’s NLCS. Reliever Jonathan Broxton has been known to get salty when talking about Stairs’ homer and the Dodgers fans booed Stairs louder than anyone else during the player introductions.

So maybe the Phillies are in their heads?

We’ll see as the series wears on, but in the meantime Tommy Lasorda (the greatest phony in baseball history according to those in the know), is already chirping. The old Dodger manager was reportedly talking trash about the 1977 NLCS where the Phillies took Game 1 only to lose it in four games.

Really, 1977? That was generations ago. As one of Lasorda’s old players Davey Lopes said in regard to Larry Bowa harboring ill feelings about a controversial call in the 1977 NLCS:

“It was 31 years ago. Quit crying and move on.”

Maybe they can’t. Maybe they’re too wrapped up on what happened last year.

Here’s a few fun facts:
• The Phillies are 1-6 all-time in Game 2 of the NLCS. The only Game 2 victory came last year at the Bank against the Dodgers.

• The Phillies and Dodgers are meeting for the fifth time in the NLCS, which is tied for the most championship series matchups with the Pirates and Reds. Chances are those two teams won’t be playing each other in the NLCS any time soon.

• The Phillies have won 15 of their last 21 games in the NLCS dating back to 1980.

• Dodgers manager Joe Torre is making his 14th straight trip to the playoffs. He has not been to the World Series since 2003 and hasn’t won it since 2000.

The NLCS: Phillies in five

dodgersLOS ANGELES — Let’s just put it out there on the line—Dodger Stadium is my favorite ballpark. It isn’t so much about the actual facility as it is what it represents. Of course the reality of how Dodger Stadium was built compared to its ideals of manifest destiny and a veritable garden party don’t exactly mesh, but still… the views!

That’s the part that’s amazing—sitting in the actual ballpark one can see palm trees and flowers with the picturesque San Gabriels looming just beyond the pavilion. Yet when one goes to the very top of the park to exit and looks out at the skyline of Los Angeles with its hulking post-modernist buildings and the Hollywood sign off to the right it’s hard not to think of the opening scene from “Blade Runner.”

Dodger Stadium is the second oldest ballpark in the National League, but it represents the future. It always has.

So we’ll go to Dodger Stadium on Thursday afternoon for the first game of the 2009 NLCS. There’s a pretty good chance that we’ll be back later next week, too, in order to figure out which team will go to the World Series.

If the Phillies won the National League at Dodger Stadium last year, why can’t they do it again?

Well, they can do it again. After all, in Game 1, Cole Hamels will face 21-year old Clayton Kershaw in a battle of young lefties. The interesting caveat in this matchup is Kershaw is 0-3 with a 6.64 ERA in four starts against the Phillies. Plus, three years ago he was still in high school. Of the teams that he has faced at least twice in his short career, Kershaw is the worst against the Phillies.

Moreover, the Dodgers will send ex-Phillie Vicente Padilla to the mound in Game 2. The Phillies know him well and understand that he is full of weaknesses and can easily be intimidated. As Jimmy Rollins said during Wednesday’s workout:

“When he’s good, he’s really good. If not, he’s way off.”

Take away his win against the Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLDS and Padilla hasn’t pitched seven innings since the middle of July. Besides, that Game 3 was Padilla’s first appearance ever in the playoffs so who’s to know if he can keep his focus long enough to be known a s a big-game pitcher.

Hiroki Kuroda is known to the Phillies and not in a good way. Sure, everyone remembers that incident with Shane Victorino during last year’s NLCS, but more telling is that the Phils are 6-for-60 in three games against the Japanese righty.

Then there is Randy Wolf, the ex-Phillie who pitched the first-ever game at Citizens Bank Park. Pitching for other teams at the Bank, Wolf is much better than he was as a Phillie. However, Wolf’s playoff debut wasn’t too good and he was pushed out of a Game 1 start to go in Game 4.

So it will come down to the bullpens. If the Phillies can get a lead and hold it, they will return to the World Series. But if they let Kershaw, Padilla, Kuroda and Wolf hang around, it could prove to be a tough road for the Phillies.

I’m not sure that will happen. That’s why I’m going with the Phillies in five games. Yeah, that goes against the conventional wisdom, but these aren’t the Phillies of yore. These guys know how to win and so they won’t have to return to Southern California until the end of October when they face the Angels in the World Series.

Yeah, that’s it—Phillies vs. Angels in the Fall Classic.

Can the Phillies repeat? It’s tough, says Dodgers manager Joe Torre who was guided the last team to do it in 1998-2000 with the Yankees.

“Well, first off, you’ve got a bulls-eye on your back,” Torre said. “That’s one. Everyone seems to put on their Sunday best to play you. You always get the best pitchers matching up. And then if you have a young pitcher that nobody knows, it seems to be a challenge to that young man to show what they can do against the world champs or those teams.

“So, I think when you repeat, you basically have to go through a tougher season to get there. And the Phillies, they’ve experienced those ups and downs. They go through and have a good streak, and I think they went down to Houston and got swept. But the thing about it, when you have a ball club that has been as consistent, knowing they’re good, they rebound from things like that. I think that’s the main thing about Philadelphia is how resilient they’ve been. Early in the year this year they didn’t win any games at home. It didn’t seem to bother them. They just kept plugging away. I think that’s why they’re so good. Not to mention the talent they have. When you look down that lineup, a couple of switch hitters at the top and then a couple of left-handers and then (Jayson) Werth who’s that blue-collar guy, you may compare him a little bit to Casey Blake type of individual, they’re going to fight you every step of the way. They’re a ballclub that has a purpose—they have a purpose out there, and we certainly are aware of it.”

Let’s pause for a second and think about the notion of Charlie Manuel becoming the first manager to repeat as World Champion since Joe Torre and the first National Leaguer to do it since Sparky Anderson and the Big Red Machine of 1975 and 1976…

Yeah, Charlie Manuel.

“You like to be able to look over your shoulder and know that your manager believes in you. He’s there for you,” ex-Phillies and now Dodgers pinch hitter Jim Thome said. “Charlie does that. He keeps it relaxed so all you have to do is go out and play. You can’t explain how important that is.”

It starts on Thursday afternoon from here in California.

Is everyone ready?

Just Manny being Rickey

mannyWASHINGTON – I have Brad Lidge fatigue. No, I’m not tired of Brad Lidge. In fact, he’s a great dude. He’s nice, polite, personable, Thoughtful, funny and smart. Generally, those aren’t the best qualities for a closer, but it seemed to work out pretty well last year.

Hey, Lidge might be the only ballplayer in history to pursue an advanced degree in biblical archaeology. Think he and Brett Myers are sitting around discussing that?

Anyway, I have Lidge fatigue because I’m tired of writing about closers, the ninth inning and saves. Lately, it seems like that’s all we do. Charlie Manuel is tired of being asked about it, too, but frankly it’s the news. In the news business, one tends to focus on those types of things.

And apropos of that, I asked Charlie if he’d consider allowing a pitcher to go more than one inning to nail down a save because he labeled himself a “throwback guy.” The answer, of course, was no because with a bullpen thinned out by injuries and Lidge’s struggles. Remember the stretch run in September of 2007 when Manuel rode J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon and Brett Myers? If it seemed as if those guys pitched every game in the rush to take the NL East from the Mets it was because they did… practically.

Myers pitched 16 games that September, Gordon pitched 18, and Romero got into 20 games.

Fortunately for Manuel, he has a better starting staff this year so he won’t have to reprise that tact with Myers, Ryan Madson and perhaps Chan Ho Park until Lidge gets it together.

Regardless, the closer/Lidge issues are just filling the time until we start diving the fight for home-field advantage in the NLDS. As it stands now, the Phillies would go to Los Angeles for the first two games of the opening playoffs series while St. Louis would host Colorado. If the Phillies survive that scenario, they would host Colorado but travel to St. Louis for the NLCS opener.

Of course there are still 24 games to go and the Dodgers’ starting pitchers are struggling. Undoubtedly the Phillies would not want to trade their Lidge problems for ones with a starter.

Anyway, to put the Lidge (and playoff seeding) chatter on hold for a bit, I picked up a funny little blog post sent from a friend about the Dodgers, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome.

Apparently, according to the post, Manny has no idea who Jim Thome is. Never mind the fact that Thome and Manny were teammates for 10 years in Cleveland.

manny_chuckConjuring the famous and debunked story about Rickey Henderson and John Olerud in which Rickey was said to explain to Olerud when both players were on the Mariners that he once was teammates with a guy who wore a helmet in the field with the Mets.

“Yeah, that was me, Rickey,” Olerud said in the myth.

So now we have Manny, who according to the author of Diamond Hoggers, just couldn’t figure out who the hell some guy named Jim Thome was.

To wit:

This comes from a guy we know who works in the Dodgers organization. He wrote us an e-mail because he thought the story would please us. He was right.

Hey fellas,Hope all is well. Had a story for you that you might find kind of funny and that might go well on your site. Just leave my name out of it. So here goes:Alright so we all know that Jim Thome was traded to the Dodgers at the end of August, reuniting him with Ramirez after all those years in Cleveland. That’s all fine and dandy and all, but get this….. hours before the trade is made official news to the media one of the clubhouse coaches goes over to Manny and says “hey we’re bringing Jim Thome back here to play with you”. Ramirez looks at him, stares off into the distance for a few minutes. Our coach starts to realize that either Manny isn’t happy or he’s got no fucking clue what is going on. Our coach couldn’t believe it was that though, since they played together for almost 10 years in Cleveland. Finally our coach says “Manny aren’t you happy about Jim coming to LA?”Ramirez looks him dead in the eye and says “I’ve never played with anyone named Jim.” Gets up, and walks away. No [bleep]. Our coach left it at that.

Wonder if that coach is a certain ex-Phillies manager?

Nevertheless, add this to the absent-minded legend that is Manny Ramirez. Or add it to the pile of Manny stories that Manuel likes to tell from their days in the Indians’ organization. Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon for Manny to show up at the ballpark with no money to pay for a taxi, no suitcase for a road trip or equipment.

Call him Manny Gump – the baseball hitting savant.

Or just call this episode a case of Manny being Rickey.

Breaking up the band

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who cares about all of that.

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

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

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

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

Howard, Utley, Rolen and Rollins?

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

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

And somehow it worked out.

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

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

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

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

Apparently he was discussing his on-base percentage.

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

Take a look at the video here.

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

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

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

Baseballtown, USA

reading outsideThe first time I ever walked into Fenway Park, I thought to myself, “Hey, this is just like Reading, only bigger…”

And older, of course. Fenway Park opened shortly after the Titanic went down in 1912. Reading Municipal Stadium, as it was known when it opened, has been hosting baseball games since 1951. That makes it a relic by today’s standards, but the ironic thing is the movement in stadium building (which ought to be about finished now, right? Doesn’t every city, town and hamlet have its own new ballpark by now?) is to be both old and new at the same time.

Reading appears to have gotten that part right in 1951.

I was the last Philly-area scribe out of the ballpark last night following Kyle Drabek’s 10th outing for the R-Phils, and on the way out I flashed back to a few of those times at Fenway. Walking those empty corridors in search for an exit was reminiscent of a time in 2004 when Jim Thome and I (name-dropping!) did the same thing. See, at Fenway, the visitors’ clubhouse opens right out on the main concourse and the ballplayers have to walk through the same halls the fans traipsed through during the game. So when looking for the way out – me to an elevator to write a story before walking back to the Marriott, Thome to his waiting town car – Thome talked about the ambiance of the joint and I mentioned how it reminded me of Reading, Pa.

Back when Thome played in the Double-A Eastern League, he probably saw the same thing. Just like Fenway, the clubhouses at FirstEnergy Stadium (as it’s called now) open right onto the concourses. The difference is that the ballplayers actually have to wade through the fans in order to get back to the showers and training room. Another difference is that the home clubhouse in Reading is larger than the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway.

Another difference is at Fenway they sell chowder and lo mein on the concourse. At Reading it’s funnel cake and Yeungling.

Anyway, Reading’s moniker as, “Baseball Town” is well deserved. In fact, the web site Minor League News rated FirstEnergy as the second-best ballpark in the country. The funny thing about that is all the other minor-league parks rated in the top 10 all opened since 2000. To me that should give Reading more points since those other places seem to be attempting to create what FirstEnergy has naturally.

It looks like a smaller, chowder-less Fenway inside, a little like old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on the outside, which opened around the same time as the park in Reading, but was demolished in 2001. But comparisons aside, the little ol’ ballpark in Reading, Pa. is pure baseball through and through.

For those into the game at its bare essence, it’s tough to beat Reading, Pa.


view from left-field cornerAlong those lines, Coca-Cola Park in Allentown is nothing to sneeze at either. Chances are Pedro Martinez will be working in his second rehab assignment this Friday in A-town, so some folks who rarely venture out of the city confines might make the trip up the NE Extension, too.

Which brings up an interesting point…

Here in Lancaster they have an Atlantic League ballclub managed by ex-Cardinal/Twin/Phillie Tom Herr where they play games in one of those nouveau minor-league parks that pop up everywhere like a big box store in a strip mall. Truth be told, it’s a pretty nice way to spend an evening in a place where there are a dearth of truly exciting things to do.

Nevertheless, Lancaster’s ballpark will never be a destination for the hardcore baseball fan simply because there is no reason to watch a game there. In Lancaster, the pro team will never have Major Leaguers in town for a rehab game or the hot prospects around for a summer or two on the path to the big leagues. With no affiliation with a big league club in a city that could very well support a Double-A club, the team is filled with guys just hoping for one last chance or just playing for the love of the game.

Nothing wrong with that.

But it doesn’t make for quality baseball. Sure, the majority of folks don’t go to baseball games for the quality of the game, but, you know, I do. And there are other seamheads out there into the same thing.

Quality… why is that so difficult a concept to accept these days? And that just ain’t for baseball, either. Give people something good instead of a sales pitch and they’ll beat down the door.

That’s guaranteed.

Just Manny being Barry?

a-rod-and-mannyNEW YORK – I had planned a whole thing on the brand-new Citi Field and the Phillies’ first visit to the new digs in Queens, but Manny Ramirez kind of ruined that. Besides, at this point when new ballparks are popping up every season, including two of them in New York City, the shine is off the penny a bit.

So think about this – would there have been more fawning over places like Citi Field or the new Yankee Stadium if they were built 5-to-10 years ago? It’s been nearly 20 years since Camden Yards kicked off the whole retro-ballpark craze and now it appears as if every city that wants one has either built it or is set to begin construction.

Heck, even the Marlins are getting a new park for their six fans.

Here are a couple more things to ponder… are we going to be back replacing all these new ballparks in another 30 years like we were with the multi-purpose parks of the late 1960s and early ‘70s?

And if we keep shelling out the cash to build all these stadiums, are city skylines only going to hold the light fixtures and facades of ballparks? It seems like the only public funding put to the vote are to build stadiums… you know, screw bridges and roads.

Anyway, the Phillies and manager Charlie Manuel – a former mentor to Ramirez – were about as excited to talk about the latest drug suspension as they were the new ballpark. The most interesting part was while expressing sadness over the situation and fear over the harm the drug issues could cause to the sport, players generally indicate that players tied to performance-enhancing drug use have not had their accomplishments diminished.

They also don’t believe the game has suffered despite saying they want it cleaned up.

Meanwhile, baseball’s revenues and attendance has never been higher (excluding New York City, of course, where sellouts only occurred at the old ballparks), which seems to say that the fans don’t really give a damn about baseball’s issues.

Anyway, we’re not going to add to the pile of reflexive commentating regarding Ramirez and his positive test/50-game suspension since the finger waging appears to be taking care of itself. However, it is worth noting that the three top hitters of this era have all been tied/admitted/suspended for performance-enhancing drug use. In fact, one of the three has been indicted for perjury for his grand jury testimony about his alleged drug use.

Barry, Manny and A-Rod is hardly this era’s Willie, Mickey, and The Duke, huh?

Since baseball is a numbers game, let’s look at a few. For instance, nine of the top 20 home run hitters of all-time have played this decade, and six of those nine have been tied to PED use. The three who have not are Jim Thome, Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr.

What do you think of that trio’s careers now?

How about this set of numbers – 22 players who have been on teams managed by Joe Torre have been associated with PEDs. Joe’s 22 are:

Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Gary Sheffield, Mike Stanton, Dan Naulty, Darren Holmes, Jason Grimsley, Chuck Knoblauch, Glenallen Hill, Matt Lawton, Denny Neagle, David Bell, Kevin Brown, Jason Giambi, Randy Velarde, Ron Villone, Ricky Bones, Rondell White and David Justice.

Can’t wait to dive into Tony LaRussa’s list…

Locking up Sir Charles

For awhile I thought Milwaukee was the worse city in America. I had a good reason to think this, too. No, it had nothing to do with those toughs always messing around with Richie Cunningham, Potsie and Ralph Malph that the Fonz always had to straighten out. It also didn’t have to do with those geeks Lenny and Squiggy or Milwaukee natives Latrell Sprewell, Heather Graham or Liberace.

Nope, those folks didn’t get me riled up one way or another, though it was difficult not to be a big fan of Heather Graham as Roller Girl in “Boogie Nights.”

There was one reason why I thought Milwaukee was the worst city in America…

Charles Barkey.

Yes, Sir Charles almost ruined Milwaukee for me and here’s why – he kept getting arrested there. In fact, it got to the point where it seemed as if the police were waiting for Big Chuck at the airport to pick him up for some trumped up charge.

Charles, of course, was arrested in Milwaukee in December of 1991 when he punched some dude named Joseph McCarthy in the nose. Apparently McCarthy and his pals saw Charles hanging out in a Milwaukee bar early one morning and yelled, “Hey Barkley, show me how tough you are.”

That was followed by an invitation to fight which was RSVP’d with the right to the nose.

A few hours later, Charles was arrested and held in the local lockdown for four hours before posting $500 bond. Eventually, the case went to trial before Barkley beat the rap because of self defense.

Barkley didn’t only have trouble in the local bars in Milwaukee, either. Sometimes he even had trouble on the basketball court, like that time at the Mecca during the mid-‘80s when he brawled with Paul Mokeski.

Then again, ol’ Chuck mixed it up in a lot of cities, like that time he tossed a guy through a window in Orlando in 1996. That was one incident that Barkley says he regrets.

“I regret we weren’t on the second floor,” he said.

Anyway, just because Barkley got arrested in Milwaukee doesn’t make it all bad. The thing that makes it bad is that the police in Milwaukee have no trouble rousting Sir Charles when he hits town, but they just can’t seem to figure out the caper of the guy who is killing and eating people.

Yep, in Milwaukee Charles Barkley goes to trial for bopping some lout in the nose, all while Jeffrey Dahmer was walking the streets.

So if you are looking for a reason to dislike the Brewers when they face the Phillies in the NLDS this week, there it is.

Ol’ Charlie Barkley coming through for Philadelphia again.

Gettin’ back…

Speaking of coming through for Philadelphia and Chicago, how about that Jim Thome?

For those that missed it, Big Jim launched a 461-foot bomb well over the center field fence in the seventh inning to give the White Sox a 1-0 victory over the Twins in the playoff game to determine the winner of the AL Central.

With Thome’s homer, the White Sox go on to play the Rays in the ALDS. Better yet, the win got Thome back to the playoffs for the first time since 2001 when he and Charlie Manuel went in with the Cleveland Indians.

On another note, it’s hard to believe it’s been more than three years since Thome last played in Philadelphia. Actually, it’s 111 homers ago.

Who knows… maybe Thome will take a trip back to Philly in late October. Hey crazier things have happened.

The playoff predictions are coming on Wednesday morning… be ready.

Method to the madness

During Charlie Manuel’s first spring training as manager of the Phillies, players raved about the change in atmosphere around the clubhouse. For the first time since Terry Francona managed the team, the ballplayers felt relaxed and able to do their jobs without a screaming and spittle-filled tirade from the man in charge.

Manuel was just what the Phillies needed, the players said. In an era where the average salary for a baseball player was a little more than $2 million, there was no need for extra motivation.

A screaming manager or coach not only is the personification of bush league and a throwback to ridiculous archetype, but also is just silly. When Larry Bowa was finally let go and replaced with Manuel, everyone was happy.

Yes, Manuel was a good man who fostered an environment in which ballplayers could easily go about their jobs without the annoyance of reprisal. Manuel figured a relaxed ballplayer was a good ballplayer.

But Manuel was never a push over. From Jim Thome to Randy Wolf to Jimmy Rollins and all down the line, players who knew better said that Charlie was a nice and classy as could be, but…

“Don’t cross him,” players warned.

In other words, don’t mistake Manuel’s kindness for weakness.

In the years since that first spring the Phillies have been stamped with the Seal of Charlie. Unmistakably, the Phillies are Manuel’s team. The bash-and-bop style of Phillies’ offense reflects Manuel’s nature as a minor-league and Japanese League star and is reminiscent of his teams in Cleveland. There, with Thome, Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle in the middle of the order and Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton setting the table, the Indians went to the playoffs six times in seven years and to the World Series twice in three seasons.

The Phillies clearly aren’t good as those Cleveland teams, but the formula is the same.

Charlie is the same, too. Don’t cross him.

Jimmy Rollins, the diva-like reigning NL MVP, learned as much on two different occasions this season. Once when Rollins failed to hustle down the first-base line on an easy pop fly that dropped in for an error, and another time when the shortstop showed up late for a game at Shea Stadium, Manuel yanked him from the lineup and put him on the bench.

To Charlie, an MVP trophy doesn’t mean a player stops being accountable.

Accountability isn’t just about hustling and showing up on time, either. Ask starting pitcher Brett Myers about that.

Saturday night, Myers made the mistake of shouting, “This is my [bleeping] game,” toward Manuel as he ambled out to the mound to make the pitching change. Despite his teammates’ calls for him to knock it off, Myers continued shouting at Manuel until he made a hasty retreat toward the back of the dugout.

Though Myers has been good since returning from his month-long exile to the minors the get his pitching back in order and he had held the Pittsburgh Pirates to a run and five hits through 7 2/3 innings and 92 pitches to that point in the game, the pitcher didn’t think the fact that the Pirates had three straight lefties coming up nor that he had given up three hard hit balls that inning meant much.

But that all changed when the pitcher turned around after continuing his tirade in the dugout only to find Charlie bearing down on him, screaming and pawing at the insolent pitcher’s left shoulder. When the argument spilled to the runway leading back to the clubhouse, Charlie finally had to be pulled away lest the heated exchange turn physical.

That would have been something.

Some speculated in jest that Myers would have had an advantage if it come to fisticuffs since he was trained as a boxer before turning to baseball as a teenager. Perhaps. But boxer or not, Myers clearly doesn’t have Manuel’s toughness – mental or physical. For one, Manuel has had cancer, a heart attack and bypass surgery. When he returned to work for the Indians after cancer surgery, he kept a colostomy bag under his jacket.

That’s tough. The crazy came from his playing days when Manuel brawled with manager Billy Martin as a rookie with the Twins. Later, while playing in Japan, Manuel famously fought the East German hockey team (all of them), and was beaned in the face with a pitch and played despite the fact that he couldn’t eat solid food.

So a precious little boxer from Florida who once allegedly fought his wife on a crowded Boston street can’t really be a match for the much older manager, can he?

Yeah, Myers may have thought it was his game, but the Phillies are very clearly Charlie’s team.

After the game when things cooled down a bit, Myers apologized and admitted he was wrong for showing up his manager.

“I’m a competitor,” Myers said. “I like competing and I wanted to stay in and finish the game. But sometimes your emotions get the best of you and you might do something irrational out there. He thought I did. That’s part of the game. It’s all patched up now, though. We’re buddies.”

Since rejoining the Phillies after his demotion to the minors, Myers is 2-0 with a 2.10 ERA in four starts. His two wins are against Washington and Pittsburgh – combined those teams are 97-138 this season.

“I missed a month without being here with the team and I wanted to try to prove myself again that I can pitch in the big leagues – and I wanted to stay out there as long as I could,” Myers said. “He made the decision and that’s his decision.”

Manuel didn’t take blame or apologize afterwards. Actually, it seemed as if he kind of enjoyed the confrontation, noting that it was just a matter of two guys having a disagreement.

“He’s fine,” Manuel said as if Myers’ ego was injured more than anything else. “He just wanted to stay in the game and I like that. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, if he didn’t want to stay in the game, I’d probably be mad.”

He certainly wasn’t mad about taking Myers out of the game though – just as he wasn’t upset about disciplining Rollins.

“I’ll tell you something: his confidence got back. That’s why I took him out of the game. I wasn’t going to let him lose the game. He was leaving on a high note, and there’s four left-handed hitters standing there,” Manuel said. “I wasn’t going to give him a chance to get hit. He already pitched a good game and did a good job.”

Is there a method to Charlie’s madness? Probably not. After all, he was the ballplayer described in the essential book about Japanese baseball called You Gotta Have Wa as, “a big, red-haired character from West Virginia with a talent for producing anarchy out of order.”

The ironic thing is that it has been the exact opposite in Philadelphia. There might not be a method to the madness, but it certainly is effective.

Snowy Series?

Paul ByrdSo we can all thank Paul Byrd for giving us a Colorado-Cleveland World Series. Really? Colorado will play Cleveland in the World Series in nighttime games scheduled in late October? Wow. Does anyone want to bet that the first-pitch temperatures never make it above 50 degrees? Better yet, will there be snowflakes falling during all the games or just the ones in Denver?

Of course Cleveland hasn’t won anything yet. Though they lead the ALCS, 3-1, with the next game scheduled for Thursday night in Cleveland, it seems pretty academic. Then again, most people thought the same thing when the Red Sox went down 3-0 after losing by 14 runs to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. Look what happened then… yeah. It didn’t work out too well for the Yankees, did it?

Anyway, the interesting part about the Indians is what they did to get to the precipice of the World Series. During and after the 2002 season, the Indians got rid of Charlie Manuel as the manager despite the fact that he guided the team to the AL Central title in 2001. Then they allowed Jim Thome to walk away via free agency and used that money they saved to built around “system guys” like Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta on offense, as well as C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, Rafael Betancourt and Fausto Carmona on the mound.

This core group mixed with Phillies castoffs like Byrd, Jason Michaels, David Dellucci, Aaron Fultz and Kenny Lofton with a under-40 manager in Eric Wedge, appears set to knock off both the Yankees and the Red Sox in the playoffs.

And all it took was getting rid of Manuel and Thome?

That probably wasn’t the entire case. After all, Indians’ fans really wanted Thome to re-sign with the team instead of going off to Philadelphia for six-years and $85 million. But then again, Thome’s departure (obviously) didn’t hurt too badly, either.

But, it could be argued that for the Indians it was Thome and Charlie – no. But Byrd, Michaels, Dellucci, Fultz and Lofton – yes.

Incidentally, those “yes” guys were all players Ed Wade brought in (except for Dellucci) to help the Phillies get to the playoffs… was Ed Wade on the right path here in Philadelphia?

bath So we’re looking at a Colorado-Cleveland World Series… I wonder what the folks at Fox think about that? Do they have the modern-day, TV execs’ version of smallpox and whiskey to thwart the Indians and get the big-market Red Sox to the World Series. Maybe when the World Series begins the Rockies will actually lose a game and make it interesting.

More importantly, what’s the difference between the Red Sox and Yankees these days anyway?

Speaking of ballplayers getting and wanting six-year deals worth $85 million, I just talked to a “source” about Aaron Rowand (because talking to sources is actually better than talking to the man himself… after all, it’s better to be “well-sourced” than, you know, anything else) and it seems as if the free-agent centerfielder has lessened his demands a bit. According to the “source,” Rowand does not want six-years and $84 million as a well-sourced “sources” indicated. Instead, the Phillies likely will offer fewer years and money, but will trump all deals with a “One Free Backrub” coupon.

Also, according to the “source,” Rowand wants all the brown M&Ms removed from the pre-game, clubhouse spread.

There will also be incentives for an All-Star appearance, home runs and fences run into and all that jazz, but apparently the backrub coupon is the deal breaker.

Thome opens Citizens Bank Park with a bang

  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.