Make a deal? Cole Hamels is no Rick Wise

rick_wiseA quick look at his career transactions shows that Rick Wise was involved in a couple of franchise-changing moves. In two of the instances, trading away Wise actually benefited the team that got rid of him.

That’s definitely not a knock on Wise or his career. The fact is he was pretty good with more highlight moments than most big leaguers. For instance, Wise was the winning pitcher in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, a game many regard as the greatest ever played. Wise came on in the top of the 12th, faced Hall-of-Famers Johnny Bench, and Tony Perez as well as 1977 NL MVP George Foster, and was the pitcher of record when Carlton Fisk hit his famous homer.

Wise was also an 18-year-old rookie in 1964 when he took the mound for the second game of a Sunday doubleheader at Shea Stadium in which the opening act was Jim Bunning’s perfect game.

Wise wasn’t nearly as good as Bunning though he allowed just three hits in an 8-2 victory for the first win of his big-league career. One of those wins includes the no-hitter he threw against the Reds at Riverfront Stadium in 1971. Not only did Wise come one walk away from a perfect game, but also he slugged a pair of homers in the game to drive in three of the four runs.

Despite a resume that includes two All-Star Game appearances, a modest showing on the MVP and Cy Young balloting in 1975, as well as 188 career wins—more than Jimmy Key, Fernando Valenzuela, Ron Guidry or Sandy Koufax—Wise was better for the teams that shipped him out.

Before the 1978 season, the Red Sox sent Wise to the Indians for Dennis Eckersley. Those were the days before Eckersley was a Hall-of-Fame closer, but for two years he was the ace for the Red Sox staff that should have been in the playoffs at least once. In ’78, Eckersley won 20 games for the Sox while Wise lost 19 for the 90-loss Indians.

That’s not the trade that became the legacy of Wise’s career, though. No, more than the no-hitter and the win in Game 6, Wise might be best known as the player the Phillies swapped to get Steve Carlton.

Some say it’s one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history, which is no knock against Wise. It’s just that Carlton was that good.

For the next 15 years Carlton won 241 games for the Phillies, guided them to a championship once, the playoffs six times, and became the first pitcher to win the Cy Young Award four times. Wise went on to win 113 games for St. Louis, Boston, Cleveland and San Diego over the next 11 years. The Cardinals got two years of 32-28 pitching with a decent 3.24 ERA. That’s not bad, but in his first year with the Phillies, Carlton nearly amassed Wise’s two-year totals with the Cards.

So why bring this up? What does Rick Wise and Steve Carlton have to do with anything these days, considering the Phillies just went to the World Series for the second year in a row?

Well, let’s just use it as a reference point for the idea of history repeating itself.

Chances are there won’t be as loud an outcry if the Phillies were to trade away Cole Hamels in a blockbuster as there was before the 1971 season when they dealt away Wise. After all, though he was coming off a 20-win season, Carlton was still a relative unknown in provincial Philadelphia. Wise, on the other hand, had that no-hitter to go with three straight seasons in which he pitched at least 220 innings, including 272 1/3 in ’71.

At age 25, Cole Hamels is certainly no Rick Wise.

Wise did all of that before the age of 25, too, which just so happens to be the same age as Hamels. Sure, Hamels has the NLCS and World Series MVPs, but hardly is the most durable pitcher out there. After turning in 227 innings during the regular season of ’08 and 35 more in five playoffs starts (totals lower than Cliff Lee in ’09), Hamels struggled through the 2009 season.

He showed up for spring training not as prepared as in years past, but at least he ahd been on TV with Ellen, Letterman and the deer-in-the-headlights, “Who are yoooo?” commercial, a performance so wooden that only Howdy Doody would have been proud.

But the Phillies believe in Hamels. At least that’s what they say publicly. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. believes the real Hamels is closer to the one who went 4-0 in the 2008 playoffs than the one who went a combined 11-13 with a 4.61 ERA through the entire 2009 season.

“He’s a top-of-the-rotation starter who had a tough year,” Amaro said. “He had to deal with some adversity for a change. It’s the first time where he’s ever had to deal with some struggles. We fully expect him to come back and be the pitcher he’s always been.”

Why?

cole_hamels“I have to go on the assessment on what we see on him from a scouting point-of-view,” Amaro said. “It would be hard to find a better left-hander in the league.”

Actually, the Phillies already have a better lefty on their staff in Cliff Lee. In fact, it would be hard to find a better left-hander in all of baseball. Teamed with rookie-of-the-year candidate J.A. Happ, the Philllies have a formidable lefty tandem even before Hamels enters the equation.

So why not trade away Hamels—a real bargaining chip—for a better right-handed pitcher. Heck, trade him to Toronto for the best right-hander.

Though they failed miserably in their attempts to deal away Roy Halladay before the July deadline, the Blue Jays will more than likely be looking to move their ace this winter. With just the 2010 season remaining on his contract, Halladay will likely command a multiyear extension only teams like those in New York, Boston and Los Angeles can afford.

With Lee heading into his walk year, too, Hamels represents the stable future in terms of the financial side of things.

But does Hamels represent another shot at the World Series? Who knows? However, team insiders are whispering about a Hamels-for-Halladay blockbuster that probably is just wishful thinking.

Halladay, teamed with Lee, Happ and Joe Blanton, gives the Phillies the best starting staff on the planet. The only way a team with guys like that doesn’t get to the World Series is because of injuries or bad luck.

If the goal is to win right now and take advantage of that always fleeting window of opportunity, then a move on Halladay isn’t just logical, it’s necessary.

Hamels may very well fulfill his promise like everyone says. But then again, maybe not. We’ve already seen what happens when accolades, awards and a new contract are bestowed on Hamels. In fact, he can barely top 190 innings.

Yes, Hamels may very well turn out to be the next Steve Carlton…

But maybe he ought to be Rick Wise first.

World Series: Injury to Insult

lidge_choochThis very well may be a case of injury adding to insult. In fact, it’s a two-fold thing… call it a rich tapestry of absurdness and irony. Like an onion, this story has many layers and the more that is peeled, the more it stinks.

OK, that might be a bit dramatic, but it truly is bizarre that both closers in the 2009 World Series were suffering through different states of injury.

For Brad Lidge, there very well could be a logical explanation for his poor season in which he posted 11 blown saves in 42 chances as well as the worst ERA in history for a pitcher with at least 25 saves. Though Lidge was decent in a handful of outings in the postseason, he took the hard-luck loss in Game 4 of the World Series and never seemed to gain the full trust of manager Charlie Manuel.

It seemed as if Manuel used Lidge only when he had no other options even though he had five scoreless appearances in the NLDS and NLCS.

The World Series, however, didn’t go so well.

So maybe we can chalk that up to the fact that Lidge will undergo surgery to have a “loose body” removed from his right elbow. Scott Eyre is having a similar procedure to his left elbow on Monday, too. The difference with Lidge is he will also have his right flexor/pronator tendon checked out. If it shows so much wear and tear that surgery is required, don’t expect Lidge to be recovered by the time spring training starts.

But if the tendon is fine, then all Lidge will need is to have that elbow scoped.

Of course Lidge also spent time on the disabled list in June for an injured knee. It was because of his knee pain that Lidge says he altered his mechanics, which may have led to his ineffectiveness. Now we know that those mechanical issues just might have led to the loose body and tendon trouble in his right elbow.

Not that Phillies fans are looking for a cause for why Lidge had such a difficult year, but there it is. However, it seems as if the price tag on a second straight trip to the World Series was pretty costly now that we see that Lidge, Eyre and Raul Ibanez are all headed for surgery.

Surgery might not be necessary for Mariano Rivera, who as it turned out was a little injured during the World Series. The New York Times reported that Rivera says he injured his ribcage by throwing 34 pitches in a two-inning save in Game 6 of the ALCS, though manager Joe Girardi says the injury came in Game 2 of the World Series where the closer threw 39 pitches in a two-inning save.

mo riveraWhenever it happened, chances are Rivera might not have been able to pitch had the World Series extended to a seven games.

Imagine that… a World Series Game 7 with the Yankees and the Phillies and Rivera can’t go?

“I don’t want to talk about it now,” Rivera told The Times with a smile.

Certainly the Game 7 question is a bit silly considering Rivera got the final five outs in the clinching Game 6. To get those last outs, Rivera needed 41 pitches—the most he’s thrown in a playoff game since throwing 48 pitches in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.

“It was real important we close it out in Game 6,” Girardi told The Times, stating the obvious.

Meanwhile, it seems as if the Yankees tried to pull off a little misdirection of their own in order to hide Rivera’s injury. During the games in Philadelphia, Rivera was seen clutching a heating pad against his ribcage. When asked why he needed the heating pad by the press, Rivera said it was because he was cold.

That’s a reasonable answer, perhaps. Then again, the game-time temperature for Game 3 was 70 degrees and it was 50 for games 4 and 5.

So maybe Rivera might have been better off biting down on a bullet after a couple of belts of rye whiskey instead of the heating pad? After all, he must have been dealing with a lot of pain to pile up those four outings in the World Series.

“I had to go through it,” Rivera said, gritting his teeth on an imaginary bullet. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Now get this… Rivera says he wants to play for five more seasons. For a throwback closer who has no qualms about piling up the innings, five more years sounds like a long time—especially when one considers that Rivera will be 40 at the end of the month.

World Series: Howard’s End

Ryan HowardNEW YORK—In 1983, Mike Schmidt had one of those playoff series that people remember forever. In four games against the Dodgers in the NLCS, he very well could have been the MVP if ol’ Sarge Matthews hadn’t hit three homers and driven in eight runs in four games.

The fact of the matter is that Schmidt and Lefty Carlton single-handedly won Game 1 with a homer in the first inning of a 1-0 victory. All told, the Hall-of-Fame third baseman went 7-for-15 with five runs, a pair of walks and a .800 slugging percentage.

Statistically speaking, the 1983 NLCS was far and away Schmidt’s best postseason effort.

The thing is no one remembers how good Schmidt was in the 1983 NLCS because he was so awful in the ’83 World Series.

So it’s kind of odd that he followed up the success against the Dodgers with one of the worst showing by a Hall of Famer in World Series history. In fact, take away the 0-for-21 effort by Brooklyn’s Gil Hodges in the seven-game defeat to the Yankees in the 1952 World Series, and Schmidt’s 1983 World Series could go down as the worst by a superstar.

Schmidt went hitless in his first 13 at-bats with five strikeouts in the series against the Orioles. Had it not been for that broken-bat bloop single that just made it past shortstop Cal Ripken’s reach, Schmidt would have gone 0-for-20 in the series.

Not quite as bad as Gil Hodges in 1952, but pretty darned close.

After wearing out the Dodgers to get the Phillies to the World Series, the Orioles had Schmidt’s number. There was the hit against Storm Davis and a bunch of oh-fers against Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan, Sammy Stewart, Jim Palmer and Tippy Martinez.

Schmidt had no chance.

Kind of like Ryan Howard against the Yankees in the 2009 World Series,

Just like Schmidt, Howard wore out the Dodgers in the NLCS with eight RBIs and four extra-base hits out of the five he got. Moreover, with six walks, Howard reached base in 11 of his 21 plate appearances.

Mix Howard’s NLCS with his performance in the NLDS, and it truly was an epic postseason. With an RBI in the first eight games of the postseason, Howard tied a record set by Lou Gehrig. Then there was the career-defining moment in the clinching Game 4 of the NLDS where trailing by two runs and down to their last out, Howard blasted a game-tying double to the right-field corner.

After the Rockies took the lead in the eighth inning, Howard paced the dugout during the top of the ninth and calmly told his teammates to, “Just get me to the plate, boys.”

That’s pretty darned cool.

celebrate1983But will anyone remember the RBI streak, the production in the NLCS and that clutch at-bat in the ninth inning of the NLDS after the World Series Howard had?

Better yet, how does Howard get people to forget about the World Series?

Needless to say it will be difficult. After all, Howard whiffed a record-breaking 13 times in six games. He managed just four hits and one, stat-padding homer in the final game. Until that homer, Howard had just one RBI. After piling on 14 RBIs in the first eight games, Howard got one in next six games before that meaningless homer.

“Sometimes you’ve got it and sometimes you don’t,” Howard shrugged after the finale.

Actually, the Yankees had Howard’s number largely by scouting the hell out of the Phillies for most of the second-half of the season. So what they saw was that the best way to handle Howard was with a steady diet of left-handers. Howard batted .207 with just six homers against lefties in the regular season so that was the strategy the Yankees used.

Against the Yankees, Howard faced lefties in 18 of his 25 plate appearances. And against righties he didn’t do much better by going 0-for-6. Charlie Manuel calls Howard, “The Big Piece,” and clearly the Yankees saw the Phillies’ lineup similarly.

Schmidt said the one thing that bothers him the most about his career was his 1-for-20 performance in the 1983 World Series. If that’s the case for Howard, he has been as candid about it—of course he doesn’t have the luxury of time and space to properly analyze his showing.

“I feel cool,” Howard said. “The only thing you can do now is go home and relax and come back for spring training.”

For now, that’s it.

World Series: When Reggie met Chase

110409-reggie_chaseNEW YORK—When people think of Reggie Jackson’s baseball career, inevitably the three-homer performance in Game 6 of the 1977 is the first moment that comes to mind. Three pitches have not just defined a man’s professional career, but also his life.

Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth are the only players to hit three home runs in a World Series game, and Jackson was the only player to hit five homers in a single World Series.

Until now.

Chase Utley, playing for the team Jackson followed as a kid while growing up in Wyncote, Montgomery County, tied the all-time record for homers in a series when he belted a pair in Game 5 at Citizens Bank Park. For Utley, it was the second multi-homer game of the series, which also ties a record set by Willie Mays Aikens who had a pair of two-homer games in the 1980 series against the Phillies.

But aside from the home runs and the clutch performances in the World Series, there really isn’t much that Jackson and Utley have in common. Oh sure, both players are known for their streakiness and strikeouts. After all, not only has Utley homered in five straight regular-season games during his career, but he also struck out five straight times in the 2007 NLDS, including four times in one game on 13 pitches.

Jackson, of course, struck out more times than any player in the history of the game. The thing about that is Jackson’s strikeouts were just as epic as his home runs. Nope, Jackson did not get cheated.

“I was known for postseason, not what I did in the regular season and I had great years,” Jackson said. “But you play to win. Our club, our organization is just hell-bent, from our ownership to our general manager. They’ve built it to win here. The conversations that we have are about winning a championship.”

Utley hasn’t been cheated either. Though Jackson pointed out that the ballparks in Philadelphia and New York are “small,” Utley hasn’t hit any squeakers. The homers Utley hit in Game 5 were gone by the time he made contact. In fact, Utley uncharacteristically pulled a bit a Reggie on his first-inning homer on Monday night when he flipped his bat aside and watched it sail toward the right-field fence ever-so briefly.

Jackson, of course, was famous for posturing on his homers. His style was the antithesis of Utley’s but as far as that goes, Jackson is a huge fan of the Phillies’ second baseman. In fact, Jackson greeted Utley when the Phillies came out on the field for batting practice before Game 6 on Wednesday to congratulate him on tying the record.

As far as the comparison between the two World Series home run kings go, that’s about all they have in common. Jackson demanded attention on and off the field. Utley gets the attention because of what he does on the field. He’s not interesting in having it any other way.

“We’re different type of players,” Jackson said. “But he hit 30 home runs, [and] that’s a lot of home runs. I don’t want to compare he and I. He’s a great hitter. But it’s not about style—it’s about winning. That’s what is important.”

Said manager Charlie Manuel about Utley: “Actually he don’t like for you to say a whole lot of things about him. But he’s one of the most prepared, one of the most dedicated, he has the most desire and passion to play the game that I’ve ever been around.”

After the brief conversation with Utley, Jackson walked away even more impressed, especially when Mr. October was told that the record only matters if the Phillies win the World Series.

Otherwise, who cares?

reggie_1977“He’s old school,” Jackson said about Utley. “When you talk to Chase Utley and hear what he focuses on, he really doesn’t care to talk about it much. They’re down 3-2 and that’s where he’s at, and I admire that. I admire that professionalism.”

The notion that Utley could become the first World Series MVP to come from a losing team since Bobby Richardson got the award when the Yankees lost to the Pirates in seven games, has been quite popular. Certainly Utley has to be a candidate on the strength of belting five homers in the first five games, but Jackson got the sense that the All-Star second baseman wouldn’t want the award if the Phillies did not win the World Series.

“You have to win the World Series,” Jackson said. “I don’t want the MVP award if I don’t win. I don’t care—I’d want to win [the award], but you play to win. What was it that Herman Edwards said, ‘You play to win the game.’

“It’s all really about winning. You’d rather hit three home runs and win the World Series then hit seven and not. You have to win, the rest of it doesn’t matter much.”

Utley is trying to make it all matter. Plus, he could have two more games to break Reggie’s record… if he does it, will Utley get a candy bar named after him, too?

World Series: Charlie’s big gamble

CC & LeePHILADELPHIA—No matter what else happens, Charlie Manuel will be remembered as the second man to win a World Series for the Phillies. Since 1883 and after 50 previous managers, only Charlie and Dallas Green have hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the season.

So whatever happens after the 2008 World Series, Charlie’s legacy is safe in Philadelphia. Winning baseball teams are like Haley’s Comet around here.

But will Charlie’s legacy take a hit if the Phillies lose the 2009 World Series to the Yankees? And if so, will it be because of his decision NOT to send Cliff Lee to the mound for a rematch against CC Sabathia on short rest in Game 4?

Well, that all depends.

First of all, Charlie has painted himself into a corner a few times during the postseason. One time came when he used both J.A. Happ and Joe Blanton in Game 2 of the NLDS. Another time was when he went with five pitchers to get three outs in Game 2 of the NLCS. After each of those instances the question that was asked was, “Did Charlie just [mess] this up?”

Each time the answer was, “We’ll see.”

And that’s where we are once again. Charlie is backed into a corner with Joe Blanton scheduled to start against the Yankees in Game 4. If it works and Blanton comes through with and the Phillies steal one from Sabathia again, the manager looks like a genius. After all, he will go into the pivotal Game 5 with his best pitcher properly rested and ready to go against another pitcher working on short rest.

Better yet, the pitcher (A.J. Burnett) is one pitching coach Rich Dubee is quite familiar with going back to his days with the Florida Marlins. Though he won’t say it one way or another, one gets the sense that Dubee thinks Burnett is a bit of a whack job, to use a popular term.

So in that respect, if the Phillies go into Game 5 with the series tied up at 2 games apiece, Manuel looks pretty darned smart.

Again.

Still, it seems as if the manager has his cards all laid out on the table and is waiting to get lucky with one on the river (to use another term). Clearly it seems as if the Phillies don’t believe they match up well against the Yankees are attempting to use any favorable twist they can to their advantage. The biggest of those appears to be Cliff Lee on regular rest in Game 5 against A.J. Burnett on short rest.

Nevertheless, there is an interesting caveat to all of this and it has to do with Charlie and Lee…

If Charlie was so adamant about not pitching Cliff Lee on three days rest, and says that even if the pitcher had campaigned to pitch in Game 4 it would have no affect on his decision to stick with Blanton. According to the way Manuel phrased it, even if Lee had burst into the office, flipped over a table, knocked some pictures off the wall and screamed at the manager to, “GIVE ME THE BALL!” Manuel says it would not have mattered.

“We didn’t talk very long on Cliff Lee,” Manuel said.

But why did they talk at all?

Let’s think about that for a second… if Charlie’s mind was already made up, why did he ask Lee anything? Could it be that Lee emitted some bad body language or hedged when Manuel asked if he’d pitch in Game 4?

Or could it be that the Phillies placed too much trust in Cole Hamels?

For now everyone is saying all the right things. That’s especially the case with Lee, who says he’s ready for whatever the Phillies give him.

“It was a pretty quick conversation, him asking me if I had ever done it and me telling him no and saying that I think I could,” Lee said. “Basically that was about the extent of it. Pretty quick, brief deal. I just let him know I’d pitch whenever he wants me to pitch. I think I could do it, but he makes the calls.”

So the season comes down to this. If the Phillies fall into a 3-1 series hole and end up losing the series, will it tarnish what Manuel has already done for the Phillies?

We’ll see.

The NLCS: Chase Utley no Mr. October

Utley_errorLOS ANGELES—There’s no logical way to explain why some players thrive in the postseason and others just have the worst time ever. Chalk it up to simply being one of those baseball things that are indefinable.

As Charlie says, “Funny game.”

But one thing that is never a mystery is that legacies of ballplayers are defined by how well they perform in October. Sure, there are some players like Ted Williams and Ernie Banks who are given a pass for a dearth of playoff exposure, but those guys are rare. After all, there’s a reason why Derek Jeter is viewed as an all-time great despite a shortcoming or two.

And of course no one ever talks about the fact that Reggie Jackson struck out more times than anyone in baseball history and batted .300 just one time in 21 seasons. Reggie Jackson was Mr. October because he hit 10 home runs and won the World Series five times.

When it comes down to it, the performance after the season ends is what matters most, yet there are some pretty great players who struggle beneath the bright lights and others that can’t help but perform well in when the games matter most.

“It’s one of those things, I guess,” said Phillies’ hitting coach Milt Thompson, who holds the club postseason record for most RBIs in a game with five in a game in which he needed a homer to complete the cycle. “Some guys like the lights.”

Others don’t do well with them at all. For this group of Phillies it seems as if Ryan Howard is becoming quite Jacksonian. In Friday’s Game 2 of the NLCS, Howard continued his October assault by reaching base for the 15th straight postseason game. More notable, the Phillies’ slugger has at least one RBI in every game of the 2009 playoffs thanks to a fourth-inning homer against former Phillie Vicente Padilla in the 2-1 defeat.

But don’t just pin Howard’s hot playoff hitting to this season. His streak of big hits goes back to last October, too. In fact, Howard is hitting .382 (21-for-55) with six doubles, four home runs and 17 RBIs in his last 14 playoff games and he has reached base safely in his last 15.

In 23 postseason games Howard has five homers and 19 RBIs. The RBIs are already a franchise record for the postseason.

October has not been too kind to Chase Utley, though. Sure, he hit a pair of homers in the World Series last year and batted .429 against the Rockies in the NLDS, but so far he’s 1-for-8 against the Dodgers in the NLCS and has a .241 lifetime average in 23 playoff games with 23 strikeouts. Take away the 2009 NLDS and Utley is hitting just .203 in the playoffs and fails to put the ball in play more than 40 percent of the time.

Then there is the fielding. In the two biggest games of the season (so far), Utley has committed costly errors. The one in Game 1 caused pitcher Cole Hamels to throw a bit of a fit, while the one in Game 2 proved to be one of the biggest reasons why the Phillies lost to the Dodgers. Actually, Utley has three errors in his playoff career, which is a rate twice as high as his regular-season total of errors.

The errors in the field are what everyone is talking about now, but there’s more to Utley’s playoff woes. There was also the debacle of Game 1 of the 2007 NLDS in which he struck out four times on 13 pitches.

Still, even when Utley is playing well he consistently works to improve his game. Chancs are he dials up the effort even highr when things go poorly.

“I’m never really satisfied on the way I play,” Utley said. “I always feel like I can play better, so this season is no different.”

Nope, not at all. It’s no different in that Utley is finding trouble in the playoffs…

Again.

Experienced Phillies look to playoff novice

Two years ago the Phillies were playoff novices. Of the 25 men who went to the quick, three-game series against Colorado in 2007, only Abraham Nunez, Aaron Rowand, Wes Helms, Tad Iguchi, Rod Barajas, Kyle Lohse, Jose Mesa and Jamie Moyer had appeared in a playoff game.

The funny thing about that was only Moyer came back the next season. The rest were long gone by the time spring training rolled around.

This time around playoff experience might be one of those intangibles the Phillies have that could separate them from the back. Of the sure-thing players that will be on the 25-man playoff roster come next Wednesday, only two players have no experience heading into the postseason.

Strangely enough one of those guys will probably be the starting pitcher in Game 1.

Cliff Lee was a member of the 2007 Cleveland Indians that went to the 2007 ALCS, but he did not appear in any of the games for the Tribe because he had been optioned to Triple-A at midseason.

The next year he went 22-3 and won the AL Cy Young Award and now he is in the playoffs for the first time with the Phillies.

Needless to say he’s pretty excited.

“Charlie hasn’t told me if I’m going to be the guy out there in Game 1, but if I am I’ll be ready,” Lee said while teammates came by to pour beer over his head and down his back. “This is what you train for during the offseason—it’s to be ready for the playoffs, and I’m excited about it.”

Ben Francisco came to Philadelphia with Lee in the deadline deal that fans raved about because it solidified the top of the Phillies’ rotation. However, with Francisco as part of the trade the outfield became rock solid, too.

Serving as the team’s fourth outfielder, Francisco slugged five homers with 12 RBIs and a .259 average in 33 games. Combined with Cleveland, Francisco belted 15 homers with 45 RBIs and a .252 average in 122 games. Those aren’t bad numbers for the top right-handed hitting option off the bench.

But the addition of Lee and his possible role as the lead man in the rotation will be one of the major themes in the next week as Game 1 approaches.

Of course there are some concerns, too. Lee will make his final regular-season appearance on Thursday night while looking to regain the form he displayed in his first handful of outings he had when he joined the Phillies.

He went 5-0 with a 0.68 ERA in his first five starts with the Phillies, but is 2-3 with a 6.35 ERA in his last six. It’s possible, says manager Charlie Manuel, that Lee could be a little tired. After al, the lefty has thrown 226 innings this season. Only five pitchers—and one National Leaguer—have tossed more.

“I feel strong, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Lee said. “I feel as strong as I have all year. That’s what you work all offseason for, is to prepare for a long season and hopefully something extra there at the end. I feel like I’ve done everything I need to do to be in a position where I’m at right now.”

The Phillies will soon find out as their prized acquisition gets into the playoffs for the first time ever.

The Big Piece

The Big PieceATLANTA – OK, let’s take a break from all the injury talk and bullpen question marks for a day… or at least until J.C. Romero and Scott Eyre complete their bullpen sessions on Saturday.

And then there is the issue of Carlos Ruiz’s sprained wrist suffered on a play at the plate during the second inning on Friday night.

Oh, and J.A. Happ came out of the game after three innings because Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley saw him grimace after a play and alerted Charlie Manuel. Needless to say, Happ wasn’t too pleased about coming out of the game.

“There was a lot of debate and I lost,” Happ said after the game, adding that his argument to stay in the game included a lot of nodding and telling anyone who would listen that he was OK. “It seems like the player always loses those debates.”

But what about Ryan Howard? After all, for the second straight game he got drilled by a pitch on the same exact spot on the right forearm.

What are the odds of that happening?

“Probably pretty high and I beat them,” Howard laughed.

Ruiz’s injury as well as the injuries to the relief pitchers is of the most concern to Manuel, who believes Happ will take the ball in his next start. As far as Howard goes, well, those two shots to the forearm should have felt like nothing more than a bee sting to the big fella.

Make that, “The Big Piece,” as Manuel calls him.

“He’s all right,” Manuel said. “What did I tell you about getting hurt? Don’t be getting hurt. That’s three feet from Ryan’s heart. He ain’t dead by a long shot. If I had arms that big, hell, a baseball wouldn’t hurt me.”

It’s more like the other way around. Howard has been the one hurting the baseball these days. Actually, make that a lot of days since it appears as if The Big Piece is well on his way to becoming the most prolific slugger in team history.

Friday night’s pair of homers made Howard the first Phillie ever to bash 40 in four different seasons. And not only did Howard hit his 40th homer for the fourth season, but he did it with panache.

For Howard it’s 40 homers AND 120 RBIs in four straight seasons. Not only hasn’t a Phillie ever pulled off such a feat, but very few Major Leaguers have accomplished it. In fact, Howard became just the fourth member of the club on Friday night at Turner Field.

The Big Piece joins Babe Ruth, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa as the only sluggers in Major League Baseball history to slug 40 homers and drive in at least 120 RBIs in four straight seasons. That’s it.

But get this, only one other hitter accomplished the 40-120 trick in more than four straight seasons and that was The Sultan of Swat himself. The Babe did it in seven straight.

Here’s the amazing stat for Howard – in 717 career games, he has 620 RBIs. That comes to an average of 140 RBIs per 162 games, which is the career high of Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Jim Rice.

And that’s Howard’s average.

There’s more to consider, too. Howard doesn’t turn 30 until November 19, he never drove in more than 149 RBIs in a season which points to his uncanny consistency. However, the numbers that really stand out are the splits from August, September (and October) from the Big Piece.

Check this out: 91 of Howard’s 217 career homers have come in the last two months of the season. Additionally, 254 of his 620 career RBIs have come in the last months, too. That means Howard feasts on pitching late in the season when the games take on added significance.

Enjoy it folks… sluggers like this Howard kid don’t come around that often.

Missing out on Big Jim

Jim ThomeFor about a week I’ve wanted to write something about Jim Thome and how it just might be worth taking a flyer on the guy for the final month of the season. It was going to be this whole thing very much like how I suggested Barry Bonds might not be a bad pickup last year and how Pedro Martinez might be worth a look this year.

You know… trying to stay ahead of the curve.

So growing that big hand to pat myself on the back, I knew Pedro would be good a fit for the Phillies even though general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the team had no interest in the future Hall of Famer initially.

Kudos. Kudos to me, though the Bonds idea was probably a bad one.

Anyway, snagging Thome away from the White Sox before the Dodgers got him would have been a good idea. One reason is because he is still playing out the contract he signed when he joined the Phillies before the 2003 season. Another is because with Matt Stairs fighting a two-month hitless slump and Greg Dobbs on the disabled list/in the manager’s doghouse, Charlie Manuel will need another lefty bat for the bench.

And who knows, maybe he could play first base if really pressed to it.

When the news broke about Thome joining the Dodgers earlier this week, the sentiment from Manuel and ex-Phillie turned Giants’ centerfielder Aaron Rowand was that they hoped the new Dodger was happy. Moreover, both Manuel and Rowand thought Thome would be a huge asset late in games for LA.

“He brings over 500 career homers off the bench,” Rowand said when asked what Thome gives the Dodgers.

Certainly 564 career homers sitting on the bench waiting for a late-game clutch situation isn’t easy to dig up. Plus, in signing Thome it’s obvious the memory of Stairs’ series-changing home run in the eighth inning of Game 4 NLCS still haunts the Dodgers. Besides, pinch hitting isn’t an easy job for young ballplayers. That’s why wily types like Stairs thrive in the role and it’s why Thome might just be a key component for the Dodgers in October.

As the former big league pinch hitter Manuel said, seeing a guy like Stairs and Thome lurking in the dugout or on-deck circle drives opposing managers crazy. It makes them do things they normally wouldn’t do and that right there compromises the strategy of the game.

“Even if he’s 0-for-20 or 0-for-25, you never know when he’s going to hit one for you to win a game,” Manuel said.

So yeah, Thome would have been sweet for the Phillies given the current state of their bench. Sure, Amaro indicates that the team is tapped out in terms of adding to the already-record payroll for the remainder of the season, but hell, the Phillies are already paying Thome.

“Similar to the Yankees teams [Dodgers manager Joe] Torre had when [Darryl] Strawberry came off the bench. I think you’re kidding yourself if you’re a manager and he’s sitting on the bench that you don’t think twice before making a move,” Rowand said. “He’s a professional hitter – he doesn’t need four at-bats a day to stay sharp.”

Thome on the Dodgers doesn’t guarantee anything, but he is a slight difference maker. It would have been the same deal with the Phillies, too.

And on another note, who doesn’t want Jim Thome around? Sure, he’s just a hitter these days and nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, but man… what a good dude. That should count for something.

Instant classic

pedroIf the gunslingers from the Wild, Wild West had been baseball players instead of plying their trades at the OK Corral, it might have looked a lot like the first seven innings of Thursday night’s game at the Bank.

With Cy Old, Pedro Martinez dueling against Cy Young, Tim Lincecum, the OK Corral imagery worked in the most austere sense, however. In fact, after Pedro struck out the side in the third inning to register his seventh strikeout against the first 10 hitters he faced, he strutted off the mound as if he were going up against the Yankees at Fenway 10 years ago.

So when he strutted off the mound at the end of the third with his eyes narrowed and right arm dangling at his side as if it were some sort of weapon, it was as if he were saying to Lincecum, “There you go, kid. Your turn.”

And Lincecum, a pitcher in whom Pedro saw a lot of similarities with, answered.

Both pitchers lasted seven innings and combined for 20 strikeouts and one walk. Pedro got nine whiffs and no walks while Lincecum got the other 11 and the walk. Perhaps the only real mar on the game was that because it was so close, both pitchers had to come out after seven innings for pinch hitters.

What a drag.

Nevertheless, Pedro vs. Lincecum was pure artistry. Call it the old master dialing it up to show the next big thing how it works. And yet though Pedro might go down as the right-handed version of Sandy Koufax, he looked at Lincecum as an heir of sorts. There they were, two narrow shouldered righties throwing heat and breaking off knee-buckling changeups in the middle of a tense September pennant race.

Yes, there were plenty of subtle fist pumps from the pitchers after big outs to go around.

“Kind of flashes back from the good old times,” said Pedro, flashing a smile after the game. “As you know, I don’t have the same power I used to have, but I’ve always said it’s not about power. It’s about hitting the spots and knowing what to do with it.”

Ah yes, the good old days. That was back when Pedro won three Cy Young Awards and should have had a fourth had it not been for some suspect voting. Regardless, Pedro also acknowledged that facing Lincecum fired him up a bit like those old days when he faced Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson in big-time games. That was especially the case after Eugenio Velez smashed the first pitch of the game into the right-field seats.

“That isn’t going to help you against a guy like Lincecum,” Pedro said. “That game could easily have finished 1-0 with the stuff he had.”

Instead, Lincecum made two, maybe three, mistakes. He hung one to Jayson Werth who knocked it into the second deck in left field for his 30th homer of the season. It was also the fourth different ballpark he nailed one into the second deck in left (CBP, Toronto and both New York City parks).

Then, with two outs in the sixth, Linecum plunked Chase Utley high on the right shoulder which set the table for Ryan Howard’s game-winning RBI double.

Still, Pedro was impressed with his mini-me.

“He’s amazing,” Pedro said about Lincecum. “He reminds me a lot of me, only twice as better at the same time in the big leagues. This is his second or third year, right? Yeah, he already has a Cy Young.”

The feeling was mutual for Lincecum toward his fellow 5-foot-11 right-handed Cy Young Award winner and two All-Star Game starter. Pedro had always been a model for the Giants 25-year-old stud, who is only in his second full big league season. That even goes for Thursday night’s classic where Lincecum watched just as intently as the 45,000-plus in the seats. Watching, the Giants’ ace knew that the first pitcher that blinked was going to lose.

“I used him as an example of guys who had great careers and put up pretty phenomenal numbers considering their lack of size,” Lincecum said.

Tim Lincecum“Just to get to see what kind of stuff he has and it’s just ridiculous how nasty it still is today. You can see that he knows what he’s doing and he’s not just winging it up there hoping that he’s getting outs. He’s pitching with a purpose. He knows how to get guys out and that was apparent in the first three innings.”

That’s exactly how manager Charlie Manuel saw it, too. Though they traveled in similar circles during the Indians’ glory years where Manuel was the hitting coach and manager and Pedro was putting together his seven-year epic streak for the Red Sox, the manager and pitcher didn’t really know each other.

Truth is, Manuel doesn’t much like talking about the days Pedro stuck it to him and the Indians, especially that deciding game of the 1999 ALDS where Pedro came on in relief and threw six no-hit innings. Pedro on the mound never did much to help Manuel’s Indians.

But now that they are getting to know one another, the feeling has changed… a bit.

“Pedro has a lot of determination. Actually, Pedro is a little bit different person than I thought he was. He’s a mentally tough guy, a gamer, and he’s cocky, but in a good way,” Manuel said. “He definitely knows baseball and he knows how to pitch. He has a tremendous feel for pitching.”

Meanwhile, it’s not farfetched to think that the mid-season acquisition who has pitched in just six games for a 3-0 record with a 3.52 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 23 innings, can elbow his way onto the playoff rotation. Cliff Lee is a given, so too is Cole Hamels. But the other two spots are up for grabs between Pedro, Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ.

Though he hasn’t been stretched out to Manuel’s liking, Pedro has several things going for him aside from guile, reputation and experience. So far this season 71 percent of his pitches have resulted in a swinging strike. Nearly 20 percent of his pitches have resulted in a swing and miss.

The 20 percent swing-and-miss ratio is by far the best on the Phillies’ starting rotation, and only Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson have higher rates amongst all pitchers for the team this season.

So there is a little bit left of the old Pedro in the old Pedro.

“As far as me, individually, I wanted this kind of game,” he said. “I want to help this team, not only today, but in the future. This is September already. I really need to get it all together if I want to help this team, and [Thursday] was a big step forward.”

Junge Gun

Eric JungeNearly seven years ago, Eric Junge pitched five innings of a 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a meaningless September game. In fact, September of 2002 was one of the last few final months that were meaningless for the Phillies. In 2004 all that was left to decide in September was when they would mercifully pull the plug on the managerial career of Larry Bowa.

Those were the days when the pitching coach got punched in the face by a player, and some wondered if it was simply a matter of time until the manager suffered the same fate. Nope, those definitely weren’t the golden days of Phillies baseball.

More like Blood Sport.

Anyway, Eric Junge started and won his first Major League outing over the Pirates in rather dramatic fashion. See, Junge was finished pitching for the year after going 12-6 with a 3.54 in Triple-A in 29 starts, until then-GM Ed Wade called him at home in Rye, N.Y. in the middle of a pizza feast. The Phillies needed some fresh arms to get through the year and since the roster had expanded, Junge got a phone call inquiring whether he wanted to pitch in the big leagues.

Sure, Junge said, but first he had to cancel some plans.

Junge joined the Phillies on Sept. 11, 2002, exactly one year after that day. So instead of going down to Ground Zero with his trumpet to play a tribute to the three friends from childhood that died on 9/11, Junge was the Vet waiting to make his big league debut instead of “preparing to mourn and remember.”

“I would have been playing my trumpet, playing Taps. It’s something I used to do on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. I would go down to the town square and all the veterans would be there,” he told us. “It would be my little way of saying thanks for our freedoms. Taps for me is emotional. I’d rather be pitching in the big leagues, obviously.

“I didn’t think I would get called up,” he said nearly seven years ago. “It’s all kind of surreal. I was getting ready to mourn and now I feel alive.”

I remember that day for a lot of reasons. First, there weren’t too many games in the 2002 baseball season that were too memorable. Brett Myers made his debut at Wrigley Field, pitcher Robert Person his a pair of homers and got seven RBIs in about two innings of a rout over the Expos, and Scott Rolen was traded.

Secondly, only two seasons into Bowa’s reign of terror, it was clear things had already come unhinged. Little did we know at the time that the franchise would have to take some decisive actions after some growing pains and old-fashioned time biding.

Otherwise, it was an underwhelming season.

But Junge was interesting. After he threw those five innings in which he gave up four hits and one run in his only big league start, I was all set to write about how he was the first Bucknell University alum to pitch in the big leagues since Christy Mathewson. Acquired in the Omar Daal trade with Los Angeles, Junge was the minor league surprise of ’02.

Instead of writing about the surprise start, the Mathewson angle and a promising future, someone saw three names scribbled on Junge’s cap while talking to him in the clubhouse after the game. The names “Fetchet,” “Mello” and “McGinley” were hard to miss there in black Sharpie just to the left of the Phillies “P” on Junge’s cap.

What was the deal with those words, Junge was asked.

Those three guys were Brad Fetchet, Chris Mello and Mark McGinley, Junge told us. All three died on 9/11 at the World Trade Center during the attacks. Mello grew up with the pitcher and the two played baseball and football all the way from little league to high school. He died when his plane struck the north tower.

Fetchet and McGinley were Bucknell classmates of Junge who were working in the Trade Center that fateful day and didn’t make it out.

Then there was Junge’s dad Peter, who was standing on the street corner adjacent to the buildings when the first plane hit, which was carrying Mello. A maritime attorney with offices a block away from Wall St., Peter Junge was on his way to court when the unthinkable happened. Junge was eating breakfast in a waffle house in Huntsville, Ala., preparing to pitch for the Dodgers’ Double-A club, Jacksonville.

“That was a hectic day,” Junge told us after his first Major League start.

It was a helluva story and forced a lot of us to re-do those Mathewson/Bucknell angles we were knee-deep in by the time we met with Junge. But aside from the emotional side of the story, there also was the work on the field. After all, it’s not every day a pitcher in his first big league start walks off with swagger. Junge might have been a surprise call up, but he was acting as if he belonged.

“Some guys might be apprehensive but he acts like he’s been here for 20 years,” Bowa said after that game. “With his makeup, he wanted the opportunity and he opened some eyes. He was walking around the dugout yelling, ‘Let’s go!’ and getting everyone fired up.”

Junge’s big league career lasted just 10 games. In 2002 he got another win when Vicente Padilla exited a game after just 13 pitches and Junge came on in the first inning and went into the sixth.

But injuries derailed whatever future he might have had with the Phillies or a chance to return to the Majors with another club. In 2003 he was shut down after 16 games between the Phillies and Triple-A. When he came back from  shoulder surgery, he pitched at three different levels in the Phillies’ organization before he was granted free agency at the end of the year.

Then came the life of the baseball nomad. In 2005 he pitched in Triple-A for the Mets and then released. In ’06 it was Triple-A with the Padres and then another release. For 2007 it was a handful of games in the independent Atlantic League until he wound up back at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with the Yankees.

And then, of course, another release.

Junge spent 2008 in Japan pitching for the Orix Buffaloes, which was the former team of So Taguchi and Ichiro, as well as the organization that featured an Amarican cleanup hitter named Chuck Manuel. They called Chuck, “The Red Devil.”

Now 32, the same age as former teammates, Marlon Byrd, Johnny Estrada, Geoff Geary, Nick Punto as well as a year older than his ex-third baseman, Chase Utley, Junge is still out there playing. As fate would have it, the lean, 6-foot-5 righty signed to play for a team with a stadium less than one-mile from my home as the crow flies.

Yeah that’s right, Junge was pitching for the Lancaster Barnstormers in the Atlantic League. The Atlantic League is baseball purgatory… or maybe worse. No matter, in his first month with the team the baseball lifer (think Chris Coste had he been a prospect) was the league’s pitcher of the month with a 4-1 with a 1.73 ERA and twice broke the franchise record with 12 strikeouts in a game. In 26 innings, Junge had 34 whiffs.

And then he was gone.

That’s what I learned this evening when I moseyed down to the ballpark with the kids to check out a game. I had hoped to see Junge, relive those days in Philly and see what’s shaking with Antonio Alfonseca, who is closing out games for the Barnstormers. However, Junge’s name was strangely omitted from the roster. A quick Google search later revealed he had left Lancaster to pitch for a team in South Korea.

How’s that for an indictment of the team, league and town? Junge would rather travel halfway around the globe to pitch in South Korea rather than for Tom Herr and Von Hayes in Lancaster, Pa.

You know, some days I know how he feels.

Nevertheless, good luck to Mr. Junge. Undoubtedly he could trade in the uniform for a career as a good baseball exec, but let’s hope his baseball journeys pay off with a trip back to the big leagues or at least some pretty kick-ass stories. He certainly gave us one seven years ago, and, as readers of the site know, it’s the stories that make the word go ‘round.

Stick to the script

utleyNEW YORK – One gets to learn a lot about the media, drama and hype on a trip to New York City. Here in the big city they really have a knack for mythmaking whereas the writing press from Philadelphia are pretty good at seeing something for what it is and leaving it at that.

This time we’re not talking about Raul Ibanez and the inanity of the lathered up media reaction from the made up controversy. Though I will admit I kind of liked Joe Posnanski’s take on it.

No, this time we’re talking about Chase Utley and Mike Pelfrey and the apparent exchange of words the pair had during an at-bat in the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s game. As Pelfrey explained it, he was upset about Utley stepping out of the box just as he was about to deliver a pitch. As such, Pelfrey barked at Utley, who returned with ignorant surprise.

“I was about to step into the box and it seemed like he was ready to pitch,” Utley said after taking a second to figure out what the hell was being talked about. “I wasn’t trying to make him frustrated. I was trying to put a good at-bat together.”

After the game, both Pelfrey and Utley were asked about it. Utley said Pelfrey said something to him but wasn’t sure what it was about. Pelfrey explained that he was peeved at Utley stepped out, told him and that was it. Everything ended right there.

“I got upset and told him to get in the box,” Pelfrey explained. “I don’t even know the guy. It was too much adrenaline, I guess.”

When asked, manager Charlie Manuel thought Pelfrey was upset with Shane Victorino. Why not? Isn’t someone always upset with Victorino? He certainly drives Charlie nuts sometimes.

So there it is. All over, right?

Wrong.

During the Mets’ post-game show on SNY, they showed the footage of Pelfrey shouting toward Utley over and over again with in-depth analysis of some sort of fabricated rift between the two archrival teams. While this was going on, New York-based reporters combed the Phillies’ clubhouse to pose questions to the team members about their little fantasy fight. Was something going to happen next time? Why do these teams hate each other so?

Who wins in a fight between Utley and Pelfrey?

Apparently, the fact that it was all a heaping pile of bullbleep really didn’t matter. There was going to be a story, dammit, just like there was going to be a story with Ibanez and some unknown dude in the Midwest somewhere.

To paraphrase a quote from Joe Piscopo in the movie Johnny Dangerously, “I’m embarrassed to be a media member these days. The other day someone asked me what I do for a living, and I told them I was a male nurse.”

(Thanks Deitch).

Anyway, there is a pretty good rivalry between the Phillies and the Mets but it’s likely that the New Yorkers are pushing it harder than needs to be. After all the Yankees have the Red Sox and the Mets are second fiddle in town. Frankly, they might be afraid to admit that the Phillies and the Dodgers is a much better and more interesting rivalry.

But that one doesn’t fit into the manufactured scripts up here.

What’s eating Raul?

raulNEW YORK – The word came from the Phillies public relations staff that Raul Ibanez wanted to know if any of the regular scribes covering the team were interested in chatting with the slugging outfielder regarding the speculation of his performance-enhancing drug use. It was a curious thing considering Ibanez is always affable and willing to talk about nearly any topic.

That is, of course, if one can locate Ibanez. A tireless worker, Ibanez is always in the middle of doing something baseball-related, be it studying film, taking extra batting practice, stretching or getting a chiropractic adjustment. So to hear that one of baseball’s truly good guys offered, pre-emptively, to discuss something that was never an issue until a relatively anonymous blog post from a blogger with no access or credibility suggested that Ibanez’s hot start to the 2009 season could be chemically enhanced, was noteworthy.

But there were no takers. No, it wasn’t because no one wanted to talk to Ibanez. It was because no one wanted to talk to Ibanez about something that was never a story in the first place. Had folks in Philadelphia treated something called, “Midwestern Sports Fans” like they always did (you know… as if it never existed), perhaps Ibanez wouldn’t have offered to alter his pre-game preparations to talk about something that no one was even thinking about.

Yet since ESPN picked it up on Ibanez’s comments to the Philadelphia Inquirer on Wednesday, there was a low murmur around Citi Field about the “issue.”

“To be honest, I don’t want to talk about it,” manager Charlie Manuel said.

But even Manuel couldn’t resist.

“It upsets me,” he said. “I think if you’re going to put that out there he ought to have proof.”

Shane Victorino was less diplomatic, jokingly (maybe?) attacking the Internet and the advances in technology. The Phils’ outfielder pointed out that there are at least a dozen accounts on Facebook and Twitter in his name, but, “I never started one of them.”

That can lead to confusion, Victorino says, when family and friends see his name in places and want to connect with him. However, the biggest issue is the lack of accountability with some blogs. Because the blogger at the “Midwestern Sports Fans,” going by the handle, “JRod” never actually has to face any of his subjects nor ever sees how athletes like Ibanez go about their work, he has very little understanding of what damage his words can cause.

“It can ruin a guy’s life,” Victorino claimed.

It won’t get that far with Ibanez. Yes, he and the Philadelphia media understand how suspicion has invaded baseball. That’s the reality. But it also seems as if Ibanez was thinking about what some guy named “JRod” wrote before Wednesday’s game at Citi Field when he should have been thinking about facing the Mets.

Sweating it out on the South Lawn

White House 402, Finger 1977 passWASHINGTON – The last time I was at The White House was Oct. 22, 1977 during the early days of the Carter Administration. The reason I know this was because my mom saved the tickets from the tour signed by President Carter (he signed his name, “Jimmy”). I was just a little fella back then and apparently I tripped my sister on the east portico and she fell on her face.

I don’t remember that one or maybe I’m just blocking it.

Either way, The White House as it was in 1977 was very different from the visit I had with the press corps to watch the WFC Phillies be feted by President Barack Obama. For one thing no one nearly got killed during that trip in ’77 though there was that incident with my sister.

No, this time around the budding writing careers (as well as the lives) of a pair of baseball writers nearly came to an end at approximately 11:10 a.m. on Friday morning. That’s when David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News and Todd Zolecki of MLB.com, wandered into the West Wing…

Right past the Marine sentry…

Steps away from the Oval Office…

Where the President of the United States was receiving his daily economic briefing.

That’s when those two chuckle heads decided to take a private tour.

Actually, it was an honest mistake. It had to be, right? For those who have never traipsed past those wrought-iron gates and onto the White House grounds, it’s easy to see how someone could get confused. That’s especially the case with Murphy and Zolecki, two guys who are used to going wherever they want whenever they want. Access and credentials are something other people worry about – not those guys.

Anyway, the way it works is you say your name into an intercom at a gate on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the complex closest to Lafayette Park. Once the guard at the other end of the speaker hears your name and finds it on the all-important “list,” you show a guard a government-issued identification and if it checks out, you are buzzed into the security shack.

That’s where you empty your pockets of everything and put the contents into one of those containers you get at airport security so they can run it through the X-ray machine. Then you walk through the metal detector. If you set off the detector, like I did, you get wanded down. That’s where they found that I left Chap Stick in one pocket and a pen in another to confirm that, yes, I am a jackass.

But not nearly as bad as the two guys that walked right past the Marine sentry as if they were in a hurry to get to a policy briefing.

So how could Murphy and Zolecki stumble within feet of the leader of the free world like a pair of children wandering around in the woods without a care in the world? Who sees the straightest laced Marine with the crisp dark suit, sparkling white pants with matching gloves (on a muggy, swampy D.C. day, no less) and thinks, “Yes, there’s a Marine sentry guarding a door of the White House. That’s where I should go.”

Who does that?

Murphy and Zolecki, that’s who.

To be fair, one can see how they made the mistake. Once a person is admitted to the White House grounds, they must walk up a long driveway past a bank of TV cameras set up for live shots before rounding a slight bend and squaring up with the entrance to the West Wing. Now there are two things to know about this entrance, one is if there is a man in a sharp Marine uniform standing at the door with a serious demeanor, which means the President is in the vicinity.

Or, as President Obama said to RNC chairman Michael Steele at the White House Correspondent’s dinner, “In the hizzy.”

Rule two is, if there no Marine, the President is not in the West Wing or the Oval Office.

But instead of following the path around a copse of trees and to an area marked, “Press,” and “White House Briefing Room,” ol’ Butch and Sundance walked straight beneath an awning and directly to the door where the Marine was stationed

Now get this… the Marine opened it for them. In fact, the Marine did everything but snap off a strong salute. After all, who walks into the West Wing if they don’t belong there?

A couple of baseball writers, that’s who. One from Milwaukee and another who has had brushes with the law in the past.

Here’s the most important part of the story – the two guys not only were nearly killed in cold blood by the Marine who held the door open for them once the subterfuge was discovered (as well as by various trained sharpshooters with the pair in their sights and simply waiting for the go-ahead to pull the trigger), but they also were literally steps away from the Oval Office and the President.

Obama PhilliesAll they had to do was cut through the Roosevelt Room and stroll right into the Oval Office, or, they could have made the first left and then a right to find the way to the President.

That’s much too close.

Then again, we all got pretty close to the Oval Office when we were led through the Rose Garden to the South Lawn. It was quite a sight strolling out of the portico and looking to the right to see that same path where JFK and his brother Bobby conferred during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But as soon as we exited the narrow pathway where some delicate roses separated us from the President of the United States, we made a quick right and were presented with the vastness of the South Lawn as well as a stunning view of the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial.

Looking out to the South Lawn immediately conjured the image of Nixon beating a hasty retreat aboard that helicopter as he was exiled from the White House after Watergate.

This was from the shadow of the Truman Balcony, which just so happens to be my favorite architectural facet of the exterior of the building. We stood facing this splendor as we waited for the Phillies and the President to make their appearance for a brief ceremony to honor the champs for a pretty big season.

Put it this way, it was definitely worth waking up early for.

Besides, it’s not every day you get to stand 10-feet away from the President of the United States as he walks over to Gary Matthews and says, “Yo, what’s up, Sarge,” and then gives him the hug.

The President and the Sarge from Mike Meech on Vimeo.

Yes, Sarge with the President was almost as good as watching Heckle and Jeckyl disrupt American governance.

Link swiped from The Fightins (who, in turn, swiped it from us at CSN)

Danny Ozark: Baseball man

OzarkdannyNEW YORK – Frank Lucchesi was the first Phillies manager during my lifetime, though I’m not familiar with his body of work. Oh sure, I’ve seen the numbers and they aren’t very good, and I heard the story about Lenny Randle pulling a gun on the manager when they were with the Texas Rangers, but  as far as Lucchesi goes, he’s just a name in the record books.

Lucchesi (1970-1972), 166-233.

However, when I first learned about what baseball was, Danny Ozark was the manager of the Phillies. Better yet, when I was a kid Danny Ozark took the Phillies to the playoffs every year.

It was because of Ozark, who died Thursday morning in Florida at age 85, that I also learned the time-tested idiom of baseball that managers are hired to be fired. In August of 1979 Ozark was released from his job as manager of the Phillies, which at the time was baffling to me. My youthful naïveté just saw the three consecutive playoff appearances and the back-to-back 101-win seasons, which is a feat never duplicated before or since in team history

I can’t say I have too many memories of Ozark’s work other than the time I went to game at The Vet when I was a kid and he came onto the field to argue a call or maybe he got ejected. I can’t recall though through the magic of the web site that is Baseball-Reference, I dug up the box score.

Anyway, it seemed as if Ozark was the right man at the time to build up the Phillies to a playoff caliber team. He took them right up to the crest of the hill, but had to step aside so Dallas Green could push them over the top.

From the sound of things, Charlie Manuel nailed it when describing Ozark before Thursday’s game against the Mets.

“I knew Danny Ozark and I considered him a friend of mine,” Manuel said. “He used to talk to me a lot. I was a player when he managed in the minor leagues. He was great guy – a great baseball guy. He was a dedicated baseball guy. He was a good teacher, too. He loved the game and had a good personality about him, too.”

Calling someone a “good baseball man” is one of the highest words of praise from the baseball fraternity. When one hears another call someone a baseball man, well, you can tell a lot about that guy immediately. So it sounds like Danny Ozark was a good guy and Philadelphia was lucky to have him for a few glorious years.

If you don’t want to see, close your eyes

metsA few years ago another scribe and I were shooting the breeze with Pat Burrell before a game. If I’m not mistaken, the conversation covered all of the ground regarding the ex-Phillies outfielder’s workouts at the prestigious Athletes’ Performance Center in Arizona and golfer Phil Mickelson’s empty locker in the joint as well as his alleged penchant for gambling.

You know, basic pre-game fodder.

But then the question was posed to Burrell if he had read something written about him in one of the local papers. This was the final year of Larry Bowa’s tenure as the manager of the Phillies so some of the stories written by some of the folks in the press weren’t the gentlest of critiques of the teams’ play. The story in question was definitely one of those.

Burrell, however, never saw the story and didn’t seem too interested, either. His general thoughts on the local press (supposedly) was that they (we) are “rats.” It’s an unfortunate description especially since I prefer to use the cunning and quick-witted fox to describe some members of the press corps. Yeah, there are a few rats, but they are more like that Templeton from Charlotte’s Web.

Anyway, Burrell then revealed that (one) of the reasons why he didn’t see the story was because the team was not allowed to have newspapers in the clubhouse. Yeah, there was freedom of the press to assemble in the clubhouse, but by edict of manager Larry Bowa, the work of those meddling reporters was verboten in the inner sanctum lest some of the words over-boil the blood of the ballplayers.

In fact, it wasn’t until Charlie Manuel was hired as manager of the Phillies that newspapers were strewn about the common areas of the room. Better yet, ballplayers were able to fold over the pages and sit comfortably to do the daily crossword puzzle, Sudoku or jumble without engaging in subterfuge or the threat of scorn and fines.

Yes, it was a great day for literacy when Charlie Manuel became manager of the Phillies.

But in New York another manager named Manuel is not so as enlightened as our Charlie. In fact, Jerry Manuel of the New York Mets has enacted a Bowa-esque media blackout only with a certain caveat:

The USA Today is allowed in the Mets’ new clubhouse at CitiField, but The New York Post and New York Daily News, well, those papers aren’t quite up to the Mets’ Major League standards.

The edict, apparently, was to avoid “bad vibes,” which is fair. Look, if I don’t like a radio station, I turn the station. If I don’t like a TV show, I turn the channel. And you sure as shoot better believe that if I don’t like a periodical, I’m not going to lug it around town or have it delivered to my home and/or office.

So why should the Mets?

When word of Bowa’s paper banned leaked out the consensus seemed to be shrugged shoulders or bemused laughter. I looked at it as Nixon-esque paranoia by a guy wrapped a little too tight because I knew the papers weren’t banned because of the political bent of the Op-Ed pages. The sports section of some of the local papers rankle some delicate sensibilities – it’s OK.

Different strokes.

But in New York, the exorcism of the papers made all of the papers – and blogs. Better yet, the game story in the Post the other day led with the “controversy.” Sure, Beltran is hitting the ball like crazy, but he can’t read the Post or Daily News after the game…

Stop the press!

Or don’t… the Mets couldn’t care one way or the other.

**

In the Times, a newspaper not listed on the Mets’ clubhouse ban (though it could be), our old pal Doug Glanville dives into the latest A-Rod controversy regarding the tipping of pitches to the opposition.

Good stuff from Doug, again.


graphic from The Sports Hernia

Nice new park, same crappy location

queensAfter a quick stop for two days in St. Louis, the Phillies and Mets meet up again in New York. Who knows, maybe the arrival of the Phillies to the Mets’ new ballpark will finally get CitiField a sellout?

How about that? That house of horrors called Shea Stadium is all gone, nothing more than leveled ground, replaced by a fancy new ballpark paid for by every taxpayer out there.

You’re welcome Mr. Wilpon.

But here’s the thing about Shea and the Mets’ new bailout ballpark – it’s still located in the same spot. If it’s possible to be in the middle of nowhere in a city of more than 8 million, Robert Moses and New York nailed it with the ballparks in Flushing.

Worse, there is no easy way to get to get out there to those ballparks. There are no back routes or shortcuts. Take the Verrazano Bridge through Staten Island and over to Brooklyn and you will get stuck on the Belt Parkway. If you go farther north to the George Washington to cross through the South Bronx over the Triborough into Queens and you’re done before you get off 95.

The best move is to go through the Holland Tunnel and then through Manhattan to the Queens Midtown Tunnel to the Long Island Expressway and finally to the Grand Central. But even that’s a crapshoot depending on all sorts of variables.

If the natives have any secrets to get to the old stadium deep in the heart of Queens, they didn’t trickle down our way, aside from the trusty Amtrak to Penn Station followed by the short walk to Grand Central to hop on the No. 7 train all the way out into the deep of Queens.

But even that’s stressful, though not the way confirmed moron John Rocker would lead one to believe. The worst part about taking the No. 7 train from Grand Central to Shea isn’t the other people – that’s the best part. In fact, it’s very difficult not to be entertained and/or to make friends on the ride out to Flushing.

No, the worst is getting on the local train and making all the damn stops.

It takes forever.

In the past the journey led to a non-so magnificent destination in Shea Stadium. Frankly, the place was a mess. Even in the press box there are obstructed views, tight quarters in a room with far too few seats and a work area built for a different era when people were the size of Shetland ponies and weren’t lugging around laptop computers. The media dining room is just as cramped, but at least they have a sundae bar and a real caterer.

But you know, so what? Essentially all media people need are electrical outlets, a table, a view of the game and access. Everything else is cream cheese. The problem at Shea was the outlets sparked small fires and the table didn’t quite have enough girth.

Otherwise, it was OK.

It was just as nice for the players, too. Both the home and the visiting clubhouses are small with amenities that clearly aren’t up to date. The dugouts are old, deep and seemingly crumbling.

The elevators don’t work well, the parking is scarce and the location is a drag. Nothing against Flushing or the borough of Queens, but seriously, what was Robert Moses thinking? He built all those freeways, bridges and tunnels, uprooted neighborhoods and displaced folks from their homes and he didn’t anticipate the traffic?

Some visionary he was.

parksNevertheless, that proposed stadium on the west side of Manhattan doesn’t seem likely so it’s back to Queens we go. Only this time the new joint looks pretty nice. Looks like there is plenty of space and lots of electrical outlets.

Still, it’s fair to say that Shea Stadium gets a bad rap from guys like me. The truth of the matter is that there are places far worse than Shea that are celebrated with unironic and overwrought prose about the nostalgic ardor about such buildings. From this vantage point, Fenway Park, the Palestra, Wrigley Field are not great either, but there are no plans to replace any of those places.

So here’s the question: did places like Shea Stadium (built in time for the 1964 World’s Fair), RFK in Washington or even Veterans Stadium get old really fast? Or did our needs change?

In other words, did we get soft?

Certainly Veterans Stadium limped to the finish line, and clearly RFK was not properly equipped to host Major League Baseball for three years. But Shea hosted a World Series not too long ago and the more popular and “historic” Yankee Stadium had last year’s All-Star Game and plenty of World Series games over the past handful of years.

But after we get through all the traffic, the crowds, the stress and all that goes with it to find our way out to Queens, chances are we’re going to see something interesting. After all, it is New York where even the most mundane occurrences seem to take on greater importance.

Shoot, The Beatles, The Clash, Pope John Paul II and Bill Buckner all played Shea. They all rocked the house, too.

No one goes there anymore… it’s too crowded

yankeePerhaps the biggest story of the early part of the baseball season has not been the home runs or the pitching or anything happening on the field. For a change there hasn’t really been all that much talk about MLB’s drug and alcohol problems or the crazy contracts some players got from a few clubs.

And to think, Manny Ramirez and CC Sabathia didn’t even have to wear a mask or play the Powerball to get all that cash. Good for them.

No, aside from the tragedy of Nick Adenhart and the deaths of Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych, the biggest story this season has been all about the new ballparks in New York City.

As if it could be anything else.

Clearly there is the New-York-as-the-center-of-the-universe silliness at the forefront. After all, when something happens in New York it’s as if it never happened anywhere else. That’s the way they think – never mind that every team that was ever going to build a new ballpark had already done so, how can it be possible that Pittsburgh has a nicer ballpark than the two New York teams.

Apparently that’s the case. Not only are there a cavalcade of stories out that the Mets’ Bailout Ballpark and the Yankee Tribute to Avarice and Greed Stadium are, well… underwhelming, but the fans aren’t turning out either.

Who builds a $1.5 billion stadium in the South Bronx anyway? The poorest Congressional district in the country has the most expensive ballpark ever built… funny how that works.

It’s also kind of funny to see all those empty seats behind the dugouts in the new joint, too. The really funny part is all those smart guys running things for the Yankees didn’t get that a lot of folks don’t want to pay $295- to $2,625 for one baseball game. Really… what were they thinking? They still play 162 games per season, right? They’re on TV and everything, too…

“I’m sure they’re thinking, ‘It’s just April,’ ” Jon Greenberg, executive editor of the Team Marketing Report, told The New York Times about the lack of sellouts. “But it’s lost revenue they anticipated getting. This is the worst possible time to debut a stadium.”

Yeah, that’s where the arrogance part enters the picture. Despite the fact that nearly every business is tightening their belts, the Yankees still had the belief that they were immune to the global economic crisis. You know, because if a family has $2,625 burning a hole in its pocket, the thing they need to spend it on is one ticket to a Tuesday night game at the new Yankee Stadium against the Kansas City Royals.

Otherwise, the reviews indicate the new ballpark is pretty nice. It might not be $1.5 billion nice, but nice nonetheless. In fact, one person who has been to the new parks says the Mets’ park might be nicer, but neither is as good as Camden Yards, the park in Pittsburgh or San Francisco, which sounds a bit sacrilegious.

Heck, CBP in South Philly has its charms like two big highways filtering down to the complex as well as plenty of parking. There’s even public transportation nearby. Who doesn’t love the Broad Street Line?

The Yankees aren’t the only New York team struggling to get people to the park. Even the NL East contending Mets are drawing just 37,740 per game, which is 89.9 percent of the capacity at the new ToxicAssets Park. There are more variables at work here, too. One is that it costs 60 percent more to buy food and other extra items not included in the price of the ticket at the Mets’ new park.

But the most interesting part is that the Yankees and Mets appear to be operating like the airline industry. Here’s what the Times wrote:

But the slow start in New York is striking considering how much the teams here spent to build and promote their parks. Like airlines that break even on economy tickets and rely on first-class travelers to turn a profit, the teams need to sell their most exclusive seats to help repay the hundreds of millions of dollars of tax-free bonds they issued to finance their new parks.

The unfilled seats in New York are even more glaring compared with how robust sales have been for previous stadium openings. The Baltimore Orioles sold out 67 of their 80 home dates in 1992, when Camden Yards opened. The Cleveland Indians sold out 36 games in the strike-shortened season in 1994, and were filled to capacity 455 consecutive games from 1995 to 2001.

After moving to their new park in 2001, the Houston Astros drew 3.1 million fans, 300,000 more than they ever attracted at the far larger Astrodome. The Pittsburgh Pirates, a perennial second-division team, sold 2.4 million tickets in 2001 when PNC Park opened, 700,000 more than they ever sold at Three Rivers Stadium.

The answer for the Yankees? Yeah, that’s right… they’re going to raise ticket prices by 4 percent.

The most interesting part about the Mets and Yanks struggling to draw fans to their pricey castles to themselves is that the early leaders in attendance are a pair of teams that have no intention on building a new ballpark…

Ever.

The leaders:

1.)    Red Sox 101.6 percent of capacity

2.)    Phillies 96.9 percent

3.)    Cubs 96.3 percent

4.)    Angels 92.7 percent

Wrigley and Fenway aren’t going anywhere, and CBP clearly is just digging in. Maybe the answer isn’t so much as building a new ballpark as it is fielding a good team with reasonable prices?

Anyway, check out the story on how the Red Sox make do with tiny and out-dated Fenway… can’t manufacture history.

Rainy days and Mondays

Just sitting here waiting for the Phillies game to be called, though it appears as if they might wait for a long time despite the fact that the radar shows nothing but a huge mass of green covering the Eastern Seaboard.

Frankly folks, I’m against this invasion of our region of our country.

Nevertheless, chances are they will wait before calling the game because the San Diego Padres do not return to Philadelphia after Monday’s game. Finding a date in which to force the Padres back to Philly for one game will take some work.

So that’s why they’ll wait despite that green mass covering the map.

But remember back when they used to show the team’s yearly highlight films during rain delays? Sometimes they were better than the game itself and they definitely made the rain delay much more enjoyable.

These days though, they have shows to serve as filler, or viewers can just get up and go do something else during a delay. Back then we had the game and the highlight tape and that was it. Things might not have been better then, but we didn’t know – we liked anyway.

Speaking of rain delay highlights, how about that shot from Andre Iguodala last night? Crazy huh? At least the response to it on my mobile device was crazy. While walking to 30th Street Station for the ride home, the messages rolled in right on top of each other expressing amazement that Iguodala could make that shot and that the Sixers could rally from 18-points down.

I’m sure Marc Zumoff and Tom McGinness probably sounded a bit excited, though the guy doing the highlight below might have been brought in just for the taping:

*
Elsewhere, there was a pretty stellar Boston Marathon with two Americans finishing on the podium. Firstly, Ryan Hall closed hard, but finished in third place with a 2:09:41 clocking. For a first time run at Boston, that’s not bad.

Hall, 26, has run 2:06:17 in London, which is the fastest marathon time ever by a man born on U.S. soil. He also owns the American record in the half-marathon (59:43 in Houston) and clobbered the field in the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in November of 2007.

It’s not unreasonable to think that Hall could actually win one of the Marathon Majors (Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Berlin) in the very near future.

On the women’s side, 45-year old naturalized American Colleen De Reuck paced the pack through the early part of the race with Kara Goucher, who is off to a pretty good start to her marathon career.

After finishing ninth and 10th at the Beijing Olympics in the 10,000-meters and 5,000-meters, Goucher, 30, made the jump to the marathon where she ran an eye-popping 2:25:53 for third place in last November’s New York City Marathon. For an encore, she damn-near won the Boston Marathon.

Goucher ran with winner Deriba Merga of Ethiopia and Salina Kosgei of Kenya past Kenmore Square and actually had the lead with a half-mile to go. But down Boyleston Street, Merga and Kosgei kicked away with the Ethiopian winning by a stride in the closest finish ever.

Goucher was nine seconds back in 2:32:25.

It will be interesting to see if Hall and Goucher go back to Boston in 2010. If so, I’m going after them… OK, maybe not, but we’re going to go after something.

*
Oh yeah, game called… the Phillies will return to action on Tuesday night – weather permitting.

Going green

green-jacketIt’s a big weekend for sports with the Phillies diving deeper into the season and The Masters burning up the TV set down there in Augusta, Ga. Meanwhile, the Phillies play in their third home opener on Monday when they face the lowly Washington Nationals in D.C.

Yes, the vagaries of being the WFCs.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, the trip to the White House will be the only chance for the team to hobnob with the President. The White House announced today that President Obama will not throw the ceremonial first pitch at Monday’s game.

The Nats will just have to find someone else.

Besides, the President is heading off to Mexico and Trindad after the Phillies’ visit next Tuesday.

So while the Phillies will have to make do with a mere visit to the White House, a new Masters champion will likely get a congratulatory phone call from the President later this weekend. The way things are shaping up now it very well could be Lancaster native and Manheim Township grad, Jim Furyk. Midway through the second round Furyk is right there on the mix to win his first green jacket, which hardly seems like a prize at all.

But then again, the Masters is all about conformity. They make the caddies dress in those awful white jumpsuits and green Masters ballcaps, which kind of blends in with most of the players’ attitude about uniqueness. White belts or large belt buckles seem to be the trend these days so the fairways at Augusta National suddenly look like bingo night at the Quiet Valley Retirement Village.

Of course the big white whale at the Masters is Phil Mickelson who has taken to doing ads for ExxonMobile these days. Then again, one has to figure that Mickelson spends enough cash buying gas for his plane so he might as well get some of it back.

*

Finally, it’s still a sad day around baseball as players react to the death of Angels’ pitcher Nick Adenhart. Since 2002, Adenhart, from the DC/Baltimore suburb of Silver Spring, is the third Major Leaguer to die in an accident allegedly related to drunken driving.

As usual, Joe Posnanski captures it nicely. At the same time, the Los Angeles/California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels are no strangers to tragedy.

Shine on you crazy diamonds

Here it is… this is Charlie Manuel’s World Series ring shown off by hand model extraordinaire, Leslie Gudel. The BlackBerry pictures certainly don’t do the ring justice, but trust me – the thing is as big as a belt buckle. In fact, Charlie even reported that there is some room for him to grow into the ring.

More importantly, it’s nice. It’s not tacky like the one the Marlins got in 2003. However, it’s definitely something noticeable when it’s worn. Several of the players left the ballpark with their new bling on and it stood out.

Anyway, here’s Chuck’s ring:

chucks-ring

chuck_ring

*

Speaking of the hand model, we were a bit taken aback when Chipper Jones said he was going to play out his current contract and then “sail off into the sunset.”

Unlike with Curt Schilling, there is no debating that Chipper is a first ballot Hall of Famer.

*

matthewsOh, here’s a crazy story… at Tuesday night’s game at the Bank, I asked a few members of the Phillies PR staff when the team would make the traditional White House visit that championship teams often are honored with.

Actually, not to be confusing, I asked, “Hey, when is the team going to visit the White House. You guys have that off-day, afterall?”

I figured the question was appropriate considering the team will be in The District next week and had an off-day scheduled for Tuesday. But, good question, right? It was quick, concise and to the point and can illicit just a handful of answers.

Or so I thought. Apparently it was a stumper because no one on the staff had an answer to give me or another colleague of the writing press corps.

So imagine our surprise this morning when we woke up, clicked on our mobile devices and saw that the team web site was reporting that the Phillies would visit with the President next Tuesday at the White House.

Wha happened?

I guess the query was too complex or maybe they thought I asked if the team was going to the White House right this minute. As in, “Hey, are guys going to visit the White House, right now?”

Hey, it’s not the first time this type of confusion has occurred in the past month. But the season is young… they’ll get it together and make sure I don’t have answers to basic questions at least once per series.

And of course I will always report back to you there in front of your computer… that’s right, I’m looking out for you, dear readers.

So yeah, the Phillies are going to the White House next Tuesday. In fact, Gary Matthews already has an in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since his daughter and President Obama’s daughter were friends in Chicago.

Yeah, that’s right… Sarge rolls with the leader of the free world.

Sheffield’s agent: ‘Truly productive conversations’

gary-sheffieldRufus Williams, the agent for Gary Sheffield, spoke with CSN on Wednesday and explained that the the Phillies and the ballplayer had, “truly productive conversations” with Ruben Amaro Jr.

Williams also said “several” teams have contacted him and that Sheffield has no preference for an American League or National League team — the most important thing is to go to situation where he plays, the agent said.

Williams also said Sheffield is an “active player” meaning he is much better when he’s able to participate and sees himself more than just a designated hitter, or maybe in the case of the Phillies, a pinch-hitter.

Sheffield is expected to clear waivers on Thursday so a signing with any team is not imminent, but with the season approaching quickly, Williams and Sheffield would like to get something done soon.

Continue reading this story …

Welcome to Camp Sleepy Time

CLEARWATER, Fla. – The sun is high up in the sky just beating down on everything beneath it. The thermometer on the scoreboard reads 76, but with the sun unblocked by the clouds it feels 20-degrees warmer.

It’s freaking hot for us dudes who prefer the cooler climes of the Northeast in mid-March. Some of us like to ease into the hot weather. Some of us need to run to the drug store to get stronger sun screen.

But unlike in Philadelphia, there is nothing happening with the WFC Phillies. All is quiet here at Bright House Field. It’s so quiet, in fact, that players actually played duck-duck goose during the morning stretch before heading back into the clubhouse to watch the country music video countdown on TV before Sunday’s Grapefruit League game against Cincinnati.

Looked like Keith Urban or Taylor Swift was No. 1.

Who is better and what’s the difference? Seriously, these are the big questions to ponder surrounding the Phillies these days.

Nevertheless, it was quite difficult to find topics to small-talk about these days. Ryan Madson only grunted a few “yeahs” and “I don’t know about thats” when asked ambiguously about the vagaries of Grapefruit League action.

Yes, welcome to the dog days here at Camp Sleepy Time ‘09.

Continue reading this story…

Phillies and Mets trade places

A friend from New York City called the other day with an intriguing question. Now before I get into the actual question, it’s worth mentioning that the friend has spent the past two decades working in the sports media, including the past three covering the New York Mets.

Yes, those New York Mets.

So for the past three years this friend of mine watched from the inside as the Mets choked in a seven-game series to the Cardinals in the NLCS, choked during September with a 6½ game lead and less than three weeks to go in ’07, before pulling the trifecta in ’08 by choking a 3½ game lead during late September.

Needless to say, my friend has seen that the Heimlich doesn’t always work on a baseball team. No, these have not been happy times for the Mets, especially considering which team went on to win the World Series last October.

Those elements make the question so much more interesting.

“Tell me,” he said. “Are Phillies’ fans as obsessed with the Mets as the Mets’ fans are with the Phillies?”

Continue reading this story…

Back to where we started

BALTIMORE-WASHINGTON INTERNATIONAL – The Department of Homeland Security says the threat level is “orange.” Actually, the voice with no regional dialect that booms over the P.A. system speaking for the Department of Homeland Security, says the threat level is, indeed, “orange.”

I know this because I hear it every 10 minutes here at BWI, where I will soon be jetting off to sunny Florida for the 2008 World Series. It should be fun – and busy. The World Series is probably one of those events that attracts weirdoes, people seeking alcoholic beverages, people seeking a glimpse of “history,” more weirdoes, media folks*, women, some kids, a handful of celebrities, and teems of overblown egos.

In other words, it’s a party. Actually, it’s a party I get to write about.

But back to the “orange” threat level… is this good or bad? I suspect it’s good because it has remained at “orange” throughout the seven different airplanes I’ve boarded over the past two weeks. That total could climb to double digits by the time this baseball season ends, which makes it good to know that the threat level has remained a warm, fluffy and consistent “orange.”

I assume that the darker the color of the threat, the less secure we are. “Orange,” I guess is bit toward the bad side as opposed to green or taupe. When it gets to mauve or cool, ocean blue, we get to keep our shoes and belts on and our computers in the bag when we go through the security post. Red means there might be snipers casing the long-term parking lot. Be sure to keep the Kevlar with the carry on.

I’m not sure what the level of preparedness they are at in the Tampa Bay area where the Rays, nee Devil, play their games. For one thing, the denizens of Tampa Bay sure do know baseball. In fact, it’s probably a huge component of the local economy, what with the Pirate festivals and spring breakers and all that. Just think of all the teams that train in the area: the Blue Jays are in Dunedin; Yankees in Tampa; Pirates in Bradenton; Reds a little farther south in Sarasota; and of course the Rays in St. Petersburg. The weird thing about the Rays is that they train and play in the same spot…

That never ceases to amaze me.

In the middle of it all, of course, are the Phillies. Since the early 1950s the team has called Clearwater its spring home, and as a result, tons and tons of people from our little area of the country flock down there in February and March to watch the local nine prepare for the upcoming season. Actually, because of those visits, some folks from the Philly area grow to like Clearwater and the surrounding towns so much that they pack up and move there.

Snow birds they call them. Check them out at Frenchy’s or Luigi’s where they wait in line and beat on the doors in order to be the first one in for the early-bird special. Actually, the good folks in Clearwater love them some old people. According to the latest census results, just 35 percent of the residents of Clearwater proper are between the ages of 18 and 44 and 45 percent of the population was older than 45. That last number breaks down to approximately 22 percent over the age of 65.

Nevertheless, Clearwater is a good place to visit in February and March when the air in the northeast still has that nasty bite and one’s skin hasn’t been kissed by the sun since Labor Day.

Anyway, Clearwater is also a good place to go if you like chain stores and strip malls. Based on the visit last February/March, it appeared as if the palmettos, reeds and tall marsh grass final surrendered in the turf war they never had a chance to win. Now, instead of swamps, it’s Target, Borders, Costco, Wal-Mart, Taco Bell, etc., etc.

If you thought the Philadelphia suburbs (and now exurbs) were over-developed, you ought to check out the Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. in Clearwater. Either the folks really want to be homogenized by chain stores or they get really, really peeved if they have to drive the SUV more than three minutes to get a venti mochachino or an industrial sized vat ‘o mayonnaise from the Costco or whatever else folks go to.

Remember, you need a membership to go to those places. It’s that exclusive… and the parking lots? Massive! Some have their own zip code.

The parallel, of course, is that the baseball season truly has come full circle for the Phillies. Better yet, it really has come full circle for me. When it began I jetted in to Tampa International, got a car and checked in to a Marriott-owned (yes, it’s a chain, but I get points!) inn just off the main drag. I spent my days and nights at the ballpark, just off Route 19, learning about what type of season the Phillies might have.

Here we are nearly eight months later as the season is about to end. Again we’re flying in to Tampa International, getting our rides and checking into the very same hotel. After that, it’s baseball all day and night until there is only one team remaining.

Then we get to start all over again in February.

More later when we get all squared away.

 


* Which is a sub-category of weirdo, but for this purpose we’ll give the media its own classification.

Going live…

As with any potential clinching game — or playoff game — we will be doing inning-by-inning updates for the big game against the Washington Nationals this afternoon at the Bank. At the same time we also will keep an eye on the proceedings from Shea Stadium with (we hope) a few exclusive updates from some folks in the press box up there.

In the meantime, here are the lineups:

Phillies
11 – Rollins, ss
28 – Werth, rf
26 – Utley, 2b
6 – Howard, 1b
5 – Burrell, lf
8 – Victorino, cf
7 – Feliz, 3b
51 – Ruiz, c
50 – Moyer, p

Nationals
6 – Hernandez, 2b
15 – Guzman, ss
11 – Zimmerman, 3b
44 – Milledge, cf
34 – Dukes, rf
8 – Boone, 1b
53 – Nieves, c
2 – Bernadina, lf
31 – Lannan, p

One more word on the great Paul Newman, who passed on this morning at the age of 83 after a long battle with cancer…

Aside from being one of the most mesmerizing actor I’ve ever seen. The fact is that no matter the role, it was impossible to take your eyes off him. Whether it was as Fast Eddie Felton in “The Hustler,” the title character in “Cool Hand Luke” or even underrated films like “The Road to Perdition” and “Nobody’s Fool,” Newman brought it all the time.

He was that way off screen, too. The obit in The Washington Post claimed that Newman “mocked his sex-symbol status and said that his personality was closest to the vulgar, second-rate hockey coach he played in ‘Slap Shot’ (1977).”

Newman was beloved by his acting colleagues, who all seemed to want to emulate him. But really, how could they not? As a devoted family man, activist and artist — all of the highest order — there was a lot to copy. He was truly an American icon.

Thankfully Newman leaves behind an epic legacy on the screen and a more important one in the super markets. Newman’s Own products have contributed $200 million to charities since 1982 and will continue giving for decades to come.

So as tribute, I’m going to sit here during the Phillies-Nats game and dig into some Newman’s Own pretzels and if I get home at a decent hour, watch any of the great films from Newman’s body of work…

I think this could be a “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” night.

Charlie finally wins over fans

If someone was new to Philadelphia and didn’t know how it had been for the past three years, the newbie would probably assume that the local fans and manager Charlie Manuel shared a mutual love affair. The fans, one would have to assume, loved Charlie for his folksy ways and the gutsy way he stands up for his players, and the manager loved the fans just because they loved him back.

If only it were that simple.

The fact is Charlie Manuel’s tenure as one of the most successful managers in franchise history, has been anything but rosy. Manuel has heard that he is a poor in-game tactician, a little too loose in handling his players, and, well, Philadelphians thought his Appalachian twang sounded funny.

Oh yeah, Charlie heard all of it, but he says he didn’t hear anything during the ninth inning when an argument with home-plate umpire Andy Fletcher got more than a little heated just before the skipper got the heave-ho.

“CHARLIE! CHARLIE! CHARLIE!” the full house at Citizens Bank Park screamed shortly before the Phillies wrapped up an 8-4 victory over the Washington Nationals on Friday night.

“It was pretty good,” closer Brad Lidge said of Manuel’s arguing tenacity. “He got after it a little bit. I was trying to read his lips a little bit. It was exciting. But Charlie, man, he’ll fight for you out there. It’s great. We really appreciate it as players.”

As Lidge said, Manuel’s selflessness has not gone unnoticed in the clubhouse, which, ultimately, is what the manager cares the most about. Though the manager says he doesn’t notice the cacophony outside of his insular little world, the players notice that Manuel keeps the doors and windows locked so that his guys can just worry about playing ball.

That’s pretty nice.

Yet as the crowd screamed for their manager, those who had observed the relationship from its infancy during the 2005 season to the present day had to marvel at the transformation.

Suddenly, a man who was belittled on talk radio and admonished like a child by fans for supposed strategy gaffes was being serenaded by 44,000 strong.

Not that heard it.

“No, I didn’t [hear the chant],” Manuel said before referring to his argumentative skills. “My red neck was showing too much.”

Then he thought about accessorizing.

“All I needed was some white socks and I’d be all right,” he said as he exited the press conference room to roars of laughter.

After four seasons and just about two consecutive NL East titles, the fans in Philadelphia have finally accepted Charlie Manuel for what he truly is…

A top-notch baseball man, a salt-of-the-earth type of guy and man worthy of respect from his peers, colleagues and players. Not only will Charlie break down a batting swing, explain a pitching decision or crack a joke quicker than a seasoned comedian, but also the manager will regale anyone with volumes of stories from his days playing ball in the minors, majors and Japan, as well as his time coaching and managing.

If you want to talk ball, Charlie Manuel is Mark Twain.

But the Phils’ manager gives more than some good stories. Indeed, Manuel is on the path to rewriting the franchise records for winning. In fact, in the Phillies’ 125-season history, the team has only had four managers on the job for six seasons or more. If Manuel goes the distance on the contract he signed at the end of last season, that’s where he will be, too. By winning 90 games (with a chance for 92) this season and 352 in his first four seasons, Manuel has won more games over that span than any other skipper in team history.

That doesn’t mean it’s all daisies and puppy dogs in Phillie-ville. Manuel disciplined reigning NL MVP twice this season for tardiness and lack of hustle. He’s also battled with Shane Victorino on his focus, sent his opening day starter back to the minors for a month to iron out some flaws and held a few closed-door meetings in order to keep the team on the correct path.

It’s a road that has the Phillies heading back to the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since 1980-81.

But that doesn’t mean the trip is over – not yet.

“We don’t take nothing for granted in this game,” Manuel said. “I learned that a long time ago. I like our position. I’ll like our position better when we’re two up with one to play. That’ll be good. That’s when I’ll drink champagne and V.O. and dance and sing and everything.”

Won’t that be a sight to see?

***
Programming note: Since Saturday’s game is a potential clincher, I will be offering live, in-game updates. So dial the site up and enjoy the game with me…

However, if the Mets lose before the Phillies game begins, the clinch will have already occurred. In that regard, the live updates won’t come as ardently.

A rest day for Hamels?

We should be in position to take care of business ourselves. We shouldn’t have to depend on anyone. I said that from day one.
— Charlie Manuel

 
For the first time in his… well, ever, Cole Hamels made it through an entire season without an injury. Of course, that feat hasn’t been finalized yet because the Phils’ lefty very well might have one more start this season.

Or he might not. It’s still up in the air.

Obviously, there are a few variables to be worked out before a decision is reached on whether Hamels will pitch in Game 162 for the Phillies or if he is held out for Game 1 of the NLDS. For instance, if the Phillies sew up the NL East on Saturday, Hamels will close the season with a 14-10 record, 3.09 ERA and a league-best 227 1/3 innings.

For a guy who never went a full season without a trip to the disabled list, the amount of innings Hamels piled up is significant.

However, Hamels could pile on some more if the Phillies have not clinched the NL East by Sunday. Even if the team sews up a wild-card spot heading into the last day, Hamels will go to the mound to bring home the division.

Needless to say, manager Charlie Manuel would like the Phillies to take care of business as quickly as possible. That’s obvious, though it isn’t so much as to have Hamels for the first game in the playoffs – it’s to give the kid a break.

“You have to take care of your club,” Manuel said. “You have to do what you think is best for your team.”

The worry isn’t that Hamels is tired physically after his first full season – not at all. Manuel said Hamels hasn’t shown any signs of wear and tear this late into the season. No, the concern for Manuel and the Phillies is that Hamels could be a little burnt mentally.

Not that Hamels has shown signs of that, either.

Anyway, there are still a bunch of moving parts that will come into clearer focus by the end of the night. Chances are we will have a pretty good idea where and who the Phillies will play when the postseason begins on Oct. 1.

Here’s how it shakes out for the Phillies:

  • If the Phillies win the NL East and the Mets win the wild card, the Phillies will play the Dodgers in the NLDS.
  • If the Phillies win the NL East and the Brewers win the wild card, the Phillies will play the Brewers in the NLDS.
  • If the Mets win the NL East and the Phillies win the wild card, the Phillies will play the Cubs in the NLDS.
  • If the Phillies and Mets finish the season tied in the NL East and with a better record than the Brewers, the Mets win the division because of their 11-7 record against the Phillies. The Phillies win the wild card.
  • If the Phillies and Mets finish the season tied in the NL East, but have a worse record than the Brewers, the Phillies would play the Mets in a one-game playoff Monday at Citizens Bank Park.
  • If the Phillies, Mets and Brewers finish the season tied, the Phillies would host the Mets in a one-game playoff to decide the NL East title Monday at Citizens Bank Park. If the Phillies lose, they would host the Brewers in a one-game playoff for the wild card Tuesday at Citizens Bank Park. If the Mets lose to the Phillies on Monday, they would host the Brewers in a one-game playoff Tuesday at Shea Stadium.
  • One up, three to go

    So here we are. Just three games to go in the season and the Phillies have a one-game lead over the Mets in the NL East standings. That’s the case because the Mets rallied to knock off the Cubs with a walk-off double from Carlos Beltran with two outs in the ninth.

    A loss certainly would have been devastating for the Mets after the Brewers beat the Pirates with a walk-off grand slam from Ryan Braun with two outs in the 10th.

    Yes, it’s as tight as drum with three to go.

    As we head into what is supposed to be a rainy, wet weekend, the Phillies have a one-game lead over the Mets to win the East. They also have a one-game advantage over the Brewers to clinch, at minimum, a wild-card spot.

    It also means the Phillies cannot clinch a playoff berth on Friday. Instead, they will have to take care of the last-place Washington Nationals – just like last year – if they want to go to the playoffs again.

    Here we are again, folks.

    To get after it, the Phillies will go with Joe Blanton (8-12, 4.79) against Collin Balester (3-6, 4.83) on Friday night; Jamie Moyer (15-7, 3.78) vs. John Lannan (9-14, 3.86) for Saturday afternoon’s nationally televised game; followed by Sunday’s finale where Cole Hamels (14-10, 3.09) could face Odalis Perez (7-11, 4.27). However, if the Phils clinch on Saturday, expect Hamels to sit out until game one of the NLDS.

    The Mets host the Marlins for the final three regular-season games at Shea Stadium, while the Brewers play the Cubs.

    The playoffs start next Wednesday… opponents and teams to be determined.

    Wednesday morning papers

    During the next few weeks and months, this little dog-and-pony show we like to call “Finger Food” will have a renewed focus complete with regular features, interviews, fun multimedia stuff as well as the staple of essays that regular readers are already familiar with. As such, expect a little beta testing on these pages as we move forward and bear with us as we settle into a new standard.

    As always, please e-mail the site or post a comment with suggestions, questions or declarations and I will do my best to supply an answer.

    And, of course, thanks for taking the time to dive into all these words. To me, there is nothing more exciting than a well-crafted sentence (well, you know what I mean – there are a lot of things more exciting than good sentences, but for the sake of this argument, let’s pretend it’s 1776 and there is no CNN to beam us images from Independence Hall…) so I hope I can pass on a little bit of entertainment.

    Without much more blathering on, here’s the latest talk of the town:

    •  Tuesday night’s loss to the Braves underscored just how good the Phillies have been during the last two weeks: “Phils maintain calm focus despite loss” (Sheridan – The Philadelphia Inquirer)
    • Nope, he’s not washed up… Veteran Brian Dawkins named defensive player of the week – and he’s 34! “Dawkins player of the week” (Frank – Phillyburbs)
    • Running back Brian Westbrook still rehabbing his “butt off” in attempt to mend an ankle strain, though he is still doubtful for this Sunday’s game in Chicago. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of Eagles spent the days off getting MRIs… fun!: “Good news on injury front” (Frank – Phillyburbs)
    • Remember back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when it seemed as if the Phillies and Cubs only traded players to each other? Of course you do. These days, though, the Cubs have as ex-Phillies (just Silent Jon Lieber) as they do Philly guys: Blue-Collar Ivy Leaguer Is Cubs’ Secret Weapon (Schwarz – The New York Times)

    Morning stat
    From Baseball Prospectus:

    The Phillies have an 87.4 percent chance to win the NL East, an 11.08 percent chance to win the wild card and a 98.51 percent chance to make the playoffs overall.

    Morning quote

    I wasn’t worried at all. I knew we had time. I checked the other clubs. I did some mathematical things, figured out how many games we were going to win.

    —  Charlie Manuel on not worrying about the Phillies playoff chances after losing a series to the last-place Nationals earlier this month.

    Phillies have foes running scared

    Suddenly, the Phillies have everyone worried, and for a change that’s a good thing. In fact, the Phillies have some teams running scared so much that those clubs are starting to look at plans B, C and maybe even D.

    Just look what happened with the Milwaukee Brewers after the Phillies swept them out of Citizens Bank Park last weekend. Even though the Brewers remain tied for first place in the wild-card race with 12 games to go, the team axed manager Ned Yost. Oh sure, it’s not uncommon for a team to fire its manager and then go on a run to the playoffs. Actually, it happened with a member of the Phillies coaching staff when Jimy Williams was fired by the Astros more than halfway through the 2004 season.

    The Astros were not in first place when Williams was let go four seasons ago, but Pat Corrales had the Phillies in first place 87 games into the 1983 season when general manager Paul Owens famously sent Corrales packing and replaced the manger with himself.

    Guess what? It worked. The Phillies went all the way to the World Series before the Orioles shut them down in five games.

    Whether or not the Brewers’ act of desperation works or not remains to be seen. Certainly their schedule will do them no favors. This week they play six on the road against the Cubs and Reds before they finish with six at home against the Pirates and Cubs. Combined, the Brewers are 11-14 against the Cubs and Reds, but 11-1 against the Pirates.

    Nevertheless, the Phillies’ latest surge just might have forced the move on Yost.

    But if it were just the wild card the Phillies had their eyes on, the Brewers might have been able to weather the storm with Yost. That’s not the case, though. Instead, the Brewers have to worry about the Mets, too, since the Phillies could overtake them for first place in the NL East as early as tonight.

    Oh boy… it’s happening again.

    Needless to say, the shorts are bunching up at Shea Stadium because once again the Mets just can’t seem to beat the Washington Nationals. Last season the Nats swept the Mets during the last week of the season to add to the historical collapse. Had the Mets been able to beat the Nationals just once that last week things might not have worked out for the Phillies. The Nats have lost 182 games over the past two seasons, but the Mets just couldn’t figure out how to beat them once down the stretch.

    That problem reappeared last night when the Nationals beat up on the rapidly aging Pedro Martinez to send the big city folks looking at the wild-card standings. At the same time, Ben Shpigel wrote for The New York Times’ “Bats” blog a story with the headline, “How Worried Should They Be in Queens?”

    In comparison to last season, Shpigel writes, the Mets’ starting pitching is much improved. With Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez, the Mets would be tough to beat in a short playoff series.

    But there is the matter of that bullpen. As a result the Mets are counting on a flame out from the Brewers so they can sneak into the playoffs as the wild-card team if the Phillies take the East again.

    Shpigel writes:

    If the Brewers continue to fade (they have six games left against the Cubs), the Mets are in even better shape. Even if the Phillies overtake the Mets in the division, the Mets have to really mess up (stop smirking) to fall out. It can happen, I know. But the odds of them making the postseason at this point are better than they were at this time last year.

    Meanwhile, the Phillies’ remaining schedule is another reason why the Mets and Brewers are running scared. With six more to go against the Braves and three each against the Marlins and Nats, the Phillies’ opponents have a combined .447 winning percentage (201-248).

    That sounds pretty good.

    With the fear come good feelings from the Phillies. Finally, they control their own destiny.

    “I believe in attitude, charisma, whatever they want to call it,” Manuel said. “When we come to the ballpark, everything’s OK and fine, and everybody’s in a good mood, upbeat. Everybody’s happy.”

    Showdown at Shea

    Regardless of how the weekend series in New York shakes out, it’s very likely the Phillies will take the race for the NL East all the way to the final days of the season. The Phillies may not have much of a shot at a second straight playoff berth, but make no mistake – the Phillies will be in it until the end.

    Be that as it is, the series against the Mets at Shea Stadium will carry a lot of weight in regard to the Phillies’ post-season hopes. The Phillies are definitely on the edge. In fact, the Phillies most definitely HAVE to win two games this weekend. Trailing the Mets by three games with just 22 remaining in the season, it could all slip away very quickly if the Phillies aren’t careful.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know that the Phillies won the NL East after trailing the Mets by seven games with 17 to go. In fact, the Phillies know it all too well. Lately, anytime a player is asked about the race against the Mets a pad answer about how the team did it before comes trotting out.

    The truth is the Phillies got lucky last year. The Mets fell flat on their faces and handed it over in an epic collapse. Come on… who loses a seven-game lead with 17 to go?

    Can lightning strike the same spot twice? Maybe.

    But then again, maybe not.

    It might not be correct to suggest the Phillies are in better shape than the Mets at this point. Oh sure, Billy Wagner might not pitch again this season (though he did have a bullpen session today), and the Mets’ bullpen has struggled throughout the second half. Meanwhile, the team’s offense is filled with some older players prone to slumps and injuries.

    However, the Phillies’ ‘pen isn’t in great shape either. Even though they still have the best bullpen ERA in the league, some guys are beginning to feel the toll of the long season. Chad Durbin, Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero likely won’t get many days off over the final three weeks of the season.

    Durbin, meanwhile, is in his first season as a full-time reliever and never pitched in 36 games before hitting 60 this year. Madson, who missed most of the second half of ’07 with injuries, has already appeared in 64 games and could snap his career-high of 78 appearances from 2005.

    Reliever Clay Condrey also has established a new career-high in appearances, while Romero has already pitched in 120 games for the Phillies since joining the team late last June.

    Fortunately, starting pitchers Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Cole Hamels – the hurlers scheduled to go this weekend at Shea – have been pretty good at eating up some innings. Myers has taken the game to the seventh inning in seven straight starts and could inch toward 190 innings despite missing a month while in the minors. Moyer has pitched at least six innings in 18 of his 28 starts, and Hamels leads the league in innings with 203.

    Now if they could just hit the ball there would be nothing to worry about…

    Right?

    Hey, it’s Barack! Yeah, that Barack

    Phew!

    Lots of craziness going on here… where do we start? Maybe with Google Chrome? I downloaded it yesterday hours after its launch and have been using it ever since. I was a Firefox devotee for years, but I am going to give Google’s new browser a try. So far it seems a little quicker and maybe even a little less buggy. We’ll see how it goes.

    Or do we begin with Donyell Marshall, the newest addition to the 76ers. Interestingly, I actually recall the very first time I ever saw Marshall – a 14-season NBA veteran – play basketball.

    It was either 1988 or 1989 and I was sitting on the home team bench our gym at McCaskey High School. Marshall, probably a freshman or sophomore in high school at the time, rolled down 222 with his teammates from Reading High. Back then Donyell was built like a Q-Tip. He was all legs, tall and skinny. Like, really skinny. Even though Reading was always a good basketball team that usually gave us fits, no one knew much about Marshall. He just looked so young and we figured he was in the game because he was taller than his other teammates.

    You can’t teach height, they say.

    Nevertheless, no one really paid too much attention to Donyell until a point early in the game when he caught the ball on the low block at the hoop on the far end of the gym, turned around with a man on him, jumped straight up into the air and dunked the ball with one hand.

    That one got our attention. Besides, the gym got really quiet after that. “Uh-oh,” is what we thought.

    Anyway, Marshall is with the Sixers now. Too bad they don’t train at Franklin & Marshall College any more…

    Maybe we can start with the Phillies and the trip to Washington, which is where I am sitting as I type. Certainly left-handed starter Cole Hamels turned in another stellar outing last night to beat the Nationals to keep the Phillies two games behind the Mets in the NL East. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Hamels will start in the big, nationally televised Sunday night game against the New York Mets and Johan Santana.

    Coming off a 4-0 win over the Nationals on Tuesday night where he tossed 7 1/3 innings of shutout ball, Hamels pushed his league-leading innings total to 203. More importantly, Hamels threw 104 pitches on Tuesday and 108 in seven innings in the previous start in Chicago on Aug. 28. Hamels has thrown 100 pitches or more in 17 of his 29 starts, but has gone over 110 eight times and just twice since July 3.

    Moreover, Hamels has better statistics this year when he pitches on four days rest (8-2, 2.47) as opposed to five (4-5, 4.14). Sometimes, Hamels says, he feels a little “off” with that extra day of rest.

    “I understood the situation. I think this is the time that really matters,” Hamels said. “I know five days is what I just did five days ago. That’s what I’ve been able to do all year, and that’s what I’ll do this time. The main guy, when it’s the playoffs or the division championship or the big division rivalry, that’s what I want to be. It’s time to step up to the plate, and I know that I’m ready for it.”

    Manuel and Dubee feel the same way.

    “He’s coming off 108 pitches and 104 [Tuesday],” Dubee said. “You have to give the kid credit – he’s worked hard and kept himself in shape. He’s preserved his body and prepared well.”

    Besides, with just 22 games remaining in the season after Wednesday’s game against Washington, the Phillies are putting a lot of stock into the series against the Mets. Sunday’s game, in particular, is one of those two-game swing outings. Since Kendrick turned in a 6.08 ERA during August, and was tattooed for six runs, eight hits and three walks last Monday in a loss to the Nats, the decision wasn’t too difficult.

    Actually, it was just a matter of Hamels recovering well enough following Tuesday’s start to give the thumbs up.

    “I talked to Kyle – he wants to pitch,” Dubee said. “I respect that. But we want Cole.”

    However, it seems as if the weather could play a role in this weekend’s pitching matchups against the Mets. Saturday’s early forecast shows lots of rain in the New York Metropolitan area, which could force a wash out. If that occurs, Sunday would set up a day-night doubleheader in which both Kendrick and Hamels would pitch.

    No, we’re not going to discuss the weather.

    However, it should be noted that it is pretty damn hot down here. But then again (as we have written in the past) this city was built on top of a swamp.

    Speaking of Washington (weren’t we?), the town is rather empty this week. Part of the reason is because the Republican convention is in St. Paul, Minn. this week. Another reason is because Congress is not in session. Still another reason is because campaign season is in full affect so everyone is out doing all of that stuff.

    Nevertheless, Washington is an industry town (yes, we’ve broached this topic in the past, too) and the product is government. However, it seems different here these days. Most of the time the politicians eschew the so-called Georgetown cocktail circuit or even routine weekends hanging around with each other in The District in order to return to their home districts. As a result, the theory goes, fewer behind-the-scenes deals get brokered and the government is less efficient.

    If that’s possible.

    Yes, that was too easy.

    Speaking of Franklin & Marshall, Washington, the campaign season and basketball enthusiasts, get this:

    Barack Obama is going to be in my backyard tomorrow.

    Yes, that Barack Obama.

    And when I mean in my backyard, I’m not kidding. See, the Senator from Illinois will bring his presidential campaign to Lancaster’s Buchanan Park at 5 p.m. tomorrow. Chances are he will give a speech and rally his supporters into being even more supportive. Plus, such events are fun because it brings out all sorts of people – both pro- and anti-whatever the issue is. Frankly, I enjoy the spectacle.

    Since it’s early September and steaming hot out there, Barack won’t be showing up at Buchanan Park to sled down the ol’ hill. However, I imagine they could open up the wading pool on the other side of the sledding hill for him.

    Of course, he could hang near the dog run, too.

    Whatever Barack decides to do, it will be a fun event. Guys running for president don’t make it to Buchanan Park all that often, and I should know. After all, not only have I lived in the neighborhood near the park most of my life, but back during the summer of ’88, I was the Buchanan Park playground supervisor for the Lancaster Rec Commission. Yep, that was me. I coached the softball team, planned activities, lifeguarded the pool and generally kept the riff-raff of my home neighborhood in line.

    Then again, Buchanan Park is named for a president. President James Buchanan, in fact, and the guy lived two blocks away on Marietta Ave. I even suspect the land that was quartered off and developed into Buchanan Park was originally part of the President’s estate, called, “Wheatland.”

    Buchanan Park, of course, is directly adjacent to F&M College, which just so happens to be where John McCain will visit next Tuesday.

    Yes, that John McCain.

    That’s two different presidential candidates in less than a week, if you are scoring at home. That’s also two different spectacles I hope to attend.

    Regardless, those guys must really like Lancaster. Tomorrow will be Obama’s third trip to town and it will be McCain’s second in two months. If either guy wants to stop by, they are more than welcome. We’ll be in the neighborhood.

    Hello, Von Hayes, hello

    Von Hayes was one of the more intriguing players in the history of the Phillies. Actually, it’s Hayes’ legacy as a Phillie that is the interesting part. That’s much more the case than Hayes’ actual baseball performance. Hayes was a good player – there’s nothing more to parse in that statement. Perhaps if he had played for another team he would be remembered differently. Perhaps with less animosity.

    Apparently, Hayes heard a boo or two at the ol’ Vet.

    That last part might have more to do with Philadelphia and the Phillies than Hayes. After all, it wasn’t Hayes’ fault the Phillies sent five players to the Indians in the trade for him. It also isn’t Hayes’ fault that he landed in Philadelphia when the Phillies were transitioning from their golden age to mediocrity.

    Anywhere else Hayes would have been a nice complimentary player – maybe like Jayson Werth for the current club – and not counted on to be a star.

    Again, not Hayes’ fault.

    But there certainly are perks to showing flashes of brilliance on the field in Philadelphia. Hayes, of course, once belted two home runs in the first inning of a 26-7 victory over the Mets in 1985. For many adolescents of the ‘80s who followed baseball religiously before the proliferation of cable TV and the mass media, that two-homer inning was enough to make fans for life. Back then there wasn’t a game on TV every night, so we lived vicariously through the box scores in the paper. Here in Lancaster, on the distant end of the Philadelphia media market, Hayes’ name stood out.

    Actually, the positive media reports regarding Hayes’ potential was what made the most impact. He had a swing like Ted Williams, we were told. A contender for the rookie of the year in ’82, the Phillies were right to deal five guys (Manny Trillo, Julio Franco, George Vukovich, Jay Baller and Jerry Willard) to get him, they claimed.

    Based on the numbers – which look quite skimpy in the post-steroid era – Hayes seemed like the quintessential Phillie of that age. He was a .267 lifetime hitter, but hit .305 in 1986. He hit 124 home runs in 9½ seasons for the Phillies, (an average of around 13 per season), but in ’89 he slugged 26 to finish seventh in the National League.

    There were the flashes of brilliance, but mostly Hayes never quite lived up to the hype. In hindsight, those flashes proved to be aberrations.

    But one of the best parts about sports is romanticizing the past. Playing remember-when works well in any time regardless of demographics or media dynamic. Though the games look different and our experiences with them have morphed from following along on the radio and newspapers and TV to the Internet, but the sentimentalizing transcends all that. For instance, yesterday I was visiting with a friend who is going to a game at Yankee Stadium this week for the first time since he was a kid in the early 1960s. He remembered the last trip so vividly it sounded damn-near Rockwellian.

    Mantle, Maris, Yogi, Rizzuto and his dad. Top that. I’m anxious to hear about how his return trip went.

    Anyway, what stirred the Von Hayes memories was a story written by Jeff Pearlman for ESPN.com, about a group of guys that formed a lo-fi alt-rock combo named for the ballplayer. No, they aren’t a Hayes tribute band or anything silly like that. They just claim to be inspired by the old Phillie.

    There were two things that piqued my interest about the story. One was the subject matter. These days Von Hayes is the manager of the Lancaster Barnstormers, who play in the independent Atlantic League. The Barnstormers ballpark is located just on the other side of Franklin & Marshall College from my house. From a second-floor window I can see the light towers from the ballpark and on weekends the non-stop fireworks shows launched after ballgames annoy the crap out of the entire town.

    But think about that for a minute… Lancaster, Pa., Von Hayes and fireworks. If I had a Turkey Hill slushey, some Atari games or APBA baseball, I’d hop onto my Mongoose bike and roll over to the games. It would be like I was 13 all over again.

    The most interesting part about Pearlman’s story, however, was the few grafs near the end where he wrote about his attempts to contact the club’s front office. Apparently, the PR department or some other group in the team office didn’t return Pearlman’s calls.

    And here I thought it was just me.

    Pearlman and I are in the same boat in this regard. The fact is, I’ve called and e-mailed the Barnstormers’ president and a few folks in the PR department and have never, ever had my messages returned.

    Never, ever.

    Look, I just work for Comcast SportsNet. We’re bigger than anything in Lancaster, but we’re not as big as ESPN. Nor are we as big as Pearlman’s former employer, Sports Illustrated. So if the Barnstormers aren’t returning calls for Jeff, I guess I shouldn’t be so upset.

    Right?

    Well…

    Pearlman just finished up an in-depth book about the glory days of the Dallas Cowboys. He also wrote a book about the 1986 Mets and Barry Bonds. He famously wrote about John Rocker for SI and even cracked The New York Times best seller list. Not too shabby.

    Meanwhile, I’m just used to professional courtesy. In fact, every team in Major League Baseball has always returned my calls or e-mails (some faster than others), and every U.S. Representative, Senator and governor I ever have needed a response from has followed through promptly, too. But if the Lancaster Barnstormers don’t call back Jeff Pearlman for a fun story for ESPN, I guess that Von Hayes story I wanted to write is a no-go.

    Oh well.

    Here’s a funny part: As I was preparing research and awaiting a reply for access from the Barnstormers for a potential story on Hayes, I contacted the front office of Oakland A’s, whom Hayes worked for as a manager in the minors. Not only did someone from the A’s return my call, but actually showed up in Philadelphia at the ballpark to answer a few questions and talk about baseball. It was a really fun afternoon.

    I was told the A’s liked Hayes, among other little nuggets. It might have made for a nice story.

    Instead, this is all I got out of it…

    And you just got a little whine.

    P.S. One more thing about Von Hayes: When I was a kid I was a prolific letter writer. I wrote to anyone and everyone. Once I even wrote a letter to Von Hayes, and guess what?

    He wrote back!

    Based on that, what’s he doing with the Barnstormers?

    Just hanging out on a Tuesday night

    OK, where do I start first – Phillies or the Olympics?

    Phillies, right?

    It certainly should be an interesting evening at the ol’ (new) ballpark tonight. Despite taking two of three from the lowly Padres, it seems as if the fans are restless and fed up with the Phillies’ offense. But make no mistake, Charlie Manuel isn’t too happy with it either.

    How can he be? A nine-week slump with the bats just might be what the Mets need to capture the NL East. However, the Mets’ bullpen is a mess. Worse, it was that way before closer Billy Wagner went out with left elbow inflammation.

    Nevertheless, this is a big stretch for the Phillies. With nine straight games at home, including three against the lowly Nationals starting tonight, the Phillies can cut into the Mets’ 1 ½ games lead in the NL East.

    Then there is Jimmy Rollins…

    Yeah, that whole situation nearly reached its apex this afternoon when the reigning NL MVP talked to a healthy media throng about the comments he made on the late-night cable TV program, “The Best Damn Sports Show, Period.”

    There weren’t too many interesting revelations from that little powwow other than Rollins telling the press that the one thing he has learned this season is how important he is to the team.

    Certainly Rollins is correct about that. During the last seven game road trip, the Phillies struggled to a 3-4 record and scored just 22 runs largely in part because Rollins did not get on base. During that stretch Rollins hit .167 and had an on-base percentage of .194.

    Then again Rollins isn’t the only player struggling with the bat for the Phillies.

    However, when asked if he regretted the comments he made on the TV show, Rollins had a quick reply:

    “No, not at all.”

    Without naming names, Rollins also pointed out that he took one for the team.

    “I was speaking for a lot of guys,” he said.

    So there’s that.

    ***
    Meanwhile, in the Far East it was a pretty good day for the American women distance runners. In the qualifying heats of the women’s 5,000-meters at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, Shalane Flanagan followed up her recent bronze medal in the 10,000-meters by turning in a quick, 14:59.69 to advance to the 5,000 finals on Friday.

    Villanova’s Jen Rhines also advanced with a 15:15.12 over the 3.1 miles, while Kara Goucher made it through with a 15:00.98. Goucher was disappointed with her 10th place finish in the 10,000 even though she ran a personal best time and says she turned her focus on the 5,000 when she realized that she wasn’t going to medal in the 10,000.

    Nevertheless, if Goucher, Rhines or Flanagan are going to finish on the podium on Thursday, it will definitely take a personal-best time. Both Rhines and Goucher have run 14:55 in the distance, while Flanagan has the American record with 14:44. By comparison, there are eight women in the field of 15 who have run times faster than Flanagan’s American record.

    Taking the act on the road

    Hey folks –
    Posts around here will be a bit sporadic and/or delayed during the next few days. It’s vacation time for the family and since my wife and two boys got a head start on me earlier this week, I have to batten down the hatches here in The Lanc before heading out.

    Nevertheless, I’ll check in tonight/tomorrow with a few items pertaining to the Phillies, fun-time travel tidbits and maybe even a little something on 41-year-old Olympic swimmer, Dara Torres.

    After that, everything else will come direct from Estes Park, Colorado where the big plan is run up a mountain (not hike, run). Other than the big run, I plan on sitting around with some coffee, and a book for some decoration so it looks like I’m doing something while I stare out into the middle distance for a week or so.

    Check out the picture from the backyard

    Anyway, I’ll be sure to write all about the adventures and goofiness I get tangled up in over the next week(s)… stay tuned.

    Myers on the way back or way out?

    From the way it looked on the tee-vee, it appeared as if there was some excitement down there at Citizens Bank Park. Based on reports on the Internets it seemed as if the Mets were going to win in a laugher, but those wily Phillies made ol’ Billy Wagner sweat it out again in the ninth.

    Is it me or does Wagner’s fastball look as if it has slowed to Myers-esque velocity?

    Speaking of Brett Myers, a few of us got to chat him up after his second minor-league outing at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown after he earned his first win since he beat the Florida Marlins on May 30. Myers pitched 7 1/3 innings, making through three hitters in the eighth inning. He allowed three runs, two of which were earned, as well as seven hits, two walks and a hit batsmen.

    The hit batter came on a fastball, which I thought was a good sign because it showed that the big righty was finally throwing his fastball inside on hitters. I guess he got it in a little too much in that case, but still, progress is progress.

    I wrote all about it right here.

    Even better than burying one in some dude’s ribs was that Myers’ best inning of the game came in the seventh when he responded to his teammates scoring four runs to take a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the sixth by striking out the side. In fact, the radar gun on TV showed that Myers had his speediest heater during that inning.

    Obviously, when handed a lead late in the game, Myers wasn’t interested in giving it up.

    “That’s what a winner does,” pitching coach Rod Nichols said when asked about Myers’ seventh inning. “He got the lead and went out and struck out the side.”

    Still, the big issue isn’t so much as if Myers will get it together in the minors. Why wouldn’t he? Say what you will about the big fella… just don’t think he doesn’t have his pride. Better yet, give him credit for stashing his ego to the side for a moment and realizing that he needed to fix some things.

    Then again, perhaps he should have showed up to spring training focused on being a starting pitcher.

    Regardless, Randy Miller of Bucks County and yours truly asked Myers about his future as a Phillie and whether or not recent developments affected his immediate or not-so distant tenure with the club. After all, the trading deadline is a little more than three weeks away AND Myers’ contract runs out after next season. If the guy really wants to be a reliever more than a starter as reported, it would seem that his time with the Phillies is tenuous at best.

    Nevertheless, when the subject was broached whether or not he “needed a change of scenery,” Myers had a pretty clever answer.

    “What, this isn’t a big enough change of scenery?” he joked.

    Touché.

    Indeed, pitching for the IronPigs in Allentown is quite a change of scenery compared to pitching for the Phillies in Philadelphia. So too is riding to the next game on a chartered bus as opposed to a chartered plane. One flies and the other might have bunk beds.

    So next time out Myers will pitch on Saturday for the Phillies… that’s the Reading Phillies. Rather than travel with Lehigh Valley to Syracuse, Myers will pitch in Reading against Akron. After that, Myers is hoping to rejoin his old teammates back in Philadelphia.

    “Hoping? I’m planning on it. There’s no hope about it – I’m just getting my work in and working hard to get back there and show them I’m ready.”

    National League independence

    It seems like a long time since we were at ol’ Citizens Bank Park, but here we are on an easygoing Independence Day Friday. Depending on how quickly we get out of here tonight, I might roll by the Graff House as a little tribute to Thomas Jefferson (as well as John Adams and Benji Franklin) for the fantastic document they wrote here in Philadelphia back in the summer of 1776.

    But more on the task at hand here at the Bank where the Phillies can seek their independence from the rest of the NL East with a good weekend against the Mets. In fact, there’s some talk in these parts that the Phillies can properly bury the Mets with a four-game sweep…

    Perhaps, but there remains a ton of baseball left to be played. However, a sweep by the Phillies puts the Mets 8½ games back and increases the intensity of the bickering and fighting amongst members of the league’s most dysfunctional club.

    Regardless, the Mets will trot out their top pitchers this weekend with Johan Santana working tonight, John Maine slated to go Saturday night, the delicate Oliver Perez set for Sunday, and Pedro Martinez in Monday night’s finale.

    The Phillies counter with J.A. Happ in his second big-league start, followed by Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton.

    Yes, with that lineup a sweep will be difficult.

    But this ain’t APBA or Strat-O-Matic… let’s see what happens.

    ***
    Between the top and bottom of the first inning, the Phanavision showed Chris Wilson in the crowd. Chris Wilson, of course, is the excellent drummer for Ted Leo & the Pharmacists.

    I’m sure I was the only person who picked up on the deserved celebrity of Chris Wilson…

    That’s a damn shame.

    ***
    Finally, it’s a big night in Eugene for the Olympic Track Trials. In addition to the semifinals of the men’s 1,500-meters, Hayward Field will be blazed up for the finals of the women’s 5,000 meters and the men’s 10,000 meters.

    Villanova’s Jen Rhines is a favorite to make her third straight Olympic team in the 5,000, while Millersville University’s James Carney is a legit darkhorse in the 10,000.

    Maureen McCandless from Nazareth Academy had one of the fastest qualifying times in the 5,000 and should be a threat, too.

    Apropos of that, the 2008 track Trials have been some of most entertaining ever. If you aren’t watching you are missing out.

    Measuring up

    CharlieDuring the past month it’s been very difficult not to get excited about the Phillies. They have scored runs with impunity, won games at nearly a 1993 rate all while the bullpen corps established itself as one of the better groups in the game. When it comes to rallying for a lead in the middle to late innings before the relievers come in and nail it down, the Phillies are as good as any team in baseball.

    In the process, the Phillies have established themselves as the best team in the NL East and baring a collapse of New York Mets-like proportions, the Philllies should return to the playoffs in 2008.

    But that’s where it gets complicated.

    Yes, the Phillies are a playoff-caliber team. And, yes, the ’08 Phillies are better than the version that slipped into the playoffs during the 2007 season. Those two points are given. But what complicates things is that the Phillies are now forced with a pretty difficult decision that must come to a conclusion by the end of next month.

    What are they in this for?

    Do the Phillies simply want to improve on last season’s short ride through the playoffs, or are they going for the rings, trophies and champagne?

    Sure, it sounds like an easy question to answer. Every player on every team – even the ones who secretly know they have no shot – say they won’t be satisfied unless they win the World Series. That’s the whole point of playing, they say. But the facts are much more austere. Some teams just aren’t built for the long haul of a 162-game season. Others are built to win a division or a wild-card berth, but flame out in the playoffs.

    But only a couple of teams every season are built to go all the way. With some clubs the brass gets together to compile the components that will carry the team during late October. Sometimes those teams even go on autopilot for the first few months of the regular season.

    The Phillies saw firsthand what those really good teams look like when the Boston Red Sox came to town for three games this week. The players and the management got to see how the Red Sox set up the Phillies’ pitchers, patiently waiting for a pitch to bash for extra-base hits or base-clogging walk. The Red Sox made the Phillies hurlers work and then they exposed all their little, tiny weaknesses.

    If that wasn’t enough, the Sox pitchers worked over the heart of the Phillies’ batting order and held Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell to a combined 1-for-24 (.042) during the final two games of the series and 6-for-36 (.167) during the entire three-game series.

    No, the Red Sox didn’t come right out and embarrass the Phillies. After all, Cole Hamels pitched splendidly in the Phillies’ 8-2 victory last Monday where Howard, Burrell, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino spurred the offense. Instead, the Red Sox treated the Phillies as if they were a tiny winged insect there for amusement and all they had to do when they got finished plucking the wings off one-by-one was stomp on them.

    “Obviously they’ve been successful a long time and there’s a reason why. They have some good players over there,” Utley said. “I thought we played well the first game. We faced a tough pitcher the second game and today we had some opportunities we didn’t capitalize on.”

    This was the Red Sox with Jon Lester and Justin Masterson and not Josh Beckett or Dice-K. It was the Sox with Sean Casey and J.D. Drew leading the way and not sluggers David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez or Kevin Youkilis.

    It wasn’t exactly the B-team… that was the Phillies. Better yet, it was a Phillies club that came away from the series with a handful of lessons.

    “The first night, we went out and won and everybody’s talking about the Phillies finally proving they can do it. Then, we lose the next two,” Victorino said. “It’s not a learning process. It’s just a matter of seeing what they have.

    “I think we match up with them. I know we can.”

    Thinking it and doing it are two different things. As a result it has become quite clear that if the Phillies are interested in playing the Red Sox again this season, they need to make an addition or two. That’s because the only sure thing the Phillies have in the starting rotation is Hamels. After that, it’s pray the bats are hot.

    Fortunately for the Phillies and their fans, management was hip to the team’s weaknesses all along. In fact, reports have surfaced which indicate the team has dispatched scouts specifically to watch the Indians’ C.C. Sabathia and the Padres’ Greg Maddux pitch. Both players could be available for a trade before the July 31 deadline, though the price won’t be cheap.

    Meanwhile, the proverbial gauntlet has been thrown down for Opening Day starter Brett Myers, who thus far has limped to a 3-8 record with a 5.58 ERA. Both manager Charlie Manuel and assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. have stated that the big right-hander has to improve quickly…

    Or what?

    Fortunes turn fast in baseball. Suddenly the Phillies have lost three straight series and six out of their last nine immediately on the heels of a stretch in which they won 12 of 14 games. Plus, the first-place Los Angeles Angels head to town this weekend. Like the Red Sox, the Angels are another tam built for games to be played when the leaves have dropped from the trees and the air takes on a chilly bite.

    Have we seen the real Phillies or are they still on the way?

    “I’m concerned, I’m not worried,” Manuel said. “We got three more games on this homestand. I’d like to see the Angels come in here and finish this homestand real well. I’d to see us get some things going.”

    Picking winners

    Cole HamelsLet’s try this theory out for size:

    The amateur draft in baseball is the most important draft in all of the major professional sports. It’s more important than all the hoopla associated with the NBA and NFL drafts and it’s certainly more important than the NHL draft. Sure, those other drafts get much more hype than the baseball draft simply because the casual fan has heard of all the top players, but as far as sheer impact on an organization goes, nothing has a greater effect than the baseball draft.

    Tomorrow the Phillies will entrust director of scouting Marti Wolever, assistant GM Mike Arbuckle and their scouts and baseball people to shape the organization for (hopefully) the next decade. Gripped with a dearth of prospects in the minor leagues, Wolever and the gang can really replenish the system during tomorrow’s draft because they have seven selections in the first 136 picks.

    “It’s the first time in 16 years we have this many picks that I can remember,” Wolever said. “It’s real significant. We have a chance to impact the system by putting some quality players in.”

    The Phillies have to wait until the 24th overall pick on Thursday afternoon to make their first pick, but after that they come quickly. The Phillies also have the 34th, 51st, 71st, 102nd, 110th and 136th picks. The 34th selection is a compensation pick from the Giants from when they signed free agent Aaron Rowand away from the Phillies.

    Nevertheless, the reason why baseball drafts are so important is because the player/prospect becomes such an integral part of the organizations’ plans. Certain prospects, like Cole Hamels was, are deemed “untouchable” in things like trades or potential Rule 5 drafts. Because of that, guys like Hamels are earmarked spots in the rotation well into the future, which causes the team to act accordingly. Why would a team like the Phillies make a deal for a pitcher if they have someone like Cole Hamels down on the farm?

    Additionally, baseball players spend a long time in an organization. Teams invest time, money and resources in developing ballplayers even if they aren’t labeled as “prospects.” After all, baseball organizations are more than just one, Major League team. Instead, they are chains of teams located all over the hemisphere that need players, coaches, trainers, scouts, etc., etc. in order to function. They are, indeed, franchises that need a lot of different moving parts.

    Therefore, the players selected in the draft matter.

    What’s more, certain prospects not labeled as “untouchable” are perfect for helping teams over the short term. In fact, it’s difficult to find significant trades in baseball that do not include prospects because every team covets them. So in order to land a player that could put a contending team over the top during the stretch run, a prospect or two might be the cost.

    Before the 2000 season the Phillies thought they were a team that would be in the mix for a wild-card spot if they could get another starting pitcher to compliment Curt Schilling. In thinking veteran right-hander Andy Ashby was the pitcher they needed, the Phillies dealt away first-round draft picks Adam Eaton and Carlton Loewer to San Diego.

    It was a controversial deal at the time, but with the aid of hindsight it appears as if the trade were a push. Injuries wrecked Loewer’s career, Eaton came full circle and back to the Phillies, while Schilling and Ashby were both traded away during June of 2000 when it was clear the Phillies weren’t contenders.

    So yeah, a good draft pick can help out a team now or later.

    On Thursday, Wolever is hoping for both. However, based on the team’s drafting strategy, the down-the-road part appears to be the best analysis – at least in terms of the pick joining the Phillies. See, Wolever likes to target “high-ceiling” players, which means the Phillies often select high school players as opposed to more polished college prospects in the draft.

    Still, Wolever has selected four college players with the team’s first pick dating back to 2000.

    “You can’t take all high-ceiling players,” Wolever said. “When you need to reach down into Triple and Double-A and he’s still in [Single-A], that doesn’t help.”

    At least not yet.

    Regardless, the Phillies will take a big step toward shaping their future on Thursday afternoon. Tune in to hear about players you’ll be talking about a lot a few years from now.

    2008 Phillies are World Serious

    Brett MyersI feel the need to amend. I’d say clarify instead, but to do something like that means to omit a wrong.

    And man was I wrong.

    Not too long ago – January 30, 2008, to be precise – I wrote a little essay entitled, “2008 Phillies: Playing for 2nd place” and, man, was I ever off on that one.

    Sheesh!

    The basic premise of the story was that Johan Santana was so good that the Mets would not be able to help themselves in winning the NL East. To be sure, Santana is good. Actually, he’s very good and probably better than any pitcher the Phillies have. In fact, Santana might very well win 20 games for the Mets this season and in his 11 starts so far, the Mets are 8-3.

    In that regard the Santana deal is working out very well for the Mets.

    The trouble is that while the Mets have a .727 winning percentage in games started by Santana, they are 18-24 in games started by pitchers not named Johan Santana. Those aren’t exactly Steve Carlton in ’72 numbers, but who would have guessed that the Mets would have been this bad?

    The idea was that Santana would lift up the entire ballclub rather than be the guy doing all the heavy lifting.

    So here we are on the last day of May on the cusp of June with July and the All-Star Break not too far away. Behind that, the dog days lurk, but by then will the Mets (or Mutts) have rolled over on their backs to reveal their soft, pink rounded bellies.

    That certainly seems where we’re headed.

    Really, come on… who would have guessed that there would have been such a big carry-over from the most epic collapse in baseball history? Apparently, not me.

    So that’s the reason for the amendment. Because the Mets, well… stink, and because the Braves might not have all of the pitching or health needed, and because the Marlins aren’t quite ready yet, the NL East in 2008 is the Phillies’ to lose.

    Actually, make that to win.

    Yes, it’s all rainbows and unicorns here with the Phillies these days.  After all, they score runs like a beer league softball team and pitch well enough not to mess up anything. No, that last part isn’t the most inspiring type of pitching staff to have, but whatever.

    Unless something really wacky occurs, don’t expect to see the Phillies give up first place any time this year.

    Truth hits everybody

    DeadwoodIf you ever have the chance to visit a press box in a Major League stadium, take the invitation under advisement. These places are how I always imagined old west saloons to be in that they are filled with misfits, outlaws and the dregs of society. Essentially, the kids you knew in high school that you were fairly certain would eventually move on to a solid career as a name on the authorities watch list hang out in big-league press boxes.

    The press box in a ballpark in any city across the country is where these people gather nowadays. Once, Manifest Destiny sent all those people west to escape one bad deed or another, but a century-and-a-half later, they watch professional sporting events.

    If there were a piano player plinking out those jaunty, bouncy saloon notes, all we’d need is someone to serve whiskey instead of Hi-C and then the ballpark in South Philly would instantly be transformed into an episode of Deadwood.

    I’ve never actually ever seen an episode of Deadwood, but I hear things.

    Anyway, in the press box, the outlaws and the rejects get together and talk about the state of things. No, it ain’t exactly a sewing circle, but if anyone wants to hear the story behind the story, a press box is a good place to go.

    And if you go, just make sure you’re updated on your shots and your papers are in order. I also suggest taking a small shiv that can be stowed up a sleeve or behind a belt. When you step into a press box, you never know when it’s about to go down…

    Needless to say I made it out of press row at CBP following Monday afternoon’s debacle against the Washington Nationals relatively unscathed. I say relatively because I woke up this morning with a head cold that made me feel as if a dump truck at backed over my temples. A baseball bat to the noggin would have been preferable to the feeling I had all morning until a Technicolor nose-blowing session, a couple of Sudafeds and some Italian Roast from the Starbucks.

    They didn’t have Yukon.

    The fact is that along with its general surliness, the press box is the breeding ground for many airborne infections and diseases. Again, if you go, make sure you’re updated on the vaccinations.

    Anyway, based on a few of my conversations with a handful of creeps at the ballpark yesterday I was able to discern that most folks in the know don’t think much of the 2008 Phillies. Sure, they are a playoff-contending team and very well could capture the NL East for a second straight season. But in order for that to happen the team’s hitters are going to have bash the ball at a rate more prolific than Genghis Khan.

    Simply put, the pitching just isn’t there.

    Tom GordonInitially I felt bad about predicting a third-place finish in the NL East for the Phillies. I was worried that I made such a pronouncement out of some sort of spite or anger that is rooted in my DNA as a born-and-bred Northeasterner. Worse, I felt that by suggesting that the Phillies were only as good as the offense would allow them to be that I would be exposed as an even bigger fraud than what is already obvious. What happens if the Phillies’ pitching measures up with the rest of the staffs in the division? Surely no one likes to be shown that they don’t know what they are talking about.

    Then again that, as they say, is part of baseball. Players rise up and shove it in someone’s cakehole every day. One day a guy is up, the next day, yadda, yadda, yadda…

    But when Tom Gordon slinked off the mound after that five-run ninth as if he had just been caught feeding rat poison to the neighbor’s overly yappy dog, it all became clear. A few of my more astute colleagues and I were correct – it’s all about the pitching.

    And that means the Phillies, as they are currently constructed, are going to have to bash their way to another playoff appearance.

    Meanwhile, it was noted by more than a few folks in the writing press that if people truly believe that the Mets’ acquisition of Johan Santana is relatively insignificant, then the proper course of action would be to remove the television from their homes so they could never, ever watch the game again. Because it’s obvious they don’t get it.

    Santana is another one of those truths that some people just don’t want to accept.

    Everything right where we left it

    CBPYessir, everything is right where it was when we left this place last October. In fact, Citizens Bank Park and the Phillies’ clubhouse shows no real discernible difference from last year at all.

    Oh sure, the carpet is a little frayed here or there and some of the paint is fading ever-so slightly. But other than simple wear-and-tear that rugs, walls and people go through the five-year old ballpark is just the same as it ever was.

    In other words, not much has changed with the Phillies since I left them a few weeks ago in Florida, nor has anything really changed from the time was here for the last ballgame before jetting off to Denver to watch the season come to an end.

    The Phillies and their ballpark are locked in. They look ready to go for real come Monday, though the complaints about the weather flowed like droplets from a leaky spout.

    Florida weather in late March is much more forgiving than in South Philly. The same goes for the style of baseball, too.

    Will the Phillies avoid yet another April swoon?

    We’ll get our first answer on Monday.

    Wyoming, Texas and everywhere else

    Dick CheneyThere are a lot of stories to react to today and none of them involve the Phillies at all. But then again, why would they? Why do people think that writing about and watching the Phillies is vital to our national discourse and sovereignty? Because you know what – I’ve been around and I know for a fact that most people don’t care.

    How? Well, grab a seat…

    Not too long ago my wife, then two-year old son and I drove from Estes Park, Colorado to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Along the way we stopped at a handful of roadside stands in the Big Thompson Canyon, where I remember buying some wild chokecherry jelly. Apparently it was native to that small, specific region of Colorado where the altitude and elements affected the chokecherries just so.

    Plus, it was kind of cool stopping at a roadside stand outside of Lancaster County outposts like Blue Ball or Intercourse where they don’t have things like chokecherries. Apparently, the chokecherry can kill a horse even though it makes a helluva jelly.

    Anyway, we drove to Wyoming where we saw nothing and realized that something called Major League Baseball was just something else other people did.

    Here’s what I wrote after having lunch at the train depot at the end of Capitol Street in Cheyenne:

    I don’t know how many of you folks out there have ever been to Wyoming, but there is nothing there. And when I say “there is nothing there,” I don’t mean, “We went to Wyoming and all they had was a freaking Wal-Mart and a bunch of rednecks hanging out at the mall…” There was no mall. There was no Wal-Mart either. In fact, the reason we met the Governor was because we walked into the state house thinking there would be some sort of historical tour or something (there wasn’t). Instead, we marched right up the front steps, entered the building without going through any security clearance, and then made a hard right into the Governor’s office. Yeah, that’s right — the Governor of the entire state was sitting about 25 yards from where some sporadic midday traffic was halfheartedly whizzing by.

    Crazy, huh? Think Ed Rendell would get his ample ass up from behind his desk for anything less than a 6-foot hoagie? No, me either.

    There was a lot I learned about Wyoming and Cheyenne that I’m saving for a more ambitious project and won’t bore anyone with the details here. I’m sure no one wants to hear about the finer details of the drive from Estes Park, Colo. through Northern Colorado and into Wyoming. I have pages on that. Nor do I think anyone is too interested in how Wyoming was the first state to allow women to vote — they have a big statue for Esther Hobart in front of the capitol. She led the suffrage movement.

    Sure, Dick Cheney is from Wyoming, but so is Jackson Pollock and Nellie Taylor Ross, the first woman governor of any state in the union.

    Forget all of that, but remember this: according to the 2000 census, the population of Cheyenne is 52, 011. That makes it the largest city in the state. It also is quite a bit less than Lancaster, Pa., and Lancaster has a whole bunch of things Cheyenne doesn’t — a few Wal-Marts, Taco-Bells… you know, suburban sprawl. Wyoming has none of that. From my experience, the nine miles from the Wyoming state line to Cheyenne makes the Pennsylvania Dutch Country look like Manhattan.

    Or how about this: Nobody in Cheyenne gives a [bleep] about the Phillies, nor has anyone ever heard of Bill Conlin. Of course, we didn’t get a chance to talk to everyone, but we got a good start in a walk up and down Capitol Street and into a Western clothier called “The Wrangler,” where they have all the gear stocked up in anticipation for this weekend’s Frontier Days, which, if my rudimentary knowledge of professional rodeo is on the money, is akin to the U.S. Open in golf.

    So, nope, most people don’t care about the Phillies, which is kind of a roundabout way of getting to the interesting things I read over the past 24 hours.

    ***
    Sly StalloneJack McCallum of Sports Illustrated led a series of stories about performance-enhancing drugs and how they have a grip in American society beyond the sporting world. Actually, look no further than the entertainment industry for a good primer as to how the steroid culture pervades public life.

    In fact, during last week’s Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame inductions, little Justin Timberlake and Madonna spoke quite cavalierly from the stage about injections of B-12 and even described the 49-year old pop star’s travel kit with her supplements of shots… you know, because everyone walks around with needles and doses of B-12.

    From McCollum:

    Few segments of society depend as heavily on physical appearance as Hollywood, and it turns out that Sylvester Stallone, who may one day give us Rambo: The Assisted-Living Years, needed more than one-handed pushups and raw eggs at dawn to stay cut. Last May in Australia the 61-year-old Stallone paid $10,600 to settle a charge of criminal drug possession after he was found to have 48 vials of HGH and several vials of testosterone. Stallone has since acknowledged that he takes HGH and testosterone regularly, and legally. “Everyone over 40 years old would be wise to investigate it [HGH and testosterone use] because it increases the quality of your life,” Stallone told Time last month.

    Adds a prominent Hollywood plastic surgeon, who requested anonymity because he has many clients in the industry, “If you’re an actor in Hollywood and you’re over 40, you are doing HGH. Period. Why wouldn’t you? It makes your skin look better, your hair, your fingernails, everything.”

    Chuck Zito — former Hells Angel, former bodyguard to the stars, former Hollywood stuntman and beefcake extra, former sinister presence on HBO’s Oz — was an enthusiastic steroid and HGH user for three years during his acting days earlier this decade. “It’s just something everybody did,” says Zito, “and they’re still doing it. It’s ridiculous that we only talk about it in sports. You think these actors who suddenly get big for a movie, then go back to normal get like that by accident? You put 30 pounds of muscle on and you expect everybody to believe that just happened?”

    Isn’t just like people to look for shortcuts? That’s especially the case when staying fit and looking “healthy” takes nothing more than a little bit of work and discipline… but who has time to eat properly, exercise well and get the correct amount of sleep?

    A good work ethic is just too old-fashioned.

    ***
    Because I have ties to the sports world and academia, I often hear about parents that push their kids into athletics with the hope of the kid getting a college scholarship. Sometimes the parents spend tens of thousands of dollars a year for special camps and private coaching with the hope of making Little Jimmy the next great Big Man on Campus.

    Certainly such sentiment is a sea change from how things were in my day when we were told very early on (like in sixth grade) that we wouldn’t be good enough.

    And it was true. The high school I attended was (and is) widely regarded as the area’s best school for athletics. Through many different eras the track and basketball teams have been more than dominant – they’ve been unbeatable. During my senior year the golf, track and cross country teams won 70-plus league meets without a loss. Meanwhile, the football and basketball teams tore through league play and into the district title matchups.

    And we weren’t that good.

    Yet throughout the school’s 70-year history of owning the area’s top athletic programs, there have been just three alums to make it to the Major Leagues and two others to get to the NFL. Of those five, three of them are currently active.

    What this means is that it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock ‘n roll.

    But what The New York Times offered in a three-day series chronicling the stories of scholarship athletes and the coaches at Villanova and Delaware is that it might be easier to go from college to the pros than it is to get a full ride for even the best high school athletes.

    Excluding the glamour sports of football and basketball, the average N.C.A.A. athletic scholarship is nowhere near a full ride, amounting to $8,707. In sports like baseball or track and field, the number is routinely as low as $2,000. Even when football and basketball are included, the average is $10,409. Tuition and room and board for N.C.A.A. institutions often cost between $20,000 and $50,000 a year.

    “People run themselves ragged to play on three teams at once so they could always reach the next level,” said Margaret Barry of Laurel, Md., whose daughter is a scholarship swimmer at the University of Delaware. “They’re going to be disappointed when they learn that if they’re very lucky, they will get a scholarship worth 15 percent of the $40,000 college bill. What’s that? $6,000?”

    Within the N.C.A.A. data, last collected in 2003-4 and based on N.C.A.A. calculations from an internal study, are other statistical insights about the distribution of money for the 138,216 athletes who received athletic aid in Division I and Division II.

    ¶Men received 57 percent of all scholarship money, but in 11 of the 14 sports with men’s and women’s teams, the women’s teams averaged higher amounts per athlete.

    ¶On average, the best-paying sport was neither football nor men’s or women’s basketball. It was men’s ice hockey, at $21,755. Next was women’s ice hockey ($20,540).

    ¶The lowest overall average scholarship total was in men’s riflery ($3,608), and the lowest for women was in bowling ($4,899). Baseball was the second-lowest men’s sport ($5,806).

    Interestingly, NCAA president Myles Brand pointed out in one of the stories that if kids are really hell bent on getting free money for college, they are better off applying themselves in academics than in sports.

    “The real opportunity is taking advantage of how eager institutions are to reward good students,” he said. “In America’s colleges, there is a system of discounting for academic achievement. Most people with good academic records aren’t paying full sticker price. We don’t want people to stop playing sports; it’s good for them. But the best opportunity available is to try to improve one’s academic qualifications.”

    ***
    Lou ReedFinally, there was an interesting story on the South by Southwest festival in The Wall Street Journal on how the Austin, Texas-based fest organizers are trying to keep “the suits” out.

    To that we say, “Good for them.”

    Also at SXSW, the legendary Lou Reed was a keynote speaker and was feted in a tribute concert in which piles of bands played his songs. I bet it was kind of cool, though some old dude writing for Austin’s newspaper though the Reed-fest was a little much.

    The old dude named Corcoran wrote:

    SXSW keynoter Lou Reed played the “Lou Reed Tribute” Thursday evening at the Levi’s/Fader Fort. He performed “Walk On the Wild Side” with Moby, not really an adventurous choice. The songs I heard for two hours, many of them sounding alike, kinda rat out Reed as an overrated songwriter in the right place, right time. Where’s his “I Say a Little Prayer?.” What’s the great song he’s written in the past 30 years?

    OK, where do we start… look, it’s fine – and maybe even correct – to write that Reed might be a little overrated. Frankly, who isn’t a little overrated these days. But that last sentence, What’s the great song he’s written in the past 30 years? … oh my.

    Talk about a pile of crap.

    First, Reed, as a schoolboy at Syracuse, had a direct link (through poet Delmore Schwartz) to T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and Vlad Nabokov. But then again, why would something as heady as that matter to a newspaper writer?

    But I just can’t get past that line — What’s the great song he’s written in the past 30 years? Really, is Corcoran that dim? Reed’s album Magic & Loss, released in 1991, is one that I have owned since it came out but have only been able to listen to one time because it’s just way too real and I’m not enough of an adult to deal with it. It’s as much of a bleeping knockout punch as it is haunting.

    In 1990 Reed teamed with old Velvet Underground mate John Cale for the romantic Songs for Drella, which is an elegant, funny, sweet, trenchant and unflinching tribute to Andy Warhol as could ever be produced.

    In 1989 Reed released the epic New York not only led the back-to-basics movement that spawned the so-called grunge sound a half decade later, but as rated 19th best album of the 1980s by Rolling Stone it is criminally underrated.

    So what great song has Reed written in the past 30 years? I don’t know, are three great albums that aren’t bound by such trite media notions as time or era enough?

    Who turned on the heat?

    JavierFor the first time in recent memory, my suitcase and I showed up at the same place at the same time. Let’s hope that’s a sign of good things to come here in the land of comfortable footwear and early-bird specials[1].

    Anyway, I’m sleepy and need some rest before waking up early to find coffee and a suitable trail to carve out 15-to-20[2], so I’m not going to wax on about the latest developments regarding the Phillies and the pitching staff. I’m also not going to delve into the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis’ most recent Academy Award is probably the best actor since Brando, nor the fact that the Coen Bros. have achieved a body of work that puts them in the same pantheon as Bergman, Fellini and Hitchcock – or at least the level just below that.

    Speaking of the Academy Awards, why do the hosts and presenters always tell us, the viewer, how many people are watching worldwide? How do they know? And if they know how many people are watching the Academy Awards worldwide, don’t they also know how many people turned on the TV and fell asleep, or how many people turned it on but left the room to take a phone call or something?

    I really don’t think they know what they’re talking about.

    OK. Jim Cramer is shouting at me from the television, my head hurts and it’s time to unwind. I need my rest if I’m going to sport those comfortable shoes and find the best tofu special at 4 p.m.


    [1] These are two really good things.[2] Miles not minutes.

    Priced out?

    Ryan HowardSomewhere the brass for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees quietly noted the landmark $10 million payout to Phillies’ slugger Ryan Howard and stashed away the information for later. After all, depending upon what type of season Howard puts together in 2008 it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the slugger could wind up with one of those teams in 2009 and/or beyond.

    Seriously, after the arbitration panel ruled on Thursday that Howard has earned a $10 million salary for 2009 after just two full big-league seasons, the big question is this:

    How much longer will the Phillies be able to afford him?

    Think about it – the Phillies and Howard will more than likely be back in the same position again next year, only this time the slugger won’t be asking for a measly $10 million per season.

    At least that’s the way the trends skew. Howard not only has set precedents in terms of salary for a player with his limited Major League experience, but he’s also operating in unchartered territory when it comes to prolific power statistics. In fact, his 105 home runs and 285 RBIs during the past two seasons could be the greatest debut power years (non-alleged steroid division) ever. Forget the first full two seasons, there aren’t too many players in baseball history that have hit 105 homers in two consecutive seasons.

    So where does that leave the Phillies now that Howard and his camp swayed arbitrators to break precedent? And what happens if the big fella clubs 60 homers and 150 RBIs for a playoff team in ’08? Can the Phillies afford not to work out a long-term deal with Howard just so they can avoid record payouts in arbitration year after year until 2011?

    Or, did Howard price himself out of Philadelphia? Though Howard won in arbitration, like a majority of the fandom thought was appropriate, have the fans really lost? After all, there is chatter out there that Team Howard is seeking a long-term deal in the A-Rod strata. Surely the Phillies can’t be pleased with that development and where it could be the negotiations for here and beyond.

    “This is too fresh in our minds right now to even start dealing with that kind of stuff,” assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told reporters in Clearwater, Fla., Thursday. “I think what we’re focused on now is, one, it’s over with. And two, we have to go play baseball now.”

    Howard wasn’t sure, either.

    “I’m not Miss Cleo, I can’t predict the future,” he said.

    Oh, but even the omniscient Miss Cleo cannot gaze into a crystal ball and figure out this riddle. Because what she sees can’t bode well for the Phillies – a team that has a recent history of allowing some high-priced talent to deal with other clubs. Sure, the Phillies were creative when they signed Pete Rose in 1979, they had Mike Schmidt when he was the highest-paid player in the game, and they signed Lance Parrish for (relative) big money when the other owners had been judged to have colluded against free agent players. But the Phillies have never dealt with something like Ryan Howard.

    Not many teams have.

    But the Phillies and Howard will be back to do it all again next year. Again they will row out into unchartered – and deep – waters with their greatest slugger ever. Only next year there’s a good chance that Howard won’t be alone when asking for a record payout.

    Pitcher Cole Hamels could be there, too.

    Who knows what will happen in another year. Maybe the Phillies will empty out their pockets and dig into the sofa cushions and find a $200 million check sitting around. Plus, there will likely be a lot of fans willing to shell out plenty of money for tickets to watch the Howard and his Phillies’ teammates attempt to repeat as NL East champs in 2008.

    A bake sale ain’t getting this one done, folks.

    Still, the important question remains:

    Could Howard envision playing the rest of his career with the Phillies?

    “It would be nice,” he said. “It’s one of those things we’ll have to wait and see what happens.”

    It’s sure to be eventful, that’s for sure.

    Howard, Phillies meet at hotel… leave through different exits

    Ryan HowardActually, I don’t know if that’s true because I don’t get to Clearwater until Monday (should I take my spear-fishing gear?), but the representatives of the Phillies and slugger Ryan Howard met at St. Petersburg’s tony Vinoy Hotel & Resort to present their respective cases in today’s arbitration hearing.

    According to reports on CSN, the hearing lasted for approximately five hours after which the groups were besieged by a gaggle of reporters that had been casing the joint all morning. Upon greeting the arbitration parties, the reporters reportedly asked if the hearing had been contentious.

    Now I don’t know much about anything, but considering the Phillies offered Howard $7 million to play baseball for one season, I’m not sure how contentious the hearings could be.

    What are they going to say:

    “Your honor, Howard is such a slouch and such a poor player that we only want to pay him the equivalent of the gross domestic product of several of the smaller countries in Europe.”

    Nevertheless, whatever the final decision it seems as if Howard is going to make out all right.

    Other people’s money

    Kyle LohseIt is always easy to overspend when the money isn’t yours. That’s especially the case with sports franchises, which all would be out of business or in bankruptcy court if the majority of fans and media were put in charge.

    “Just spend the money… stop being cheap!” folks always implore the local teams.

    Yeah, and that’s exactly how things are run at your house. Right?

    So this is a short, little missive for the Phillies imploring them not to spend the money on oft-injured pitcher Kris Benson, be it for a minor-league deal or one of those look-and-see-and-then-go-away pacts that dot pro sports like the accessories they are.

    You get your money for nothing and your chicks for free…

    No, the Phillies should not watch Benson workout anymore. They should burn the jet fuel thus turning their carbon footprint to Sasquatch proportions travelling around to Georgia or Arizona or Timbuktu to watch him throw breaking pitches or see him attempt to hit 90 mph on the JUGS gun.

    Oh sure, Benson is one of those high-reward, low-risk type of pitchers that like the confetti of currency also dots the sporting landscape, but big deal. These days Benson is a dime a dozen. IF he can pitch he’s nothing more than a well-known name because a long time ago he was a top draft pick and his wife flashed and cursed her way into the sub-culture consciousness.

    Besides, Benson seems to have spent more time on the disabled list than in active duty, having missed the entire 2001 and 2007 seasons for surgeries. That makes him a pretty good bet to get hurt again, which seems like a waste of time considering his lifetime ERA is only slightly better than the league average and steadily rising.

    So no, the Phillies should put the checkbook away and move past Kris Benson…

    Instead, if the Phillies really need to add another pitcher (and they do), they should overpay right-hander Kyle Lohse.

    Unlike Benson, Lohse is a known entity. They know he can pitch – maybe not as well as they’d like, but he’s a pretty sure bet to take the ball every five days and/or as a reliever for a handful of days in a row.

    Perhaps the question is this: Which pitcher is a better value? Is it Benson who may or may not be able to make the team , but won’t cost all that much in length of the deal or the salary? Or is it Lohse, who has not yet turned 30, has seven straight big league seasons under his belt and will hold down a spot on the pitching staff for the length of his contract?

    The caveat in that is that it might cost the Phillies three years and a few dozen million dollars.

    But then again, sometimes you get what you pay for.

    Too good to be true?

    Ryan HowardThe Phillies came to an agreement on a contract with Eric Bruntlett today, which means the team will head into the opening of spring training next week with everyone signed, sealed, delivered and happy.

    Well, all except for that one guy.

    In signing Bruntlett, the new utility infielder ace (you know, like Tomas Perez except for he went to Stanford and doesn’t strike out as much), only Ryan Howard remains unsigned for 2008. Eligible for arbitration for the first time, Howard will set a record if his case makes it to the hearing room on Feb. 20. The record, of course, will be for his salary for a player with his limited service time. With only two complete seasons under his belt, Howard will make at least $7 million for 2008 even if he loses his hearing. If he wins the case Howard will get a cool $10 million for the upcoming season.

    Of course the Phillies and Howard could come to an agreement beforehand, but that seems unlikely at this point.

    There are a lot of interesting variables in Howard’s case from all points of view. The main one appears to be the notion that Howard doesn’t seem to wait his turn and put in the service time that seems to the requirement for one to achieve a certain salary status. It also seems to be yet another one of baseball’s anachronisms that litters the game. Players have to pay their dues in baseball even if they are stuffed in the minors for far too long because an aging superstar had blocked the path.

    Then there is the fact that the Phillies have never lost an arbitration case, ever. With ex-general manager Ed Wade known as one the all-time great hatchet men when it comes getting the arbitrator to see things his way, the Phillies have been second-to-none when it came to shredding up their own guys. Just the thought of Wade in a hearing room was enough to get players to sign on the line.

    But that’s not the case with Howard. The big fella seems poised for a fight that won’t end on Feb. 20 and very well could be an ongoing battle that lasts until Howard is finally eligible for free agency following the 2011 season. In terms of this season, however, it will be very interesting to hear how the Phillies will present their case.

    Ryan Howard And with the acknowledgement that this will be the unpopular view, the Phillies will be very smart not to give in to Howard’s demands. Why should the team voluntarily overpay a player? Why would they do it knowing they will have a limited amount of cash to spend on free agents every off-season? If locking up Howard on a mega-, multi-year deal means the Phillies won’t be players for a top free agent pitcher in the future – one they will surely have to overpay because of the bandbox of a ballpark they play in – then take the animosity and the ill will. Surely Howard can feed his family on $7 million for 180 days of baseball, right?

    Besides, isn’t so very easy to spend other people’s money?

    Nevertheless, when Howard is eligible to be a free agent when he is 32, he very well could have one foot out the door or at least be standing at the threshold of his declining years. Would it be smart for the Phillies to overpay a player at that point the way they did with Darren Daulton and Lenny Dykstra all those years ago? General manager Pat Gillick has been around baseball for more years than anyone on the Phillies has been alive (including Jamie Moyer). During that time Gillick surely has seen those big 260-pound plus sluggers who have to play the field wear themselves down before they even hit their 35th birthday. Could it be that the Phillies are loath to sign Howard to a long-term deal because they are worried that they still could be paying him even when he is long gone from playing?

    Maybe.

    But as it pertains to the here and now, Howard might have a very strong case. As a first-time eligible player heading to arbitration, Howard’s marker will be Miguel Cabrera – a player who went into arbitration for the first time last winter and received $7.4 million. In comparison, Howard dwarfs Cabrera in homers, RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging, walks and strikeouts. Cabrera takes it in batting average.

    The Phillies will likely cite Howard’s experience, size and strikeouts as reasons why he should only get $7 million for 2008. After all, Howard set the all-time record for whiffs in a season in 2007 with 199 in a year that he missed most of the month of May. Prior to that, the big slugger struck out 181 times in 2006. No player has ever topped those numbers.

    However, when it comes to smacking homers Howard has no peer. Better yet, despite his size and the potential for injuries and wearing down over the course of a long season, Howard has been surprisingly resilient. Actually, in searching for a hole in his statistical record, Howard has been a better slugger during the second half of the season. In fact, Howard’s most productive month in his big league career has been September/October.

    Could it be that Howard is too good to be true? If that’s the case maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the Phillies to take a defeat in the arbitration hearing.