Thursday, September 30, 2004

Now and Then

Bill Lyons, one of the treasures of local sports journalism, has a terrific piece on Barry Bonds and Ichiro Suzuki in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. In it Lyons contrasts the “slugger and the slapper” both of whom are without peers while taking diametrically opposed routes to the summit. Lyons, whose love of language may exceed his love of sport, describes Suzuki’s bat control thus: “Suzuki deftly places the ball, as though hiding Easter eggs.”

TR Goyne, whose Balls, Sticks and Stuff is always worth reading, made an interesting comment regarding my piece in which I praised Ichiro while wondering why there isn’t even more of a fuss regarding his chase of the single-season hits record. TR believes part of the reason the Ichiro craze has failed to capture the entire nation’s interest is a language barrier that prevents him from being interviewed on American television. I think there is much merit to his observation.

Meanwhile, over at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies are putting together a good September finish that, nevertheless, cannot make up for their overall losing records for the months of June, July and August. To put their too-little, too-late 16 – 8 stretch run in perspective, seven teams in the National League still own better overall records as of last night.

Speaking of last night, the second game against Pittsburgh did offer an interesting glimpse into the future as I would like to see it. Placido Polanco was at third base and Ryan Howard was at first. Now before anyone starts scheduling me for an appointment with a therapist, I don’t see Howard taking over at first for Jim Thome, but the Phillies should hold onto this youngster for at least another year both as insurance at first base and to see where else he might fit in. Thome, 34 years old, has missed a fair number of games this season due to minor injuries. I don’t have Bill James’ take on the following speculation, but I suspect bigger men suffer more injuries and slower recoveries than smaller men of comparable age.

Rounding out this new-look lineup, Jason Michaels was in left field and Chase Utley was at second. If the Phillies trade Pat Burrell, Michaels would be their left fielder. I have slowly come around to the arguments in favor of keeping Burrell, whose 82 rbi’s in an injury-shortened season would be difficult to replace, but I maintain the Burrell we have seen for the last two seasons is the player we are likely to see going forward; that is, a streaky .250 hitter who can look awesome at the plate one game and totally lost the next.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

In Further Praise of Ichiro

What, exactly, is the gripe against Ichiro? Are we witnessing some sort of cultural bias here or is it just my imagination that a large portion of the country doesn’t appear the slightest interested that this remarkable player stands on the verge of breaking one of the greatest records still standing in baseball?

Why aren’t American (as opposed to Japanese) camera crews following him everywhere? Why aren’t TV broadcasts breaking away to watch his at-bats?

When George Sisler stroked 257 hits for the 1920 St. Louis Browns no one realized his record would stand for 84 years. During the intervening years many hallowed records have fallen not the least of which were Ruth’s 60 home runs in a season and 714 for a career and Lou Gehrig’s 2131 straight games played. And while many baseball fans and players watch Ichiro’s inexorable march toward immortality with awe and pride, there are still others out there who ho-hum the entire pursuit and dismiss him as a mere singles hitter.

Ichiro is in fact much more than a hitter. He may be one of the two or three best outfielders in the game today as his three Gold Gloves in three seasons attest. And once he catches the ball, he knows what to do with it (see the quote by Tommy Heinrich to the right); no one runs on him.

In his nearly four seasons in the majors Ichiro has 912 hits, a pace that would put him over 3000 in twelve plus years. (He also amassed 1278 career hits in Japan, where they play shorter seasons.) To put his pace in perspective, Pete Rose needed 24 years to amass 4256 hits. Ichiro knows how to bunt, hit behind the runner, shorten his stroke when necessary, go the opposite way, in short, control his bat with amazing dexterity. He is also fast, legging out an extraordinary number of infield hits.

His greatest contribution, however, is to generate excitement. Every time he comes up to the plate expectations run high. Very high. He can do so many things to get on base and does. The defense hasn’t yet been invented to keep him off the base paths.

We are watching an amazing ballplayer, in his prime, and we shouldn’t take him for granted.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004


The six remaining games should not distract the Phillies from the enormous tasks that lie ahead. They go into the off-season with so many holes to fill the only sensible approach is radical reconstructive surgery. So, fasten your seatbelts and put up the side railings. In no particular order they should:

1. Buy out David Bell’s contract or trade him and hand the starting third base job to Placido Polanco. (I thought I would start off with the most outrageous suggestion. I like Bell but worry about his health and his fielding.)
2. Install Chase Utley at second base. (Sounds like I’m remodeling, eh?)
3. Re-sign Eric Milton. (Fourteen wins on this staff is hard to ignore. Very hard.)
4. Hold on to Mike Lieberthal. (Do they have an alternative?)
5. Hold on to Ryan Howard and at least experiment with him in the outfield. (I know he is going to come back to haunt us if they trade him. Plus, I love the way this guys fields let alone hits!!!)
6. Re-sign Cory Lidle. (Yes, I know, I haven’t been particularly kind to him in this blog.)
7. Say a fond farewell to Doug Glanville. (A very decent man who can no longer hit major league pitching.)
8. Say a less than fond farewell to Shawn Wooten (provided they can locate him).
9. Unceremoniously dump Roberto Hernandez. (Don’t forward his mail, either.)
10. Say goodbye to Doug Jones. (Get him a companion fare with Hernandez.)
11. Re-sign Rheal Cormier if the price is right. (He’s a citizen now, so we can also collect taxes from him.)
12. Increase their insurance coverage on Billy Wagner’s contract. (I am not convinced his arm is back to full strength.)
13. Sign Jimmy Rollins to a long-term deal. (His loss would be catastrophic.)
14. Reluctantly hold on to Marlon Byrd. (He wouldn’t fetch much on the open market anyway.)
15. Keep Tomas Perez. (Who else is going to throw shaving cream pies?)
16. Don’t even speak to Kevin Millwood or his agent as soon as the last out is recorded on October 2. (He doesn’t like us either.)
17. Prohibit Vicente Padilla from picking up a baseball during the off-season. (And prevent him from spending any leisure time with his friends in Nicaragua.)
18. Enroll Brett Myers in anger-management training. (Or tell him Joe Kerrigan won’t be back, whichever comes first.)
19. Test the market value of Pat Burrell. (And if it surprises to the upside, move him quickly.)
20. Don’t push Gavin Floyd too hard. (He can do his best Ryan Madsen imitation next year.)
21. Keep Madsen in the bullpen in middle and long relief. (He doesn’t strike me a starter.)
22. Give Jim Thome a few days more off every now and then. (He seemed to wear down this season though it could just be the nagging small injuries that got to him.)
23. Urge Bobby Abreu to spend a little more time working on his defense. (This isn’t going to happen, but it is the one area of his game that could stand the work.)
24. Give Jason Michaels a nice raise. (He is one of the few who deserves one.)
25. Fire Larry Bowa. (He wasn’t dealt the best hand this season in terms of injuries, but he isn’t likely to be dealt a much better one next year and everyone is tired of his act.)
26. Fire Joe Kerrigan. (His theory on holding base-runners is sufficient grounds.)
27. Fire Ed Wade. (We can dream, can’t we?)
28. Move the fences back at Citizens Bank Park. (We can REALLY dream, can’t we?)

Monday, September 27, 2004

Whatever it Takes

Mike Cuellar, one of the star pitchers on the great Orioles teams of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, would often struggle mightily in the first inning, so much so that manager Earl Weaver came up with the idea of having the lefty throw extra warm-up pitches prior to the game in the hope he would leave any bad start in the bullpen. Phillies rookie Gavin Floyd might take note.

The youngster has been digging himself a deep hole in his first inning of work only to climb out of it and settle down. Last Saturday in Montreal Floyd was forced to finish his warm-ups on the main mound when starter Kevin Millwood suddenly departed after injuring himself. When the game resumed, Floyd gave up a walk and hit two batters to surrender a run. Then he settled down and pitched well the rest of his appearance. Whatever the cause – jitters or just getting loose – Floyd might benefit from the Cuellar approach.

Further emblematic of what a roller coaster the Phils pitching staff has ridden this season and of how difficult it will be to put together a staff for next year is the case of Cory Lidle. Philadelphia is Lidle’s sixth team in eight seasons in the majors. He pitched poorly in his first few outings here following his acquisition from Cincinnati at the July 31 trade deadline. Since then, he has pitched well including yesterday’s game during which he raised his record with the Phils to 4-2 while lowering his ERA to 3.99, two runs an inning less than when he arrived.

Lidle, whose career record stands at 55 – 51, will be a free agent this off-season, and though he isn’t likely to command enormous dollars, given the dearth of starting pitching throughout baseball he will certainly be in demand. So the Phillies will be in an awkward position of having to compete for an average starting pitcher who already plays for them. If that doesn’t epitomize the current state of baseball today I don’t know what does!

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Playoffs and Payoffs

Major League Baseball hasn’t done that many things right over the last several years but the playoff system now in place is for the most part a tremendous success. Four teams have already clinched their divisions or a playoff spot while fans in no less than seven other cities are still caught up in the excitement of potential post-season play with little more than a week remaining in the regular season.

I was among the skeptics when the system was first announced and the leagues were restructured accordingly. My chief complaint then and now is that given MLB’s insistence on playing 162 regular-season games and scheduling many of the playoff and most of the World Series games at night, the season extends too deep into October with its iffy weather. Reverting to a shorter regular season, say 154 games, would go a long way toward addressing this problem as well as any lingering issues with records and asterisks. (Ichiro seems destined to break George Sisler’s single season all-time hits record of 257 achieved in eight fewer games. I am already on the record as having said Ichiro is an extraordinary player; therefore, I am surprised the subject of asterisks occurred to me at all. But it did.)

* * * * * *

Tonight ESPN is broadcasting Hustle, a made-for-TV movie about Pete Rose directed by no less than Peter Bogdanovich. I’d sooner watch the TV listings channel. Some people portray Rose as a classic tragic figure celebrated for his many accomplishments as a player but in the end brought down by his gambling while managing the Cincinnati Reds on the very same game that brought him fame and fortune. Had he not spent fifteen years denying the charges everyone including Rose himself knew to be true, i.e., had he been caught up in the addiction not the lie, I might concur. Instead, he is merely a contemptible figure.

The most concise and compelling piece I’ve read in some time on the reasons to maintain the lifetime ban of Pete Rose from baseball can be found at Balls, Sticks, and Stuff. Tonight’s broadcast won’t change these.

* * * * * *

Note to any diehards out there: the Phillies were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs last night following another loss to the lowly Washington nee Montreal Expos.Brett Myers continued to un-impress giving up nine hits and seven runs in three innings of “work.” Myers, who now sports an ERA of 5.60 and a record of 9 – 11, will be counted on heavily next season but the club is clearly concerned about him as he takes two steps back for every one forward.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Unalloyed Pleasures

There are no unalloyed pleasures where the Phillies are concerned. Within their dramatic 10th inning win last night, completing a surprising three-game sweep of the Marlins in Florida, were a number of highs and lows befitting this mediocre season.

First the highs.

Jimmy Rollins, whose home run was the game winner last night, has established himself as one of the premiere shortstops in the National League. Rollins’ defense was never in question; his play is worthy of serious Gold Glove consideration. Where he has matured is at the plate. Rollins is becoming a more selective hitter especially when it comes to laying off high pitches, cutting down on his uppercut and swinging less for the fences. His batting average through last night is 19 points above his career average.

Chase Utley, in a rare start of late, proved once again why he belongs somewhere in the every day lineup, hitting his 13th home run in only 248 at-bats while driving in 54 runs.

Next, the mixed results.

David Bell continues to hit consistently and in the clutch. His average now stands at .299. But he also made his 22nd error of the season allowing Florida to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth.

Closer Billy Wagner achieved a rare double last night, recording a win and blown save simultaneously. There ought to be a rule against being credited with a win under those circumstances. In his defense, the run scored on Bell’s error.

Now the lows.

Vicente Padilla surrendered a two run first inning lead on the road against Josh Beckett, giving up single runs in the first and second innings before allowing the Marlins to take the lead with two runs in the third and two more in the fourth. As has been the case throughout this lost season for Padilla, one is never sure which pitcher is going to show up, the dominating one or last night’s version.

Starting pitching remains the Phillies single biggest weakness going forward.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Praise for Palmeiro

In early August I wrote a brief piece in which I said it would be very difficult to justify not voting for Rafael Palmeiro when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame. As of today Palmeiro ranks 10th on the all-time home run list with 549, having just passed Mike Schmidt, and has stroked 2913 hits to go along with his .290 lifetime average. People also forget Palmeiro was a Gold Glove fielder in his prime. Nevertheless, there will be plenty of naysayers when he finally hangs it up.

The Orioles seem determined to deny him sufficient at-bats because of a contract clause that will kick in based on number of games played. Palmeiro is signed through the end of the season with the Orioles holding an option for next year. The Orioles of my youth would never have treated someone of Palmeiro’s stature and accomplishments this way.

It will be difficult for him to pick up those 87 hits at his age, playing part-time and primarily as a DH, but here’s hoping he does. 3000 hits would make it even more difficult to deny him his due.

Experiments and Wish Lists

I’ve sung at full volume on occasion in the chorus of lamentations all season and am not about to recant (pun intended) just because the Phils won two straight games at Pro Players Stadium. The Phillies broke my heart just as much as the next fan. They entered the season with great hope and promise and proceeded to dash the former and renege on the latter. But enough expressions of grief; it’s time to look forward.

Management faces a number of difficult decisions in the coming months, not the least of which is what to do with Placido Polanco and Chase Utley. Utley has virtually disappeared since going through a torrid stretch in July, appearing only occasionally as a pinch hitter or fill-in for Jim Thome at first base. Larry Bowa figures Polanco is his starter and that starters don’t lose their jobs because of injury. I concur and would go a step further. I’d re-sign Polanco and keep him at second base.

Has anyone thought of giving Utley a trial in the outfield? Can that be any more hair-brained than sending Ryan Howard to Arizona with more than a first baseman’s mitt? Remember, Pat Burrell was drafted as a third baseman and he turned into a decent left fielder. The ideal infield next season would have Bell and Rollins on the left side and Polanco and Thome on the right. Tomas Perez would be the utility man. This alignment hinges on the outcome of the above-mentioned experiment; were it to fail, I would reluctantly agree to let Polanco go and insert Utley at second. Of course, all of this maneuvering may come to naught if Polanco decides to move on.

There are those who would argue Burrell has made a significant comeback; I am not among them. Though he is hitting nearly forty points above last season’s dismal figure with three more home runs and seventeen more rbi’s through Wednesday, Pat continues to look lost at the plate more often than not. If the Phillies feel he has made significant strides, they should consider trading him now while his value has risen. The chief obstacle to any deal will be his contract, which has four years left on it and calls for him to make $7 million in 2005.

Among current roster players Doug Glanville and Shawn Wooten will definitely be let go. Kevin Millwood, Rheal Cormier, Roberto Hernandez and Todd Jones will likely join them. Taken together they free up $16,300,000 in salaries; throw in Polanco and the figure nudges over $20 million, a total that wouldn’t buy more than a single more-or-less frontline player in today’s inflated market. Even the addition of Burrell’s salary would come with caveats; the Phils would no doubt be stuck with at least some of it even if they traded him, another factor making it likely Pat will still be here next year.

Mike Lieberthal’s late season surge has at least temporarily quieted the legions calling for his trade, but catchers at his “advanced” age have few upside years left. Still, look for Mike to be in Philadelphia next season. They simply do not have any other choice.

There isn’t enough money in the Phillies’ till or sufficient top quality hurlers available to solve all their pitching woes. Moreover, most if not all of the money that will be freed up by departures may be needed just to re-sign Eric Milton. Milton may have a high ERA and be a fly-ball, home run-prone pitcher working in a launching pad of a stadium, but he wins and he competes. Milton is certain to have many suitors and may be beyond the Phillies’ reach.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Theft of Services

The numbers are staggering: 209 walks as of yesterday, 107 of them intentional. The deliberate passes add up to more than four times those of the Phillies Jim Thome, his nearest competitor.

And it’s all outrageous.

In no other sport is a premier player denied the opportunity to ply his trade forty percent of the time. It’s one thing to use the occasional intentional walk strategically and quite another to use it as a routine matter.

The remarkable thing throughout this charade is that Barry Bonds, not the most easy going of individuals, seems resigned to this treatment. Rarely does he show disgust at this blatant attempt to deny him the chance to even swing at a pitch. Fans, on the other hand, haven’t been nearly as docile and who can blame them? How would you like to be holding tickets to see the greatest player of your day only to watch him intentionally walked two or three trips to the plate and given little or nothing to swing at the other time(s)? At home or on the road, crowds are booing any pitcher who fails to challenge Bonds.

There is no crime in defensing an opponent. Michael Jordan was double-teamed more than once in his career. So was Jerry Rice. The shift was invented to thwart Ted Williams. Surely more than one quarterback called a pass play away from Dick “Night Train” Lane’s side of the field, too. But no one made Jordan wear a flour sack for any trips up-and-down the court or had Rice tie one arm behind his back for a series of downs.

When you send your nine best guys out there you ought to be able to pitch to a batter. I can assure you Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale would have pitched to Bonds every time no matter how many fingers the manager put up or the catcher put down. I would like to have seen the catcher who’d have stood up behind the plate and held his glove out to the side with Gibson on the mound. You can be sure Gibson wouldn’t have lobbed one in his direction.

Go ahead, put a shift on if you think that will help. Heck, you can even try to get Bonds to chase something out of the strike zone. Nor would I object to the occasional intentional walk in the appropriate situation. But the refusal to pitch to him two out of every five trips to the plate is not so much prudence as theft of services.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Here's Hoping

A piece in this morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer mentions the dilemma facing the Phillies regarding what to do with hot prospect Ryan Howard. One idea being floated is to give first baseman Howard some tutelage in the outfield this Fall in the Arizona League. Great. Maybe either Greg Luzinski or Pete Incaviglia would be available to lend a hand. Depending on how fast a learner Howard proves to be, that centerfield opening might be filled from within.

Meanwhile, let’s see, who else can we root for the rest of the way?

Houston appears to be the best balanced of the teams still in the hunt for a playoff berth in the NL. They have two excellent starters, a capable closer, outstanding hitting and good defense. The Cubs are a complete mystery to me. It’s difficult to imagine them losing given their starting pitching, but a glance at the rest of their lineup hardly strikes fear in opposing teams. As for the Giants, well, they have Barry and that means anything is possible but they lack pitching aside from Jason Schmidt.

The Marlins were the team that appeared to have the best chance a mere week ago. They can pitch, hit , run and catch the ball. They don’t have the Cardinals power or gold gloves, but they have much better starting pitching and a revitalized Armando Benitez in the pen. And they know how to win…at least World Series if not divisions. But then they lost a doubleheader to Montreal and two out of three to the Braves and suddenly they were long-shots.

But fear not, Fish faithful, help is on the way. The schedule makers have provided you with hope in the shape of six games with your favorite whipping boys, the Philadelphia Phillies. The season series currently shows the Marlins holding an 11-1 lead.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Milestones and Musings

Twelve games remain to be played and some players have milestones on their minds while others must be looking around wondering where they will be at this time next year.

Among those in the first category are Bobby Abreu, who is close to hitting .300 or better for the sixth time in seven seasons with the Phils and is one homer shy of his second 30-30 season (homers-stolen bases) with the club. David Bell is hitting .297 to date, three points shy of hitting .300 for the first time over a full season in his career. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins is on the verge of setting career highs in average, homeruns, rbi’s and fielding.

Rumors the Phillies will deal catcher Mike Lieberthal during the off-season beg one small question: who is going to catch next year? Todd Pratt is a backup catcher at best and A. J. Hinch is, charitably, a journeyman now with his fourth club in seven years. Other than those two, the Phils have absolutely no one in the minors at any level who can step in. If management is planning to acquire a receiver, add one more big hole to fill to a list that already includes a centerfielder, middle reliever and starting pitcher at the very least.

Some acquisitions over the last few seasons have worked out well; others have not. And some have gnawed at us long after the harsh realities set in. Every time catcher Johnny Estrada comes to town, for example, I am reminded of how that trade backfired. Those who argue the Phils could hardly have passed up the opportunity to acquire a proven starter like Kevin Millwood in exchange for an unknown quality behind the plate ignore the fact that Lieberthal was coming off a serious injury in 2001 and though he bounced back reasonably well the next season, doubts about his health lingered and there wasn’t anyone else down on the farm except Estrada. Perhaps more significantly, Millwood wasn’t going to stay around beyond a single season but Estrada could have been the Phils’ catcher for 5 – 10 years if he remained healthy. The fact that Millwood remained for another season testifies to his mediocre overall season (a no-hitter notwithstanding) and near collapse in the final month. He stayed because no one was willing to pay him enough to leave. . . no one, that is, except the Phillies.

Another rumor has the Yankees and Cardinals interested in signing Placido Polanco. Though reports have indicated Polanco is not opposed to remaining in Philadelphia, don’t believe them. With Chase Utley ready for prime time and David Bell healthy (for the moment), why would Polanco stay here in a utility role? Look for him to return to St. Louis, which needs a starting second baseman of his caliber to complete an extraordinary infield. It also doesn’t hurt that Tony LaRussa would love to have Polanco back. That’s hardly a surprise; Polanco is a terrific ballplayer.

Rookie Ryan Howard has been impressive since his call-up September 1. The Phillies minor league player of the year has stung the ball consistently and displayed the awesome power that produced 46 home runs between AA and AAA this season. With Jim Thome locked in at first base for the foreseeable future, Howard’s path to the majors is clearly blocked, making him one of the few and certainly most valuable trade bargaining chips in the Phillies organization. This predicament concerns me because Thome has suffered a series of nagging injuries all season and has seen his production tail off significantly over the second half. Howard may be the only insurance at first base, but his trade value will in all likelihood void that policy.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Challenges Abound

The story of the Phillies 14th inning loss to the Montreal Expos Saturday night, their fifth loss in six games to a sub .500 team, could be found on page four of the Sunday Inquirer Sports section.

For all intents and purposes it might as well have been placed on the Obituary page.

At least some of the blame for this latest loss rests squarely on the shoulders of two relief pitchers, one genuine, the other an impostor. Billy Wagner, the genuine one, was unavailable to pitch last night as he served part of his two-game suspension for the tantrum he threw last Sunday against the Mets. Wagner, it can be fairly said, owes his team big time for the lousy season he’s had.

Having used all of the other available arms present (Felix Rodriguez was also absent for legitimate personal reasons), Larry Bowa was forced to press starter Brett Myers into a relief role. Myers gave up the winning run in the top of the 14th inning.

There have been rumors recently the Phillies were considering moving Myers to the bullpen next year or trading him for a centerfielder. One outing is insufficient to judge his relief capabilities though the thought here is that Myers doesn’t possess the temperament to succeed in a relief role. He simply isn’t cool under fire, a characteristic that would seem to serve relievers well. (On the other hand, Dennis Eckersley wasn’t exactly cool under fire or most other circumstances either and look where it landed him.)

Whatever role the Phillies’ brass decides best suits Myers, trading him would be a huge mistake. Kevin Millwood is likely to leave after this season. Eric Milton will be courted by at least the Yankees and Red Sox and may depart as well. Randy Wolfe will be returning from two stints on the DL. Vicente Padilla spent nearly two months on the DL this season, too. Gavin Floyd could probably stand another few months at least in AAA ball. Trading Myers, whose potential remains unlimited, would leave the Phils without a proven healthy arm at the very least. Moreover, the likely departure of pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, with whom Myers has locked horns more than once, might be very salutary for the entire staff.

If we think this dismal season has been challenging, the off-season promises to be more so.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

This is Not a Post about Football

I am reminded of Rene Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe with the words “This is not a pipe” appearing on the canvas.

This is not a post about football.

Nearly all sports fans, rabid and casual divisions included, will agree professional football has supplanted baseball as the national pastime. In Philadelphia, the buzz in anticipation of the Eagles’ opener was nothing less than extraordinary. Sold-out preseason games (including the final one in which it was announced beforehand not a single projected starter would see any action), pep rallies, and pilgrims by the thousands trekking to the team’s training facilities at Lehigh University (a two and half hour roundtrip from Philadelphia) testify to the unbridled mania that has taken hold.

Football fever reached such epidemic proportions here that even had the Phillies been in the pennant race the Eagles would still be the overwhelming choice among sports fans. (In the clearest sign yet that the Phillies season is all but officially over, the Philadelphia Inquirer has not placed game coverage on the front page of its Sports section for several days. In today’s edition a profile does appear on the first page about the Eagles' middle linebacker Mark Simoneau and focuses in its opening section on his baseball card collection. Talk about your ironies.) Meanwhile, over at the NHL, which locked out its players Wednesday night, the Flyers John LeClair was quoted as saying no one in Philadelphia would particularly miss the team given how obsessed everyone is with the Eagles. Mind you, Philadelphia is a very good hockey town by any standard. LeClair’s remark didn’t contain a hint of animosity or jealousy; he was merely stating the facts.

Against this backdrop I cannot figure out how this shift came to pass because, frankly, football is not nearly as interesting a game as baseball. (Pardon me while I remove my cap and don a helmet in anticipation of the responses I am about to receive.)

The usual explanations for football’s popularity – the appeal of its violence, the fewer number of games played, the notion there is more action – don’t convince me altogether but have some merit. Of all these, the number of home games in a regular season, eight, is the most compelling. Eight makes for a much more precious commodity than eighty-one. Still, I’d sooner believe the argument that a passion for pre-game tailgating is the pivotal reason. (I have no doubt the pre-game tailgating party replete with elaborate barbeque grill and free-flowing beverages of a questionable persuasion followed by a game of big hits makes the entire Sunday outing a special occasion for many.)

Then there is television, which has played a huge role in making football what it is today. With football tickets extremely difficult to come by, television remains the access point for an overwhelming majority of fans. Though I haven’t been to a professional football game since Johnny Unitas was in his prime, I do recall feeling the action always seemed too far away most of the time to really enjoy the game in person. Television coverage does a far better job of following the action and showing us angles, details and, of course, instant replays that would never be visible to spectators in the stands. Indeed, television is the preferred observation post for watching football. Even the rules-makers love television having incorporated replays into the game itself with official challenges and on-field reviews by the referees. The medium has also spawned its own football institutions, the most visible being the Monday Night Football phenomenon.

While television plays an important role in baseball as well, if a fan is truly interested in seeing the alignments before, during and after a pitch and the resultant realignments depending on what transpires, there is no place like a seat at the ballpark to do so. Some may prefer to see the strike zone from the normal just off dead-centerfield perspective baseball broadcasts favor but one cannot fully appreciate a stolen base, triple or outfield assist (including relay) unless they are present.

As for the relative amount of action in each sport, television again reveals a huge difference. In football, the stoppages on the field for referee times out, injuries, to move the chains, times out by coaches, change of ends, breaks between scoring and subsequent kickoffs are all transformed into endless commercial breaks. The game is chopped up into hundreds of segments. Baseball, to be sure, has its commercial breaks between innings or when there is a pitching change, but the camera stays with the game for longer stretches than in football and offers something of a flow.

The argument I hear most often concerns the amount of action in the two sports, and on the front many critics argue baseball is boring, that too much time is spent peering in for signs, stepping out of the batter’s box or the like. A parallel argument these critics make is that there is proportionally too little action in baseball for total amount of game time compared to football. Some people want the game speeded up (which baseball itself has addressed over the years); others couldn’t care how much faster the games are played; they still find it boring.

The counter offensive argues that all of the strategy and gamesmanship of baseball occurs during these intervals and that the true nuances of the game are to be found in the moments of inaction just before things happen. Nuance, of course, is not real big in our culture any longer. It went out sometime around the period when patience and tolerance were also lost.

From my perspective, the intervals in baseball promote commentary and comparisons of players in a game whose statistics and individual performances are both richer and more embedded in the collective consciousness than with football. How many people can cite the quarterback with the greatest number of TD passes (game, season or career) and the actual numbers? Beyond the magical 1000-yard rushing figure, who can name the runners who hold the records and state with certainty the exact totals? Baseball, on the other hand, has too many magical numbers to list. Let sixty, then seventy, then seventy-three home runs suffice, not to mention 700, 714 and 755.

But where baseball really stands out is in its ability to involve the fan in its strategies. The football fan looks at a baseball field and sees a lot of guys standing around who, every once and a while, break a sweat. The informed baseball fan sees much more. Take the following example: An excellent base-stealer is on first, a right-handed pull hitter is at the plate, there are less than two outs and the team at bat trails by one run in the late innings playing on the road. What do the managers do? Play for a tie on the road? Start the runner and if so on what count? Hit and run? Hold the runner? Ignore the runner altogether and concentrate on the batter? Pitch out? Is the batter a good contact hitter or is he a free-swinger? Since the second baseman is the obvious choice to cover on an attempted steal (remember, the batter is a right-handed pull hitter), can our batter be counted on to hit behind the runner? And what about the pitcher? Is he a fastball pitcher (good for the catcher, bad for the runner) or does he rely on his breaking ball (bad for catcher, good for runner)? All of these possibilities and more may not constitute action to the football enthusiast, but they create tension and expectation and will all come together simultaneously as the pitcher takes his sign from the catcher, the runner takes his lead and the batter digs in at the plate. To appreciate all these subtle actions and reactions is to revel in baseball’s peerless ability to involve the spectator in the game’s fundamental progress and outcome.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Cling No More

If anyone out there is still clinging to the Phillies’ mathematical chances please let go now if only to preserve your mental health. Losing two out of three to the lowly Cincinnati Reds has put an exclamation point on this very disappointing season.

Monday’s loss was a case of one too many rooks spoiling the broth as Gavin Floyd gave up three first-inning runs as the Phils lost 4-3. On Tuesday Cory Lidle returned to his former place of business and to his earlier form in a Phillies uniform giving up three straight walks and five runs in the first inning after being staked to a one-run lead. Nothing deflates a team faster than having their starter surrender an early lead on the road. Though the Phils climbed back and eventually tied the score thanks to Bobby Abreu’s four rbi’s and David Bell’s hometown home run, the bullpen failed to come through again and the Reds won, 7-6.

On Wednesday Brett Myers' other half (the one that doesn’t lose his cool on the mound and pitches more or less effectively) evened the whole pitcher’s record at 9-9. Pat Burrell hit his second home run of the series and David Bell continued to hit going 2-4 and creeping closer to .300 for the season.

Let the record show the countdown mercifully sits at sixteen games remaining to be played out.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

This Should Bring Rain

What have baseball’s sabermetrics gurus done for your team lately?

The current obsession may be with moneyball and abstracts, but in the end the statistical analyses underlying more and more baseball operations just aren’t adding up. Exhibit A, for instance, shows that none of the winners of the World Series over the last decade can be said to have benefited very much from the wisdom of either Billy Beane or Bill James in reaching their goal. Rather, all of them achieved their success the old fashioned way: they drafted wisely, traded shrewdly and/or outspent unabashedly to acquire premier free-agents. The vagaries of judgment and the hard cold reality of money remain the keys to ultimate success.

This season is no exception.

Precisely what theory was employed when Boston signed Curt Schilling?. What figures did the Cardinals run when they built their current offensive juggernaut? In Schilling’s case the theory was basic: he wins much more than he loses. Next. The Cards didn’t rely on anything but conventional albeit canny baseball instincts in building their team largely through trades for the likes of Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria, and Larry Walker or in the occasional astute draft choice. Cards’ GM Walt Jocketty is an acknowledged master wheeler-dealer, especially at the trade deadline. His success has more in common with poker than printouts. Rolen, it can be argued, was a colossal steal given the Phillies, his former team, were desperate and their options few. So, too, were the acquisitions of Edmonds and Renteria. (Go ahead, name the players traded for any of these players.) And that fellow named Pujols? He played his high school ball in Kansas City, MO. The Cardinals simply did their homework in their own backyard.

As for Billy Beane’s A’s, their success still depends heavily on the same three starters – Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson - they drafted several years ago. Even proponents of money ball will acknowledge statistics on high school or college players don’t figure nearly as prominently when evaluating talent at that level as they do with players already in professional ball. Too many variables. The A’s have gotten close several times, but they haven’t made it to the series yet. Indeed, their last appearances in the Fall classic pre-date Billy Beane’s tenure by a long stretch.

Beane has already been anointed a genius and Hall of Fame candidate ostensibly for being the first GM to employ statistical analysis as the primary basis for all personnel decisions while taking a small-market team with a relatively paltry payroll into the playoffs four straight years. No matter what off-field principles propelled the A’s to success on the field, however, they have never advanced beyond the first round under Beane’s guidance. If you think winning the big one doesn’t matter, quick, name the greatest team of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s based on the same criteria people apply to Beane’s Oakland teams, i.e., total number of wins and playoff appearances. Did you guess the Baltimore Orioles, who appeared in five league championship series between 1969 and 1975 and three World Series? But because they only won the ‘71 series, tarnishing an otherwise extraordinary run, relatively few people remember those tremendous Orioles teams without consulting a reference. (Fans are far more likely to remember the Oakland A’s of 1971- 1975, great teams to be sure but not necessarily better than the Orioles clubs. The A’s appeared in five straight championship series, winning three straight between 1972- 1974. As it turned out, two of their three wins were over the Orioles. In those three years they also went on to win the World Series. Billy Beane was nine years old when Oakland began their run.) Success, then, is still measured by winning the big prize, not coming in second…or third!

The latest laboratory for statistics-mania is clearly Boston where GM Theo Epstein holds forth. So committed is Epstein to this orientation he put James, the father of modern baseball statistical analysis, on the payroll. Of course the fact that he also signed Schilling and inherited Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez should not be overlooked. Nevertheless, fans of the numbers will no doubt argue that when and if the Sox make it to the top, their success will come down to so-called Billy-ball signings such as that of Bill Mueller in 2003. Mueller won the batting title last year, his first in Boston, hitting 34 points higher than his career average. This season Mueller is hitting 44 points below last year. Last season, therefore, was a statistical fluke. And flukes, as we all know, have no place in the worlds of Billy and Bill.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Margin of Error

Last night’s 4-3 loss to Cincinnati should have answered once and for all those detractors who criticized the Phillies for their unwillingness to call up Gavin Floyd earlier in the season. He still isn’t quite ready. Floyd may not have taken the loss, but he clearly lost the game in the first inning when he failed to cover first base on a ground ball hit to Jim Thome. Break for the bag, Gavin, then ask questions. They teach you that in Little League ball, which isn’t that long ago.

Floyd also failed to hold runners, allowing Ryan Freel to steal second and third and D’Angelo Jimenez to steal second, all in the first inning. TV color analyst Larry Andersen (who has developed into an astute commentator) also noted Floyd missed a sign from second baseman Placido Polanco in the same inning. Replays confirmed his analysis. Andersen described how Polanco indicated he was breaking for the bag but Floyd threw toward the plate anyway.

Floyd pitched well enough after that, scattering eight hits over six innings while striking out five and walking one, but the damage was done. This may sound strange, but the clearest indication Floyd is still too young and inexperienced can be found by reading what he had to say in Todd Zolecki’s piece in the Inquirer. He, “like”, “wished” three times and, “like”, had a “brain [cramp]” on the play at first. (Give Zolecki credit for being able to come up with a suitable synonym in his family-oriented paper!)

I am hardly arguing for the recall of Paul Abbott. The expectation here is that Floyd will eventually get it given enough time, but it’s difficult to learn on the job with the season rapidly winding down and so little room for error.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Valuable and Not

Third baseman David Bell experienced so many physical ups and downs since signing as a free agent with the Phillies two years ago, whenever his name came up it was normal to ask “where is he?”. Now, it would be more appropriate to ask “where would the Phillies be without him?”.

Since returning to the lineup August 15 after missing a week with back spasms Bell has played a very solid third base, hit .380 for the month of August and .361 through September 12, and has clearly been the Phillies most valuable player. This past weekend series with the Mets was typical of the resurgent Bell as he collected ten hits including a game-winning two run homer on Saturday as the Phillies extended their winning streak to a season-high six games.

Bell’s first season in Philadelphia was a total loss. Severe back and hip problems limited him to only 85 games during which he struggled in the field and at the plate, batting only .195. Many wondered aloud whether the four year contract he had just signed would be an albatross for the Phils. They can stop worrying. While he has missed seventeen games to date, this year nonetheless represents a complete turnaround. Bell is batting nearly forty points above his lifetime average and leads the team in hitting with runners in scoring position.

The Phillies should be so lucky to be saddled with as many clutch performers for the next two years!

Billy Wagner is back, too, but not really back. Oh, he has reappeared in the bullpen after a second trip to the DL, but he hardly appears to be the dominant closer the Phillies acquired in the off-season. Wagner has already missed seven weeks this season due to injuries.

On Saturday he came into the game to start the ninth inning and protect a 2-run lead, the second time in as many innings the Phillies had rallied to go ahead of the Mets. Wagner proceeded to give up the tying runs; then, to cap off his poor performance he imploded on the mound before getting tossed from a game for the first time in his career.

After the game, in an expletive-filled diatribe, Wagner attacked plate umpire Dana Demuth, but in truth Wagner had only himself to blame. His fastball was all over the place including apparently too tight to Cliff Floyd’s body for Demuth. After two close pitches to Floyd, up went the umpire’s thumb and out went Wagner with a blown save. The infuriated reliever ranted and raved, had to be restrained, tossed water coolers and cups onto the field and now faces another “holiday” if the league decides to suspend him.

With the Phillies finally winning some games and still mathematically in the hunt for the wildcard, Wagner’s timing couldn’t be worse or more detrimental to his team. He remains the season’s biggest disappointment.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Chills and Thrills

The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat were never meant to occur on successive nights but someone forgot to tell Jason Michaels.

One night after a spectacular circus miss-catch in which the Phillies outfielder first played an out into a double and then a home run, Michaels had an equally impressive albeit more positive evening going 4-5, driving in four runs and hitting a home run.

The Phils won both games as it turned out but Michaels didn’t feel much like a winner Thursday night unless one considers his starring role on Sports Center and every other sports show replay. It remains to be seen whether or not Michael’s extraordinary juggling act replaces that of the ill-fated ski jumper of Wide World of Sport fame, the one seen careening off the end of the runway and hurtling posterior over teacups, as the signature image of agony.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Todd Zolecki described Michael’s near-catch as an unbelievable home run people are likely to always remember. Michael’s, on the other hand, would just as soon forget it. That outcome is highly doubtful. Manager Larry Bowa likened the play to “jai alai” and assured his centerfielder he had achieved sports highlight immortality, however, dubious the honor

Friday, September 10, 2004

Good Cop Bad Cop

Break up the Phillies!

Actually, that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Their too-little, too-late doubleheader sweep of the Braves on Wednesday and another victory on Thursday must feel good right about now but it won’t change the task at hand.

At this point foremost among these is handicapping the new manager. Speculation, some of it ludicrous , has already begun. During the next few months we should be treated to a host of rumors regarding the identity of the Phillies skipper-be-named-later. The consensus seems to be the team needs a good cop this time around, the bad cop (aka Larry Bowa) having muffed his chance. Defenders of Larry, a small group growing smaller by the day, point out he took a moribund bunch and had them playing over .500 for his four years at the helm. I thought the goal was to reach the playoffs not aspire to mediocrity.

There is no secret formula to being a successful manager. Some great players, Ted Williams comes to mind, made lousy managers. On the other hand, career minor leaguers like Earl Weaver came out of nowhere and were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame. Of course it helped that Weaver had Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer and Boog Powell to help him get there and that he surrounded himself with great pitching coaches, especially George Bamberger and Ray Miller. (Lefty Mike Cuellar once said of Weaver, “All Earl knows about pitching is that he couldn’t hit it.”) Jim Leyland, Sparky Anderson and Tony LaRussa, all great managers, have one thing in common: far more success behind the bench than on it.

The divide today in selecting a manager depends less on his success or failure as a player and more on his demeanor and the perception of him as either “soft” or “hard”. In Philadelphia, recent history has seen players’ manager Terry Francona (now in Boston) dismissed for being too soft only to be replaced by Bowa, who might be adequately described as his polar opposite. Inevitably, a manager who is chummy with his players will be succeeded by one who maintains a distance. And once the tough guy wears out his welcome the peanut gallery will call for moderation and understanding.

I assume what this means for the Phillies is they are due a softer, gentler type next. Thankfully, that should rule out the return of Dallas Green.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Short on Personality

A recurring criticism of the 2004 edition of the Phillies is that the team lacks personality. Watching the Labor Day game with Atlanta I asked myself, compared to whom? The Braves? Are Chipper Jones and J.D. Drew the second comings of John Kruk and Mitch Williams? Hardly.

Atlanta has about as much personality as a dial tone yet they are still running away from the rest of their division. Personality becomes an issue only when trying to fix blame; otherwise, who cares in the long run? Put another way, lack of personality, leadership, character or whatever you want to call it are cited only when teams fail to hit, score runs, pitch effectively and catch the ball at or above some pre-determined level of expectation.

Naturally, the loudest complaints on the subject are coming from the local media; after all, what else besides good copy do they have to look forward to with this team? But they should know better. How often are they going to come across overachievement and a barrel of laughs on the same club as was the case with the ‘93 Phillies?

Even those current Phillies with, er, personality to spare are not exempt from censure. Reports have it Larry Bowa is under strict orders to curb his outbursts. If nothing else Bowa has always been good for the periodic barb or rolled eyeball. Now, even he seems to be taking his team’s collapse in stride. No overturned buffet tables; no redesigned water coolers; no yelling behind closed doors; no declarations of embarrassment.

Let’s face it, this is a team only a mother could love.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Off-Season Prospects

As if this season hasn’t been bad enough the Phillies prospects for the off-season aren’t all that encouraging either.

Word has it the Red Sox and Yankees are going to make a run at Eric Milton. Not everyone is dismayed at the prospect. The critics point to his 4.69 ERA and league-leading 38 home runs allowed while others note he has received the fifth highest run support among NL starters en route to his 13-4 record. Though Milton has been quoted as saying he likes playing in Philadelphia, one has to wonder if he will continue to view homer-friendly Citizens Bank Park as his best option. Worse, as the Phillies play out the string and face the prospect of wholesale changes, Milton may decide the future is too unsettled here. In addition, New York or Boston offer a much better chance of getting to the post-season.

The guess here is he will re-sign. Boston isn’t exactly the place fly-ball pitching left-handers go to prosper. Meanwhile, New York’s pitching staff is in such turmoil Milton may believe too much will be expected of him, especially by the ever-patient owner. While much is expected of him in Philadelphia, he already knows his role. Milton is clearly one of the staff’s leaders. He keeps his team in the game virtually every time out, has stopped several losing streaks this season, and always maintains his composure. What’s more, he wins.

Things We'd Like to See

Waiting for the season to end and for the Phillies to scatter to the four corners of the Republic we note the following:

Make that twelve straight losses to teams playing .500 or better as the Phillies, forever desultory, lose to Atlanta 3-1 on Labor Day.

In that game, despite all our admonitions, Larry Bowa handed the ball to Roberto Hernandez, who immediately proceeded to walk the first two batters he faced; and lo and behold, Bowa promptly went right back out there and took the ball away from him before things got completely out of hand. Hernandez came into the game with a 5.53 ERA. Opponents are hitting .305 against him. Now, even Bowa may finally have seen enough of Hernandez.

Speaking of things we’d like to see. . .

MLB should do us all a favor and schedule a few Mariners broadcasts as the season winds down; failing that, the least they could to is cut away to some of their games when Ichiro comes to the plate. I’d love to see more of Seattle’s right fielder, arguably the most exciting ballplayer in the game today other than Barry Bonds.

Ichiro’s pursuit of George Sisler’s single-season hits record (257) is exciting in its own right but the way the Mariner’s right fielder goes about it is the real wonder to behold. No one in the game today combines his extraordinary bat control and overall speed. He is just as likely to beat out an infield hit or drop a bunt as he is to hit a line drive single or double. Whenever he comes up to bat the defense tenses. He is a disruptive force who single-handedly changes the complexion of a game. Anything can happen. The atmosphere is electric.

Moreover, Ichiro is just as likely to affect a game with his defense. Few players run on him; even fewer third base coaches are inclined to take a chance on a ball hit to him. And his range and ability to go back on a ball are comparable to those of most center fielders currently playing.

Difficult as it is to believe, there are still those who denigrate Ichiro’s accomplishments noting that his OBP is not among the league leaders due to his low bases-on-balls total. Poor Ichiro. He simply puts the ball in play. Still others point to his 54 rbi’s and 8 home runs and insist these totals are too low for a position where power production is expected.

I’d like to saddle the Phillies with such “feeble” numbers and effort.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Do Not Call

Brett Meyers’ other half showed up yesterday and the Phils completed a sweep of the lowly New York Mets marking their third sweep in as many series against sub-500 teams. They visit Atlanta today and will make yet another attempt to prove they can compete with teams playing over .500. Recent history is not encouraging; the Phillies have lost eleven straight games to teams playing above that level.

Yesterday’s game also marked the most recent return from the DL of closer Billy Wagner, who instead pitched the 8th inning as Larry Bowa hedged his bets on how effective Wagner would be after this latest layoff. Todd Worrell pitched the ninth for his 17th save. Bowa has not normally been so astute in his handling of pitchers.

Speaking of Bowa, in today’s Phildelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford comes down firmly on the side of the beleaguered manager, whom he sees as the victim of a bunch of complainers unwilling to assume responsibility for their own failures. In his if-you-can’t stand-the-heat harangue Ford exonerates the manager and scolds GM Ed Wade and the crybabies in the dugout. “As a group, the Phillies are thin-skinned, petulant and so sure of their greatness that their failures must certainly be attributable to something else - like the pressure of playing for mean old Larry Bowa. That's the story they tell their nannies before getting tucked in, anyway.”

We can expect much more finger-pointing and recriminations as the season mercifully winds down.

I am not about to get misty-eyed over Bowa, but it is worth noting that after approximately 40 years in professional baseball he is likely to become unemployable at the end of this season. No one in his right mind would hire him to manage again (though there are surely some candidates in their wrong minds who might think about it) and I doubt coaching at third is an option for him any longer. Thus, Bowa will enter that fraternity of ex-managers who have failed at two posts. Years ago, Roger Angell wrote that one of the qualifications for being hired to manage a baseball team is to have failed at the same post somewhere else. With the notable exception of Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner, however, more than one failure (on or off the field) normally relegates a candidate to that special do not call list.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Finally, Some Things to Cheer About

Finally, some things to cheer about in this otherwise lost season. Heralded rookie Gavin Floyd won his major league debut Friday night; on Saturday much-maligned (including by this observer) Cory Lidle pitched his second consecutive shutout; and the Phillies proved they could beat a team other than one named the Brewers by taking two straight from the Mets.

Floyd pitched well, going seven innings and allowing one run on four hits. At times his curveball buckled the knees of some seasoned veterans prompting awe from his teammates. Lest we forget, many Phillies pitchers including Brett Myers, also won their major league debuts in impressive fashion, so while I am as excited as the next fan, speak to me after Floyd has made a few trips around the league.

One other cautionary note as I watched him pitch. Floyd’s delivery is somewhat awkward. It seems to me he derives his power largely from the arm and shoulder rather than drawing equally from his legs and upper body. That way lies arm trouble, a misfortune too many Phils pitchers have suffered of late. It remains to be seen whether or not Floyd’s mechanics will betray him, too, but for now he is off to a very good start.

Lidle has forced me to stock up on far more crow than I anticipated after his first few outings in a Phillies uniform. At the moment he looks like Cy Young on a staff desperate for innings, quality or not, from its starters. On top of his pitching, Lidle is also driving in runs in each of his last two games. Last week he homered; last night he hit a three-run double. The guy eats innings and hits, too! Make room on the bandwagon.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Ed Wade to Stay. Fans Likely to Stay Away

Sam Carchidi has an excellent piece on GM Ed Wade’s status and track record in this morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer. I’d forgotten some of the disastrous trades he’s made over the last several years. If principal owner David Montgomery continues to stand by Wade, fans are likely to stay away next season when the novelty of a new ballpark won’t be enough to induce a family of four to spend $125 or more for the dubious pleasures that will surely await them.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

The 700 Club

An interesting box appeared in the September 2, 2004, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer Sports Pages. Entitled Countdown to 700 the box focused in on Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Bath Ruth and Hank Aaron. What was interesting to me were the following statistics:

Hank Aaron: 755 Home Runs in 3298 games
Bath Ruth: 714 Home Runs in 2503 games
Barry Bonds: 696 Home Runs and counting in 2688 games.

Comparisons are inevitable but. . .

Ruth never had to face relief specialists of the modern ilk. He also probably played at least a few seasons with a rabbit ball. Ruth played all of his games during the day when heat and fatigue must have occasionally made some impact, especially on players wearing flannel uniforms. Finally, he stroked some of his home runs in the band boxes of the time. He did all of this in 795 fewer games than Aaron.

Aaron, on the other hand, played in the dawning era of relief specialists, arguably a tougher task than his predecessors. He also had to travel through more time zones, including from coast to coast, sometimes playing a game after arriving at his hotel at 2 or 3AM the morning before. Aaron had to constantly switch between night and day games in an era where the starting times were likely to be more evenly distributed between the two than they are today. And above all, as Aaron closed in on Ruth’s hallowed record, he faced enormous social pressures unseen since Jackie Robinson’s debut. Death threats and open racism were thrust upon him constantly. It was bad enough to face Koufax, Drysdale, Gibson and the like without worrying what some kook in the stands might do.

Bonds has seen even greater relief specialization than either of his predecessors with middle, set-up and closer roles more clearly defined during his career. Thus, he was always facing a fresh arm coming at him from a new angle. On the other hand, the quality of big league pitching, certainly in Aaron’s era if not Ruth’s, was uniformly better than that which Bonds sees today, at least when he sees it at all. Bonds has been walked intentionally far more than either Aaron or Ruth.

It would be hard to say who has received more scrutiny. Certainly Ruth played in the biggest media market of them all and was a national celebrity. He loved the spotlight. Aaron spent his career in the relative obscurity of Milwaukee and the Atlanta of several decades ago. He did not appear to like attention. Bonds, as we all know, is on nationwide television constantly to say nothing of the internet and can be downright hostile to the press at times.

In the end, comparisons are nearly impossible from era to era let alone across several, but they are made anyway. In this case, the differences in the number of games it took each player to achieve his mark are striking to this fan.

GM's and Managers To Be

When the Phillies owners finally face reality and begin casting about for a new GM, they needn’t look any further than their own Mike Arbuckle, Asst. General Manager and Director of Scouting and Player Development. And they’d better not tarry. Arbuckle, widely respected throughout baseball, was seriously considered for the GM position in Boston last year before the Red Sox chose Theo Epstein. As they say on draft day, he isn’t likely to be on the board by the second round.

Despite his Assistant GM title Arbuckle should not necessarily be tarred with the same brush as his boss, GM and trader far-from-extraordinaire Ed Wade, when accounts are settled at the end of the current dismal season. While one would assume Arbuckle was consulted on the disastrous trades Wade engineered over the last few months (Todd Jones and Cory Lydle in particular) it doesn’t necessarily follow he would have made them himself.

Indeed, Arbuckle appears to be a far better judge of talent than his superiors. He is widely credited with having revitalized the Phillies woefully depleted farm system after taking over as scouting director in 1992. As chief overseer of the drafts, Arbuckle’s record has been impressive. Among those chosen during his tenure were J.D. Drew, Scott Rolen, Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Randy Wolf, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd. Neither the decision to draft Drew, admittedly risky with his agent Scott Boras insisting beforehand his client would never sign with the Phils, nor the departure of Rolen after several apparently unhappy years in Philadelphia should be laid at Arbuckle’s feet.

The rest of Arbuckle’s choices have formed the nucleus of the current team, picked by many to contend for the division title prior to this season; and until Wade began an almost wholesale trading of prospects for questionable pitching help, the farm system assembled by Arbuckle and his staff was still reasonably well regarded. Now it is nearly empty behind Coles, Hamel and Ryan Howard.

A shrewd GM can make a tremendous difference in building and managing a farm system, assembling the big league team and in maintaining the right chemistry on that club. Given the responsibility, the judgment here is Arbuckle is up to these tasks.

* * * * * * * *

Former Phillies third baseman and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt was coaxed out of retirement to manage the Phillies Single-A Clearwater Thrashers this season. From all accounts he didn’t enjoy the work. By his own admission he lost money doing it instead of other lucrative baseball-related activities. Inquirer columnist Jim Salisbury quotes Schmidt as saying "’I can't devote my life to my job. I need freedom to say 'yes' if someone wants me to speak in Los Angeles and the fee is attractive. People might think this is the wrong thing to say, but it's been tough for me to take this job financially. I've given up a lot of appearance income. I couldn't take this job again. I need to be out earning.’”

In the same column Schmidt did leave the door ajar somewhat should he ever receive a call from some major league club regarding a managerial opening. “'If I got a call in the off-season from someone interested in talking to me about a major-league job, I'd have to think long and hard about it. I think I could do it, and do a hell of a job. But that's all I'm going to say.'"

My advice to Schmidt is to forget about managing altogether, especially the Philadelphia opening that looms. He would never be comfortable with the demands in the clubhouse, from players or the media, nor would he long tolerate the heat from the fans. On numerous occasions he didn’t handle these pressures all that well as a player. True, he produced numbers that landed him in the Hall on the first ballot and recognition as perhaps the greatest all-around third baseman in history, but he rode quite an emotional rollercoster getting there. He would like the pressure even less as a manager, especially with the current underachieving bunch at his disposal. Take the fee in LA, Mike. Every time.

* * * * * * * *

In last night’s 7-2 loss to Atlanta, Vicente Padilla’s performance once again underscored the profound problems within the Phillies pitching staff. Larry Bowa was quoted in this morning’s Inquirer as saying Padilla loses his concentration once he gets into trouble; on the other hand, catcher Mike Lieberthal said in the same article he didn’t notice anything unusual on that front, at least not last night. One batter in particular highlights the problem but fails to identify the source. With two men on base (a hit and a hit batter), Padilla hung a curve to pitcher Jared Wright, who singled in a run. TV analyst Larry Andersen immediately and correctly wondered aloud what a pitcher with a fastball in the mid-90’s was doing hanging a curve to his opposite number. The larger question remains: who called the pitch? Bowa? Lieberthal? Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan? And why didn’t Padilla shake it off? Isn’t anyone thinking out there?