Hot time in the old town with the hot corner

figginsWithout so much as a flick of an eyelash, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. set the Phillies’ offseason into full swing. He didn’t have to issue a statement, hold a press conference or even sign anything.

Hell, he didn’t even have to answer any questions because that was already handled for the GM by other people. There was a quick e-mail sent out to reporters regarding Pedro Feliz’s option, and Brett Myers told people that Amaro told him that he oughta just go be a free agent.

So now Amaro needs to find a third baseman to replace the sure-handed Feliz, and a knucklehead to replace Myers. And of course, as written three times on this space already (this is the fourth), the Phillies hope to make a trade for Roy Halladay.

Whispers from Phillies sources is the deal for Halladay could include Cole Hamels.

That still leaves the team down a knucklehead with Myers’ departure. Perhaps they’ll go knucklehead-less?

Anyway, as Amaro hangs out at the O’Hare Hilton in Chicago—the very same hotel O.J. Simpson checked into after flying from L.A. the night of the murders—his off-season plans were laid out in appropriate order:

* Third baseman
* Relief pitcher(s)
* The bench

And if there is enough time or money left over maybe they can find a clubhouse knucklehead to replace Myers. But you know… only if they have time.

The search for a new third baseman is an interesting proposition for Amaro. After all, this is one of those rare cases in which it will be difficult for the GM to mess it up since there are plenty of quality free-agent third basemen. Certainly Chone Figgins of the Angels is the cream of the crop, but the Angels want him back and his asking price is reported to be 5-years for $50 million.

Five years for a guy about to turn 32 might be a bit much, but Figgins could be a valuable piece for the Phillies. No, he’s not much of a slugger, but he would be the perfect leadoff hitter in this lineup. Last year he walked 101 times and has an on-base percentage over .385 in the past three seasons.

Compared to Jimmy Rollins, well… there is not much of a comparison. Figgins’ OBP in 2009 was exactly 100-points higher than Rollins’. Plus, as a leadoff hitter Figgins sees 4.21 pitches per plate appearance. On the Phillies, only Jayson Werth saw more pitches (4.51) and he led the Majors.

choneFiggins also steals more bases than any player for the Phillies, and though he led the league in caught stealing in two out of the past three years, a spring with Davey Lopes could turn him into a 70-stolen base threat.

Figgins would be a perfect table setter for the Phillies’ sluggers and fits in nicely in that he strikes out a lot, too (his BAbip was .356). However, the addition of Figgins would probably rock the boat a little too much because Rollins, for some reason, is the leadoff hitter for life.

He might be the worst leadoff hitter in the big leagues, but Rollins’ is the leadoff hitter nonetheless. Egos are a helluva thing, especially within the space of a baseball clubhouse. Though the Phillies might be better served with Rollins hitting further down in the lineup—like second, seventh—manager Charlie Manuel has bought the idea that he has one leadoff hitter and one only.

Yes, Figgins is the best option for the Phillies. That’s especially the case considering his fielding, statistically speaking, was just as good as Feliz.

Other names that will be whispered into the wind like so many dandelion spores are Adrian Beltre and Mark DeRosa. The fact is, the Phillies have had the hots for both players for years and put the moves on DeRosa during the winter meetings last December. However, neither player is as consistent as Figgins.

Worse, Beltre and DeRosa have had their share of injuries. DeRosa, the former Penn quarterback, has never played more than 149 games in a season (he’s done it twice) and will be 35 in February. Plus, he had surgery on his wrist last week.

Beltre is 13 years into his career and is coming off his worst season. The Phillies can definitely do better.

And certainly they should do better. With the attendance numbers they posted (102 percent capacity for 89 games in the regular- and post-seasons), money isn’t an issue. Plus, with the ever fickle window of opportunity just an injury away from closing, the Phillies aren’t risking all that much by making a move on Figgins (or Halladay, a bullpen piece, and a knucklehead).

Besides, third base is one of those marquee positions for the Phillies, like left field for the Red Sox or center field for the Yankees. Dick Allen played third base. So too did Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen. They seemed to be in a good spot with Placido Polanco at third, but needed guys like David Bell, Tomas Perez, Tyler Houston, Shawn Wooten, Ramon Martinez, Jose Hernandez, Alex Gonzalez, Wes Helms, Abraham Nunez, Greg Dobbs, Miguel Cairo, Eric Bruntlett and Feliz to hold down the hot corner.

Hey, you had us at Polanco.

World Series: Bad beats

lidge_choochPHILADELPHIA—For a franchise that has lost more games than any other team in pro sports history, the Phillies have suffered through more than their fair share of humiliating defeats. In fact, if Philadelphia were the hoity-toity center of arts and letters like Boston and New York, there would be books, poems, curses and movies produced about some of the more devastating of these losses.

Of course the World Series victories in 1980 and 2008 have tempered some of the emotion of the losses, but if that were not the case chances are last night’s defeat in Game 4 of the World Series would take on a greater magnitude.

Instead, we’ll just label it a tough loss and wait to see how the rest of the series plays out.

Still, it’s worth investigating just where the Game 4 loss ranks. Upon reflection, the 2009 Game 4 defeat mirrors the one in Game 4 of the 1993 World Series. That’s the one where the Phillies took a 14-9 lead into the eighth inning only to have the Blue Jays rally for six runs in the inning against Larry Andersen and Mitch Williams. Just when it looked as if the Phillies were going to tie up the series at 2-2, one inning put the club in a 3-1 series deficit and paved the way for Joe Carter’s series-ending homer in Game 6.

Before that point, though, Curt Schilling pitched a shutout in Game 5. That’s a role the Phillies are hoping is reprised by Cliff Lee in tonight’s Game 5. In fact, the similarities are downright uncanny. I remember walking in the bowels of the Vet before Schilling’s first, true World Series gem and seeing the victory champagne, the championship t-shirts and a whole lot of Molson beer in boxes outside the Blue Jays clubhouse.

Schilling made them cart it all the way to Toronto and the Phillies were two outs away from forcing a Game 7 until Jim Fregosi called in Mitchy-poo.

The rest is history.

As for the ’93 Game 4, Andersen said he doesn’t think the mood in the clubhouse after that loss was too different than it was with the Phillies last night. Both clubs had been through so much during the long season that one difficult defeat didn’t affect morale.

Of course we all know how Game 6 shook up the ’93 Phils and the city. Williams was traded to Houston, John Kruk beat cancer, Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton began their descent marked by injuries and that team quickly broke up.

Roger Mason we hardly knew ye.

As for last night’s loss it seemed as if a few of the guys got fired up by the notion of doom and gloom. Cliff Lee walked into the clubhouse and a wry smile took over his face when he took in the scene of a media horde picking at Brad Lidge as if they were vultures picking at a dead animal by the side of the road.

mitchOf course Lidge’s teammates didn’t help matters by leaving the closer out there all by himself to answer question after question, but eventually a few trickled out. Heck, even Chase Utley misread the extended media deadlines for the World Series and had to entertain questions from the press.

Nope, Utley only has time for the media when he needs to promote his charity.

“We play like every game’s our last anyway,” Utley said. “So this should be no different.”

Regardless, Jimmy Rollins probably said it best about the Phillies’ attitude heading into their first elimination game since the 2007 NLDS. Don’t expect any rah-rah speeches or extra histrionics from the home team, he says.

“I guess that works real well in Hollywood movies,” Rollins said. “You make this grand speech and everybody turns around and becomes superheroes. But we all know what we have to do. We talked about it in the lunch room, what’s the task at hand. And Charlie, if he wants to say something, he’ll say something. Other than that, the focus and the job doesn’t change.”

Yes that’s true. However, the stakes have changed greatly.

*
While we’re on the subject of ugly losses in team history, where does Cole Hamels’ failure in Game 3 rank. Sure, we’re waxing on about Game 4, but Hamels and the Phillies were in an excellent spot in Game 3 before the fifth-inning meltdown.

As a result, it would be difficult for Manuel to send Hamels to the mound for Game 7 at Yankee Stadium should it come to that. Moreover, there just might be a swirl of trade talk regarding Hamels this winter… perhaps involving a certain right-hander for Toronto.

“This year has been tough on him,” Manuel said. “He’s kind of had a weird year. You’ve heard me say that over and over. What he’s going through right now, it’s going to be an experience, because he’s going through the part where he’s failed.”

Manuel pointed out that bad years on the heels of overwhelming success aren’t extraordinary. In fact, they happen all the time to really good pitchers. Hall of Famers, even.

“I think that’s just the way it goes. And I can name you pitchers that have had the same problem he has. Saberhagen, Palmer, Jim Palmer, Beckett. I mean, if I stood here and think, I can think of more,” Manuel said. “You go back and look, after they have the big year, it’s not something — Pat Burrell as a player, hit 37 home runs, and the following year I remember when I first came over here, one of my things was I worked with his hitting. And the reason is because he was having a bad year. That’s baseball, and sometimes that’s what happens. That doesn’t mean that a guy is not going to meet your expectations of him. I think it’s just a matter of him getting things going again and feeling real good about himself, and he’ll go out there and produce for you.”

Whether or not this affects Hamels’ role with the club for the rest of the 2009 season has yet to be determined. But make no mistake about it—the Phillies’ faith in Hamels just isn’t there any more.

World Series: Gotta get to Mo

mo riveraPHILADELPHIA—It was back in Washington, probably in late August or early September when all we did was write about the proper way to use a relief pitcher and closers. Needless to say it was during one of Brad Lidge’s many rough patches of 2009 and there was a whole bunch of name dropping and philosophizing by the likes of me.

It wasn’t just willy-nilly name dropping, either. Oh sure, there was Eckersley, Sutter, Goose, Sparky Lyle, Mike Marshall and, of course, Fingers. But we also waxed on about Rawly Eastwick, Will McEnaney and the socialism of baseball with its division of labor and labels.

Labels, we decided, were bad. However, since the Phillies seem to have their label/labor issues figured out, there is no need to go overboard when discussing the best use of the so-called “closer.”

Besides, Mariano Rivera makes that Rawly Eastwick look like Will McEnaney.

Oh yes, Mariano Rivera. His two-inning save against the Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday night might have been a record-breaker, but it wasn’t exactly a study in the efficiency of pitching. The Phillies made Rivera throw 39 pitches in order to get his 10th career save in the World Series. They also brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth inning, and the tying run in the ninth.

These weren’t mere flash-flood rallies either. In the eighth with one out Rivera had to face Chase Utley with Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino on base. Utley had ripped two homers the night before to pace the Phillies to the win, but this time Rivera got the inning-ending double play.

Sure, the TV replays showed that Utley was safe, but it was significant enough that Rivera got Utley to hit into a double play considering the lefty hit into just five of them all year and has grounded into just 49 double plays in his entire career.

Indeed, the lefty hitting Utley got one of those cutters Rivera throws.

In the ninth Matt Stairs faced Rivera with two outs and a runner on with a chance to tie it. Stairs, as we know, has had some success against big-time closers, but this one ended just as it has so many times with Rivera.

As soon as Stairs made the final out of the game, the talk started. For instance, there are a few that suggested that even though the Phillies didn’t score against Rivera, they got to him a bit. They saw those 39 pitches, of course, and sent eight hitters to the plate in those two innings. The idea, as it’s been written and spoken, was that the Phillies got a good, long look at Rivera and will be ready for the next time.

“Now you have a game plan,” Rollins said. “We didn’t really see Mariano during the season. Spring training, he comes in, I’m out of the game. So, it’s a mystery. Like, we know what he’s going to do. It’s no surprise. It’s not a secret. You’re getting a cutter. All right. You’re getting another cutter. All right. Now here comes another one. That’s what makes him such a good pitcher, because he’s not trying to trick you. But when you see him, you figure out how much his ball is moving. Once you find your approach, you’ve got to be stubborn with it because he’s going to be stubborn with what he’s going to do to you.”

Manager Charlie Manuel was one of those who believed the Phillies’ long look at Rivera was beneficial.

“We can hit Rivera. We can hit any closer. We’ve proved that,” Manuel said. “He’s one of the best closers in baseball, if not the best. He’s very good. But I’ve seen our team handle good pitching and we’re definitely capable of scoring runs late in the game.”

Here’s the big question from all of this… what makes this time so different? What is it the Phillies get that no other team, for the last 15 years, couldn’t figure out?

What makes the Phillies so darned special?

Certainly the Phillies didn’t need to see 39 pitches to know all about Rivera. He throws the cutter and like Pedro Martinez, Rivera is a force of nature. Hitters know what he’s going to throw and when he’s going to throw it, but he still turns bats into kindling. The Phillies, like every other team in the world, send scouts to watch Rivera pitch, they’ve seen him on TV, during spring training and on a continuous loop on the monitors in the clubhouse.

Really, what makes those 39 pitches any different?

“I don’t think you can be scared of anyone in baseball,” Victorino said. “You have to have the resiliency to say, ‘This guy is good. but we can beat him.’ His numbers show how good he is, but you can’t go with that mindset because then you’re beating yourself.”

OK, fine. But in the carefully choreographed world of relief pitching, Rivera is just like all those names we dropped earlier. Actually, check that… he’s better than them. That’s because in 21 World Series appearances—one fewer than Whitey Ford’s all-time record—Rivera has pitched 33 innings, finished 16 games and notched 10 saves.

Needless to say the 10 saves are the best in World Series history, with Fingers second with six. More notable, Rivera has saved four World Series games with multi-innings outings. Again, that’s another record.

So why is it that the Phillies think they can do what only one other team has done in 21 tries?

Maybe it was the 11-pitch at-bat from Rollins in the eighth where he earned a walk (like he really earned it) after falling behind in the count 1-and-2 and then fouling off five pitches. That’s the harbinger.

After all, the last time Rivera threw as many as 39 pitches when going for a two-inning save, the Red Sox rallied for a victory in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS and began the greatest comeback in baseball history.

World Series: Yankee Stadium? Yawn!

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

Who doesn’t love Jimmy?

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

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

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

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

Yes, we love Jimmy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The NLCS: No blowing it for the Phillies

pileWatching Carlos Ruiz take that wide turn around second base with his short legs moving as fast as he could make them go, the first thought (obviously) was, “Wow! They’re really going to win this thing.”

It was as dramatic a victory as there could be in a postseason game without a home run. Needless to say it immediately conjured remembrances Matt Stairs’ home run to beat the Dodgers and Jonathan Broxton in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS, too. That homer, off course, was the seminal moment of the 2008 postseason where we finally realized that, yes, the Phillies were going to go to the World Series and win it.

Those old feelings surfaced again last night as Jimmy Rollins circled the bases only to be tackled by Ryan Howard and the rest of the team when Chooch finally made it to home plate.

Unlike last year it’s much easier to put the Game 4 heroics in perspective because there is a frame of reference. We’ve seen this all before, which caused some of us to be less stunned than when Stairs hit his homer. Oh, it was dramatic alright, because, really, how many times does a team get to win such an important game?

Once in a lifetime, maybe, if the team is especially lucky or good? But never in back-to-back years in the same game of the championship series against the same pitcher, right?

Well, obviously these are not your father’s Phillies. Or you grandfather’s Phillies. There simply is no precedent for what we’re watching with this team.

Oh sure, in 1980 the Phillies had some pretty crazy comebacks. Take Game 5 of the NLCS, for instance. Back then the series was just a best-of-five so when Nolan Ryan took a three-run lead into the top of the eighth at the Astrodome, it didn’t look so good for the Phillies.

But Larry Bowa hit a single to open the inning. Bob Boone followed with another before Greg Gross beat out a bunt to load the bases. When Pete Rose walked to force home a run, the Astros turned to Joe Sambito and Ken Forsch to try and stave off more damage.

jimmyTwo outs and a two-run single by Del Unser followed by a two-run triple from Manny Trillo and the Phillies went from four outs from elimination to holding a two-run lead with six outs to go.

Actually, Tug McGraw was four outs away in the eighth before the Astros rallied. It took a two-out double from Garry Maddox in the 10th to finally send the Phillies to the World Series.

OK, so maybe there is a precedent, but not one with an exclamation point or a moment that folks will talk about forever and ever. Make that two moments now. Stairs and Rollins linked by generations by stories fathers and grandfathers will pass down.

Indeed, that is unprecedented.

So the next thought that came after wrapping my head around what had just happened on the field when Rollins laced his game-winner into the gap, was, “OK, how are they going to blow this? Are the Phillies going to cough up three straight to the Dodgers or go belly up against the Angels or Yankees in the World Series?

“Would something like that just render the glory of Game 4 useless?”

Well, yeah… but it’s not going to happen. The days of epic failures and catchphrases like “1964!” are long buried in the attic of hazy memories like a sweater that doesn’t fit and has gone out of style.

The Phillies are going to the World Series again. They might even win it…

What, are you surprised?

NLCS Game 1: Plenty of good seats still available

fernandoLOS ANGELES—When waiting to pick up my credentials, badges and cross through the security throng to get into Dodger Stadium yesterday, there were a handful of people who casually walked to the ticket window looking to get into tonight’s game.

No one was turned away because the games weren’t sold out. In fact, even now after Billy Ray Cyrus sang the National Anthem and Shane Victorino and Matt Stairs heard the loudest boos during the player introductions, there were big pockets of empty seats all over beautiful Dodger Stadium.

More notably, I didn’t spy a single well-known celebrity out on the field before the game unless Frank Robinson counts.

In other words, the ballpark is definitely too good for the LA fans. They have great weather, great food, plenty of things to do whenever they want and all day to do them. That’s why baseball seems to be nothing more than a casual thing here. Unlike in Boston, New York, Chicago and Philly, it’s not life and death.

“I tell the players they should all play in the northeast at some point then they wouldn’t be so sensitive,” the notoriously insensitive Dodgers’ third-base coach and former Mr. Phillie, Larry Bowa said. “”It’s not life or death here. Nobody’s going to jump off a bridge.”

They probably won’t egg a players’ house after a bad game, either.

“There are so many movie stars here and so many things to do that the Dodgers are like fourth or fifth,” said Californian Jimmy Rollins. However, Rollins was quick to point out that he was really from California.

Northern California.

“No movie stars,” he said.

The coolest sighting at the ballpark?

Fernando Valenzuela.

You know he could breathe through his eyes like the lava lizards of the Galapagos Islands, right?

Yep, that was Fernando. And as I ate a light lunch in the media dining room and sat across from the ex-Dodger great and Cy Young Award winner, I was regaled with tales about the proper technique and arm angle of how to throw the scroogie.

These days Fernando is the Spanish-language announcer for Dodgers’ radio broadcasts, and looks just like he did when he was pitching during the 1980s and ‘90s, albeit with a few extra pounds. The shoulder-length hair brought back by Javier Bardem in “No Country For Old Men, has been neatly shorn.

Anyway, here are a few things I learned about Fernando this afternoon:

• No, he cannot breathe through his eyelids. This was a disappointing fact to learn.
• Fernando was once a teammate with Jamie Moyer in Baltimore in 1993.

• Nope, Fernando had no idea what a guy like me can do for fun in LA. Another disappointing fact to learn.
• Sarge Matthews chatted with Fernando earlier. I learned this when I walked up to Sarge and said, “Did you see that! That was Fernando Valenzuela!” He yelled back, “I know!”
• Fernando brought the heat at 90 mph and threw the screwball in the 70s. He had two pitches – a fastball which he changed speeds with and the screwball. If he threw the screwball to lefties, he’s plunk them, he said. Once, he drilled Roberto Alomar with one simply because he couldn’t control it.
• Fernando has no idea why pitchers don’t throw the scroogie any more.
• Leslie Gudel, the Los Angelino by way of Pasadena, was also a big Fernando fan back in the day. She also liked Ron Cey because she played third base for her school softball teams way back when.

So yeah, how about that? Fernando Valenzuela. Not bad.

Game 4: Rollins patience a virtue or overrated?

Jimmy RollinsDENVER — In the craziness of last night’s game here at Coors, there were a ton of interesting tidbits and subplots that got lost in the shuffle. Then again that’s kind of how it is in playoff baseball. It’s arriving at the destination that gets all the focus instead of the actual journey.

For instance, the 1-2-3 double play the Rockies pulled off with no outs and the bases loaded in the fourth inning had the potential to be a killer. The Phillies could have delivered the deathblow in that spot, but instead the Rockies wiggled out of big trouble when Pedro Feliz tapped one back to the mound.

Starter J.A. Happ’s three-inning stint turned out to be an afterthought, too. If the bullpen had not be able to step up, the 35-pitch first inning and 76 total tosses to get just nine outs could have been one of those things that came back to bite the Phillies.

Of course in stepping up where Happ did not were Joe Blanton and Chad Durbin, both whom were pushing into atypical roles. Blanton started 31 games during the regular season, but has been called on to pitch out of the bullpen in the past two games. Durbin, on the other hand, was pushed into the eighth-inning role and needed just 10 pitches to get three straight ground balls.

But the most overlooked part of the Game 3 victory were the plate appearances from Jimmy Rollins in the first and ninth innings. The typically impatient Rollins was truly doing a Rickey Henderson impression in each of those at-bats by forcing 13 pitches. The ninth-inning at-bat resulted in a 3-2 single that started the game-winning rally.

“It’s about time he did something,” No. 2 hitter Shane Victorino joked.

Here’s the big number… Rollins saw 29 pitches in five plate appearances. During the regular-season, Rollins averaged 3.56 pitches per plate appearance, but in the last three games he has seen 53 pitches for a significantly better 3.79 pitches per appearance.

The strange part is Rollins went into his ninth-inning at-bat riding a 2-for-13 in the series with four strikeouts and no walks. Rollins is seeing more pitches, but it hasn’t resulted in better results.

Maybe it’s better if Rollins isn’t patient at the plate?

Still, the Phillies have been pretty good at playing the so-called “small ball” during the series. That’s especially the case considering the Phillies led the Majors (by a wide margin) in most runs scored via the home run. However, in the first three games of the NLDS, the Phillies took a 2-1 lead in the series despite scoring just two of their 15 runs on the home run.

“Like I said in the last two or three days, we know how to play,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “Basically, I get back to it, baseball is a funny game. A lot of times how you play and who you’re playing dictates how you’re playing, if that makes sense. Follow what I’m saying? And I think we’re playing a good team.”

In other words, the Phillies are doing the small-ball thing because they have to.

“You gotta do what you gotta do to win games,” said Howard, who led the club with 45 home runs in 2009. “Everyone knows we hit a lot of home runs, but we know that’s not going to happen every time. You have to figure out ways to play some small ball and get some runs home.”

Game 1: Day games, lineups and the Bay Area

Cole HamelsOK, is everybody ready? Does everyone all set up to watch the midday playoff ballgame? Apparently the start time for Wednesday’s opener of the NLDS against the Colorado Rockies was a source of contention because people have jobs and things like that.

What, it isn’t cool to watch baseball at work? If not, that’s just silly unless the worker is going to perform surgery or something. Then no, that guy should not be watching ball.

Nevertheless, I am a bit confused. After all, we always hear about how they don’t play enough day games during the playoffs and kids can’t stay up to watch. But then when they play a day game everyone complains about it because they have to go to work.

Which is it, dude?

From my point of view, the day game is great. These things tend to run a bit long as it is and we need all the time we can get to do some writing and that kind of crap. However, it seems as if Phillies’ pitcher Cole Hamels is not a big fan of the day games in the NLDS. In fact, he complained about it before the game during his formal MLB sanctioned press conference complete with microphones, hot lights and satellite feeds.

Using his “Who are you?” voice direct from that commercial that runs in a veritable loop on the TV, Hamels said: “I understand TV ratings, but I think at the end of the day, most players would rather play when they’re both comfortable and that’s kind of what we’ve trained at—either 1 o’clock or 7 o’clock, and I think it’s more fair for us than the TV ratings, because truly, I don’t think we mind as much for TV ratings.”

Wait… what?

“We can understand that people want to watch it on TV, but I don’t know too many people that are going to be watching this game at 11 on the west coast.”

Oh… in other words, Hamels is ready for his start in Game 2 on Thursday afternoon.

Here are the lineups for Game 1
Phillies
11 – Rollins, ss
8 – Victorino, cf
26 – Utley, 2b
6 – Howard, 1b
28 – Werth, rf
29 – Ibanez, rf
7 – Pedro Feliz, 3b
51 – Ruiz, c
34 – Lee, p

Rockies
24 – Fowler, cf
5 – Gonzalez, lf
17 – Helton, 1b
2 – Tulowitzki, ss
27 – Atkins, 3b
8 – Torrealba, c
11 – Hawpe, rf
12 – Barmes, 2b
38 – Jimenez, p

The key to the Rockies’ lineup is shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Jimmy Rollins, Tulowitzki’s counterpart on the Phillies, talked about the third-year star on Tuesday afternoon and marveled at the kid’s defensive prowess and throwing arm. Plus, Tulowitzki belted 32 home runs in 2009.

Though Rollins didn’t put Tulowitzki at the top of the list for young shortstops coming up in the game, he gave the most credence because like Rollins, the Rockies’ shortstop is from the Bay Area.

That’s when Rollins went on to list all the top ballplayers from his area of the country, such as Barry Bonds, Frank Robinson, Dontrelle Willis, Pat Burrell, Tom Brady, etc., etc. Of course Rollins’ favorite is Willie Stargell, the fellow Encinal High grad whose name was on the high school field Rollins and Willis played on.

“I thought one day they might name the field after me, but nope, it already has Pops’ name on it,” Rollins said.

Third inning: Settling in

Just saw Richie Garcia here at the park. Remember him? Garcia was the long-time umpire who was one of the best in the game, but will always be remembered for the home run credited to Derek Jeter when the kid Jeffrey Maier practically pulled it out of Tony Tarasco’s glove.

Tony Tarasco, of course, is Jimmy Rollins’ cousin and Garcia is the supervisor of MLB umpires. The replay call went perfectly, he said.

Also got word from Atlanta that the Marlins took a 3-0 lead over the Braves. If it doesn’t work out in the game against the Astros tonight, it just might work out if the Phils want to go in through the back door.

It doesn’t matter how the team gets there as long as they get there.

Team physician Dr. Michael Ciccotti is giving an update on the severity of Jamie Moyer’s injured groin. There is no truth to the story that he has a shot of whiskey and a bullet for the old-school pitcher to bite down on so the doctor and snap everything back into place.

Third inning: Astros 2, Phillies 1

Who needs a nap?

I’m tired,
Tired of playing the game
Ain’t it a crying shame
I’m so tired

– Lili Von Shtupp

MILWAUKEE — This is the time in the baseball season where the days grow longer, the nights shorter and the turnaround so much more quicker. Not only is there no rest for the weary, but also the only recourse is adrenaline.

Yes, we’re beat, but dammit we’re having fun, too. No one wants to go home because the action starts in October. Sure, we’re tired. All of us. The players, the coaches, the front-office types and, of course, the scribes. We’re beaten down to a bloody pulp like an aimless old boxer who just got his ass waffled. But really, what better place to be?

October baseball is why the players play and why the writers write.

It’s also why the scouts scout. For those who make the rounds from city to city with the Phillies, there are a few more regular faces on the scene. Like writers, scouts travel in packs even though they work for competing organizations. Call it safety in numbers.

But only one of these packs of people has any true bearing on the outcome of games and that ain’t the scribes. In fact, advance scouting offers so much insight into the opposition that birddoggers from all of the Phillies’ potential opponents have been at the ballpark for every game for the past two months. Shoot, even a scout from the Twins has been watching the Phillies in the outside chance that they meet in the World Series.

Most notable though are the guys from the Dodgers, Cardinals, Rockies and Braves, who happens to be ex-Phillies manager Jim Fregosi. Aside from Fregosi, the scouts from the National League-playoff clubs and a handful of American League teams have been out every day.

There are a couple of things to know about scouts. One is they watch the game differently than even the most astute fan or writer. They look for tendencies, nuanced little tells and tips that might not happen but one time in 100 pitches, but that one time could be the difference. Plus, the scouts look at the game objectively. Unlike coaches or the manager, the scouts are looking for what their team can exploit. They zero in on weaknesses like a big schoolyard bully.

At the core, though, the scout is an overt spy. As such, they trade in information and every once in a while they leak like a sieve. Because writers have access and insight that the scouts do not, there is often a quid pro quo between scout and scribe.

Wanna know what a few of them think about the Phillies’ chances in the playoffs? Well, it’s not really that much of a surprise.

“They’re going to have to ride their starting pitchers for as long as they can,” a scout said, noting that the Phillies’ bullpen is a mess.

This will be an interesting week for watchers of the Phillies because reliever J.C. Romero has been activated from the disabled list on Monday, Brett Myers could return to action this week along with Chan Ho Park, and Scott Eyre has not pitched in a game since Sept. 7. Before that, the lefty specialist had pitched just once since Aug. 16.

Then there is the issue of the ninth inning where it appears as if Brad Lidge will not see any significant action aside from mop-up duty to restore his fastball command and confidence. Ryan Madson pitched spectacularly in the ninth inning to save Sunday’s win at Miller Park, but if the lanky righty takes over the ninth, who gets the eighth?

Tyler Walker? Sergio Escalona? One of the guys trying to cram in some work before the playoffs begin? Not Brett Myers, says one scout.

“His stuff was pretty unimpressive in the few games he pitched when he got back [from hip surgery],” a scout said.

The biggest issue just might be the starting rotation, particularly Cliff Lee who is 2-3 with a 6.35 ERA in his last six starts. One of those six starts was a complete game shutout, which reveals how poor those numbers were in the other five outings. Meanwhile, pedro Martinez missed his last start with a strained neck and J.A. Happ very well could be the answer in the bullpen.

Still, Lee and that rough patch with just one more start to go in the season is also something for folks to pay attention to.

“There are a lot of innings for those starters. Some of them look pretty tired,” another scout said. “But then again, there are a lot of guys out there that look tired.”

Jayson Werth, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are a few names that pop to mind when talking about tiredness. Better yet, if a scout from another team notices how tired the Phillies look, Manuel ought to, as well.

Right?

Well, yes and no. Sure, Manuel acknowledges that a couple of his guys are a little burnt, but it’s too late to do anything about it. With a four-game lead with six to go, Manuel can’t give Werth a day off even though he is 3 for his last 30 with just three singles and 14 strikeouts.

The tiredness is even more noticeable in Utley, who, like Werth, is struggling at the plate. Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Astros, Utley is 3for his last 27 and batting .222 in September.

Manuel says his all-star second baseman is in need of a day off, but he won’t get one until the NL East is sewn up.

“I think he’s dragging some, but he’s trying really hard. When we don’t play well he takes it real hard and he tries to do too much,” Manuel said. “But at the same time he can come out of it. He can handle it.”

Can he, or is that just wishful thinking by Manuel? The old adage is the regulars get to take a break after the division is won, but even then the Phillies will have home-field advantage on the line. They don’t want to go to Los Angeles for the first round, do they?

Heck, the way the Braves are playing the Phils might have to go to St. Louis.

“A day of rest would be nice. Of course, we could have been getting plenty of days of rest. But things don’t always go the way we want,” Rollins said about the Phillies’ inability to close out the division in a timely manner. “What happens is that at times you have lapses in concentration. You think you have the pitcher right where you wanted him and then, wham! You miss that one pitch.”

Wham!

Party like it’s 1976

charlieBaring a collapse of New York Mets proportions, the Phillies will clinch the NL East for the third season in a row. The Three-peat in the East has occurred just one other time in team history and continues a string of a dearth of champs in the East. Following the Phillies’ victory in 1993, only the Braves and Mets have won the division aside from the current batch of Phillies.

In other words, the NL East resembles the NBA Finals during the 1980s when only the Celtics, Sixers, Rockets and Lakers ever got there. Eventually the Pistons and Bulls broke through, but for a long time it seemed as if only a handful of teams ever made it to the big dance.

Nevertheless, the clincher for the Phillies will likely come this weekend in Milwaukee. And as a result of sewing things up with a week to go in the season (at least), it will go down as the earliest clincher in terms of games played. To capture their first playoff berth in 26 years in 1976, the Phillies wrapped up the East in Game 155.

If the Phillies clinch before Sunday, it will be the earliest the team ensured a playoff berth ever. Even in 1950, before the advent of divisional play, the Phillies needed the full slate of games to get to the postseason.

Anyway, here’s a look at the playoff-clinching games since Major League Baseball started divisional play.

2008
Game 161 vs. Washington at Citizens Bank Park (Sept. 27)

Box score

Remember this one? Remember how you felt when Brad Lidge loaded the bases with one out and the go-ahead runs in scoring position and how the shot by Ryan Zimmerman looked like it was going to ruin the closer’s perfect slate?

Kind of feels a lot like this year, doesn’t it?

Aside from Jimmy Rollins’ heroic diving stop to spin the game-ending double play, this one is remembered for Jamie Moyer’s second straight win in a clinching game. Aside from his effort in Game 3 of the World Series, the finales in 2007 and 2008 will be the old lefty’s legacy with the Phillies.

jimmy2007
Game 162 vs. Washington at Citizens Bank Park (Sept. 30)

Box score

The fact that the Phillies were even in a position to win the East took an unprecedented collapse by the Mets. Couple the huge comeback (down 6½ games with 17 to go) with a 14-year playoff drought, and the clubhouse scene was one of the all-time great parties in the history of Philadelphia clinchers.

The truth is a lot of us never saw such a thing. Champagne corks popping and flying all over the room. Beer spray dousing everyone and anything that moves. Pharmaceuticals and English bulldogs show up and drag low-end celebrities and political chaff around, too.

In other words, it’s no different than the parties you threw in college only without the bonfire. Where this party had it over those from back in the college days is that Jade McCarthy and J.D. Durbin made it to this one, and, well… when Jade and J.D. show up then it’s a party.

Of course by the time the fog cleared and the playoffs began, the Phillies were gone in four days.

19931993
Game 157 vs. Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium (Sept. 28)

Box score

Get a load of this… I watched this one from the balcony at the Troc at a Fugazi show. Some guy sitting in front of me had a Sony watchman TV and we got to see Mariano Duncan crush the game-winning grand slam before the band took the stage.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Commonwealth, Harry Kalas was singing High Hopes after the Phils finally wrapped it up. But since this was the Macho Row era of club, the party didn’t end with the sing-a-long. Oh no. Check out the box score for the day after the clincher and check who IS NOT in the lineup.

That oughta tell you how long into the night this one went.

1983
Game 160 vs. Chicago at Wrigley Field (Sept. 28)

Box score

Who would have guessed that there would have been just one more clincher for the Phillies in the next 24 years after this one? Sheesh.

Regardless, this one was in the days before there were lights at Wrigley Field so it’s likely that Larry Andersen took the guys over to The Lodge after the clubhouse celebration ended.

Here’s what I remember from this one – Mike Schmidt hit his 40th homer of the season and Bo Diaz clubbed two of them all off ex-Phillie Dick Ruthven. The last out was caught by Greg Gross in left field with Al “Mr. T” Holland on the mound. I guess Holland looked like Mr. T to get a nickname like that. Seemed like a fun guy.

1981
Won first half

This was the strike year so by virtue of being in first place by the time the work stoppage occurred, the Phillies went to the first-ever NLDS. They lost in five games to the Expos, though St. Louis had the best overall record in the NL East.

schmidt1980
Game 161 vs. Montreal at Olympic Stadium (Oct. 4)

Box score

If we were ranking the best regular-season games in Phillies history, this one would have to be in the top three. Maybe even the top two. Frankly, it had everything. Comebacks, drama, suspense, crazy manager moves and then Mike Schmidt’s home run in the 11th to give the Phillies the lead they never gave up.

Oh, but if Schmidt’s homer were the only highlight.

  • Bob Boone laced a two-out single in the top of the 9th to tie the game and force extra innings.
  • Tug McGraw pitched the last three innings allowing just one hit to go with four strikeouts to get the win.
  • September call up Don McCormack came in to catch in just his second big league inning in the ninth when Dallas Green yanked Boone for a pinch runner. McCormack got the first of his two Major League hits after Schmidt’s homer in the 11th. From there, McCormack went on to play in just 14 big league innings the rest of his career over three game.

How did Don McCormack get into that game?!

  • The top four hitters in the Phillies lineup (Rose, McBride, Schmidt, Luzinski) went 11-for-19.

lerch1978
Game 161 vs. Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium (Sept. 30)

Box score

Here was the scenario for this one – if the Pirates won, then Game 162 would decide the NL East. Instead, the Phillies wrapped up division title No. 3 thanks to a clutch three-run homer from Greg Luzinski in the sixth inning.

The game started rather inauspiciously, too. Willie Stargell hit a grand slam in the first inning to give the Pirates the quick lead, but pitcher Randy Lerch made up for his pitching with a homer in the second and another in the fourth to cut the deficit to a run and set the table for Luzinski’s homer.

The game was not without drama at the end, either. Tug McGraw game on in the seventh and was within two outs of closing it out until the Pirates rallied for four runs and had the tying run at the plate when manager Danny Ozark went to Ron Reed to close it out.

1977
Game 157 vs. Chicago at Wrigley Field (Sept. 27)

Box score

I don’t remember this one, but from a look at the box score it looks like one of those old fashioned Wrigley Field games that used to be unique. Now those Wrigley Field games can break out anywhere in any ballpark. And since they play mostly night games at Wrigley these days, those wild games are a thing of the past.

Still, the second clincher for the Phillies featured five RBIs and a homer (and seven solid innings for the win) from Larry Christenson and one from Mike Schmidt in a 15-9 final.

jvukovich1976
Game 155 vs. Montreal at Parc Jarry (Sept. 26)

Box score

The was the first and maybe the best of the Phillies clubs that won all those division titles. The Phils won a franchise-record 101 games, but they didn’t quite match up well enough against The Big Red Machine, who were on their were to becoming the last National League team to win back-to-back World Series titles.

I suppose there is some irony in there somewhere that the Phillies are in the mix to match the 1975-76 Reds… just don’t feel like looking.

Anyway, this clincher was the first game of a doubleheader, highlighted by a complete game from Jim Lonborg. So needless to say the nightcap had a slightly different lineup after the Phillies wrapped up their first playoff berth since 1950. In fact, John Vukovich started in the second game for his season debut. Vuke went on to start in 13 more games over five years for the Phillies – all but three came in 1980.

So there it is… looking forward to adding the new one at the top of this list over the weekend. The good part is the clubhouse in Milwaukee is plenty big enough to find a dry spot from all party shrapnel flying around.

Ain’t it so cool?

pedroHang around the ballpark everyday and you get to see and hear some really cool things from time to time. Hell, even the mundane is cool for baseball geeks like me. Still, the past couple of days have been a veritable treasure trove of coolness.

For instance, take the scene in the empty clubhouse after the Phillies’ 3-2 victory over the Braves last night. Though the Phillies continued their maddening insistence on leaving the bases loaded with no outs while also leaving men standing on second and third bases with less than two outs, they were able to pull out the victory because they paid attention to the details.

Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley made nice plays in the field; Pedro Feliz – with a cue from Charlie Manuel – laid down a timely and effective bunt; Scott Eyre appeared in a game for the first time in two weeks and got three outs against two hitters; and, of course, Brad Lidge closed out the game with a perfect ninth.

The Phillies may not be scoring runs without the aid of homers and errors, but they are doing the other things well. Exhibit A in this was pointed out by Mike Sielski (shameless plug for Mike – Buy His Book!) in the clubhouse long after most of the media took off. According to Mike, Jimmy Rollins currently has the best fielding percentage by a shortstop in the history of the game.

Yes, it’s true. With just three errors in 483 and 123 games, Rollins’ fielding percentage is .994. In 1990, Cal Ripken had a .996 fielding percentage, but a few more chances (Ripken had 680 in 1990) Rollins could be right there.

Anyway, the cool part took place a few minutes earlier when Brad Lidge walked into the room. Still basking in the positive vibes after a 1-2-3 ninth for his 27th save, Lidge walked into the room and immediately heard a few cheers and good wishes from Pedro Martinez. Pedro was all smiles and cracking jokes, of course. That’s just the way he is. But the next thing you knew, Lidge and Pedro were standing in the middle of the room pantomiming pitching deliveries and talking shop.

Think about that for a second… the closer who put together one of the best seasons ever for a modern-day reliever and the pitcher who had a string of the greatest seasons… well, ever, were standing just a few feet away talking about fastball motions.

johnny_benchHow cool was that? It was like watching two great scientists comparing notes in the lab.

Speaking of great scientists, Joe Posnanski’s book on the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds comes out in the next two weeks. It’s called, rightfully, The Machine. Frankly, I can’t wait to read it because Posnanski is a great writer and because I love that era of baseball. That’s when I first learned about the game and those guys from the ‘70s – Reggie, Rose, Johnny Bench, Schmidt, Seaver, Carlton, etc. – were my first heroes…

And then when I got older I met them. Yikes.

Anyway, part of the book was excerpted in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated and a particular passage about Johnny Bench caught my eye.

Check it out:

Baseball stardom, however, was not enough. As his fame and numbers grew, Johnny sang in nightclubs. He went to Vietnam with Bob Hope. He hosted his own television show. He became friends with stars, like the singer Bobby Goldsboro, who hit it big in 1968, during Bench’s rookie year, with a song called Honey. He dated models and a Playboy centerfold. He was 27 years old, and he had everything. And then, on this April afternoon in Cincinnati, everything changed. Fifth inning, scoreless game, San Francisco’s Chris Speier singled to leftfield with runner Gary Matthews on second base. Johnny stood at home plate and waited for Rose, who was playing left, to get the ball and throw it home. Pete did not have a strong arm. The ball slowly made its way to the plate, and so did Matthews, who was 6′ 3″, weighed about 190 pounds and was called Sarge. Johnny could see that the baseball and Sarge were going to get to the plate at almost the same time. He wanted to catch the ball, get out of the way and tag Matthews as he rushed by — nobody pulled that bullfighter maneuver better than Bench. But he did not have time. Instead, he stood in front of the plate, and he leaned forward to catch the ball, and he tried to protect himself. Sarge crashed into Johnny and sent him flying backward.

That’s when Johnny Bench felt a sharp and biting pain deep inside his left shoulder. He groaned. Then he got up — nobody, not even the people who hated Johnny Bench, ever questioned his toughness. He stayed in the game. He waited for the pain to go away. Only it did not go away. And what Johnny Bench did not know that day in Cincinnati is that the pain would subside a little, but it would not go away. He would play the rest of the 1975 season in agony.

I was a kid when Johnny Bench was the best catcher ever to play the game. Sure, back then we knew he was good, but we didn’t know how good. We were just kids and figured Johnny Bench was the norm. We didn’t know he was an innovator and trendsetter. We just thought he was the standard-issue All-Star catcher whose signature was on Rawlings catchers mitts (I still have one). He also hosted “The Baseball Bunch,” and he batted cleanup for the fearsome Reds when catchers never batted cleanup.

Basically, in the late 1970s Johnny Bench was the man.

But Sarge… who doesn’t love Sarge? He’s funny, engaging, loves to laugh and needle Wheels, and he knows the President – personally. The President calls him “Sarge,” too.

sargeSo when I saw Sarge the other day I told him about Posnanski’s book, the passage and if he remembered the game in 1975 where he had to knock Johnny Bench on his ass.

“Yeah, I remember it,” he said in a “hell yeah!” tone. “We had to have a few words after it.”

Chances are those words were pretty good, but when told that it sounded as if Bench wanted to pull a little olé! Move on him on that play nearly 35 years ago, Sarge told about how he rounded third base, saw Bench getting into position and knew, “there wasn’t going to be no olé-ing,” Sarge said with a smile before going on to explain how tough Bench was.

Come on… how bad can the days be when you get to hear story from Sarge about decking Johnny Bench? Not bad at all.

So yeah, hang around long enough and you get to see and hear some cool things. Actually, even the mundane is pretty cool.

Oh snap, son!

I am tough but fair and so I retract my entire notion that ballplayers are not funny. The fact is they are very funny…

More specifically, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard are very funny. Take a look at the latest Funny or Die installment called “Fantasy Camp:”

First Jimmy takes fastballs from an iron mike off the chest and Ryan drops an “Oh snap, son!” on the White House chef

Pedro is going to have to pick up his game.

(links fixed)

Doubling up in The Pen

penBetween posting it up against episodes of “Hung,” “True Blood,” and “Entourage” on Sunday nights and no onDemand presence, the MLB Network’s show, “The Pen,” didn’t get as many eyes as it should have.

That’s a shame, too, because baseball fans love to see their favorite players humanized. In covering baseball, those humanizing stories are probably the only aspect of coverage that TV does well since almost all of the real news gathering is still done by the writing media.

That’s neither here nor there, of course. The point is too many people missed a pretty decent show about the Phillies. So in this region, Comcast SportsNet will pick up the slack by re-airing the entire series.

Here are the scheduled air times:

Episode Date Airtime Replay Date Time
1 Mon., Aug. 3 7:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29 12:30 p.m.
2 Mon., Aug. 10 7:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29 1:30 p.m.
3 Wed., Aug. 12 7 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29 2 p.m.
4 Mon., Aug. 17 7:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29 2:30 p.m.
5 Mon., Aug. 24 7:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29 3 p.m.
6 Sat., Aug. 29 3:30 p.m. Mon., Aug. 31 7:30 p.m.

Unfortunately I couldn’t dig up any episodes of the show on the Internets, but as far as MLB programming with the Phillies goes, here’s Jimmy Rollins pretending to be Rickey Henderson…

And by pretending to be Rickey Henderson, I mean imitating his home run strut, not his on-base percentage.

If they could re-do the show I’d like to see more of the witty banter between the relievers in the bullpen and the fans out on Ashburn Alley. From what I hear from some of the guys that hang out there, it’s like a comedy routine.

Big time in the big city

lidgeAs far as divisional series in June goes, the Phillies’ three-game stand in New York City against the Mets is pretty big. The Phillies, of course, have a three-game lead in the NL East while the Mets are doing what they can to hang on in the wake.

With all the injuries and typical drama that plagues the New York teams, the Mets aren’t doing all that badly. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the Phillies overcame a six-game lead in late September of 2007 to win the division by a game.

Besides, the Mets don’t flop until the end of the season.

Nevertheless, despite the key injuries to reliever J.J. Putz and overrated shortstop Jose Reyes, things aren’t all that bad for the Mets. Sure, Chipper Jones claimed that third baseman David Wright was complaining about the pitching-friendly dimensions at Citi Field, it could be worse for the Mets. The funny thing about that is Charlie Manuel says back in his day, every stadium was the size of Citi Field.

Hey, it can always be worse.

What the Mets have going for them (of course) is Johan Santana. He’s been as good as the Mets had hoped and has already stuck it to the Phillies once already this season.

Still, if the Phillies can get Brad Lidge and Jimmy Rollins squared away, this race could be over quickly. Oh, they might not say Rollins’ and Lidge’s slumps are concerning, but that can’t be totally accurate… right?

Maybe. After all, despite his 6-for-36 (.167) in his last eight games and demotion out of the leadoff spot for Sunday’s victory in Los Angeles, the Phillies’ offense appears to be potent enough to withstand an extended jag by Jimmy Rollins. That doesn’t mean Charlie Manuel doesn’t need Rollins to start hitting, because he does. The numbers bear that out. When Rollins gets on base and scores, the Phillies win. It’s as simple as that.

Not so simple is the slide by the closer Lidge. Apparently he is making up for lost time on the blown saves front after going a perfect 48-for-48 last season. This year the stats don’t look too great after he blew back-to-back saves last weekend and is 13-for-19 in save opportunities with a 7.27 ERA.

However, Lidge spoiled the Phillies last year because blown saves are inevitable. Just look at Mets’ closer Francisco Rodriguez, who set the Major League record with 62 saves last season. To get those 62, Rodriguez needed 69 chances. In fact, the so-called K-Rod has never blown fewer than four chances a season during his career and though he’s a perfect 15-for-15 this year, his save percentage is just 87 percent. That’s slightly better than Lidge’s career mark, though it is worth noting that K-Rod saved eight games last year in which he didn’t go a full inning.

Moreover, the last time Rodriguez went more than one inning to get a save was July 1, 2007.

Goose Gossage he is not.

Regardless, it should be a pretty interesting showdown in the fancy, new Citi Field (new Yankee Stadium it is not).

Matchups:

Tonight: LHP J.A. Happ (4-0, 2.48) vs. LHP Johan Santana (7-3, 2.00)

Tomorrow: LHP Cole Hamels (4-2, 4.40) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (4-2, 4.85)

Thursday: LHP Jamie Moyer (4-5, 6.27) vs. RHP Tim Redding (0-2, 6.97)

Working on the weekend

The popular sentiment during the weekend was that the Dodgers-Phillies matchup was a preview of this year’s NLCS… sure, sounds right to me.

Nevertheless, if the season were to end today (it doesn’t) the playoff matchups would have the Dodgers hosting the Mets and the Phillies in a rematch against the Brewers in the NLDS.

In the American League the matchups would pit the Yankees against the Tigers and the Red Sox vs. Rangers.

Why mention this? Well, 28 years ago tomorrow playoff spots actually were decided on June 10.  Yep, on this date in 1981, the players went on a two-month strike that did not end until July 31. As a result, the owners decided to split the 1981 season into two halves, with the first-place teams from each half in each division (or a wild card team if the same club won both halves) meeting in a best-of-five divisional playoff series.

It was a terribly flawed system because the Cincinnati Reds finished with the best record but didn’t make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals snuck in with a 50-53 record.

The Phillies also got in thanks to being in first place when the players walked out on June 10. Eventually, they lost in an entertaining five game NLDS series to the Montreal Expos even though the St. Louis Cardinals finished the season with the best record in the NL East.

Weird, wild stuff.

Just a little shave

myers1Perhaps the best part about Brett Myers’ effort in the victory over the Yankees in the Bronx on Friday night came on the second pitch he threw of the game. That’s when he reared back and hummed a fastball behind leadoff hitter Derek Jeter as if to call out Yanks’ pitcher A.J. Burnett and say, “OK punk, if it wasn’t for this stupid DH rule, that fastball would have been in your ribs.”

But most importantly, that pitch said, “That [crap] stops right now.”

That’s how Myers answered Burnett’s second pitch of the game after that pitch plunked Chase Utley between the shoulder blades. His first pitch, of course, ended up over the short porch in right where Jimmy Rollins knocked it to get things started.

So much for a professional courtesy…

Either way, there was no doubt to the intent on the pitch from Burnett. Sure, he’s wild and all of that jazz, but Chase Utley isn’t exactly a tough target at the plate. Plus, in the American League pitchers can get away with that kind of stuff because they don’t have to fear repercussions. But the whole premise of the bean ball is just a little chicken bleep. A guy like Burnett gets upset and throws a ball at another player?

Lame.

A long time ago – back in The Vet days – longtime scribe Kevin Roberts and I were discussing the dynamics of beanballs and beanball fights or maybe just fighting in general. You see, get a couple of writer types in the media dining room a good hour before game time and the topics run the gamut. And the insight!

Anyway, Kevin’s argument made a lot of sense (but then again that’s no surprise):

“If you do something I don’t like, I’m not going to throw an apple at you from across the room,” Kevin said. “I’m going to get up, walk over to you and punch you in the face.”

Like a man.

Manly is the only apt description for Kev, but that’s beside the point. No, the issue is Myers took care of Burnett’s jackassery immediately and there was no more incidents the rest of the way.

There weren’t any quotes about the pitches from Myers (or Burnett) on the record because baseball players rarely talk about those types of things on the record. Off the record they’ll tell you about clubhouse rifts and friendships lost if a pitcher doesn’t respond in kind.

Sometimes they even react the same way Shane Victorino did during Game 3 of last October’s NLCS. You remember…

Apropos of nothing, the two players from that video who went the most bonkers and attempted to escalate matters, (and were fined) are two of the players currently serving suspensions for testing positive for banned substances. Coincidence, right?

Anyway, I like a good bench-clearing brawl as much as the next guy, but they do kind of have that British Navy element to them, don’t they? Remember when the Brits invaded the Falkland Islands during the ‘80s and sent the Royal Navy into the southern hemisphere after them? What did they do, say, “Oh, it’s on Falklands… see you in a week!”

A hitter running those 60-feet, six inches to get after a pitcher is hardly a stealth attack. Plus, all baseball players do is grab each other and dance around a bit. They don’t have to throw bean balls at each other if all they want to do is dance.

Go ahead… they dare ya

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Spend some time with the Phillies during spring training and one tends to pick up on a few things. Call is osmosis or luck. Either way, proximity tends to shine a little light.

For instance, Chan Ho Park might not have the fifth starter spot nailed down despite the fact that he hasn’t walked a hitter in Grapefruit League action and has an ERA nearly two runs better than any of his competitors. Has Chan Ho been underestimated?

We’ll see.

Meanwhile, it appears as if there are a few more roster battles than anticipated and even “sure things” (my word) like Matt Stairs will have to fight to make the 25-man roster for the opener on April 5. Plus, Miguel Cairo’s right-handedness just might serve him well.

There is still plenty of time to iron out those details so we can place them on the backburner for the next couple weeks. For now we’ll just deal with the really important issues, like, are the Phillies good enough to win the whole thing again this year.

Um, sure. Why not?

Based on observances and conversations, it’s fair to say that the WFC Phillies and staff have more of a strut this spring than in past years. In fact, a few might even be a bit too big for their britches.

Continue reading this story …

‘… we all have to share the same pair of pants’

jimmyThis current group of Phillies really get around. Think about it… the TV commercials, the MVP Awards, the playoff runs and parades, as well as a the WFC.

Always making speeches and always entertaining the fans.

But get this — Jimmy Rollins became the third Phillie on the current roster to appear on Late Night with David Letterman, joining Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels. It surpasses the previous record of two set by John Kruk and Lenny Dykstra of the ’93 Phils when they yucked it up with Dave.

Here’s Jimmy and his Team USA WBC buddies:

In 1981, Steve Carlton, Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt appeared in 7-Up commercials and Real People with co-host Fran Tarkenton.

OK, I made that last part up, though it illustrates a point… it’s pretty sweet to live in the digital age, huh? Imagine if there was a proliferation of cable TV, and multimedia back during the first Golden Age of Phillies baseball… sure, Pete Rose would be able to handle himself well with the press. Say what you will about Rose, but give him credit where it’s due — the guy can tell some stories. Having had the chance to spend an afternoon with him in Las Vegas (I know!), Pete is a classic storyteller, if not one of the best ever in baseball.

Schmidt, though not in Rose’s class, is always good for some stellar quotes or two. Just ask Pat Burrell about that.

But Carlton… sheesh! Thank goodness there was no Internet during his playing days. How would he handle playing in this era of baseball with guys like me trolling around. Good luck with that, Lefty.

Carlton, of course, famously did not speak to the press. If I have the story correct, the reason why he stopped talking to sportswriters about pitching a baseball had something to do with Conlin… that and taking himself waaaay too seriously.

But after having seen some of Carlton’s media work over the last few years, he definitely did us all a favor. Besides. could you have imagined Carlton on the Mike Douglas Show.

Nope, me either.

Nevertheless, maybe Letterman will have an entire panel of Phillies on his show sometime the way he did with U2 this week. It could be rating gold … in Philadelphia, at least.

Oh, and while we’re posting clips, this one from Wednesday’s Daily Show was awesome!

Anyone else get the idea that the Phillies are feeling pretty loose?

The loquacious Shane Victorino took the time to chat with Tom McCarthy and Chris Wheeler during last weekend’s Grapefruit League game against Tampa Bay and had the session hijacked by another Team USA member and fellow Gold Glove Award winner:

What’s with the lasso? That’s, um… weird?

Video via The Fightins

Jimmy can take one to the sternum

The reward for winning the World [bleeping] Series? Why it’s the endorsements, of course.

Check out Jimmy Rollins doing an ad (and taking a few for the team) for the sporting goods retailer, Dicks.

Take a look

The fear, of course, is that the exposure and the attention go to Jimmy and the Phillies’ heads. But now that Pat Burrell is gone, guys like me don’t have to worry about Jimmy rising from Pat’s ashes…

Do we?

Anyway, Jimmy has some pretty sweet acting chops. If this baseball thing doesn’t work out maybe he’ll have something to fall back on?

Good day for Baseball in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE – Pretty cool day so far. After all, it’s not every day that a guy like me wakes up, goes to the ballpark, talks to a Hall-of-Famer near the cage during batting practice, heads up to the press box and is greeted by another Hall-of-Famer who hands out the day’s lineup card.

After chatting with Robin Yount and Harry Kalas, I had waffle fries and the best veggie dog I ever tasted for lunch. Usually those things taste like pencil erasers, but the people in Milwaukee know their wieners.

After that, the great writer from The Inquirer, Phil Sheridan, took my photo beneath the huge Rollie Fingers poster, which was pretty cool. Needless to say, I learned a lot about ol’ Rollie when I was a kid.

Besides, wieners, they also know how to make a lot of freaking noise in Milwaukee. As the fans walked in this morning, the ushers handed out those thunder stick things and now everyone is beating the hell out of them. With the lid closed on Miller Park, it was almost impossible to hear yourself think down on the field.

But Jimmy Rollins didn’t have to think – just swing. And on the sixth pitch of the game, the Phils’ leadoff hitter lined one into the seats in right field.

Suddenly it got eerily quiet.

They got noisy again soon, though. When Ryan Braun laced a two-out single to left against Joe Blanton it sounded like they were beating a tin trash can with a crowbar. Thankfully, when Prince Fielder ended the inning with a fly out, the fans all got up, put down the thunder sticks and went to the concourse to get a wiener or some fried cheese curds.

They eat a lot of weird things out here.

End of 1: Phillies 1, Brewers 0

Fourth inning: Loud and proud in Philly

I’m a little getting it together for this inning so we might as well double up… I had to grab a drink and a chocolate-chip cookie and chat with ESPN radio’s Mike Gill of the Mike Gill Show. If you’re ever in New Jersey, tune in and listen to Mike – he knows his stuff.

Meanwhile, Brett Myers held the Brewers in check in the fourth, but the most important thing the pitcher did was force Sabathia to throw 10 more pitches during his second at-bat. Clearly the big lefty is laboring and after Myers’ latest epic plate appearance, Jimmy Rollins laced a two-out double.

That forced Sabathia to issue an intentional walk to Victorino. It alos pushed his pitch count even higher. Through four, the big fella has thrown 98 pitches.

And the Philly fans are screaming after each and every one of them. Typically I’m not one to pay much attention to the fans in the stands, but the hometown crowd here at the Bank has been stellar and smart during the first two games of this series. They cheered really loud during Myers’ at-bats, gave Victorino a curtain call, stayed on top of every bit of nuance and cheered like hell when Sabathia exited the game after giving up a walk to Chase Utley to load the based.

As he walked off, Sabathia appeared to say something in the direction of Victorino. It didn’t look like he said, “Nice hit, dude.”

Sabathia’s line: 3 2/3 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 4 BB, 5 K – 98 pitches

End of 4: Phillies 5, Brewers 1

Fourth inning: Flat out dealin’

Don Larsen is the only pitcher in Major League history to throw a no-hitter during the post-season when he beat the Brooklyn Dodgers with a perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series.

I wonder if Larsen looked anything like the way Cole Hamels looks today?

Through four innings, the Brewers have gone 12 for 12 in making outs after Hamels cruised through the last frame with just eight pitches. Thirty of Hamels’ 44 pitches have been strikes.

Yovani Garrardo re-grouped after that rough third inning in which he allowed the Phillies to bat around. Jimmy Rollins laced a two-out single to right,

However, with 75 pitches under his belt, Garrardo’s remaining time is short. Manager Dale Sveum has reliever Carlos Villanueva tossing in the bullpen.

End of 4 Phillies 3, Brewers 0

Third inning: No big threat

Just like the raindrops, the strikes keep pouring out there for Cole Hamels. After three innings, the crafty lefty is still perfect with four whiffs and 36 pitches (24 strikes).

Because of the early perfection, the no-hitter cards are out. That means Mike Radano of the Courier Post walks around with 10 cards in which other scribes will select after they give him $5. If the player in the position of the batting order coincides with the a number on the card, that person wins all the $5 bills.

If Hamels tosses a no-hitter, the person with the King gets the cash.

Clever little contest, huh?

Carlos Ruiz got the first hit of the game to lead off the third. When Hamels reached base on an error a few pitches later, the Phillies had a bona fide rally going.

Trouble for the Brewers, right?

Guess again. First, Jimmy Rollins popped out to left after swinging at the first pitch from Gallardo. Then Jayson Werth whiffed on a 2-2 pitch for his second strikeout of the game.

Just when it looked as if the Phillies were going out with barely a whimper, Chase Utley laced a two-run double to center that nearly landed in the webbing of Mike Cameron’s glove.

Cameron is as good as any center fielder out there (at least he used to be), so when he put his left arm up it looked as if he was easily going to haul it in. However, on his first jump it looked like Cameron came in instead of back to get the liner.

Just like that the Phillies finally broke through for a lead in a playoff game. Better yet, with the way Hamels is pitching the two runs might be more than enough.

But just to show they weren’t kidding around, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell and Shane Victorino drew consecutive walks with two outs. Victorino’s came with the bases loaded to give the Phils three, unearned runs.

Center City has come back into view. Maybe the storm has blown over?

End of 3 Phillies 3, Brewers 0

Just getting there not enough

As far as zaniness goes in the wake of NL East-clinching celebration on Saturday night at the Bank, Chris Coste took top honors when he zipped around the field on a borrowed (at least we hope so) police bicycle.

Other than Coste’s tomfoolery, the celebration was slightly muted. Oh sure, Brett Myers took perverse pleasure dousing anyone and everyone with beer and Pat Burrell made sure his bulldog, Elvis, made it to the party.

Otherwise, the Phillies acted as if clinching celebrations was old hat. After all, last year’s wild bash was 14 years in the making and it took the Phillies until the very last day of the season to sew it up. This year manager Charlie Manuel retreated to his office after the game while the party simmered in the clubhouse and out on the field.

Only when the remaining fans called for him with an echoing chant of, “CHARLIE! CHARLIE! CHARLIE!” did the manager work his way back out to the field to tip his cap and celebrate ever so briefly with his players.

Been there, done that appeared to be the theme as the celebration quickly morphed into a neighborhood cocktail party. Though pulling off the repeat wasn’t easy, the Phillies believe there is much to prove during the second season.

“I think we got a little taste last year of it, short and sweet,” Chase Utley said. “There’s a lot of focus, a lot of drive, a lot of intensity. We’re definitely not done.”

Last year the Phillies were finished in the playoffs pretty quickly. In fact, the team barely got warmed up before the Colorado Rockies sent them packing in three straight. Utley, in particular, went through some growing pains in his first playoffs where he struck out four times on just 13 pitches in Game 1.

It wasn’t just Utley who had trouble, either. In three games the Phillies collected just 16 hits and batted .172 with 26 strikeouts. Of the eight runs the Phils scored during the series, five came on solo homers.

“We didn’t really know what to expect going into the playoffs last year,” Utley said. “This year, you have more of an understanding of how everything works. It’s no different, it’s still baseball. You have to prepare and go out there every day. I never played baseball in October before last year.”

Shortstop Jimmy Rollins says the Phillies worked so hard just to get into the playoffs last season that once they got there they didn’t have much left.

“I think we were so hell bent on that and so focused to win the division that we kind of ran out of steam heading into the playoffs,” Rollins said. “There’s no such thing as pacing yourself, but we know that there is more than just winning the division. We won the division last year and three games later we were watching with everyone else. We don’t want that to happen again, so we’ll be a little more under control and hopefully bring home a championship.”

There is a big difference between the maiden voyage in 2007 and the return trip in 2008. For one thing, every player expected to be on the playoff roster – except Geoff Jenkins and Chad Durbin – have post-season experience. Better yet, six players (Brad Lidge, Eric Bruntlett, Tadahito Iguchi, So Taguchi, Pedro Feliz and Scott Eyre) have appeared in the World Series.

For a change, the Phillies will have experience as an asset.

“Our focus is different this year,” Howard said. “This is the first step, making the playoffs. We didn’t like the feeling [of losing] last year, but we got the experience. We know what to expect this year.”

In fact, manager Charlie Manuel says there won’t be a repeat of last season.

“Believe me – we’re going to go farther in the playoffs than we did last year,” Manuel said.

Nevertheless, the Phillies still don’t know who they will play come Wednesday in Philadelphia. Though Cole Hamels will get a second consecutive Game 1 start in the NLDS, the Phillies must wait for the Brewers and the Mets to settle the wild-card race. If the Mets survive to make the playoffs after blowing a 3 ½ games lead in the NL East just two weeks ago, the Phillies will host the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But if the Brewers come out on top, they will head to Philadelphia to open the playoffs with the memory of the four-game sweep that led to manager Ned Yost’s firing still fresh in their minds.

Manuel says the Phillies matchup pretty well against either the Brewers or Dodgers.

“It doesn’t really matter. All the teams we play we match up well against them,” Manuel said. “The Cubs have a lot of right-handed pitchers and our left-handed hitters match up against them. It doesn’t really matter to me who we play. We’ll see.

“I’m really looking forward to it.”

Jenkins, who had been ranked fourth amongst active players in games played without a playoff appearance, spent the first decade of his career with the Brewers. Needless to say, the irony of facing his old team when he finally gets to the playoffs was not lost on Jenkins.

“I’ve been waiting to get into the postseason for so long. It’s just a happy, unbelievable feeling about getting here. I’m just excited about keeping it going,” Jenkins said. “You picture how it might be, but until you go through it, you can’t even picture how great this is.”

Yeah, the Phillies already know. Now they want to find out just how much better it can be.

“We all have a little experience at this,” Rollins said. “We can hopefully go a little further into the playoffs. We know winning the division doesn’t guarantee you anything. It just means you have a chance to go win the World Series.”

The second trip starts Wednesday.

Eighth inning: Phew! That was close!

Brad Lidge has been in a few big games during his career. Actually, he’s been in some really big games with everything on the line, including that one in Houston in the NLCS when Albert Pujols hit that home run.

Yeah, everyone remembers that one.

Though he seems relaxed and laidback away from the field, it’s obvious he gets amped up when he gets the ball. Even if the game is tight and the pressure is about to boil over, Lidge wants the ball.

After last night’s game when the prospect of pitching in the ninth inning of a clinching game was broached, Lidge’s eyes lit up.

“I don’t care if it’s 100-0 – I will be available,” he said. “There is no scenario where I won’t want to be out there.”

Of course Lidge usually only comes into the game when the Phillies have the lead. That thin thread became even more precariously delicate during the eighth inning when Ryan Madson entered and promptly got into a jam.

Unlike Lidge, this is the first time Madson has been in these high-pressure situations. Last season he was on the disabled list when the Phillies made their march to the post-season so all he could do was celebrate with his teammates and watch from the bench.

This year Madson gave up a leadoff single to (Phillie killer) Cristian Guzman and a long double to Ryan Zimmerman. Things really got worrisome for the 45, 177 in the house when Lastings Milledge lifted a blooper into short center field that shortstop Jimmy Rollins somehow hauled in.

But in doing so, Rollins collided with Shane Victorino — seemingly kicking him in the shins – as Guzman tagged and scored. After the play, Victorino remained on his back, but remained in the game.

Madson stayed in, too and got Elijah Dukes on a broken –bat grounder before whiffing Aaron Boone to end the inning.

When Boone swung and missed, Madson screamed and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

The Phillies tacked on one with two-outs in the bottom half of the inning when Victorino legged out an infield single and came around to score on Pedro Feliz’s RBI double.

Here comes Lidge…

End of 8: Phillies 4, Nats 2

The MVP and the shrine

Baring a collapse of Mets-like proportions, the Phillies will be in the playoffs for a second year in a row. It will be the first time the Phillies made the post-season in consecutive years since 1980-81 and if history is about to repeat itself, we are in 1977 of the second golden age of Phillies baseball.

Maybe soon the new general manager will find this club its Pete Rose.

Nevertheless, with winning come the personal accolades from the old media groups that give out the awards. Obviously, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins took home the MVP award the last two seasons, and Charlie Manuel should be in the mix for manager of the year this season, while Brad Lidge will likely get a Cy Young Award vote or two.

But as the Phillies surge on to October, it’s Howard and his chances for another MVP Award that has the pundits chirping. This month Howard has batted .379 with eight homers and 24 RBIs in 18 games. He also has reached base safely in 26 of the last 27 games and leads the Majors in homers (46) and RBIs (141) by a wide margin.

Based on those numbers Howard has to be a shoo-in, right?

“Those numbers speak for themselves,” Manuel said. “You can say whatever you want to say, he’s the best run producer in the league. He has the RBIs and he has the homers.”

Well… not so fast. Howard also has the strikeouts with 194 – just five shy of the all-time record he set last season. Then there is the matter of that .247 batting average, heightened, of course, by an April in which he hit .168 and the fact that Howard did not crack the Mendoza Line until late May. Plus, Howard’s slugging percentage is just .534, which is 10th best in the National League, an indicator that he just isn’t getting enough hits…

Other than home runs, obviously.

Still, Howard is a top candidate for the award with Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Carlos Delgado and Manny Ramirez, all of whom have better all-around stats than the slugging Phillie.

But so what? Howard has clearly been the straw that stirs the Phillies, just as he was in 2006 and Rollins was in 2007. If the MVP trend remains as an award for the player who is the catalyst on a contending team, Howard’s September just might have put him over the top regardless of the batting average and the strikeouts.

Meanwhile, the last time two players for the same team won three MVP Awards in a row was when Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds  did it for the Giants from 2000 to 2004. Before that, Joe Morgan and George Foster won it for the Reds from 1975 to 1977.

In the American League, the last time such a feat occurred was when Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard won the MVP from 1960 to 1963 for the Yankees.

***
Speaking of the Yankees, click on any web site out there for any number of laments about the final game of Yankee Stadium set for tonight. As cynical I am about such things, it is significant day not just in the history of baseball, but also for America. After all, more than just being a mere baseball park Yankee Stadium is/was a tourist destination and a true image of Americana.

In fact, the first time I ever went to New York City, the one thing I wanted to see more than anything else was Yankee Stadium.

I actually didn’t get inside the place until 1989 when I took a solo, post-high-school graduation road trip through the Northeast. Just for the occasion, I popped in a cassette of Lou Reed’s New York, which played as I crossed from Manhattan into the South Bronx.

The Yankees won that day when Randy Velarde led off the ninth with a triple and Wayne Tolleson singled him home. Who would have known that the Yankees had just six wins left in them before George Steinbrenner decided to give his manager Dallas Green the axe?

Nevertheless, I wasn’t ready for the hardcore vibe of the Stadium the first time I visited the place mostly because the first few games I ever attended were at The Vet and Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Baseball is a much more serious endeavor when played at Yankee Stadium, just as I imagine any event would be. In fact, watching a baseball game in Yankee Stadium is probably the same significance as watching the Declaration of Independence be signed at Independence Hall.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to get back to The Stadium a few more times as a fan and another time for work where I had a long pre- and post-game chat with Scott Rolen before taking a solo tour of the entire playing field, clubhouses, bullpens, Memorial Park and anywhere else all by myself. To leave, I walked through left field and up a ramp in some dirty and forgotten corner of the building and to the subway platform bound for Grand Central Station.

Oddly, every trip to Yankee Stadium always felt like the first one – that hardcore vibe never waned.

So it all ends for Yankee Stadium tonight. Next year the new $1.3 billion new Yankee Stadium will open just across the street from the old shrine. Frankly, those old buildings struggle to keep up in our new age, though there is a troubling trend that has developed in the new places in that regular folks quickly get priced out.

The best thing about baseball when it was played in places like The Vet and Memorial Stadium was that it was egalitarian. People of modest means and families could afford to attend a bunch of games a year.

But like the glory days of Yankee Stadium, those days are long gone.


Doesn’t that sound better than drudging up 1964 every time a team chokes away a late-season lead?

Eighth inning: Big relief

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Brett Myers is turning in his best outing of the season. Who knows… maybe it’s the best outing of his career. Sure, he might have had some overpowering and dominant performances during his career, but for what the Phillies need right now Myers is delivering big time.

Double headers are always taxing on pitching staffs and coaches absolutely loathe them. When the notion that the Phillies and Brewers would prefer to play a double dip on Sunday, one could see a cold shudder go up and down the spines of Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee. The havoc that would become of their pitching staff was just too much to fathom.

But up stepped Myers and down sat the bullpen. Thanks to seven innings from Joe Blanton in the opener, Manuel should have a stable of fresh arms when the Phillies go to Atlanta on Tuesday.

Through eight innings Myers has allowed two hits and has thrown just 88 pitches. Better yet, there is no one warming up in the bullpen. In fact, Myers received a well-deserved standing ovation and hanky wave when he walked up to the plate in the eighth.

How huge would a complete game be?

Meanwhile, Shane Victorino singled in the eighth to cap off a 4-for-4 game, while Jimmy Rollins drew his third walk to reach base safely in five straight plate appearances.

More from Leslie
I’m a big fan of Ned Yost, but either he’s making some bad calls or the inmates are running the asylum… and poorly. Yost’s team is exceptionally undisciplined. They’ve allowed Brett Myers to go deep in this game by routinely swinging at the first pitch. 88 pitches through 8 innings!!! This is a dream come true for the Phillies. They got 7 innings out of Blanton in game 1, tying his high as a Phillie… and now this out of Myers. With the day off tomorrow the Phils will head into Atlanta (a place they’ve dominated this year) with a lead in the wild card race and a well rested bullpen, thanks to the Brewers.

Could Yost have actually looked past this series and to their next series with the Cubs? At what’s soon to be 3-11 in their last 14 games, the Brewers are falling fast. Yost will likely finish out the season in Milwaukee, but at this rate, he won’t be there past that.

Phillies 6, Brewers 1

Sixth & seventh: Chowing down

Sorry about the delay, folks. I had to get up out of my seat and grab a drink to make sure I stay hydrated in this humidity. Hopefully we get a break from this oppressive, sultry weather soon. Truth be told, I’m a cool weather guy.

It should be noted that there is/was free food in the media dining room this evening. The Phillies served hot dogs, pizza along with the usual salad bar offerings. Not bad – all for free, too. Usually it costs $10.

Still, the concepts of “free food” and “the media” should send a cold shiver down your spine. Frankly, it’s a scary sight in which it’s quite possible for a guy to be mauled, run over, smacked with a pointy elbow by someone boxing out for position or lose a digit if grabbing for something.

Here in the press box they bite first, think second. Do yourself a favor and stay out of the way.

On the field Myers cruised through the sixth with another clean frame, including his second whiff of the game. But in the seventh, Prince Fielder broke up the shutout with a line-drive home run that reached the first row in right field.

It should be noted that Ken Mandel just walked by and said, “It should be noted that the Phillies ‘Never surrendered’ against a team with Corey Hart.”

Yes, I will apologize for Ken. Sorry.

Anyway, Fielder homered twice this series after not hitting one for a month. The big slugger is up to 30 now and it seems to me that the Brewers chances will ride on his wide back. Who knows – maybe he’ll get it going in Chicago this week.

For the Phillies, Jimmy Rollins walked in the sixth inning to reach base for the fourth straight time in the game. When Jimmy goes, the Phillies go. The team’s record is remarkable in games in which Rollins scores a run.

Meanwhile, Chase Utley has hit in eight straight games though he is really hitting. Who knows, the numbers in the box score to lead to something. After all, I recall during Jimmy Rollins’ long hitting streak that he really was scuffling despite the fact he had a hit in 10 straight games. But once he found a groove it was lights out.

It’s lights out here for the Brewers… stick a fork in ‘em?

Leslie chimes in
I’m sitting 20 feet from John and I can tell you it’s not nearly as hot out here as he perceives it to be. I’m thinking you need to take the Starbucks drip out of your arm, John… the caffeine has your sweat glands working overtime.

The conversation on this end of the press box has shifted from Brett Myers to Sarah Palin. A 6-0 lead can have that effect on people.

I guess you have to be from Southern California to enjoy this type of weather, huh? I guess your seatmates are helping to fan you off with those flapping gums.

Phillies 6, Brewers 1

Second inning: Hello, Mr. Baseball!

Saw Bob Uecker – the famous Mr. Baseball – in the media dining room between games. Bob was wearing a sharp button-down shirt and a gaudy Bluetooth device before preparing to entertain the good folks in Milwaukee with some more splendid analysis.

The character he played in Major League wasn’t far off, folks.

Which reminds me of a funny story:

A few years back when the Brewers were in town, a member of the Philly media approached Uecker to tell him how much he enjoyed his work as well as his acting in the film, Major League. After thanking the press dude for the compliment and exchanging some more small talk, the pair split up.

Suddenly, though, Uecker stopped, turned around and called back to the media guy, “Hey, have you seen the second movie yet,” referring, of course, to the sequel in the Major League film series.

“No,” the press guy answered.

“Don’t, it sucks,” Uecker said.

That Bob Uecker – always looking out for you.

Meanwhile, Brett Myers sat down three more Brewers in a row in the second inning. That’s six up and six down for the big fella on 16 pitches (11 strikes) and five on balls hit into the air.

The Phillies’ offense continued to put pressure on Jeff Suppan and the Brewers in the bottom of the second when Pat Burrell and Shane Victorino reached to leadoff the frame. But for the second inning in a row, a double play – this one from Pedro Feliz – ruined a potentially huge threat…

That was until Myers singled to right with two outs to drive home another run. The white rally towels handed out to the fans flitted and flew a few pitches later when Jimmy Rollins smashed a single to left-center to drive in Chris Coste from third and a rumblin’, stumblin’, bumblin’ and slidin’ Myers from second.

If the sight of Myers circling the bases and sliding into home doesn’t make a guy want to twirl a flag, nothing will.

Onto the third.

Phillies 4, Brewers 0

Leslie chimes in: Jimmy should have never tried to stretch that single into a double to start the game… but it worked.

Brett Myers should have never been sent home in the second… but it worked.

The Phillies have had some things fall there way today… they’d better not push their luck!

Always a pessimist, Leslie… sheesh!

First inning: Picking up where they left off

Ed. Note: Comcast SportsNet’s Leslie Gudel is here at the ballpark and sitting directly to my left. As such, it appears as if she might have a few thoughts to offer to the array of posts during tonight’s game. Certainly Leslie’s keen insight will offer a different slant to things.

The scene in the Brewers’ clubhouse following the opening game of the split doubleheader certainly told the story – those guys are cooked.

Well, maybe not. Certainly a lot can happen in the two weeks remaining in the season, but it’s quite evident that the Brewers are tighter than a drum. After the late-inning blow up to lose the opening game, no one talked or even glanced in the direction of another player. One writer – a veteran of some tense and bad-vibe filled clubhouses – called the scene “surreal.”

That bodes well for the Phillies.

Conversely, there is nothing that seems to make the Phillies tense. Since Charlie Manuel came aboard as manager, the ballclub has been loose and fancy free. Players know that their manager is going to allow them to do their jobs without interference or second-guessing. For instance, when Chase Utley bunted with Jayson Werth on first base and no outs in the eighth inning of a tied game, Manuel didn’t go into his post-game meeting with the scribes and wonder aloud, “What was Chase thinking? By sacrificing in that situation he took the bat out of the hands of the hottest hitter in the game… geez!”

Instead, Charlie talked to Utley on the spot. Nothing lingered or carried over to create undue animosity. Charlie told Utley to hit away and give Ryan Howard a chance to smash a homer.

Nevertheless, the move ended up working out for the Phillies anyway. Howard was intentionally walked and Pat Burrell singled in the go-ahead run. All is well that ends well.

Perhaps all is well that starts well, too. Brett Myers got through the top of the first on just eight pitches – and two long, loud outs – while the offense picked up right where they left off this afternoon.

After Jimmy Rollins stretched a single into a double to start the frame against Jeff Suppan, and next season’s everyday left fielder (OK, speculation on my part, but educated speculation) Jayson Werth singled, the Phillies opened the scoring with a run despite a double play from Utley.

One in the books. The Phillies are 24 outs from a tie for the wild card.

Phillies 1, Brewers 0

Sunday morning: Hamels steps up

PROGRAMMING NOTE: We are going LIVE during the second game of the day-night doubleheader against the Brewers. With no local television broadcast available and limited terrestrial radio outside of the Philadelphia region, I will give inning-by-inning synopses during the night cap. The format will be similar to past live offerings, though we may attempt to sneak in a little extra fun with a  chat or something like that. Anyway, be sure to dial it up or go to CSN for the latest.

Back to your regularly scheduled post…

Cole Hamels isn’t shy about telling people what he wants to achieve during his baseball career. Ask him and he’ll say he wants to have a career as long as Jamie Moyer. Hamels also wants to pitch a few no-hitters, take home a bunch of Cy Young Awards and be enshrined in the Hall of Fame when it’s all over.

Certainly such claims can sound boastful when read in print, but that’s hardly the case when Hamels says it. In fact, it comes out rather matter-of-factly, as if it’s a typical cliché answer to a regular old question.

Yeah, I’m going to take it one day at a time and hopefully I’ll be in the Hall of Fame.

But Hamels is wise enough to understand that legacies and greatness are not contrived solely from the numbers on the stat page. After all, anyone can pile up numbers. That’s easy. The true test is delivering in the really big games when post-season glory is on the line.

Hamels hasn’t had too many chances in so-called clutch starts, but the four he has pitched in run the gamut. Last Sunday at Shea Stadium Hamels came back on short rest with a chance to pitch the Phillies into a first-place tie with the Mets on national TV, but came up with a real clunker in a 6-3 loss. Needless to say, a win in that game could have gone a long way for the Phillies.

Prior to last Sunday’s big thud, Hamels was both awful and brilliant in Game 1 of last season’s NLDS. After a rough and sweaty second inning in which the Rockies put the Phillies in a deep hole, Hamels rebounded to retire 13 in a row and 15 of the final 16 hitters he faced.

Saturday afternoon’s victory over the free-falling Brewers wasn’t as great as the Sept. 28, 2007 outing in which Hamels whiffed 13 hitters and put the Phillies into first place, but definitely was clutch. Knowing that his season will be remembered for what he does these last two weeks, Hamels needed 113 pitches to grind out 6 1/3 innings to beat the Brewers for his 13th win. But in doing so he gave the Phillies a chance to move into a first-place tie in the wild-card race as early as Sunday night.

“It’s all about the team and the win, especially now,” Hamels said.  

“We want to play in October. We don’t want to be going home. Guys are kicking it in.”

Most notably (and it’s about time!) two of the guys kicking it in are Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins.

Rollins has had some nice Septembers in the last few years like when he put together that epic hitting streak and surged to the MVP Award. Luckily for the Phillies, he is at it again. In 11 games this month, Rollins is batting .362 with two homers, seven RBIs and a .417 on-base percentage.

In 2005 Howard set the rookie record for most homers during September and might be making a case for a second MVP Award this month. So far Howard has six homers, 17 RBIs and a .366 batting average. In doing that, Howard became the first player to pile up three straight 130-plus RBI seasons since Sammy Sosa from 1998 to 2001.

“There’s definitely more emphasis on things that are done in September,” Rollins said. “This last month, that’s all people are going to be talking about.”

Yes. Yes they are.

***

Beg, borrow, buy or steal a copy of the book Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Quite simply, the novel is a masterwork and a once-in-an-era work by a writer whose life ended way, way too short. Luckily for us, his work remains.

Saturday morning: Rain o’er the Phillies

In an odd way, rainouts and doubleheaders are kind of fun. Oh sure, they create a lot more work, confusion, time away from home and standing around for baseball players, coaches, officials and scribes. Rainouts and doubleheaders turn a team’s best laid plans into the mush inside of a pumpkin. Pitching matchups are ruined, bullpens are taxed, players get tired and injuries occur.

It’s just a big mess.

But there is something intriguing about the extraordinary. Rainouts and doubleheaders are not natural, therefore they force extreme measures. OK, the rain part is natural, but the previously mentioned groups of people are used to keeping tight schedules. When the routines are knocked askew, things go haywire… fast.

That’s the fun part. A little chaos now and again is healthy. So instead of watching a ballgame on Friday night, we all got to stare at raindrops as they bounced off the tarp covering the infield at the Bank. We also got to stand around and wait for word on how the pivotal series with Milwaukee Brewers was going to shake out. When it became obvious that there was no chance for the game to be played on Friday night, it was time to wade into the maelstrom.

For starters, the starters were hardly an issue for the Phillies. After pitching on short rest last Sunday in New York, Cole Hamels will get an extra day off before taking the ball on Saturday afternoon. Meanwhile, Joe Blanton will also get an extra day of rest before pitching on Sunday, though Brett Myers will not have that luxury.

Myers declared himself fit to pitch on just three days of rest after a regularly scheduled between starts bullpen session on Friday afternoon. However, since both the Brewers and Phillies both had days off, a potential Myers (on regular rest) versus CC Sabathia matchup loomed for Monday.

If the coaching staffs for both teams had a say, there would be a baseball game on Monday. But they don’t have a say – just the players union and the league can decide when made up games can be played. As such, no one wanted to give up one of the last days off remaining in the season.

“I don’t like doubleheaders,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “It’s tough to win a doubleheader. It’s also better for our pitching if we play straight through. Everything falls better that way.”

The Phillies and Brewers players were unmoved by that sentiment.

“I talked to the players, we’d rather play a doubleheader,” Phillies player representative Jimmy Rollins said. “We’ve done it before. It’s a day-night, so it’s not like you’re going out there right after one game. We’ll get it in and preserve the off day.”

That means two games and two different admission fees on Sunday. It also means long rest for Blanton and short rest for Myers.

Most importantly, it means there is a really good chance the Phillies will leave the city on Monday trailing the Brewers in the wild-card race… the Mets? Forget it – the Mets aren’t pulling a choke job two years in a row.

The point is doubleheaders are difficult to sweep. Trailing the Brewers by three games, the Phillies can pull even with a series sweep. But that’s where the chaos enters the picture – Sunday will be a wild, all-hands-on-deck day for the Phillies. Pitchers arms will be spent come Monday when what really is needed is some good, old fashioned pacing. A handful of the Phillies’ relievers are leaking the proverbial oil as it is now, but wait until they head to Atlanta early next week. Throw in the fact that Blanton has hardly been the innings-eating pitcher as advertised since joining the Phillies in July means the team might have to rely on the Brewers’ late season freefall to score the coveted sweep.

Yes, sweeps are difficult to achieve. But get one here and a brand-new monkey wrench will enter the fray for the final fortnight of the season.

Break out the gauze, ice and duct tape. It’s going get bumpy.

***
Speaking of bumpy, check out Pat Jordan’s epic on the star-crossed Barry Zito in The New York Times’ “Play” magazine.

The money quote from Zito? “… Hot chicks don’t dig ballplayers.”

No. No they don’t.

Also, Milwaukee Todd chatted up Pat Burrell about the chance he could be playing his last games with the Phillies. If Burrell departs it would break up the link with Jimmy Rollins, who have been teammates dating back to Single-A ball in 1998.

Meanwhile, Boston Sully got behind the scenes with the machinations involved in determining when Friday’s postponed game will be played.

Schmidty comes through in the clutch

Eventually, even the Hatfields and the McCoys ended their bitter inter-family war spurred by land, geography, unrequited love and moonshine.

But unlike with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin brokering a peace accord between Egypt and Israel, the Hatfield Family and the McCoy clan did not hole up at Camp David for a week in order to iron out their differences. Not even close.

Instead, the famous warring families called up Richard Dawson and played “The Feud.” Yep, in 1979 the Hatfield and McCoy families went at it once and for all on the hit TV game show, “The Family Feud.” The winners took home a prized pig, which was kept on the set during the show.

I didn’t see the episode, but if I were a betting man I’d wager Dawson gave that pig a big smooch and then afterwards played it off in sexual suggestive, yet charming, British manner.

There’s nothing charming about the feud between the Phillies and the Mets, though. The fact is the battle for supremacy in the NL East is just plain ol’ nasty. These guys just don’t like each other. In fact, the hatred the Phillies have for the Mets actually inspires them.

“The other team gives you some inspiration, let’s put it that way,” shortstop Jimmy Rollins said last week. “You’re able to take that and keep yourself motivated.”

That’s kind of vague. How about some elaboration, Jimmy?

“No, just watch ‘em. If you were a player and you’re looking over in that other dugout, you’ll feel a certain type of way. Rewind the game. Just watch the game.”

Just watch the game. It’s that simple. Better yet, it seems as if those Mets and their antics inspired an old Phillie watching the games on TV in Jupiter, Fla. to sit down in front of a computer and type out an e-mail to his old team. But more than just an “attaguy” missive congratulating the club for another fine season, this one was more of a call to arms.

Think Winston Churchill delivering his “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” address before the House of Commons on May 13, 1940.

Or maybe it was more like Franklin Roosevelt’s first inauguration address in 1933 when he told Americans that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Maybe it was like The Dude telling the Big Lebowski that, “This aggression will not stand… man.”

So if the Phillies go on to surge past the Mets for a second straight September and into the playoffs, perhaps Mike Schmidt’s e-mail will be the watershed moment. In its historical context we’ll call it the “Better Than They Are” note or maybe, “Win One for the Schmidter.”

No matter what, Schmidt words inspired his beloved Phillies in Friday night’s taut, 3-0 classic in which Brett Myers may have turned in his finest performance ever.

Schmidt wrote:

Guys,
One pitch, one at-bat, one play, one situation, think “small” and “big” things result. Tough at-bats, stay up the middle with men on base, whatever it takes to keep the line moving. Hot offense. 27 outs on defense. The Mets know you’re better than they are. They remember last year. You guys are never out of the game. Welcome the challenge that confronts you this weekend. You guys are the best.

Good luck,
Mike Schmidt.

Just like Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Schmidt’s letter was short, sweet and direct. Also like Lincoln’s famous speech, Schmidt’s words will be remembered forever. Schmidt came through for the team during that last series in Montreal in 1980 and he came through against Kansas City in the World Series later that month. This time, without a bat or glove Schmidt came through again – but with a laptop, an e-mail account and nine simple sentences.

If the Phillies go on to win this thing, it could go down as Schmidt’s finest moment as a Phillie.

When told that Schmidt wrote, “The Mets know you’re better than they are,” Rollins, in his understated way, added to the potential legend with a throwing down of the proverbial gauntlet of his own:

“Well, that part’s true,” Rollins said.

The Phillies will have two games on Sunday – and just 19 more after that – to prove it again.

Come on down and let’s play The Feud!

Don’t believe your lying eyes

Frankly, I’m kind of tired of writing about the Phillies’ recent offensive struggles. It’s getting quite boring and ordinary. It’s just the same old thing day in and day out – strikeouts, failure to advance the runners, hanging around and waiting for that home run, more strikeouts.

Yawn.

Even though the Phillies scored eight runs in the victory over the Dodgers last night, the top hitters – cleverly called The Big Four, though “The Gruesome Foursome,” or “The Silent Majority” might be more apt – continued the slide. Oh sure, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard clubbed home runs, but add that up with the other pair of slumping hitters and it comes to a rousing 3-for-15.

Seemingly, the Phillies offense is becoming more and more one dimensional by the day. Unless someone homers, the production is minimal.

Both before and after last night’s game, manager Charlie Manuel discussed Howard and the skipper’s desire for him to return to his 2006 and 2007 form. Interestingly, though, Manuel seemed to indicate that Howard could regain MVP-type prowess if he worked harder.

“I told him [after the game] that he ought to grab his film and look at it, especially [from his MVP year] when he was hitting the ball really good and was consistent,” Manuel said. “It always reminds you of how you’re swinging, and that right there is what we have to have out of him.”

There have been whispers for a little while that the Phillies’ brass was a little underwhelmed by Howard’s off-the-field work ethic. Actually, following the 2006 MVP year the popular story was that Howard showed up for spring training overweight because he indulged in the celebratory banquet circuit. Sure, maybe he had one too many rubber chicken dinners, but how would that interfere with off-season workouts?

Nevertheless, Howard said he did watch video tape of his at-bats, but seemed lukewarm on how important that type of preparation was.

“I’ve watched [tapes from 2006] a couple different times throughout the year,” Howard said. “It helps to a certain extent.”

Then again, it’s not as if there were too many other players like Howard willing to talk about anything after nearly every game. In a not so recent development, the Phillies’ standoffishness with the local media, seemingly led by a couple of longtime Phillies’ veterans, has reached epic proportions.

Here are two very accurate descriptions from Randarino:

It’s hide-and-seek most nights in Phils clubhouse
Another near-empty winning Phillies clubhouse

Certainly I’ve written about the Phillies’ verbosity in the past, as well as my reluctance to speak to vapid ballplayers – I’m a snob like that. So if the players don’t want to correct my assumptions or tell me what they think is going on, I guess I’m up to my own devices.

***
My wife summed it up perfectly…

“This is your Super Bowl isn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“It,” of course, is the Olympic Marathon, which will be beamed live from Beijing at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. But unlike the Super Bowl, which occurs every year, the Olympic Marathon, the traditional closing event of the games, happens once every four years.

Yes, I’ve written a bit about the big race in the past and I’m sure I’ll have more to add to the pile afterwards.

So, yeah, guess where I’ll be at 7:30… and check my Twitter page because I’ll be offering blow-by-blow updates during the race.

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.

Migraine day

Yeah, my head hurts from doing all that thinking so I’m taking a break until tomorrow or Tuesday when we get back to the ballpark. That’s where the Phillies will have a nice break by getting back to playing teams in their own division… you know, teams they can beat.

Most interestingly, though, some people are curious about the reception Jimmy Rollins will get after his comments on the syndicated cable TV show, “The Best Damn Sports Show, Period.”

It seems to me that the title would work better with an exclamation point.

Nevertheless, perhaps the whole thing has blown over. After all, people have gotten on with their lives, the Phillies have played more games, and there have been more interesting things that have gone on in the world.

Specifically more interesting is that little gathering in Beijing. Sure, some folks are a little worn down by the hype over “The Baltimore Bullet,” Michael Phelps, but come on… 8-for-8? He swam in 17 races in less than a week and set seven world records?

Pretty amazing.

But is it the greatest Olympic performance ever? That’s a question that a lot of people will fret and ponder for a long time. I’d have to put it up there though I’m not ready to nail it down as the greatest ever until further review. For now I’m leaning toward Emil Zatopek winning gold in the 5,000-meters, 10,000-meters and marathon during the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. But, as usual, it’s tough to compare eras. Zatopek ran on a cinder track with shoes and equipment that no junior high team would dream of using now.

The same, obviously, goes for comparisons between Phelps and Mark Spitz. In that regard it’s kind of like comparing Tiger Woods to Bobby Jones. The technological advances in the equipment and life have changed the games entirely.

Still, it was an incredible week for Phelps and it should be interesting to see Usain Bolt race the 200-meters final on Wednesday. His run for the gold and world record in the 100-meters on Saturday goes up there with one of the most otherworldly single sports performances I’ve ever seen. Seriously, how did he run 9.69 when he was next-to-last in reaction time coming out of the blocks and then broke it down to celebrate for the final five strides.

Think about how significant five strides is in a 100-meter race… typically, Bolt takes 41 strides over the distance so showboating over the last five is 12 percent of the race. Factor in the slow reaction time at the start and it’s reasonable to think that Bolt could have gone 9.59.

Wait until fast Bolt goes when he figures out what he’s doing. He’ll turn 22 on the day of the 200-meters finals – how about taking apart Michael Johnson’s world record he set in the 1996 Atlanta games as a birthday present?

For the record, watching Michael Johnson on the curve of the 200-meters in Atlanta is the most beautiful thing in sports. It’s a work of art – a masterpiece. Let’s see if Bolt can make it prettier.

Finally, how about the Jamaicans’ dominance in the sprinting events? And that’s just not in Beijing, but the last several Olympics. Of the top five best performances in the event, three are by Jamaican-born runners and of the last five Olympic champions in the 100, three were born in Jamaica.

The Jamaican runners are much better than the bobsled team.

Going Hollywood

The old-timers in baseball have a term for it – it’s called “Going Hollywood.” Generally it describes a ballplayer who used to be a great quote and was blessed with a down-to-earth personality that teammates, fans and the press adored.  Nobody can resist the guy. The fans cheer and buy the little things that fans buy to celebrate the player’s awesomeness; teammates go to war for the guy; and the media swoons by producing gushing and positive reviews of the player’s work on and off the field.

Basically, the player is a celebration.

Current examples of this phenomenon are: Josh Hamilton, Grady Sizemore, Evan Longoria, Mark Reynolds, Ryan Braun, Dan Uggla and Brian McCann to name a few.

However, after a year or two of such treatment, the down-to-earthiness dissipates. Maybe the player gets to do a few commercials, or a shoe company contracts him to wear its goods. Interview requests from the well-known national outlets roll in – maybe there’s a cover-shoot for a magazine thrown in.

Perhaps the ESPN or FOX will ask him to wear a microphone during the game so the viewers get to experience the full aura of his personality. Frankly, the possibilities are endless.

But when the media-hype equals the performance on the field for a few seasons, sometimes the players’ head swells. With all the friends and family hanging around telling him how great he is, the ego inflates like hot-air balloon. Finally, when the multi-year deal is proffered with the rows of digits and a tiny bit of post-season award bling is accumulated, it’s all over. The player is too good to stoop down to talk to the local press when ESPN and Sports Illustrated have already called. Autographs for the fans? Have they paid up yet? Will the personal appearance properly highlight all of the corporate sponsors?

And for the love of all that’s holy, there can be no press relations unless the story has been cleared by the publicist and/or the agent.

Yes, the guy has gone Hollywood.

Recent examples of this phenomenon are: Barry Zito, Sammy Sosa, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada and, of course, Jimmy Rollins.

Most importantly, what the old-timers always say about the guy who goes Hollywood is that they never, ever come back. Once he’s gone, he’s gone for good.

Bye-bye, J-Roll?

Coincidentally, it was actually in Hollywood where Jimmy Rollins’ latest misstep in a season defined by such matters occurred. On the nationally syndicated cable TV program called, “The Best Damn Sports Show, Period,” Rollins, along with teammate Ryan Howard, sat on a couch wearing a fashionable shirt with equally fashionable torn jeans and told hosts John Salley and Chris Rose that the baseball public in Philadelphia are… ready for this one… “front-runners.”

Pause…

Pause…

Crickets…

Yes, you and I, the Phillies fan and media dude, are, in fact, “front-runners…”

I know, it didn’t make sense to me, either. The only explanation is that Rollins misspoke when he said:

“…it’s one of those cities. I might catch some flak for saying this, but, you know, they’re front-runners. When you’re doing good, they’re on your side. When you’re doing bad, they’re completely against you. For example, Ryan (Howard) is from St. Louis. St. Louis, it seems like they support their team. They’re encouraging.”

Certainly it seems like the Phillies fans have been nothing but encouraging for Rollins and his teammates this season. After all, the fans have registered sell-out after sell-out all season long in the four-year-old, taxpayer-funded ballpark. Despite the fact that the Phillies have won just one World Series title since 1883 and have not won a playoff game since Game 5 of the 1993 World Series, the “front-runner” fans have helped the Phillies host the fifth-most attended games in Major League Baseball this year.

Despite the fact that the Phillies have lost more games than any other team in the history of organized professional sports (this is not hyperbole, it’s fact), Citizens Bank Park has been filled to 97 percent of its capacity in 59 dates this year. Only the Red Sox, Tigers and Cubs have better percentages.

And God forbid that fans in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Beijing, Timbuktu or Machau might actually boo a player after his manager has to bench him for lack of hustle and failure to show up to work on time. After all, they would never do that in St. Louis.

Perhaps the difference is that people in Philadelphia believe that a guy who wins the MVP one year should put out the effort every year.

But maybe that’s asking too much.

OK, let’s be fair. Jimmy Rollins used to be the go-to guy when looking for information on the nuance of an at-bat or a play in the field. He also is quietly aware of the game’s history. He loves it. His eyes actually light up when talking about meeting Buck O’Neil and the old Negro League players. He knows the struggle those men went through not just in playing baseball, but also in everyday life.

Rollins understands baseball and can shed light on subjects that others cannot. For instance, after a game at the Vet during his first or second year in the league, I asked him how he was able to stop so quickly when running the bases at full speed. Really, it seemed as if he went from 60 to zero in a half a step. So there in the clubhouse, Rollins actually demonstrated how he “sat down” in full stride so that he could stop quickly and avoid over-running a base or a ball.

Frankly, it was as riveting and eye-opening a demonstration I have ever seen.

But that was a long time ago. That conversation would never occur these days. There probably will not be anymore demonstrations.

Hollywood.

Nevertheless, Rollins went back on “The Best Damn Sports Show, Period” on Thursday night where he didn’t exactly offer up a mea culpa. Why should he – he doesn’t believe he said anything untrue. Instead he clarified that “front-runner” term and expressed surprise that such words about Philly fans would cause a stir…

Insert your sarcastic, “yeah, right,” here.

“The term front runner and what it actually means and to what I was using it, what was going through my mind, they weren’t accurate. Front runners is like people who only show up when you’re winning. Hey, we’re going to cheer you if you win. That’s not it about Philly fans. They’re passionate. They show up – like I said, 45,000. We’ve got like 42 sellouts. They announce it every night. That’s not what I meant. Like I said, it’s the fact that here we are at this point of the year, come out and be supportive. Don’t necessarily get on us. We can use that positive energy. And you know that positive energy can lift you, that negative energy can bring you down.”

In other words, J-Roll, like Mike Schmidt before him, doesn’t like the boos. Instead, when the Phillies fail to score runs unless someone blasts a home run, J-Roll wants a group hug. He wants people who just paid $10 to park, $16 for the cheapest seat in the park, $4.50 for a veggie burger, $4 for a gallon of gas all after the team hit the city up for tax funds to pay for the place, to be happy when he doesn’t run to first base.

“There are definitely games, don’t get me wrong, where I’m like, ‘Damn, you know, we are getting booed and we need to get booed because we’re not doing well.’ But there are a lot of times where it makes it harder to play at home when they’re against you – or it feels like they’re against you. They’re never really against you, but it feels like they’re against you – they’re venting against you and it doesn’t help. So, like I said, they show up. You asked about the West Coast, I’m from Oakland, I’m like, ‘They don’t show up.’ That has nothing to do with it.

“The whole thing was, look, here we are in the playoffs, we’re at home, we’re in first place. There’s really nothing to boo about. We’re not going to win every game. As long as we win by one when it comes down to the finish. But, go out there and support us. When Carlos Ruiz comes up to the plate, don’t boo him because you want (Chris) Coste in the game. This man has a job to do today. Encourage him to do his job to the best of his abilities.”

When I was a kid I never remember George Brett talking about the fans booing. Likewise, I don’t recall a quote attributed to Kirk Gibson where he said he needed more encouragement from the paying customers. I doubt Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver ever went on national TV and told the viewers that the hometown fans were “front-runners,” in any type of context.

But then again those guys weren’t divas. They weren’t always seeking approval from the national media so they could find their smiling face on the cover of a video game. Yeah, they probably wanted the fattest contract they could get from their clubs, but they probably figured that if they were good at their job, the rest would take care of itself.

As far as I remember, those guys never went Hollywood.

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.

Charlie calls team meeting; Rollins shows up on time (barely)

Is it critical mass time for Charlie Manuel and the Phillies? Who knows… but it certainly seems that way.

One day after Jimmy Rollins was benched for repeated tardiness before the game against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium AND the Phillies fell out of first place for the first time since June 1, the skipper called a closed-door meeting at 4 p.m. before the game at Citizens Bank Park against the Atlanta Braves.

Yep, nothing like a good ‘ol team meeting to turn around things.

Nevertheless, the second-place Phillies met in the clubhouse for 20 minutes where Manuel reported that he was the only one who spoke. A believer that too many meetings do more harm than good and are a general waste of time, Manuel decided one was needed now in order to help the club shake its doldrums where it has lost four out of its last five games.

In fact, the proverbial closed-door meeting in baseball is slowly becoming an anachronism. They are a rare event these days even on the most discordus and woeful ballclubs. Nevertheless, there usually one closed-door meeting a year with the Phillies over the past decade.

Thursday afternoon was the day.

“It’s up to us not to stay there,” Manuel said about being in second place. “We can control our own destiny. But if we’re going to win our division we need to play better.”

He’s certainly correct on that point.

Meanwhile, Rollins reportedly rolled in around 3:49 to 3:56 p.m. this afternoon. Normally, reporting a little before 4 would give Rollins enough time to be in uniform for the mandatory team stretch at 4:15 p.m. Today, though, he made it with a few minutes to spare before Charlie’s pep talk.

Rollins is slated to start at shortstop and leadoff against the Braves this evening.

We’ll have more from the ballpark a little later.

Meanwhile, here’s what Charlie told the scribes before Friday’s game and after the meeting:

Few things you wanted to say to the guys?

“I just wanted to talk to them. That’s all I got to say about it.”

A reminder?

“No, I just had some things to say.”

Disappointed at all in what Jimmy said after yesterday’s game?

“I didn’t see what he had to say, I didn’t read the papers. Figured it might be a good day for me not to even pick up the papers.”

Jimmy was saying that he didn’t think he let the team down.

“I have no comment on that. Like I told you guys yesterday, that’s between Jimmy and I.”

You said yesterday that the team needs an extra kick. Are you worried that might get out of control?

“I’m not worried at all. I know this — I don’t know who’s gonna win the division, but I know we can. And I know it’s kind of…the way our schedule sets and the fact that we play everybody in our division mostly in the next two months, we got a real good chance. We definitely control our own destiny. If we don’t get it done, it’s not because we couldn’t of did it.”

“I think there’s something missing on our team. It’s that little extra — that little extra kick we had, that resilient effort. That going all the way. For instance, the road trip was a good example of it. When we beat Miami the first night, had a real good game, then all of a sudden we lose the next two. Did the same thing in New York — come back the first night there, then we end up losing the next two games. Yesterday, Moyer pitched a good game. Sunday in Miami, Hamels pitched a super game. When we come out 1-2, 1-2, we’re not winning the series. We need to get, I said yesterday, that shine back. Wore off a chandelier. We need to get that back. We need to re-paint it, or dip it or something.”

Jimmy’s year last year had that shine. How important is getting him right?

“I think he can get right. I think that he’s that type of player and he has that swing. I think it’s just a matter of time. I think lately, he’s definitely been swinging better.”

Are you comfortable with the leadership you have in your clubhouse right now?

“We talk about leadership a lot. Sometimes a player being a leader is fine, but when that don’t happen, I guess that’s when the manager is supposed to be the leader. That’s kind of how I look at it.”

“I’ve always at myself, if I’m the manager, then I’m the guy that’s supposed to be the leader. Any time you got leaders on your team, and they’re good, and things like that, that’s a bonus. That’s better. That definitely can be better. That makes everything a lot better.”

Would you prefer someone to kind of emerge into that role?

“When we’re playing good, I think that comes up. I think that’s all part of playing good. Right now, we haven’t been playing good baseball. Are we a good team right now? Probably not. But we’ve showed that we can be a good team. At one time this year, we were a good team.”

So you don’t necessarily buy into that theory that every team has one guy that runs the clubhouse?

“There’s guys that can do that. That’s a big plus for the manager. When it comes right down to it, if your team, if you don’t have leadership on there, then that’s the manager’s job.”

When you make a move like you did yesterday, do you worry at all?

“Any kind of decision I make, I do what I think is right. I try to take time to think things over, instead of just react. I want to make sure that I get things right. But when I do something, it’s because I thought it was right. I told you guys before, whether you know it or not, I don’t look back. I look ahead. That’s what I did, and that’s what I thought was right. I think I’m a consistent person, and I think that I treat people right, and I think that’s one of my better things. I definitely communicate with the players. I’m honest and I’m straight and I do what I think is right. As a manager and a leader, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Did you consult with anyone yesterday?

“Actually, I wasn’t even directly talking about yesterday. I’m saying, ‘In general…’ ”

Did you yesterday?

“Yeah, I did. But I wasn’t looking for advice.”

What does this team need to do to get back to being a good team?

“The only thing we gotta do is come out and play good. Win a couple games, start winning and everything’s gonna be fine. They say in baseball, ‘We gotta turn it on.’ Well, first of all, I look at it, ‘From Day One, you shoulda turned it on.’ When the season started, you turn it on. You play all the way through ’til you get eliminated in October or September or whenever.”

You said you got a real good team at one point, but now, at this point in the season, you’re seven games over .500.

“We’re not good right now. We’re inconsistent, and that leads to not being good. If we start winning, everybody’ll look up and say, ‘Hey, look at that team. Look how they can hit, look how they can pitch,’ or something like that. That’s baseball.”

“There’s holes, but can we win? I look at who’s in our division, and it’s pretty close. Other teams have holes, too. They got holes, but I think we can win.”

At one point, you said something’s missing and at another point you said you’ve been inconsistent. What can you do to make your team more consistent?

“You can just talk in practice, relax, turn ’em loose and let ’em play.”

Does the talk help you guys hit better?

“At times, it can. It comes to the point where you talk and hell, it can’t hurt nothing. Believe me, meetings are something that you don’t necessarily need all the time. Really, that gets old, too.”

Pep talk? Anger? What was your mood?

“I just wanted to talk to ’em, I just wanted to get some things kinda right, let it go.”

“I was the only one that talked.”

You guys were knocked into second place. Is that another reason for the talk?

“Well, we’re a game out, and we’ve been there before, of course, and at the same time…we can control our own destiny. We have to play better. If we’re gonna win our division, we’re gonna have to play better than what we’ve been playing. I think everybody in that room knows that. We tald about winning our division and going to the World Series, then we got to play the best in this division. I say that all the time, it’s nothing new.”

No more fun of any kind

When Steve Garvey smacked a clutch home run in the 1984 NLCS to help the Padres force another epic choke job by the historically laughable Chicago Cubs, he circled the bases with one fist in the air. It was a simple gesture for the biggest hit of a series that ultimately sent the Padres to their first ever World Series.

Kirby Puckett famously circled the bases with a fist in the air after hitting a 12th-inning homer in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Puckett’s homer helped the Twins stave off elimination and force a Game 7 against the Braves that might be the greatest game ever played.

What about Kirk Gibson’s histrionics after launching a walk-off piece off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series? It was as if Gibson were limping around the bases and pretending to start a phantom lawnmower all at the same time.

And of Reggie Cadillac-ed every home run he ever hit – whether in the World Series or the regular season. Reggie also had that distinctive home run trot in which he usually adjusted his wire-framed glasses with a push of his index finger to settle the frames back onto the bridge of his nose.

Who would have ever thought a guy adjusting his glasses could ever be so cool?

Nevertheless, when we were kids we loved all of these shows. Sure, Reggie was a player fans loved to hate – mostly because he was a Yankee – and Garvey seemed to grate on folks, too. But who didn’t like watching ballplayers rise to the occasion? Who didn’t like a show?

Better yet, who doesn’t like to watch people have fun? Baseball is supposed to be fun, right?

So when Jose Reyes ran the bases with one finger raised following his game-winning, three-run blast off Ryan Madson last night at Shea Stadium, the hand wringing was inevitable. You just knew it was coming. A showboat like Reyes running the bases like he was excited about hitting a homer in a key spot…

For shame!

Reyes is a showboat whose antics irk even his teammates, some blathered. He’s unprofessional, others said. Perhaps he should be plunked with a pitch the next time he comes to the plate for “showing up” the Phillies.

Yeah, he was showing up the Phillies by trying to hit a home run. Maybe he should have struck out, gently replaced his bat and helmet in their proper receptacles, poured himself a cool drink from the corporately licensed barrel and found a comfortable seat in the dugout.

After all, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley never do anything showy when they hit home runs. They are the models of professional decorum when they circle the bases…

Come off it!

Then again, the self-righteous blatherings from us media types are part of the show, too. We’re all actors in the same game only they jocks like to pretend they are just modest athletes trying to make a living, and the press likes to pretend it is above it all and is merely a conduit to the fans.

Insert sarcastic comment here.

Look, Reyes’ act is clownish and a little embarrassing with the array of dance steps, ridiculous handshakes and other juvenile sideshows. But really, who cares? He’s a baseball player getting paid a lot of money to play a game. If Reyes had an important job maybe the jitterbug routine would be offensive, but he doesn’t. Baseball players are entertainers.

Most people get this. In fact, no one in Philadelphia seems to mind when Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins pull off their tributes to Reggie whenever they really get a hold of one. Heck, even Utley’s speedy dash around the bases is a type of showboating. After all, sometimes no style is, indeed, style. Truth be told, I’m surprised Rollins doesn’t ratchet up the theatrics to an Ozzie Smith-level of hotdogging with the flips and other stuff.

Better yet, maybe Rollins could do a series of cartwheels around the bases after a home run. Why not? I’ve seen it before. After a particularly meaningful home run in a wiffle ball game at the ol’ backyard diamond on Wilson Drive, my friend John performed a cartwheel as he reached each base. The cool thing about this “trot” was that even as a high schooler (as John was at the time) he was still quite a bit bigger than Jimmy Rollins. So to see a young man like John able to pull off these acrobatics was a sight to behold.

Sure, it was a bit over the top, but it was a really big home run. Still, if Rollins doesn’t want to do the cartwheels, maybe we can settle for an interpretive dance or something.

Still, the old-school baseball establishment will continue to look down on fun of any kind because it is “disrespectful” to the game and “shows up” the opposition. Never mind that these are the same people that are descendents of baseball’s other traditions such as an industry-wide ban on players of specific races… don’t get these same folks started up on Sabremetrics.

Yeah, baseball has (and had) bigger problems than whether or not Jose Reyes enjoys hitting home runs. Heaven forbid if someone enjoys their job.

Stay in the yard

The last time we saw the Phillies they couldn’t hit or score runs unless it came on a long ball. In fact, I even hatched up some harebrained idea that the Phillies’ brass should go out and shore up the offense by signing Barry Bonds to some type of bargain basement deal.

But rather than dig into the T.J. Maxx of all free-agent signings, the team was reportedly kicking the proverbial tires around the Colorado Rockies and All-Star Matt Holliday.

Holliday ain’t no T.J. Maxx or even Filene’s Basement, you know.

Anyway, the Phillies’ hitting and more to the point, it’s so-called “situational hitting” was so freaking lousy that skipper Charlie Manuel called out his hitters by telling them how much they stunk.

“You’ve got to really concentrate on moving a runner,” Charlie vented last Sunday in Miami after an extra-inning loss. “You’ve got to want to move him. Sometimes they feel like we’re giving up an at-bat. No, you’re not. There’s hits all over the field. If you hit behind the runner, you can still get hits. That’s just called execution and hitting the ball in the right direction. When we don’t do that, I was telling some of our guys around the cage, it’s going to be hard for us to win.

“I hear everyone [praise] our lineup, but people don’t realize, we’ve got a different lineup than we had last year. We’ve got three or four top-notch major-league hitters. Have they had better years? Yes. At the same time, they’re still good hitters. But if you follow our team, we’ve got different people. Sometimes, one guy makes a difference.”

Was that one guy Aaron Rowand, the gritty and playoff-tested centerfielder who took a multi-year deal from the Giants last winter? Or maybe past league MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins had grown complacent with the fundamentals? After all, the national TV media digs the long ball.

Regardless, it’s difficult to get the fawning attention the ballplayers crave without the October spotlight. After all, that’s where the real legends are made and the statistics really matter. To feed the narcissism, the Phillies need to score runs and that just isn’t going to happen if they decide to wait around and hope someone hits one over the fence.

It ain’t beer league ball, folks.

But maybe the Phillies finally got it during the ninth inning of last night’s improbable comeback at Shea Stadium to knock off the Mets, 8-6. Sure, Johan Santana leaving the game after eight stellar innings of work probably spurred the Phillies in the six-run ninth, but it wasn’t so much about the finish as it was the journey.

Sure, So Taguchi and Jimmy Rollins drove in the biggest runs with extra-base hits, and some mental errors by the Mets clearly helped the Phillies in the big ninth inning, but look at what they did to set the table for the game-breaking hits.

Look:

• Jayson Werth, Greg Dobbs and Shane Victorino singled to start the ninth and load the bases.
• Carlos Ruiz reached on a fielder’s choice when Jose Reyes inexplicably missed stepping on second base. One run scored.
• Taguchi tied the game with a two-run double. Still no outs.
• Rollins drove home the go-ahead runs with a two-run double. No outs.
• Chase Utley advanced Rollins to third on a ground out.
• Pat Burrell walked.
• Ryan Howard drove home Rollins for the sixth run of the inning on a ground out.

What’s missing? You guessed it, the home run.

See how fun that was without a homer.

Anyway, the important part was that the Phillies kept the lead in the NL East and should return to Philadelphia for the weekend series against the Braves no worse than a game out of first place. Prodigal right-hander Brett Myers makes his return to the big leagues tonight at Shea…

It should be interesting.

Pulling away from the pack

Lewis & ClarkOne of the best parts about writing about sports is listening to people talk about, well… um… sports.

The insight, the nuance, the behind-the-scenes details are far better than anything that ever gets printed or turned into a movie. As someone who sometimes is willing to drive far distances just to hear or conjure up a story, hanging around the press folks at the ballpark is like Shangri-la.

And that’s coming from a guy who once drove to Wyoming just because it might be fun to tell the story to people later… well, that and the fact that now I get to say that I’ve been to Wyoming.

Yep, Wyoming.

The best part of the drive to Wyoming? It was when I found an old copy of the Lewis and Clark diaries in a used bookstore on Capitol Street and buying chokecherry jelly from a roadside stand in the Big Thompson Canyon.

Weren’t Lewis & Clark the ultimate when it came to rolling around the countryside looking for a good story or two? I thought the diaries — especially an old copy in great condition — was an apt purchase considering the circumstances.

Also, there is nothing in Wyoming. In some parts all you can see is the ground meet the sky. The landscape wasn’t polluted with strip malls, over-commercialization, unsustainable growth or other tackiness related to suburban sprawl.

Anyway, it’s always funny to listen to sports scribes talk about their athletic prowess from “the old days.” It’s funny because a lot of sportswriters were as good at baseball or basketball as James Frey was at detailing his arrest record. Sure, there might have been an “arrest,” but then that’s just a matter of semantics, isn’t it?

Surely the preponderance of B.S. about athletic prowess is not just a phenomenon of the press box. Oh no. Men in general love revisionist history because it always ends the way it should – kind of like a big-budget Hollywood movie. But like Hollywood movies there is always those scenes where one thinks to himself, “There’s no way that could have happened… just look at him. He makes Pat Burrell look like Ben Johnson!” when hearing those sports hero stories.

Actually, when hearing some stories I often wonder, “So, were you held back in school and much bigger than your classmates? Is that how you hit all of those home runs after you got popped in the eye with a No. 2 pencil?”

Look, I’m as prone to exaggeration as the next guy, but is the pure, unadulterated truth really the story? Of course not. The point of the story is the story. This isn’t journalism, it’s B.S.!

Be that as it is, I brought up my days as a really, really, really (really, really) poor hitter during high school. The fact is that I was such a bad hitter that I just decided that I would stop wasting everyone’s time in waiting for my three strikes by bunting every time I went to the plate. Though I was told it was just as easy to hit a ball as it was to catch one, I could never make threatening contact with a full cut. However, if I squared around to bunt I could make the ball go where I wanted as long as that was a few feet in front of home plate, not past the pitchers’ mound and on either the first-base or third-base lines.

My bunting got to the point that one of my teammates came up to me after a game and asked: “Why does the coach keep giving you the bunt signal?”

“No one gave me the bunt signal,” I answered. “We have a bunt signal?”

By that point I had stopped looking down the third-base line at the coach, though during one point I remember him yelling, “Knock the cover off it, Johnny!” with a few claps after it was established that I was deep into the throes of my “Bunt Period.”

The reason why my poor high school hitting ability came up pertained to Ryan Howard and, no, it had nothing to do with bunting. Though I’m sure Ryan Howard never looked down the third-base line to get the bunt signal, either, I doubt he ever needed to drop one down.

Ryan HowardBut Ryan Howard might have made a mistake by swinging (and hitting) the first pitch from Edison Volquez in the Phillies last loss (last week!). With the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth inning of the 2-0 defeat, Howard harmlessly popped out to left field to end the Phillies’ threat. Strangely, Howard swung at the first pitch even though Volquez had walked Shane Victorino and plunked Chase Utley on the foot as the immediate preceding hitters. In other words, it appeared as if Volquez – the National League’s top pitcher with a 9-2 record, 1.56 ERA and 96 strikeouts – were about to unravel.

Rather than allow Volquez to throw a pitch or two or even to make a mistake, Howard took a big cut and helped the young pitcher out of the jam. As a result, Volquez settled down and the Phillies got just two more base runners in the final four innings.

So that brings us to the conversation about hitting. During the elevator ride back to the press box after the post-mortem in the clubhouse, Howard’s pivotal at-bat was discussed in a silly and unrealistic manner used to poke fun at an exaggerate the situation. By swinging at that first pitch Howard was the antithesis of the “Money Ball” player who was afraid that other players would make fun of him for “looking to walk.”

After a few more seconds of silliness, I jumped in with the idea that I was a “Money Ball player before Money Ball even existed.”

“I was always looking to walk. I was a looker,” I said. “People yelled that at me all the time and the truth is I didn’t even try to make it look good. Someone could have placed the ball on a tee and I would have taken it.”

Or bunted.

Then I mimicked my high-school batting stance by holding an imaginary bat as if it were a light saber that suddenly went on without warning. As the imaginary pitch approached, I cowered as if being attacked by a grizzly bear.

But after the pitch safely passed, I celebrated.

“Ball One!”

OK, it wasn’t that bad, but it may as well have been.

And it’s a little more interesting than saying, “I hit .273 my senior year. In a game against Hempfield I went 2-for-4 with a double and scored a run. I also made a running catch in foul ground, but we lost, 6-3. We got two on in the seventh but couldn’t push any across.”

Booooooring.

Besides, in backyard wiffle ball there were few at my level. In that sport I’d make Ryan Howard look like Pat Burrell.

***
Jimmy and CharlieThe one thing I was pretty good at during school sports was running. And by running I don’t mean anaerobic capabilities or endurance, though I’m pretty good at those, too. Truth is, I’m probably the best distance runner of any of the mainstream sports sportswriters, but that’s not saying much. Actually it’s kind of like saying Brad Pitt is a better looking dude than Ernest Borgnine.

What I mean by running is that during the rare instances where I took the court or field I ran. When it was time to come off the field/court, I also ran. When I bunted one fair, I ran all out to first and if I ever walked and got to first, I ran as hard as possible to second, third or home. Somewhere along the line I was told that to do anything other than to run on the field was a sacrilege. Walking or jogging was never permitted – ever. You walked or jogged only when you were hurt, otherwise, you ran or you came out of the game.

Maybe the reason why I ran all the freaking time was because I didn’t want to give anyone more excuses to take me out of the game. Playing time was scarce enough as it was so maybe I figured I wasn’t going to waste it by not trying.

Watch Scott Rolen, Chase Utley or Pat Burrell – they run on and off the field, too. They don’t lope or jog… they run.

When it comes to effort, those guys aren’t kidding around – ever.

Just the same, I doubt Jimmy Rollins kids around when it comes to effort, too. However, unlike other players, Rollins sometimes worries about style points. The weird thing about style is that it sometimes makes perfectly good things look bad.

At least that was the case for Rollins last week when he dropped his head after a harmless pop up and casually rolled to first in anticipation of the out.

But because he wasn’t hustling and had his head down, Rollins couldn’t make it to second base when the pop fly was dropped by shortstop Paul Janish. After the half inning ended, manager Charlie Manuel rightly assumed the lack of hustle meant that Rollins needed a breather and sent him to the bench.

Here’s the thing about Rollins – he’s won games for the Phillies because of his hustle. In fact, his hustle and quickness have kept him out of trouble in a lot of instances. One, of course, was when he won a game by “stealing” home against the Cubs when he faked out the catcher by running hard toward the plate before hitting the brakes as if he were going to change direction and go back to third. When he got the catcher to fall for the fake and throw the ball to the third baseman, Rollins quickly changed direction again and sprinted home to score the winning run.

It was a move only smart, hustling players make.

The one where he didn’t hustle to first base wasn’t.

“It’s my fault,” Rollins said. “I can’t get mad at him. That’s like breaking the law and getting mad when the police show up. You can’t do that.”

Here’s the thing about that, though … if any other player did what Rollins failed to do, Manuel probably wouldn’t have come down on him as hard. Manuel knew that his message would resonate more if he punished Rollins, the league’s reigning MVP. Manuel also knew that Rollins wasn’t going to overreact and that he was smart enough to understand the message the manager was sending not just to his MVP, but also the entire team.

The message?

You guys haven’t won anything yet.

Manuel has been around long enough to know that sometimes even the best teams get complacent. And sometimes even those really good teams have a tough time shaking out of the doldrums when the games really mater.

So with the Phillies on the verge of taking three out of four from the Reds with a big, nine-game road trip looming, Manuel sent his streaking, first-place club a little love letter that they are all accountable and that there is no time to take the foot off the accelerator.

Rollins got it immediately.

“With this team you don’t get away with anything anyway, but he’s the manager and that’s what he’s supposed to do when a player isn’t hustling,” Rollins said. “He has to take the initiative to make sure you play the game the right way.”

The message seems to have been received loud and clear. When Rollins was “benched,” the Phillies went on to finish off the Reds before jetting off to Atlanta where they swept the Braves. With 12 wins their last 14 games and a four-game lead over the Marlins in the NL East, the Phillies could bury the rest of the division with another sweep in Miami.

Maybe if that happens Manuel should toss the post-game spread.

No comment

Ryan HowardI have a theory that if you need someone like Ryan Howard or Chase Utley to say something insightful to make or break your story, you are, indeed, a [bleepy] writer.

It’s not a well-thought out theory or one that I’ve ever really tested in a controlled environment. Truth be told and based on my observations from going into the Phillies clubhouse and hanging around the team for the better part of the last nine seasons, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are the least interesting ballplayers I have ever seen address a group of people about their profession.

The right side of the Phillies’ offense has nothing to say to the press about baseball.

Nada.

Nothing.

Zilch.

Ryan Howard and Chase Utley probably will go down as the most prolific hitters in Philadelphia baseball history, and are clearly two of the most exciting players in the game right now. But, you know, just don’t ask them about it.

When told that the President of the United States of America said that Utley would be the first player he would select if he were putting together a baseball team, Utley said: “That’s a nice compliment to have. It’s kind of cool.”

Gee… OK.

From Jerry Crasnick in the latest edition of ESPN the Magazine in a story on how Utley has established himself as a bona fide hitting threat at the plate:

The one skill Utley has yet to master is self-promotion. He relies on monotonal cliché-speak when reporters approach for insights into his game. His approach brings to mind the Zen of Greg Maddux, who goes out of his way to be dull to avoid providing glimpses into his baseball soul. In Utley’s world, success is almost solely a reflection of hard work. That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. “The more you practice, the better,” he says. “The more at-bats you have and pitches you see, and the more ground balls you take and game situations you’re in, the more comfortable you get.”

OK. But, there are a few problems in that short paragraph. Sure, Utley may (indirectly) invoke the “Zen of Maddux,” but the stories of Greg Maddux’s wacky personality are legion and probably not for re-telling where innocent ears (and eyes) lurk.

What’s more, Utley’s quote about the more one practices equates to the amount of success one has is, frankly, condescending. For starters, Utley is ignoring the importance of talent all while suggesting that players who haven’t had the same success as him yet have been identified with better “tools” only need to work harder. Of course he cites the traditional notion of hard work because Utley has been identified as a “baseball rat,” “dirtball,” and “hard worker.” The truth is that I know for a fact that Jimmy Rollins is a hard worker and a student of the game. Why isn’t he ever described that way?

Better yet, there isn’t a single player in the Major Leagues who simply gets by on talent.

Everybody works hard just like everyone has talent. To that regard, there has to be something more to players like Utley and Howard and they just aren’t too keen on allowing anyone to see it.

As Bobby Brown once astutely pointed out, that’s their prerogative.

To be fair, public speaking is not for everyone. Frankly, it can be unnerving at times. The truth is that the few times in which I have actually appeared on television I was slightly nervous until I told myself that if they are putting me on TV the producers probably are not expecting a ratings bonanza. From that point on it was if I was simply speaking to another inanimate object, only this one beamed my head out to a regional cable TV audience… or whatever there was of one.

However, when it comes to being a professional athlete these days, self-analysis and deconstruction is part of the job. No, we’re not asking for a stand-up routine or even something so insightful that we have to ponder it on the long drive home – after all, it’s just baseball and sports. How complicated can it be?

This criticism isn’t just for Utley and Howard, but also folks like Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb and perhaps 50 percent of the athletes making money in Philadelphia. The main criticism isn’t what they say, but how they say it. Hey, no one is expecting Utley or Howard to be insightful, just engaged in the process.

Again, I’m not saying Howard and Utley aren’t interesting people. I’m just saying that I don’t know if they are. Perhaps that’s because when it comes to talking about baseball they offer no insight, no nuance and no depth. If given the choice between talking to the press about baseball and having a nail driven into their head, Howard, Utley (and many others on the team) would take the nail.

I just don’t get that. How can that make sense? If I were a baseball player and were as passionate about the game as nearly every baseball player says they are, you would not be able to shut me up. I’d put a lectern in front of my locker and give sermons from up high. I’d drive everyone crazy talking about baseball, my workouts, the other players, the shape of the ball, the grain of the wood on the bats, the hue of the ivy growing on the batter’s eye in center field, the fit of the uniforms, the clubhouse spread, the water pressure in the shower, the temperature of the whirlpool last Tuesday in the visitors’ clubhouse in Nationals Park… I’d talk about everything.

Go ahead and ask me an innocuous question about running and marathoning… and then be prepared to sit quietly for at least 30 minutes while I wax on and ramble off into one tangent or another.

So that’s what I don’t get – how can a baseball player not want to talk about baseball?

Chase UtleyActually, the better question is why does anyone care? Are insights from professional athletes so vital to the national discourse? I certainly hope not. But in the proliferation of the celebrity culture, athletes need not apply. In 2008 there is no difference between Chase Utley and Ryan Howard than there is between George Clooney and Denzel Washington. And, in an odd bit of irony, athletes are being chided for not speaking out on issues as well as for their general verbosity, while movie stars are ripped for speaking out too much.

As if such a thing was possible.

Nevertheless, the real reason for the long-winded essay and knee-jerk observations is because of the latest from former Sports Illustrated writer Pat Jordan, who detailed the good old days of sports writing in a piece for Slate Magazine. Even with the proliferation of all media fans and writers have even less depth and nuance from the athletes. At least that’s what Jordan has observed in his 40 years in the business.

Read the story from Jordan. It’s good.

From my end, I can only relate writing about mainstream professional athletes in comparison to writing about politicians and business leaders from a decade ago. Back then the subjects of my stories wanted to be partners in what I wrote. Not only did they want a say in what information I used and how I used it, but also they wanted full control of the message. They parsed everything and nit-picked everything including something as trite as the use of a comma or semi-colon in the copy.

To say most folks were engaged in the process didn’t cover it. They wanted minutes on the process. They wanted sample paragraphs and to be alerted when the story went to press.

Conversely, athletes don’t care about any of it. Strangely, I think most professional baseball players believe that the guy holding the camera to the guy with the microphone to the guy with a pen and a pad all work for the same TV station. They simply don’t care enough to differentiate between writers, let alone the scribes and TV reporters.

As I once explained to someone working in a small-town newspaper about the differences between covering the news in a place like Lancaster and covering the Philadelphia Phillies: “The guy you write about in Lancaster might cut out the story and hang it on his wall or put it in a scrapbook. It’s meaningful to him.

“But Travis Lee doesn’t give a [bleep].”

For that matter, neither do most ballplayers…

Or fans.

More: “Josh Beckett Won’t Return My Phone Calls” by Pat Jordan (Slate)

Ryan Howard’s long bomb

WASHINGTON – According to the dusty old archives stashed back in the vaults at Nationals Park, Ryan Howard’s home run in the fifth inning of yesterday’s 12-2 victory over the Nats was not only the first ball to reach the upper deck at the stadium, but also it was the longest fair ball ever struck in The District’s Southeast quadrant.

Apparently the homer went 441 feet. That’s like Tiger Woods taking a three-quarters swing with a 9-iron.

Anyway, here’s Howard’s bomb:

[redlasso id=”578480d6-85dc-4dab-a1b6-4d8399f3ee97″]

It should be noted that there is no happier room in the country than a big-league clubhouse following a win on the road just before they leave to go to another city. The Philadelphia ballclub was downright giddy after pasting the Washington Nine for 12 runs last night. Jimmy Rollins even interjected into Shane Victorino’s post-game deconstruction of his 3-for-5 performance (double, HR, 3 runs, 2 RBIs) with some members of the local press.

“Anything Ryan can do, I can do,” Jimmy said, mimicking Victorino. “I hit a double, he hits a double…”

But…

“I hit a home run,” Rollins laughed, still imitating his teammate “but he hits a BOMB!”

Monday night rewind

CheruiyotMonday was one of those epic days in sports where everything kind of fell into place the way everyone expected.

Robert Cheruiyot dominated the Boston Marathon… again.

The Flyers went from a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series to a do-or-die Game 7… again.

And Chase Utley hit a home run and made some clutch plays to lead the Phillies to a victory… again.

You know – no big whoop.

Anyway, Cheruiyot won his fourth Boston against a weaker field than in past years. One reason for that is because the top American runners either ran in the Olympic Trials last November (or London two weeks ago) or will run in the track Trials in July. So unlike the past handful of years where the elite Americans showed up and ran with Cheruiyot for a little bit, this year there were other things going on.

Additionally, guys like Ryan Hall and the fastest runners in the world went to London where the course is much more forgiving, the competition fierce and fast times are inevitable. Boston’s course beats the hell out the quads and calves with the undulating terrain. No, Boston isn’t exactly a slow course – there is a net downhill, after all. There are parts of the route from Hopkinton to Boston where runners actually have to hold back to avoid going too fast.

In contrast, the uphill climbs in Newton come at a point where a runner’s glycogen stores are just about gone. They don’t call them Heartbreak Hill for nothing. Hell, I recall doing workouts through the Newton hills and attacked the famed (infamous?) Heartbreak Hill fresh and it gave me a little kick in the ass. Imagine spending miles 16 to 21 of a marathon trying to get over those hills.

Lance ArmstrongLance Armstrong, who mastered Alpe d’Huez (among others) during his seven Tour de France victories, ran his first Boston yesterday. From the sound of it, Armstrong got a little boot to the rear in Newton though it should be noted that he ran negative splits for a respectable 2:50:58.

According to the Associated Press:

Armstrong said there’s no comparison between running a marathon and cycling, either physically or mentally.

“You can’t compare the pounding or running with the efficiency of a bicycle,” he said. “Nothing even comes close to comparing the pain, especially it seems like this course, with a significant amount of downhills … that really take their toll on the muscles.”

But Boston is not exactly a world-record course, either. Cheruiyot was on course-record pace yesterday, casually ripping through miles 3 to 19 in 4:53 or faster. That includes a 4:37 at mile 19 that obliterated the rest of the field. However, Cheruiyot “slowed” over the final 10k to finish in 2:07:43, well off his record 2:07:14 he set in 2006. Interestingly, Cheruiyot’s fourth victory in Boston was only the fifth winning time under 2:08 in the 112 years of the race.

Compare that to the London Marathon this year where the top six in the 2008 race ran under 2:07 and it’s easy to see why the best runners don’t show up to Boston (or New York) any more. Why go get beat up when Chicago, London and Berlin have (relative) cakewalk courses?

Nevertheless, Boston and its sponsors might have to dig into the coffers to lure the big guns away from London in the spring. The fact that Haile Gebrselasie, Paul Tergat, Martin Lel, Khalid Khannouchi – and worse – Ryan Hall, have not lined up on Patriot’s Day in Hopkinton proves that Boston is missing something.

Sure, runners like London because of the speedy course and the chance for fast times. But more than anything else runners go where the best competition is. That hasn’t been Boston for a long time.

***
Elsewhere, it’s Game 7 night in Washington where most folks seem to have a bad feeling about the fate of the Flyers.

There. That’s the depth of my hockey analysis.

***
Chase UtleyHad Chase Utley not broken his hand last season, Jimmy Rollins probably wouldn’t have won the MVP Award. Chances are Utley would have been in the top three with Prince Fielder and Matt Holliday. So noting that it was Utley’s injury that pushed Rollins into the MVP discussion in 2007, it’s kind of ironic that Rollins’ injury has the spotlight on Utley.

Then again, six homers in five straight games kind of gets a ballplayer noticed…

Plus, it’s only April 22, too. There is a lot of baseball to go.

Nevertheless, Utley is off to one of those stop-what-your-doing-when-he-comes-up starts. So far he has reached base in all but one of the Phillies’ 20 games, has posted gaudy numbers in categories that all the stat geeks love, and seems to have his hand in the outcome of every game.

Things happen whenever Utley is on the field. But then again that’s not new.

Remember when Ryan Howard used to be that way?

Anyway, during his pre-game powwow with the writers prior to last night’s game at Coors Field, the Wilmington News Journal’s Scott Lauber reports this quote from manager Charlie Manuel:

“Chase Utley is a very, very, very tough player. I’ve been in the game a long time, and he’s as tough as any player I’ve seen. I’m talking about old throwback players, guys like Pete Rose and Kirby Puckett. You could put Utley in that category. He could play with any of them.”

So there’s that… which is nice.

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.

Rollins sits again

RollinsThere are a few interesting things going on around baseball (OK, I made that up, but bear with me) but the big chatter around the ballpark this afternoon is that Jimmy Rollins will sit out of his third straight game with an injured ankle suffered during Tuesday’s game against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.

Rollins did not start the past two games, but pinch hit during last night’s extra-inning loss to the Mets.

With Rollins out again, Eric Bruntlett will get another starting nod at shortstop.

Here’s the Phillies’ lineup for Friday night’s game against the Chicago Cubs and pitcher Carlos Zambrano:

8 – Shane Victorino, cf
19 – Greg Dobbs, 3b
26 – Chase Utley, 2b
6 – Ryan Howard, 1b
5 – Pat Burrell, lf
10 – Geoff Jenkins, rf
51 – Carlos Ruiz, c
4 – Eric Bruntlett, ss
39 – Brett Myers, p

Here’s a little secret: I’m going to write about Brett Myers and his outing this evening. Myers is looking for his first good start of the season after two pretty bad ones. I wrote about those, too.

Rollins to the rescue

JimmySo Jimmy Rollins came to the rescue for the Phillies again.

Better yet, the Phillies’ offense saved the pitching staff from some trouble… again.

The reigning NL MVP capped off a big rally in the seventh with a two-out homer with one out to knot the game at 6. People laughed, jumped, yelled, waved flags, threw paper and pounded themselves on the head as if the Ayatollah had just died.

Yes, people really want this baseball team to win games.

Knotted at 6 and headed for the late innings, it seems as if the Phillies are sitting pretty. They have scored 6 runs without mounting much a sustained rally at any point of the ballgame, and have done so with some shaky pitching on top of that.

Pitching and defense? Nah… The Phillies do it with homers and walks.

Anyway, Rollins came through. Flash Gordon is on in the ninth. Perhaps this is where the thinness of the team’s bullpen gets it into trouble?

Man, what’s with all this negativity?

Fully engaged?

Barack & HillaryToday is another Super Tuesday of sorts in the Presidential primary races. It gets the all-encompassing “super” moniker simply because of the implications the races in Vermont, Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island. For the Republicans it means that shoo-in nominee John McCain will collect the necessary delegates to put him over the top.

On the Democrats side, a four-state sweep by Barack Obama could push Hillary Clinton’s Presidential bid to the brink. However, if Clinton wins the two delegate-rich states in Texas and Ohio, be ready for a full-court press by both candidates before the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Here comes the understatement of the week: There is a lot at stake today.

But that fact has been known for a very long time. In fact, media reports indicate that the 2008 bid for the White House has galvanized voters of all ages in ways that have not been seen in a very long time. People are engaged in the process, they are listening to the speeches out on the campaign trail, dial up the relevant news on the Internet, and have turned out to the polls in record numbers.

Everyone is engaged, especially 20-something year-old voters, who, according to reports, have turned off the ridiculous YouTube videos and dived into the national discourse. Better yet, those folks are asking questions and confronting conventional wisdom… these are all very good things. Frankly, it should make all citizens, regardless of political philosophy, to see so many people engaged.

It is an exciting time in our history.

But according to an ESPN.com story by Jeff Pearlman, there is one subset of folks whose precarious bubble has not been pierced to allow reality inside. That group?

Major League Baseball players.

According to Pearlman’s story, there are little fraternity houses in every ballpark around the country where Maxim magazine, the lack of fuel efficiency of one’s Hummer, and the run-of-the-mill superficiality of the bling-bling culture have not been offset by a true historical moment. Yes, according to Pearlman, baseball players are as dumb as ever.

Chronicling his visit with the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals and the lack of political discourse therein, Pearlman charted the top 10 topics of discussion. They were:

Indeed, a top 10 list of spring training topics discussed by ballplayers would look something like this:

1.Baseball
2. Free sunglasses
3. Breasts
4-5. Jesus/golf (tie)
6. Dinner options
7. The Kyle Kendrick YouTube video
8. Britney Spears
9. Strip clubs
10. More Jesus/golf (tie)

C.J. WilsonNot every player is so switched off, though. One who was not shy about discussing his disdain for his teammates’ apathy was reliever C.J. Wilson, a left-hander who has been described as a Taoist and adheres to the Ian MacKaye-inspired “Straight Edge” philosophy of personal politics. When asked who amongst his teammates is as interested in the Presidential races as he, Wilson glumly answered, “No one.”

“It’s frustrating,” Wilson told Pearlman. “I’d say there are two reasons. One, there’s a general lack of education among us. But two – and most important – you’re talking about a population that makes a ton of money, so the ups and downs of the economy don’t impact whether we’re getting paid. Therefore, we often don’t care.”

“It’s not that complex,” Wilson says. “Baseball players think about baseball.”

That’s true. Baseball players get paid a lot of money to play a game and there are always dozens of players just waiting to get a chance to bump off another from the lineup. Understandably, there is a lot of pressure involved in keeping such a high-profile and high-paying job.

Yet at the same time there is a ridiculous amount of downtime for professional athletes. Games don’t last all that long and there is only so much time that a player can devote to workouts and treatments and whatever other job-related tasks. As a result, Pearlman’s list is pretty apt, though he seems to have missed on the ballplayers’ devotion to gambling, card playing and crossword puzzles as favorite pastimes.

At the same time, maybe Pearlman picked the wrong clubhouse? The Phillies have a few players switched on to issues, if not elective politics. Chase Utley is a budding conservationist and has lent his name to environmental and animal-rights initiatives. Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins, the team’s player representative, is quietly aware of history regarding civil rights and baseball.

Jamie Moyer runs his Moyer Foundation, which created and funds Camp Erin, the largest national network of bereavement camps for children and teens; Camp Mariposa, for children affected by addiction in their families; The Gregory Fund, for early cancer-detection research; and The Moyer Foundation Endowment for Excellence in Pediatric Palliative Care for Seattle’s Children’s Hospital.

Additionally, Moyer’s father-in-law, Digger Phelps, worked for the Office of National Drug Control Policy and also served as an observer in the 1993 elections in Cambodia.

Those things are little more involved than simply following along with the process. Still, baseball players have – and various athletes in general – have picked up the label as being nothing more than “dumb jocks.” Some have chided golfer Tiger Woods for refusing to take a stand on various racial and political issues. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan famously failed to endorse African-American democratic senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt in his early 1990s race against arch-conservative Jesse Helms in North Carolina, because, as Jordan stated at the time, “Republicans buy sneakers, too[1].”

That’s hardly as inspiring as Ali’s, “I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong,” but perhaps Jordan and Woods have to protect their corporate interests first? If that’s the case, how does one define ex-cyclist, turned marathoner, Lance Armstrong, who has been nothing if outspoken in endorsing political candidates and calling out others for their failure to work for improved cancer research and better health care?

Greg Odenwhat about Greg Oden, the top pick in last summer’s NBA draft? Out with an injury for the entirety of the season, Oden has spent his time following the campaigns and musing about them on his blog. In a recent interview with The Washington Post’s, Michael Wilbon, Oden admitted some of his naiveté about politics, but said he is committed to being fully engaged in the process.

“I can’t even imagine that now, knowing enough to govern a city or a state,” Oden told Wilbon. “I’m just at the point where I’m watching CNN more than I ever have, listening to the candidates. I’m not the most educated guy in the world on the issues, but I’m getting there.”

During various campaign stops, Oden has had a telephone conversation with Obama and introduced First Lady Laura Bush at a campaign event. He admitted that both events were quite nerve-wracking.

Nevertheless, Oden has come out with an endorsement for Obama on his blog and says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I can’t say I know every single one of his policies by heart,” Oden told Wilbon, “but I’ve done enough homework to know what I like about him. I really feel more strongly about young people voting, about making an educated decision. I’m not trying to tell people what to do or who to vote for, just to educate themselves and participate. What could be the harm in that?”

None. None at all. Perhaps all this engagement could have some sort of influence on our democracy and maybe even get a few more folks involved.

***
Also by Pearlman: Nomar is a creep.


[1] To be fair, Jordan contributed money to Gantt’s campaign and has also been a contributor to Bill Bradley’s and Obama’s run for the White House. Plus, people have the right to shut-up, too.