Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Accidental Baseball Team

It is highly unlikely Kyle Lohse is going to be the guy who finally leads the Phillies to the Promise Land; after all, two teams have given up on him in less than a year. On the other hand, one need look no further than another itinerant pitcher, J.D. Durbin, to recognize strange things can happen whenever a player pulls on a new uniform. Durbin is with his fourth team in less than eight months and the Phillies are quite happy he is currently paying the Philadelphia wage tax. Lohse, a career sub-500 pitcher with occasional "great stuff", is expected to step right into the starting rotation (taking Durbin's place).

If the Phillies don't stop running from the clubhouse to the infirmary all of these additions to the roster will be for naught. Last night two more players, both outfielders, went down with injuries. The Phils will learn today just how serious the injuries to Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn are. Whatever the outcome of their MRI and Xray respectively, both will be out of action in the short term. Greg Dobbs took their place last night to finish out the game.

To make room for Victorino and Bourn in the Accident Room (that quaint name once given to ER's), Brett Myers returned to active duty with a vengeance last night, pitching a 1-2-3 ninth inning to save the Phils' 4-1 victory over the Cubs at Wrigley. Cole Hamels notched his 12th win with a strong 8-inning effort marred only by the solo home run he surrendered to Ryan Theriot. It was only Theriot's third round tripper of the season but it was Cole's 23rd, tying him for the league lead. Hamels seems destined to be one of those great pitchers who surrenders a lot of home runs in between the strikeouts. As long as he keeps them within his current proportion that shouldn't be a problem.

Aaron Rowand provided all the runs Hamels needed with a 3-run homer off Ted Lilly. Tadahito Iguichi continued with his best Chase Utley imitation by hitting a solo shot. Utley, cast on his right hand, could be seen pumping his fist in the dugout following Rowand's blast. You have to give Aaron credit for drama and timing as he returned to the city of his greatest triumph, albeit on the north rather than south side of town. The win moved the Phils to within three games of the Mets. The loss prevented the Cubs from moving ahead of the Brewers into first place in the NL Central.

Monday, July 30, 2007

End Of My Era

Readers of this space are well acquainted with my baseball roots. Growing up in Baltimore in the years shortly after the Orioles arrived from St. Louis, I was lucky to come of age just as the franchise began developing the stars who would populate the great teams of the late '60's and early '70's as well as the solid teams that followed during the next decade.

Literally looking at the diamond, the beginning and end of that line of baseball greats ran a very short distance indeed, from third base to shortstop, or from Brooks Robinson to Cal Ripken. In between came other stars, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and manager Earl Weaver. As I watched Cal make his acceptance speech during the Hall of Fame ceremonies yesterday and then stand on the podium flanked by every one of these men cited, all now fellow Hall of Famers, I realized my era had come to a close.

I had cut the cord with the Orioles years ago, unable to endure the damaging changes its current owner had inflicted on this once-admired franchise and because nearly three decades of living in my adopted home in Philadelphia had induced me to switch allegiances. For at least the first two decades of my absence from Baltimore I had followed the team's fortunes very closely. When the Orioles and their new icon Cal Ripken beat the Phillies in the 1983 World Series I rejoiced unabashedly.

By the end of that decade I had switched my loyalties permanently to the Phillies even as I continued to closely follow Ripken's career. There was much to admire in the man and the player. Though his Rookie of the Year and MVP awards had made him the face of the franchise, it was The Streak that made him the focus of the nation, never more so than the night he broke Gehrig's record and took that lap around Camden Yards. It wasn't a victory lap in any conventional sense; rather, it was a peoples' lap as Cal extended his hand in gratitude to fans, policemen, grounds crew and the like. It was a fitting salute from a player who always felt his ironman streak was nothing more than showing up to work every day, a tribute from one working man to the working men and women of a blue collar town. Yesterday, in his acceptance speech at the Hall, Ripken repeated his belief that he did no more or less than the "teachers and policemen, mothers and fathers who show up every day" to do their jobs.

From the mid-fifties to the last third of the first decade of the 21st century Baltimore had also changed. Where once its steel mills and shipyards had worked around the clock, its most famous hospital and university had long since become the city's largest private employer. Where once its slow pace and hot and humid summers were fitting for a locale than lay beneath the Mason-Dixon line, it had long-since ceased looking toward its southern roots.

Ripken, a local kid who grew up 35 miles northeast of Baltimore in Aberdeen, MD, bridged these eras. In playing his entire 21-year career with the Orioles and remaining in the area after he retired, Cal hadn't so much come full circle as simply stayed home and witnessed these changes. I, meanwhile, had left town, but remained in touch in no small measure by witnessing Cal's career.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Finger On The Pulse

Game Set Match?? Yeah, right. Shows what I know.

These guys aren't going quietly despite the loss of Chase Utley for several weeks (definitely) and Aaron Rowand for a few days (allegedly). Of course it doesn't hurt to be going up against the Pittsburgh Pirates when you are adjusting to the new realities.

Having moved to a season-high five games above sea level, the Phils look like they are about to put together another late-season move. But a lot of games against tougher competition than the Nationals and Pirates await them. What scares me is the latest rumor that the Phillies may be buyers at the trade deadline. How many more Michael Dubee's can they find in the minors? Worse, how many more Michael Bourn's are in the organization? Trading Bourn would be a huge mistake and therefore a distinct possibility with the Phillies' brain trust. Lots of scouts have been in town looking him over according to press reports.

Pat Burrell, on the other hand, has made himself slightly more valuable to a contender desperate for a big right-handed bat. Since coming back from the forgotten Burrell has been on quite a tear. His big salary and questionable health remain the biggest stumbling blocks along with his no-trade clause. Still, the odds on moving him have improved in the last few weeks, especially if some AL team is looking for help at DH.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Game Set Match

Even the most eternal optimist would be deflated now.

The loss of Chase Utley should put to rest any notions of a spot in the post-season. Forget analysis, fundamental or technical. Teams that bumble along around .500 cannot lose their heart and soul and expect to make up ground even when their other star is heating up.

It's a shame for the Phillies and Utley in that order, the same one in which the Phils' second baseman himself would put it. Utley was having an MVP season at bat and in the field. His spot in the order will be filled but he won't be replaced. That's not possible. Depending on the outcome of further tests, he will be back this season or not. Reports in the newspapers cite players who suffered similar injuries and the history of their returns. The picture is mixed. There's no consolation for the rest of us who love watching him play. Indeed, there's no consolation for his teammates and rivals who also admire the way he plays the game.

Speaking of the game....

The Phillies alleged brain trust had no damn business continuing to send Mike Zagurski out to the mound or signing a washed up Jose Mesa, but they did both. They owed it to the rest of the team to stop using this kid, who is over-matched against big league hitters, and they should have shown more respect for the players than to sign a veteran whose career was clearly over. Warm bodies are preferred to decaying ones, but in Mesa's case apparently the Phillies management hasn't gotten that message.

Because they cannot resist other peoples' castoffs or kids with live arms but no experience, the Phillies lost to the Nationals 7-6 after leading them in the rubber match of a three-game set. Their sixth straight win was in sight -- and so was the scoreboard showing the Mets had already lost to the Pirates -- but that didn't stop Charlie Manuel from bringing in Mesa, who naturally stunk, or Zagurski, who should have been packing his bags in anticipation of Brett Myers activation. (By the way, in this morning's Inquirer it was hinted Clay Condrey has his bags packed. Only yesterday I wrote such a move would be unjust and unwarranted. )

It's all academic now.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Heroes Everywhere

Ryan Howard has officially taken out a mortgage on The Zone. His amazing hitting during the Phils' recent West Coast swing more than qualified as earnest money and his fourteenth inning walk-off two-run homer late last night completed the down payment. Mr. Howard may not be the sole support of his family but he is clearly its biggest bread winner. When he gets this hot he can and does carry his team. Right now his mates must be looking at the big fellow and saying to themselves, he'll get it done.

On the pitching front, Cole Hamels had another fine outing only to come up empty and Antonio Alfonseca demonstrated why the Phillies desperately need a legitimate closer, blowing a two-run lead in the ninth inning and forcing both teams to play another five innings before Howard settled things. Clay Condrey pitched three innings of excellent relief to notch his fourth win without a loss. Watch: when Brett Myers is activated the Phils will probably send Condrey down yet again. I can think of several more deserving candidates for demotion.

With a day game scheduled this afternoon in what promises to be a sweltering Citizens Bank Park, the Phils and Nationals could have used a little extra sleep not innings. Jimmy Rollins only went 1-7 during the marathon but his one hit was a big one, a ninth inning triple after which he scored the tying run when a throw got away from an infielder.

The Phils had many opportunities to break things open in the first few extra frames but couldn't come up with a clutch hit. Overall they only managed 11 hits in fourteen innings, but they won their fifth straight game.

* * * * * * * *

Aaron Rowand, who had two hits last night to raise his average to .330 just won't go quietly...fortunately. He continues his remarkable hitting, heroics and timing. The night before his home run was the margin of victory over Washington.

Has anyone in recent memory had a better year going into free agency? The list would be very small indeed when compared to the numbers Rowand is putting up. So, the question remains, do the Phils move him, re-sign him or let him walk?

Rowand is going to receive a lot of interest this Fall and Winter. He hits well (though not this well), runs well, fields well, and throws well enough. Then, of course, there are the intangibles, particularly his willingness to take one for the club and his emphasis on we, team, us. This attitude plays well in the clubhouse with his teammates and absolutely resonates with front offices.

If the Phils can come up with enough money and some pitching I believe Rowand will stay. He can look at the nucleus of this club and see an unbelievable core of quality talent -- Utley, Howard, Rollins, Hamels -- and another group of fine players -- Victorino, Ruiz, Myers (if healthy). Beyond them there is reason to believe Kyle Kendrick can pitch in the big leagues. Were the Phils to add a few more pieces it isn't hard to imagine Rowand believing they can play deep into October. Yes, the Phils are perennially a few pieces from playing beyond the first few days of October let alone deep into the month, but they are closer now than they've been in years. Rowand's presence in their lineup will bring them closer, not further from their post-season aspirations. The Phillies cannot afford to lose him.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Heading For Home With A Head of Steam

Go figure...because I can't.

Three days after good pitching (San Diego's) beat good hitting (Philadelphia's), the Phillies turned around and took three straight from the Padres at Petco Park to finish their western road trip at 4-3. Who knows which team is going to show up at home when the Phils host Washington beginning tomorrow.

A few weeks ago I predicted Ryan Howard's average was going to rise. He was looking more comfortable at the plate, literally, his crouch a little lower, his extension of one hand holding the bat held a little longer. Howard has raised his average to .279, and he did so against two very good pitching staffs. Not only is he among the league leaders in home runs and rbi's, he's getting hot in the clutch as the weather gets hotter and crunch time gets crunchier.

Meanwhile, Chase Utley not only continues to lead virtually every hitting category in the NL, he's also looking more impressive in the field with each passing day. Utley is particularly strong going to his right for balls hit up the middle and if he's playing back on the grass he is especially adept at sliding for balls hit to either side, popping up and nipping the runner at first base. Hitting. Fielding. Running the bases. In short, Utley makes watching baseball fun.

And what can we say that we haven't already gushed about J-Roll? He's hitting for average and power, scoring nearly a run a game and still fielding with the best of them. If the Phillies ever sign a leading third baseman they will put the best foursome ever assembled on the field every night.

So, who was the hero of this road trip? J.D. Durbin gets my nod. Fifteen innings pitched. One earned run. Two victories. One bullpen saved. Who'd have thunk it? Here's a guy with his fourth team this year, who was crushed in his first appearance as a dire emergency starter, who was probably pitching because, frankly, the Phillies didn't have any other options, and he wins two games on the road on the West Coast. Durbin has moved around so much this year alone he probably doesn't know the difference between a home and away game, but no matter. He stepped up very big time. Ain't the beer cold!

Friday, July 20, 2007


I guess you can safely say the San Diego Padres are living proof pitching remains the name of the game. Last night Chris Young beat Cole Hamels in a taught duel, 1-0, one of those games in which it was a shame anyone had to lose. It was an even greater shame the Phillies wasted a relatively rare stellar performance from a starter, but, then, the offensive juggernaut from Philadelphia frequently runs off the tracks at inopportune times. It won't help to say they should have saved a few of the 26 hits from the other night in LA to provide Hamels with some support because the entire season has been all or nothing for these Phillies.

With three games remaining on the Western swing, the Phils are 1-3. Oh, and they are below sea level again at 47-48. I've stopped counting the number of times they rise and sink below the waves. They are strictly an average team. Sure, they have had a lot of injuries to overcome, but at the risk of beating a dead horse, two big ones -- Tom Gordon and Freddy Garcia -- were or should have been predictable and one even bigger one -- Brett Myers -- was entirely avoidable. They are getting what they deserve.

A few more losses and the question of whether the Phils will be buyers or sellers at the trading deadline should be moot.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Everybody Hits... Every Other Night

Jekyll showed up last night in Los Angeles...or was it Hyde?

The Phillies banged out 26 hits including two 2-run homers by Ryan Howard en route to a 15-3 drubbing of the Dodgers. Following their pummeling by LA the night before the Phillies season-long pattern of up and down continues apace.

Emergency starter J.D. Durbin picked up his first major league win and his first three major league hits. When your pitcher has more career hits than wins you know you are talking about an offense-minded club. Everybody hits, wahoo! Shane Victorino and Aaron Rowand both collected five hits. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins settled for three hits each. And a resurgent Pat Burrell hit career home run number 200.

Tonight unheralded phenom Kyle Kendrick goes for win number five. It's any body's guess which team will show up to support him. Yesterday one of the panelists on DNL made a very good point about Kendrick, noting he is the type of pitcher who keeps the ball low and should thrive in Citizens Bank Park. Following Rich Hofmann's piece on the home run rate at the Bank, that is certainly good news. Kendrick has been the real Cinderella story of this season thus far, jumping from AA to the Show as an emergency starter (do the Phillies have any other kinds these days?) and pitching very effectively. Let's hope there are no pumpkins in his immediate future.

* * * * * * * * *

Well, finally, we have something concrete to mull regarding reliever Tom Gordon's health and it isn't exactly good news. After months of "pathologies", upper respiratory infections and other maladies Gordon himself announced he has a torn labrum. As someone with a torn labrum I can assure readers it isn't the kind of injury a pitcher can necessarily play through despite reports in today's Inquirer that many including names like Pedro Martinez have. Of course there are tears, partial tears and assorted pain thresholds and tolerances to be considered. Gordon is back in the pen for now and available for duty. I won't be surprised if he goes down again.

* * * * * * * * *

A few weeks ago I wrote the Phillies need to re-sign Aaron Rowand. With each passing day it seems a little less likely they will. There have been no negotiations according to several reports. Meanwhile, Rowand continues to produce offensively at a career-best pace. Moreover, he's the kind of throwback player lots of teams covet, on the field and in the clubhouse. So once again as the Phillies approach the July trading deadline they are faced with the real prospect of losing a productive and important player. The silence coming out of the GM's office strongly suggests Pat Gillick is planning to move Rowand for pitching. Get used to the idea of an outfield consisting of Pat Burrell, Michael Bourn and Shane Victorino. Pitiful.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

This And That

Anyone unfortunate enough to watch the Phillies the last two evenings has to face facts: this is a .500 club. For all of their vaunted offense, the Phils hit and score in bunches. In between, they strand runners in scoring position or fail to hit altogether. The twenty-three runs accumulated in the first two games against St Louis were followed by two and three runs each on succeeding nights. Meanwhile, the pitching staff was yielding twenty runs in the finale against the Cards and opener versus LA. If that isn't a picture of a mediocre team, I don't know what is.

* * * * * * *

An article in the NY Times Monday noted that the Yankees played before sell-out crowds in Tampa Bay over the weekend marking the first time the Devil Rays played before such large audiences at home this year. In fact, the weekend series drew nearly 1/6 of the Tampa Bay's total home attendance to date this season. Earlier in the week the Devil Rays played before a crowd of less than 6,000.

When is MLB going to admit Florida is the worst state in the Union for regular season baseball? The Marlins also play before paltry crowds, each sound echoing throughout the mostly empty stadium in a manner reminiscent of the lonely bleating horns that used to fill Olympic Stadium in Montreal. The difference between Miami and TB, of course, is that the Marlins have actually won two world championships in their brief history. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, is still years from competing for a playoff spot let alone a title.

Spring Training is one thing. Many fans from the Northeast and Rust Belt fantasize about a trip to Florida in early March and hundreds and thousands of snowbirds are already in residence in Florida when the Grapefruit League gets underway. By early summer, however, no one in his right mind wants to go to Florida and a huge percentage of the snowbirds have departed for northern climes.

* * * * * * * *

The Phils visit to LA reunites them with two popular ex-teammates, Mike Lieberthal and Randy Wolf. Lieberthal has been reduced to a very part-time role in his boyhood hometown, in large part because the Dodgers have Russell Martin, an All Star catcher, ahead of Mike on the depth chart.

According to a fine piece by Jim Salisbury yesterday, Lieberthal keeps close tabs on his former team, so much so that he is kidded by some of his Dodger mates. It's a shame the Phillies were unable to show Lieberthal similar appreciation in his final days in Philadelphia. He was booed by some fans in his final appearance here and then unceremoniously shown the door by management. Though he holds virtually every record for catchers in franchise history, Lieberthal was always viewed as a disappointment. Watching Carlos Ruiz cleanly field throws to home reminds me how often Lieby bobbled similar plays. His handling of pitchers was also the subject of much speculation and his laid back approach was found lacking especially on a team of laid back players.

Fans and management alike never seemed to forgive Lieberthal for not fulfilling their expectations. Longevity simply wasn't enough.

* * * * * * * *

Rich Hofmann has an excellent piece in today's Daily News on the launching pad that is Citizens Bank Park. The salient points are these: In 45 road games this season, Phillies pitchers have allowed 45 home runs. In 46 home games this season, Phillies pitchers have allowed 81 home runs.

No single statistic augurs worse for acquiring desperately needed pitching through free agency than the one Hofmann cites for home games. The deteriorating rate at which balls served up by Phillies pitchers are departing the premises comes despite having moved back the left field fences a smidgen.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Give Me Reason To Hope

Another day, another opportunity for the national sporting media to indulge its Philly phobias. Ten thousand losses and we're supposed to feel...what exactly? I, for one, feel absolutely nothing.

But I digress. Last week I wrote the optimists would be out in force this morning if the Phils took at least two of three from the Cardinals so I shouldn't spoil the fun by focusing on how many losses the franchise and its faithful have endured since 1883.

The series with Cards played out pretty much as expected. St. Louis doesn't have good pitching and neither do the Phillies. Albert Pujols, who arrived without a home run in his previous 79 at bats, belted four of them including two in last night's rout. Albert loves to hit at Citizens Bank Park. Heck, everyone loves to hit there. The Phillies hit a ton themselves in games one and two and overcame a somewhat shaky start by Cole Hamels and another lousy outing by Adam Eaton. Wow, you say, if this be optimism what must pessimism sound like!!??

We should know soon enough where the remainder of this season is going as the Phils embark on a brief Western road trip through LA and San Diego. Many observers consider these two clubs among the elites of the National League, so should the Phillies manage at least a split the optimists, such as some of them are, will live to write another day.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Gentlemen, Restart Your Engines!

The soon-to-be-ex World Champion St. Louis Cardinals begin a three game series at Citizens Bank Park this evening.

Led by their resident genius, manager Tony La Russa, so anointed yet again only this morning by no greater a baseball authority than Stephen A. Smith, the Cards have struggled all season with injuries and pitching woes and find themselves in third place in the NL Central, five games under .500 and 7.5 games back of Milwaukee.

According to reports out of St. Louis, Albert Pujols, who was unable to crack the NL lineup All Star lineup Tuesday night, has patched things up with his manager, who snubbed him. Unconfirmed reports also suggest he has just bought a bridge. Meanwhile, Pujols is mired in the longest home run drought of his illustrious career. Here's betting it rains sometimes during his visit to the Bank. Old friend Scott Rolen, who's departure from Philadelphia still draws commentary (including from this blogger) is having a sub-par season at the plate with only 4 home runs to date. Like many teams, the Cardinals have fought the injury bug, but there biggest problem has been pitching.

Speaking of pitching, the Phils send improbable emergency starter Kyle Kendrick to mound in search of his fourth win without a defeat since being called up from AA. Where would the Phillies be without this kid, one wonders? Somewhere south of .500 is the answer that leaps to mind. Lively discussions are taking place all over the Delaware Valley and beyond regarding the Phils' chances as the second half of the season gets underway. While most observers agree they have a shot at the NL East title because the Mets and Braves also have their problems, I suspect they have far fewer resources available to improve their situation than their chief rivals as the trade deadline approaches.

Much depends on the return and recovery of Tom Gordon and Brett Myers. Gordon's history over the last two seasons strongly suggests he won't hold up that long. Myers is new to this injury business and thus it is too early to tell when and if he'll come back and in what condition. Since Myers knows only one speed -- full bore ahead and angrily -- the odds of his re-injuring himself if he tries to return too soon are quite good.

If the Phils take two out of three from the Cards the optimists will be out in force come Monday morning. Anything less and we shall hear plenty from the glass half empty crowd.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

In Passing

The following AP report in today's baseball notes brought back many memories:

Before his Hall of Fame career as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda spent one magical season as skipper of one of the best teams in minor league history. For his role leading the 1972 Albuquerque Dukes, Lasorda has become the first inductee of the Albuquerque Baseball Hall of Fame. Lasorda's Dukes went 92-56 in 1972. They were led by a lineup that included Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Tom Paciorek, Von Joshua, Steve Yeager, Joe Ferguson, Larry Hisle, Burt Hooton and Charlie Hough.

I was a graduate student in Albuquerque from 1970 - 73 and saw those Dukes play in a what was then a brand new stadium in which home plate faced east towards the glorious Sandia Mountains and every Wednesday (or was it Thursday?) night was ten cent beer night and other nights included Mariachi Band Night. Those were really the days!!

At the time Albuquerque had recently landed the Dodgers' AAA farm team which had previously called the Pacific northwest (Oregon??) home and the people of New Mexico were thrilled. That Dukes team was extraordinary as the names above attest. En masse they became the champion LA Dodgers of the mid to late 70's. Interestingly, the star of the team and MVP of the league that year was Joshua, who never had the career predicted for him. Hisle played initially for the Phillies before moving on to a very respectable long career with Milwaukee. The rest of the names above need no further explanations. It was truly a great team. If I recall correctly, however, they did lose the series between the Pacific Coast champions and the International League champions.

* * * * * * * *

In the same column of notes I also read former Phillie Rich Schu had been named the new hitting coach of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Congratulations to him but an even bigger salute goes out to our own RichSchuBlues, aka RSB, who more than his namesake has kept alive the memories. Way to go, Ricks!!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Less Than Stellar

Tony La Russa is living proof that a successful manager "couldn't have done it without [his] players". Why, exactly, La Russa is so highly esteemed by the sporting press is beyond me, but were I forced to choose one instance of his overrated brilliance I would point to the most recent example, last night's All Star game. Trailing by a run in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs, the bases loaded and arguably the best and most feared hitter in either league available to pinch hit, La Russa passed over Albert Pujols in favor of Aaron Rowand.

Nothing could justify the decision, nothing that is except La Russa's equally well-known penchant for making himself, not his players, the center of attention. There will be all sorts of spin today in the wake of La Russa's decision but none of it will convince this fan. Adding insult to injury, Pujols was the only National League position not to get into the game. The forecast is for chilly winds in St. Louis.

* * * * * * * *

Ryan Howard's early exit from the State Farm (or was it Chevrolet) Home Run Derby preempted any discussion about the contest's ruining his swing. Next!

* * * * * * * *

As advertised, I did not watch the game, but I did tune in for the pre-game "show" just to see what would transpire with the various personalities gathered. Appropriately, Willie Mays was the center of attention. Growing up in an American League city (Baltimore) at a time when interleague play did not exist and the only out-of-market games televised were the weekly Saturday game of the week on NBC (they virtually never showed a West Coast game), I rarely got a chance to see Mays play. All of my friends and acquaintances who did, however, insisted he was the best they'd ever seen bar none. Last night the folks at MLB and San Francisco tried to replicate the spontaneous outpouring of emotion by the players that occurred during the AS game in Boston a few years ago when an aging and ill Ted Williams stood on the mound to make a ceremonial first pitch and all of the players gathered around him to feel the aura and pay him homage. Nothing quite that spontaneous or emotional took place last night. Instead, Mays walked into centerfield between two lines of players, coaches and managers, who politely applauded him. He then threw a ceremonial first pitch from centerfield to Jose Reyes, also stationed in centerfield. After signing the ball, Mays got into a 1958 convertible and took a spin around the perimeter of the field, tossing souvenir balls into the stands. It was cliched baseball at its most unimaginative, hardly befitting one of the true legends of the game.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Winning and Losing

The Phillies have received more goodwill for their collective effort on behalf of the Coors Field ground crew yesterday than perhaps at any time in team history. In the wake of their unprecedented effort to help a beleaguered and endangered ground crew they may even have received a smattering of sympathy as they approach franchise loss number 10,000...but not much. Ten thousand is too round a number and Philadelphia-bashing by the media too popular a blood sport to deflect the unwanted spotlight for very long. Indeed, both events -- Ground Aid and Countdown To 10,000 -- shared space in every retelling no matter the venue. There is no getting around it: chronic losing sells, but don't mention it to the current generation of players in red pinstripes who, to a man, are not interested and don't feel a scintilla of guilt. And who can blame them for the legions of lousy owners, players and managers who have passed through the City of Brotherly Love lo these many decades? Undaunted, reporters continue to pursue the story, asking Chase Utley or Ryan Howard or Charlie Manuel at every opportunity how they view the impending milestone. Utley said he wasn't interested. Howard had nothing to add as well. Manuel said he had nothing to do with it, somewhat disingenuous, but in the main an appropriate response. The 2007 Phillies aren't about to get swept up in something as dubious as 10,000 losses when all they are trying to do is keep their own heads above sea level, which, by the way, the reached again for about the fifteenth time this season.

As for Ground Aid, it was an extraordinary spontaneous display that will long linger in the mind. The sixth inning had just concluded under threatening skies with lighting strikes beyond the bleachers when the sky opened up. The ground crew rushed to preserve the playing surface as the players and umpires rushed to preserve themselves. As the ground crew began to unfold the tarp a sudden gust of swing swept across the field and violently folded the tarp over itself, trapping some crew members beneath and dragging others who hung on for dear life. As the drama [un]folded, the Phillies rushed en masse onto the field to lend a collective helping hand. Everyone -- starters, bench players, coaches and trainers -- pitched in, pulling on the tarp, throwing sand bags onto it to keep the edges from doubling over again, lending their own weight to secure the recalcitrant cover and rescuing individuals trapped beneath. Even some of the umpires joined in the effort. The only ones missing were the Colorado Rockies, who apparently retired to their locker room unaware of the drama taking place. When the tarp finally was secured and every member of the ground crew accounted for, the soaked Phillies retreated to the locker room to a standing ovation from the local faithful.

It's safe to say that through the ages with its countless wins and especially losses that sort of response on the road or, for that matter, at home has never happened before and you could look it up.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Keep Rowand

Despite their obvious needs, the Phillies will likely remain on the sidelines when the trading deadline approaches simply because they have so little to offer other clubs and because the commodity they most desperately seek, relief pitching, is in particularly short supply. Despite this state of affairs, something tells me GM Pat Gillick has already drawn up one or two moves and is simply waiting for willing partners to emerge.

Aaron Rowand appears to be the prime subject of trade speculation for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his impending free agency and his productive season at the plate thus far. Rowand is generally considered one of the better fielders at his position, a reputation based as much on his fearlessness as actual ability. Readers of this space know I take a somewhat jaundiced view of Rowand's route to fly balls, his arm and his penchant for playing shallow. Defense aside, and his is certainly above average, he hasn't hurt his chances to cash in by currently hitting more than twenty points above his career average of .283.

So, the Phillies face the classic dilemma with a player about to enter the free agent market: try and re-sign him now or trade him while he is still under contract and his value is high. In Rowand's case the dilemma is further compounded by the overall unproven or diminished (Pat Burrell) quality of the remaining outfielders. Michael Bourn may mature into a major league hitter but it is hard to predict at this stage. His fielding and base-running are superb. Shane Victorino is one of the most exciting players to come along in quite some time and should be a decent hitter, great fielder and excellent albeit occasionally reckless baserunner for years to come if he doesn't wear himself out by jumping into the stands or crashing into walls. Burrell is playing out the string and would be candidate numero uno to depart in July were it not for his enormous salary and no-trade clause. No one else throughout the organization is even close to contributing.

With pitching - starting and relief - third base and the outfield still huge question marks, the Phillies can ill-afford to give up their most proven commodity among the latter. In sum, the Phils should make an all-out effort to re-sign Rowand or face yet another hole to fill in the immediate future.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Short Hops

Some interesting tidbits caught my eye this morning as I perused newspapers and web sites:

This one was from Buster Olney's ESPN column:

The Reds already have been in contact with Joe Girardi, writes John Fay, about their managerial opening. But the team probably has the sense already that some managers will shy away from this job because of Reds' offense-generating home ballpark. "Pretty tough to develop pitching there," one GM said Tuesday. "If you can't develop pitching, you can't win."

We in Philadelphia know all about this problem. The only time the Phillies have been able to attract a free agent pitcher is when they gave away ridiculous millions to Adam Eaton. All the other "vaunted" starters who have come here since the Bank opened arrived via trade and departed as soon as possible.

As for Girardi, if the rumor cited above is true, that will mark the second time a team going absolutely nowhere has approached him about their managerial vacancy. Other rumors suggest Girardi is one of two leading candidates -- Don Mattingly is the other -- in line to succeed Joe Torre in New York if, indeed, a succession is imminent. I can understand how Girardi turned down the Orioles' offer of a few weeks ago; bad team, worse owner. Cincinnati appears to "only" be a bad team. New York? They still are owned by George Steinbrenner & Sons, last time I looked. As for the bad team part, they are on their way with an aging pitching staff that continues to falter and the possibility that A-Rod will opt out at the end of the year. Maybe Girardi is holding out for an offer from the Phillies. Nah. They have their own problems with current ownership, which isn't necessarily bad, just inept.

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Old friend Randy Wolf is scheduled to have an MRI on his ailing shoulder. Wolf, 9-6 in his first season with the Dodgers, suspects the problem stems from pitching more innings this season than he has in a few years. Let's hope all that he needs is to just shut down for a while to regain his strength. Wolf is one of the good guys in baseball.

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Ryan Howard has begun to sprinkle in the occasional single and double with all those home runs and strike outs that mark his play over the last month or so. If he continues in that direction he is going to stage a pretty dramatic comeback in the second half of the season. Look for Howard to end the year batting near or above .300 with forty plus home runs and over 100 rbi's. Also look for him to whiff at least 150 - 180 times.

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Word in the Inquirer is that Brett Meyers is going to test his arm with a "good bullpen workout" in Colorado this weekend. Does anyone really have a clue regarding the extent of Brett Meyer's injury? That fifteen day trip to the DL has moved beyond a month now and still there is no word on when or if he is coming back. All that the Phillies say is that he hopes to come back after the All Star break. Could Meyers be out for the entire year? Yes, indeed.

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Apparently umpire Lance Barksdale, who cost the Phillies a win Tuesday night in Houston when he clearly blew a call, apologized to Charlie Manuel during yesterday's game. As infuriating and painful as his mistake was, I remain opposed to any use of instant replay in baseball including decisions about balls in play as opposed to on-field judgment calls. I like the human fallibility factor in baseball umpiring and hope it resists the movement toward video rulings in major league sports. And if baseball were to cave in to the trend, we might be deprived of great lines from or about arbiters such as the following:

They expect an umpire to be perfect on openning day and to improve as the season goes on. (Nestor Chylak, AL umpire 1954-78); or

I occasionally get birthday cards from fans. But it's often the same message: they hope it's my last. ( Al Forman)

One day in a tough game I was passing Lonnie Warneke and he said, "Preach, I may have my superiors on the bases, but when it comes to balls and strikes, I'm second to no man." And I commenced thinking careful and when I was done I told him, "Horseshit, Lon." (Preacher Roe)

Why, they shot the wrong McKinley! (Dizzy Dean, on umpire William McKinley)

Once when the Yankee's Lou Pinella was batting he questioned a Palermo strike call. Pinella demanded, "Where was that pitch at?" Palermo told him that a man wearing Yankee pinstripes in front of 30,000 people should not end a sentence with a preposition. So Pinella, no dummy, said, "OK, where was that pitch at, asshole?" (George Will)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Sue The Bastards!

Being the 4th of July, how about a round or three of that All-American pastime of suing people?

The position players could not be faulted if they brought suit against the Phillies' bullpen following last night's painful defeat versus the Astros when in the thirteenth inning Jose Mesa served up a first-pitch walk-off home run to rookie Hunter Pence. Had I been substitute manager Jimmy Williams, Charlie having been tossed in the 9th inning, I would have made my way through the crowd of Astros awaiting they conquering hero at home plate and handed Mesa his unconditional release right on the spot. Why wait? Jose didn't!

The pitching staff would be well advised to consider a counter suit against the position players for batting 5 for 24 with runners in scoring position. The Phillies had numerous chances to win this thing and never put together the clutch hits.

And the entire team would be well within reason to sue first base umpire Lance Barksdale for blowing the call at first base that made the aforementioned suits even possible. Replays clearly showed Carlos Lee was out at first on the back end of a double play that would have ended the ballgame and given the Phils a 4-3 victory.

As is always the case in these matters, only the lawyers would be happy.

The box score will show that starter Adam Eaton pitched a "quality" start in allowing three runs over six innings and departing with the lead. Of course it won't highlight that right after the Phils took a one run lead in the top of the second inning against Roy Oswalt, Eaton immediately gave up his three runs in the bottom of the frame. If nothing else he is the picture of inconsistency and unreliability, the occasional "quality" start notwithstanding. Your team gets a lead on the road against one tough pitcher and you go right back out there and hand it back to them in spades. Therein lies the limitation of statistics.

Nor will the box score really show how many hard hit balls by the Phillies either bounced right back to fielders or right over the fence for a ground rule double limiting the number of runs scored in regulation time. And only the highlight film will show that Ryan Howard crushed a ball to the most distant spot in Minute Maid Park and the very same Hunter Pence who killed them a few innings later hauled it down. As Todd Zolecki said in the Inquirer this morning, that ball would have been out of Fairmount Park.

Not lost in all of this futility is the stark reality that the Phils have dropped five of their last six games and find themselves once again at the beginning, or as it is expressed in baseball, .500. They will call on Cole Hamels, who has been less than dominating his last few outings, to salvage the final game of this series and some degree of their dignity. Right now they haven't got much else to play for.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Around The Horn

A few years ago the Phillies couldn't buy a victory over the Houston Astros. Welcome back to the future. With last night's 7-5 defeat the Phils missed an opportunity to pick up a game on the Mets and fell to within one game of sea level yet again. The game summary includes the usual suspects, the bullpen. Two bases loaded walks, one each by Brian Sanches and Jose Mesa, provided the margin of difference.

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Ryan Howard has failed to heed my advice (doesn't he read this blog??) and take a few days off during the All Star break. Instead, he accepted the invitation to defend his State Farm Home Run Derby title, surely one of the least important trophies in his already burgeoning case. Did Bud Selig get to the big guy or did the fellows from State Farm promise him a break on his deductible? I just hope he doesn't further ruin his swing, something every Phillies fan who follows the Derby knows all about.

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There was a little news item about A-Rod's wife. Seems Mrs. A-Rod attended a game at The Stadium wearing a tank top that had the words F*** You clearly visible on it. Hard to say who exactly Mrs. A-Rod had in mind for the message, the fans, the press, management or all of the above, but one thing seems clear: a $252 million dollar contract buys a family lots of things but not, evidently, class, originality or eloquence.

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Matt Smith is done for the year. The Phillies announced yesterday he will have Tommy John surgery. Smith is the third Phillies pitcher (Randy Wolf and Scott Mathieson were the others) to have TJ surgery in the last few years. This procedure is becoming routine and the good news is a lot of pitchers who have it can and do come back. Here's hoping the southpaw Smith is among them, for his own sake and for the sake of all those who still cannot forgive Pat Gillick for the Abreu deal.

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Every color analyst and blog commenter has weighed in on the large number of outstanding shortstops currently plying their trade in the National League and on the snubbing, some say, of Jimmy Rollins in this year's All-Star balloting and naming. There is no bigger J-Roll fan than yours truly but it is impossible to argue with the selection of Jose Reyes, who is one of the most exciting players in the game today and a force to be reckoned with every time he comes to the plate and is on base. That said, no one combines leadership, skill, performance and love of the game better than Jimmy. And if all of that sounds a little too stats-lite for some, try this: he already has a quadruple double at the midway point of the season. That is All-Star quality plain and simple but as we all know, there is nothing plain nor simple about All-Star voting.

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One more thing about the All-Star game. I wrote yesterday that players love it for the bonuses that kick in. Well, Alex Rodriguez leads the list of those receiving a bonus for being named to the squad with a cool $200,000. That's an awful lot of tank tops.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Celestial Beings

From the perspective of my fourth floor sitting room where all televised things baseball pass before my eyes, there were not one but two perennial burning questions as the All-Star rosters were announced Sunday afternoon. Let's begin with the the one I ask myself each year as balloting gets underway on line and at the ballpark: does anyone give a damn about this game any longer? Number two: if MLB in its infinite wisdom were to withhold the vote from the fans and hand it to some other constituency (the players and managers?), would fan interest further decline? I say "further" because if the ratings for the mid-summer "classic" continue to slide at their current rate they soon will be somewhere in the neighborhood of those for the NCAA volleyball championships.

I know you are dying to have these questions answered, so here we go....

The greatest interest in the All Star game takes place prior to the game itself and is confined pretty much to who's in and who isn't, who was slighted and who wasn't, and who was named because the rules say every team must be represented or they had an "in" with the manager? Once the votes are tabulated and the arguments over who was and wasn't deserving have subsided, no one really watches the game for more than an inning or two...if that. Jeez, even baseball has been indifferent on occasion, subsidizing, nay ordering, a tie!!

Now, don't get me wrong, some people do like the game. Players' agents like the it because when a client is named to a squad it boosts his market value, especially in a contract year. Players who are named to the squads like the game because their bonus clauses kick in. Some players like the idea of spending time with other ballplayers whom they admire. No doubt a few actually like the competition though it can hardly be said to rival that of the first five decades of play when bragging rights meant a great deal to players and fans and the NL and AL genuinely disliked each other. We can thank Bud Selig for killing off that rivalry once and for all with the introduction of interleague play. This Bud also gave us a home run derby to expand television coverage, i.e., marketing opportunities. Every batting practice pitch seems to come with its own brand on it. The Chevy this and Bud (no relation) that. The Phils' Ryan Howard was not named to the squad this year but has been invited back to defend his title in the Derby. Here's hoping he takes his all-or-nothing swing home to St. Louis and literally gives it a rest for three days.

MLB's head honcho recognized the All Star game has seriously slipped in the hearts and minds of participants and viewers alike and instituted a winner-takes-World Series-home-field-advantage as the prize for the winning league. That's patently unfair, of course, but, then, when did "fair" ever enter into the equation. Bud just wants these guys to act like something is at stake. I'm sure the representatives from the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates are going to go all out even if their teams are a long way from appearing in a World Series. After all, they're professionals.

As for the balloting, let's just say I have a healthy skepticism for any process (online in this case) that encourages people to vote early and often. Just the idea that one can enter as many votes as one has the stamina to log or the skill to write a small routine that would automate the process is bad enough, but when one realizes the technology also exists to limit voting to a single ballot it makes the whole thing even more of a joke. For those cyber-challenged devotees of the game, ballot stuffing of the 20th century variety is still an option at the ballparks, where one can punch as many hanging chads as one is physically capable of doing before beginning to worry that the car or house key might bend under the strain.

I'm happy for Chase Utley, the finest second baseman in the league if not all of baseball, and Aaron Rowand, who gives his all every play and even Cole Hamels, who wants badly to succeed and until recently had done so sufficiently to impress those naming the pitchers. And I'm happy for old pro and friend Placido Polanco, who has been named to the squad (as a starter, too) for the first time in his distinguished career. But as you can imagine, I won't be watching them that night...whenever it is.