Ibanez hurt? Who knew… aside from everyone

raulOne of my favorite things about writing about sports is knowing something but still not being able to write about it. Call that a quirk or just an example of an off-kilter sense of humor because there are a lot of guys who get all bent about things like that.

Take the case of Raul Ibanez, for instance. A whole bunch of us knew that he was hurt/injured and that he was playing even though he was in obvious pain.

Just watch the guy run, for goshsakes. His form is all over the place like he’s compensating for the pounding one takes with each painful footfall. Swinging a bat couldn’t be easy, either. Just look at the difference between those first and second-half numbers for that proof.

Or better yet, when Raul first arrived in town he was always a fixture in the clubhouse before and after games, but during the second half of the season those clubhouse sightings were rare. It was deduced that he was getting treatment or going through a series of stretches, twists, shots or potions in order to get out on the field.

We didn’t know any of this because no one was saying anything. Even when Raul or Charlie Manuel were asked—point blank—if the left fielder was hurt, injured or needed surgery, the answer was always elusive and ambiguous. The best answer was always something about not being on the list of players getting treatment from athletic trainer Scott Sheridan.

The truth was Ibanez was beyond such mundane things as basic treatment.

So when the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated arrived in mailboxes, it was all there for all to read—Ibanez was hurt just like we knew, only more dramatically so.

According to the story, rather than have surgery and potentially miss a large portion of the season he toughed it out as we all saw.

He batted .312 with 22 home runs in his first 2½ months, a welcome splash of cold water for a team still groggy from a World Series hangover. But by the third week in June, Ibañez was suffering from a sore left groin and, unbeknownst to the public, a small but serious muscle tear near his abdomen. On a trip to Toronto he was confronted with an excruciating decision: He could have surgery to repair the tear and miss a large chunk of time, or he could return after a short stint on the disabled list and play his dream season hurt. “We all asked him if he would have the surgery,” Phillies first base coach Davey Lopes says, “and he told everyone, ‘I won’t do that. I’ll do anything but that.'”

After consulting with a neuromuscular specialist in Toronto and a surgeon in Philadelphia, Ibañez chose the DL, followed by aggressive rehabilitation. Every day he drops onto a mat in the Phillies’ clubhouse, performs core and hip exercises with trainer Scott Sheridan and then heads for the field. Lopes believes that Ibañez’s swing, speed and statistics have suffered because of the injury—he batted just .232 with 12 homers in 72 games after coming off the DL—but his clubhouse cred clearly spiked. “A lot of guys in his position would have said, ‘Oh, my God, I’ll just have the surgery,'” says Phillies utilityman Greg Dobbs, who played with Ibañez in Seattle. “But he’s the type who says, ‘You tell me I can’t, then I will.’”

So there are a couple ways to look at this, such as we can laud Ibanez for his toughness and his pain management. These are admirable traits for athletes—especially Philadelphia athletes—as long as the team doesn’t suffer because of it. Though Ibanez hasn’t been himself during the second half of the season, he hasn’t been a drain on the team.

Give the guy credit for going out there as often as possible. Charlie Manuel is the type of manager who rides his regulars and Ibanez got no special treatment despite the injury. He said he was OK, so he played… no complaints.

jackSurely there are second half VORP numbers out there to confirm or deny this claim.

Conversely, it kind of stinks that Ibanez and the Phillies held back a story that the local guys had already sniffed out only to confirm it for Sports Illustrated. In the meantime all some of us could do was drop some not-so subtle hints and force readers to do some between-the-lines reading about the assumed injury. There are other examples aside from this one, but this is what stands out for the moment.

So yeah, we knew something was up. We knew there was something more than what was being trotted out there. But apparently it pays to be a part of the national media as opposed to li’l ol’ Philadelphia.

You want the truth? Can you handle it?

Baseball Heaven

pujolsST. LOUIS – Remember back when those quotes attributed to Scott Rolen surfaced? You remember, it was shortly after the third baseman was traded to the Cardinals from Philadelphia. It was something about his new team being located in “Baseball Heaven.”

You know, “I feel like I’ve died and gone to baseball heaven.”

Of course you remember. It just added a little more to that annoying self-image problem they have in Philadelphia.

Well, guess what? Maybe you want to come in a little closer so I can whisper this to you. Certainly I don’t want to get anyone worked up into a lather or hurt anyone’s delicate little psyche. But here it goes:

Rolen was right.

There, I said it.

St. Louis is baseball heaven. Take the way they feel about football in Texas, hockey in Canada and sprinkle in some surfing in Hawaii and then, maybe, you will understand how they feel about baseball and their Cardinals in St. Louis.

They’re nuts.

Oh, and it’s not just the kids, the 18-to-35 age demographic, or the grandfathers who saw Dizzy Dean and the Gas House Gang whip the Yankees at Sportsmen’s Park in the ’26 World Series, either. Nope. It’s everyone. They all dress in Cardinals red, they all cheer loudly for their hometown players and clap politely in appreciation for good play by an opponent.

Do they boo? Um, does the Pope date?

Actually, that’s not completely true. When Ted Lilly of the Cubs was introduced before Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, the fans sounded like Philadelphians when Rolen and J.D. Drew showed up on D-Battery night at The Vet. But before it was assumed an unruly St. Louis fan was going to reach for their flare gun and fire off a shot across the diamond, the booing stopped. Sure, it was loud, but it was good natured.

Darnit, it was friendly.

But c’mon… there is nothing more odious and ridiculous that comparing the fans of St. Louis to the fans of Philadelphia. It’s just a dumb exercise. Different folks, different strokes.

stan-musialHowever, the friendliest people on earth just might live in St. Louis. Make that obscene friendly. It’s like cartoonish friendliness, the kind that makes Will Rogers look like surly ol’ Dick Cheney. So mix that with the Budweiser Beer that flows deeper than the mighty Mississippi just spitting distance away from the ballpark and the surprisingly majestic Gateway Arch, and it’s no wonder everyone is so tickled and happy.

And it’s no wonder they love those Cardinals.

I saw the strangest thing yesterday while walking from the hotel (which just so happened to be located on the spot where President Harry S Truman was photographed in one of history’s greatest moments of taunting when he held up the Chicago newspaper that read, “Dewey Defeats Truman) to the ballpark for an evening of All-Star baseball, rooftop sniper sightings and Pedro-mania! What I saw was an old lady, with an uncanny resemblance to Estelle Getty, strolling around town with a Willie McGee t-shirt.

Seriously, Willie McGee! I mean, who didn’t love Willie McGee – he was a terrific ballplayer. But who would ever put Willie McGee’s visage on a t-shirt and then sell it to people. It was the weirdest thing ever.

Maybe not as weird as the veritable throng of people that lined the downtown streets like it was V-E Day and tossed back some Budweiser and some Mardi Gras beads as the All-Stars paraded from their digs at the Hyatt to Busch Stadium. The players weren’t doing anything other than riding in a car. Some waved. Others scowled. Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ catcher, tossed baseball cards to the throng. Reports are his throws repeatedly fell short.

Oh, and get this: during the All-Star Game I crossed paths with the great Stan Musial. They called Stan, “The Man,” and for good reason. One look at his career statistics and it’s tough not to wonder why he was given the nickname of a mere mortal. Man? No, that guy could hit like 20 Men, but “Stan The Men,” doesn’t have the same ring.

Nevertheless, approaching his 90th birthday, Stan gets around in a wheelchair these days. He also doesn’t carry around a harmonica and inexplicably break into song the way he used to on those corny baseball reels. He also is depicted in his classic batting stance in 15-feet of bronze statue in front of the entrance of the new Busch Stadium located on a stretch of road named, Stan Musial Drive.

So yes, Stan Musial is kind of a big deal in these parts. People lose their minds when they see him up close even though he retired as a player at age 42 in 1963.

But get this, Stan gave me his autograph last night. It was a pre-emptive autographing. He just rolled over and handed me a postcard with his picture and signature on it. I didn’t ask – hadn’t even occurred to me that one should ask Stan Musial for his autograph – and I’m not sure it’s even something I need. However, Stan just assumed that people want his autograph so he travels with a pile of signed cards and hands them out like gum drops.

Unsolicited autographing? Really? Cool.

Maybe that just goes to show how crazy they are for baseball in St. Louis. After all, Stan Musial rolls with piles of autographs to drop onto the populace like confetti. In fact, he’s how goofy St. Louis is for baseball – old ladies who look like Estelle Getty wear Willie McGee shirts and young kids with iPhones in front of a PlayStation game at the massive baseball mall the constructed on the downtown streets, wear replica shirts with Musial’s No. 6 on the back.

St. Louis, thy name is Baseballtopia.

estelleBut for every Willie McGee and Stan Musial shirt worn, there are 9,173 people wearing something celebrating Albert Pujols. Stan is The Man, Albert is The King or, El Hombre. The truth is Albert Pujols is so popular and beloved in St. Louis that he could strangle a man to death in cold blood in front of thousands of people beneath the Gateway Arch and the town would be cool with it.

They would probably say the guy had it coming and hope that by strangling a guy Pujols didn’t mess up his swing in any way.

Yep, they love baseball in St. Louis. When describing Philadelphia fans as “frontrunners” last year on the now-defunct “Best Damn Sports Show,” Jimmy Rollins cited St. Louis and the love the citizens have for the Cardinals as an example of how ballplayers like the fans to behave.

Guess what? Rollins isn’t the only one with that sentiment. It is Baseball Heaven, after all.

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.

Your town is pretty cool, too

ANGRYVILLE – They handle defeat very well in Los Angeles. They don’t mope, freak out, or litter the field with D-sized batteries or the ubiquitous beach balls that bounce around through the seating areas during the action. They really don’t even complain, to be perfectly frank.

They just go home. They leave early and fight traffic. They put the crippling defeats out of their minds by skipping work to play in the sun. They just forget about it as they frolic in the grass with cool drinks and lots of pretty friends.

Loss? Nah, they don’t deal with it at all in Los Angeles. Who has the time?

In Philadelphia we know loss all too well. It’s in our DNA. It’s intense… no wait, that’s wrong. It’s intensity.

Each morning we all wake up before the dawn just as the rage has regrouped so we can wipe the bitter-tasting bile that has encrusted the corners of our mouths with the outer black sleeve of our spittle-coated MotorHead t-shirts. Then we drag our sorry asses off the couch where we collapsed just 45 minutes earlier and instinctively thrust a middle finger at the rest of the world.

The day begins in Philadelphia. The fury must be unleashed. We lose again.

But there is always a fleeting moment – one that usually occurs in the time it takes to get from one knee to a standing position after unfolding oneself from the couch – when stock is taken. A moment, as fast as a flap of a hummingbird’s wing, enters our twisted and angry heads:

World weary. Saddened by my years on the road. Seen a lot. Done a lot. Loss? Yeah, I know loss. I know loss with its friends sorrow, fury and death. Yes, loss and me are like this… we’re partners as we walk on the dusty trail of life.

But something happened in Los Angeles. Beneath that tiney, porcupine-like exterior, glimpses into our souls were exposed. There was warmth, fear, insecurity…

Victory?

Yes, victory. The Phillies are going to the World Series. They will play these games in the prime of the night beginning on Wednesday in a city like Tampa or Boston – places that it’s easy to look down at our sad, wretched lives of angry and failed dreams. In Boston and/or Tampa, with their white, sandy beaches, gourmet restaurants, unimpeded gentrification, high-brow universities and sunshiny skies not all that different than in Los Angeles where for 364 days God gives them the gift of perfect weather and climate. That 365th day it might get cloudy.

So when we show up to these cities en masse to watch the local nine fight for our civic pride, they see us coming. We stick out with that crippled walk of defeat, clenched jaws of stress and disgust, fists balled up and middle fingers erect. When we take the exit ramp off the boulevard of broken dreams to enter these happy, little towns, the local authorities are ready. They’ve been tipped off ahead of time and are prepared to set up a dragnet at a moment’s notice.

But what hurts worse isn’t the condescending attitudes or the arrogance in which those people flit through life so carefree and cheery. That we can handle just fine with our jealousy and resentment, thank you very much. No, instead we’re put off by words and hackery. Our dander rises with mockery and stereotypes.

Hey, we know who we are and we accept what others might think and believe, too. We’re cool with it – it doesn’t define us, but sure, if folks want to take the easy way out who are we to blame them? But the insulting part is that they just don’t even try any more.

Boo Santa. Cheer injuries. Snowballs at the Cowboys. Batteries for J.D. Drew. Cheesesteaks. Cracked bells. Anger and passion. Rocky Balboa.

C’mon man, doesn’t anybody want to work anymore? Doesn’t anyone want to learn the truth? Isn’t anyone tired of the hypocrisy and the complacency?

Worse, with some folks from our town now coming to grips with the prospect of winning, they just might attempt to hack it up and fire back at the places that scorn us with their cheap, tired newspaper stories. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, the city rip is OK, just like that inanity of politicians betting cheesesteaks against lobsters based on the outcome of a game.

Can we stop this before it starts? Do we owe the citizens of the Tampa Bay area a rip job just because of the notion that the sports team that represents them might beat the one that represents us? Do we have to generate some faux anger with the folks of New England who follow a baseball team that plays in an outdated stadium with high-priced talent?

I have a better idea…

Let’s stop it before it starts. Let’s be better for a change. Let’s act like true winners now that it just might fit us for a change. Let’s not be like Tampa or Boston or Los Angeles.

Let’s just be a town with a winning baseball team trying to win the World Series.

“Winning is hard. Nothing about winning comes easy,” Charlie Manuel said. “… believe me, there’s a price you pay for winning, too.”

That price can sometimes mean dignity, self-respect and the ability to think clearly.

Just because we’re good for once doesn’t mean we get to hack it up, too. Let’s stay good.

***
While we’re talking the World Series, here are some facts and figures about the Phillies courtesy of CSN producer, Neal Slotkin:

Making sixth World Series appearance in franchise history – first since 1993

Phillies now 4-0 in NLCS closeout games

0-4 vs teams currently in AL East :
IF TB wins, Phillies will have played all 5 current teams from the AL East in a World Series:
1915 – lost to Red Sox 4-1
1950 – lost to Yankees 4-0
1983 – lost to Orioles 4-1
1993 – lost to Blue Jays 4-2

If TB wins: Phillies 5-10 all-time vs Tampa (2-4 at Tropicana Field)

World Series Experience: (5 players – 3 hitters, 2 pitchers)

So Taguchi: 3-15 (.200 BA, 1 RBI) – Only Phillie with a World Series hit
Eric Bruntlett: appeared in 2005 WS w/HOU, never batted
Pedro Feliz: 0-5 in 3 games with Giants in 2002

Brad Lidge: 0-2, 4.91 ERA in 3 games (3.2 IP) with HOU in 2005
Allowed 4 hits, 2 R, 3 ER, 1 HR, 6 K
Scott Eyre: 0-0, 0.00 ERA in 3 games for Giants in 2002
Allowed 5 hits, 1 R, 0 ER in 3 IP, 1 BB, 2 K

Other Player Notes
Cole Hamels: 6th Youngest starter to win LCS Clinching game
Becomes fourth Phillies player named NLCS MVP:
Cole Hamels – 2008
Curt Schilling – 1993
Gary Matthews – 1983
Manny Trillo
– 1980

3-0 this postseason, 3 playoff wins is 2nd in franchise history (Carlton 6)

Jimmy Rollins: 3 career leadoff homers in postseason, most all-time
Only player in MLB history with 2 leadoff home runs in same postseason
NLCS: .143 BA (3-21), 1 HR, 1 RBI, 8 K

Jayson Werth: 13 K – most among any player in 2008 playoffs (Rollins tied for 2nd with 4 other players with 10)

Shane Victorino: Leads all players with 13 postseason RBIs

Pregame: Your town stinks

The Phillies seem pretty loose during batting practice, especially Jimmy Rollins who joked around with his former manager Larry Bowa as the Dodgers were preparing to take the field. Actually, watching Rollins and Bowa hobnob was kind of like that scene in the first Rocky movie where Sly watches Apollo Creed goof around with Joe Frazier in the ring before the big fight.

Sly’s line was: “You think they know each other?”

Mickey just laughed.

Anyway, Bowa and Rollins DO know each other. Quite well, in fact. However, I suspect Rollins likes Bowa better now that he works for the Dodgers. That’s just a guess though. One thing I do know is that Bowa is as talkative as ever with me – I think I rub him the wrong way which is quite understandable. I mean think about it… a hardscrabble guy from Sacramento who had to fight and scrap for every little thing he ever achieved like Bowa and a goofy dude like me from Washington and Lancaster who makes wise cracks and writes sentences for a living.

Hell, now that I think about it, I don’t like me anymore.

Speaking of writers who need a little love, I just had the distinct pleasure of meeting TJ Simers of the LA Times. Simers, of course, is known for his deep love and affection for our fair city. That’s cool, I guess, if you’re into that whole your-city-sucks bit. After all, no one ever has trotted that stuff out before.

Nevertheless, my belief is that the your-favorite-town-stink jag is an older generation thing. At least it seems like it’s property of the folks older than me and beyond. The younger set seems to enjoy each and every city for what it is – a new place to check out and explore. Frankly, the more off the beaten path a place is the better. That’s part of the reason why I enjoyed Milwaukee so much… come on, it was Milwaukee.

When am I ever going to make it back to Milwaukee again?

So TJ Simers doesn’t like Philadelphia… whatever. Worse, the LA Times flew him all the way across the country to come here and write about how people from Philadelphia are angry. Gee, that’s money well spent.

Here’s the funny part, though – Simers wrote a column about the angry folks in Philadelphia and guess what? He got a pile of angry e-mails from people from Philadelphia.

Who saw that coming?

Anyway, introduction time here. My guess is Bowa gets big cheers…

But not bigger than Charlie Manuel.

Look who’s out of the house

I don’t get out much. That’s pretty obvious. I go outside to run, I buy groceries and I hang out with the kids in the yard or the Country Day playground across the field from my house. My friends have jobs and kids with early mornings looming. As a result, most of my conversations with people are electronic.

Then there is work, which usually takes place in a large stadium or arena with professional ballplayers and media types. Obviously, the nature of the conversation in this realm is limited as well. After the game is finished and the stories all finished it’s usually close to midnight or a little after and  I have to drive all the way back to Lancaster. That means my post-game social life is limited to time spent in the car with an iPod loaded with downloaded podcasts and loud music to keep me alert on the way home.

But that’s all fine. Besides, is there anything more pathetic than a guy pushing 40 just hanging out?

No. No there is not. It’s just plain creepy.

Anyway, because I don’t get out much and because my wife and I are always looking for different forms of entertainment, excitement and travel opportunities, she went all out and surprised me with tickets to see Pearl Jam in Washington, D.C. last Sunday. Actually, it was a Father’s Day gift for me, which is totally unnecessary. As long as I get a drawing from the kids or a bottle of Brut or Old Spice, I’m as happy as can be. I don’t wear anything like that – in fact, I don’t even brush my rapidly thinning hair [1]– but if my kids got me some I’d splash it on like it was pay day.

Hell, if they got me a wacky tie that didn’t match anything I have in my closet I’d wear that, too. If they took the effort to get me something, by golly I’m wearing that thing out in public… all the time.

But instead of Old Spice or a gaudy tie, we left the kids with my mom and went to The District so she could stare at Eddie Vedder for three hours (more on that in a bit). Sure, we could have gone to one of the two shows in Camden just before the band hit Washington, and perhaps I should have picked up on her hints when she asked me about going to Philadelphia vs. Washington. Instead, I lauded the drive from The Lanc to The District and ripped away on the town where I work.

“There is no comparison between the cities,” I told her and quickly tamped down any type of social activity that involved me going to Philadelphia for something other than work.

Clearly we made the correct choice. In comparing notes with a friend who attended the shows in Camden, the D.C. crowd was treated to a better show and the folks who skew toward the older end of the demographic didn’t have to tolerate ridiculousness from fellow concert-goers.

I’m sure there is another rip job on Philadelphia fans between those lines there. Let’s just leave it with what my friend told me:

“Everyone was either 18 and looking to buy drugs or trying destroy anything they could get their hands on,” he said, noting that Washington and Philadelphia “Were totally different.”

Having lived in both places I agreed, noting that the D.C. natives I knew well all were similar in that they were all intensely into what they liked. They focused on it passionately, yet always knew where to draw the line. With Philadelphians, the line doesn’t exist.

Needless to say, both approaches have their plusses and minuses.

Just like sweeping generalizing about residents of specific geographical areas.

When presented with a choice between seeing a rock show in Washington or Philadelphia, it’s a pretty easy decision. Barring that, if both cities were equal in terms of things to do and cultural selections, Philadelphia would lose simply because one has to drive on the Schuylkill Expressway to get there.

Yes, ultimately it comes down to the pavement.

So we went to Washington to see Pearl Jam, though, truth be told, I was more interested in the opening act, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. In fact, had any other outfit opened the gig for Pearl Jam, I doubt we would have even considered going and I’m sure there might have been like five or six other folks in the big Verizon Center, right there in the heart of downtown, with the same sentiment.

Regular readers of this little dog & pony show already know that we are big fans of the Pharmacists led by Ted Leo. In past missives I believe I wrote that I follow Ted Leo’s rock-n-roll outfit the way some folks follow baseball. If he plays within driving distance of my house and I can get away, I go. If not, I’ll check out the set list on the web and maybe even find an audio copy of what I missed because I was hanging out with the kids or watching a baseball game or something like that.

Generally, though, the venues Ted Leo typically performs in are nothing like the Verizon Center. When he played in Lancaster in November of 2006, Leo played at the Chameleon Club, which is a medium-sized rock house a lot like the 930 in D.C. or the Trocadero in Philly only… well, nicer. It’s in those types of places – or the steady amount of live radio interviews and sets – where Leo built his following and continues to pack them in with (strapping on the newspaper writer hat to drop the clichés) an energetic assault of melodic punk rock with a solid ‘70s feel, harkening back to the early Clash.

That’s what they always write, and it’s true. But there’s something missing there that doesn’t quite grasp the appeal of Ted Leo. Sure, he and the Pharmacists are energetic and have a tight, melodic sound – but there’s more. Maybe it’s something about the ethic of the guy and the fact that at 37-years old, there definitely were easier routes to take rather than fighting for everything in the indie scene? Maybe there is some hopefulness in just seeing someone like Leo – a Jersey native educated at Notre Dame with stints in D.C., Boston and NYC – sticking to the notion that the work and the aesthetic is the most important thing? Maybe with Leo there’s something there that people can touch – it’s real?

Then again, what do I know? Michael Bolton has sold 53 million albums[2].

Nevertheless, the idea of Ted Leo in the Verizon Center warming up the crowd for Pearl Jam was an intriguing concept. How would that D.I.Y. vibe and stripped down sound and stage work in a basketball arena? Would 20,000 people be in their seats waiting for him to go on? What would it look and sound like from the nosebleed section?

Truth be told, seeing Ted Leo & the Pharmacists in a quarter-filled arena looking like a Gibson-playing dervish dressed in white was… interesting. Yes, it seemed as if he was bringing the energy from the clubs into the big building, but with so few people in the seats there wasn’t enough to absorb the sound. As a result, the sharp-edged melodies bounced all over the place just like something Gilbert Arenas tosses around in the joint.

Still, in the 45 minutes he played, Ted and the Pharmacists ripped through 12 songs, half of which were brand new. Leo told the crowd that since he was a DCite of sorts and the people who were hyped on him likely knew his body of work, he trotted out the new stuff, which should appear on an album this fall.

I wish I could report on the details of the new material, but it took a lot of concentration to keep up with the sound before it was swallowed up by the vastness of the arena. However, compared with the last record, the spring ’07 Living with the Living, the new stuff sounded angrier.

That’s good. What also was good was my wife leading my four-year-old son in a sing along of the chorus of “Rappaport’s Testament,” the tune Ted sang to close his act.

I never gave up, I never gave up
I crawled in the mud but I never gave up

Afterwards, Ted and the gang helped the crew pack up the gear to clear the way for Pearl Jam.

***

OK, how does one write about Pearl Jam in a way that hasn’t been done before? Have they become so ubiquitous and so entrenched in the pantheon of agit-rock that all that’s left is for them to cruise into the ether much like their predecessors? Will they turn out to be like The Who, a group that lead singer Eddie Vedder claims “saved his life” and whose guitarist, Pete Townshend, Vedder says should receive a father’s day card from him every year? Twenty years from now are we going to see a Pearl Jam reunion tour like something out of the Rolling Stones’ playbook? You know how they do it – it’s always the last one ever until the next one.

I doubt it any of this will occur with Pearl Jam. You don’t stick round for a long time and produce meaningful work by getting old.

But whatever. The notion that someone should quit doing what they want just because they get old is arrogant and stupid. Who doesn’t want to do what they love forever? Hell, I hope I’m engaged in all of my passions when I’m old. Better yet, I hope I’m lucky enough to get old.

When Pearl Jam gets that old and takes their act out on the road, I suspect it won’t be any different than what we saw last Sunday in Washington. Stripped of all the bloated, rock-star excess, Pearl Jam played for nearly three hours. That includes short breaks between the pair of encores, though the extra sets lasted nearly as long as the initial, 18-song preliminaries. Actually, the 13-song encores went on so long that some of the workers in charge of cleaning up the Verizon Center had gathered near one corridor waiting for Eddie and the gang to call it a night.

Even when the house lights went on a little after 11 p.m., the band raged on for another 30 minutes.

But rather than beat the crowd into submission with a show longer than my last few marathons[3], Pearl Jam hosted a sing-a-long in which 20,000 folks screamed, chanted, pumped fists into the air and recited the lyrics back at the band. Unlike a lot of big-arena rock shows where some folks in the audience are intent on ingesting various organic and inorganic substances meant to alter some sense of reality, the Pearl Jam crowd in Washington was rapt by what was taking place on the spare stage decorated with just a mural of a pair of waves crashing toward each other in the background.

Some critics have written that the Pearl Jam crowd seems to be an updated version of a Grateful Dead audience in that many of the fans will travel from city to city to see the shows, they take a painstaking interest in the set lists and the scarcity of the performances of particular songs and they collect the “bootleg” versions of the shows the band offers for download on its web site.

But unlike Dead shows that I witnessed in three different cities in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was more of a sense of community in Washington last Sunday. Everyone (at least where I was) was focused on the music and the performance instead of “where their trip might take them.”

Besides, is there any band more overrated than the Grateful Dead? OK, how about The Doors?

However, similarly to Dead shows of a generation or two (or three) ago, the mainstream media (I guess that’s me, right?) likes to charge Pearl Jam shows as some sort of cultural statement or at least the antithesis of popular culture. That’s especially the case when it comes to Vedder, who in Washington railed against the White House, the war, off-shore drilling and voiced his support for a certain presidential candidate when he said, “It’s going to be great to get some color in the White House!”

But come on… how alternative can a group be when it has sold approximately 50 million records? How “anti-” can people be if they take one specific side in a two-party system? Better yet, why are people shocked when I guy with a microphone uses it to say something?

Hell, even some Pearl Jam fans don’t like hearing Vedder’s politics or opinions. That seems to be the general opinion about all celebrities too – a lot of people want their celebrities and rock stars to be just as vapid as there are.

And that’s a damn shame. Frankly, I wanted to see the Pearl Jam show in Washington more than any other city specifically because it would be more politically charged. I like hearing other people’s ideas – I know, it’s crazy. In fact, I don’t care if I agree with what’s being said at all, I just want to hear someone say something interesting. For instance, take baseball pitcher Curt Schilling – he and I probably agree on very few political issues. I’m sure I’d even ridicule some of the things he says to friends or in print (check the archives here, I’m sure I ripped him). But Curt Schilling isn’t boring. That counts for something.

Eddie Vedder isn’t boring either. Though he fronts a really tight band with guys who are stars in their own right, all eyes were on the singer. I know that because my wife was damn-near swooning from the second he took the stage. During a couple of stretched out jams, Vedder left the center of stage to wait in the wings where he drank from a bottle of wine, caught a quick smoke and chatted up some of the fans. Yet the entire time the band was wailing away, I heard, “Look at him… I wonder what he’s saying to them.”

It was the same thing in July of 2003 when Vedder showed up at Veterans Stadium before a Phillies game. Everyone swooned. Mike Lieberthal got an autograph, others tried to wiggle past the extremely large body guard to get close enough to say something to the singer. Hell, even I wanted to walk over to the guy and tell him that Fugazi is the greatest band of the past 30 years because I knew he’d agree.

And then we’d both be right.

Regardless, only one person – a player’s wife – penetrated the wall and chatted up Vedder and even she had the same look on her face that my wife had last week. Shoot, the guy was so short and wiry that I thought about picking him up and putting him in my pocket.

Yeah, that was creepy.

Anyway, Pearl Jam is far from perfect. There a few songs that are so odious that they have become very difficult to listen to. But presented in a nearly perfect rock show format even the bad ones are kind of good. For instance, the song “Black” is so heart-wrenching that I can’t stand to hear it. When 20,000 people sing along to one of the saddest songs outside of Elliott Smith, it’s tough.

The same goes “Last Kiss,” the remake of the early-‘60s number, which gave me a good chance to sneak out to the nearly deserted concourse to find the restroom. “Crazy Mary,” the sublime number from the Victoria Williams benefit soundtrack was a little overdone with the addition of keyboards.

However, “Yellow Ledbetter,” another one I always found a little… well, awful, was pretty good with the house lights up and guitarist Mike McCready finishing it off with a Hendrix-style “Star Spangled Banner.”

The highlight? Try Vedder singing “No More” from his solo record made for the film Into the Wild. Actually, it was just Vedder and an acoustic guitar singing a perfect, folk/protest song that he wrote as a tribute for a soldier injured in Iraq.

The song also made it onto the documentary Body of War.

Finally, the most in-the-know bit of stage banter came when Vedder introduced “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” with, “This one is for Mt. Pleasant…”

He didn’t have to come out and say Ian MacKaye, right?  I mean, Vedder is on record saying that MacKaye should be put up for sainthood – and he’s right – but everyone got that reference…

Right?

***
Afterwards, we rolled up to Adams Morgan to The Amsterdam Falafel Shop only to find it closed at 12:15 a.m.

Oh well, at least I got out for a change.


[1] I wash the hell out of it, though.

[2] Do you know anyone who owns a Michael Bolton album (or will admit it)? Fifty-three million! Who is buying 53 million Michael Bolton records?

[3] Was that me bragging? Yes, I believe it was.

Mr. Coste goes to Washington… has lunch

Chris CosteWASHINGTON – One of the neat things about this city is that sports really aren’t all that important. Oh sure, Washingtonians love their teams – especially the Redskins – but what drives the news and the talk here is the industry.

In D.C. it’s all about the government.

Sports seem to be nothing more than a pleasant diversion unlike in Philadelphia where it is everything. In Philadelphia the athletes just don’t play for the local teams, they represent us.

It’s definitely unique in that way.

D.C. is unique, too. Even though Nationals Park is barely a month old, the Nats rate 17th in the Majors in attendance and 13th in the National League. Usually it takes a year for teams with a new ballpark to see the business at the turnstiles wane, but it’s happening right away here in The District.

But the power structure is different here than it is in Philly. The jocks don’t have the Q-rating – the folks with the power do.

Nevertheless, I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why the attendance has been so low here. For one, the Nationals aren’t very good. At 20-27 they are in last place in the NL East. Plus, aside from Ryan Zimmerman, Dmitri Young and Nick Johnson, the fans don’t have too many players to rally behind.

Additionally, this is a presidential election year. That’s like the biggest thing they do in these parts, so people are focused on it all day long. Couple that with the fact that Congress (and school) is still in session and our representatives are busy trying to make laws and stuff and it’s easy to understand why the last-place Nats kind of fall between the cracks.

Yet before he went to work trying to override a presidential veto of his farm bill and dive into his work as the chairman of the senate budget committee, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) took the time to hang around with one of his constituents this afternoon.

Chris Coste, the Phillies catcher from Fargo, N.D., spent time with Conrad in his Hart Building office, talked some baseball, signed copies of his autobiography and then had lunch in the U.S. Capitol building. There, Coste and some of the hangers-on from the Phillies enjoyed the senate dining room’s famous bean soup and also chatted with Democratic Pennsylvania senator Robert P. Casey Jr.

According to reports, a good time was had by all. Plus, the Phillies’ group was quite impressed with Sen. Conrad’s baseball knowledge.

Meanwhile, Coste found himself in the lineup against Nats’ lefty Matt Chico tonight. Actually, Coste has been in the lineup more than “regular” catcher Carlos Ruiz lately. One reason for that could be that Coste hit .438 (7-for-16) during the last homestand.

However, the Phillies are 17-11 in games started by Ruiz this season.

Nothing doing

Donovan McNabbIt’s easy to tell when there is nothing going on in the Philadelphia sporting scene. For one, media types begin to look at the blogs. Usually it’s the other way around. Blogger types[1] need the professionals or else there wouldn’t be any substance. It’s the commentary or the parsing of the information that makes each so-called blogger unique.

Or something like that… we generalize because we have nothing else to go on.

What? Do you think I’m going to dial up Conlin to ask what he thinks about the subject? He’s too busy chasing the neighborhood kids off his lawn.

Anyway…

Yet when there is nothing going on and media types read those blogs, sometimes they react to something. Take Donovan McNabb, the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, for instance. As most folks who follow this sort of thing have come to learn, Donovan McNabb is a blogger, too. And like most bloggers Donovan McNabb reacts to the news being reported by the pros.

Hey, a guy needs to dig up material from somewhere.

Nevertheless, in reacting to news that the Eagles were 8-8 during the 2007, McNabb opined that his team just might need a few “weapons” in 2008. No big news there. After all, McNabb had pointed out as much after the Eagles beat the Buffalo Bills in the final game of the season on Dec. 30. That was nearly two weeks ago. But in a struggle to fill space on his Yardbarker.com page, McNabb reiterated the idea that the Eagles need “weapons.”

Let’s digress a bit and give the situation some perspective, because it really is a “situation.” In most cities if the quarterback of an 8-8 team expressed a desire to add some better players to the team it might be met with a yawn or a rolling of the eyes with the comment, “Tell us something we don’t know” attached to it. That’s because in most cities 8-8 isn’t very good. Actually, in a lot of cities the fans and media of the local football team would admit that most 10-6 teams have a little room for improvement. Hell, even the New England Patriots have areas where they can get better and they went 16-0. For one thing, the Patriots have to do a better job at not getting caught when spying on the opposition. That little misstep cost them a draft pick.

But in Philadelphia it isn’t that the folks don’t agree with the notion that the Eagles – an 8-8 team that was lucky to be 8-8 [2]– it’s just that there isn’t anything else going on. Sure, there are other sports teams in town, such as the punchless 76ers who are in the midst of a season-worst five-game losing streak. At their current rate, the Sixers could end up 31-51, which would put them right there with the Charlotte Bobcats.

There is also the Flyers in the NHL, who might be a team to make a little noise in the playoffs. The Flyers are a young team and prone to streaks as well as multiple-game suspensions for things like unsportsmanlike conduct. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s hockey and this is the United States. It’s not exactly a fringe sport (though the national television ratings indicate otherwise), but it’s not the glitzy and glamorous Hollywood sport either. It’s more like non-fiction book publishing.

Romo/SimpsonCollege basketball is in full swing, too, but in a sports/media saturated market place it’s hard to get excited about things like conference play until March. Mix that with folks settling back into routines following the holidays and the new year, as well as the fact that Philadelphia lacks the excitement outside of sports such as places like Washington (it’s a presidential election year), New York (it’s New York), Boston (the Patriots are streaking to the Super Bowl and the World Champion Red Sox report to spring training in five weeks) or Baltimore (The Wire kicked off its new season last week) and it’s easy to see why a sigh or a leer from the quarterback of the local football team gets scrutinized.

How would have people reacted if McNabb wrote that the team was on the right track?

Perhaps he’s trying to talk himself out of town?

How would his blogging have gone over if the Eagles finished the season 7-9?

Better yet, how would have folks reacted if he and the gang had gone on a trip to Mexico with Jessica Simpson?


[1] What? Do you think I’m excluding myself? Hey, I might be a jackass but I’m a self-aware jackass.[2] Not only were the Eagles lucky to be 8-8, but also they could have very easily won 10 games. The truth is that every other team in the NFC East was not very good.

Not lookin’ good

Larry FineI didn’t want to say anything at first, but now that another publication finally pointed it out I guess it’s OK for me to jump in, too.

Ready? OK, here it goes:

The people of Philadelphia are ugly. And by ugly I’m not speaking metaphorically, I’m talking pure aesthetics. Worse yet, I’m not talking about the infrastructure or the colonial era architecture – it’s all about the people.

Yes, according to the world-wise and high-brow folks at Travel + Leisure magazine, Philadelphia is home to the least attractive people in America. Actually, Philadelphia ranked dead last amongst the 25 American cities for attractiveness in a poll of travelers. It’s all printed in the latest issue. Check it out.

Philadelphia also rated next to last in the stylishness of the people in the city, 23rd in safety and action/adventure getaway, 22nd or 21st in a place for a girlfriend’s getaway, cleanliness, athletic/active people, and a place for a romantic escape.

The city also rated poorly in the worldliness of the people, a place to go to relax, access to the outdoors and the friendliness of the people.

Yeah, it was pretty rough.

Be that as it might be, the attractiveness of the people is the one that hurts the most. After all, I can think of examples of how out-of-towners can get to some outdoorsy places to do their athletic-type things (though it might take a ride on the overly congested and unfriendly Schuylkill to get there), and romance is more of a state of mind than anything else. Plus, truth be told, there are friendly and unfriendly people everywhere. Perhaps Philadelphians are simply being penalized because they seem to enjoy taking delight in the failure of others more than any other group of citizens on the east coast.

And we generalize because we can.

But the ugly thing… ouch.

Here’s why that hurts: because it just might be true. Don’t believe me? Go hang out at the airport where folks are waiting to board plans. There one will find the craziest-looking array of people outside of a big top. Worse, when waiting to board my flight to Denver last week I didn’t have to wait too long to see the bearded lady – there were already three of them sitting at Gate C17.

I wish I was exaggerating, but it’s true – when at the airport last week I called my wife to ask her if there was a news report about a prison break or something. Later, when I arrived in Denver and checked in with all of the other baseball writers, I asked if anyone else had noticed the trend regarding Philadelphian’s uneasiness on the eyes.

I wish I had better results to report.

Fat, mean and ugly is no way to go through life.

Perhaps enhancing the epidemic of Philadelphia’s curse was the fact that I was jetting off to Denver where the folks rated in the top 10 in attractiveness, friendliness, fun and intelligence. In the athletic/active category, Denver was No. 1 overall.

Yeah, it was a tough room.

Nevertheless, I’ll apologize if I (or my relatives) ruined the city’s ranking. Certainly, I’m not the beau of the ball and truth be told, when the famous rock group KISS finally took their makeup off to reveal themselves, I said, “Look, it’s my uncles!”

But then again, Grace Kelly was from Philadelphia. So too were the Barrymores, Kevin Bacon, Will Smith, Tina Fey, Richard Gere, Maria Bello, Kim Delaney, Hall (but not Oates) and Wilt Chamberlain.

Just because Broderick Crawford, Ben Franklin, Norman Fell, Chuck Barris, Oates (but not Hall), W.C. Fields and Larry Fine come from Philly doesn’t mean it should be held against the rest of us. We’re doing all we can with what little we have.

Regardless, it wasn’t all bad for our homely brethren. Though we won’t be mistaken for the hottest Hollywood star or starlets, we have plenty to occupy our minds.That’s because when it comes to culture Philadelphia was hard to beat in the Travel + Leisure poll. Though Philadelphians might be boorish and rude and more interested in watching sports than actually taking part in them, the city ranked in the top five in classical music, museums, restaurants, cheap eats and farmers’ markets. Better yet, Philadelphia was No. 2 overall behind Washington, D.C. in the historical sites category.

In other words, Philadelphia is good to look at as long as one doesn’t look at the natives.

To read how Philadelphia rated in the categories of the Travel + Leisure poll, click here.

To see how travelers rated all of the American cities, click here.

Philly ranked 9th

According to The Sporting News, Philadelphia is the ninth-best sports city in the magazine’s newest ratings. That’s down from No. 2 (behind Boston) last year. Chicago jumped up to the top spot in the rankings, followed by Miami… yeah, Miami. The city where they fill up the ballpark for Marlins games (insert sarcasm font).

Here’s The Sporting News’ full list of the 99 top sports towns.

Just for fun, I’m going to rate my top sports towns under the following criteria:

* Participating in sports is more important than spectating. If the city’s claim to fame is fighting at the parking lot tailgate party before the game or firing a flare gun across the field during Monday Night Football, chances are that town isn’t going to rate as high as the one with a 10K every weekend or a top-notch marathon or cycling race.

* The city has to be one that I have visited in the past decade. That eliminates most of the midwest right there.

Here we go:

1.) Denver-Boulder
This is the sports Mecca. There are at least 60 Olympics athletes currently living in Boulder County, which is less than 30 miles north of downtown Denver. For those who like playing sports, Boulder is the best city in the U.S., but for those who would rather watch others, University of Colorado, Colorado State and the Air Force Academy are very popular for the college fans, while the pros are represented in every major league sport, including the NHL.There’s also a fairly large PGA event, NASCAR races, and the weekend warrior bit happening constantly. That’s the way it is when there are 300 sunny days a year.

Of course, the entire state of Colorado shuts down when the Broncos play, but that’s nothing new.

2.) Washington, D.C.
Remember, this is my list. And yes, sports fans in D.C. are a rather apathetic lot since the real spectator sport in this industry town is politics. However, the Redskins are about as popular as sports franchise can get. I remember when I was a kid growing up in the area that the waiting list for Redskins season tickets was 154 years. People who wanted to watch an NFL game had to drive all the way to Baltimore.

They don’t have to do that to watch baseball anymore now that the Nationals have brought baseball back to the District. The attendance for Nats games isn’t the greatest, but the enthusiasm for the team is pretty high.

Fans in the District seem to get excited about their little niche as opposed to the NHL and NBA. Lacrosse is popular and so is the University of Maryland and Georgetown hoops. Bigger still are the D.C. United in the MSL. That one franchise could be keeping the entire league afloat.

More importantly, the D.C. area has some of the bst golf courses in the country and some of the best urban and cycling trails anywhere. Between Rock Creek Park and the C&O Canal path, runners and riders can take off for days without retracing their steps. For those who prefer to be in the heart of the city, the Mall is a great place to log those miles. The last time the Phillies travelled to D.C., I put in a 13-miler that took me around all of the monuments on the Mall, through Capitol Hill and past the congressional office buildings, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Capitol, before heading to RFK Stadium to loop back to the other side of the Mall.

Man, was that ever fun.

D.C. also has the Marine Corps Marathon, which, aside from the start and the transportation to the race, is one of the best organized races out there. Plus, the D.C. running scene is top notch, too. I remember watching Bill Rodgers win the Cherry Blossom 10-miler in the late 1970s (maybe ’79).

Enough of D.C.

3.) Boston
See Washington, but with more sports enthusiasm for its teams. Plus, the Charles River running path is a lot of fun, and the Boston Marathon is the greatest sporting event in the world.

No, I’m not exaggerating.

4.) Chicago
Actually, Chicago should probably be ranked higher, but I haven’t been there in a long time, unless the airport counts.

5.) Philadelphia
Yeah, why not. There are a lot of really good places to run/bike in Philadelphia. During the fall of ’97, my friend Tom and me put in some kick-ass, 10-mile tempo runs on the Falls Bridge loop that still rate as some of the best and most fun workouts I’ve ever done.

Best sporting event in Philly? The Penn Relays. There’s nothing like a sold-out stadium to watch some of the best athletes in the world.

There it is. Notice any west-coast cities? Me either.