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.

The NLCS: Pre-game 3 notes and whatnot

cliff_leeSo how is this for the weather sampler: last week at this time we were watching the coldest playoff baseball in history in snowy and chilly Denver, only to be watching a workout in Los Angeles two days later as temperatures pushed into the 90s.

Now we’re back in Philadelphia where it actually feels colder than it did in Denver simply because we were teased with that dry, hot Southern California air. Plus, it feels windier here in Philly because the put the ballpark down in an area devoid of buildings or large structures and near a geographical anomaly where two major rivers converge.

Yep, it’s chilly.

For Cliff Lee, it will be two straight chilly nights on the mound. Certainly it wouldn’t seem ideal for a guy from Arkansas, but according to Southern California guy Randy Wolf, a pitcher who actually likes to pitch in the chilly weather, the pitcher is always the warmest guy on the field.

“I’ve always had a tough time pitching in Atlanta and Florida and I sometimes I turn about three shades pink and I overheat,” Wolf said. “In the cold I feel more alert, I feel like my energy level is always there and the fact that you can blow on your hands when you’re on the mound in cold weather, your hands are only affected. As a pitcher you’re the only guy that’s moving on every pitch. The pitcher has probably the easiest job of keeping warm.”

Here are your pre-game factoids and whatnot:

• Sunday night’s game is the 21st time a NLCS has been tied at 1-1. Of the previous 20 Game 3s played in a 1-1 series, the home team won 13 of them. More notably, the winner of Game 3 in those instances went on to win the series 12 times.
• The Phillies are 2-5 in Game 3 of the NLCS. Both of the Phillies’ wins in Game 3s are against the Dodgers (1978 and 1983).
• Coming into Sunday night’s game, the Phillies are 6-for-60 against Dodgers’ starter Hiroki Kuroda. That does not include Game 3 of the 2008 NLCS where Kuroda gave up five hits in six innings of a 7-2 victory. Counting that, the Phillies are 11-for-83 (.133).
• Finally, Ryan Howard can break the all-time single season record for playoff games with an RBI on Sunday night. He is currently tied with Carlton Fisk with six straight games in the playoffs with an RBI, which Fisk did during the 1975 World Series. The amount of RBIs Fisk had in those six games? Try six.

The all-time record for consecutive games with an RBI in the playoffs is eight by Lou Gehrig in the 1928 and 1932 World Series.

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.

The NLCS: Are the Phillies in the Dodgers’ heads?

George SherrillLOS ANGELES—Lots of interesting plots and subplots to last night’s Game 1 of the NLCS here at Dodger Stadium. The biggest, of course, was the Phillies’ ability to get clutch hits against the Dodgers’ lefties.

Both of the three-run homers and a key double from Ryan Howard came against lefties Clayton Kershaw and George Sherrill. The notable one there was the blast off Sherrill by lefty Raul Ibanez. After all, no lefty had homered off Sherrill in 98 games and nearly two seasons.

For a team that went out and got Sherrill specifically to pitch to the Phillies sluggers in late-game playoff situations, Ibanez’s homer was huge. Deeper than that, five of the Phillies’ eight hits in the Game 1 victory were from lefty hitters against lefty pitchers.

So it begs the question… are the Phillies in the Dodgers’ heads?

Yeah, yeah, it’s only Game 1, but if Pedro were to dial it up in Game 2 and the Phillies go home with a two-game lead and Cliff Lee ready to pitch in chilly and rainy Philly, this one might be over before it gets started.

So are the Phillies in the Dodgers’ heads? Certainly based on some of the moves the Dodgers have made it’s not an unreasonable idea. After all, in addition to trading for Sherrill, the Dodgers got Jim Thome to do what Matt Stairs does for the Phillies. In fact, Dodgers’ GM Ned Colletti cited Stairs when talking about the move to bring in Thome.

The thing about that is people barely knew Stairs was on the Phillies until he crushed that ridiculously long homer at Dodger Stadium in Game 4 of last year’s NLCS. Reliever Jonathan Broxton has been known to get salty when talking about Stairs’ homer and the Dodgers fans booed Stairs louder than anyone else during the player introductions.

So maybe the Phillies are in their heads?

We’ll see as the series wears on, but in the meantime Tommy Lasorda (the greatest phony in baseball history according to those in the know), is already chirping. The old Dodger manager was reportedly talking trash about the 1977 NLCS where the Phillies took Game 1 only to lose it in four games.

Really, 1977? That was generations ago. As one of Lasorda’s old players Davey Lopes said in regard to Larry Bowa harboring ill feelings about a controversial call in the 1977 NLCS:

“It was 31 years ago. Quit crying and move on.”

Maybe they can’t. Maybe they’re too wrapped up on what happened last year.

Here’s a few fun facts:
• The Phillies are 1-6 all-time in Game 2 of the NLCS. The only Game 2 victory came last year at the Bank against the Dodgers.

• The Phillies and Dodgers are meeting for the fifth time in the NLCS, which is tied for the most championship series matchups with the Pirates and Reds. Chances are those two teams won’t be playing each other in the NLCS any time soon.

• The Phillies have won 15 of their last 21 games in the NLCS dating back to 1980.

• Dodgers manager Joe Torre is making his 14th straight trip to the playoffs. He has not been to the World Series since 2003 and hasn’t won it since 2000.

93 wins and more holes than a slice of domestic Swiss

It wasn’t that long ago that Game 162 meant the end of the line for the Phillies. In fact, we were used to it that way. As September morphed into October, that was pretty much it for the baseball season. If the Phillies could make the season last up to the last few days of the regular season, then it was a pretty successful year.

That was then, though. Now, we’re beginning to get spoiled with baseball. Game 162 is nothing more than a dress rehearsal or when the season really begins to get interesting. Sure, the regular season is important, but the post season is what we’ll all remember.

It’s what we expect, because we’re spoiled.

Don’t believe me? OK, the Phillies won 93 games this season, which is two more than the World Series champs in 1980 and one more than the 2008 champions won. Ninety-three wins are the most by a Phillies team since the 1993 club won 97. Since 1883, the Phillies have had just four team win more than 93 games in a season—in 1899, 1976, 1977 and ’93.

In other words, the 2009 Phillies won more games than 122 other teams in franchise history. Yet strangely, we’re kind of disappointed with the Phillies.

Go ahead; admit it… there was a bit of disappointment in how this season played out. Sure, the Phillies won the NL East rather easily, but the rational fan is worried about the NLDS against the Rockies. That’s especially the case with Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels pitching the way they have lately. And the bullpen in the shape it has been in this year.

Can you believe the ‘pen had 22 blown saves this year? Actually, make that 17 blown saves for the two guys (Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson) that likely will be closing out games in the playoffs.

And then there is the matter of hitting with runners in scoring position. Sure, the Phillies led the league with 224 home runs this year, but they hit .253 with runners in scoring position, including just .216 with runners in scoring position and two outs.

The most worrisome aspect of the hot-and-cold offense has been Chase Utley, who finished the season bone tired. In fact, manager Charlie Manuel should have told his All-Star second baseman to spend the week at home sleeping and replenishing for the playoffs. Think about it—not only did Utley play in 156 games in 2009, but also he did so after spending the winter busting his rear to rehab his surgically repaired hip in order to be ready for Opening Day. Add this onto the fact that Utley played a month longer than normal in 2008, had surgery, rehabbed from it and then played in all put six games in 2009…

lidge_howardYeah, he’s whipped.

Need proof? Look at how Utley finished the season. With a 0-for-2 on Saturday, Utley ended the year hitless in his last five games and 17 at-bats. Actually, Utley finished 2009 with a 3-for-37.

Notably, Utley hit just two homers in September/October and none since Sept. 12.

Though Utley finished the season in an ugly slump, Ryan Howard solidified himself as the team’s MVP by capturing the RBI crown for the third time of his career with 141 and belted 45 homers.

So for the third year in a row, Howard slugged at least 45 homers and got 140 RBIs—only Sammy Sosa and Babe Ruth have done that in Major League Baseball history.

No, Howard is not the top MVP candidate in the NL. That’s Albert Pujols all the way. But since the end of May, Howard improved every month culminating with a final month where the lefty slugger batted .302.

And whereas Utley can’t buy a hit, Howard has a hit in 10 of his last 11 games.

Still, the fifth-most winningest team in franchise history heads into the playoffs with more holes than a slice of domestic Swiss. There are just so many question marks and they all are fairly significant. From the injuries to the offensive production. From the end of the ‘pen to the middle of the order.

So many questions and so little time… it starts for real on Wednesday.

Oh snap, son!

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

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

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

Pedro is going to have to pick up his game.

(links fixed)

Breaking up the band

Scott Rolen_RedsSometimes breaking up the band isn’t such a bad thing. Imagine the stuff the Beatles or Led Zeppelin would have trotted out there if they were just playing out the string and trying to fulfill a contract. I’ll get to the point in a bit, but first some blather…

Guess what? The Phillies did add to the payroll by trading for Cliff Lee. The tally is an extra $2 million, which is approximately twice the salary Pedro Martinez will get paid for this season.

So yeah, figure this one out – according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Phillies added two pitchers to their roster that have a combined four Cy Young Awards and it cost them around $3 million for 2009. That means Lee is eighth on the club in salary and Pedro 18th. Pedro gets approximately the same paycheck as Scott Eyre and significantly less than Chan Ho Park.

Meanwhile Lee is getting a little bit more than Joe Blanton and significantly less than Jamie Moyer.

Isn’t baseball great like that? A meritocracy? Well, kind of… maybe. Put it this way – the MLBPA protects its members just as long as their names don’t appear on an ambiguous list that should have been destroyed or even compiled in the first place.

Nevertheless, the interesting part about the salaries isn’t the names attached to them or the high figures that make them seem so unreal. Nor is it the fact that all of those contracts are guaranteed and often have incentives built in, too.

Who cares about all of that.

No, the interesting part is that the Phillies can afford to pay out those salaries in a depressed economy and not too long after the team never gave out that kind of cash. Remember when the Phillies claimed to have offered Scott Rolen a 10-year contract worth more than $140 million? In reality, the Phillies never offered the 10-years and $140 million they keep touting. Instead, it the guaranteed portion of the offer was six years, $72 million. The deal stretched to 10 years and to $140 million only if one included all the options and incentives and buy-outs in the package, all structured in the club’s behalf.

If Rolen had signed that deal he would have been a Phillies last season. Had that occurred the Phillies never would have signed Jim Thome nor would they ever have had Placido Polanco. That means the paths to the Majors for Ryan Howard and Chase Utley would never been blocked.

How different would it have been if Utley would have gotten a chance to play every day in the big leagues when he was 24 instead of 26? Perhaps Howard would have been with the Phillies in 2003 or 2004. Coming off a minor league season where he belted 46 homers between Reading and Scranton in 2004, Howard played 61 games in Triple-A in 2005. That was 61 too many.

So imagine if Rolen had remained in Philly instead of escaping to St. Louis and then Toronto.

Howard, Utley, Rolen and Rollins?

But who knows – maybe it wouldn’t have worked out after all. Bobby Abreu, an offensive statistical fiend in his days was the Phillies, was dumped by Pat Gillick because, apparently, he made everyone around him worse.

Of the Turn of the Century Phillies that were supposed to be long-shot contenders for the wild card in aught zero, only Mike Lieberthal, Pat Burrell and Randy Wolf were able to collect all of their Ed Wade graft in a Phillies uniform. When they were free to go elsewhere, the Phillies let them.

And somehow it worked out.

pedro_philliesBut since Gillick was so quick to give kudos to his predecessors after the World Series for drafting the likes of Rollins, Howard and Utley, what kind of credit would they have gotten if the long-term, big-money contracts they gave out weren’t cleared out?

Suppose the Phillies traded Howard and stuck with Thome. Or maybe they could have dealt Utley and gone with Polanco.

And maybe Rolen could have signed that deal in 2002… if so would we be talking about Cliff Lee, Pedro Martinez and a repeat in ’09?

*
Speaking of Rolen, the big fella was beaned on the helmet by Jason Marquis on Sunday in just his second game with the Reds since being dealt at the deadline from Toronto. After crumpling in a heap to the ground, Rolen quickly sat up and immediately began yapping about it…

Apparently he was discussing his on-base percentage.

“I was a little dizzy. It stunned me. But it helped my on-base percentage, even though I still haven’t touched first base (as a Red),” Rolen said after Sunday’s game. “I talked to Jason. I’m fine. I motioned to him when I left the field to let him know that I wasn’t dead.”

Take a look at the video here.

“He’s lucky,” manager Dusty Baker said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ball ricochet that far. That ball went out to third base.”

Rolen still hasn’t actually stepped on first base since joining the Reds.

“I was just happy to get on base,” Rolen said. “I still have yet to get to first base. I haven’t met (first base coach) Billy Hatcher yet.”

Where did those wavy lines come from?

HowardJust did a stroll around the press box and noticed the Home Run Derby on TV… what’s with those tail lines coming off the ball? Is that cool?

I’ll tell you what is not cool (and by that I don’t mean jerky, just geeky), Jayson Stark is tweeting his crazy facts and stats about the Home Run Derby. There’s this one for instance:

Albert will be the 12th straight hometown Derby participant not to win — unless everybody else gets shut out. Last to win: Sandberg in ’90

Or:

This is only the 2nd swingoff since they abandoned the old format, which broke ties based on season totals. The other: 2007, won by Pujols!

And:

Howard 6 HR in last 9 swings. But will it be enough?

I think I’m going to stop following him.

(I’m joking, Jayson, I’m joking…)

Nevertheless, Ryan Howard climbed into first place in the Home Run Derby, but will have to hope for a slump from Prince Fielder and David Cruz. Certainly a Cruz-Prince final was not what the heads at ESPN wanted, but sometimes reality TV shows take a crazy turn.

Note: Howard dropped out of the top spot while writing this. Prince Fielder knocked him out of the finals.

So before the next walk around the box, here are some more facts:

The last time the All-Star Game was in St. Louis was 1966. The 42 years between All-Star Games is the longest span between hosting the Midsummer Classic. However, Kansas City seems poised to break it. The All-Star Game hasn’t been to KC since 1973.

Maybe they ought to have the All-Star Game in Las Vegas? Why not… the Winter Meetings were there last year and it was a huge hit. This December they’re having them in Indianapolis. Vegas to Indianapolis.

More facts:

The last time an NL team sent its entire outfield to the All-Star Game was in 1972 when Pittsburgh sent Willie Stargell, Al Oliver and Roberto Clemente. In the late 1970s, the Red Sox did it three years in a row.

President Barack Obama will throw the ceremonial first pitch at Tuesday’s game. The last President to do this was George H.W. Bush in 1992. President G.H.W. Bush did it in 1991, too.

Zzzzzzzzzz.

It’s a Swing Off!

Ryan HowardSo Ryan Howard will move on to the second round since the Twins’ Joe Mauer only hit five home runs. Howard didn’t look awesome, like he’s known to be with some bombs during actual games, but he hit one 470-feet plus.

That counts.

Instead of having Mick Billmeyer pitch to him as he usually does, Howard’s high school coach was thrown into the gig. That’s cool. After all, when does a guy from the St. Louis suburbs ever get to hang out at the All-Star Game.

But you know, what about Mick? All he gets is batting practice.

Then again, when you meet Mick and talk to him, you realize the guy is living a charmed life. The guy knows a lot about catching and all that, but really every day he has in the big leagues is something else. Besides, it’s guys like Mick who make the big leagues interesting.

Anyway, Albert Pujols came up and suddenly the ballpark turned into the dance floor at the club with all the camera lights flashing.

On another note, it would seem that the ball would fly out of the park considering how humid it is. It’s downright soupy here in The Loo, and much too warm for my liking. However, a few of the ol’ salts still banging around the big league writing circuit say that for St. Louis in July this weather is downright temperate.

Plus, it’s difficult for paint to dry in this type of climate. If one were to ask if a basic, one coat of paint on a wall would dry faster than the Home Run Derby to end, it would be a push.

As a betting man I’d take paint in a squeaker. That’s especially the case with Pujols needing his last swing to forge a tie to get into the “swing-off” with David Cruz and Carlos Pena. The winner advances and the loser(s) get to kick back with the kids running wild on the sidelines with their dads.

Here we go…

IMG00229Having computer issues here at the park… all of sudden the wireless slowed to a crawl.

We’re getting ready to hit some dingers here at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, or The Loo, as they say. Oddly, there is a band warming up the crowd with some faux alt-rock and pyro. Lots and lots of PYRO!

The set up the stage with all banners representing all the corporate sponsors blocking the monitors and PA and set up the stage behind second base.

Is David Cook a band? If so, that just might be who was on FIRE!

Anyway, Prince Fielder will hit first and Berman is doing the intros. Luckily, we can’t hear him so well up here in the press box. Which is fine.

But make no mistake, St. Louis homeboy Ryan Howard got the loudest ovation if you exclude Albert Pujols. The truth is if you own a company that makes Albert Pujols shirts or memorabilia in St. Louis, you are a very wealthy person.

You can’t shake a dead skunk in The Loo without hitting a dude in a Albert Pujols shirt. Albert is The Man. Stan Musial needs a new nickname.

It ain’t about the numbers

shane-victorinoI can’t help it. I know all about the objectivity of the job and all of that, but I really can’t help it.

I really hope Shane Victorino makes it to the All-Star Game next week in St. Louis.

There, I said it. In fact, I told Victorino as much before Monday night’s game against the Reds. Of course I told him this after I busted his stones about Pablo Sandoval having far superior statistics and that the Giants’ rookie really suffered an injustice when he wasn’t named to the National League squad.

“It ain’t about numbers anymore,” Victorino said. “It’s a popularity contest.”

He has that right, but then again it’s always been a popularity contest. But my motives for Victorino getting to St. Louis are completely selfish. Oh sure, Victorino is as worthy of an All-Star nod as anyone in the league. Though his numbers don’t pop off the page, they are above average and he has been a consistent cog for a team that has been wildly inconsistent.

But I told Vic that I hope he gets there even after he explained how he spent Monday afternoon going door-to-door along Oregon Avenue with Mayor Michael Nutter. Of course he had to endure more teasing about the mayor of Philadelphia taking time out of his busy day to help him get to the All-Star Game.

“What, are you going to go help him with his budget deficit after the game? You’re doing all of this just to spend three days in St. Louis?”

Victorino knew why guys like me want him in St. Louis. He understands the media-player dynamic and has seen how stodgy and scripted ballplayers are in press situations. It’s like they are coached to be as uninteresting as possible, which is no fun for anyone.

Nope, there is no altruism about wanting Victorino to get to the All-Star Game and he knew it.

“You just want me to do something bleeping stupid at the All-Star Game,” he said.

“Well, yeah…”

Oh, but it was much more than that. Certainly if Vic were to “do something bleeping stupid,” it would be very entertaining. In fact, it was a blast to see him in the World Baseball Classic and the madness he must have spewed into the notebooks of the scribes covering those games. However, if Victorino were to get to St. Louis there would actually be someone (gasp!) to talk to. That’s downright revolutionary in this age of verbosity.

Besides, the other Phillies in St. Louis won’t be free to cut loose like Victorino. Chase Utley doesn’t have much to say unless he’s dropping F-bombs before large crowds and Ryan Howard will be in his hometown and surely will have a limited amount of time to hang around and chat. Manager Charlie Manuel likely will only be able to offer official comments from a podium or to the right’s holders, though we’re pretty sure Chuck will offer up some nuggets to the hometown scribes.

Charlie is good like that.

Nevertheless, it’s Victorino who might be the go-to guy. Hey, the guy just can’t help himself. Here’s an example of that:

After Game 3 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium last October, I waited out Victorino. Taking his time to emerge from the off-limits areas, Victorino knew media types wanted to ask him about the bench-clearing incident with Hiroki Kuroda. Word had been sent out that he wasn’t going to talk about it, but c’mon. We all knew how he was.

So when he walked over to his locker in that old visitors’ clubhouse in Los Angeles, I kind of held up my palms, shrugged my shoulders and said, “Yo Shane, what’s up?”

“What’s up with what?”

“You know what I’m talking about.”

“Yeah.”

“Well…”

“I’m not talking about it.”

That’s when he talked about it for 15 minutes.

Hey, the guy just can’t help himself and bygolly, get this guy to the All-Star Game so we have someone to talk to.

And just to be sure, I won’t cast a vote for Victorino. I’ll root for him to get there, but won’t cross the line to actually cast a vote.

Besides, have you seen Sandoval’s numbers? How did he get left off the roster?

*

Oh yeah, has anyone seen the big No. 8 on the big Amtrak building next to 30th Street Station? Obviously the city is rallying to try and get Victorino that trip to St. Louis, but what about the guys who actually made the team already? Charlie, Utley, Howard and Raul Ibanez are in… where’s their building?

All rock all the time…

moyer_cardIt’s definitely going to be a crazy week around these parts. Not only do we have Villanova heading to the Final Four and all the pomp that goes with that, but also the Phillies return to Philadelphia this week for a pair of exhibition games against Tampa on Friday and Saturday before kicking off the season for real on Sunday night against Atlanta.

Who knows, the most anticipated Phillies season ever could be sandwiched between ‘Nova’s national semifinal game and a National Championship on Monday night.

Hey, crazier things have happened.

Anyway, we’ll have a bunch of ‘Nova and Phillies stories all week leading to the big weekend. Until then, here’s a short list of the things I won’t write about this baseball season.

Before I start, I know how lame the list is. After all, don’t you hate those radio ads in which a station defines itself by what it doesn’t play? Then they cue them up and play programmed and contrived crap. I heard one the other day where the station’s big calling card was, “We aren’t iTunes, we are your tunes.

What? This is what they announce before they launch into Don Henley.

No, take them… they’re definitely your tunes.

So from here on out I’m drawing a line and painting myself into a tidy little corner. These are the stories I’m going to work as hard as possible not to write this baseball season:

1.) Jamie Moyer’s age

Yes, we all know that Jamie Moyer is old. In fact, he’s 46 and there have been just a select few ballplayers that had careers to that age. It’s remarkable, sure, but not necessarily such an anomaly anymore.

The fact of the matter is that 46 isn’t as old as it used to be. Better yet, a ballplayer only gets old if he allows himself to be that way or injuries add up. Ask Don Wildman about how limiting his age is. Or Dara Torres. Or Chris Chelios. Or Jamie Moyer.

Better yet, don’t.

“Some players get injured and others just lose the desire,” Moyer told me last August. “Then some, for one reason or other, are told to quit because they reach a certain age or time spent in the game. Some just accept it without asking why.”

Along the same vein, Moyer’s age won’t be used as a crutch, either. He’s 46. So what? He’s as fit as any player in the league and he hasn’t lost a thing off his fastball (tee-hee), so if he’s walking out there he’s no different than anyone else.

He’s 46? Big deal.

2.) J.C. Romero’s suspension

Oh yes, this is an important issue. It’s especially important since the Phillies won’t have their workhorse reliever for nearly a third of the season. But stories knocking it down as no big deal or some type of insignificant or unfortunate occurrence don’t get it. The truth is MLB did not want Romero to pitch in the playoffs, but they allowed him to do so anyway.

Why? And why not?

3.) Lefty lineup

Chase Utley to Ryan Howard to Raul Ibanez… deal with it. Certainly the opposing managers will have to figure out a way to deal with it. Last year Utley his .277 with 13 homers against lefties, while Howard hit 14 homers (just .224 though) and Ibanez batted .305 with seven homers vs. lefties.

Oh sure, in the late innings the Phillies will face a ton of situational lefties, but any time a manager goes away from his regular habits to rely on a pitcher generally used to facing just one hitter just might level the odds a bit.

For that middle of the order trio, even odds are pretty good.

chuck4.) Charlie Manuel’s managerial acumen

These are the facts: Charlie knows more about baseball than you. Actually he’s forgotten more about baseball than you have ever known. To top it off, he’s funnier than you and tells far better stories.

Plus, the way he handled that great comeback against the Mets last August in which he used to pitchers to pinch hit, had Carlos Ruiz play third base and put Chris Coste into the game in the eighth inning and watched him get four hits. The guy is always looking at the big picture and sometimes, just for fun, he’ll play a hunch.

What he doesn’t do is try to over think or out-fox the game like Tony La Russa or some other new age type. He’d rather beat you Earl Weaver style – sit back and wait for a big home run – but if he has to get some base runners moving with some steals or hit-and-runs, that works, too.

Meanwhile, he likes to put his pitchers into firm roles. Yeah, sometimes that can get him in trouble, but the good part is that everyone on the roster understands their role. Big league ballplayers love that.

And if that doesn’t work, Charlie will pull out the old, “Just hold ’em, guys… I’ll think of something.”

It’s worked so far.

5.) Raul Ibanez vs. Pat Burrell

Stat heads aren’t going to like this one, but Ibanez’s superior batting average and lower strikeout rate will matter. It mattered in Seattle and it will matter at cozy Citizens Bank Park, too.

The reason is as simple as the triple-digit RBI totals over the last three years – Ibanez hits the ball a little more. With Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Utley and Howard hitting in front of him, the 20 fewer times Ibanez strikes out as opposed to Burrell could be significant. Figure there are 26 weeks to a season with the potential for one more run a week produced from one spot of the lineup could add up.

Right?

There you go. Now I’m going to go put the iPod on shuffle… yep, my tunes.

Whatever the hell that means.

Go ahead… they dare ya

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

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

We’ll see.

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

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

Um, sure. Why not?

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

Continue reading this story …

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…

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

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

Always making speeches and always entertaining the fans.

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

Here’s Jimmy and his Team USA WBC buddies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope, me either.

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

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

The easy money

President Obama was in Peoria, Ill. on Thursday to discuss the woeful state of the economy at a Caterpillar plant. There, the heavy machine manufacturer in Jim Thome’s hometown and the former employer of Chuck Thome, Jim’s dad, for 40 years, announced that it was going to cut 22,000 jobs.

Chuck Thome retired as manager for Caterpillar in 1993 and no doubt knows some of the people who will be affected by the job cuts… and then some.  Actually, those job losses could change just about everything about the town where Jim Thome grew up and first learned how to hit a baseball. The Peoria the Thomes knew might never exist again.

After all, in Washington, D.C. on Friday afternoon, Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs gave an answer to a question that had to make folks in Peoria shudder. Even if the President’s stimulus bill works, there was no guarantee that Caterpillar’s CEO Jim Owens would hire back any of the 22,000 folks whose jobs disappeared.

Just like that they could be gone forever as if picked up and carried away by a soft breeze.

“He’s not saying, ‘I’m going to rehire U.S. employees or even Peoria employees,’ ” said Rick Doty, president of the United Auto Workers Local 974, which represents thousands of Caterpillar workers.

To call these tough times doesn’t quite describe how rough things are for regular Americans.

Meanwhile, a little farther south from the White House, another press briefing was taking place. And in an indirect way this presser had something to do with the economic stimulus. At least it did to Ryan Howard, who met the press for the first time since signing a three-year, $54 million contract.

So for that first press conference Howard came adorned with shiny diamond earrings the size of hubcaps and some bling on his wrist that could cause carpal tunnel. While the rest of the country struggles, Howard is flush. Over the next three years he will take home a little more than $111,111 per game. That’s a figure more than twice the amount of the average household income ($50,233) in the U.S. in 2007, according to the U.S. Census.

Yes, for one game, Howard will get nearly twice the pay that the average American family brings home in a year of going to work every day.

Not bad work if you can find it. But then again it seems as if any work is good work if folks can find it.

Continue reading this story …

Stuck inside with nothing to do

There was a lot to talk about on Wednesday. The snow, rain and ice made sure of that by rendering the roads too treacherous for school buses and early-morning travel. As a result, the school kids (and the teachers) stayed in and chatted it up on Facebook or Twitter or via text or whatever other type of instant messenger they use these days.

But make no mistake about it, they’re talking. Oh yes, talking a blue streak.

Away from the normal work routines people were left to their own devices. Rather than shuffling papers around on a desk or spending too much time sending e-mails, the snowbound had plenty of time for all those diversions without that pesky work getting in the way.

Let someone else shovel, there’s poking to do on Facebook.

Be that as it may, for sports fans in Philadelphia things were as quiet as a snowflake landing gently in a big field (how’s that for imagery). Instead of planning a Super Bowl party or fretting over the NBA All-Star Game roster (ha-ha!), what was there to talk about?

How about talk? Let’s talk about talk.

In that regard we have two items aired on Comcast SportsNet when Eagles president Joe Banner rapped with Michael Barkann about the state of the team. And based on the reviews of the talk in the papers, well, Banner’s answers weren’t what some wanted to hear. Apparently, some want the Eagles to change simply for the sake of change. They want Andy Reid out or Donovan McNabb sent to another team, which is fine. Mixing things up every now and again is fun. Even the staunchest conservative has to admit that much.

But let’s give Banner some credit. At least he didn’t punt when Barkann asked the questions. He answered them without hemming and hawing or giving some dressed up rhetoric that really isn’t an answer to anything. He didn’t even stop to clear his voice and tick off the team’s injuries. Instead, he answered the questions. How novel a concept is that?

Continue reading the rest of the story…

Seventh inning: Utley breaks out… anyone else?

LOS ANGELES – Chase Utley has officially ended his slump. I am making that decree. Sure, Utley could post a Golden Sombrero tomorrow night and spiral back into another funk, but based on the home run in Game 1, the four walks in Game 2 and the walk, smoked ground out to first and a double to left in the seventh, it appears as if the All-Star is back to being a threat.

Now all he needs is for the rest of the club to join him.

Ryan Howard got involved with a single to right, followed by an RBI single from Pat Burrell. After Burrell’s hit, manager Joe Torre decided Hiroki Kuroda was finished and summoned righty reliever, Cory Wade.

Torre brought Wade in to face the correct hitter in Jayson Werth, who has struggled at times against righties in the playoffs. Against Wade, Werth was punched out on a questionable check-swing call for the first out.

With two outs and runners on the corners, Charlie Manuel called on lefty Greg Dobbs to pinch hit for Carlos Ruiz. When Dobbs grounded out to short, the sell-out crowd here at Dodger Stadium let out a loud roar.

The Phillies could only get one.

A louder cheer was deserved for 12-year-old singer Ellie Smith, who nailed “God Bless America” and turned out one of the best “Star Spangled Banners” of the year.

But when they showed Tiger Woods on the jumbotron, the place really went nuts.

Does anyone cool go to Phillies’ games?

Meanwhile, Russell Martin’s body must look like a pin cushion right about now. With one out and the bases empty, Chad Durbin plunked him on the back with a curveball. Obviously, the umpires did not believe there was any intent with Durbin’s pitch because he wasn’t tossed from the game. Since warnings were issued to both clubs after Hiroki Kuroda tossed one over Shane Victorino’s head.

Nevertheless, the Phillies missed another chance.

End of 7: Dodgers 7, Phillies 2

Second inning: Settling in

The time between the innings is a little longer during this series as compared to the rest of the year. The reason, of course, is that Fox needs a few more ticks to sell some stuff and show those commercials.

Commerce, man. Commerce.

Longer inning or not, Cole Hamels settled in and breezed through the second inning on just X pitches. He whiffed both Casey Blake and Derek Lowe for his first clean frame and third strikeout.

Whatever jitters Hamels had in the first were worked out in the second.

On another note, I was on the Mike Gill Show this afternoon where the host, Mike Gill, made an interesting point. I said the difference in this series could very well come down to the ability of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to produce against the Dodgers’ right-handed heavy pitching staff. To that, Mike said the Dodgers likely would take a similar tact as the Brewers in the NLDS and pitch around Howard, forcing Pat Burrell to the plate in some key situations.

You know what? That Mike Gill knows his stuff. If the Dodgers aren’t going to allow Howard to beat them, Burrell’s at-bats become that much more important.

But when Burrell led off the second with a single down the line to left, he was quickly erased when Jayson Werth grounded into a double play.

That’s a pretty good indicator that Derek Lowe’s patented sinker is working well.

End of 2: Dodgers 1, Phillies 0

Hello Wisconsin!

Programming note: We are in Milwaukee and will offer the same live updates during tonight’s game from Miller Park.


MILWAUKEE – The first thing one notices about a domed stadium is that the view from the floor is very similar to that of a basketball or hockey arena. The stands feel very close to surface and pushed forward for great sight lines. Yet at the same time the coziness is also offset by wide corridors plenty of elbow room and a ceiling that seems vaster than it actually is.

Perhaps that’s because when a person looks up into an open air arena he is looking into infinity. It’s unknown and never ending so therefore the mere human mind struggles to come to grips with that vastness. He simply ignores it.

But slap a roof up there and there is context. Everyone can figure out how high the ceiling is… why it’s all the way up there, of course. It’s a really long way away.

Yet because it’s a basketball arena with a baseball diamond laid out on it, the dimensions seem tighter than they really are. Actually, the closeness of the stands and the roof up top make the place feel like the quirky wiffle ball stadium you probably built in the backyard when you were a kid.

That’s exactly what Miller Park feels like.

Better yet, it has a feel. It’s unique in a sense because the place is completely fabricated, which is a paradox. That’s it – Miller Park is a paradox. Dropped into a wide parkland section just west of downtown Milwaukee, the stadium looks as if it was dropped down from outer space. From the outside it looks like a futuristic clam with its folding retractable roof, and on the inside it looks like a scene from a snow globe.

So that’s where the Phillies will try to win their first playoff series since beating the Atlanta Braves in the 1993 NLCS. The consensus around the ballpark is that the Phillies will sew it up on Saturday to quickly turn their attention to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team in a similar position.

It won’t be easy for the Phillies. Oh sure, they seemingly cruised through the first two games of the series, but they did so despite themselves. In the 16 innings in which they came to bat, the Phillies have only scored in two of them. Moreover, they left the bases loaded twice in Game 2, once more in Game 1 and have stranded 17, including 11 runners in scoring position.

Worse, the heart of the order – Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell – is a combined 1-for-17 with eight strikeouts. If Brewers’ centerfielder Mike Cameron had gotten a better bead on a fly ball hit by Utley with two outs in the third inning of Game 1, it would be 0-for-17.

Meanwhile, the Brewers are hoping to repeat the same path from the last time they were in the playoffs back in 1982 when they dropped the first two games of the ALCS only to come back and sweep the last three games from the California Angels.

So here we are in Milwaukee waiting to see where we’ll go next.

2nd inning: Big wind and big rain

Don’t look now (OK… go ahead), but it looks like a storm is brewing.

That’s no metaphor, either. It really looks like a real, downpour with thunder and lightning and all of that jazz is creeping up on us. Judging from the view of the in-motion weather map on Rich Hofmann’s laptop, there are a bunch of greens, yellows and oranges about to cover up South Philadelphia.

That’s not good.

It’s not good because Cole Hamels is dealing right now. In the second the lefty sat ‘em down in order on just 11 pitches with one more strikeout. If the game goes into a delay, that could be the end of Hamels’ outing.

As I typed that sentence, Kevin Horan of Phillies.com said, “You know, if there’s a delay they could lose Hamels.”

See, the kid is sharp. It’s also his birthday. No. 23 for the kid… remember when you were 23?

Yeah.

Anyway, Ryan Howard beat the shift by working a walk. However, he was quickly erased when Pat Burrell grounded into a first-pitch double play. Apparently Burrell’s back is OK, but he’s not any faster.

The inning began with steady raindrop and a gusting wind blowing toward right field that could be deadly if a hitter got one up in the stream. In fact, it is so murky, blustery and cloudy that the visage of Center City off in the distance disappeared.

Goose eggs. No hits or nuthin’

End of 1 Phils 0, Brewers 0

Just getting there not enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m really looking forward to it.”

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

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

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

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

The second trip starts Wednesday.

Fourth inning: Phillies on the board

Just walked into the dining room to get a diet coke when I caught one of the attendants singing “Strangers In the Night…”

Do be do be do…

Meanwhile, the old-timer Jamie Moyer had a relatively quick inning for a change. In sitting down the heart of the Nationals’ order, Moyer used just 10 pitches.

Perhaps he’s settling in?

In addition to a packed house in the seating area, the press box is stuffed, too. In fact, a writer two with no paper on Sunday turned out to properly describe the action of the local nine. And from what I have heard, Scott Lauber is also offering live updates on his site.

It’s Scott’s birthday so go check it out.

If you decide just to stay here, I’ll tell you that Scott is probably writing about how Chase Utley appears to be finding his swing again. Utley picked up a leadoff single and dashed to third when Ryan Howard followed with another single.

Utley scored the first run of the game when Pat Burrell lifted a sacrifice fly to right and then Howard came in to make it 2-0 when Carlos Ruiz also hit a sacrifice fly to right field.

Call those productive outs… do it.

Moyer walked with two outs to re-load the bases, but Jimmy Rollins could not break it open off John Lannan.

Nevertheless, the scoreboard has been dented. Is it enough for Moyer?

End of 4: Phillies 2, Nats 0

Third inning: Howard or Pujols?

While we’re on the topic of the MVP (weren’t we), it seems as if it is Albert Pujols’ award to lose this season. Interestingly, it was Pujols who said during the build up for the honor in 2006 that he didn’t understand how a guy who didn’t make the playoffs could win the MVP.

Now that the show is on the other foot, don’t count on Ryan Howard making the same kind of statement. After all, Howard and the Phillies are on the path to the playoffs and Pujols’ Cardinals are not.

Still, if Howard helps carry the Phillies to another playoff berth with his 48 homers and 146 RBIs, the slugger makes a strong case despite the strikeouts, low batting average and unsung slugging percentage. Pujols’ all-around numbers are better, but how will the voters judge it.

Jayson Stark, complete with some name-dropping tells everyone how he will vote when he posts his ballot in a couple of days. No link – it’s ESPN… find it yourself. Or ask me to ask Jayson for it – he’s sitting directly in front of me.

Moyer’s pitch count continued to mount in the third thanks in part to a pair of two-out singles the Nats picked up. Still, after three innings, Moyer is up to 49 pitches though the zeroes hang on the board.

Jimmy Rollins got a two-out double to right off John Lannan in the bottom half of the inning, but the Nats’ lefty bounced back to whiff Jayson Werth for the second time.

End of 3: Phils 0, Nats 0

The MVP and the shrine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other than home runs, obviously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

First inning: Picking up where they left off

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

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

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

That bodes well for the Phillies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phillies 1, Brewers 0

Sunday morning: Hamels steps up

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

Back to your regularly scheduled post…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. Yes they are.

***

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

Don’t believe your lying eyes

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

Yawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are two very accurate descriptions from Randarino:

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

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

***
My wife summed it up perfectly…

“This is your Super Bowl isn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes it is.”

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

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

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

No more fun of any kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For shame!

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

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

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

Come off it!

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

Insert sarcastic comment here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barry Bonds, anyone?

barry_bondsIt’s gotten to the point where manager Charlie Manuel will use utility outfielder So Taguchi only if he has no other choices. In fact, Taguchi has just six at-bats in the last month and seven going back to May 30, which was the last time he started a game.

It seems as if the manager is loathe to use Taguchi even as a late-inning defensive replacement for left fielder Pat Burrell after the former Japanese star misplayed a few fly balls in a couple of losses. Even in pinch-running situations Manuel has turned to infielder Eric Bruntlett or sometimes pitcher Adam Eaton.

No, Charlie probably isn’t going out of his way not to use Taguchi, but it sure does seem like it.

Meanwhile, right fielder Geoff Jenkins’ season batting average has dipped to .237 thanks to getting just five hits since June 7, and 11 hits after May 28. Over the last month, the left-handed hitting outfielder is batting just .089 (5-for-56) with one homer, one double and 16 strikeouts.

Some say the Phillies’ offensive swoon has come because of a power outage. Even Manuel and some of the Phillies brass have been critical of the team’s inability to score runs without the long ball as well as its reluctance to manufacture runs with situational hitting. Since scoring 20 runs against the Cardinals in St. Louis on June 13, the Phillies have lost 15 of 22 games. Worse, they have averaged just 3.74 runs per game during that stretch. With a lineup featuring the past two NL MVPs – Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins – as well as perennial All-Star Chase Utley and slugger Pat Burrell, the Phillies should score runs by accident.

But they don’t.

“The biggest problem we have is situational hitting,” Manuel said. “Moving runners or knocking in a guy from second with no outs or from third with one out. We definitely have to have more of that.”

If there is one player to symbolize the Phillies’ feast-or-famine offense, it’s Jenkins. This season he has seven home runs, which account for 12 of his 24 RBIs. Howard, too, has personified this symptom by getting 49 of his league-leading 78 RBIs on 24 homers. Howard is also on pace to shatter his single-season Major League record for strikeouts in a season. With 124 whiffs in 91 games, Howard should be the first man in Major League history to eclipse the 200 strikeouts barrier.

Feast or famine.

“Our offense is generated by the top of our order. We manufacture runs by getting (Jimmy) Rollins and (Shane) Victorino on base with (Chase) Utley. Usually from Howard and (Pat) Burrell that’s where our RBIs come from – that’s where we get our runs. Sometimes some guys pick up the slack, but we’re not doing that right now. We’re not getting too much from the bottom of our lineup.”

So while the Phillies acknowledge that the need help with the pitching and are looking to add a starter (and/or a reliever) by the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, maybe they ought to consider a hitter, too, as they cling by the edge of their fingernails to first place in the NL East.

And if the Phillies are looking for a power bat to come off the bench or to play some right field from time to time against right-handers since Jenkins is hitting just .249 against them as the left-handed bat in the platoon with Jayson Werth, we might have the guy for them.

The guy we’re thinking of has struck out just once every seven at-bats during the past two seasons. Also during that span, he has clubbed 54 homers – or one every 13 at-bats – hit a modest .273, but has a .467 on-base percentage.

Oh yeah, he also has nearly 2,000 career RBIs, seven MVP awards and 762* home runs.

Yes, we’re talking about Bonds…

Barry Bonds.

Yeah, Bonds brings a whole lot of baggage and that isn’t even bringing the upcoming trial for perjury into the equation. He is also two weeks away from his 44th birthday, which would help the Phillies corner the market on mid-40s lefties. And of course there are all the accusations regarding performance-enhancing drug use and all-around surliness. Bonds will never be a candidate for the Roberto Clemente Award, which is given each year to a ballplayer who exemplifies character and charitable contributions to his community.

Yes, Bonds’ off-the-field situation is troublesome and quite serious, but the Phillies need a hitter. On Tuesday night Cole Hamels pitched yet another gem by holding the Cardinals to just a pair of runs and three hits in seven innings, but took a hard-luck 2-0 loss.

The lack of offensive support is beyond frustrating for the Phillies’ pitchers.

“Any time you don’t score runs it’s hard to win,” Manuel said. “I say it all the time, but when Hamels pitches like that we have to win the game. We came up short. We won four straight on the road and then came home and lost four straight.”

But enough of the hang wringing. If Bonds can play – and all reports indicate that he wants to – why not let him? Surely his skills likely have eroded a bit, but then again, Taguchi and Jenkins only have a combined six more hits than Bonds.

Heck, they have just six more hits than me.

If someone can explain how Bonds can be worse than Taguchi or Jenkins then call the whole thing off.

Here’s the good part – Bonds will work cheap. The Phillies are paying Taguchi $1.05 million this season with a $1.25 million club option for 2009 or a $150,000 buyout. Not bad work if you can find it. They are also paying Jenkins $5 million in 2008, $6.75 million in 2009 with a mutual option for $7.5 million in 2010 or a $1.25 million buyout. Again, not exactly chump change for a guy hitting .089 since early June.

Bonds’ agent Jeff Borris says his client will work for a prorated share of the league minimum, which is $390,000. In other words, the Phillies could have Bonds for the rest of the season for less than $190,000.

“The fact that no team in Major League Baseball has made an offer for Barry even at the minimum salary has created a level of suspicion that is currently being investigated,” Borris said.

“Let’s look at the facts. Barry performed admirably in 2007. Barry is healthy. Barry has been offered at the minimum salary and Barry’s trial date is in March of 2009, so there would be no interruption of the 2008 season. It defies explanation as to why he is not employed in 2008 with a Major League club.”

There have been grumblings that American League teams Tampa Bay, Seattle, Detroit and Boston have looked at Bonds as a possible designated hitter. There are also some rumblings about the Mets being interested in the star-crossed home-run king. But so far there have been no takers.

Perhaps Bonds could mentor young-ish slugger Howard? Maybe he could teach the Phillies’ first baseman that he can strikeout significantly less without compensating his home-run power?

And who knows, maybe Bonds can still play a little, too. Hey, he can’t be any worse than what they already have.

Pulling away from the pack

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

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

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

Yep, Wyoming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or bunted.

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

But after the pitch safely passed, I celebrated.

“Ball One!”

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

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

Booooooring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a move only smart, hustling players make.

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

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

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

The message?

You guys haven’t won anything yet.

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

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

Rollins got it immediately.

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

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

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

No comment

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

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

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

Nada.

Nothing.

Zilch.

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

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

Gee… OK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As if such a thing was possible.

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

Read the story from Jordan. It’s good.

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

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

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

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

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

For that matter, neither do most ballplayers…

Or fans.

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

Ryan Howard’s long bomb

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

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

Anyway, here’s Howard’s bomb:

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

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

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

But…

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

Don’t think, just throw

Nuke & CrashAt this point, writing about Ryan Howard’s cluelessness at the plate or Brett Myers’ mental meltdowns on the mound is nothing more than piling on. Plus, the last thing that a guy struggling through bad funk really wants to hear is more advice from a bunch of people who think they have the answer to everything.

So rather than pick at the scab of the Phillies’ offense and pitching rotation with over-analysis, pretentiousness and general blathering on, we’ll focus our attention on something else. But before we move on, try these out:

Hey Ryan, listen to Charlie. When it comes to hitting he knows what he is talking about. And Brett, just pitch, dude. Instead of becoming the real-life embodiment of Nuke LaLoosh (the similarities really are quite uncanny, though Nuke never got arrested), take the advice of Crash Davis and just pitch.

Better yet, don’t think – you’ll only hurt the ballclub.

Apropos of nothing, Pat Burrell averages 4.2 pitches per plate appearance this season. That’s the lowest number of pitches per plate appearance he’s faced since the 2003 season. However, during the break-out 2002 season in which he slugged 37 homers and had 116 RBIs, faced just 4.09 pitches per at bat.

Does this stat mean anything? Who knows. I just thought I’d throw it out there.

Anyway, one of my most favorite stories I’ve read during the past few months was the Esquire article by Susan Casey about a 75-year-old badass named Don Wildman. Casey describes Wildman as the Chuck Yeager of fitness, which is apt. Wildman is exactly the way I want to be if I ever make it to 75.

Check it out: The World’s Healthiest 75-Year-Old Man

Here’s how Wildman spent his 75th year.

I was going to write about horse racing, hockey and things like that, but instead I’ll just drop the link for the Wildman story. Meanwhile, I’m hitting the road for a few days so all the fun will return on Tuesday in time for the Phillies-Braves and Flyers-Penguins. You know… we’ll chat then.

Tired, tired, tired

sleepyI’m tired. Just beat. Frankly, it’s all I can do to keep my eyes open or from pitching forward off the couch and onto the floor. If I’m not rubbing my eyes I’m yawning. And if I’m not yawning, I’m quickly trying to snap my head back up after quickly dozing off.

In other words, I’m tired.

But the reason for my languor is not from too much exercise or other “lifestyle” choices. Generally, I eat well, though this week I had my first pizza, beer and ice cream-type dessert of the year. I figure a person needs to earn those types of things and after four months I relented. Besides, the next shot I get at those types of things won’t be until November so I might as well enjoy the week of letting go.

Still, I get plenty of rest, drink lots of water and take vitamins. Additionally, I give badass lessons on the side for folks interested in becoming a man of steel though the ability to fly and the vertical leap are not in the syllabus. We just deal in hard-headed toughness.

Anyway, the reason why I’m beat and bone weary is because of all these damn late-night starts for the Phillies. Sure, Arizona, where the Phillies are knee-deep in a four-game set with the Diamondbacks, is just two hours behind us on the east, but that’s an extra two hours I have to think about a nap and rearranging the daytime schedule. Just wait until the Phillies get to San Francisco on Friday night when the first pitch isn’t thrown until after 10 p.m.

The thing about time zones is that they get better the farther west you go. I remember Randy Wolf explaining the reason why he was a Braves fan as a kid instead of the nearby Dodgers was because the Braves were always on TV when he got home from school. He could come home, put his books down and there was Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz pitching for the Braves every day at 4 p.m. Perhaps the fact that California kids get so much more exposure to the game than the kids living in the Eastern Time zone is the reason why there are so many west coasters in the Majors.

We get bad traffic, foul attitudes, snowy winters and humidity and they get 300 days of sunshine a year, beautiful landscapes and the Braves game at 4 p.m.

Surely that theory as to why California is home to the most baseball players is correct, but it doesn’t do anything for hardcore Phillies’ fans that need some sleep. Better yet, imagine trying to follow a game when you’re fatigued after a long day, you finally get the kids off to bed after an argument with a four-year old over whether it’s the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Leaning Tower of Pizza only to settle in front of the tube on the night Jamie Moyer is pitching.

The drug companies ought to try to make a pill that can put a guy out faster than a west-coast game pitched by Jamie Moyer. Hell, that’s a narcotic.

Inevitably, though, it’s about the seventh inning when you finally shake off the cob webs and look up to see red caps and visiting grays dashing around the bases in the desert. But just when you think it’s some sort of Alice in Wonderland-type dream without the backwards clock, big No. 6 takes a called third strike and reality returns.

***
KSo yeah, Ryan Howard’s slump is well into its second month and has shown the slightest interest in taking a break. In fact, it’s really quite confusing why Howard’s dead weight continues to fill up the cleanup spot in the batting order between the hot-hitting duo of Chase Utley and Pat Burrell.

Worse, it seems as if Howard really doesn’t have a clue at all right now. Always quick to make adjustments at every level of his pro career, Howard seems perplexed as his average dips closer to .160 and his strikeout total edges closer to triple digits with each passing week.

Remember, it’s still May.

Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if Howard finishes the season with a .220 average and 220 strikeouts even though to boost his average that high would take some work. In the meantime, Howard could at least feign interest in the field or stop acting like the umps are ringing him up on bad or borderline calls. He should take his medicine like a man or at least in the same manner in which he fought for the $10 million for the season.

Better yet, dig this quote lifted from Scott Lauber:

“To me, it’s all about seeing the ball and having good at-bats,” Howard said. “To everyone else, it’s about results. That’s how it is in the media and everywhere else. So that’s that. People see what they want to see. There’s a lot of stuff that you don’t see, other stuff that’s going on. I try to do what I can to help the team win in whatever ways I can.”

No, trying to help the team in whatever way he can is something Eric Bruntlett or Chris Coste says. For Ryan Howard, who whined about money for the past two years, it is about results. If he wants to blame the media for focusing on things like “results,” fine. But if that’s the case he shouldn’t go crying to the media when he doesn’t get the contract he wants or when his new video game comes out.

Then again, video games are for guys with results so that’s that.

Here’s a theoretical:

Who is out of baseball first? Jim Thome or Ryan Howard.

Ode to spring

Ryan HowardCLEARWATER, Fla. – The best part about spring training is the informality of it. The strict protocol and rules of the regular season are pushed aside explicitly for the regular season, but while in Clearwater for seven weeks in preparation for when the games really count, the Phillies have been pretty good about keeping it light and getting their work in.

Frankly, the best part about baseball is spring training. In the laidback atmosphere here in Florida, the players’ and coaches’ love of the game oozes like lava down the side of a volcano. For a change – at least when there are no cases for the arbitration panel to hear – baseball looks like a game. The corporatization of a simple ballgame takes a backseat until the scene moves north to the big, taxpayer subsidized stadiums.

Aside from getting in the work (who doesn’t love watching players do their strides on the warning track while the game is still in progress), players experiment and try things they would never do in a real game. For instance, if Ryan Howard would have come to the plate with runners on second and third with two outs in the fourth inning of a regular-season game, he never would have taken the bat off his shoulder. He would have taken four pitches wide and outside and then trotted to first.

But in Clearwater against the Pirates on Thursday afternoon with runners on second and third and two outs, Howard got a fastball right down the pipe. Needless to say, the big fella knocked it over the berm ringing the ballpark beyond the outfield fence and into a pond just shy of the chain link fence separating the grounds of the park from southbound lanes of US-19.

Chances are the ball turned into a meal for an alligator.

The best part about the homer was that Howard talked to the scribes about it just a few innings later. No one had to wait until the end of the game because the clubhouse opens up for media access a few innings into the game so that the ballplayers can take care of the reporters before taking off for the day. Frankly, it’s an odd thing being in the clubhouse while a game is in progress, just as it’s a peculiar thing to watch the final innings of a game from foul territory in left field.

Do that during the regular season and it’s off to the roundhouse.

Anyway, the proverbial book goes out the window at spring training. Instead it’s a straight ahead, backyard game. Pitchers challenge hitters and hitters swing (or don’t) at pitches they normally would not. That’s because it’s not about the stat numbers on the page, but instead it’s about being able to play baseball.

And who can’t appreciate that?

***
The Phillies will play a regular Grapefruit League game against the Pirates at Bradenton’s McKechnie Field at 1 p.m. in front of paying customers featuring a majority of the players on the spring roster. However, the more interesting matchup will be the “B” game played at Pirate City located at 27th Street in Bradenton, which is where newly-named Opening Day starter Brett Myers will make his 2008 spring debut. Lefty reliever J.C. Romero is also scheduled to pitch in the “B” game.

Two players that will not make the trip to Bradenton are catcher Carlos Ruiz and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Both players were given the day off, which, for Rollins means an early morning workout and then some relaxation at home for the rest of the day.

Rollins, needless to say, is pretty excited about the rare day off.

On another note, at his locker in the veterans’ corner of the clubhouse in Bright House Field, Rollins proudly displayed the championship belt awarded to him as the team captain in the weekly bowling matchup against a team led by Ryan Howard and featuring bowlers Brett Myers and Shane Victorino. Apparently Rollins’ team is such a juggernaut that Howard and his club were pleased that they pushed the best-of-3 series to the limit.

Afterwards, when asked whether the problem was the management as opposed to the bowling, Howard complained that the Philadelphia media was calling for his head.

“You lose one game and the Philly media tries to get you fired!” he yelled.

Hey, you can’t fire the bowlers.

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.

If you don’t have anything nice to say…

Ryan Howard… get a blog. Or better yet, just invite the writing media over to the locker to chat instead of those pesky TV folks with their makeup and those white, hot lights and cameras. Besides, talking to actual humans instead of inanimate objects like cameras and TV reporters is much more revealing anyway. Sure, the fans might like tuning in from so far away to watch a guy talk with those lights and the microphones bearing down, but come on… no one really enjoys it.

At least that’s the way it was for Ryan Howard in Clearwater today. Rather than do the whole big ballyhoo and faux production of a made-for-TV inquiry about his contract and whether or not animosity has festered like a bad blister because the Phillies only want to pay him $7 million for 2008 instead of $10 million just chatted up a few scribes and some inanimate objects in the clubhouse.

It made for a more contemplative, more intimate, more revealing and perhaps even a more trenchant conversation. That’s the key word there – conversation. Look, when dealing with athletes, pro writers are dealing with a short deck mostly because they don’t know a damn thing about exercise or fitness or training or anything. But that’s beside the point. When the glare and scrutiny beats on a guy, it gets hard to explain things, so everyone loses.

Or something like that. Who knows. I’m just making this all up as I go along and I’m sure that five minutes from now I’ll have no idea what I wrote. But don’t let that stop anyone from acknowledging that sooner or later Ryan Howard will have to answer questions about his contract. What, do you think the writing press is a bunch of shrinking violets? Hey, they might not know the ins and outs of exercise or physiology, but that’s not going to stop them from using clichés oh so cavalierly.

You know, whatever.

***
Here’s a question: is it worse that someone made a typographical error in typing up a document filed yesterday in the Barry Bonds perjury case that erroneously stated the player tested positive for steroids in November of 2001, or is it worse that so many media outlets blindly jumped on the story without checking it out first.

Look, people trust the wire services and the big names in the media business without giving it much thought. But even the tiniest bit of research over the false Bonds report should have had folks scratching their heads a bit with wonderment over why the star-crossed slugger would have taken a drugs test in 2001.

Plus, knowing that there are no more secrets anywhere and that the truth always rears its troll-like face, the notion of a failed drugs test by Bonds in November of 2001 should have had the fact-checkers scrambling.

Alas…

Nevertheless, the underlying problem was evident: Media types are too worried about being first instead of being right.

***
Pedro Finally, my favorite story of the day comes out of the Mets’ camp in Port Saint Lucie where Pedro Martinez rightfully claimed that he stared down the so-called Steroid Era and plunked it on its ass.

According to Pedro, “I dominated that era and I did it clean.

“I have a small frame and when I hurt all I could do was take a couple of Aleve or Advil, a cup of coffee and a little mango and an egg – and let it go!”

It sounds like Pedro (and Cole Hamels) are wannabe marathon runners who wake up every morning with everything hurting, shuffle stiff-legged downstairs for some coffee, a vitamin, maybe a Clif Bar or even an ibuprofen with the thought of visiting the chiro for some Active Release Technique therapy before heading out the door for the first of two brutal workouts.

Drugs tests? Where the cup…

“I wish that they would check every day,” Pedro said. “That’s how bad I want the game to be clean. I would rather go home (than) taint the game.”

Here’s a theory: the pitching during the so-called “Steroid Era” wasn’t so bad. Oh sure, certain media types — blabbermouths on certain radio stations in particular — are quick to point out how today’s pitchers can’t throw strikes, won’t work deep into games and how some of them shouldn’t be in the big leagues. Expansion, they say, has watered down the game.

Maybe so. But try this out: in facing hitters with baseballs that are wound tighter and who are using harder bats made of harder wood against a tinier strike zone in ball parks that are smaller still, pitchers have to add guile to the repertoire. And we didn’t even get into the performance-enhancing drugs part yet. Nonetheless, pitchers just can’t lean back and huck it up there as fast as they can — pitchers have had to pitch in the post-modern era of baseball.

***
Jamie MoyerSpeaking of doing it the right way for a long time, Sully Salisbury turned in a great story on the meritorious Jamie Moyer, who is heading into his 22nd big league season.

A few minutes in the presence of Moyer makes it easy to believe that you never, ever have to get old. You never have to burn out, get tired, act old, compromise, get mediocre or slow down. Moyer turned 45 last November and be sure that there are players on the Phillies who are “older” than he is – they’ve stopped being engaged, they know what they know and they don’t want to be exposed to anything new. They are already completely formed and they might only be 23 years old.

Not Moyer, though. In a conversation last October, the pitcher says one of the best parts about playing for so long has been the exposure to new people and ideas.

“A lot of times, I just focus on the simplicity of things, and not be the focus of what should be going on here, and just keep things simple. I call it the K.I.S.S. factor — keep it simple, stupid,” he said last October. “I look back on instances in my career like that — good and bad – but things that I’ve learned from, and try to re-educate myself and rethink things, and reinforce what I already know. A lot of times, we can overlook things and forget, and after the fact, after the mistake is made, you’re like, ‘Oh, I knew that. Why did I do that?’ You can’t catch everything. But if you can catch some of it, hopefully, it’ll work out. What’s been fun is being around this group of guys and the energy they bring.”

As Moyer told Sailisbury yesterday:

“I’m not as proud of the age thing as I am of the ups and downs I’ve overcome to create some longevity,” Moyer said after yesterday’s workout. “I’ve enjoyed that part. I can smile and say I’m doing what I want to do.”

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.

Arbitrarily speaking

Ryan HowardThe Phillies and Ryan Howard are beginning yet another contract dance as the slugger is poised to enter the arbitration process for the first time. Of course the big question is whether or not the Phillies and Howard will avoid the arbitration hearing and iron out a multi-year contract. Though he isn’t eligible to become a free agent until after the 2011 season, Howard is expected to fetch at least $7 million in salary in 2008 if a long-term deal isn’t brokered.

That’s where it gets fun because it’s not as if the Phillies don’t want to have Ryan Howard play for them for a long time. Why wouldn’t they? In his first two full seasons in the Majors, Howard smashed 105 homers, including 47 last year when he missed a most of the month of May. In 2006 he smashed the club single-season home run record on his way to winning the MVP Award. Kids wear Phillies shirts with his No. 6 on the back and everything seems to come to a halt at the ballpark whenever Howard comes to the plate.

Simply, Howard is one of the biggest reasons why folks pay money to go out to the ballpark.

When one considers that the Phillies signed Chase Utley to a multi-year deal worth $85 million in his year of arbitration eligibility, it would make sense that Howard would get a big offer, too.

Right?

Well…

There’s a big difference between players like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. For instance, if he can stay away from accidents like running into his centerfielder, getting in the way of inside pitches before they break his hand and avoid overtraining at Athletes’ Performance with Mark Verstegen, Utley should be able to play well into his late 30s and early 40s. With five years already under his belt before he turned 29, Utley looks to be putting together a long career. A seven-year contract could be a bargain for the Phillies.

On the other hand, guys like Howard don’t last as long. Already 28, Howard is seemingly in the prime years for a big, slugging type of player. The truth is the big fellas just don’t last that long – especially if they have to play in the field. Baseball history is littered with guys like Howard who were washed up before their 35th birthday. Greg Luzinski was washed up at 33; Boog Powell at 34; Mo Vaughn at 34; John Kruk at 33; Kent Hrbek at 34… the list goes on and on. The one big guy who has lasted a long time is Frank Thomas and that comes in part because he’s played just 36 games in the field since 2001, and missed nearly 2½ seasons because of injuries.

Need more? Baseball Prospectus suggested that Howard could be peaking in its 2007 yearbook:

Historically, players like Howard, big-bodied guys with limited defensive skills such as Mo Vaughn and Boog Powell, tended to have high but brief peak periods. Their legs just couldn’t carry that much mass for very long, and around 30 their defense plummeted, their playing time dropped due to nagging injuries, and their singles dried up and disappeared. The Phillies should have a three-year window in which they can expect this kind of production from Howard, but should not plan beyond that.

Based on how the contract-negotiations are going – word is Howard and the Phillies are $3 million apart – the Phillies are not doing anything more than they have to.

Making the scene

Ryan HowardPhew! It was a rather eventful weekend what with the big fight in Las Vegas and putting up the Christmas decorations and all of that.

But aside from the Bonnie & Clyde kids or “Rittenhouse Swindlers[1]” as they could be called, and the Eagles loss to the Giants, not much happened in these parts. In fact, it seems as if the Philly folks were looking to get their names in the papers they had to leave town this weekend.

Yes, it seems that not only was Bernard Hopkins making the scene at Oscar de la Hoya’s party before Floyd Mayweather dropped Ricky Hatton in 10 in Las Vegas, but also Ryan Howard was on the prowl, too. According to the gossip columnist in Vegas, the Phillies’ slugger was at the Tryst nightclub [2]inside the Wynn resort with ex-Phillie Kenny Lofton. Charles Barkley was there, too, the paper reported.

Apparently, Sir Chuck was spotted at a lot of places in Vegas during the weekend before the fight. So too were Will Ferrell, Lennox Lewis and Sylvester Stallone.

Who knows, maybe Howard also hit Vegas to try and lure back local resident Aaron Rowand to the Phillies. That seems doubtful, though. Maybe Ryan was too busy in the hotel gym getting in shape for spring training?

Around these parts we got the ol’ tree up and all of that mess. Ever the traditionalists, a few years ago we bought a tree that appears to be made from the old turf they used to have at the Vet. I walked by it this morning and strained my anterior cruciate ligament.

If only it came in martini blue…

Aside from that I went in for a little A.R.T. on my tight-as-a-drum hip flexor. It’s a funny thing… I can run, walk and stand just like anyone else, but if I sit on a soft chair or the couch, the hip tightens up so much that I can’t get up and I’m left to sit there like a Buddha or Bill Conlin. It’s pretty damn frustrating.

What’s that about? I can run 90 miles per week but I can’t sit on a recliner?

Such a mess…

Ted LeoFinally, Ted Leo and his outfit, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, wrapped up a seemingly never-ending tour in with shows in New York City and Philly last week and a pair over the weekend in Washington, D.C. After playing and touring the United States and Europe quite continuously since 2005, Ted and the gang say they are going to take a bit of break to recover, rest and make another record.

The rest of us are left to ponder a world where the Pharmacists aren’t out there plotting and scheming their moves and walking that line for us. Yes, it’s a well-deserved and needed break, but we are weaker as a culture when Ted isn’t out there in the night on some stage playing as hard as he can. The Pharmacists go to work every time — it’s just so inspirational and so beautiful.

***
Michael Vick got 23 months! What’s that line from D.L. Hughley: Somewhere O.J. is watching and saying, “Man, I’m glad I didn’t mess with any dogs…”

***
Happy birthday to Meg White, Michael Clarke Duncan, Bobby Flay, Nia Peeples, J Mascis, Susan Dey, Emily Dickinson and Mark Aguirre.


[1] Isn’t that redundant? And did I make that up? It has a nice ring.

[2] Is it me or does a nightclub named Tryst sound like something out of George Carlin bit?

Strike three

Cole HamelsApparently, the second inning was nothing more than a apparition for the Phillies’ Cole Hamels. That’s the case because since that 40-pitch second inning, Hamels has mowed down 13 straight on 47 pitches. As a result, he has given his high-powered offense a really good chance to win this game.

But Chase Utley whiffed to open the sixth. For Utley, it was his third straight strikeout against the lefty Jeff Francis. As a result, it appears as if Utley is in a bit of a slump since he only has four hits in his last 24 plate appearances.

Meanwhile, the whiffs appear to be stifling the Phillies’ offense. Utley and Ryan Howard have whiffed five times in six plate appearances. That’s five of the team’s eight strikeouts.

That’s too many.

Another homer for Howard… ho-hum

Ryan HowardInterestingly, Ryan Howard homered for the fourth game in a row in the seventh inning. It was his 47th home run of the season.

What’s so interesting about this, you ask? Well, the 47 home runs is the same total that Jim Thome hit for the Phillies in 2003 and it’s one away from Mike Schmidt’s old franchise-best tally in 1980. The fact is that we have been so matter-of-fact about Howard’s home runs this season. Forty-seven homers is nothing to sneeze at and it’s like we’ve come to expect it from the big slugger.

Just think how many he might have hit if he didn’t lose three weeks in May while on the disabled list. Or think how many he would have hit if he hadn’t slumped so badly during the first months of the season, as well.

Yeah, 47 homers for Howard… ho-hum.

The Phillies are six outs away.

Adding on and whiting out

BobI just wrote the results of the last inning in the wrong page of my scorebook. I hate when that happens. Now my Bob Carpenter Scorebook is going to look messy like a chicken wrote all in it and I can’t have that.

Bob Carpenter, by the way, is the play-by-play announcer for the Nationals’ TV broadcasts. His scorebook is excellent, but now my copy has Presto! whiteout all over it.

I’m not sure if Carpenter’s book is as good as how Jamie Moyer has been pitching so far. He took down the Nats in order again in the third, this time on 13 pitches. He also got another strikeout on one of those off-speed pitches on the outer edge of the plate.

It didn’t go as well for Jason Bergmann against the Phillies in the bottom of the third. Carlos Ruiz doubled to open the inning, then, with one out, Bergmann walked Jimmy Rollins and plunked Shane Victorino. However, he nearly wiggled out of some bases-loaded trouble when Chase Ultey harmlessly popped up to short and had two strikes on Ryan Howard with two outs.

But Howard’s two-run single made it 3-0, which made that six-run deficit at Shea look like it was double-digits.

Superstar

The cool thing about Ryan Howard isn’t that he hits the longest home runs that anyone has ever seen. After all, that’s his job and a guy doing his job almost as well as anyone on the planet isn’t really a big deal.

Is it?

No, the cool thing about Ryan Howard is that he is on the doorstep from becoming one of the biggest stars in the game and he doesn’t know it. That isn’t to say Ryan is unaware, not interested or above such triviality and superficiality. Maybe he is. I don’t know – I don’t feel like getting into that deep. I’m sure I could, but that’s something for the people who write for Slate or Salon or some other navel-gazing type edifice of supposed intellectual discourse.

Ryan doesn’t seem to know it because he’s unaffected. Maybe he is or isn’t above such things, but the he’s still the same old guy who likes hanging out with his teammates and playing baseball. And again, not that I’m a psychiatrist or anything like that, but Ryan seems to be pretty grounded – based on talks with baseball writers far smarter than me and observations at a few award presentations, Ryan’s parents seem to still have an important influence on him. In a way – but totally different – Ryan reminds me a bit of Scott Rolen, another Midwestern guy who placed his priorities on family, roots, friends and education.

The rest was just what you did.

And judging from last night’s made-for-TV home run hitting contest, Ryan Howard is pretty good at what he does.

Etc.
Here’s Ryan’s big homer to the third deck against the Yankees:

Two in a row
OK, this could be a cheap shot, but whatever. When a team wins just one World Championship in 123 seasons, facts aren’t cheap shots. They’re facts

Anyway, two different Phillies have won the Home Run Derby in consecutive seasons… how come that’s the only thing they can win. Oh yes, it’s pretty cool and it’s good to see good guys and solid citizens like Bobby Abreu and Ryan Howard represent the Phillies and the city, but would it have really mattered if neither guy won? It’s the worst kept secret around that the balls used in the competition are a little “doctored.”

Then again, it was cool watching those long shots land in the Allegheny River.

And speaking of the Allegheny, how great does Pittsburgh’s downtown ballpark look? Wouldn’t it be great if the Phillies could build a ballpark along the banks of the Delaware or Schuylkill with the tall buildings in Center City hanging over the bowl?

Oh wait… never mind.

Home run Ramon
For two years in a row, Phillies’ bullpen coach Ramon Henderson has been smacked around more than a cheap piñata.

No not literally.

Henderson, of course, pitched to both Bobby Abreu and Ryan Howard during their slugging runs in the Home Run Derby. Based on how well Abreu did in smacking a record 41 homers in Detroit in 2005, Red Sox David Ortiz asked Henderson to pitch to him, too.

Apparently Henderson is a juggernaut at serving up titanic blasts because not only did both Abreu and Howard win the competition, but also Ortiz launched the longest bombs of the contest, including one that almost left the Earth’s atmosphere before settling down in the muddy Allegheny.

Upon returning to Philadelphia after last season’s title run, Henderson was a bit of a celebrity in the Phils’ clubhouse. If he were able to parlay his home-run throwing talents into some sort of business, Henderson might be able to clean up.

Either way, it’s obvious that Henderson is having a blast with all of this. Two straight trips to the All-Star Game with his young son with the best seat in the house for the Home Run Derby… not bad. Not bad at all.

Note: Updates here will be even more sporadic than the past week. Currently I am in Estes Park, Colo. relaxing and trying to recharge my fried batteries for the rest of the year. There may be a chance of a post here or there, but nothing too significant… then again, here in Mountain Time and with the aid of MLB.tv; those west coast ballgames come on at a reasonable hour.

Then again, the only sports I’m going to be interested in for the next 10 days are running, golf and chasing a high-energy 2-year old around the Rocky Mountains.