Hellooooo? Anyone there?

oriolebird200Remember what it was like when the Phillies were awful? Remember when you walked into The Vet and there were so few people there that it felt as if there was a legitimate chance that you could get in the game?

Now imagine if Harry Kalas and Chris Wheeler got up and left after the first inning. Just vanished and took off for an early dinner and some TV before bed.

If there is no one there to broadcast a game, did it happen?

Get this… it happened. Kind of.

During a 90-minute rain delay in Ft. Lauderdale yesterday, Orioles’ radio announcers Joe Angel and Fred Manfra called back to Baltimore, told it the game was washed out and took off. No problem, right?

Except for the game wasn’t a wash out. When the rain stopped, the Orioles played the remaining eight innings though the good people in Bal’mer didn’t get the broadcast. Crazy stuff, huh?

OK, yes it was spring training, but is there any more apt analysis of the Orioles’ chances in 2009 than the radio guys walking out? Or, is there a more telling how a once mighty franchise has fallen? The Orioles used to be a powerhouse that did it with gritty, team-oriented players, executives and scouts. They had the Ripkens, Brooks Robinson, Ken Singleton, Jim Palmer, Hank Peters, Pat Gillick… the list goes on.

In the booth, Brooks and the great Chuck Thompson were fantastic. They were almost as good as those teams the Orioles put out there that went to the World Series in 1979 and 1983. Plus, O’s games at Memorial Stadium (and then Camden Yards) were a happening – it was a true community event. Galvanizing even…

Now, show up at the park early enough and they just might ask you to play.

The crazy thing is that the Orioles used to be the team in D.C., too, before the Nationals arrived. Now, the folks in The District, Northern Virginia and Maryland have two dysfunctional teams to ignore.

In his defense, Joe Angel issued a statement:

To ALL Orioles Fans…..Fred And I had nothing to do with the decision to discontinue the broadcast on Sunday March 29th. It was completely out of our hands … On Sunday,….we filled for about 40 minutes and then we were told to discontinue the broadcast and simply sign off. The engineer left, the equipment went with him. Fred And I did NOT make that decision……we are not in a position to make that decision.

Fred Manfra and I would much rather have preferred to stay and finish the broadcast after the rain delay. That’s why we were there…to keep you informed and entertained. We consider ourselves to be professionals and would never abandon a broadcast as some would seem to perceive.

The decision to end the broadcast was made by the decision making level at our flagship station. It didn’t come from us…..and certainly not from the Orioles. Thanks for listening……..There’s a lot to look forward to with Orioles baseball. Fred and I are grateful and privileged to be your Orioles baseball companions. See you on the radio!

OK, so Angel and Manfra didn’t just take off… the folks with the radio equipment figured there was a better way to spend an afternoon than give Baltimore their baseball team.

Looking to go back in time

Reggie BarIf it were possible to go back in time and retroactively edit my favorite childhood baseball player, I would.

But alas, time travel is meant just for Michael J. Fox.

As a kid in the 1970s and ‘80s I was a victim of geography. With no Internet or the proliferation of cable TV, I was stuck in my tiny little realm. That meant when we lived in Washington, D.C. we closely followed the Orioles and even attended a handful of games at Memorial Stadium every season.

But when we moved to Lancaster, Pa., though technically closer to the city limits of Baltimore, we followed the Phillies. Though Lancaster with Harrisburg and York comprises the 41st largest media market in the country, it falls under the umbrella of Philadelphia sports fandom. In fact, it’s not uncommon for traveling Lancastrians to tell strangers that their hometown is “near Philly” despite the fact that Philadelphians believe Lancaster to be in the middle of nowhere, or worse, the other side of the earth.

Having lived in both places, the Philadelphians aren’t wrong about Lancaster… but then again, they’re stuck in Philadelphia.

Just to mix it up a bit, the Red Sox were another team we kept up with, but that was just because they were a team that was a bit exotica. The Red Sox always had good players, always were almost good (but not quite good enough) and always seemed to have a bit of soap opera quality. And since they were on the nationally broadcasted game-of-the-week often and played in that goofy little ballpark, it was difficult to ignore them.

As a result of all of this, Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Steve Carlton, Pete Rose, Eddie Murray, Jim Rice, Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens qualified, at one point or another, as favorite players. Those players had the swings that I copied though my pitching motion was strictly a direct rip-off of Luis Tiant.

Trust me on this one – this skinny kid from The Lanc with a funky pitching motion was never afraid to stick it in a hitter’s ear. Hey, I own the inside part of the plate!

By the way: is there a reason why El Tiante is not in the Hall of Fame?

Anyway, of the group of ballplayers listed above I have had the chance to meet and spend moments in the company of all of them except for Boggs, which is why I want to change who my main guy was.

If I could do it all over again I’d go with Reggie.

REG-GIE! REG-GIE! REG-GIE!

Look, I know all about Reggie Jackson, the Cheltenham High grad and Wyncote native (like Ezra Pound and Benjamin Netanyahu) who came to prominence with the Oakland A’s, but turned into a superstar with the New York Yankees. I know how he had an ego as big as all of those home runs and strikeouts piled on top of each other. I also know that he was a bit of a diva who probably didn’t blend well with all of his teammates and/or the press.

Sometimes it seemed as if Reggie could drive everyone crazy. And I mean everyone… especially Billy Martin.

Nevertheless, Reggie got it. He knew it was a show and he had panache. People went to the park to see him homer or whiff and he rarely ever disappointed anyone. Better yet, he went deep and struck out with equal amounts of flair in which he took a huge, powerful cut that came from so deep within that it dropped him down to one knee.

But if he got a hold of one… look out! Not only did it sail far into the seats, but Reggie would stand at home plate and watch it along with everyone else before beginning his static yet stylish trot around the bases.

For some reason, though, the Reggie posturing fell out of favor. Oh no, I doubt the fans disprove, nor does it seem as if certain home run hitters like Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey are opposed to such subtle histrionics. However, when Ryan Howard gave a long home run the Reggie treatment in St. Louis last week, he took one on the right hip the next trip to the plate.

Reggie in furHey, if I were putting together an all-time greats team that spanned my lifetime Reggie probably wouldn’t make the cut (maybe we’d find him a spot as a late-inning pinch hitter), and clearly he was a flawed player. But the best part about Reggie is how he interacted with his audience and the messengers. Reggie was never shy about talking to the press and actually saying something interesting. He also liked to prod writers and challenge them the way a coach would a player. For instance, my old pal Howie Bryant was covering the Yankees for the Bergen County Record, Reggie used to give him a hard time about the location of his employer.

As Howie wrote in his book, Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball, Reggie used some Jedi-like, passive-aggressive tactics that led to him writing the book.

H.B. wrote on page 403 of the hardcover edition:

Reggie is never easy. He can employ numerous tactics designed to prove one thing: that he’s somebody and you’re not. During my first months covering the Yankees for The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey, he could be funny or condescending. A favorite Jackson ploy was to read my credential, notice I worked for a Jersey paper, and comment, “Hey, how come you don’t work for one of the New York papers?”

Reggie never had a problem with anything written about him as long as it was honest, good and not a cliché. Provocation and ideas were what interested Reggie, anything else was silly.

That’s why Reggie is my favorite and why I’m looking for that time machine.

***

Speaking of silly, it looks like former Phillies’ GM Lee Thomas finally completed a long-forgotten trade with the Dodgers.

(Late) Morning appreciation

CusackThere is a line in the movie High Fidelity (it’s probably in the book, too) where John Cusack’s character, Rob, defends the highly refined tastes of he and his pals Barry (Jack Black) and Dick (Todd Louiso) by declaring that they are “professional appreciators.”

Isn’t that a nice sentiment? An appreciator… that’s like a fan only better. An appreciator accepts the effort and understands nuance. They search for the sublime and revel in it whether it’s a tiny strummed chord of a guitar, an understated sense of style or an unspoken acknowledgment.

It’s kind of like that scene in Pulp Fiction where Winston Wolf turns and gives Jimmy a quick nod after the first sip of coffee that was crassly called the “gourmet [bleep]” by Jules.

I’ve always believed that the success of something like “American Idol” was because Americans, generally, are not appreciators. Instead, we enjoy watching the failure of others. We enjoy feeling like we are better than others and laugh at people when they put themselves out for public consumption and fail.

That combined with spiraling, out-of-control credit card debt, low-brow culture and all-you-can-eat buffets are what Americans do better than almost anyone else.

I’d say Americans do sports and sports fandom better than any nation in the world, too, but that would just be crass jingoism. The fact is that most of the world has caught up with us in athletics, but then again I usually just base this notion on how well the U.S. team performs in Olympic basketball. Charles Barkley said prior to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona that the U.S. can play basketball and drop bombs better than any country in the world. Sadly, I don’t Sir Chuck’s boast holds up any more.

But it appears as if Charles is singlehandedly proving the buffet theory.

Nevertheless, the rest of the world has seen our version of football and baseball and, frankly, they aren’t very impressed. American Football, as it’s called everywhere else, appears to be the one sport that captures no imagination whatsoever. They all have their own football and all the ancillary stuff that go along with it, thank you very much. In fact, a good old soccer hooligan makes the standard 700-level Eagles’ fan look like a choirgirl.

Certain soccer fans actually are detained at the border when attempting to enter most foreign countries. The fear is that if soccer fans go to, say, Belgium, an international incident could occur, leaders will stop talking to one another and the Euro will drop lower than the dollar.

All that for what? Soccer?

Meanwhile, certain Eagles fans are sometimes prevented from purchasing more than two $8 beers at a concession stand at the Linc. As a result, Joe Banner won’t be able to make the numbers work on the spreadsheet and the team won’t be able to afford that much-needed wide receiver.

So drink up, folks, but do it with a certain decorum. That means when you are sitting at the tax-payer funded football stadium, compress your opera hat and put away the monocle before attempting to dry heave on the patron in front of you.

After all, we are a society and the team needs that special receiver with the ability to dig out passes thrown to the shoe tops.

But you know what else we can do better than anyone else? We can wax on about baseball. Yes, it’s true. It’s also true that there are companies that exist solely to produce that saccharine sweet baseball-as-a-metaphor-for-life bullbleep. You know, that NPR/Field of Dreams tripe about ghosts walking out of the corn or holding your dad’s hand as you walk into Fenway or something like that. Man, it just makes me want to throw up.

implosionWhy, you ask (or even if you didn’t I’m going to write it anyway)? Perhaps it’s because the reality of life has made a bigger impression than the fairy tale. For instance, my first exposure to baseball came at Veterans Stadium and Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. At the Vet the design was so bad that nearly every seat in the house sucked. I can remember walking in there for the first time in 1976 and thinking that we’d be better off watching the game at home on TV – at least then I’d be able to see what the players looked like. At least then I wouldn’t have some jackass spill beer down my back as I nursed a nose bleed brought on from the altitude of the crappy seats.

Or in Baltimore, a neighborhood stadium with sardine-styled parking, National Bohemian beer ads everywhere, and drunk cab driver on the dugout leading the cheers for the weeded crowd that needed to yank out the ganja one last time so that the he would be numb for when the police billy clubs rained down on him after being tackled for running out on the field.

You’re crazy if you think going to places like that doesn’t have an affect on a kid prone to over-thinking everything.

Even now it seems as if baseball is personified by odd behavior. Like Billy Wagner exposing himself after being asked about throwing a slider or Brett Myers just being Brett Myers.

The truth is I prefer the reality to the produced fairy tales. I appreciate it. Just like the put on part – you know, the crap about how time starts on Opening Day – the truth is so different from real life. Accepted behavior and norms are pulverized with a fungo and no one goes to jail for it.

Who doesn’t appreciate that?

So let’s wax on…

A few years ago the Vet was closed and mercifully blown up. Personally, I think the park got off easy. I would have preferred torture instead of implosion, but it all worked out in the end. Nevertheless, Yankee Stadium is closing at the end of this season and already the odes are hitting the ether. Here, Tyler Kepner of The New York Times gets into the off-limits areas of The Stadium.

Ron Guidry played the drums before taking the mound? Cool.

Meanwhile, The Times has a whole page for Stadium stories.

Also in New York, former Phillie (and all-around solid dude) Nelson Figueroa’s Quixotic or Coste-ian (yes) journey across the globe to find work as a baseball could end with a gig in the Mets’ bullpen. If Figgy doesn’t start the season at Shea, it could be New Orleans, which, obviously, is better than Taiwan.

Finally, CBS college hoops announcer Billy Packer doesn’t care much for… well, anything. Especially sports.
***
Top 5 songs mentioned or heard in High Fidelity
Suspect Device – Stiff Little Fingers
Janie JonesThe Clash
Let’s Get It On – Barry Jive & The Uptown Five
Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam – The Vaselines
Walking on Sunshine – Katrina & The Waves

Number 162

Ryan HowardTo me, there has always been way too much aggrandizing about Opening Day in baseball. Opening is just the first of 162 and rarely has any true impact on the season. Better yet, unless it’s totally extraordinary, Opening Day is never memorable. There is no significant action.

But the last game of the season – that’s when the memories are made. Game 162 is the time for heroes and for the real pros to step into the spotlight. Even when teams are just playing out the string, the last game of the year is like running that final 385 yards of the marathon.

Anyway can do the first 26 miles, but it’s that last stretch where legacies are defined.

As a kid I also romanticized about the last game of the year and suffered the wide-eyed, Field of Dreams-types during Opening Day. I was more interested in the guts of the action and not the first few easy strides of the race, which meant I spent all summer figuring out what it was going to take for a team to make the last day the most important one.

Sometimes I got lucky, too. I can recall being at the Vet for Game 162 in 1991 when David Cone of the Mets struck out 19 against a Phillies club that featured Doug Lindsey and Braulio Castillo. In fact, Cone had a shot to tie the all-time record for strikeouts in a game after he whiffed the first two hitters to start the ninth inning. But Wes Chamberlain doubled and Dale Murphy – a player who lead the National League in strikeouts three times and ranks 13th on the all-time whiffs list – grounded out to end the season.

The Vet seemed empty that day with most of the crowd holding Walkmen to listen to the Eagles’ early-season loss at Tampa Bay with Brad Goebel at quarterback, but when Cone had a chance to tie the record it was the loudest the fans were all day.

I also was at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on the final day of the 1982 regular season where the Orioles nearly pulled off a stunning comeback to win the AL East. Trailing the Milwaukee Brewers by three games heading into the final, four-game series, the Orioles won the opener with Dennis and Tippy Martinez on the mound, and swept a Saturday doubleheader by a combined score of 18-4 to make the last game of the year a do-or-die situation.

Any good Milwaukeean can tell you what happened in that Sunday finale.

BrewersBen Oglivie made a sliding catch on the gravel warning track in left, Robin Yount pounded two homers off Jim Palmer by the third inning, and Don Sutton mesmerized the Orioles for eight innings in Earl Weaver’s last game as the Brewers went on from there to an improbable playoff run.

And I was there.

I’ll be there on Sunday when the Phillies attempt to pull off what the Orioles could not in 1982. Trailing the juggernaut New York Mets by seven games just two weeks ago, the Phillies go into Game 162 all tied and with a chance to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 1993. There is no doubt that the day will be filled with craziness of the type that we will discuss for years to come.

This time, though, I won’t be sitting near folks more interested in listening to out-of-town football scores or packed in tight in the left-field bleachers at long since torn down baseball parks. This time I’ll get to see the protective plastic sheeting that had been secured into place late last night when the Phillies took over first place (for less than 24 hours) lowered to stop champagne spray. Or maybe I’ll see ballplayers cry over the missed opportunities of a season stopped too short.

But then again, maybe I’ll see a team prepare for Game 163 on Monday to settle the season in winner-take-all fashion.

Either way, this is a lot more exciting than any Opening Day could ever be.