Make a deal? Cole Hamels is no Rick Wise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But maybe he ought to be Rick Wise first.

The NLCS: Just a bad season for Hamels

cole_hamelsDuring spring training it was almost comical the way we chased around Cole Hamels for updates on his tired and achy left arm. When he went home to Philadelphia from Clearwater to visit team physician Dr. Michael Ciccotti, cameras greeted him at the airport and later caught him tooling around the city driving a minivan.

If I’m not mistaken, there was bumper sticker that read, “WOOF!” on the back.

Regardless, that’s the way the winter went for the MVP of the NLCS and World Series. If he wasn’t out gallivanting with Letterman or Ellen DeGeneres and giving her a cheesy Phillies’ jersey as a gift, he was appearing on his wife’s (second) reality show, the cover of Sports Illustrated or seen strolling around the city with a little dog in a backpack.

Typically those are things that make the Philly sporting fans wonder about the guy, but since Hamels pitched the Phillies to their first World Series victory in 28 years and captured the city’s first title in 25 years, the little dog and goofy TV commercial were ignored. No sense getting worked up over a miniature poodle when the dude pitched like a bulldog.

Don’t think that Hamels didn’t notice the treatment either. In fact, after his very first full season in Philadelphia where he solidified himself as the best pitcher on the staff, Hamels pointed out that, “The people treat me really nice here. Everyone is just so nice when they see me around.”

“Well yeah,” I told him. “It’s because you haven’t sucked yet.”

This is not to say that Hamels sucks now. Far from it. Though he’s 11-12 this season (counting the playoffs), he still has a left arm that comes around maybe once a generation. He has an incredible knack to put together incredible stretches of games that conjure up memories of the all-time greats. Better yet it’s a Hall-of-Fame arm, which, if one asks Hamels straight out what he wants to accomplish with his baseball career, he’ll flat-out tell it without so much as blinking or a trace of arrogance.

The answer comes as if he had rehearsed it in front of a mirror for years…

He wants no-hitters, piles of wins, Cy Young Awards, a career that spans decades, and, of course, the Hall of Fame. The good part for the Phillies is that Hamels’ goals aren’t all that unreasonable. The odds are relatively favorable that the lefty could pitch a no-hitter or two or win a Cy Young.

But here’s the thing about that – Cole Hamels ain’t Steve Carlton. Hell, he’s not even
Tom Glavine. Oft-injured lefty and changeup specialist John Tudor might be more like it.

Tudor made it to the World Series three times during his career and was known as a bulldog of a competitor. He famously attacked a metal ceiling fan after losing Game 7 of the 1985 World Series for the Cardinals, after a season in which he piled up a career-high in innings, complete games and shutouts. In fact, Tudor is the last Major Leaguer to notch double-digits in shutouts when he got 10 in ’85.

Tudor followed his 275 innings season with 219 more in 1986, but then was never the same again. In 1990 he topped out at 146 innings, but that was his last season.

Just like that, Tudor, a 21-game winner, All-Star, and Cy Young candidate, was washed up at age 36. His last four seasons were nothing more than a series of one injury on top of another.

Look, nobody is saying Cole Hamels is headed down the same path as John Tudor. After all, Hamels is far more talented than Tudor ever was, and just four years into his big-league career, the Phils’ lefty is nowhere near his prime.

Without a doubt, the best years of Hamels’ career – even after getting just 13 outs in a NLCS clincher – are in front of him, not behind.

However, baseball history is littered with flameouts. Tudor is hardly even the tip of the iceberg. Remember Steve Avery, the lefty who had two 18-win seasons for the Braves before he turned 23? Yes, after three years of pitching 230 innings (including the playoffs), Avery was burnt by age 29 and out of baseball for good at age 33.

But Hamels is just 25. His bad season was more the result of poor off-season preparation than anything else. He’s also a father now, which should improve his focus.

Hey, there are a lot of guys in the Hall of Fame who lost 20 games in a season. Hell, Steve Carlton is one of them. Don’t expect anything like that to happen to Hamels. Better yet, don’t expect a encore of the 2009 season, either.

The NLCS: Greatest Phillies team ever?

Comparisons between teams of different eras are not only difficult to do logically, but also they are odious. Seriously, the game changes so much from generation to generation that there is no way one can compare, say, the 1977 Phillies to the 2009 Phils. The game does not exist in a vacuum (or whatever). We see it just by looking at the stat sheet.

Needless to say, baseball statistics are essentially meaningless.

Take that with a grain of salt, however. The numbers are the only proof that a lot of people have to understand if a player is performing well. But I don’t need to look up Garry Maddox’s VORP or OPS to know that he was a better center fielder than Shane Victorino. Sure, there are numbers on the page and I suppose they have meaning. But if you ever got the chance to watch Maddox go gap to gap to chase down every single fly ball hit into the air, you just know.

Nevertheless, since the Phillies are on the cusp of going to the World Series for th second season in a row, those old, odious comparisons come up. They kind of have to, right? Well, yeah… after all, there really aren’t very many good seasons in the 126 years of Phillies baseball to compare.

The good years are easily categorized. There were the one-hit wonder years of 1950 and 1993; the stretch where ol’ Grover Cleveland Alexander took the Phils to the series in 1915; and then the Golden Era from 1976 to 1983 where the Phillies went to the playoffs six times in eight seasons.

Then there is now.

Obviously two straight visits to the World Series are unprecedented in team history. Actually, the five-year stint in which Charlie Manuel has guided the team are the best five years in club history. At least that’s what the bottom line says.

In just five years as the manager of the Phillies, Manuel has won 447 games. Only Gene Mauch, Harry Wright and Danny Ozark have won more games in franchise history and those guys were around for a lot longer than five years. Interestingly, Manuel ranks fourth in franchise wins and seventh in games.

That pretty much says it all right there, doesn’t it? Based on the wins and accomplishments, this is the greatest era of Phillies baseball and the 2009 club could very well go down as the best team ever—whether they win the World Series over the Yankees (Angels are done, right?) or not.

Still, I’d take Maddox over Victorino, Steve Carlton over Cole Hamels, Bake McBride over Jayson Werth; Bob Boone over Carlos Ruiz; Greg Luzinski way over Pat Burrell (and Raul Ibanez, too); and, obviously, Mike Schmidt over Pedro Feliz.

But I’d also take Chase Utley’s bat over Manny Trillo’s glove; Jimmy Rollins over Larry Bowa; and Ryan Howard over Pete Rose or Richie Hebner.

Those are the easy choices. Those Golden Era teams had some underrated players like Dick Ruthven and Del Unser, but they would have been much better with a Matt Stairs type.

No, the truth is I’d take the 2009 Phillies over those other teams and it’s not because of the players comparisons or the win totals. It’s because they are a better team.

Yeah, that’s right, these guys are the best team.

Of course I never got to go into the clubhouse to see Larry Bowa’s divisive act, Steve Carlton’s oddness, or Mike Schmidt’s diva-like act. You know, that is if the stories from those days are true…

Nope, give me a team instead of one that had the indignity to run into a pair of dynasties in the making. First the Phillies had to contend with the Cincinnati Reds and The Big Red Machine before those great Dodgers’ clubs emerged. There is no team in the NL East or National League, for that matter, that is as good as the Phillies have been.

The Mets, Dodgers or Cardinals? Nope, no and nah.

More importantly, now that Pat Burrell is gone the Phillies don’t have a true divisive force in the clubhouse. There is no more of that creepy us-against-them battle anymore considering the relief corps did a reality show with the MLB Network.

Think Warren Brusstar and Kevin Saucier would have been asked to do something like “The Pen” if they were playing these days?

No, the these Phillies have nothing as obnoxious or weird as Bowa or Carlton. They are not the 25-guys in 25-cabs team. It’s a real baseball team.

We’ll see what happens when (and if) the Phillies get to the World Series, but in this instance we’ll go with Victorino gang over Maddox’s group.

These are the good ol’ days

robin_robertsThe Phillies alumni weekends are always good for some unintentional comedy. For instance, amidst guys like Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Robin Roberts, a player like Doug Clemens or Keith Hughes trots out onto the field to be introduced before the game. Looking back at the records, Hughes played in exactly 37 games for the Phillies – 93 over the course of four seasons with Baltimore, New York and Cincinnati.

So maybe a few years down the road guys like Nelson Figueroa and Jack Taschner will jog out onto the field before a game in a Phillies uniform to some polite golf applause.

But after the end of last season the Phillies alumni weekend is something of a relic. Better yet, it reinforces the idea that we are in the midst of the second golden age of the team’s history. There were the years from 1976 to 1983 when the Phillies went to the playoffs six times and the World Series twice.

Baring a collapse of Mets-like proportions (or ’64 Phillies style), the Phillies will go to the playoffs for the third year in a row for just the second time in team history. Moreover, the team already has one World Series title and is a favorite (along with the Dodgers) to get back to the Series for a second year in a row.

No one needs to see old ballplayers like Keith Hughes or even Jim Bunning to trot out onto the field from a historically moribund franchise to realize that these are the good ol’ days. Right here, right now.

That’s the thing isn’t it? By winning the World Series the Phillies have made alumni weekends useless. Sure, it’s neat to see Mike Lieberthal and Jim Kaat around the ballpark again, but really, if there is anything that the Phils prove with their old players is that they weren’t very good for a long, long, long time.

Besides, it used to be that the team needed to summon Mike Schmidt from the golf course in Florida and Steve Carlton from his underground bunker near the Four Corners region of Colorado in order to get folks to come out to the ballpark. That little glimpse at members of the team’s only championship used to put fannies in the seats before folks realized that a contending ballclub was far more interesting than a trip down amnesia lane.

Hey, there’s Greg Luzinski! Didn’t I just see him out in right field eating ribs?

Apropos of nothing (and as pointed out by another scribe), is there another franchise that has a weirder collection of Hall of Famers than the Phillies? Sure, Robin Roberts is a true gentleman and as nice a man there is walking this earth, but the other three? Really? How crazy are Schmidt, Carlton and Bunning?

Plus, why is Jim Bunning in the Hall of Fame to begin with? He never pitched in the World Series and was the ace pitcher on a team responsible for one of the greatest late-season collapses in sports history… hey, winning matters. That’s why they keep score.

If Bunning is a Hall of Famer, then so too are Jim Kaat, Tommy John, Jack Morris, Luis Tiant and Bert Blyleven.

Anyway, at the alumni things Crazy Steve is introduced as “the greatest pitcher in team history,” which is fair. It’s impossible to deny Carlton’s greatness. However, Robin Roberts was no slouch either and it makes one wonder what kind of video-game like numbers he would have produced if the Phillies had been even a bit respectable.

After going to the World Series in 1950, the Phillies finished better than fourth place just one time in Roberts’ tenure with the team. Still, the great righty figured out how to win 20 games and pitch at least 300 innings in six straight years.

Or try this out… after going to the World Series in 1950, the Phillies finished better than third place just twice until getting into the playoffs in 1976. Old-timers day?

No thanks. The good memories are being created out on the field right now.

*

Another interesting tidbit from the alumni weekend was watching Pedro Martinez trot out to the first-base line in his Phillies uniform to salute the team alums. The interesting part about that was that a lot of stat heads and baseball historians regard Martinez as one of the best – if not the best – pitcher of the past 60 years and he still can’t get into a game for the Phillies.

Amazing.

‘… 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!

Looking to go back in time

Reggie BarIf it were possible to go back in time and retroactively edit my favorite childhood baseball player, I would.

But alas, time travel is meant just for Michael J. Fox.

As a kid in the 1970s and ‘80s I was a victim of geography. With no Internet or the proliferation of cable TV, I was stuck in my tiny little realm. That meant when we lived in Washington, D.C. we closely followed the Orioles and even attended a handful of games at Memorial Stadium every season.

But when we moved to Lancaster, Pa., though technically closer to the city limits of Baltimore, we followed the Phillies. Though Lancaster with Harrisburg and York comprises the 41st largest media market in the country, it falls under the umbrella of Philadelphia sports fandom. In fact, it’s not uncommon for traveling Lancastrians to tell strangers that their hometown is “near Philly” despite the fact that Philadelphians believe Lancaster to be in the middle of nowhere, or worse, the other side of the earth.

Having lived in both places, the Philadelphians aren’t wrong about Lancaster… but then again, they’re stuck in Philadelphia.

Just to mix it up a bit, the Red Sox were another team we kept up with, but that was just because they were a team that was a bit exotica. The Red Sox always had good players, always were almost good (but not quite good enough) and always seemed to have a bit of soap opera quality. And since they were on the nationally broadcasted game-of-the-week often and played in that goofy little ballpark, it was difficult to ignore them.

As a result of all of this, Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Steve Carlton, Pete Rose, Eddie Murray, Jim Rice, Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens qualified, at one point or another, as favorite players. Those players had the swings that I copied though my pitching motion was strictly a direct rip-off of Luis Tiant.

Trust me on this one – this skinny kid from The Lanc with a funky pitching motion was never afraid to stick it in a hitter’s ear. Hey, I own the inside part of the plate!

By the way: is there a reason why El Tiante is not in the Hall of Fame?

Anyway, of the group of ballplayers listed above I have had the chance to meet and spend moments in the company of all of them except for Boggs, which is why I want to change who my main guy was.

If I could do it all over again I’d go with Reggie.

REG-GIE! REG-GIE! REG-GIE!

Look, I know all about Reggie Jackson, the Cheltenham High grad and Wyncote native (like Ezra Pound and Benjamin Netanyahu) who came to prominence with the Oakland A’s, but turned into a superstar with the New York Yankees. I know how he had an ego as big as all of those home runs and strikeouts piled on top of each other. I also know that he was a bit of a diva who probably didn’t blend well with all of his teammates and/or the press.

Sometimes it seemed as if Reggie could drive everyone crazy. And I mean everyone… especially Billy Martin.

Nevertheless, Reggie got it. He knew it was a show and he had panache. People went to the park to see him homer or whiff and he rarely ever disappointed anyone. Better yet, he went deep and struck out with equal amounts of flair in which he took a huge, powerful cut that came from so deep within that it dropped him down to one knee.

But if he got a hold of one… look out! Not only did it sail far into the seats, but Reggie would stand at home plate and watch it along with everyone else before beginning his static yet stylish trot around the bases.

For some reason, though, the Reggie posturing fell out of favor. Oh no, I doubt the fans disprove, nor does it seem as if certain home run hitters like Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey are opposed to such subtle histrionics. However, when Ryan Howard gave a long home run the Reggie treatment in St. Louis last week, he took one on the right hip the next trip to the plate.

Reggie in furHey, if I were putting together an all-time greats team that spanned my lifetime Reggie probably wouldn’t make the cut (maybe we’d find him a spot as a late-inning pinch hitter), and clearly he was a flawed player. But the best part about Reggie is how he interacted with his audience and the messengers. Reggie was never shy about talking to the press and actually saying something interesting. He also liked to prod writers and challenge them the way a coach would a player. For instance, my old pal Howie Bryant was covering the Yankees for the Bergen County Record, Reggie used to give him a hard time about the location of his employer.

As Howie wrote in his book, Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball, Reggie used some Jedi-like, passive-aggressive tactics that led to him writing the book.

H.B. wrote on page 403 of the hardcover edition:

Reggie is never easy. He can employ numerous tactics designed to prove one thing: that he’s somebody and you’re not. During my first months covering the Yankees for The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey, he could be funny or condescending. A favorite Jackson ploy was to read my credential, notice I worked for a Jersey paper, and comment, “Hey, how come you don’t work for one of the New York papers?”

Reggie never had a problem with anything written about him as long as it was honest, good and not a cliché. Provocation and ideas were what interested Reggie, anything else was silly.

That’s why Reggie is my favorite and why I’m looking for that time machine.

***

Speaking of silly, it looks like former Phillies’ GM Lee Thomas finally completed a long-forgotten trade with the Dodgers.