Shooting the breeze

CLEARWATER, Fla. – “Come on in and set down,” Big Chuck said as he snapped off the TV tuned to CNBC hanging overhead. If we’re on the way to economic Armageddon, it’s good to know Charlie Manuel is getting the play-by-play.

Financial matters are a fine topic. That’s especially true these days, what with all the bailouts, bonuses and stimulus packages and whatnot. But I was more interested in something more analytical and a bit more in need of an expert’s opinion.

And truthfully, there are probably just a handful of people on the planet who understand hitting a baseball as well as Charlie Manuel.

Think about it – when Charlie was first coming up through the ranks in pro ball, none other than Ted Williams took a shine to the Phillies’ skipper. There was something about that big, lefty swing from that raw-boned kid from Buena Vista, Virginia that caught the eye of the greatest hitter who ever lived.

Then again, Charlie has that kind of affect on a lot of people. Even now, 40 years after his Major League career began, Charlie still makes friends easily. He’s always the most popular guy whenever he steps into a room, though compliments seem to embarrass him. Either way, it’s not all that surprising that a big-time star like Ted Williams was charmed by young Chuck.

Regardless, Charlie knows hitting. While coming up with the Twins, Hall-of-Famers Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew were his teammates. When he joined the Dodgers, Charlie couldn’t unseat Steve Garvey, Bill Buckner, Ron Cey or Jimmy Wynn for playing time. Because he couldn’t get the opportunities in the U.S., Charlie went to Japan where he and the legendary Sadaharu Oh were the top sluggers.

Back in the states as a coach, Charlie mentored some of the all-time greats. Hitters like Kirby Puckett, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and now, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley thrived under Charlie. A few of them are headed to the Hall of Fame. No doubts there.

So when I went in to Charlie’s office at Bright House Field, the original plan was justification. Earlier this week after watching Albert Pujols take batting practice I decided he was the greatest hitter I had ever seen. That’s a bold statement. So with Chuck I presented it as Pujols was the greatest right-handed hitter of a the generation.

“He’s up there,” Charlie said. “He can be whatever you want him to be.”

Continue reading this story …

That’s no coach… it’s Jamie Moyer!

moyerCLEARWATER, Fla. – Back here at Bright House to watch the workouts and a minor-league game featuring Brad Lidge and Chad Durbin (and surely a handful of others on the 25-man roster). The formal version of the Phillies are off in Kissimmee to face the Astros.

Perhaps the most significance regarding the game against the Astros is that Carlos Carrasco will pitch, who is competing to make the team in the No. 5 starting pitching spot. However, all indications suggest that the one-time four-man race has whittled itself down to just Chan Ho Park and J.A. Happ.

Kyle Kendrick appears to have pitched himself out of contention.

Nevertheless, one guy who really doesn’t have to worry about pitching himself in or out of anywhere is veteran lefty Jamie Moyer. In fact, this is the time of year the 45-year-old pitcher can take his time, relax and slowly work himself into game shape for the season.

Of course such silly ideas like relaxation and taking it easy are foreign concepts to Moyer. You might as well speak to him in Mandarin Chinese if you suggest, “Hey, old-timer, take it easy…”

When you have a 70-mph fastball like Moyer, there is no taking it easy.

moyer1Nevertheless, upon walking out of the parking lot to the training complex this morning, one was greeted with the sight of a few dozen minor-league pitchers – including first-round picks Kyle Drabek and Joe Savery – circled around a pitchers’ mound for a demonstration and lecture from Moyer. Never at a loss for words or insight on pitching (or anything else), Moyer left the kids rapt in attention as he used words like, “focus,” “easy,” and “respect.”

Still, the odd thing was that Moyer was twice the age of some of his potential teammates and as old as some of the coaches and yet there he was working out alongside of them and giving his time on a Saturday morning when all he could have done was put his feet up and relax after an easy workout.

But there’s no such thing as easy with Moyer.

*

Ryan Howard, Pedro Feliz and Chase Utley went through some infield and hitting practice this morning while the pitchers who stayed in Clearwater stretched and did their non-game day work. Interestingly, during one drill a game of duck-duck-goose broke out amongst the pitchers.

Yep, loose and easy here in Clearwater.

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.

Time to stretch

Will & HeidiI’m not an expert on much, but it seems to me that there is much more anticipation about the official opening of spring training this year than in the past. Folks are charged up about baseball and spring training as if the day pitchers and catchers are expected to report to camp has some sort of significance. I don’t know – maybe it is significant. But it’s kind of like the first day of summer or something in that it might be hot for weeks leading up to the “official” day, but it’s not really summer until the third week of June.

Spring training “officially” begins this Thursday, but it’s largely ceremonial – a made-for-TV moment, if you will. The fact is most of the ballplayers have been working out since November and shifted their regimes to Florida or Arizona earlier this month. This Thursday teams like the Phillies will stretch and run formal drills with the wags from the press in attendance. But really, nothing changes for another few weeks when they kick-off the exhibition season.

Still, who doesn’t like the first days of spring training? Watching ballplayers stretch and go through old-timey calisthenics under sun-soaked skies from snowed-in northeastern cities is a way to mark the seasons. TV folks trot out the standard clichés while the newspapermen get to work on the issues facing the club, such as when will the team add another arm to the pitching staff and when will they come to terms on a contract with the top slugger.

New year, same themes.

So while the ballplayers go through their stretches and cover-first drills, I’m going to hang out up here in the snow and cold until Feb. 25. That’s when I’ll go to Clearwater for all the color and pageantry of spring training. Besides, spring training is the best part about baseball.

Until then, it’s back to the ol’ grind.

Here are a few sports-related stories that actually turned my attention away from the stuff I normally read about for a spell:

***
Bryant GumbelBryant Gumbel’s Real Sports on HBO is easily the best sports show out there. The reasons for that are myriad and too long to get into now, but it’s always enjoyable to watch and listen to topics that get into issues.

One of the issues tackled by Gumbel in the latest episode of the show was the ethics of Roger Clemens’ lobbying of Congressmen ahead of tomorrow’s hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Gumbel questioned whether Clemens’ overt wooing of specific Congressmen would affect the legitimacy of the hearings and closed the show with this:

“Finally tonight, a few words about flattery. Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state and notorious self-promoter, once observed that ‘Those who say flattery doesn’t work have never had it practiced on them.’

“That quote would seem to have registered with Roger Clemens, who, facing congressional hearings this week into his alleged steroid use, suddenly became civic minded last week, and made a number of personal house calls on Capitol Hill. Given Clemens’ well-earned reputation for surliness, his transparent charm offensive was to many— exactly that. Aside from the obvious question about why elected officials would consent to meet with a freshly deposed witness in advance of his testimony, you’ve also got to wonder just how much Roger’s shameless slurping may have compromised the objectivity of those slated to question him.

“Following some face time with the accused, one California Republican came away gushing about how much Clemens was the kind of guy you’d want as a neighbor. Since neither party has a monopoly on bad judgment, a Democratic congressman from Brooklyn named Edolphus Towns, all but fell at Clemens’ feet. Parroting the pitcher’s defense after their meeting, Towns claimed his half hour personal visit had made him a believer in Clemens’ character.

“Now I obviously have no idea if Roger Clemens is guilty of that which he is accused. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. But you do have to wonder why someone who’ll be under oath and claims he’s innocent would engage in what looks like the political equivalent of jury tampering to try to influence his reception before a House committee. You could argue it’s good insurance. Or you could conclude that on the heels of an interview, a press conference, a taped phone call and a deposition…he doth protest too much.”

It makes one wonder not only about the relevancy of Congress tackling the issue of steroids in baseball, but also if the hearings are nothing more than the typical political dog-and-pony show. The New York Times examined the issue, noting Congressmen in charge of questioning the pitcher posed for pictures and got autographs during Clemens’ lobbying jaunt.

***
According to published reports, The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was released this week. Hey, who doesn’t like swimsuits? But really, does the SI swimsuit issue really matter anymore? With all the stuff out there on the Internet – swimsuit or not – is the issue just another media anachronism from another tired magazine?

Hey, I’m not telling them to stop…

***
One of my favorite sporting events takes place this weekend in San Diego where some of the best runners in the country will battle it out over the hills and dales in the U.S. Cross Country Championships. This being an Olympic year with the Trials in Eugene quickly approaching, some runners decided to sit out, like defending champ Alan Culpepper. But the top two finishers in last November’s Marathon Olympic Trials will be there.

Undoubtedly, the 12-kilometer championship race will be hyped as the match-up between tough Dathan Ritzenhein and the American distance running’s great hope, Ryan Hall. Runners Dan Browne, Andrew Carlson, James Carney, Anthony Famiglietti, Jason Lehmkuhle and Jorge Torres will also be in San Diego fighting for both a national championship and a spot on the national team for the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 30.

Livan HernandezSo who’s going to win? Certainly it’s hard to bet against Ritzenhein and Hall, who clearly are the class of the field. Dan Browne is another Olympian and a veteran of some big-time races, while Torres is an excellent cross runner and Famiglietti has the pedigree, too. But my dark horse is James Carney, a graduate of Millersville University, who won the U.S. championship in the half-marathon last month in Houston.

With the way he has been racing, Carney could make the Olympic team in the 10,000-meters if he isn’t careful.

***
Speaking of the Olympics, there was an interesting story in The New York Times on how the USOC will supply athletes with American food and chefs while in Beijing for the games. Now we all know that holding the Olympics in China is wrong for thousands of reasons, with pollution, environmental and human-rights concerns right at the top.

But according to the story in The Times, an American delegation traveled to Beijing and tested out the food sold in Chinese supermarkets… let’s just say it didn’t go well.

While in China, USOC caterer Frank Puleo picked up a 14-inch chicken breast and had it tested – the results:

“We had it tested and it was so full of steroids that we never could have given it to athletes. They all would have tested positive.”

That’s really saying something considering how full of hormones and steroids (and other things) meat sold in the U.S. is loaded up with. That is, of course, if author Eric Schlosser is wrong… which he is not.

***
Finally, it’s interesting to note that the Twins signed Livan Hernandez for $5 million for one year. An innings-eating right-hander, Hernandez hasn’t missed a start in years and routinely piles up 200-plus innings every season. Even last season when his Ks-per nine innings were way, way down, Hernandez still threw close to 220 innings (counting the playoffs).

Knowing that it only took $5 million to get Hernandez, 32, to sign with the depleted Twins, would it have been wise for the Phillies to take a shot at the righty? I say yes because I like sure things. Hernandez is almost guaranteed to turn in another 200-innings season in ’08.

Now is the time: Phillies open camp filled with high expectations

John R. Finger
ComcastSportsNet.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Quick, has anyone seen any story, TV clip, or mention of the Phillies’ opening of spring training that did not start with the phrase, “Now is the time.”

Anyone?

Didn’t think so.

When Larry Bowa placed those red t-shirts in every locker of the spanking-new clubhouse at Bright House Networks Field, he not only put his players (and himself) on notice, but he also provided the local scribes and talking heads with a ready-made lead.

Not bad.

Nevertheless, t-shirt philosophy and cliché-addled copy be damned, is there a better slogan for the 2004 Phillies? After all, now (thanks Larry) really IS the time.

What? Does “World Series or Bust” sound a little too bold?

Regardless of what the Phillies wear while they soak in the warm Florida sunshine as they begin their eight-month pursuit to play baseball in October, it is hard to cloak the high expectations enveloping every aspect of this club. Yes, failure to reach the post-season for the first time in 11 seasons would be bad. Very, very bad. Hey, Now is the Time.

And why shouldn’t it be? New players, new stadiums, new outlook…

“We’re supposed to win,” new closer Billy Wagner told Comcast SportsNet. “I’m supposed to play good and everyone in that clubhouse is supposed to play good. It’s not like it’s something that’s just on my shoulders, it’s going to take an effort from 25 guys to go out there and win the World Series.”

Yeah, it always does. But the 25 players the Phillies will head into the season with are as talented as any nine a Philadelphia club has fielded since… well, ever. Gone are Jose Mesa, Terry Adams, Turk Wendell, Brandon Duckworth, Mike Williams, Dan Plesac, Carlos Silva and Nick Punto. Arriving are Roberto Hernandez, Todd Worrell, Eric Milton, Shawn Wooten, Doug Glanville and Wagner, while Kevin Millwood, Jim Thome and David Bell return with mainstays Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Mike Lieberthal, Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf.

Simply adding Wagner, probably the best lefthanded closer ever, would have been enough, but the Phillies, with general manager Ed Wade calling the shots, added starter Milton, re-signed Millwood and shored up the ‘pen with former All-Star closers Hernandez and Worrell.

Geez. Who owns this team? Steinbrenner?

“It’s pretty exciting to see the evolution of the team from ’99 until now,” Wolf told Comcast SportsNet. “There was no secret that when I came up, we weren’t a very good team and we went through really tough times. I think the progress of us getting players like Jim Thome, Billy Wagner and the development of a lot of young guys coming up — such as myself, Brett Myers — is pretty cool. To see the culmination of the ballplayers with the new ballpark here in Clearwater and the new ballpark in Philadelphia is pretty cool to see. Everything is coming together at once.”

Ah yes, like boastful t-shirts and lofty goals, optimism oozes like lava from a volcano during spring training. Everyone is healthy and happy with unlimited potential. Tough-minded questions and the notion of what could go wrong hasn’t even entered into the conversation yet. In fact, the perception that there is pressure on this team to win, and win now, was quickly dismissed by Bowa.

Never mind those t-shirts he was passing out.

But since we’re working with an unoriginal concept here, let’s play the question game. Perhaps when the club heads north in six weeks, the answers will be that much clearer.

· Has Pat Burrell fixed the problems that ruined his 2003 season? Is he the 37-homer, 116-RBI guy from 2002 or the guy who batted .209 last season?

· Is David Bell’s back and hip healthy?

· Can Jimmy Rollins grasp the concepts that have made Juan Pierre one of the most exciting players in the game?

· Will the team cut down on all of those strikeouts that have plagued the club like walking pneumonia since Bowa took over in 2001?

· Will Marlon Byrd avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump”?

· Are the rumors about Vicente Padilla’s alleged drinking problem truly fiction?

· Can Jim Thome hit 50 homers?

· Can Placido Polanco stay healthy?

· What’s going to happen with Chase Utley?

· How many post-game pies will Tomas Perez dish out this season?

· Burrell?

· Is Milton’s knee ready for 34 starts?

· Can Wolf maintain his All-Star form?

· Is Abreu ready for the breakout season people are touting?

· Will the Phanatic be allowed to ride his motorcycle on the new grass at Citizen’s Bank Park?

· Are veterans Hernandez and Worrell ready to go the entire season injury free?

· Can Rheal Cormier encore his strong 2003 season?

· Will Bowa and his players get along?

· How good will the view from the new press box be?

· Burrell?

· Is Millwood in good enough shape to be able to crank it up during the stretch run?

· Finally, is it possible for a parade down Broad St. in October? Has there ever been a season so eagerly anticipated than 2004? “There’s a lot of excitement because of what we’ve brought in,” Wagner told Comcast SportsNet. “Being part of a trade and the expectation to win a World Series is something that’s new to me. Each year in Houston we took one step forward and two steps back, get one guy, get rid of two, but here it seems like they have made a commitment to doing what they want to do.”

Play Ball!

Hey, now is the time.

E-mail John R. Finger