Ibanez hurt? Who knew… aside from everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You want the truth? Can you handle it?

Tough year on the field, but not off

Brad LidgeBaring a moment of insanity or just pure incompetence, the local chapter of the BBWAA will vote to give Brad Lidge its “Good Guy” award this year. No, this isn’t a big deal and the relevancy of the national wing of the BBWAA is questionable at best these days.

You know, secret societies being what they are and all.

Nevertheless, if there is one person who should be acknowledged for being a stand-up dude this season, it is Brad Lidge. After all, no matter how ugly it got on the mound or how frustrating it was following those eight losses and 11 blown saves, Lidge bravely faced the music with his teammates, coaches and media. That’s a bit of a rarity these days. Better yet, not only was he consistent in demeanor, he has been accountable and kept his dignity.

In fact, Lidge has been no different in 2009 when talking about his performance than he was in 2008 when he nailed down 48 save chances in a row. He stands there and deconstructs every pitch, indulges every question and relives the horror (or glory) after every outing.

Could you imagine if a politician, a doctor or lawyer had to face the music after a day at work the way Lidge has this year?

Anyway, in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated, columnist Phil Taylor weighed in on how Lidge has handled the difficult season with great dignity and aplomb. As Taylor wrote:

It’s like going to sleep as James Bond and waking up as Inspector Clouseau. “My preparation is the same, my intensity, my focus, my effort, they’re all the same as last season, but the results just—aren’t,” the 32-year-old Lidge says. “There are definitely times when I wonder, What’s going on here?”

The rest of us are wondering the same thing, but not so much about his pitching. What’s going on with all this self-control? No athlete in recent memory has gone from being perfect one season to putrid the next, so if ever a player could be forgiven for snapping, it’s Lidge. Yet he continues to handle his struggles with grace and civility, which is just so … unfashionable.

Hasn’t he been paying attention? That’s not the way it’s done at a time when rage is all the rage. If you’re on the verge of losing to an underdog in the U.S. Open, you take it out on your racket and the line judge, the way Serena Williams did. If an opponent shows little class by taunting, you show even less by slugging him, as Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount did after the Ducks’ loss to Boise State. If the kick returner on your team lets a shot at a season-opening upset slip away, you take your frustrations out by spray-painting his lawn, the way Bills fans did after Leodis McKelvin’s fumble at New England.

Even with all of those angry precedents to follow, Lidge’s stack remains unblown; not once has he had to release an insincere, intentionally vague apology for some embarrassing loss of temper. Manager Charlie Manuel pulled him in a save situation against the Nationals two weeks ago, the first time as a Phillie that Lidge had suffered that indignity. Some relievers might have grabbed the biggest bat they could find and done a little impromptu demolition work in the clubhouse, but Lidge stayed in the dugout, demonstrably rooting on his replacement, Ryan Madson.

Staring out at a light rain last week, Lidge matter-of-factly discussed his performance, his affable demeanor never changing even as he used words like “crappy” and “terrible.” After a particularly galling blown save against the Astros, his former team, he had sat in front of his locker so distraught that a Phillies staffer told him it would be fine if he chose not to speak to the media. Instead of taking the invitation to duck out, he took a deep breath and relived the ugly outing for his questioners—facing things, as Manuel puts it, “like a man.”

Yes, Lidge has been downright dreadful on the mound this season. In fact, there have been times when it has been uncomfortable to watch him try and get hitters out. Worse, sometimes it seems as if Lidge has been on the wrong end of “pity applause,” which isn’t mean spirited, but it’s infuriating just the same. Last when Lidge would get an out the fans would erupt and celebrate another victory. This year, instead, outs are met with cheers but there is some sarcasm behind them.

Yet Lidge has pushed on. He may be bad on the mound, but off it he’s been the ace. And in the end isn’t that what really matters? Sure, sportswriters and fans talk about things like legacies and history, but that only applies to what happens between the lines.

Maybe that should change? When it comes to a true legacy maybe Lidge is ahead of the game. He’s a good dude and in the end that always matters more than anything a person can do on a ball field.

And who knows, Lidge said a few weeks ago that the true measure of a baseball season is how it ends. If this season ends just as well as last year, Lidge says it will all be worth it. However, it already has been worth it for the folks who get to talk to him on a regular basis.

Say it ain’t Sosa… no really, say it

mac_samMy friend Mike was working on some formulas and quantum physics things that could, if the math is right, add more hours to the day. The month of February might be a casualty in all of this, but the other months will be symmetrical and we very well could end up with some extra time.

It should be noted that Mike is working on this in his free time, which kind of shoots his theory in the ass a bit, but otherwise, this is groundbreaking stuff. If anything it will give the baseball writer-types the much-needed time to watch things like the Joe Buck Live so we can ponder the host’s second favorite web site.

After the five minutes passes that it takes to understand the significance of the sports announcer’s show and the unnatural disaster named Artie Lange[1], we can take a nap with the report on Sammy Sosa and his alleged positive test acting as an organic Ambien.

I almost read the report in The New York Times about Sammy Sosa’s alleged positive test from 2003. I should say that I actually dialed it up on the Internets, looked at the picture of Sammy and Big Mark McGwire smiling together during that summer of 1998, and tried to get through the lede graf.

But then I couldn’t stop yawning. Not enough oxygen to my head, I guess. But the yawns came so frequently that it seemed like a good idea to get up and walk around a bit. Maybe grab a drink with a little caffeine to shake loose the cob webs. Then I could go back and sit down and get through the story.

Only when I tried again I dozed off. The weird thing about this was that I was sitting in the press box at the Phillies-Jays game. There were more than 45,000 people hovering about and there I was drooling on the keys of my laptop. I may have even sprayed Gonzo or Crasnick who usually sit next to me at the ballgames.

What are you going to do? If a Sammy Sosa getting popped for PEDs can’t hold one’s attention, what chance do innocent bystanders have?

Yet refreshed and rested, I forged on. Only instead of reading up on Sammy, I learned that Senator Barbara Boxer from California really has “a thing” about highly decorated military men calling her, “senator” as opposed to “ma’am,” or even, “Babs.”

The distinguished senator from California claims she worked hard for her title, which means she raised a helluva lot of money. In fact, Babs raised so much money that the great state of California has tax rates that make even ballplayers complain. Oh sure, those guys complain about anything dealing with taxes and money and government. It’s like one of those minutemen brigades or something, only the fortified bunkers are loaded with therapeutic tubs and pools, a training staff and all the maple bats a guy could ever want. In the case of the Phillies, sometimes the common area of the bunker (aka, The Clubhouse) has an actual team of ballplayers in it after games, but most of the time the jocks are out-numbered by PR staff members by a rate of 5-to-1.

Anyway, take a look at ol’ Babs giving Gomer Pyle the business:

Oh, but there was one thing that had me rapt for approximately 10 whole minutes. In fact, I was actually excited to lounge on the couch and read the Sports Illustrated send-up on Charlie Manuel.

Sure, there weren’t too many new stories in the piece, and, in fact, I recall hearing one of them a few weeks ago. In the story Charlie even points out that he told the story a few days prior. Well, he told them to us in the dugout during the early afternoon meet-and-greet he does with the local writing press. The truth is, the guy loves to tell stories about Billy Martin and Japan, and frankly, we like to hear them as many times as he wants to tell them.

chuckCharlie has a few other doozies that likely won’t see print any time soon and haven’t made it into the Sports Illustrated or HBO features. Actually, that raises a pretty interesting premise and that is Charlie likes to talk to the big-time national press.

Bryant Gumble, Frank DeFord and HBO? Sure, send ‘em over. Sports Illustrated? No problem – where is the fitting for the tux? A speaking gig warming up for Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani and Donovan McNabb? No problem, just get ready for the folksy charm.

So here’s the issue… is Charlie spreading himself too thin? Are the Phillies playing so poorly at home because of all the demands on their time from winning the World Series? Undoubtedly, Charlie and the rest of the Phillies will answer with a resounding, “No!” But think about it – how many national TV commercial ads were Phillies players starring in before they won the World Series? Before Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels became pitchmen, was there anyone else other than Mike Schmidt an Pete Rose?

It’s a wonderful thing winning the World Series, but damn if it ain’t time consuming.


[1] Just gonna say it: would anyone give a flying fig about the Joe Buck Live if Artie Lange had not been on it? If the answer is anything other than, “No,” you don’t get it.

Merry ol’ Cole

hamelsSports Illustrated seems to have a thing for Phillies’ pitcher Cole Hamels lately. Shortly after was named the MVP of both the NLCS and World Series, Hamels appeared on the cover of the prestigious magazine.

The thing about that was there were no pop-out headlines or boxed photos to sully the austerity of Hamels in mid leg kick of a pitch while staring down the camera.

It’s so nice you might want to hang it on your wall.

But big pictures and cover stories are superficial. They don’t mean anything because if they did, Angelina Jolie, Paris Hilton and a The Octomom would be the most meaningful people on the planet.

Alas, they are not. In fact, what do they do exactly?

Anyway, Cole is sort of a big deal in these parts. When he returned to Philadelphia last week for an MRI and an ultra sound of that precious, precious left arm, camera crews dogged him around town while he guided his wife’s minivan through traffic. The Phillies even put out an advance warning to the media back in Philly that Cole wasn’t going to talk to reporters when he arrived at Philadelphia International.

Apparently the ride on USAir was going to be stressful enough – you know with the lost luggage and everything.

But in Lee Jenkins’ story about potential top pick in the June baseball draft named Stephen Strasburg, Hamels’ name came up.

In a sidebar entitled, “Young Guns,” Jenkins talked to long-time scout Al Goldis about the best pitchers he bird dogged. Guess what? Hamels was second on Goldis’ list.

In his career with the Orioles, White Sox, Reds, Brewers, Cubs, Angels and Mets, Goldis put Hamels in his all-time top five of pitchers he scouted along with Dwight Gooden, Brien Taylor, Mark Prior and Mike Mussina. Not a bad list, though the pro careers weren’t exactly the best for all of the guys on that list.

On Hamels, the scout told the scribe:

Of all the high school pitchers I’ve seen, he had the most poise. He knew how to pitch. He had a great changeup. He had everything.

Indeed he did. However, because of injuries and questions about his long-term health, Hamels fell to the 17th pick in the 2002 draft where Mike Arbuckle, Marti Wolever and Ed Wade were smart enough to make the pick.

Later, they were smart enough to hold onto him when all the other teams came around sniffing for prospects in potential trades.

The good (old) swimsuit issue

I don’t get out much. Reading some of these missives ought to make that obvious. Really, think about it… I write about sports (exclusively), get to a ballgame or a hundred every year and live in Lancaster, Pa.

Nope, not much happening here.

But even a sheltered dude like me knows old-fashioned when he sees it and this time it was shoved through the mail slot in my door. So when I walked over to pick up the pile of magazines and junk mail on the ground, I saw Bar Refaeli staring coquettishly from behind a bank statement.

But rather than going for the rather flimsy-feeling magazine, I went for the bank statement. After all, in this age the fact that the bank is actually telling me I have money is the biggest turn-on.

Bar Refaeli?

Yawn…

Look, as one of those so-called red-blooded Americans, I like half-naked women as much as the next person. Think about it… what else do Americans really do well any more. There’s all-you-can-eat buffets; spiraling, out-of-control credit debt; and scantily clad men and women. That’s us.

U-S-A! U-S-A!

But c’mon, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue? In 2009? Really?

Read the rest of this story…

Hello, Von Hayes, hello

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

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

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

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

Again, not Hayes’ fault.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here I thought it was just me.

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

Never, ever.

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

Right?

Well…

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

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

Oh well.

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

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

Instead, this is all I got out of it…

And you just got a little whine.

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

He wrote back!

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

All Brett, all the time Part II

I generally don’t believe in conspiracy theories. That goes for conspiracies within government as well as sports. For one thing, the organization and planning of the degree needed for such intricate subterfuge is often beyond the types that work in these businesses.

Plus, keeping secrets is way too difficult. From what I know about writing about politics and sports over the years is that those people leak like sieves. The worst-kept secret is that there are no secrets. As a result, it makes the art of deception and conspiracy rather difficult.

However, when I heard that Brett Favre – the most famous man on the planet if you believe the breathless dispatches from ESPN — had been traded to the New York Jets, well, I started looking behind the grassy knoll.

An attention hound quarterback with decades of fawning by the largest sports media outlet in the world headed to the largest media market in the country… nah, there can’t be anything behind it, could there?

Brett Favre in New York? Mere coincidence.

To be fair, accounts coming out of Wisconsin or Mississippi or 34,000-feet above the earth or wherever the hell Brett Favre is these days, indicate that he really didn’t want to get traded to the Jets. After all, the Jets were 4-12 last season, which is four games worse than what Favre’s Packers were during a dreadful 2006, but identical to the 4-12 2005 season Favre masterminded in 2005.

Hey, it’s not like the Jets are getting Doug Williams or Trent Dilfer [1]to replace Chad Pennington, who nearly guided the surprising ’06 team into the AFC Championship. And they certainly are not getting a Bart Starr in the twilight years in Favre. Make it more like Johnny Unitas going to the Chargers for one last go-around or Willie Mays with the Mets, flailing away on the turf at Shea during the ’73 post-season.

Sure, the New York media will give the big star some love when he arrives. New York loves a media event and a star, after all. But in New York (to paraphrase Lou Reed) there are no stars in the sky – they are all on the ground.

Maybe that’s why Favre reportedly preferred a trade to Tampa Bay? Sunny skies, warm weather, and plenty of things to do outdoors during the winter instead of sitting inside and watching the old quarterback flail around on the turf while attempting to turn the clock back.

***

Back in the old days when Sports Illustrated was the king of all sports media, they used to put out a special Olympic preview in the weeks before the games opened. Aside from the feature stories and the look into the American athletes’ chances in Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, etc., etc., the magazine predicted the winners of the gold, silver and bronze in every event.

It was pretty cool, I thought. Sometimes they were even accurate with the predictions.

Wouldn’t you know it that Sports Illustrated still makes its predictions? Here they are.

After a quick glance, here’s what caught my eye:

  • Bernard Lagat taking the silver in the 1,500, but off the podium in the 5,000.
  • Kenyan Martin Lel atop the field in the Marathon. Strangely, of the 14 nations to take gold in the marathon, Kenya is not one of them. Incidentally, Lel and countryman Robert Cheuriyot are the best, big-race marathoners in the world, but I still say don’t sleep on Ryan Hall.
  • No American women in the distance events. Not even Deena Kastor, who took the bronze in the marathon in sweltering heat and humidity at the Athens games.
  • Tyson Gay over Usain Bolt in the 100.
  • Usain Bolt over everyone in the 200.
  • Jeremy Wariner over LaShawn Merritt in the 400.

Aside from Ryan Hall, Brian Sell, Dathan Ritzenhein and the other distance guys, it will be interesting to see how NBC covers Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang as he attempts to beat world-record holder Dayron Robles in the 110-meter hurdles. NBC went all out in reporting on Australian Cathy Freeman during the Sydney games, which is understandable. But along with women’s marathoner Zhou Chunxiu, Liu Xiang is the biggest threat to win gold for the host country.

***

Finally, Philadelphia Will Do’s Dan McQuade is chronicling the Olympics in blog form for Vanity Fair (yeah, freaking Vanity Fair!). Here’s his first post.

For the record, Dan is Luke Skywalker to my Obi Wan… well, probably not, but I’m going to say it anyway.


[1] QBs just like Brett Favre in that they have won exactly one Super Bowl.