Friday, October 29, 2004

Some Perspective

Let’s get something straight. The World Series just concluded wasn’t even in the top 50 all-time for excitement or suspense unless you live somewhere near the Mass Pike. I’m happy for the long suffering (and insufferable) Boston fans, but I am not about to lose all sense of perspective in the process. Ask yourself this: Will I sleep more soundly at night now knowing the Red Sox have finally won? Was this Series even half as good as the 1975 Series between the Sox and the Reds?

The Series was no contest largely because St. Louis’ vaunted offense completely and collectively disappeared at the same time. And before you say “Curt, Pedro, Derek and Keith” I want to assure you I am just as prepared as the next person to acknowledge Boston’s pitching was terrific, but the Cards helped them out by flailing away at pitches out of the zone, making catastrophic base-running mistakes and generally leaving their A game somewhere near Scituate, Mass, or Joplin, MO.

So, hats off to the Sox. Condolences to the Cards. Next.

* * * * * *

While the beatification of Curt Schilling continues unabated in most quarters, his eminence manages to make an ass of himself every time he opens his mouth. Appearing on Good Morning, America, Schilling managed to sign off and catch his host Charlie Gibson off-guard by sneaking in a comment urging everyone tuned in not to forget to vote. . . for George Bush. It wasn’t his partisan politics that necessarily bothered his host; it was the way he expressed them. Curt can’t help himself. Whenever he sees that red light on he forgets his manners and assumes the camera only has eyes for him.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Good Gracious

It’s finally over. Not the Series; that couldn’t have concluded any faster. No, I’m speaking of The Curse. And not a moment too soon. Now we can move on from 1918, The Bambino and all the other nonsense. It’s all really very tiresome. Utter relief and utter disbelief are the two sides of this year’s World Series commemorative coin.

The Boston Red Sox have concluded one of the more remarkable runs in the history of post-season baseball, first winning a record-breaking four straight games from their hated rivals the New York Yankees to overcome a 3 – 0 deficit and then sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.

The Series itself wasn’t noteworthy overall if for no other reason than the failure of the Cardinals to show up. The St. Louis faithful must be stunned their team, winners of 105 games during the regular season and eight more in the post season, couldn’t muster a single win against Boston, including two losses at home. The Cardinals’ explosive offense never got untracked, especially Scott Rolen, who went hitless for the Series. The players almost certainly realize some if not all of them may never get another chance to play in a Series. For those who mull this sort of thing the Cardinals’ untimely futility must be particularly painful. For manager Tony LaRussa this latest defeat must surely rank among his most bitter. Appearing in his fourth World Series (three straight with the Oakland A’s between 1988 – 1990) , LaRussa has now lost three of them. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him pick up his chips and retire to California.

Boston’s pitching was simply too much for the Cardinals. Except for the game one 11 – 9 slugfest, Red Sox pitchers allowed three runs in the final three games including last night’s shutout. Pedro Martinez lifted his own “curse” by coming through in a big game. Derek Lowe erased most of the memories of a difficult season by pitching masterfully in the clincher. And then, of course, there was Curt Schilling, everyman’s hero, who pitched his team to victory in game two despite a painful ankle injury.

If Curt had stopped there his legacy from this Series would have played as well in Philadelphia as in Boston, but Schilling, who usually opens his mouth to change feet, was true to form following last night’s victory, praising manager Terry Francona while excoriating everyone in Philadelphia for mistreating Francona when he managed here and for not knowing "crap about baseball" or anything else for that matter.

Schilling has never been gracious in defeat. He repeatedly placed a towel over the his head during a 1993 World Series defeat in a game between the Phillies and Blue Jays, refusing to watch and thereby simultaneously showing up and infuriating his teammates. It’s clear Curt isn’t particularly gracious in victory either.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Stay There

Jim Leyland.

From out of nowhere and, if the rumors are to be believed (a very big “if”), suddenly the presumed frontrunner for the managerial vacancy in Philadelphia. Let us put Leyland’s record into perspective. He has an overall losing record in fourteen seasons of managing. His great successes came with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where his teams finished first three successive seasons (1990-1992), and with the Miami Rent-A-Championship-Team Marlins, World Series winners in 1997. The next season, when the rent came due, he was 54-108 with the Marlins.

I would take an unknown such as Terry Pendleton or John Russell over a guy who admitted to being burned out when he left the bench after the 1999 season as manager of the Colorado Rockies (where he also had a losing record).

For the last four years Leyland has been a scout for the Cardinals. He should stay there. Who knows, sooner or later there might be an opening there as well.

History Lessons

If recent to say nothing of past history offers us any guidance the St. Louis Cardinals appear to have the Boston Red Sox right where they want them. But if perchance the Red Sox decide to break with tradition and prevail in this World Series there are a few possible explanations.

First, the fundamental maxim of all championships: the best team doesn’t always win. Second, anything can happen in a short series. And third, good pitching beats good hitting, which suggests that this year at least the best team is indeed winning.

No one can match the contemporary version of murderers row the Cardinals throw at that their opponents. Walker, Pujols, Rolen, Edmond. Not an easy out among them with Pujols arguably the best hitter in baseball. But starting pitching is another matter. It isn’t that St. Louis lacks quality starters, it’s just that they lack dominating ones.

The Red Sox aren’t exactly chopped liver when it comes to hitting, but there’s no doubt what has separated them from the Cardinals thus far has been the duo of Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. Red Sox pitching in general has shut down the heart of the St. Louis offense, most notably Scott Rolen. If Derek Lowe can approach the stuff he had last season, the Sox are in good position to close out the series tonight. And a return to form by Lowe couldn’t come too soon given the strong possibility that the ailing Schilling is done for the season.

The series has entered Yogi Berra territory but the good citizens of Red Sox Nation are clearing their throats in anticipation of some serious shouting.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Something New, Something Old

Random thoughts while awaiting the final disposition of curses.

The Inquirer’s Jim Salisbury has a very interesting piece in today’s edition on the degree of preparation the Red Sox bring to the game of baseball. According to Salisbury the Red Sox “… bring to each game a level of behind-the-scenes, off-field preparation that is usually reserved for the NFL.”

Boston GM Theo Epstein’s commitment to sabermetrics is well known. He isn’t exactly a skinflint, either, as the Red Sox $125 million payroll will attest. But as any investor will tell you, past experience does not necessarily guarantee future results. On or off the field, you still have to execute.

* * * * * *

Two items of note on the otherwise quiet baseball front in Philadelphia.

The Phils re-signed all-purpose shaving cream pie thrower Tomas Perez to a two year contract. Don’t be misled by Tomas’ meager .216 batting average or antics; this is a valuable guy. He can play any infield position well and brings an intensity and spirit to an otherwise bland clubhouse. The signing of Perez no doubt spells the end of Placido Polanco’s career in Philadelphia. His likely departure has long been anticipated in this space and, frankly, represents yet another mistake by the Phillies’ management. Without him, Perez becomes the oft-injured David Bell’s lone health insurance premium, and much as I admire Tomas, he isn’t Polanco. Placido, for his part, will land on his feet; players who hit and field at his level are in short supply.

The Phillies continue the process of looking for a manager. The final round of interviews for a new skipper began Monday with Buddy Bell and were to conclude Thursday with Terry Pendleton. In today’s Inquirer there was speculation an eighth candidate would be interviewed. At this stage it is difficult to determine how the Phillies’ management are leaning. Naturally, everyone interviewed thus far has been “a great baseball man.” The guess here is that Terry Pendleton or John Russell will get the nod. They represent the only chance at a fresh start, something the Phillies desperately need.

Pendleton gets rave reviews from no less an authority than Bobby Cox and that sort of endorsement is difficult to overlook given the Braves’ record for more than a decade, especially last season when nearly everyone was predicting their relative demise following an off-season of major personnel changes. Pendleton has been the Braves’ hitting coach for the last three seasons.

* * * * * *

Willie Randolph, long rumored to be in line for a manager’s job, was interviewed by the New York Mets yesterday and had this to say, “"I'm a winner. I know about winning. That's what you have to rely on. It's not rocket science."

It will be interesting to see in an age that leans towards videotape, laptops and statistical analysis (see Salisbury article referenced above) whether this “old school” approach will cut it in today’s world. Interestingly, the Salisbury article quotes Boston’s Terry Francona, a convert of sorts to the new approach, as saying "I'm not saying this is the right way or the wrong way. But it works for us. I don't think the Braves even have a video guy on the road. Bobby Cox has a computer in his head. He's a genius. He doesn't need a video guy."

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Long and Short of It

Thus far this World Series hardly boasts the ingredients of a classic but the Boston faithful aren’t complaining. Their Sox have taken a two games to none lead as the series moves to St. Louis.

Two games may not constitute much of a sample, but they represent nearly 30% of the remainder of the 2004 season. Boston has performed pretty much according to form in them, combining good offense with suspect defense, great starting pitching when Curt Schilling can go, a bullpen by committee and closer Keith Foulke. Moreover, Boston can’t feel too concerned that their game three starter will be Pedro Martinez.

St. Louis, on the other hand, bears only passing resemblance to the juggernaut that won 105 games in the regular season. Their number three, four and five hitters (Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds) are a combined four for twenty-three with one RBI, and Pujols represents 75 percent of those hits.

We needn’t look too far back in time to realize a two game lead doesn’t mean as much as it might have in the past and we will resist any temptation to invoke the more distant history of one of these contestants. Momentum in a seven game series can swing from game to game and if the Cardinals take the opener in St. Louis the complexion of the series will surely change. For their part the Red Sox have to tighten the defense, having made eight errors in the first two games and gotten away with it. No one needs to remind Boston that it can’t continue to give an explosive team like St. Louis extra outs.

The solution for St. Louis is simple. Start hitting like they did during the regular season and everything else will take care of itself. The trick is not to wait too long.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Last Man Standing Often Small in Stature

A contest between the two highest scoring teams in their respective leagues was bound to produce the kind of slugfest we saw in the World Series opener Saturday night. Less expected were some of the players doing all that slugging. We shouldn’t be surprised that Boston’s David Ortiz continued his torrid pace as did the Cardinals’ Larry Walker. But Mark Belhorn? Home runs in three straight games?

The post season inevitably brings out the best in some player who is normally more likely to blend into the background than audition for the role of Mr. October. Don Larsen of the ’56 Yankees; Bill Mazeroski of the ‘60 Pirates; Don Clendenon of the ‘69 Mets; Gene Tenace of the ‘72 A’s; Bucky Dent of the ‘78 Yankees. The list is long.

Anything can and does happen in a short series including improbable catches, home runs and pitching dominance. Steve Blass of the Pittsburgh Pirates was certainly a good pitcher going into the 1971 World Series against the mighty Orioles but he wasn’t going to be confused with Bob Gibson. In that series, however, he was overwhelming, pitching two complete-game victories while limiting the O’s to seven hits over eighteen innings. The following season Blass was 19 – 8 with a 2.49 ERA. The next season he was 3 – 9 with a 9.85 ERA. Suddenly and inexplicably Blass couldn’t find the strike zone and by the end of the following season at age 32 he was out of baseball. In all his career lasted ten years, but the final two were dismal.

In this current installment of the Series we are likely to see fireworks from Manny Ramirez and Albert Pujols among other marquee sluggers but we can also expect the Mark Belhorns to have their moments in the spotlight. History is on their side, too.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Curses, Foiled Again!

Brace yourselves. In the next few days we can expect to hear a lot about how Red Sox second baseman Johnny Pesky held the relay throw too long in the seventh game of the 1946 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals allowing the Cards’ Enos Slaughter to score the winning run all the way from first base on a double by Harry Walker.

Or maybe you would prefer the countless retellings no doubt in store for us about the remarkable pitching of Bob Gibson and Jim Lonborg in the 1967 Series, also won by the Cards in seven games. Going into their final game match-up Gibson and Lonborg were both 2 – 0 in the series. Gibson had given up four hits in eighteen innings and Lonborg had yielded one lone run and four hits, also in eighteen frames. Gibson won the decisive game easily, 7-2.

So you see, despite Wednesday night’s comeback for the ages by the Red Sox, not all of the demons and curses have been exorcised. Boston and St. Louis have a history, too, maybe not as steeped in lore and loathing as the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry, but just as one-sided.

The Cardinals’ triumph in game seven of the NLCS was expected in this quarter. Roger Clemens took the mound for the Astros and though he pitched decently, the 42-year old hurler has never been the dominant force in the post-season he has been in the regular season. All that aside, the Cardinals simply have too much fire power to keep down. As usual Albert Pujols got the offense rolling but it was Scott Rolen, grim-faced as always, who put the Cardinals ahead to stay with a two-run first pitch shot off of Clemens in the sixth. Rolen stroked the ball over the fence, put his head down and literally sprinted around the base path. There ain’t no standing around and admiring his handiwork for this strapping lad from Jaspar, Indiana.

What nearly everyone tends to forget about this St. Louis team is that they have a lot of guys who can really catch the ball. Last night after Craig Biggio led off the game with a home run, six-time Gold Glover Jim Edmonds literally cut off a potential huge second inning for the Astros with a spectacular diving catch with two men aboard. Edmonds was shaded toward right center when he got on his horse and made the catch running full tilt toward the alley in left center.

This combination of an explosive offense, spectacular fielding and good if unremarkable starting pitching is a combination that will prove too difficult for Boston to overcome. Sorry, Red Sox Nation, the curse will endure.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Drama All Around

Give that team a cigar. Indeed, give them a lifetime supply. For Red Sox fans it almost doesn’t get any sweeter than this. Four more wins and the curse will be exorcised. Four more wins and Red Sox nation will have to find something else to obsess about. Four more wins and the nectar will flow.

To have come back from the dead and take the American League pennant in game seven in Yankee Stadium soothes a lot of long-standing wounds and some recent ones. The battle to sign Alex Rodriguez pales now in comparison to the signing of Curt Schilling. After all, it was Schilling, wounded and stitched, who saved the season with his brilliant outing in game six. It was Schilling who more than anyone refused to abandon hope when the Yankees held a commanding 3 – 0 lead in the ALCS. And it will be Schilling whom the Sox will depend on heavily once or twice more as they try to erase 86 years of frustration.

The other hero on the Red Sox roster and the series MVP was David Ortiz. Not only did he produce dramatic back-to-back game winning walk-off hits in extra innings in games four and five, he did so in less than twenty-four hours, surely a major league record. And his two run homer in the first inning of game seven gave the Sox a lead which they never relinquished.

Over in the National League the Astros and Cardinals will conclude their seven-game series tonight. While it may not have received as much attention as the American League series, the NLCS has been just as tense and riveting.

Yesterday the Astros broke out to a first inning lead only to see it disappear on the wings of another Albert Pujols home run in the bottom of the inning. The Cardinals seemed poised to slug their way into the World Series, but the Astros refused to succumb. Jeff Bagwell’s rbi single in the top of the ninth tied the game at four apiece and Houston reliever Brad Lidge, my candidate for series MVP, held the Cardinals hitless over three innings before Dan Miceli surrendered a two run walk-off home run to Jim Edmonds in the bottom of the twelfth.

Tonight’s finale will feature Roger Clemens against Jeff Suppan. The Astros may not have 86 years of frustration and ghosts to erase this evening, but they have never been to the series in their 43 year history and sentiment if not the odds will clearly be on their side.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Of Closeness and Cigars

The celebrated line separating close from cigar has come into high-definition focus as the league championship series wind down.

For Boston the chance to take a puff or two seemed completely out of reach a mere three days ago. Down 3 – 0 to the Yankees, the Red Sox have already defied gravity by evening the series. No team has ever come back from a 3 – 0 deficit, but if the Sox win tonight in game seven one might be tempted to say the curse has been lifted and the cigars will readied even though this is just the league championship. Boston’s already-insufferable fans will be impossible to live with if they pull off this feat.

There are always two sides to ignominy, of course, and the Yankees are staring one of them straight in the eye. Forget the stogies, a loss in game seven wouldn’t qualify as close, especially not in George Steinbrenner’s mind. New York must be less concerned now with making it to the Series than with saving face.

The NLCS has two games remaining, but our legendary line will be uppermost in the contestants’ minds this afternoon nonetheless. Houston leads the series 3 – 2 with game six scheduled for St. Louis. If the Astros win, it will mark their first appearance ever in a World Series and cap off a remarkable year during which they came back from the dead twice, once in the regular season and again in these playoffs. If they lose, there is literally tomorrow. As has been the case since the first round of this year’s playoffs, the Astros pitching rotation and match-ups remain the chief topic of conversation. Manager Phil Garner must make it to the World Series or face the prospect of answering questions about his decisions long into next year at the very least.

If the Cardinals win everyone will say they were supposed to. If they lose, their wonderful season of 105 wins, second most in franchise history, will have been largely for naught and few if any people will recall how they coasted into this post-season. A loss in either game six or seven will also mark yet another frustrating year for manager Tony LaRussa, an almost perennial visitor to the close/cigar line. I must admit I don’t find the prospect of his losing all that disturbing given the air of arrogance he projects.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Mission Control

The baseball gods have provided us with two taut series for our rooting pleasure, or one and a half if, like me, you haven’t been able to stay up late enough to watch the Yankees and Red Sox conclude their last two games.

Throughout New England and New York this morning a lot of people will be arriving late to work in no particular shape to perform their jobs properly. Fortunately, their bosses will be in the same condition and won’t notice or can’t.

Only a few days ago it appeared New York would sweep the Red Sox and sit back to await the survivor of the NLCS, but Boston’s David Ortiz refuses to begin his off-season just yet. For the second night in a row he ended a veritable marathon with a game-winning hit. Sunday night’s game lasted over five hours and went twelve innings; last night’s game concluded just shy of six hours and ended in the fourteenth inning. As the series moves back to New York with the Yankees leading 3-2 the momentum not to mention pressure all of a sudden has shifted.

Meanwhile, deep in the heart of Texas and throughout the Heartland the local populace may be slightly more rested than their brethren in the Northeast but their collective nerves must be a tad frayed.

Houston’s Brandon Backe, a converted outfielder, pitched the game of his life last night, limiting the mighty Cardinals lineup to one lone hit over eight innings. St. Louis starter Woody Williams matched Backe’s effort pitch for pitch, yielding a single hit as well over seven innings. In the end the game came down to a battle of bullpens and once again the Astros’ Brad Lidge was superb while the Cards’ Jason Isringhausen was not, serving up Jeff Kent’s walk-off three-run homer. The difference between the first two games in St. Louis and the three games just completed in Houston is that the Astros were finally able to hand the ball to Lidge, who appeared in his third straight game. As the series shifts to St. Louis the Cardinals are feeling all the pressure while the Astros, who prior to this year had never advanced to the second round of a playoff series in their history, are one game away from the World Series. If they make it all the way, one of the subplots everyone is eager to see, Roger Clemens facing either one of his former teams, will take place.

It would be hard to bet against the Cardinals, whose lineup can and does explode at any moment, but Houston has the look of a team on a mission.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Not Ready for Prime Time

The NLCS has turned into an exciting series. Yesterday’s comeback win by Houston was a tense nail-biter that evened the series at two games apiece. Astros starter Roy Oswalt didn’t have his best stuff but he had Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman and Brad Lidge. Still, they had to survive an Albert Pujols drive to the warning track with one on in the ninth to hang on. St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa always wears a worried look, but I couldn’t help noticing in the cutaway shots to him during the game he looked more concerned than usual. St. Louis knows it is in a fight now. Tonight’s winner will go on to take the series.

Speaking of Pujols, other than Barry Bonds, he has become the most feared hitter in baseball. If anyone has discovered a hole in his swing please post it immediately on the web. He swings at virtually everything and hits it hard. Walk him and you still have to face Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Edgar Renteria in succession.

It is worth digressing from the post-season to look at the Phillies lineup in comparison to the two teams playing for the right to represent the National League in the World Series.

Before Albert Pujols arrives at the plate for the Cards, pitchers must face Tony Womack and Larry Walker. That makes six straight batters with averages above .280, four of whom hit over .300 for the year. Their overall power statistics are second to none in either league. Houston can throw Craig Biggio at you followed after a platoon spot in the order by Carlos Beltran, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent. The Phils, by comparison, counter with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome, David Bell, a platoon position in center field, Pat Burrell, and Mike Lieberthal. The top four or five batters in the Phillies lineup match-up fairly well with Houston but fare poorly against the Cardinals’ lineup, a comparison by which every team in baseball would currently suffer. Surprisingly, the most troubling spot in the Phils’ lineup over the second half of 2004 was clean-up, where Jim Thome’s hitting with runners in scoring position was poor throughout the second half of the season and his overall decline in production during the same period was dramatic. (Reports out of the Arizona Fall League suggest the Phillies seem more likely than ever to trade Ryan Howard, a move that will come back to haunt them in a few years.) After Thome’s and Bell’s spots the drop-off is precipitous or, in the case of Pat Burrell, unpredictable.

Turning to pitching the comparisons are even more unfavorable for the Phillies. Houston, of course, has Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and, when healthy, Andy Pettite. And while no one among St. Louis’ starters is a world-beater, four of the five won fifteen games or more. Eric Milton led the Phillies with fourteen wins; after him the drop-off was, again, precipitous. No one team seems to have a great advantage in the bullpen.

The conclusion is clear: the Phillies are not ready for prime time. They are a decent offensive club that catches the ball well, but they remain at least one or two position players and two starters away from contending for a pennant.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

“Spahn and Sain and Two Days of Rain”


The ALCS has turned into a huge disappointment. Could it have been otherwise? After all, this isn’t Armageddon despite attempts to portray it so. In the end it’s really just a series between a team nearly everyone across the country likes to hate and another team whose 86 years of futility doesn’t resonate with fans outside New England. All that’s left now is for the Red Sox to avoid an embarrassing sweep or stage the most astonishing comeback in the history of sport.

Yesterday’s slaughter and the Yankees’ commanding 3-0 lead in the series didn’t exactly erase any doubts about the New York’s starting pitching. Kevin Brown looked like the up-and-down pitcher he’s always been and Javier Vasquez didn’t acquit himself any better though the box score will show he got the win. Yankee pitching has given up sixteen runs in three games, hardly world-beating numbers but apparently of likely World Series potential thanks to their offense.

The NLCS has been the more interesting series by far on every level. Going into the series the Cardinals were well-rested while Houston staggered across the finish line, its starting pitching match-ups in complete disarray. Astros manager Phil Garner’s well-documented mismanagement of his rotation was completely unjustified as I said a week ago. How else was he supposed to win against Atlanta? Hold back Clemens or Oswalt? And though they lost the first two games in St. Louis, the Astros were in a position to win both games.

Back in their own friendly confines, if that can be said of a retro park named Minute Maid, Houston trotted out 42-year Cy Young candidate Roger Clemens, who pitched one of the biggest games of his extraordinary career leading the Astros to a 5-2 victory. Equally important, the Astros were finally able to hand a game over to closer Brad Lidge for the first time in the series and he responded with two innings of one-hit ball. Today, Roy Oswalt tries to even the series; if Houston wins, more than a few people will be watching the weather forecast for St. Louis and working on some variation of “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain.”

Friday, October 15, 2004

Too Little Late

Before the start of the NLCS most observers gave Houston little chance of stemming the St. Louis tide. Astros manager Phil Garner, justifiably given so much credit for taking over the helm at mid-season and bringing his team back from the dead, was roundly criticized in every corner for setting up his pitching rotation so poorly in the preceding series against Atlanta there was no way the Astros could beat the Cardinals. And sure enough, St. Louis has had too much offense for the Astros in the first two games, but not because of starting pitching.

The big disappointment thus far has been the failure of Houston’s bullpen, not its starters. In each of the first two games Houston jumped out to a lead only to see its bullpen surrender it to the Cards’ heavy hitters. Brandon Backe and Pete Munro, the Astros’ third and fourth starters, pitched decently but nearly everyone who followed did not. And because they trailed late, the Astros never could get to their best reliever, Brad Lidge. So after an off-day the series moves to Houston where the Astros will depend on their number one and two starters, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, to even things up. If the series goes to a sixth and seventh game the Astros and Garner will again be in deep trouble. One can only wonder what might have been if Andy Pettite were healthy.

Reasonable or not, most of the nation’s baseball attention has focused on the Yankees-Red Sox series, which moves to Boston with the Yanks holding a 2 – 0 lead. In the first two games the Red Sox hardly resembled the team that had the best overall record in baseball from August 1 on. Manny Ramirez doesn’t have an RBI. Johnny Damon doesn’t have a hit. And the most troubling development is that Curt Schilling doesn’t have his health. Schilling injured his ankle in the first round of the playoffs and was limited to his shortest outing in years in game one of the ALCS. The injury, which will require surgery, is severe enough that Schilling will not make his next scheduled start and may be done for the year. Without him the Sox don’t appear to have much of a chance against New York’s veteran offense not to mention the Cardinals lineup, which clearly has the inside track to represent the National League.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Line of Succession

Want a hint about the direction the Phillies are taking in establishing a positive, winning atmosphere for the 2005 season? Look no further than their decision to interview Don Baylor first for the vacancy in the manager’s office. No one in the Philadelphia organization would admit it, but Baylor’s visit here was a cynical nod to the Commissioner’s mandate that minority candidates receive equal opportunities. Baylor was never going to be hired here. At the very least the Phillies want someone with an winning record and Baylor has failed to reach .500 after nine seasons with two clubs. His visit was an inexcusable waste of everyone’s time.

Want another hint about the new-look Phils? They aren’t going to hire Grady Little, Jim Fregosi or Buddy Bell either. The more that comes to light about Little’s decision-making apart from the Pedro Martinez debacle, the worse he looks. Fregosi is the nostalgia candidate, but the Phillies need reality not memories, especially not of the 1993 team that wasn’t really that good but managed to get to the Series despite their mediocrity. Buddy Bell is yet another curious entry. He, too, is a manager with a losing record over six seasons with two teams and the last thing the Phillies need is someone for whom they will have to make excuses if he starts out slowly in April.

Conspicuously absent from this do not recall list is Charlie Manuel, the clear front-runner, and Marc Bomberg, the dark horse. Bomberg is the only name not publicly mentioned and this might have more to do with his lack of major league experience than credentials. The Phillies brain trust, an oxymoron if ever there were one, most likely doesn’t want to have to plead for patience from the natives as someone learns on the job. If the season just past was supposed to be the one during which the Phillies finally delivered, 2005 will come with even less margin for error.

Manuel, then, seems to be the likely successor to Larry Bowa if only by default, unless another dark horse emerges.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Grace Under Pressure

Veteran Mike Mussina rose to the challenge in game one of the ALCS. Curt Schilling did not. Mussina was perfect for six innings, which turned out to be enough to give his mates a major boost as the Yankees jumped out to leads of 6-0 and 8-0 before the 35-year old right-hander’s knuckle curve flattened out and became eminently hittable. The final score was 10-7. Schilling’s performance has to worry the Sox, who must win game two behind Pedro “Daddy” Martinez or risk falling behind the hated Yanks two games to none.

Much is made in the media of post-season experience. Too much, at times. But this Yankee club is filled with veterans who have been through it all before several times and one has to assume that familiarity with pressure rather than some sort of pinstripe mystique does make a difference. Mussina’s performance is one example. Mariano Rivera’s is a prime one. The star closer hurried back to New York via private jet from a family funeral in Panama and literally arrived just in the nick of time to close the door on a Red Sox rally. His ability to put aside obvious personal grief and focus on a game distinguishes Rivera as a professional athlete not to mention remarkable human being. His was more than a gutsy performance; it was a time-capsule instance of a veteran who can shut out the noise from 60,000 plus fans, the emotions of personal tragedy and the tension of the game situation and perform his job at an optimum level. No single image will reside in our collective memories, but what Rivera accomplished last night was, in its own right, as memorable as what Willie Mays did in 1954.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Big Mo and Hub and Spokes

In my next life I want to come back as a so-called expert.

Conventional wisdom has it that Astros manager Phil Garner mortgaged the NLCS by using Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt in games four and five of the first round. Horse feathers! He wouldn’t have made it to the next round if he hadn't.

Just about everyone is already ceding the pennant if not the World Series to the Cardinals juggernaut, but I beg to differ. The Astros have momentum. They also have an impressive lineup to throw out there and will make a serious run at the Cards. If they split the first two games in St. Louis they will have the Cards starting to ask themselves "could we lose this thing?" Moreover, after a travel day on Friday they will head back to Houston with their rotation set up to take advantage of the home field and crowd. Then, Garner will look like a genius.

Of course, I could wake up from this dream and find myself stuck in this current life.

The hype surrounding the American League series is more than anyone should have to endure. Even the owners hate each other. It’s too bad this series isn’t between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Kansas City Royals. At least then the focus would be on the field and not on all of the extra-curricular activities. Instead we are offered a choice between two evils: the Red Sox Nation trying yet again to exorcise its demons or George Steinbrenner dissing his manager and players in public ad nauseum. Frankly, I find both sides distasteful but in the interest of moving on I am guessing the Red Sox will finally make it to the Series with a chance to win. What a relief that would be to all of us out here on the spokes and not just the residents at the Hub.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Championship Series

Thus far the playoffs have been going more or less according to form. Only the Astros-Braves series has surprised me. It appeared the Braves lack of starting pitching, healthy and otherwise, would doom them and that the Astros overall balance would rather easily carry them through the first round. Houston may still advance, but in the process of being stretched a full five-games, their pitching rotation will not be set up in the best position to take on the Cardinals. The NLCS starts Wednesday night in St. Louis, which means neither RogerClemens, who pitched Sunday, nor Roy Oswalt, who goes today, would be available.

Over in the American League, to hear the pundits tell it, a rematch between Pedro and his "daddy" was pre-ordained by the baseball gods. Lucky us. One thing is certain: the people televising this latest Yankees-Red Sox grudge match are going to get a lot more money for a 30-second spot than they would have had Anaheim taken on Minnesota.

There are plenty of subplots in the ALCS besides Pedro and his psyche. For one thing, Mike Mussina may be facing his last opportunity to come through in the clutch. And while Alex Rodriguez should have many more years to endure the collective enmity of Beantown’s faithful, the cast of supporting characters around him is aging fast. Bernie Williams, Ruben Sierra, Kevin Brown, Kenny Lofton, El Duque, Mussina, and John Olerud haven’t got many more years (or games) left. More than a few of them are not likely to be back next year.

By comparison Boston is considerably younger though most of their key players are in their ‘30’s. Schilling, at 37, is the oldest starter other than 38-year old Tim Wakefield, who as a knuckler should easily last another 20 years.

Predictions: Houston will beat Atlanta but lose to the Cardinals in six games. Boston will beat the Yankees handily. I will have more to say about the Series prior to its opener.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Who Else You Got?

The Phillies announced they have scheduled three interviews next week as they seek a new skipper. Once again I am reminded of Roger Angell’s observation that among the principal qualifications for becoming a major league manager is having failed at the same post somewhere else.

The Phillies can do no better than Don Baylor? What, precisely, do they see in him? Baylor doesn’t even have a winning percentage as a manager and he’s had nine years at the helm of two different clubs to try and make it to .500. Worse yet, he spent the last two seasons as bench and batting coach with the Mets. If I were he I would leave those last two lines off my resume.

At least the second man on the list, Charlie Manuel, is familiar to the Phillies as a special assistant to Ed Wade and batting guru to Jim Thome. Whether or not the former is a plus is dubious at best. There certainly didn’t seem to be much talk about him throughout the tumultuous season just passed short of his name cropping up every now and then as a possible interim replacement for Larry Bowa, whose demise was predicted every day beginning in April and twice on Sundays.

Among the three, Grady Little is the most intriguing prospect. He guided the Red Sox to consecutive 90-plus winning seasons in a town whose fans, despite Philadelphia’s notoriety, are much tougher than we are. He made one poor decision and they literally ran him out of town. Had the same thing happened in, say, Milwaukee, Little would probably have survived, but in Boston they never let anyone live anything down.

The Envelopes, Please

Awards voting is supposed to be completed prior to the start of the post-season so here is one man’s unofficial ballot for the major ones:

AL MVP. Ichiro Suzuki. My vote is based on the definition of most valuable player to his team not the league. Accordingly, no one was more valuable to his club than Ichiro. Without him the Mariners would have finished last in the Arizona Fall League not just the American League West. Using any definition, my vote would be the same. Suzuki broke one of the oldest records in baseball by amassing 262 hits in a single season and along the way provided plenty of excitement for the fans and opposing players, who admire him greatly.

NL MVP. Here comes the controversy. Barry Bonds is the overwhelming favorite and I acknowledge he is in a league of his own, but I would vote for Albert Pujols based on the definition cited above. There is absolutely no book on how to get Pujols out; just throw the ball and hope he hits it at someone. He is the most feared hitter in the game other than Bonds and is the engine that drives the Cardinals’ high-powered offense. He picks up everyone around him including Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, both of whom were very good players prior to arriving in St. Louis but who now are superb players with Pujols in the lineup. Put just an average hitting first baseman in that lineup and the Cardinals are not nearly the same team.

AL CY Young. This is a tough one. Johan Santana has been unbeatable over the last half of the season. He ranks either first or second in every important pitching category. But my choice is Curt Schilling. He landed in Boston, unquestionably one of the biggest gold fish bowls in all of baseball and a team that was built to win now, damn it. And win he did. Schilling’s statistics are comparable to Santana’s but the pressures under which he labored were far greater, say, 86 years worth.

NL CY Young. The sentimental if not obvious choice has to be Roger Clemens. Great winning record that saved his team from its first half collapse and the near-fatal loss of Andy Petitte. Roger definitely stepped up when the going got tough. (P.S. Anyone who votes for Randy Johnson and cites a lack of run support from his teammates as the only reason his record wasn’t better should be denied a future vote. To whom, exactly, was he most valuable other than himself?)

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Playoff Predictions

St. Louis began the playoffs right where they left off in the regular season; clubbing their opponents. Their combination of offense and defense may be the best in baseball, but their pitching isn’t even the best in their division. The Red Sox are a force to be reckoned with given their powerful offense and excellent starting pitching. The Twins do not impress me though they have enough good starting pitching to get past the Yankees. The Dodgers and Braves do not have the pitching to get by the first round. The Angels are already in an 0 –2 hole and headed back to Fenway. It would take a miracle for them to survive. The Yankees are very thin in starting pitching, too. And then there is Houston. Resurrected from the dead. On a roll. Balanced. Hungry. Led by two aging stars, Biggio and Bagwell, who have never been to the Series. They could be this year’s version of the Diamondbacks, a team made up mostly of veteran players finally earning their reward. Houston is my pick to go all the way. My one concern would be Roger Clemens, of all people. Clemens has never really been the big game pitcher one would expect though last night’s victory was a gutsy performance. If he falters, so do Houston’s prospects. If he continues to defy age and gravity, however, the Astros should make the series against the Red Sox and win it in seven games. Clemens pitching in Fenway in an Astros uniform for all the marbles. The script couldn’t get any better than that.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004


Did anyone really expect this whole thing to end peacefully? Already the recriminations have begun with Larry Bowa claiming the Phillies lied to him while the rest of us, spectators and commentators alike, take sides if not shots.

One of Bowa’s biggest gripe appears to date from the nadir of the season when for all intents and purposes the Phils fell out of contention following a road trip that began with five losses in six games only to recover with five victories in six games on the West Coast. Speculation was rampant locally and nationally that Bowa’s dismissal was imminent and that the recovery in LA and San Diego literally saved his job. Then came the disastrous 1 – 9 home stand from which they never recovered despite eventually going 21 – 9 in the last month of the season. Apparently Bowa still feels this late turn-around and distant second-place finish merited another season at the helm.

What angered Bowa the most, however, were the leaks just prior to the last two games of the season clearly indicating the decision to fire him had already been made. This is the point at which he confronted GM Ed Wade and demanded to know the truth. Informed the leaks were true and that the club still wished him to finish out the season, Bowa told them what they could do with that request and forced the public announcement of his dismissal. Shocking, isn’t it? There actually were leaks from within the organization, a revelation that must rank up there with Claude Rains “discovery” in Casablanca there was gambling at Rick’s cafe. (“Your winnings, sir.”)

No one has come out of this mess unscathed but the consensus is senior management has badly mishandled nearly everything at every turn. It hardly can be said I am an apologist for Ed Wade and company but this much is clear: the GM and his staff cannot have known when they signed Pat Burrell to a long-term contract following his monster year in 2002 that he would suddenly lose all comprehension of the strike zone along with his swing somewhere between the on-deck circle and batter’s box. Nor could they have imagined Billy Wagner would twice land on the disabled list for long stretches. And they couldn’t they have guessed pitcher Randy Wolfe, an experienced veteran at this point in his career, would be so ineffective and prone to injury.

On the other hand, Wade and his staff have never impressed this observer with their trading abilities or skill at evaluating pitching. The trading deadline pickups over the last few seasons of pitchers such as Turk Wendell and Doug Jones are the lowlights, but there are many other examples. I would imagine all around the major leagues GM’s salivate when they see Wade’s number come up on their Caller ID. This off-season free agents will likely be glad, too, but for entirely different reasons.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Still Not Getting It

The conventional view regarding the search for a new Phillies manager is that the wheel will stop when the arrow points to “Kinder/Gentler”. People still don’t get it. Bowa wasn’t fired because he was the anti-Francona. Baseball, as insiders love to remind us, is a game of adjustments. Bowa lost his job because he couldn’t adjust. He was never able to forgive today’s players for not being yesterday’s players. Even more to the point, he couldn’t forgive his players for not being just like him.

I stumbled on to a segment of what must have been a rebroadcast from earlier in the day of Comcast’s Daily News Live during which Phillies President David Montgomery somewhat testily answered questions about Bowa and GM Ed Wade. The interlocutors were Marcus Hayes and Sam Donnellon of the Daily News and host Michael Barkann. None of them seemed comfortable asking questions (or at least in phrasing them intelligently) and Montgomery clearly resisted pinning any responsibility on his GM. Barkann, well-intentioned if not always well-prepared, frequently had his facts or dates wrong. Hayes and Donnellon were so deferential one might suspect they were more concerned with preserving future access than in getting useful answers. To listen to Montgomery repeat over and over again how difficult the job of a GM is, especially around the July 31 trading deadline, rang hollow. He had a ready excuse…I mean answer…for every suggestion that Wade has been overmatched, unprepared, outfoxed or simply inept when it came to improving the Phillies at several trade deadlines during his tenure. The entire segment underscored my conviction that the Phillies still don’t have a President or GM capable of building a winner in Philadelphia.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Wrap Rap

When all is said in done, the clearest indication the Phillies were likely to fail this season was apparent early on: more was being spoken and written about the manager than the players. And as befits this sad state of affairs, Larry Bowa’s firing two games before the end of the season was a classic case of “You can’t fire me; I quit!” Media accounts of the sequence of events leading up to Bowa’s dismissal just hours prior to the penultimate game of the season made it clear the manager forced the issue, claiming, incredibly, that all the speculation about his status in the newspapers was unacceptable. What planet was Larry living on April through September?

While it also may be popular in Philadelphia and the Bowa household to look back on this lost season and blame injuries, this approach, too, would lead to the wrong conclusion about what went wrong. By September the Phillies had all of their injured players back with the exception of Randy Wolfe and proceeded to put on a fantastic September-October stretch run during which they played nearly .700 ball. Still, the Phils finished a distant second in their division and out of the wildcard altogether. Why? They played so poorly during June, July and August, especially the home stand during which they set a franchise record for futility going 1 – 9.

Overall, injuries and poor pitching didn’t help the Phils, to be sure, but a lack of clutch hitting hurt much worse. The Phillies simply didn’t hit with runners in scoring position until it was too late.

So, let the rebuilding begin, as always seems to be the case with this team. But first, let us now praise a few famous efforts.

Hats off to Ichiro Suzuki, who broke George Sisler’s single-season record of 257 hits by five. Ichiro simply works his magic with a wand named Louisville slugger. Congratulations to Barry Bonds for any number of things: over 700 home runs; 231 walks; and, most significantly, over 40 years of age. Kudos to Roger Clemens. Not everyone can retire, switch leagues and then be the leading candidate for a Cy Young Award. And an equally hearty solute to his team, the Houston Astros, who staged one of the better recoveries in a long time to make the playoffs. Finally, let us bid a fond farewell to Edgar Martinez, who leaves the Mariners after 18 seasons with 2242 hits and a .312 career batting average. Martinez might follow Paul Molitor, another Designated Hitter, into the Hall of Fame.

Locally, Bobby Abreu may frustrate some with his lack of hustle in the outfield at times, but he is an offensive machine, hitting over .300 for the sixth time in seven seasons with the Phils while claiming membership in the exclusive 30/30 club (home runs/steals) for the second time. Jimmy Rollins capped off a brilliant season by hitting his first grand-slam home run in his final at bat. Rollins, a great fielder all along, reached career highs in virtually every offensive category and now is among the elite players at his position.

I will have much more to say about the future direction of the club, but for now I offer a few comments.

I have been enthusiastic about re-signing Eric Milton, but in his last six decisions he went 3-3 with an ERA of 4.77. During this stretch he gave up six home runs on his way to a league-leading 43 for the season. Saturday’s 4-3 loss to Florida epitomized his season: he only gave up three hits, but two of them were two-run homers. Milton simply may not be able to make the necessary adjustments to pitching in Citizens Bank Park.

Placido Polanco is likely to move on. He wants to play every day and the Phils aren’t going to accommodate him. I’d still take him over David Bell. Polanco knocked in 22 less runs in 17 fewer games while out-hitting Bell .298 to .291. Polanco also scored 17 more runs than Bell. But in the field there is little comparison. Bell made 23 errors; Polanco made 3.

Jason Michaels handled himself very well playing more games (114) than ever before and alternating principally between center and left field. Michaels may not have the classic makeup of a center fielder, but the Phils could do worse if forced to use him out there next season alone or in a platoon setup while filling bigger holes on their pitching staff.

The playoffs, World Series and Hot Stove League lie straight ahead. There’s still a lot of baseball to watch and write about.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Complicated and Messy

Has there ever been a pennant race during which three players were suspended for the remainder of the season with each of their respective clubs in very tight battles for the top spot or wild-card? How about one in which a retired player spearheaded his team’s amazing comeback from the brink of elimination? Can you recall the last time religion figured prominently regarding a potential post season appearance? For that matter, when was the last time a hurricane had such an impact that a National League team, the Florida Marlins, still very much in contention for the wildcard, visited Chicago to play the Cubs at Wrigley and then immediately turned around and became the home team vs. Montreal at US Cellular Field, which just happens to be the permanent residence of the American League’s Chicago White Sox? Boy, baseball sure is beginning to resemble life. Complicated. And messy.

When MLB came up with the present format for the playoffs the powers-that-be never anticipated so many extra-curricular activities. Sure, the weather is always a factor as the warm, muggy nights of summer merge into the cool, damp ones of fall. And while the dilemma facing Jewish ballplayers concerning the decision whether or not to observe the Jewish High Holy Days has coincided with a pennant race or the post season twice before, during 1934 and the 1966 World Series, baseball has seen 38 years of sectarian inactivity since Sandy Koufax skipped a start to observe Yom Kippur.

On the suspension front pitcher Frank Francisco and outfielders Jose Guillen and Milton Bradley are guilty of bad timing not to mention behavior. All figured prominently in their teams’ playoff hopes and all received suspensions through the end of the regular season. Guillen’s suspension would also include the post-season, should the Angels make it. Of the three, the most surprising to some observers was Guillen’s suspension by his own team, the Angels, for insubordination among other transgressions. Not too many teams would have the intestinal fortitude to suspend a player hitting .294 with 27 home runs and 104 rbi’s for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs. The Angels meet Oakland in a three-game series this final weekend with the winner taking the AL West crown; the loser will go home. Francisco and Bradley were suspended by the league for “getting into it” with fans. Francisco’s case was by far the more serious of the two. He was suspended for the remaining fifteen games of the season for hurling a chair at a fan and still faces potential charges for the injury he inflicted; Bradley faces a long period of anger management therapy if he is to recover.

Meanwhile, 42-year old Roger Clemens has posted a mere 18 – 4 record with an ERA of 2.98 for the Astros who little more than a month ago were given up for dead but now are tied with San Francisco for the lead in the wildcard race going into the last weekend of the regular season. Clemens has won six straight decisions while overall the Astros have won his last nine straight starts. Not bad for a guy who officially retired less than a year earlier, gave a farewell address and vowed to spend more time with his kids.

The Dodgers’ Shawn Green faced a dilemma with his team holding a slim lead in the NL West just as sundown and the start of Yom Kippur loomed on the calendar. Green, in a classic Solomon-like decision, played the Friday night game (after sundown) and skipped the Saturday day game. The Dodgers won Friday and lost Saturday. No word on how higher authorities viewed his decision but the entire matter recalled a wonderful story regarding Hank Greenberg, the great Detroit star, who was faced with a similar situation during the 1934 pennant race. Greenberg agonized over the decision and finally sought rabbinical guidance. The rabbi opined that he could play on Rosh Hashanah, a festive celebration of the new year, but not on the far more solemn Yom Kippur. The rabbi apparently found justification in a Talmudic passage noting that children “played in the streets” during Rosh Hashanah. It was years later before he admitted the passage referred to Roman not Jewish children.

The Florida Marlins were still in the wildcard hunt when they arrived in Chicago Friday, September 10, for a four game series with the Cubs. Friday’s match-up was a doubleheader made necessary by the first in a series of hurricanes in Florida a week earlier. But the Marlins hadn’t planned on playing their next two “home” games Monday and Tuesday against Montreal at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox. (The surroundings may have been unfamiliar but the small crowds were not…to either club!) They were forced into these unusual circumstances due to a small matter of 100 plus mile-per-hour winds that made it unlikely Pro Player stadium would be a good spot for wind-surfing let alone baseball. The Marlins split their “home” games with Montreal and began losing more often than they won. The combination of a number of makeup doubleheaders and home-away-from-home games finally got the best of them. Arm miseries with some of their starters didn’t help matters either.

Very complicated. And very messy.