Hitting The Wall

the-wallThe Tour of California reported huge audiences both on television and along the course during its third annual race held last February. Part of that had to do with seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong riding with the big guns from Astana as well as a large contingent of the best riders in the world.

Levi Leipheimer won the race for the third year in a row and Floyd Landis made his return to sanctioned racing after his two-year ban. So needless to say, there was a lot to entice Californians to go out to watch as well as the rest of us to tune in.

Meanwhile, with Armstrong as the catalyst, cycling events in Europe (and the U.S.) have received heightened media exposure. That was especially the case when Armstrong wrecked and busted up his clavicle in a race in Spain. The pictures of the surgically repaired bone – complete with the screws holding it in place – were a hit on the Internets.

But the thing with cycling is that it ain’t cheap. It costs a lot of money to get the equipment, and we aren’t even talking about the bikes. Those helmets and riding kits can turn a great sport into a very expensive hobby.

Now imagine how much it costs to fund a team and put on races… that ain’t cheap either. And despite a renewed interest in the sport and the fact that audiences are rolling in at greater numbers, things don’t look so good for the domestic races.

That’s especially the case here in Philadelphia, too. In fact, it seems very likely that an annual party along the Art Museum and Manayunk could be in jeopardy this June.

So much for Landis making his pro comeback to his home state?

According to reports, the annual TD Bank Philadelphia Cycling Championship, is on the verge of being cancelled for financial reasons. A story in The Inquirer reported that race organizers need to raise $500,000 by Monday or they will cancel the 2009 version of the race.

That could mean no party at the Manayunk Wall this June.

Actually, that’s money used simply to put on the race. It does not include travel to Philadelphia, accommodations, prize fees, etc. Just like in baseball, football and every other team sport, cycling teams roll deep. In addition to the riders and the coaches, there are mechanics, drivers, doctors and a whole team infrastructure that will need to eat and sleep with the rest of the team.

Again, it ain’t cheap.

As a result, the Pro Cycling Tour in the U.S. has canceled races in Allentown and Reading, which in past years served as the appetizer for the main course in Philly, which was (and is) the premier single-day race in the country and serves as the national championship.

In past years Lancaster also hosted a tour event, but passed up the event because (some) residents complained about the traffic the race caused, further exemplifying the residents’ lameness.

Pretty much anyone who is anyone in top-level cycling – from Lance to Landis to Hincappie and beyond – has raced in Philly, Lancaster, Allentown or Reading. The best of the best of zoomed around our streets and now it might be coming to an end.

Here’s the thing about the Philly race – it’s a money maker. According to the Inquirer story, citing race organizers, the event brought an estimated $15 million to $20 million in revenue to the city. In tough economic times like these, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

But because the city is so cash strapped, Mayor Michael Nutter has instituted a policy of charging events for cleanup, the police and other necessary elements of putting on a huge event. Plus, the race lost two big cycling sponsors (CSC and Rock Racing) that has put it in a position to find $500,000…

By Monday.

So it seems as if city businesses could lose a potential $15-20 million (probably less in these lean times) over $500,000… tough times indeed.

Back to earth

andrew_toneyLANCASTER, Pa. – Going to Spring Training to write about baseball is a lot like walking into a hermetically-sealed cocoon. Nothing pierces this bubble, which is more roach motel than a simple picket fence.

Ideas from the outside check in, and then they die.

So the first order of business since checking out of Camp Big Britches in Clearwater was to reconnect with reality. Or at least some facsimile thereof. And a quick look back at my version of reality shows that I missed some pretty cool stuff back here in Philly.

Lancaster? Not so much.

Anyway, here’s what happened:

• Apparently there is a basketball tournament going on. Villanova is in it, though it must be pointed out that the current version of the team is only slightly less evil than the older versions. Yeah, those fans/alums are still as arrogant as can be, but Jay Wright makes it all a bit more tolerable.

gonzo_gonzoMore interesting, Villanova plays Duke in the regional semifinal in Boston this Thursday. In the old days rational folks would have rooted for both teams to get lost on the way to the arena. Baring that, some discomfort or at least a few flat tires were in order. These days, anytime the li’l general at Duke gets beat is pretty sweet.

Hey, I’m not one of those hater guys (at least I hope not), so I guess it’s not fair to pick on Coach K because he has a really, really important job coaching basketball. He’s very important. Just ask him.

• The biggest whiff was skipping out before the Sixers played one last game at the Spectrum. No, not for the sentiment of playing a game in an old building because overwrought pining for things seems kind of silly. Besides, as Joe Strummer said, if you think too much about the past it will drag you down.

Joe… Joe was the greatest.

Sentiment and nostalgia are hard things to ignore. It’s the emotion of it, probably. Life can be difficult if you’re one to wade in past the shallow end, so comfortable memories of old times can be soothing on occasion. So for a lot of us – especially pre-teens who hawked the team during training camp at F&M – that ’83 Sixers club would have conjured up some fun memories.

If, of course, I had been at the Spectrum instead of sunny Florida.

Regardless, does it really count if Andrew Toney wasn’t there?

Sure, the Sixers undoubtedly did a wonderful job putting together a memorable event for the fans and the players, but Andrew Toney was such an important player of that era that it actually belied mere statistics and wins and losses. The truth is Andrew Toney changed everything in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference.

It’s possible Toney was the most important player in the game for a few years.

Here’s why:

If the Celtics had anyone remotely capable of guarding Toney, they would not have traded to get Dennis Johnson. And without Johnson, the Celtics are just a very good team, but not that much different from the rest of the very good teams.

So without Toney, the Celtics dynasty might have just been a blip in time and the Sixers might have snuck out of the East another time or two.

• Elsewhere, before Lance Armstrong broke his collarbone and possibly lost his shot at returning to the Tour de France, he had to submit some of his hair for DNA drug testing. Yep, athletes in sports outside of the big three, are submitting to DNA drug testing.

Meanwhile, baseball’s drug problem gets sillier and sillier by the day.

• Finally, speaking of drug-testing, maybe A-Rod should have been forced to offer a hair/urine sample after posing for this picture:

awhat

Seriously, I’m all for defying the conventional wisdom, but what is he doing? That’s something some dudes do when there is no one else at home and they don’t have to worry about being caught acting like a goof. But not A-Rod. He invites a photog and goes all out.

So when he puts on his Sunday best, grabs his parasol and sashays through the town square, don’t be surprised.

Comeback kids

cover_000Hey, whatever happened to pepper? Why aren’t the Phillies down in Clearwater honing their reflexes and fancy glove work with a little pepper? Sounds like a big story for some newshound of a reporter.

As regular readers of this little dog-and-pony show know, we love the bike racing here. Just love it. Actually, it’s all of the endurance sports – the tougher, the better. As such, if I worked for Versus I’d send me to France this summer to help with the coverage of Le Tour… hell, won’t cost them nothing. I’m already on the payroll.

Be that as it is, we watched last week’s Tour of California with great interest. Many reasons for this were obvious – most of the best riders in the world were there, it’s California and a punishing event, etc., etc.

But the biggest reason, of course, was the return of both Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis to the racing scene. Depending on how one looks at things, the final results were mixed. Lance played a pretty good supporting role for Astana teammate and race champ, Levi Leipheimer and finished sixth overall. Lance rode well, though not spectacularly. He may have been the third best rider for Astana (behind Leipheimer and Chris Horner), and maybe the fourth-best on the team right now.

Of course it’s still early and the big test – Le Tour de France – is five months away. That doesn’t change the fact that Astana, the best team in the world, has some figuring out to do. Is Leipheimer or 2007 Tour de France champ Alberto Contador the leader of the team? And if so, where does that leave Lance? Certainly he didn’t come out of retirement to be a domestique.

Regardless, where Lance really distinguished himself in the Tour of California (the most-viewed spectator event in state history… over 2 million people witnessed various stages of the race that started in Sacramento and finished near San Diego), was with a certain spectator.

Actually, the spectator was dressed in a bumble-bee type costume… with horns on his head… and a trident with syringes attached… oh yeah, and a cape – the dude was wearing a cape.

Nevertheless, when the guy got a little too close and a little too annoying, Lance gave the bumble-bee man with a needle a shove that sent him sprawling into the snow. Then he just rode off, since, you know, it was a race.

Take a look (photos from Drunk Cyclist):

Meanwhile, Lancaster County native Floyd Landis had an up-and-down Tour of California. In his first race since that now infamous 2006 Tour de France, Floyd finished 23rd. He struggled early, partially because of a fall during training on his surgically-repaired hip, caught a cold, got tangled up in a mid-race crash, yet hung in. By the end, Floyd finished strong and rode strong and tough during the race’s final stage.

Hell, by the end of the race the once loquacious-turned-silent Landis was even talking to the press again. Albeit it briefly and after a feature appeared in The New York Times.

Floyd also appeared on the cover of glossy/fancy cycling mag, Road, though the only cool part about the featured interview was the photos. The interview itself was pretty unrevealing and pedantic, but the pictures were cool.

The return of Lance and Landis

Yet another busy weekend around here with the official opening of spring training, coupled with a pair of Flyers’ games, the NBA All-Star weekend as well as the typical rumbling and grumblings on the Philly sports scene. Surely, the Phillies and the beginning of their title defense in Clearwater, Fla. is the biggest bit of news in these parts, but that doesn’t mean the world stops just for us.

Oh no. Not at all.

While the greatest basketball players on the planet have all converged in Phoenix, Ariz. for two days of parties and exhibitions, a little farther north a consortium of the greats in another sport will take over the great state of California for the next week.

And when we say the best in the sport, we mean many of the best over the past decade.

Yes, it’s the Tour of California, the biggest bike race in the United States which began with a prologue stage in Sacramento on Saturday and will end in Escondido, a town just north of San Diego, on Sunday. Along the way, spectators lining the course will see the best field ever assembled for a bike race in the U.S.

The best?

Absolutely. Look, the greatest-of-all-time hook is one that is thrown out far too much these days. As sports fans and Americans, we’re prone to hyperbole. However, it’s difficult to argue with the riders saddling it up this week in California. The only way it could get any better is if Miguel Indurain or the man himself, Eddy Merckx decided to make comebacks.

The talent includes three different Tour de France champs, 16 different Tour de France stage winners, 11 world champions, eight Olympic medalists, and every American champ going back to 2003 as well as every winner in the first three years of the event.

Star-studded to be sure. But frankly, the Tour of California is the first real test for a couple of riders making their returns to the sport. Yes, Carlos Sastre, the defending Tour de France champ is in the race. So too is 2008 Olympic gold medalist Fabian Cancellara, along with a veritable who’s who of cycling.

But the riders drawing the most attention in the Tour of California are a couple of guys who haven’t raced a full season since 2006, and that year didn’t really end too well.

Yes, Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis are back.

Continue reading this story…

Lance and some quick hits

TO! Lance! Brains! Olbermann!

Um… Olbermann?

Anyway, here are a few quick noon-time stories we’re following.

Terrell Owens (remember him? He spent a little more than a season with the Eagles a few years ago. Caught a few passes, c’mon, you remember…) has signed on to shill for something called Venom energy drink. Owned by Dr. Pepper, Owens has been named the company’s “Chief Mayhem Officer,” which, according to Andy Reid, is almost too perfect: “New Endorsement deal for TO” (The Associated Press)

Twelve athletes, including ex-NFL players, will donate their brains to science for a concussion study… no, not right now: “12 Athletes Leaving Brains to Concussion Study” (Schwarz – The New York Times)

MSNBC’s ubiquitous talker, Keith Olbermann is writing for Sports Illustrated now. Who would have guessed that his first story would be about a boner? “The Goof That Changed the Game” (Olbermann – Sports Illustrated)

Lance Armstrong will make his official return to cycling in Australia on Jan. 20 in the Tour Down Under. The seven-time Tour de France champion will ride for the Astana team as announced in press conferences today in New York and Las Vegas. The interesting part about this is the 2007 Tour champ, Alberto Contador rides for Astana. Can you say, Quarterback controversy? “Armstrong to return to racing in 2009” (Macur – The New York Times)

Meanwhile, the great Bonnie D. Ford talked to Armstrong’s directeur sportif, Johan Bruyneel about the prospects for the ’09 season. Guess what? They might be pretty good: “Whatever is on Lance’s list, the execution remains the big challenge” (Ford – ESPN.com)

On another note, I haven’t been able to pin down any rumors regarding Armstrong’s potential purchase of Team Astana or the Amaury Sports Organization’s stake in the Tour de France… yeah, imagine the fallout if Armstrong buys the Tour de France.

All the hand wringing would be a cross between awesome and totally awesome.

Finally, check out the CNN interview with Lance.

Check back for more when I get to the ballpark.

Checking it out with Andy Reid and Lance Armstrong

A few odds and ends before diving back into the baseball pennant race on Wednesday…

Mark Bowden, the former Inquirer writer and author of Black Hawk Down, recently hung out with Eagles’ coach Andy Reid to break down some game film for a story in The Atlantic.

Yeah, that sounds cool. Surely Reid could give Bowden plenty of insight on the finer points of the game.

But instead of watching a recent Eagles game, Bowden and Reid poured through the 1958 NFL Championship between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants – the game most football historians call the greatest game ever played.

Here’s the caveat: Reid had never seen the game before, which Bowden says is kind of like an English professor claiming he never read Macbeth.

Nevertheless, Reid dives in and breaks down the game, play- by-play, for Bowden. Better yet, it makes for a fascinating read.

***
One of the crazy things about the sub-elite running or bicycling races is that one never really knows who the competition will be. For months a guy can train and prepare for a big race without the knowledge of who he will be up against.

Ryan Howard and the Phillies are pretty sure they are going to face Jair Jurrjens and the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday night. After all, such things are published all over the place. As a result, the Phillies can dive into the stats and study video tape in order to prepare for the completion.

Imagine if the Phillies showed up at the park every day with no idea who they were going to face. Maybe it is the Braves one day or the Mets another – they just show up whenever they feel like it and play.

That’s exactly the way it is for runners and riders on the local racing scene. Maybe a really fast guy was out too late the night before a race and decided to sleep in. Or perhaps an elite-level racer was in town visiting friends and decided to show up for the local 10k – it’s very unlike most organized sports.

So imagine the horror (yes, horror) some of the faster mountain bikers in Snowmass, Colo. last weekend when some dude in a black and yellow Livestrong kit rolled up just before the start of the 12-hour team race. Rather than just some fast guy with a custom Trek and major-corporation sponsorship, the bike racers in Colorado had to line up against Lance Armstrong.

You know, the guy who won seven Tour de France titles in a row… he was in the area and thought it would be fun to just show up and race.

Imagine if Cole Hamels just suddenly showed up to pitch in the backyard wiffle ball game or if Kobe called winners at the neighborhood basketball court. In this case, Lance Armstrong just gathered up a couple of friends, put Livestrong jerseys on them and went out and won the team title at the 12 Hours of Snowmass…

Just taking on all comers.

Armstrong, of course, announced that he will return to professional cycling in 2009 after a three-year retirement with the hope of winning another Tour de France. Pushing 37, Armstrong says he was motivated by some older athletes who won medals in the Beijing Olympics as well as his ongoing quest to raise money and awareness for cancer research.

However, Armstrong’s coach Chris Carmichael says he also wants to ride his bike again.

“He fell in love with bike racing again,” Carmichael said. “This is the life he knows, the world he knows.”

In the meantime Armstrong, was out there mixing it up with some pretty serious athletes, just like he did when he chose to run three marathons over the past couple of years. Coming up, the plan is to prepare for the 2009 racing season with a few more races, including a cyclocross race or two.

Who knows… maybe he’ll show up to race in another local criterium or mountain ride.

Why not?

Next up: Ryan Howard, J.A. Happ and the playoff race.

Lance and Landis: Together again?

It’s probably not a coincidence that the news about Floyd Landis’ possible return to cycling in 2009 came the same time as the sport was focused on the return of an even more well-known rider. The reports that Landis is negotiating a deal to ride with Health Net-Maxxis in ’09 kind of slips under the radar a bit when everyone starts talking about Lance Armstrong.

Armstrong, of course, announced that he was coming out retirement earlier this week with the goal to win his eighth Tour de France. However, most of the speculation wasn’t that Armstrong was returning to enhance his legacy or because the competitive juices still flowed. Instead, many speculated, Armstrong had grown tired hearing the doubts that he doped to win his seven yellow jerseys.

The doubts linger despite the fact that Armstrong never tested positive in any of the hundreds of drug tests he took. Of course that’s not the greatest defense considering Barry Bonds or Marion Jones never tested positive either even though the evidence appears to prove the contrary. Conversely, Landis did, indeed, test positive after the famous 17th stage of the 2006 Tour de France, though the results leave plenty of doubt.

The doping issue isn’t going to go away no matter what. Not for Floyd, not for Lance, not for anyone. Actually, it doesn’t even matter that Armstrong says he is going to undergo the most rigorous drug-testing protocol ever devised and post the results on the web for all to deconstruct as they wish – the court of public opinion never allows an appeal.

Sigh!

Regardless, one might believe that it will be an interesting season in the peloton with Lance and Landis heading back in the saddle. However, don’t expect to see Landis racing in France – or even in the European races – next year. Health Net-Maxxis, owned by the Momentum Sports Group and set to change its title sponsor, is strictly a domestic team. That means it is likely Landis will race in events like the Tour of Georgia, as well as the three-race Commerce Bank series held in Allentown, Reading and Philadelphia.

Yes, there’s a very good chance we will see Landis take on The Manayunk Wall next summer.

But after riding for elite teams like Armstrong’s U.S. Postal squad and as the team leader for Phonak, a drop to a domestic team (even a top flight one like Health Net-Maxxis) might seem like some as a personification of Landis’ fall from grace. The speculation is the reasons for Landis likely joining Health Net-Maxxis isn’t as simple as rust, age and punishment from serving a two-year suspension. If Landis were to join an elite Europe-based team, it’s very likely that the Tour de France would not extend an invitation to that team just for spite. That’s just how they operate.

Besides, a year of good will on the U.S. circuit can go a long way. Landis can work himself back into elite-level racing shape without the rigors of international travel and scrutiny.

Plus, Landis can allow his old teammate Armstrong to blaze a trail for him. If all goes well in the comeback, old doors could re-open for a handful of American riders. In fact, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Armstrong will put the old gang back together to tear through France. Lance and Landis were a pretty formidable team not too long ago – neither man is too old for a ride down memory lane.

Of course Armstrong isn’t guaranteed a spot in the Tour next summer. It’s not crazy to think that Christian Prudhomme and his minions that head the Tour de France do not want Armstrong to race and save his sport. It wouldn’t seem as if Prudhomme could do something as dumb and arrogant as to keep Armstrong out of the race, but it wouldn’t be surprising either.

Nevertheless, published reports indicate that Armstrong will join the Astana squad – a team that did not compete in the 2008 Tour de France after top rider Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping during the surreal ’07 race. These days, though, Team Astana has new personnel, like director Johan Brunyel, who was Armstrong’s hand-picked boss of the U.S. Postal and Discovery teams.

Interestingly, a rumor that has gained some strength (and makes sense) has Armstrong buying the Astana team franchise to turn it into his own juggernaut… as if Postal and Discovery weren’t his in the first place.

Certainly if Armstrong took control of Astana, it would be very easy for him to add the riders and components he wants. Maybe by then Landis will be ready to go back to France.

Armstrong gets back in the saddle

As always, Lance Armstrong was thorough in planning, researching and chronicling his return to professional cycling. Nothing, it seems, was left to chance. In figuring out his chances to win an unprecedented eighth Tour de France next year, Armstrong weighed his options, talked things over with his inner circle, gauged the reactions and tore through it all as if he were searching for a needle in a haystack with a fine-toothed comb.

Everything regarding the public announcement and the return was orchestrated. According to author Douglas Brinkley, the hand-picked scribe to compose the story for Vanity Fair, Armstrong hired a film crew to document the entire process. From the initial announcement, through the training in Colorado and California, to the buildup races in the U.S. and Europe, all the way to the starting line in Monte Carlo on July 4 to the finish at the Champs-Élysées, movie makers will record it all.

Certainly there is nothing like watching a solitary bike rider pedal up an abandoned mountain road. Talk about riveting…

Facetiousness aside, what is fascinating is the nod toward history and perhaps even the self-indulgence Armstrong has about his place in the lexicon of the world in and out of sports. That’s not to dismiss the man – that would be dumb. Armstrong is a force of nature and a celebrity amongst celebrities. Not only is Armstrong the most decorated cyclist ever, but also he is the greatest benefactor of cancer research in the world.

As such, Armstrong tabbed Brinkley, the prolific presidential historian and executor of the literary estate of Hunter S. Thompson, to write the first version of this new history. Clearly a mere sportswriter was not big enough for this type of work.

Nevertheless, Armstrong says the comeback is personal. It’s about cancer as well as the lingering doubts that he won his first seven Tour de France titles unscrupulously. It’s also about a 37-year-old man being inspired by other athletes in his demographic, like Dara Torres, and their ability to perform at elite levels regardless of age. To prove himself (and his sincerity) this time around, Armstrong says he will entertain all questions from all outposts of the mass media and, just for good measure, will undergo a vigorous drug-testing program. The results, he says, will be posted publically on the web for all to see.

Openness seems to be the theme for Armstrong. Though clearly calculated – and not as if he didn’t submit to hundreds of drug tests as well as personal public consumption in the past – Armstrong is letting it all hang out. Seemingly there will be no filter.

And seemingly, there could be another motive. Armstrong’s first book was called, “It’s Not About The Bike.” That’s a pretty catchy title to sum up a guy who has an inner drive that exceeds his freakishly off-the-charts VO2 reading, who also, by the way, survived advanced cancer at the age of 25 when he was given less than a 40 percent chance to survive.

But maybe this time it is about the bike just a little bit. Maybe in that sense Armstrong is a little like Michael Jordan or Brett Favre in that the sport is actually embedded deep into his core being. Maybe the guy just loves to train and compete and live that “monastatic” lifestyle that he once described that made him “super fit.”

Maybe he just likes to ride his bike and win races. Maybe he just likes to do that better than anyone else in the world.

When asked if he could reveal something about Armstrong that no one else would know, ex-teammate and star-crossed winner of the 2006 Tour de France, Floyd Landis, told me:

“I don’t think I know anything that anyone else knows,” Landis told me. “People have perceptions of him that might not be very accurate, but I don’t know any details that they wouldn’t know. The guy is obsessed. With whatever he does he is obsessed, and whatever he does he wants to be the best at it. 

“Ultimately, he doesn’t have a lot of close friends because of it and he winds up not being the nicest guy. But that doesn’t make him a doper. That doesn’t make him a cheater. It might make him someone you don’t want to be around, but that doesn’t mean he took advantage of anyone else or that he deserves the harassment some people are giving him.”

Anyone who has ever trained for a marathon, bike race or any other type of sporting/endurance event understands how it can turn folks in possessed creatures. The training gets into your blood and becomes an obsession like a drug or a disease. In the midst of all the training, with its loneliness, suffering, pain, sacrifice and forced asceticism, the athlete can’t wait for race to arrive. He just wants to be done with it and take a break – you know, maybe have a beer or a slice of pizza or something.

But go to the finish line of a race and people can see some athletes stumbling around not in the stupor of physical exertion, but instead the lost feeling of not knowing what to do next.

When the training and the race ends, then what? Where do we go from here?

For Lance it is back on the saddle again, which is where he always wanted to be.

More: “Lance Armstrong Rides Again” – Douglas Brinkley for Vanity Fair

A swan song for Billy Wagner?


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

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

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

It’s kind of hard not to respect that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was enough to set off the waterworks.

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

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

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

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

Is he coming back?

Updated at 6:45 p.m. on Sept. 8

It is quite reasonable that the 2009 Tour de France could feature that last two Americans to win the event… and no, we aren’t talking about Greg LeMond.

Word is tricking out after a story in VeloNews that seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong will return to competitive cycling in 2009. According to the report, Armstrong will join Team Astana — once home to suspended/retired rider Alexandre Vinokourov — where he will accept no salary or bonuses and will post results of blood and urine doping tests online.

Armstrong will also reunite with former US Postal and Team Discovery director, Johan Bruyneel.

According to reports, the official return will be announced in a lengthy interview with Vanity Fair. Additionally, Armstrong will ride in four events in 2009 — the Amgen Tour of California, Paris-Nice, the Tour de Georgia, the Dauphine-Libere — before the Tour de France in July.

Sources close to Armstrong did not return e-mails or calls for comment.

Nevertheless, upon retiring from competitive riding, Armstrong worked exclusively for his cancer research group. He also ran three marathons (two NYC and Boston) and was slated to run the Chicago Marathon next month.

There was no real hint, at least publicly, that Armstrong was contemplating a comeback, a notion enhanced by comments during the U.S. television broadcast final stage of the 2007 Tour de France when the ex-champion claimed he did not miss the grind of racing. What he missed the most, he said, was being “super fit” and the training lifestyle, which he compared to being monastic in that all one did was ride, eat and sleep.

However, last month Armstrong raced in the Leadville 100, a particularly grueling mountain bike race, and finished second. Coincidentally, Armstrong’s former US Postal teammate Floyd Landis finished second in the Leadville 100 in 2007.

Could both riders be back in France in 2009?

Landis’ suspension from the contested doping test after winning the 2006 Tour de France will expire in early ’09. In the past Landis has expressed an interest in a return to competitive riding and there have been rumors about him joining the upstart team, Rock Racing.

Whether this means both men will be in France in 2009 remains to be seen.

Update: According to a report from The Associated Press, a spokesman from Team Astana claimed they did not “have plans for” Armstrong to join the team. Stay tuned.

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.

Follow the money

Cole HamelsCole Hamels is on the right path.

Understanding that it’s going to take a lot more effort and diligence off the field to be able to take the ball every five days, the Phillies’ ace lefty did a total makeover to his training regime a few years ago. It wasn’t just the pedantic stuff like cleaning up his diet and getting plenty of rest, either. Nope, Hamels researched and consulted people close to him and determined that in order to be the best baseball pitcher, he was going to have do things that athletes do.

That meant beer was out, which, as Hamels said a few years ago: “It’s really the worst thing for you.”

In a sport that clings to its old mores and traditions like grim death, beer is still a clubhouse staple in a lot of cities. Even the storied St. Louis Cardinals are nearly synonymous with the Busch family and Budweiser. But according to Chris Carmichael, the fitness guru and longtime trainer for Lance Armstrong, Hamels is definitely onto something.

Says Carmichael:

“The dehydrating impact of alcohol trumps the benefits from the carbohydrate, and it’s also important to realize that alcohol itself is primarily metabolized to fatty acids rather than to usable carbohydrate energy. Yes, it originated as carbohydrate-grains, grapes, corn, whatever-but now it’s alcohol and your body treats it differently. There’s actually not much usable carbohydrate energy in beer or wine.”

More notably, Hamels was the catalyst behind the Phillies relenting and hiring a cadre of chiropractors around the league so that players can visit for adjustments or active release treatments, which is a combination of deep-tissue massage, stretching and manipulation to alleviate problems with muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and nerves. Again, chiropractic treatments are nothing new for athletes in other sports – it’s old news, in fact. But in baseball, unless it’s a cortisone shot followed by a paper cup filled with beer, it’s innovation.

Nevertheless, Hamels is the pitcher of the new generation. Soon, guys like him will be the norm instead of just a handful of open-minded baseball players.

So yeah, in terms of putting together a long, successful baseball career, Hamels (still just 24-years old) is doing all of the right things.

It’s just that he really hasn’t done much yet to be considered any contract offer “a low blow.”

That’s how Hamels described his current contract with the Phillies which was renewed yesterday when he and the team did not come to terms. Though he made $400,000 last season, Hamels characterized the $500,000 renewal as disappointing.

“They do want to keep you happy, and that will affect down the line with certain things that come up because you can’t just all of a sudden throw everything out at (a player) at the last second and think that’s really going to make him happy, because he’s still got check marks for what they didn’t do in the years before.

“I felt like it wasn’t necessarily equal compensation for what I do and for what I can do,” Hamels said.

Clearly the team’s best pitcher, Hamels won a team-best 15 games last season, went to the All-Star Game and finished sixth in the Cy Young Award balloting. More importantly, Hamels is the pitcher the Phillies tabbed to start the first post-season game in 14 years for the franchise last October. Clearly, in regard to his pitching, the Phillies like Hamels very much.

” I’m a little surprised. It’s about respect, and when people don’t show that to you, you’re caught off guard. I thought it was a low blow.

“I felt it wasn’t necessarily equal compensation for what I do and for what I can do. I have to follow the ladder of other guys, some who play every day, and I know I’m not in that category, but you want to feel like you’re getting equally compensated for what you do on the field compared to other people that are in the same league.”

Oh, but that’s not how it works, young fella. Not in baseball, anyway. Or at least, not usually. Sure, there are a few players who received large contracts based on future potential as opposed to accomplishment, but teams have a way of closing up the check book after getting burned. Could it be that Hamels is being penalized for other bad deals?

Or could it be that Hamels is a victim of the Phillies’ team-record $106 million payroll? Considering the Phillies are still paying Jim Thome for the next two seasons, perhaps there isn’t much left over for the lefty ace?

Or could it be that Hamels is drawing a very fair salary for someone with his Major League service? At similar points of their careers, Hamels is making more than Chien-Ming Wang, Dontrelle Willis and Scott Kazmir. Plus, with another big season in ’08, Hamels could do really well next winter if he becomes eligible for arbitration as a “Super Two” player.

But the idea that Hamels can make it through an entire season without some kind of setback doesn’t seem realistic. Oh sure, he’s as fit and strong as any pitcher on the team, but history is difficult to argue with. After all, Hamels has never made through an entire season without an injury or a stint on the disabled list. Even last year when he led the team with 15 wins, Hamels only made it to the mound for 28 starts.

Better yet, in his first four pro seasons Hamels pitched just 201 innings in 36 starts. In 2006, with a two-week disabled-list stint mixed in, the lefty went 181 innings. Last year he pitched 183 and missed a chunk of the later portion of the season with tendonitis.

In other words it’s show-and-prove time for Hamels. If he wants the money he thinks he deserves, he has to go out there and pitch for it. And it’s not just 25 to 28 starts or 180 innings for 15 or 16 wins. Instead, Hamels has to figure out how to go all 162. If he does that, he won’t get low-balled any more. … even though he’s signed up with the Phillies until 2012.

So far, though, Hamels is on the right path.

Who doesn’t love those hacky ‘Where are they now’ pieces?

Ed. note: I forgot to add on the Lance Armstrong part on Friday night… it was added Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m.

SlashWith the news that ex-Phillie Jon Lieber signed a one-year deal to pitch for the Cubs in 2008, it seemed like it would be a fun exercise to see what a few other former Phillies were up to these days.

But in the way of saying adios, muchacho to big Jon, it might be fair to add that his monster truck will probably go over just as well in Chicago as it did in Philadelphia. It should also be mentioned that when Lieber ruptured a tendon in his ankle while jogging off the mound that day in Cleveland last season, gravy poured out and soaked into his sock.

I’m not saying anything, I’m just sayin’.

Nevertheless, all-time favorite Doug Glanville took a break from his real-estate development business near Chicago to write an op-ed piece for The New York Times about why some ballplayers decide to use performance-enhancing drugs. Glanville, obviously, was not a PED user so he can only guess as to why players do what they do. But as an involved member of the players’ union, Glanville didn’t offer much in the way for solutions to the problem. That’s not to say it wasn’t a thoughtful story by Glanville, it’s just that I think we’re way past wondering why players decide to cheat. Perhaps it’s time to accept the fact that with some guys if they are given an inch, they’ll take a yard.

Still, it’s a shame Doug isn’t around anymore. I figured him for a front-office type, but maybe he’s on to bigger work.

***
Elsewhere, Scott Rolen made his introductions to the Toronto baseball writers this week and from all the reports it sounded like it went over as well a Slappy White show – maybe even better than that.

According to reports Rolen joked, joshed and cajoled. Basically, he was the way he always was without the misunderstandings from certain media elements. Oh yeah, neither Larry Bowa nor Tony La Russa showed up, either. That means everyone was in a good mood.

“Hmmn, I didn’t think it was going to come up. That’s surprising,” Rolen answered when asked about his old manager.

Better yet, when given more openings to get in his digs at La Russa, who gave a rambling and bizarre soliloquy on the affair during the Winter Meetings in Nashville last month, Rolen again took the high road.

“I’m not sure if that’s healthy,” he said. “I want to go back to playing baseball, I want to focus all my attention and my competition on the field. Too many times the last year, year and a half, I think that some of the competition, some of the focus was off the field, not on the field where it should stay.”

Buzz & WoodyAside from that, Rolen explained how his three-year old daughter selected his uniform No. 33 for him. It’s kind of a cute story… on another note, my three-year old son has chosen a new name for me — from now on I’m Buzz Daddy Lightyear Finger. I’m going to the courthouse to have it changed next week.

***
How about this for the best story involving a former Phillie… Newly signed San Diego Padre Randy Wolf bought Slash’s house in the Los Angeles’ Hollywood Hills.

Yeah, that Slash.

From what I know about both guys, Randy’s parties might be a little wildier. During my days on the road with Slash all we ever did was visit the local libraries and modern museums of art — If you’ve seen one impressionist, you’ve seen them all.

Again, I’m not sayin’ anything, I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, apparently the joint cost just under $6 million and is approximately 5,500-square feet. There is a pool, a gym, a chef’s kitchen and if I’m not mistaken by looking at the photos, there is a lot wood… Me? I’m an oak man myself.

***
Finally, speaking of guys who know how to party, Lancasterian turned San Diego suburbanite, Floyd Landis, has a full season of racing lined up regardless of the outcome of his appeal to the CAS. According to a published report, Landis will race in the eight-race National Ultra-Endurance Series. Locally, a race is scheduled for July in State College, Pa. in a series that is described as, “old-school mountain biking.”

Yeah.

Meanwhile, Floyd gave a rather revealing interview to the Velo News on Friday where the proverbial gloves came off. Then again, what else is new?

***
Lance & Matt Speaking of cyclists and racing, Lance Armstrong is supposedly running the Boston Marathon in April. Lance qualified with a 2:59 and 2:46 in the past two New York City Marathons, which would likely put him in the starting corral as me — not that Lance is going to have to get up super early to board a bus at the Boston Common for the long ride out to Hopkinton just so he can sit on the cold, wet grass in the Athlete’s Village. Or, Lance can join the multitudes in a long wait in line for one of the port-a-potties that turn the otherwise bucolic setting into into a veritable sea of domed-lidded huts of human waste… complete with that fresh, urinal cake scent.

I wonder if Lance will take a wide-mouthed Gatorade bottle to the starting corral with him, too… you know, just in case.

Yep, that’s marathoning — there are no façades in our sport.

Anyway, it’s cool that Lance is headed to Boston. Perhaps I’ll re-evaluate my spring racing plans and show up, too, if I can find a place to stay… seems as if all the inns and motels are sold out that weekend.