Thursday, March 30, 2006

Hearts And Minds

The Phillies have their best opportunity to win the hearts and minds of local sports fans since the pennant winning team of 1993 and they have the Eagles, of all people, to thank.

No one would dispute the Eagles own this town.  Even as the Phillies made their late season run at the Wild Card in 2005, most fans in the Delaware Valley were more focused on the Eagles training camp following their Super Bowl appearance.  And this was before the T.O. nonsense began to unfold.  More than a few Phillies noticed the relative small crowds during the final home stand and lamented their second class status.  Some chose even harsher words to describe their displeasure.

Since then the Eagles have done very little right in the eyes of many while the Phils have generated a lot of enthusiasm with the emergence of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins et al.

The Eagles have compounded their budding public relations problems with their arrogance.  Team owner Jeffrey Lurie and president Joe Banner have reacted negatively to criticism that the team did little to improve itself in the off-season following a 6-10 record, in essence telling everyone to mind their own business.  Moreover, the Eagles like to tell anyone who will listen that they are the best salary-cap managers in the NFL and they know what they are doing with regard to personnel decisions, especially the ones in which they release or decline to re-sign popular and still-productive players once they reach a certain age.

The Eagles’ haughtiness isn’t playing well at the moment and the Phillies are in their best position in more than a decade to capitalize on it.

But to win the hearts and minds of the fans where it counts the most, on the field, they must get off to a good start this Spring.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

No, I haven’t been converted to a fan of the WBC, but the recently completed tourney did raise an important issue in my mind:  if you want to sign some of the best players in baseball today you are going to have to cross more time zones than ever before to do so.

I haven’t a clue what major league clubs pay their scouts, but you can be sure it is something considerably less than the going rate for a bench player or veteran middle reliever.   If, to be arbitrary, top scouts earn something in the neighborhood of $100,000 per year, a team like the Phillies could hire six or seven of them for what they pay a Tomas Perez.  You make the choice:  a pie-thrower or the chance to sign the next Ichiro!

Armed with this reality (or something approaching it), what the Phils need to do is some original research and they can begin by hiring sufficient scouts in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Korea, Japan and Taiwan.  

After all, that’s where a lot of good players are now.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Less than a week after posting my predictions for 2006, I am back and backtracking, sort of.  In my defense, I wrote most of that piece a few weeks ago and modified it a few times as events unfolded in Florida.

But events have a way of unfolding even faster than I can revise my thoughts, especially events involving the pitching staff.  The apparent revival of Gavin Floyd, who appears to have made the opening day roster, and outstanding performances of Ryan Madson, who appears to have made the move to the starting rotation, certainly brighten the Phils’ prospects…for now.

If they hold up, and if Ryan Franklin’s move to the middle of the bullpen works out, the Phils’ chances brighten considerably.   If not, well, see my earlier predictions.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

It's A Two-Way Street, Pat

Some stereotypes die harder than others.  Just ask Pat Burrell.

In this morning’s Inquirer Pat  repeats for the umpteenth time local sports stereotype numero uno, Philadelphia fans are insufferable and unforgiving.  Nothing pleases them.  It’s a very tired story by this point especially coming from Burrell on the eve of a new season.

Pat had a terrific season in 2005, tying for second in the NL for rbi’s.  Apparently, that achievement was insufficiently acknowledged from his perspective, lost, he admits, in the accomplishments of teammates Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Bobby Abreu.

Speaking to the Inquirer’s Jim Salisbury Burrell said, "’I'm never going to be good enough here.  It doesn't bother me. That's just the way it is. It's the nature of the city. They obviously want the best out of everybody.’"

It’s the “nature of the city”?  Is there a problem with wanting the best?  Would a couple of consecutive seasons of productivity do the trick?

After his breakout year in 2002 during which he hit .282 with 116 rbi’s and 37 home runs, Burrell signed a six-year $50 million contract with the Phils.  The next two years saw his overall output plunge as he hit .209 and .257.  From that perspective, last year was the first time in three seasons he produced numbers equal to those of his best season.

In the end, however, this isn’t really a story about numbers.  Burrell has kept the fans and the media at arm’s length almost from the beginning.  His relationship with both could only be described as prickly.   At least once or twice a season Burrell can be counted on to take his shots at one or both constituencies.  Compare his attitude to that of Utley or Howard, both of whom have been embraced by the fans.  Better yet, compare Burrell’s standoffishness to Rollins, who has been maddeningly inconsistent at times and the brunt of much fan frustration.  In the end, Rollins signed a new long-term contract and the fans embraced him.  He is a fan favorite.

Philadelphia is used to moody, emotionally distant sports figures, but these have consistently produced.  More to the point, they have acknowledged the fans.   Burrell could take a few notes.  It’s a two-way street, Pat.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Meanwhile, At Other Venues

I don’t know why, but I am inclined to post a few thoughts about some other sports.

There’s no sarcasm like sports sarcasm like no sarcasm I know.

Few people outside Fairfax, VA, thought George Mason University should have made the field of 64 let alone the Final Four, but they are going to the biggest dance despite all the naysayers.   Yesterday, continuing their improbable run, they beat heavily favored UConn to advance.  The game was played at Washington, DC’s, Verizon Center and the following sign was sighted behind the bench:

Can you hear us now?

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The Sixers, meanwhile, are going absolutely nowhere and the fault lies squarely with inept GM Billy King.  King has been the head man for six seasons now and at no time has he shown himself capable of assembling anything remotely resembling a championship quality team.  Oh, sure, the Sixers have made it to the playoffs a few times during King’s reign, but they did so by virtue of playing in a weak division.

King is neither a shrewd judge of talent, salary cap management, drafting, nor wheeling and dealing.  And things should get worse as Allen Iverson ages.

If King were managing the Phillies or coaching the Eagles the locals would have demanded his head a long time ago, but, truth be told, not enough people really care about the Sixers to raise a ruckus.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Speaking of playoff teams, the Flyers were picked by many people to go deep into the playoffs this season if not all the way.  By the Winter Olympic break they were a struggling team and shortly after the intercession they looked even worse.  The reasons were many but chief among them were a rash of injuries, nagging and worse, to key players.

Well, most of them are back in business and the Fly boys may be peaking at just the right time.  Wins over the Rangers in New York and Ottawa at home were big boosts to their confidence and came despite the fact that their goalie situation remains unsettled.   If Ken Hitchcock resolves that question successfully (the guess here is Antero Niittymaki wins the starting role) they could be playing hockey in Philadelphia deep into the playoffs.

Spring Notes

Robinson Tejeda’s chances of beginning the season in Philadelphia took a sharp turn toward Scranton over the weekend with his miserable outing against the Pirates. The 24-year old allowed seven base runners in 1 2/3 innings while yielding five runs.  Much has been written about the on-again/off-again/on-again decision by Tejeda and fellow Dominican pitcher Eude Brito to pitch for their country in the WBC.   Tejeda, justifiably concerned that playing in the WBC would hurt his chances of making the Phillies opening day roster, opted out after initially agreeing to participate only to be later assured (thanks to Beerleaguer for this information) that he would receive extra help from the Phillies during his absence.   So, he joined his fellow countryman and proceeded to pitch less than two innings for them.  Worse, he didn’t appear to have benefited from the “extra” help if indeed he received any.

For those of us who argued this kid has the tools and the moxie to contribute to a team desperate for middle relief pitching, this was also a setback.  And for those who argued his numbers reveal a guy with serious location problems, the line score against Pittsburgh said it all.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

I caught a few innings of Sunday’s telecast against the Red Sox and found third base coach Bill Dancy in mid-season form.  He waved Jimmy Rollins around on a play in front of him and, naturally, Jimmy was out by a mile.   If the Phillies believe the third base coaching spot is a place where loyal soldiers go to retire, Bill Dancy is their man.  But if Pat Gillick is really serious about making up those five games he thinks the Phils need to get to the playoffs, he can start by replacing Dancy, who could easily cost them some if not all of those games with his inevitable mistakes in judgment.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Forgive me in advance for raising a tired subject, but listening to Scott Graham is painful.  His wit and insight are strictly middle-brow Tim McCarver, no mean feat I admit, and his voice is broadcasting 101, which for those of you who don’t know is the prerequisite for hosting game shows on daytime television.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The View From The Limb

Through A Glass, Darkly

Last year I refrained from offering any pre-season predictions for the regular season preferring, instead, to venture into that terra incognita only well after the games had begun and the Phillies showed their hand. My reluctance had nothing to do with front-running because, as you all know, the Phillies don’t normally do that. Rather, I delayed my public prognostications because the 2005 Phillies were a team in significant transition.

Upon reflection I concluded the Phillies are always a team in transition. Consequently, I cannot hide behind that excuse any longer. Enough with the preliminaries. This season I am going out on a limb early. Here, then, is how I see things unfolding, in no particular order:

  1. The Phillies will score runs this season, but they will go only as far as their pitching takes them. This is especially true of their bullpen. If the relief corps falters it could be a long season for the Phils.

  2. That said, two players more than any others hold the keys to 2006: Jimmy Rollins and Tom Gordon. This team will go only as far as these two can help carry them.

  3. If Jimmy Rollins swings at a high hard one in his first AB of the season and pops it up to the right side, the groans will be audible and the Phils could be in big trouble no matter how many more straight games in which he gets a hit. That’s right, folks, a single at-bat could seal their fate if Rollins shows early instead of late 2005 form, leaving his teammates and their followers to wonder once again who can lead off for them.

  4. Tom Gordon and Arthur Rhodes were the most significant off-season acquisitions in the bullpen. Both are aged and both have had their share of injuries. Gordon already felt elbow tenderness this spring while Rhodes, off to a good start in the Grapefruit League, is historically an early bloomer who wilts as the season wears on. If one or both falters, especially Gordon, the Phillies will have to average about 7 or 8 runs per game on offense in order to finish ahead of the Marlins let alone Atlanta and New York, and even that might not be enough.

  5. If Bill Dancy is still coaching at third base by the All-Star break the Phils might as well abandon all hope. Our intrepid phellow phlogger Tom Goyne of Balls, Sticks & Stuff has already reported live from Spring Training that Dancy sent a runner from third and the outfielder’s follow through on the throw to the plate nearly carried him into the infield. Needless to say, the runner was out by approximately 5280 feet.

  6. Pat Gillick is no different from most GM”s (heck, most people) in at least one respect: he prefers the familiar to the unknown. So, it wasn’t a complete surprise that two of the biggest deals he made this off-season brought pitchers Ryan Franklin and Rhodes to Philadelphia. Gillick knew both of them in Seattle (and Rhodes in Baltimore as well.) But as we all know, there is another side to familiarity. Nothing in his past suggests Franklin will have much success; in fact, there is sufficient evidence to the contrary. With Franklin in the starting rotation, the Phils could be active around the July 31st trading deadline…as sellers. Whatever the rotation looks like in April, it will look quite different come August unless Franklin has a career year, which, I predict, he won’t.

  7. If Tomas Perez is plying his pie trade in some other ballpark this season, the Phillies clubhouse will be so moribund management may be tempted to bring back Dutch Daulton as resident cheerleader if not soothsayer. Think of it as a move somewhat akin to that made by the Eagles last season when they appointed former locker room “presence” Hugh Douglass’ as their roving ambassador. Advice to the Phillies: resist the urge, guys. Dutch appears to be having enough trouble staying in touch with himself. (By the way, the Douglass move didn’t work out so well, either.)

  8. The first time a double-switch situation arises in a game, someone (are you listening, Gary Varsho?) is going to have to seize the initiative if not his manager’s lapels and carefully explain the options to Charlie Manuel. And if CM doesn’t get it, someone else is going to have to distract him while Varsho makes the actual moves.

  9. The fans are going to have to be extra patient with Pat Burrell if the sensitive one gets off on the wrong foot, especially the one on which he had off-season surgery. Pat has shown a prickly side when it comes to the press and the local rooters so I think we should cut him some slack for once, or does this make two or three times already? C’mon, Pat, the fans have given you plenty of chances and for a guy who is making $60 million you should be a little more understanding of their needs.

  10. Fans are going to have to let up on Mike Lieberthal, too. The guy is the most senior Phillie in terms of service and at no time during his lengthy career has he shown even the slightest inclination toward leadership, at least not the rah-rah kind. So, cut him some slack, too, and allow him to play out his career in quiet dignity. Next year at this time we aren’t going to have any Lieby to kick around any more.

  11. Don’t count on any repeats in the Gold Glove department for Venezuela’s favorite son, Philadelphia division. Bobby may have won his first trophy last season, but this year the voters are actually going to watch him play. He really isn’t so bad. The only plays that give him fits are going back to the wall, going hard to his left or right, or charging in all-out. No one plays the ball hit to him better than Bobby.

  12. Speaking of Bobby…. I believe we have seen his best years. Something about his appearance suggests to me his body is beginning to fail him. He looks a little chunky. Even if my eyes deceive me, Bobby showed an alarming and surprising lack of plate discipline many times during the second half of last season. For the first time in his career he seemed less certain about the strike zone. Everyone knows his power production was adversely affected by his Home Run Derby triumph in Detroit. If his decline is as imminent as I believe, the Phillies have already missed their best chance to receive value for him. [Editor’s note: this item has the best chance to be a reverse curse.]

  13. If Ryan Madson has a rough outing or two as a member of the starting rotation this April, the Phillies’ alleged brain trust must resist all temptation to move him back to the bullpen right away. This is going to be very hard for them because the Phillies have always reversed fields quickly and shown little patience with young pitchers. On the other hand, if the middle of the bullpen collapses altogether, Madson is the most obvious choice to take up the slack, especially if there are other options for the starting rotation. (See number 15 below.)

  14. Apropos of number 13, if Madson does stumble out of the gate, the Phillies also have to make sure Dallas Green keeps his big mouth shut. We don’t need his so-and-so is killing us commentary from on high. Whatever debt is owed Green for 1980, it has been paid in full many times over by now. It’s time to cut him loose.

  15. Reports this Spring suggest Gavin Floyd is feeling more confident and pitching with a more fluid delivery. The recovery of the first and discovery of the second could mean the youngster, long one of two pitching prospects the franchise has counted on (Cole Hamels being the other), might join the starting rotation for keeps come mid-season. He should begin the season at AAA where he can get regular work. Though still too early to tell, the boost in his confidence and performance would be tremendous for the parent club, not only solidifying the rotation but giving the team more options regarding other roster moves.

  16. It is difficult to predict how much if any David Bell will play at third base given his latest injuries. Certainly, if he is healthy he will be in there against some left-handers. If clenching one’s jaw, hitching up ones shoulders and plowing ahead in grim determination were considerations for the HOF, Bell would be a sure-fire first ballot winner. But they aren’t. Hitting right-handers as well as left-handers is understandably still given much more consideration.

  17. Speaking of faltering, if the Phils stumble badly out of the gate in April and May, look for Pat Gillick to pull the trigger and dump Charlie Manuel. CM wasn’t Gillick’s pick in the first place and I don’t think the new GM is going to show him much patience to say nothing of loyalty. And as they say, you can’t fire the players. And although you can fire the GM, the Phils already did that. So, CM will be the odd man out.

  18. Speaking of number 17, if the Tigers break from the gate in impressive fashion, expect more than a few Delaware Valley pundits and fans to ask again why Jim Leyland wasn’t hired instead of Charlie. This is not a town that forgets easily. (See a certain wide receiver for confirmation.)

  19. No one has any doubts about Aaron Rowand’s glove or heart; it’s his bat we are worried about. If Rowand can cut down significantly on the strike outs the Phils will be in very good shape, especially if Charlie bats him in the middle of George S.’s infamous Black Hole. The fans are predisposed to like Rowand so it’s his honeymoon to lose.

  20. I would imagine batters start to get a little anxious when they learn they will face a Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens. Something about high and tight fastballs at the noggin inevitably get major league batters’ attention. The Phils don’t trot out a single starter who evokes such dread among opposing batters, especially now that El Enigma has moved on to Texas; and he inspired such fear largely because no one knew where his fastball was going at times, especially him!!

  21. Conspicuously absent from my list thus far are Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Brett Myers. No one really knows how the first two will deal with the sophomore jinx, but there is every reason to be optimistic. No one plays harder or with more controlled passion than Utley (premature WBC “home run trot” notwithstanding). He is a throwback player in the best sense of the term. When he came up his glove was very suspect and his bat was highly regarded. He has made himself into a credible fielder, indeed, at times a very fine one. If given a day off every now and then (intensity has its costs), there is no reason he cannot hit .300 and with power. Howard is the simply the most appealing player to come along in Philadelphia in more than twenty years. He has a great attitude, level head, great heart and unlimited potential. His smile is infectious and his love of the game a thing of beauty. He is tickled to be playing baseball in Philadelphia and it shows. Imagine, a guy who wants to be here!! This is the year Myers must step up. He has been anointed the ace-in-waiting for a few years now and the moment has arrived where he must justify all the expectations. He has the physical tools, but the mental part of his game has held him down. He has to learn to channel that fire into something positive. In essence, he has to grow up.

So, what sort of mosaic do these tesserae yield? A team that can clearly score runs and field but whose starting rotation has no dominant personality and who bullpen is long in the tooth at the back end and filled with a hodge-podge of middling veterans in the middle.

The consensus across the rest of the baseball landscape (and in their own GM’s office) is that they do not have the pitching to make it to the post-season. I have to agree.

The Phils will finish either second or third in their division.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A Quick Look Back

Hats off to the Japanese team, winners of the first World Baseball, er, um “Classic”. The apologists for this sham series are out in force headed by Jayson Stark, who lately has tripped all over himself trying to be the good centrist.

Were the Japanese represented by their best players like, say, Cuba? It’s anybody’s guess since we don’t know much about either of them. [We do know, as kuff6 points out below in his comment, that one of Japan's best players and a Yankee (NY variety), Matsui Hideki, did not play.] We assume Cuba sends its best players because, we believe, so much more than on-field supremacy is at stake for them. But Fidel has been known to hold back some players he fears might defect Were the Venezuelans and Dominicans fielding their best squads? Pretty much so with the exception of Pedro Martinez, a legitimate (?) scratch with a toe injury. [Editor's note: my point is incorrect regarding the Dominican team: again, see kuff6 comment below.] And Korea? Does anyone know? As for South Africa, the Netherlands and Canada, does anyone care?

What we do know with certainty is the Americans didn’t send their best squad. Everyone admits that, especially the players, who put on a good front. There is no point recapitulating all the reasons many star players stayed home.

Come to think of it, American “dream teams” no matter what the sport are assembled in highly suspect ways these days. Basketball in the 2004 Olympics? Hockey at Torino? Baseball in 2006!!

* * * * * * * * *
If anyone’s reputation suffered more than that of the American squad it was umpire Bob Davidson’s. But, hey, those guys need spring training, too, so let’s not get too down on Mr. Davidson. Remember, as long-time AL umpire legend Nestor Chylak said, "They expect an umpire to be perfect on Opening Day and to improve as the season goes on."

And this wasn’t even the regular season. But it was more than practice.

* * * * * * * * *

Robinson Tejeda was caught between the proverbial rock and hard place when he opted to play (very sporadically as it turned out) for his country in the WBC and gave up the chance to pitch regularly at training camp with the Phils. Now he is struggling to get in sufficient innings as he tries to earn the last roster spot among the pitchers. [Jason Weitzel points out the real story below in his comment.]

Before people jump all over him for what they consider his mistake in judgment, remember he is from a small country (total population just under 9 million) with an incredibly tight-knit baseball community.

What would you have done?

* * * * * * * * * *

Given the number of errors I made in this post I was tempted to just delete it, but in spite them I stand by my overall assessment of the WBC.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Finally, End Of An Era...Or Is It?

Only in Philadelphia could the fans lament losing a player they loathed, albeit to a team (Dallas) they have loathed far longer.

The Terrell Owens era was all but over in November, but the denouement was delayed until his release (or unlikely re-signing) became official last week.  During the interim, few teams were tempted but it took only one and Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys and, pardon the pun, a cowboy if ever there were one, stepped up and took a chance.

But really, how much of a chance did Jones really take?  After all, there is usually at least one honeymoon season with Terrell Owens before he alienates half his teammates, most of the fans, and every quarterback who doesn’t see him as primary, secondary and even tertiary receiver on every play.

No matter.  Every red pen came out in the Delware Valley in anticipation of circling the dates when the Eagles and Cowboys come to blows.   And while some of Owens’ former teammates would no doubt like to separate his inflated hat size from the rest of his body, I would imagine coach Reid would like his defense to concentrate on more than chasing number 81 around the field seeking revenge.

So, Eagles’ fans and players, get over it.

Friday, March 17, 2006


The sun still came up in the east this morning.

The national pastime, which ceased to really be the national pastime some time ago, has become the international pastime (if we ignore soccer) with the official exit of the U.S. team from the inaugural World Baseball Classic [sic].

Good pitching beat good hitting, at least when it came the U.S. team’s meager production against everyone but South Africa. Mexico used one starter and seven relievers in eliminating the Americans, 2-1, in what may have been Roger Clemens’ last game.

Expect domestic interest to drop off precipitously as the WBC winds down, led, no doubt, by the networks and their advertisers.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

No Surprise Here

Intrepid commenter George S., a truly international man if ever there were one, sent an email to several of the local phloggers in the immediate aftermath of the US team’s loss to Korea in the WBC:

Just finished reading Ken Rosenthal's eulogy over the death of American baseball prowess after the USA team lost to Korea. I like this quote: " If the World Baseball Classic has proven anything, it's that the United States no longer is the pre-eminent baseball power." Wow, that's a big leap Ken.

Well, first off, if the World Baseball Classic has proven anything, it's that many if not most MLB players are not ready to play in March. Most of the best are in training, where they should be. And this is assuming that you grant that the WBC has proven anything at all.

I assume that most top players in the world will now go to whichever country has taken over as the pre-eminent baseball power and go play in their leagues?

Is it embarrassing or surprising that the US has lost to Canada and Korea? Not to me. In baseball, any team can beat any team virtually any time they play. The nature of excellence in baseball is the long haul, not a single game.

On the other hand, maybe Ken is right after all. To which I would respond, "OK, so what?". I don't go to the ballpark to watch and root for the best American players. I go to watch and root for the best players on the field, no matter what country they come from (or what team they play for). Does it really matter to me that Bobby Abreu comes from Venezuela? If 75% of MLB players eventually come from other countries, it won't bother me very much. I've never had a problem enjoying the NHL because there weren't enough Amercan players.

So if the USA never ever wins the WBC, it won't matter. Does it matter to Ken? Apparently so.

The "failure" of the American baseball team was inevitable given the timing, lack of participation by many domestic stars and the internationalization of the game. By comparison, it is interesting to note how many Dominican, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican and Japanese stars to say nothing of the Cubans who presumably did not have much if any choice in the matter, were willing and eager to represent their nations. In the end, this aspect of the inaugural WBC tournament may be its most distinguishing feature.

The only thing more inevitable than the poor showing by the Americans was the string of eulogies, excuses and complaints that we can expect beginning with the Rosenthal piece cited above.

A month ago I wrote:

How’s this for impending irony?

Some American players, coaches and fans are already preparing the inevitable excuses and complaints should their team fails to capture the WBC. This despite not giving a damn about the event in the first place. Even some general managers and other executives have bemoaned the whole business...but fearing official censure from the Commissioner's office have said so only off the record.

The entire affair was conceived in a marketing firm’s conference room and was immediately greeted with something less than enthusiasm by the key element, the players themselves. Many opted out before even being asked to participate. Others who hinted they might play for God and country have been opting out ever since citing fears about injury, i.e., their contracts.What another great idea, Bud.

Nothing has changed my mind.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Improving The WBC

The WBC isn’t going away even if one of its marquee teams seems poised for an unexpected early exit in this, the inaugural tourney. So, how can the organizers make this event better, both more competitive and representative, apart from insuring that the Al Leiters of baseball do not take up roster spots in the future?

If MLB is really committed to a world-class event showcasing the best talent, they should begin by staging the games at the optimal time. Nearly everyone agrees the current schedule is anything but optimal.

To achieve that end, MLB can begin by shortening its own season. By doing so they would eliminate many of the objections to the current WBC format. Playing these games in the middle of the MLB and Japanese seasons was understandably never an option. The NHL screws up its season every four years when the winter Olympics roll around and baseball wasn’t going to make that mistake. Furthermore, no one wanted to have the Playoffs and World Series end in late October (to say nothing of early November) and then send a bunch of tired, arm and leg-weary players off on some international junket. Conversely, many in baseball didn’t want to play these games in March, when they interfered with Spring Training and players’ preparation for the coming season and when most players were simply not in playing shape. Finally, few if any people wanted the games to take place during the winter, when the leagues in Latin America are flourishing and the majority of players are recuperating.

By shortening the major league season to, say, 154 games it would be possible to finish the World Series earlier and go right into the WBC with the best representation from all participants. Sure, some people will still decline to play due to concerns about injuries or fatigue following the regular season but fewer players would be likely to opt out citing concern they were not ready to compete including those who used that excuse as a smokescreen for other motives.

Dontrelle Willis might have been bombed no matter when he pitched, but based on past performance it seems far less likely he would have imploded like he did against Canada yesterday had the game been played in October rather than March.

Once these world tourneys gain a foothold it will be difficult to abruptly end them, especially when 100,000 Canadian youngsters who never picked up a baseball before yesterday can become fans overnight.

Glove Save

Thank you, Canada.

Now we can get back to spring training.

If you were among those who hated the WBC before Wednesday you probably have a lot more company Thursday morning.

The United States team suffered a humiliating 8-6 loss to heretofore unknown power Canada and edged closer to George Steinbrenner’s wish to have his stars playing before the home crowd at Legends’ Field.

Dontrelle Willis started for the U.S. squad and was rocked early and often. His line looked like this: 2 2/3 IP 6 H 5 R 5 ER 2 BB 2 SO 0 HR 16.87 ERA. In the eighth inning Chase Utley crushed a ball to the deepest part of the park that would have given the U.S. the lead, but Adam Stern, you know, that ADAM STERN, made a leaping catch to save the canadian bacon for the visitors. Utley committed a cardinal sin: he styled at the plate, flipping his bat and raising his arms in triumph, only to record one long, loud out.

So much for the WBC, at least in America. Meanwhile, the fans must be rockin’ and rollin’ in Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic right about now.

McGwire Made Him Do It

Forgive me in advance, but I read Stephen A. Smith’s column this morning in the Inquirer.

In my defense, it was difficult to avoid given the teaser for it was placed above the masthead, on page one of the Inquirer:

Stephen A. Smith: Don’t forget who started this mess. SPORTS

And then Smith did what we have all come to expect of him; he played the race card.

According to Smith, Barry Bonds was driven to cheat by no less than white America and its hero at the time, Mark McGwire. In 1998 McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated the baseball world with their tandem pursuit of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. During that time, Bonds, himself a major star, was belting a comparatively paltry 37 dingers.

Enter Stephen A. for the defense.

According to Smith, Major League Baseball (read: white America) wasn’t going to let someone of color, including Sosa, break the record, at least not willingly. Even though everyone knew McGwire was on steroids, they looked the other way. MLB knew it. White America knew it. Black America knew it. And Barry Bonds knew it and bristled.

So, Stephen A. continues, Bonds was driven to cheat, to redeem himself and his race and to get his just desserts. Call it jealousy or ego, Smith allows, but more than anything else from his warped perspective, call it justifiable. But were Smith, a reporter in Philadelphia since 1994, more honest with himself let alone us, he would acknowledge steroids were being abused big time in his own backyard. Right here in Philadelphia, at Broad and Pattison. The 1993 Phillies were notorious for their alcohol and drug abuse well before McGwire’s record run. I don’t recall Smith objecting then.

It would be easy to dismiss the always hysterical Smith and his they-were-doing-it-too defense of Bonds. What troubles me is how many other allegedly fair-minded writers are taking parallel though less strident tacks. More writers than I would imagine including local ones (Sam Donnellon in today’s Daily News) and national columnists (Kurkjian and Gammons among others) are blaming MLB for looking the other way during all of this, arguing that, yes, Bonds cheated, but since it wasn’t illegal at the time and because so many others were also using, we simply have to shake our heads, cluck our tongues, and accept the consequences and the records.

But even that isn’t enough for Smith. He wants someone to take the fall and his candidate is Mark McGwire. Apparently unsatisfied that McGwire’s testimony before Congress last year likely cost him any chance at the Hall of Fame to say nothing of the lasting damage to his reputation, Smith wants to lay the blame for the entire steroid era at his feet. More to the point, Stephen A. wants to absolve Barry Bonds -- all too human in his frailties -- for his abuses, claiming McGwire made him do it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Timing Is Everything

How fitting.

On the day MLB announced it would supply players (sell them, actually) with legal supplements, the most damning allegations yet regarding Barry Bonds’ use of illegal ones are about to hit the street according to a story on ESPN’s web site.

Excerpts from Game of Shadows, written by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, will appear this week in Sports Illustrated.   The full book is scheduled to be released later this month.

Peanuts! Crackerjacks!

Peanuts!  Peanuts!  Get your peanuts, here!

Red Hots!  

Beer Man!

Creatine!  Get your creatine here!

Monday, March 06, 2006

One for the Ages

[Editor’s note:  My little digressions into other sports will not stay me from my appointed rounds or focus.  That said, with apologies to Tom Goyne of Balls, Sticks & Stuff and George S., I offer the following:]

Let’s face it, there are champions and then there is Tiger Woods.
Tiger’s one-shot win at Doral yesterday was his fourth victory in his last six starts, one of which he withdrew from with the flu.  According to ESPN, the win was [Tiger’s] 48th career victory, and it enhanced his reputation as the best closer in golf. Woods now is 34-3 when he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour, and he has never lost in 20 tries when leading by at least two going into the last round.

When considering individual sports, Tiger is in a league of his own.   There are simply a lot more good and great golfers challenging Tiger for supremacy every time out than there are, say, tennis players challenging the top players in their sport.

We are witnessing one of the all-time greats.

Rick, Your Winnings

Count Inquirer columnist Ashley Fox among those who are operating under the naive assumption that sports and politics don’t mix.  In her piece this morning on negotiations between the NFL and the Players Union, Ms. Fox laments the intrusion into sports of labor strife, citing the age that age old notion that “sports are supposed to provide an escape from the problems of everyday life….”

Let’s see.  The NHL locks out its players and in the process cancels an entire season.  The Winter and Summer Olympics are rife with drug-testing, judging scandals and security measures second only to those for heads of state visiting war zones.  The WBC got off to a rousing start by including, excluding and finally including the team from Cuba.  The Tour de France is beset by doping charges and countercharges.  We could go on.

Ashley, I am shocked that big money is changing hands in the NFL let alone seems to be a stumbling block to labor peace.  Next, you are going to warn us that if this doesn’t stop soon, Vegas Vick will appear regularly on Comcast Sportsnet.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Lobbing Grapefruits

One of my many personal baseball superstitions is that in order for the team I root for (formerly the Orioles but for many years now the Phillies) to have a successful season, it must have a lousy Grapefruit League record.  Being a superstition, I have never dared to review the data to determine whether or not the final results supported the initial belief.  Nothing ruins a good superstition faster than the facts.

In any event, the Phils season is underway following yesterday’s exhibition win over the New York Yankees.

An article in today’s Inquirer contained a number of interesting game notes and other tidbits.  

Ryan Franklin had a lousy outing and then had the temerity to declare he was working on his sinker and was satisfied under the circumstances.  (By the way, the aforementioned superstition does not extend to individual players.)  True, the best time to work on your game is during the exhibition season, but getting raked is, well, getting raked.  After the game Franklin declared, “I know what I need to work on. I know what I need to do."  So do I, Ryan.  Get men out.

In the same game Ryan Madson, bidding to make the starting rotation, had a very good outing while Gavin Floyd, bidding to make the roster, had a less than stellar time, throwing behind one batter and giving up a bomb to another.  Afterward, Floyd had this to say:  "I just went after it.  I thought I did OK. I was a little erratic times, but who cares?"  Who cares?  Great attitude for a guy who is on the bubble.

In the same article it was noted that two former Phillies – Larry Bowa and Joe Kerrigan – were making their first appearances with the Yankees.  Bowa is their new third base coach and Joe Kerrigan is the new bullpen coach.  Bowa tossed compliment after compliment his former team’s way, especially when talking about Jimmy Rollins, always Bowa’s favorite player, and Chase Utley.

After the game, Kerrigan was quoted as saying that working in pinstripes is “baseball heaven”.   Presumably, listeners declined to point out to him that the Phillies also wear pinstripes albeit red not black.   They can be forgiven, however.  No one who remembers Kerrigan’s tenure here would have referred to heaven; instead, if they dared to recall his stint here at all they would have pointed in the other direction.

Meanwhile, Pat Burrell bombed a home run and then limped around the bases and was later removed from the game.  Pat had off-season surgery on his foot and doesn’t appear to have fully recovered yet, a distinctly alarming situation.  Otherwise, Pat seems in mid-season form when it comes to dealing with the media.  Why, exactly, Pat is so surly and antagonistic is not altogether clear.  If he harbors resentment over the reaction to his two disastrous back-to-back seasons of 2003 and 2004, he should be reminded that in reality people stuck with him and applauded his recovery last year.  He was the subject of a rather lengthy piece recently (I cannot recall where) discussing everything from his own status to his relationship to his longtime friend Jason Michaels.  Yet generally he seems to carry a chip on his shoulder and make himself unavailable to the press, even during the exhibition season.  

Remember, Pat, we’re talking practice.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

My negative feelings toward the entire WBC charade notwithstanding, I duly read the piece on ESPN’s website recapping Japan’s 18-2 win over China in the series opener.   The game was called after eight innings due to the mercy rule.  That should generate lots of enthusiasm going forward.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

All Baseball, All The Time

I am going out on a limb and making a few assumptions here.  Bud Selig and friends know the WBC is a joke.  Marquee players are dropping out at an astonishing rate, many of them citing inadequate time to get into championship caliber form.

Bud and his buddies list probably knew this would happen, especially since so many owners and agents have publicly if not privately expressed their reluctance to have their clients risk themselves for little if any gain.

Maybe what the lords of baseball really want is prepare us for a year-round sport.

We already have some semblance of year-round baseball if one takes into account the Winter Leagues, Fall Leagues, Spring Training and, of course, the regular season.  But these leagues vary significantly in their product.  Perhaps the model MLB is ultimately eyeing is professional football, with its European and Arena leagues complimenting the NFL regular season while going global.

Would that be a good thing, all baseball, all the time?  The blurring of seasonal distinctions?  No more looking forward to “pitchers and catchers reporting”. No Fall Classic if there is also a Spring time version.  In essence, the equivalence of fresh raspberries in northern supermarkets in mid-February.

Is that what the WBC is, the first stab at expanding the professional season by going global?

Overbuilding and over-expanding.

Baseball wouldn’t be the first institution to do that, now would it?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Media Events & Other Briefs

By now readers of this space know I am no fan of Barry Bonds.

His alleged use of steroids has become a lightening rod for much that ails baseball, all the more so as he approaches the game’s most hallowed individual record.

So, it was more than surprising to see Mr. Bonds participating yesterday in a little American Idol skit especially given his prickly relationship to anything remotely smacking of made-for-television or the media.

But the greater surprise was to see Bonds supplemented body, or at least portions of it, pouring out of the strapless get-up he donned for the occasion. The guy looked out-of-shape, indeed fat.

If anything prevents Bonds from breaking the record, it will likely be the breakdown of that body.

* * * * * * * * *

Robinson Tejeda has dropped out of the WBC. Slated as an alternate for the Dominican team, Tejeda decided he would be better off concentrating on making the Phillies roster. This was a good decision. If Tejeda can overcome shoulder problems and wildness, he has a chance to be a very good pitcher.

* * * * * * * * *

Speaking of the WBC, tell me again exactly why it is even taking place, or, more to the point, why MLB is so enamored of it?

I assume the executives at MLB love the idea of additional TV revenue, but I cannot imagine too many homes will be tuned into the preliminary rounds, especially those with a Far East dateline and starting time.

Many owners, notably King George, are on record every chance they get to disparage these games and make clear they don’t want their players participating. Nonetheless, some stars including a few from the Yankees, will be playing.

So, what is it Bud Selig and friends like about the WBC? Are they testing the waters for overseas expansion? Are they trying whip up nationalist spirit? Do they want the Olympic committee to restore baseball to the Summer Games? Help me on this one.