Friday, July 30, 2004

Skip the Fabric Softener

If the Phillies have rally towels in the hamper I wouldn’t waste another second before washing them and passing them out to the fans who fill Citizens Bank Ballpark every night.  On second thought, skip the spin cycle; just hand them out.  Things don’t look good.

It appears the Phils are committed to making a move before the trading deadline and the most likely player scheduled to depart is Placido Polanco.  Too bad.  Polanco is a very solid player who fields his position flawlessly and makes good contact at the plate.  He hits behind runners, knows how to move runners along and plays hard.  His replacement will be Chase Utley, a youngster with a bright future.  Utley can hit.  His swing is short and compact and packs plenty of pop.  As a fielder he will be steady and reliable but not spectacular.  His greatest asset is his love of the game.  His presence in the lineup every day can only be a plus.  It’s too bad he can’t pitch, however.  No matter what the Phillies do before Sunday, the name of the game remains pitching and on that front things have gone from bad to worse.

For years many observers have noted MLB has seen a steady decline in the quality of pitching.  Expansion and the lure of other sports have siphoned off more and more potential players.  Some have argued that the third through fifth starters on many teams are only of AAA caliber.   The Phillies are prime examples, at least in their bullpen where no fewer than three pitchers on the roster are recently promoted minor leaguers who under normal circumstances should still be pitching in Reading or Scranton.

By the way, leave out the fabric softener; the faithful are in no mood.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Centerfielders to Let

Go ahead, Mr. Wade, rent Kenny Lofton for the remainder of the season; everyone else has.  Lofton has only played on eight teams since breaking in during the 1991 season including six different clubs in the last four seasons alone.  So go ahead, trade Marlon Byrd or some other prospect for the 37-year old Lofton.  That should surely help the Phillies get over the hump provided, of course, the fly balls Kenny pursues actually stay in the park.

Some have suggested the Phillies brass need to do something, anything, to show their players if not their fans they are committed to winning now.  But renting Kenny Lofton is not the answer.  The Phillies can’t get people out and they can’t hit in the clutch.  Unless Kenny Lofton has been working on his slider on the side, he isn’t the answer.  But go ahead, Mr. Wade, make a gesture.

Seller Information

What’s with this July 31 trading deadline mania?  Is it worse than ever or is it my imagination?  Every other blog, Sportscenter©, and newspaper column is caught up in the speculation of who is going where and for whom.  Meanwhile, ten and five guys are vetoing trades while other players are imploring management to call in the cavalry or, failing that, a centerfielder or starting pitcher.

Well, I have a solution.  Get rid of the trading deadline.  Instead, take all of the players who fall into one or more of the following categories:

1.  Have a gripe with the manager; and/or
2.  Are in the final year of a contract; and/or
3.  Will be free agents at the end of the current season; and/or
4.  Will only play for a West Coast team; and/or
5.  Are willing to restructure their salaries; and/or
6.  Need a change of scenery; and

Let them auction themselves off on EBAY.  But only under certain conditions:  no reserves and the players pay the shipping.

On and Off the Field

The deterioration of the atmosphere in the Phillies clubhouse is accelerating, especially within the pitching staff.  On consecutive nights two of their more reliable relief pitchers, Rheal Cormier and Tim Worrell, gave up game-losing home runs to the Florida Marlins.  Meanwhile, alleged closer Billy Wagner has left the team temporarily to have his ailing shoulder examined.  Reports in the Philadelphia Daily News suggest Wagner’s return to the club next season is definitely not a foregone conclusion, his health notwithstanding.

To make matters worse, reports have resurfaced concerning pitching coach Joe Kerrigan’s sour relationships with many of the Phillies’ hurlers, especially but not exclusively Brett Myers.  Whispers about Kerrigan’s troubles with his protégés have circulated for two seasons, occasionally rising in decibels such as a shouting match he had with Myers.  Now, apparently, none of the pitchers have anything good to say about him.

Cormier, a temperate man from all indications, remarked the other night that everyone is walking around the clubhouse on pins and needles.  He also noted a defeatist attitude has crept into the locker room.  Jim Thome, a fair and reasonable man if ever one put on a uniform, had no comments.

Coupled with Larry Bowa’s performance the other night when he labeled the efforts of his team “embarrassing” numerous times, the situation has reached a crisis.  GM Ed Wade may be looking for help on the field prior to the July 31st trading deadline, but the bigger problems are off the field.  It will be extremely difficult to jettison so much of senior management at this juncture of the season, but there are more than sixty games left and all hope should not be abandoned. 

Amidst all this sturm und drang the Phillies have fallen further behind the Atlanta Braves on the heels of the 13th straight loss to the Florida Marlins at Pro Players Stadium.  Typical of how unlucky they have been, on Tuesday night Jimmy Rollins crushed a ball to center field that would have tied the score at that point, but it bounced over the fence for a ground-rule double nullifying the second run that would have scored easily.  And last night Jim Thome crushed a ball to left field that bounced off the clock at the top of the wall, just missing going over the fence.  Phillies-killer Jeff Conine fielded the bounce perfectly and limited Thome to one of the longest singles in memory.  Both hits would have tied their respective games and given the Phils a much-needed lift.

Things went downhill from there, on and off the field.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Kettle Is On

Larry Bowa and the Phillies have reached a crossroads.  Unusually restrained throughout a thus-far disappointing and frustrating season, Larry lost it last night in Florida following his team's 12th straight defeat at Pro Players Stadium. 

This is how Philadelphia Inquirer beat writer Todd Zolecki heard it:

“’No excuses,’ Phillies manager Larry Bowa said afterward. ‘As a manager, I'm not even playing and I'm embarrassed. They should be embarrassed. They should be embarrassed. Any more questions?’  Bowa shook his head, cursed, and said ‘embarrassing.’

He then walked out of his office.

‘Embarrassing,’ he repeated aloud to nobody in particular.”

Major league baseball players don’t like that kind of public humiliation, however global the target.  According to Zolecki some players objected and were willing to be quoted including Roberto Hernandez, who more than any other player on the team should be embarrassed by his performance this year.

The Phillies are not going to make a significant trade prior to the July 31 deadline.  Help is not on the way…at least not on the field.  Management will do what managements have always done under the circumstances; namely, stand in front of a backdrop emblazoned with the team logo and profess sorrow while asking for patience and understanding.  After all, as the saying goes, you can’t fire the team.

I see Charlie Manual in the Phillies future.

But whoever is on deck, the kettle is on.

Staff's Gone Fishin'

I am loathe to admit this publicly but I find myself almost feeling sorry for Larry Bowa.  What’s a manager to do when many observers expect his team to win its division yet for most of the season his starting pitching has been very inconsistent, one of his top starters has been disabled for two months, another spent a few weeks out of commission, his most dependable long relief pitcher just went on the DL, one of the two set-up men he acquired during the off-season can no longer be trusted to get anyone out before giving up a few runs, and his closer is poised to land on the DL for the second time in two months?

Even if Bowa had the patience of a saint (and I have it on authority he does not) he could not be expected to take all of this lying down.  And sure enough, following last night’s loss to the Marlins, the Phillies 9th loss to the Fish in 10 games this year, 21st loss in the last 24 meetings between them, and a major league record 12th straight loss to an opposing team at their stadium, Bowa steamed.

Randy Wolf and Kevin Millwood, counted on heavily in the pre-season, have been big disappointments.  Millwood seemed to be turning things around following the All-Star break with two good outings, but his last start, against Florida, saw him reverting to earlier form.  Wolf started last night’s game in Florida and pitched effectively but got no decision.  Vicente Padilla, a strong number three starter, has been disabled for much of the season and still is not expected back before early to mid-August at least.  Brett Myers, a phenom in the making a mere two seasons ago, cannot even be called “inconsistent” having virtually imploded over the last month or so.  Only his last outing, another loss, gave any glimmer of hope.  Strangely, Myers seems to disappear from everyone’s radar screen between starts, almost as if no one wants to admit he might not be as good as they hoped.  Eric Milton alone has been very dependable, at times superb, yet no one really knew what to expect of him at the start of the season with his history of knee problems.

In the bullpen things are equally discouraging if not bizarre.  Ryan Madson, a rookie sensation and by far the Phillies most consistent and reliable pitcher all season, was just placed on the DL after injuring his hand shagging fly balls.  I wish I were making that up.  Rheal Cormier has been reasonably reliable despite giving up a home run last night that cost the Phils the game.  Tim Worrell, alternating between set-up man and closer as Billy Wagner ebbs and flows from the DL to tender arm to another possible stint on the DL, has largely been reliable, too.  Roberto Hernandez, on the other hand, is not likely to see the ball from Bowa much more this season unless things get even more desperate.  Hernandez has a nasty habit for a relief pitcher, allowing inherited runners to score when not giving up runs all on his own.  To protect Bowa’s sanity and help him avoid summoning Hernandez from the pen again this year I’m considering giving the skipper my phone number.  Billy Wagner, the alleged savior, has been good but hardly dominating when available, which hasn’t been often enough.

In short, this is not a rotation or relief corps that strikes fear in the hearts of opposing hitters.  Nor is it one that is likely to stand out in a short series such as the first round of the playoffs.  Nearly every hoagie shop patron in the Philadelphia area and many Phillies players willing to be quoted are imploring GM Ed Wade to do something before the July 31 trading deadline; but it doesn’t appear likely the acquisition of anyone short of Randy Johnson will help all that much unless, of course, Steve Carlton is reading this blog and can make it to South Florida before tonight’s game.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Let's Play 81

There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that Major League Baseball will accommodate the Florida Marlins and schedule all 162 of their games next year with the Philadelphia Phillies.

However, in a nod to the reigning world champions the Commissioner’s office will consider bumping up the number of head-to-head meetings between these clubs to all 81 Marlins home games. . . provided they are still playing in South Florida next season and not Monterrey, Mexico, Portland, Oregon or Seoul, South Korea.

My only question is this:  can someone re-rack the video from July 21 and check to see if that final score (Phillies 2, Marlins 1) was correct or that the tape wasn’t tampered with?

Monday, July 26, 2004

With Friends like this...

Tom Friend, an alleged senior “writer” for ESPN The Magazine, has penned one the most sophomoric pieces I’ve read in a long time on the potential move of the Montreal Expos to Washington. 

His tantrum, er article, boils down to this:  Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos [no friend of this blogger - see the archives] continues to block the relocation of any franchise to his territory without compensation.  Friend deems Angelos' behavior grossly unfair and cites as "evidence" Washington is a great sports town that supports all of its teams through thick and thin while Baltimore is a town of losers, even when its teams are winning.  Ergo, the folks in DC deserve, indeed merit, a major league baseball team of their own.

Washington is a city that has already seen two baseball team’s depart, first for Minnesota and then for Texas.  No one stays in Washington during the summer.  It was a swamp when they carved the city out of the Maryland countryside and it remains a breeding ground to this day for all sorts of  things that crawl and slither.  The average temperature in Washington during the summer usually hovers around the unfit-for-human-habitation level and the humidity checks in somewhere in the vicinity of the tropics.  Maybe MLB should relocate the Expos to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  That’s where anyone with enough cash to afford a luxury box in DC is likely to be between May and September anyway.

A Tale of Two Pitchers

There can be little doubt now Eric Milton, not Billy Wagner, was the most significant off-season acquisition for the Phillies.  Subtract his eleven wins and several other quality starts and the Phillies would be scrambling for a wildcard spot in the Mexican League.  And then there was his flirtation with a no-hitter on Sunday, July 25,  against a very good Cubs team.   Though he didn’t get the win, Milton kept his team in the game against an almost equally sparkling Mark Prior.  Only a misplayed fly ball by defensive replacement Doug Glanville to open the ninth inning stood between Milton and modest immortality.  Having already pitched a no-hitter in the American League, Milton would have joined seven other pitchers who achieved this rarity in both leagues.

The most disappointing off-season acquisition thus far would be Billy Wagner who appears headed for the DL for the second time this season.  Wagner was quoted as saying,  “It's good that I got overworked.  That means we're winning. But that month off, you lose conditioning time, and you come back and you put the pedal to the metal and I think that had something to do with it. But that's part of the game. I threw 86 innings last year.”  He threw 1 1/3 innings against Florida on Wednesday, not too much to ask of a closer,  and by the big weekend series with the Cubs had declared himself out of commission. 

I wouldn’t have guessed Wagner was so fragile.  He has already locked horns with Jeff Cooper, the Phillies long-time trainer, over his rehabilitation routine during his first trip to the DL for groin problems.  Later things were patched up . . . at least verbally.  Now Wagner has shoulder problems and is complaining he has been overworked.  While he did say the shoulder felt better when he tested it on Sunday, he still held out the possibility of an MRI or the DL. 

Billy has not been as much of a factor for the Phillies as I hoped.   The fans love his entrance into the game accompanied by the din of Metallica, something I could definitely do without,  and they love to watch the speed of each pitch he throws posted on the scoreboard.  (This last phenomenon, by the way, is the latest and by far most annoying statistical obsession in baseball.  Who cares how fast the pitches are?  Were they strikes and did the guy get the hitter out?  Even some TV broadcasts switch between displaying the pitch speed and the count on the hitter.)  From my perspective I’d rather have the closer available instead of throwing his arm out topping the 100 MPH mark for the fan’s delight.


Friday, July 23, 2004

Wolves at the Wall

Is it legal yet to begin worrying about Randy Wolf?  OK, then, let us begin. 

The primary reason to fret is that Randy is a finesse fly-ball pitcher in what has become in less than one full season the most homer-friendly yard in the majors.  Indeed, a debate is now raging in the Philadelphia Inquirer regarding some of the measurements posted on the outfield walls at Citizens Bank Park.  The Inquirer has challenged the official distances in some locations and the Phillies have refused to allow the the paper to measure those distances themselves.  Despite their resistance, management has already relocated one contested sign in the dispute, shifting the “369” marker in left enter field three panels toward center field thereby shortening the original distance where the sign previously resided.  Some players have grumbled there are college ballparks with more distant fences than Citizens Bank Park.  Whenever new ballparks are planned, team officials make fieldtrips to existing stadiums,  sit through endless planning meetings and assure the local citizenry they will get it right.  So, isn’t it fair to ask how hard is it to build a new major league ballpark with major league dimensions and then label them accurately?

Back to Randy   What does all of this mean to him?  Well, he was never going to blow away hitters.  Instead, he relies on a curve, slow curve, and changeup with the occasional acceptable fast ball mixed in to keep hitters honest.  The problem is that every batter has become a long-ball threat when Randy is on the mound; left-handed or right-handed, power-hitter or singles hitter.  All types have dialed “8” on Randy this year.  He has pitched with leads and from behind and his approach does not appear to change. 

Now in his sixth season Randy is quickly moving from a guy with unlimited potential to one about whom people ask , what has he done for us lately?   Randy was being counted on heavily following the 2003 season during which he went 16-10.  His ERA last season was a robust 4.23, however, and it should also be noted he gave up 27 home runs during the 2003 season at the Vet, a park not known as a hitters paradise, nor, for that matter, as a paradise of any sort.

This season expectations for Wolf were very high; consequently he has been a major disappointment.  Kevin Millwood was still alleged to be the staff ace, but Wolf has been spoken of as one of the best left-handers in the National League and, unlike Millwood, was expected to stay around past this season barring any more problems with manager Larry Bowa, a caveat of true major league dimensions.

Update to the above:  The Phillies relented and took measurements.  All are accurate now that the aforementioned "369" marker has been relocated.  If Randy can relocate his curve with the same degree of success things should look better for him, too.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Pat's Bat

I must assume unless otherwise informed that Pat Burrell acquired the nickname Pat the Bat for his prowess at the plate not in the field.  So imagine my surprise over the last two or three seasons to watch him develop into a very decent left fielder, fearless and powerful of arm, and an utterly confused hitter, tentative and prone to pulling off the ball.
Two years ago Pat, then 25 years old,  hit .282, slugged 37 homers and drove in 116 runs.  Great things were predicted for him.  Then, everything fell apart.  The next season his average plummeted to .209, his home runs dropped to 21 and his rbi total sank to 64.  Everyone had a theory on what went wrong and none of these helped.  At times Burrell looked so confused at the plate it was painful to watch.  Everyone, even the batting practice pitchers, knew to keep the ball low and away.  Larry Bowa sat Pat from time to time, further undermining his confidence and souring their relationship.
At the start of the 2004 season Pat returned a new man.  During the first two months of the season he hit over .300, drove in runs and seemed to regain his confidence.  But the occasional at-bat during April and May showed flashes of his past nightmares and, inexorably, his average began to decline, the power figures dropped and the strikeouts starting coming in bunches again.  The one number that defied gravity was his rbi total, which remained among the league leaders.
Throughout his woes Pat developed three bad habits.  The first was to simultaneously raise his arms, rock backward slightly on the balls of his feet and suck in his midsection, presumably backing off a pitch he believed was inside or at least trying to persuade the umpire it was.  More often than not he seemed to be persuading himself not the umpire; and more often than not he was mistaken.  The second was to lunge awkwardly for pitches clearly out of the strike zone, literally flailing at pitches no one could hit.  The third was to take an inordinate number of strikes, suggesting that he was guessing quite a lot, mostly incorrectly.
It is difficult to know how players of his caliber fall into such bad habits.  One thing is clear, however; neither he nor anyone around him seems able to come up with a solution.   The Phillies will stick with Pat at least another season.  After all, a little more than half way through 2004 he has driven in 62 runs.  But if the average and power figures continue their descent into next season, look for the Phils to try and move Pat for some young arm also bright of promise but in need of some reclamation and a change of scenery.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Parity on the Move & O's Woes

The great myth currently being circulated throughout major league clubhouses and front offices is that parity has finally triumphed in MLB.  The perpetrators of this fiction point to close races in all but the AL East and NL Central as proof.  Hogwash.  Never mistake perpetual motion for parity.  What has really occurred is that teams are becoming more and more fungible as players move and are moved from team to team in a dizzying rotation that more resembles a game of musical chairs than evolution.  When the music stops, which team is your former cleanup hitter with now?  However, in the end, only the big money clubs or those willing to mortgage their futures will be left standing at the end of the season.
In the last 45 years, to pick an arbitrary cut-off date, sixteen different teams have won one or more World Series.  Fourteen teams have never won during that time.  (The total number of teams has increased slightly during those years.)  Depending very much on one’s point of view, the darlings of the last decade are the Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks, who mortgaged their futures (the Marlins have done it twice) to reach the top.   And where are the Diamondbacks today?  In the midst of another fire sale.  As for the Marlins, they are contending, but unless they can extort a new stadium from the local citizenry, they will be contending in Portland, OR, or perhaps Monterrey, Mexico, or some other locale a few years hence.
* * * * *
Somebody out there, please buy the Orioles.  Please.
Either that or let’s turn the old baseball maxim on its ear and fire the owner not the manager or general manager.
The Orioles are in a sorry state despite years of big spending on free agents.  One of the most admired franchises in baseball over the last fifty years has become a perennial loser.    
How did happen?  Who is to blame?  Can you spell
P  E  T  E  R      A  N  G  E  L  O  S?
How many more managers will this man fire?  What big name free agent will he overspend to land next?  Hasn’t he made enough money at Camden Yards?  Didn’t the value of his franchise soar since he purchased it?  Doesn’t he stand to make even more money in “compensation” for “allowing” MLB to move the Expos from Montreal to either Washington, DC, or nearby Northern Virginia?  Why can’t he stay out of the baseball side of things and just clip his coupons?  Or better yet, why doesn’t he just take the money and run?  He could always practice law.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Voting with Their Feet

Asked by a writer to describe the secret to managing a 25-man roster, Casey Stengel is reported to have said, “Keep the ten guys who hate you away from the ten who are undecided.”
Does Larry Bowa know the secret?  If not, he must be counting on very low voter turnout or the five guys Casey didn’t mention.
Bowa was hired in Philadelphia for a variety of publicly disclosed reasons, but only one mattered.  We were told he would light a fire under a team that needed it, restore a solid work ethic to a team that sorely lacked one, and bring back some of the magic from the Phillies glory years when he was their shortstop.  But the real reason he was hired was to punish the team.  That’s right,  punish the team.  The Phillies brass liked what they saw in Bowa because unsuccessful people always seek redemption in bullies and perfectionists.  And make no mistake about it,  the Phillies’ brass were unsuccessful and Larry has always been demanding and abrasive.
Once on the job Bowa wasted no time alienating virtually every young player in his clubhouse, most notably Scott Rolen, who couldn’t wait to get out of town.   Bowa was publicly impatient with a very private man and Rolen would not forgive or forget that treatment.  His reprieve was finally granted at the trading deadline in July, 2002.  Today Rolen is merely considered the best third baseman in the game.  Other youngsters with bright futures such as Randy Wolf and Pat Burrell also felt Bowa’s sting early and often and would be delighted to see him go or, failing that, make their own escapes.   Burrell, a rising star at the end of 2002, fell hard to earth in 2003 enduring a season-long slump of near-Mendoza-line proportions.  Bowa would sit Pat down from time to time purportedly to restore his confidence.  Naturally, Burrell stewed.
During his first two years as manager Bowa never missed an opportunity to name names in the media.  Lately, he has adopted a softer public face, preferring instead to single out entire positions and allow his listeners to come to their own inevitable conclusions.  When Rolen was here he was “killing us.”  Now, starting pitching is killing the Phils rather than so-and-so.  Bowa may consider himself a model of restraint now, but his disapproval has simply taken other forms that still comes across loud and clear to its targets.  This is one perpetually dissatisfied guy.   And though starting pitching is killing the Phils, moaning about it every day won’t get seven innings out of them.
Like many old school managers, Bowa sees little to cheer him up in today’s ballplayers.  He began his tenure in Philadelphia pointing out this guy wasn't tough enough, that one doesn't hang around the ballpark all hours talking baseball, and this other fella doesn't get in the face of the guy who didn't move the runner over to third.  The issue here is not one of why can’t people get along; rather, the manager wonders why the players can’t be just like him!
Can there be any doubt Philadelphia’s major dailies already have Larry Bowa’s professional obituary written pending notification of next of kin?  It’s time to call up those files and update the leads.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The Greatest Game Never Seen

How is this for a change of pace?

One of the greatest games ever played and very few people claim they were there. As a matter of fact, even fewer people knew it took place.

To hear them tell it, at least two or three million people must have been in the stands at the Polo Grounds that day in 1954 when Willie Mays robbed Vic Wertz. Hundreds of thousands of fans at the very least were present in 1988 when Kirk Gibson limped around the bases at Chavez Ravine.

But no more than seven or eight thousand people, if that many, would have been at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on a muggy night in late August, 1983, when the Orioles took on the Toronto Blue Jays in a crucial game, and hardly any of those could later be identified.

This particular game has never been accorded its proper place in baseball lore. By any standards, it was a genuine classic possessing all the necessary ingredients to qualify for such stature; a dramatic, bizarre and ultimately crucial regular-season game in the midst of a tight pennant race.

I wasn’t there that night either, having moved from Baltimore years earlier, but I listened to the Orioles on the radio, as was my habit, and talked baseball with my Dad often. I hadn’t listened to my normal quota of broadcasts that year owing to other commitments, but returning home in Philadelphia late one evening I tuned in the finale of this key three-game set.

The pennant race was heating up and I felt certain that my listening to this game would help the Orioles chances. Radio, with its reliance on mental images, inspires a unique set of superstitions.

At the time the Orioles were in first place but only three and a half games separated the top five teams in the division. I was worried about the Orioles fortunes. The night before they had been shellacked (a quaint expression my father and his generation used) at home, 9-3, losing for the second times in as many games. Worse, they lost in the same sloppy fashion that characterized much of their play that summer. By late August the Orioles had already swooned through two seven-game losing streaks. Now matters threatened to deteriorate further. Injuries to several pitchers, a season-long lack of clutch hitting, and persistent problems at third base were conspiring to undo the O’s.

With the exception of their powerful teams of late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, the Orioles always struggled for their base hits, but pitching and third base were the hallmarks of the franchise. The ’83 edition of the club was loaded with veteran players who had been through numerous pennant races, but I had begun to doubt whether this team could hold onto its lead or put together one of those patented September finishes of the great Orioles teams of the past.

As I tuned in the game the Blue Jays had just made their last out in the top of the ninth. The Orioles Scott MacGregor had gone the distance allowing three runs on eight hits, but his Toronto counterpart, Jim Clancy, had been better, limiting the Birds to just one run on two hits. I had no other information on what had transpired up to that point, but I am unlikely to forget what happened next.

John Lowenstein led off the bottom of the ninth for the Orioles and flied out. Rookie John Shelby followed. Shelby had been struggling through a terrible “two for August” slump according to Oriole announcers Jon Miller and Tom Mawr. Miller went on to say that in desperation Shelby had taken extra bunting practice before the game. Apparently, Shelby was going to get on base by any means. And he did, beating out a bunt single without drawing a throw. Nice bit of commentary, Jon, I said to myself.

Next up, Gary Roenicke, who had good power, pinch-hit for light-hitting Rich Dauer. Roenicke struck out. Len Sakata, another pinch hitter, drew a walk. Catcher Joe Nolan, a left-handed batter, was due up next. Earlier, Nolan had replaced starting catcher Rick Dempsey. Now the managerial wheels began turning furiously in both dugouts. Left hander Jay Geisel was summoned to relieve Clancy.

Down to his last out, Oriole manager Joe Altobelli countered Toronto’s pitching change with right-handed batter Benny Ayala. With both Dempsey and Nolan now gone, Jon Miller began speculating who would catch for the Orioles if the game were to go into extra innings. Good announcers, like good managers, should always be thinking an inning or two ahead.

Ayala singled up the middle scoring Shelby and cutting Toronto’s lead to one run. Al Bumbry, a left-handed batter, was due up next, and because no other right-handed batters were available (Tod Cruz and Ken Singleton had already been spent apparently), Bumbry batted, as they say, “for himself.”

Bumbry singled off the third baseman’s glove scoring Sakata and tying the game. Benny Ayala took third base on the play. His lead gone, Toronto manager Bobby Cox brought in Joey McLaughlin to replace Geisel. Bumbry promptly stole second base to stay out of an inning-end force. The Blue Jays, for their part, ignored Bumbry, only being concerned with Ayala, the potential winning run. Dan Ford resolved all this strategy by meekly striking out to end the inning. A reprieve granted, I got something to drink between innings and rushed back to the radio.

Now things got really interesting. The Orioles had used so many players prior to and during the previous inning, they opened the tenth with an unusual defensive lineup, to say the least. As Miller dutifully informed the listeners of the changes, I moaned audibly.

Outfielder John Lowenstein was at second base. Jeez, I thought, they’d better let him take the entire infield’s allotment of warm-up throws to first base; but I discarded that notion as soon as Miller announced the new third baseman, outfielder Gary Roenicke. At least Lowenstein, a veteran of more than ten seasons, had played a little infield in the big leagues, starting seventy games at shortstop, Miller pointed out, not second. Roenicke, another veteran, had never played third base in the majors. As I listened in dismay one more surprise awaited me: utility infielder Len Sakata was making his major league debut…behind the plate! Boy, I thought, Altobelli sure managed himself into a corner. (He did that a lot and was gone the next season.)

This makeshift lineup brought to mind another late-season game a few years earlier. Again, the opponent was Toronto, but on that occasion the manager was the brilliant Earl Weaver. Getting clobbered on a cold, rainy day in Canada, and with several key games including a makeup doubleheader looming, Weaver decided to save his pitchers and outrage baseball purists in the process by bringing in reserve catcher Elrod Hendricks for a relief stint on the mound.

Hendricks, a veteran near the end of his career who spent most of his time warming up pitchers in the bullpen and, presumably, working on his slider, did a reasonable job of halting the carnage. But in the next inning outfielder Larry Harlow took the mound for the Orioles. Harlow, a complete novice hurler as far as I could determine, possessed a rifle arm. The Blue Jays didn’t seem too impressed. They roughed him up pretty well, prompting genuine full-time pitcher Mike Flanagan to remark after the game, “This just goes to show you can’t pitch with seven years between starts.”

As I sat there now trying to visualize this current makeshift lineup I imagined some fan my age listening to the radio in Toronto and smacking his lips. I leaned forward and adjusted the dial slightly. Then I raised the volume.

The new Oriole pitcher in the top of the tenth was hard-throwing Tim Stoddard. Stoddard, a huge specimen nicknamed “Big Foot,” had played on one of North Carolina’s NCAA championship basketball teams, a fact announcers were fond of pointing out. (That they were still pointing this out years after he’d been in baseball was not an altogether encouraging commentary on his success on the diamond.) This night neither Miller nor Mawr said anything about Carolina, however.

Stoddard had been unreliable all season. Worse, he had this nasty habit of walking the first man he faced. Not this time, however. Toronto’s Cliff Johnson hit Stoddard’s first pitch over the Orioles bullpen behind the left-center field fence.

“Nice pitch, Timmy boy,” I said out loud. I reached for the dial on my radio in disgust. I cannot explain why I hesitated. I could hear the crowd booing Stoddard and, no doubt, I wanted to linger and soak in that sound. I stayed tuned in.

The next batter, Barry Bonnell, lined a single to center. “Atta boy, Timmy,” I said out loud. Two pitches, two hits, and suddenly it occurred to me that Len Sakata’s debut as a “receiver” was still on hold. I’d heard enough and, mercifully, Altobelli had seen enough. He summoned left-hander Tippy Martinez, his bullpen ace.

The Blue Jays weren’t finished yet. As soon as Martinez was announced they sent up pinch hitter Dave Collins, a speedster and switch hitter. Collins immediately shocked everyone by batting left-handed against the southpaw Martinez. Jon Miller, who called his usual brilliant game, was apparently alone among the unshocked. Collins was batting left-handed, Miller observed, to block Sakata’s view of Bonnell’s lead off first base. Miller concluded that the Blue Jays couldn’t wait to run on Sakata and were already mentally totaling up their stolen bases. Collins was defying all batting orthodoxy in order to further stack the deck against the out-manned Orioles.

Martinez, however, was not one to ruffle easily. A fascinating specimen, he was short, stocky, and very bowlegged, hardly the menacing figure of, say, Goose Gossage. But in his prime Martinez had a wicked curve and was, for a few seasons, a great reliever. Now Tippy came to the set position, glanced at Bonnell, and picked him off first base! I leaped up and pumped a clenched first in the air. Collins, meanwhile, turned around to bat right-handed, thereby confirming both Miller’s analysis and baseball tradition.

I sat down again. Collins worked Martinez for a walk. “C’mon, Tippy,” I pleaded to the radio. I imagined Martinez toeing the rubber, his bowed legs forming a wide opening. Martinez lobbed a few throws over to Eddy Murray to hold the runner. Then, he picked off Collins! Jon Miller was beside himself. “Unbelievable,” I muttered. “Unbelieeeeeeable!”

The next batter, Willie Upshaw, hit a bouncer over the mound. Lowenstein (Lowenstein!! The script could not be this good.) ranged to his right and made the pickup but had no chance to catch the fleet Upshaw. I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to run to the refrigerator for another soda but thought better of it. Not enough time. Can’t miss anything.

Again Martinez threw over to first to hold the runner. Next, he came to the set position, wheeled towards first, and picked off Upshaw! Miller was going nuts on the radio. I was going nuts in Philadelphia,. The fans were going nuts in Memorial Stadium. Martinez picked off the side.

He picked off the side, I said to myself over and over. He picked off the side. I slumped back into the chair. I wondered whether anyone else was listening to this game. I looked at my watch. It was nearly eleven o’clock. I thought maybe I should call someone to let them in on this game, but I didn’t dare tear myself away from the radio.

Martinez had picked off the side, I said again. Had anyone ever done that before? I would have given anything for a peek inside the Blue Jays dugout. Miller was thinking the same thing, but regrettably the angle between the radio booth and visiting dugout at Memorial Stadium was too severe to give him a good look. But that didn’t stop him form speculating for his listening audience I, on the other hand, had no problem imagining the scene in the Orioles dugout. In this wild half inning Martinez never retired a batter (no Oriole pitcher did), got credit for an inning pitched, and, as I listened in further disbelief a few minutes later, got the win. Whatever injustices the Orioles had suffered in the past – the 1969 World Series always leaped to mind – were momentarily righted this evening.

The Orioles still trailed by a run in the bottom of the tenth, but Cal Ripken led off the inning with a home run, tying the game again. Eddie Murray was walked, not intentionally but with utmost discretion. Lowenstein followed and ground out to first, Murray taking second on the play. Shelby was walked very intentionally to set up the force.

Randy Moffit came on in relief of McLaughlin. The first batter he faced, Gary Roenicke, stuck out. Gary always struck out. Next up was “catcher” Len Sakata. Sakata, a journeyman infielder with limited range at his natural position, not much power, but apparently a lot of guts, strode to the plate and calmly hit a three-run homer to left. The game was over. Miller kept shouting, “The Orioles win! The Orioles win!” in the background. I sat motionless for a few moments, completely drained. I could not have imagined a more unlikely ending to a ballgame.

Then I felt I had to speak with someone, to share this moment with another Orioles fan. I picked up the phone and called my father in Baltimore.

One Man, Twenty-five Votes

Major League Baseball's solution to making its All-Star game more appealing was to permit individual fans visiting to cast up to twenty-five ballots.

Ballot-stuffing online was not only to be encouraged, it was facilitated...up to a point. The only thing the web mavens at MLB failed to provide was a little macro program that allowed the stuffers, er, I mean "fans", to fill in their votes once and have the entry posted automatically twenty-five times. How twentieth-century of the good folks at MLB. Fans had to actually enter their votes twenty-five times, one back arrow at a time. So Retro. We can only be grateful the powers-that-be at MLB did not seek to level the playing field by insisting all votes be cast via a dialup connection.

All of this was no more disheartening, however, than listening to respected commentator Peter Gammons on ESPN's Baseball Tonight excuse the selection of the Yankees' Jason Giambi . Giambi was present and accounted for, Mr. Gammons opined, based on history though not, apparently, recent history. Not only had he missed approximately half of the season due to injuries, when he did show up the results were less than stellar. It's one thing to elect aging stars in the twilight of their careers for one more chance to bask in their reflections and quite another to elect middle-aging stars who are, not to put to fine a point on it, stinking up the joint by any standard. But, then, two other less-than-deserving Yankees, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, also were elected to the game, so why let a .239 batting average stop Giambi? After all, he presumably brought his glove.

Field of Multimedia Nightmares

Recently I attended a game at Citizens Bank Park, the new home of the Philadelphia Phillies.

I had looked forward to going to a game at baseball’s latest Retro stadium, sitting close to the field of real grass, experiencing the intimacy of my surroundings, indulging in nostalgia for the game of our fathers. But none of those feelings were to be.

Instead, I was bombarded by incessant and oppressively loud music, graphics from every conceivable angle, the relentless antics of the team mascot, and the aromas of dozens of cuisines, haute and not so haute, competing for my dollars.

Exclusive air-conditioned clubs with no view of the field and open only to select ticket holders beckoned beneath some stands. Hermetically-sealed suites with a clear view of the proceedings but open only to an even more select group of ticket holders ringed the stadium’s midsection. Jam-packed walkways studded with restaurants and other attractions lined the outfield promenade. Interactive and participatory games lured youngsters from their seats to a special phun [sic] zone.

Was it any wonder, then, that at any given moment thousands of fans could be seen strolling around the park? (So striking is this phenomenon that the Phillies’ TV announcers have commented on it during several telecasts. As the cameras scan the stands during what has been officially labeled a “sellout” one sees an extraordinary number of empty seats throughout the course of the game.) Indeed, Citizens Bank Ballpark isn't so much a baseball stadium as it is a mall with a baseball field in its middle. Food courts. Souvenir stands. Phun Zones. All of the ingredients are present.

The merchants of major league baseball in Philadelphia (and elsewhere it should be noted) have decided to make family entertainment, not baseball, the focus. The smells of freshly cut grass, hot dogs and peanuts; the buzz of the fans; the sounds of bat, ball and glove; all are drowned out in a cacophony of electronic vectors. To underscore the local denizens’ acquiescence to all of this nonsense, their cell phones go off incessantly, most annoyingly as they wave to friends and relatives watching at home on TV.

No wonder baseball is losing market share. Football has its scary sideline moments, too; witness the cheerleaders. Basketball has mascots at some of its venues. But for those sports the action on the field or court remains central. Not baseball. It seems the national pastime cannot get enough multimedia. Little is left to the imagination. No space, temporal or actual, is left unfilled. In sum, the game itself is no longer enough.

Free Agents for Sale

Every baseball fan realizes the days in which players remained with the same team throughout their entire careers are gone forever. No more Brooks Robinsons or Cal Ripkens in Baltimore. No more Barry Larkins in Cincinnati. Say goodbye to the Mike Schmidts of Philadelphia. As a consequence, fans would be much better off bonding with the uniform not the people inhabiting them. The poster team of this new reality is the Florida Marlins, who successfully “rented” numerous key players for a season or less en route to two world championships in a decade and promptly sold, traded or lost them through free agency in the off-seasons immediately following their titles.

Apart from making it difficult to become attached to any individual player, another casualty of this revolution surely has been team chemistry, that intangible few can measure but whose absence nearly everyone can detect. Myth would have it that harmony in the clubhouse is not a precondition to success on the diamond. Legendary are the teams (the Oakland A’s of Charley Finley, nearly all Billy Martin-managed and/or George Steinbrenner-owned Yankee clubs) who fought among themselves, with the manager, with ownership or all three and still won championships.

In the era of free agency, however, the number of unhappy teams still playing in October will continue to decline, or, at best become one-season wonders. Some may argue this turnover of teams represents league parity, but for the most part a disproportionate number of teams playing in the post-season are either from large markets or have ownerships with deep pockets. Money is the catalyst in this chemical equation.

High-priced stars with guaranteed contracts and no-trade clauses make far more money than the people who write their names on the lineup card each day. Their loyalties to the team, the fans, and to the city in which they play are tenuous at best. This generation’s players simply will not put up with as much crap as their predecessors. More to the point, huge free-agent contracts induce many of them not to stay around one clubhouse long enough to irritate or ingratiate themselves to their teammates or management.

Free agency changed the atmosphere dramatically and forever. Players in their final season before filing for free agency are as likely to be traded by the July 31 deadline as not and, then, only for the remainder of the current season. Or they are likely to make is so clear to present management they will not re-sign with the club, they leave the front office little choice but to get as much for them as they can while they can.

Players entering both their prime and their free agent year, the very type of athletes on whose shoulders franchises used to be built, are traded away at mid-season, often for prospects who won’t even appear with the big club for some time if at all. The acquiring teams are frequently contenders or teams who think they should be contenders and, thus, cannot stand still in the eyes of their fans. But these newly attired players, shown in press conferences trying on new jerseys and adjusting new caps, arrive with no guarantees they will remain beyond the current season. The future thus mortgaged, the new club must convince the new player this is the place to stay. More often than not, they fail to do so.

It is not uncommon for great players, franchise players by any definition, to play for three different clubs in the space of two or three years. Look at Pudge Rodriguez, one of the premier catchers, who went from Texas to Florida to Detroit in three successive years. I can now imagine the day when entire teams are reconstituted at the end of each season, the players auctioning themselves off on Ebay.