Sunday, August 07, 2005

And The Envelope, Please

We can no longer sit by idly as the evidence mounts. Something must be done to address the issue before it’s too late. A clear pattern has been established and there is no denying its impact on the game. We must acknowledge the truth, face it head on, come to some decision about the next step, and act!!

Steroids? Nope. We’re talking the Swing And A Miss Reverse Curse.

That’s right, Phillies fans, the Reverse Curse. A quick tour through the Swing And A Miss Archives is all it takes to see the RC in action. Some highlights:

1. I predicted JRoll would test free agency rather than re-sign with the Phils and, voila, a new five year deal. Earlier I had predicted he wouldn’t even think of negotiating during the season. He signed the deal in June.
2. I provided a list of predictions and analyses regarding several players most of which proved to be off the mark at the time.
3. I suggested Chase Utley may need a day off and, of course, he drives in three runs the next night.
4. I lamented Bobby Abreu's prolonged slump and he hit home runs in his next two games including a game-winning grand slam off of Mark Prior in his first at-bat of the day.
5. I annointed Cory Lidle the Phils most reliable pitcher and in his next start he was bombed in Miami. Since then he has been anything but consistent.
6. I resisted making predictions earlier in the season and with this post one can learn why I should have refrained even longer.

I could go on but why bother? Are these coincidences or is something deeper and more mysterious at work? Should I quit while I am ahead or can the Phillies handle another intallment of the Reverse Curse?

Of course, all of this ruminating begs the larger question: should I branch out into other untapped areas? Would any of my readers like a list of non-winning Powerball numbers? Would they like to know which small cap stock is going to miss its earnings by a wide margin? Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Far From Peaking

For a team built around offense, the last few weeks have made it painfully clear the master plan simply isn't working.

Everyone is slumping at once. Only a long overdue Bobby Abreu is showing any signs of life at the plate over the last couple of games; otherwise, it should be noted, he remains the same tentative, average outfielder to whom we’ve grown accustomed.

Ironically, except for a two bad outings, one each by Cory Lidle in Houston and Jon Lieber in Colorado, the starting pitching has been good overall and excellent on occasion.

The Phils have been shut down by some pretty good pitchers themselves during this stretch, but they haven’t helped their own cause by swinging at bad pitches, taking good ones, and failing to deliver when scoring opportunities present themselves.

Everything on this club seems out of sync. Even Chase Utley is struggling at the plate and in the field. He is 1 for 14 during this home stand and has made a few miscues in the field. The sight of him turning and walking back to the dugout after striking out is occuring more frequently. He could probably use a day or two off, but can the Phillies afford such a move? Ryan Howard, who seems to have altered his stance slightly (he is crouching less and standing more upright than when he first arrived) is seeing a lot more breaking balls lately, most of them for called strikes.

Charlie Manuel has overused his bullpen to such a degree the Phils decided to send newly-acquired Matt Kata to the minors and bring up lefthander Eude Brito from Scranton to help out. It should be noted that Brito, a 27-year old, had a poor record out of the pen at Scranton before being moved into the starting rotation where he fared much better. So, it figures they plan to use him in relief here.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

I Didn't Begin Life As A Phillies Fan

[Editor’s note: The Baltimore Orioles fired Lee Mazilli yesterday, making him the sixth manager owner Peter Angelos has fired since buying the team in October, 1993. The seventh skipper, Sam Perlozzo, is being called an “interim” manager. That is appropriate.]

I grew up in Baltimore at a time when baseball was still the national pastime. For my generation, baseball was the game of our forefathers. All the other professional sports now populating the landscape, even football, were either non-existent then, in their infancy, or had not yet captured the nation's imagination. Certainly none of them exercised the exclusive hold on our hearts that baseball enjoyed.

Personal history -- not just childhood memories of going to games with a father or grandfather, but also hearing them speak about the stars and ballparks of their youth – served to deepen our loyalty and affection for the hometown team.

In my youth the Colts (1953) and Orioles (1954) arrived in Baltimore within a year of each other, but the only history my father could relate to his then six-year old son was of the various minor league Orioles teams of his childhood and of old Orioles Park, the predecessor to Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards.

In 1954 Baltimoreans of all ages rejoiced at the arrival of a new major league team, with the oldest voices in the chorus intoning the legendary names associated with baseball in their city: Babe Ruth, Wee Willie Keeler, John McGraw, and Hughie Jennings, star of the National League Champion Orioles of 1894-96.

My father's fondest baseball memories were of going with his father to see Jack Dunn's celebrated Orioles teams which won seven straight International League pennants between 1919 and 1925. Dunn's teams were considered on a par with or superior to most major league teams of the day and he maintained their extraordinary level of excellence by holding onto players when a lot of major league teams sought to purchase their contracts. Prior to the 1926 season Dunn finally broke up the team by selling a number of his star players including Lefty Grove to the Philadelphia Athletics. Grove would later be at the core of the championship A's teams of the 1930's.

The Colts, by comparison, had no such legacy to draw on. In fact, professional football was just beginning its national expansion and, as yet, hadn’t replaced baseball as America's greatest sports passion. It is generally agreed that it wasn't until the dramatic sudden death championship game in 1958 between the Colts and the Giants that the public's interest in the NFL exploded.

Throughout my youth I adored the Orioles. Whenever I was going to the ballpark, I would leave home early and arrive at Memorial Stadium in time to watch infield practice. Batting practice held no special appeal for me, but watching Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Davey Johnson and Boog Powell take grounders was pure joy. The rituals of their infield practice remain vivid to me to this day. (I don’t know whether or not teams even take infield practice any longer.)

In those days my brother, nearly three years older than I, was a devoted Yankees fan. He must have been switched at the hospital, I thought, but his fifth column presence in our household turned out to be good training for my subsequent years in the wilderness. At college in New England I was thrown together with baseball fans from across the country. Being in Connecticut, there were obviously more Red Sox and Yankee fans than partisans of the Birds, but this melting pot of boosters only deepened my affection for the Orioles.

After finishing college in the late '60's I lived in several different cities around the country, none of which had a major league team. Only when I moved to Cambridge, MA, could I see the Orioles in person, and given my instincts for survival I contained my enthusiasms whenever I went to Fenway Park.

Compounding my frustration at keeping in touch with the Orioles during these peregrinations, this was the era before cable television, super stations, and Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and sometimes Thursday games of the week to say nothing of watching MLB on one's computer. Even when the networks began to broadcast more games nationally, the Orioles, who do not play in one of the larger TV markets, made few appearances other than during those years when they were perennial playoff and World Series participants. During the late '60's and early '70's it was hard to keep the Orioles off national television in October, but their appearances during the regular season were precious few. I mostly relied on radio to keep in touch, but the Orioles network was beamed toward the South as befit the cultural heritage of Baltimore. I was seldom able to hear these broadcasts, and when I lived in New Mexico and Texas, not at all..

The Orioles of my youth and young adulthood developed into a much-admired franchise, known for its strong organization from top to bottom. So good was its reputation, the term “The Oriole Way”, denoting an emphasis on fundamentals and pitching from the lowest minor league team right up to the big league club, was well-known throughout the baseball world. Between 1958 and 1975 the franchise had the highest winning percentage in baseball. Its ownership was respected. Players were eager to join the club. The fans were fiercely loyal when a player was active and perhaps even more so after one retired and remained in Baltimore. People named their children after Brooks Robinson.

When I moved to Philadelphia in 1978, I was still a loyal Orioles fan. Indeed, I hadn't lived this close to home in thirteen years and looked forward to going to Baltimore to see a few games in person and to listening to their radio broadcasts whenever I chose. No sooner had I settled into my apartment on 19th Street in Center City and determined the optimum room for radio reception when I discovered to my dismay that the Orioles had switched their radio affiliation from long-time flagship station WBAL, whose 50,000 watt signal reached far up and down the Eastern seaboard, to a smaller station, whose 10,000 watt signal failed to even reach Philadelphia.

Wistfully looking over the schedule for the upcoming season I noticed that WTOP in Washington, another 50,000 watt station, would be carrying virtually all of the Orioles games. Without a team of its own in those days, Washington had adopted the O’s as their own. But Washington was forty-five miles south of Baltimore.

Desperate to learn whether or not I could tune in a Washington station, I was tempted to listen to the Orioles season opener. Unfortunately, it was scheduled for daytime and I knew better than to try. For some reason day games are virtually impossible to tune in over long distances. I was certain there was a scientific explanation for these difficulties, but the ardent fan is no more consoled by discourses on radio waves and sunlight than the .200 hitter is by treatises on whether a curve ball really curves.

The evening of the first night game, however, I was prepared. I turned on my radio in great anticipation and to my unending delight, the signal came in more than adequately. Many years later the Orioles were reunited with WBAL but for reasons I cannot nor care to decipher, the Washington station still came in more clearly. I stayed with WTOP; after all, there was the matter of loyalty.

Over the next several years things gradually began to change. In 1979 the Orioles were sold by the Hoffberger family, who headed the original ownership group, to Edward Bennett Williams, the famous Washington trial lawyer. Slowly but surely the front office changed; then came the on-field changes. Managers came and went at a faster pace. (Earl Weaver retired, un-retired, and retired again during this period). Impatience replaced slow, deliberate development. Harvard Business school types replaced baseball people without much accompanying grace or success. To be fair, baseball itself was undergoing rapid change, too, with free agency being the most significant development. But the atmosphere surrounding the franchise was palpably different.

A few years after Williams sold the team to Baltimore attorney Peter Angelos in 1993, the Orioles would become perennial also-rans. Angelos, an extraordinarily impatient man by all appearances, was hardly a hands-off owner. He meddled constantly in day-to-day operations and personnel decisions including the misguided Albert Belle and Sammy Sosa signings. Soon, players avoided coming to Baltimore. As noted above, managers turned over at a rapid pace (seven in twelve years). “The Oriole Way” was no longer mentioned let alone practiced.

Some time in the mid 1990’s I had had enough. I no longer recognized the Orioles as the franchise of my youth. I was prepared for lean years on the field, but not the chaos that surrounded the entire franchise. At the same time I couldn’t help but be familiar with the Phillies after living here for more than fifteen years. One Spring day I awoke and decided the Phillies were more worthy if not in need of my support. I didn’t agonize over the decision; it had been a long time coming. My father had passed away by then and my brother had been living in the Boston area for nearly twenty years. The connections to the Orioles no longer existed.

I never looked back though I continued to be pleased when the Orioles played well, which wasn’t often. I immersed myself in the Phillies and in the early years of my new affiliation I felt some disadvantage at being unfamiliar with the teams of 1950’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s. Now, after more than a decade of rooting for them and more than twenty-five years as a resident I consider myself a die-hard Phillies fan. It hasn’t always been an unalloyed pleasure, but they are my home team for better or worse.

Hitting and Pitching

Lately the only two reliable hitters on the Phillies have been Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard. Even Chase Utley has been in a bit of a funk over the last week or so, striking out 8 times in his last 33 at-bats. Everyone else appears to be uncomfortable at the plate and has the numbers to prove it.

Topping those who are struggling is Bobby Abreu. Most people want to blame his woes on the Home Run Derby, insisting he altered his stroke for that competition and can't rediscover it. But his problems go beyond that. Bobby looks as unsure of the strike zone as I have ever seen him. Not only is he striking out a lot, he isn’t drawing many walks. Abreu has always been among the league leaders in bases on balls including this season, but he has only two in his last ten games.

Pat Burrell has fallen into another one of his prolonged funks. To my eye he seems to be standing further off the plate than ever. If Pat is a guess hitter, and the presumption here is he is, then he is either outguessing himself frequently or hasn’t a clue what to look for. He is taking a lot of pitches lately, many of them for strikes.

As the season wears on Kenny Lofton appears to be wearing down as well. For the month of July Kenny hit .214. More often than not he is swinging late and popping up to the right side of the diamond. He cannot keep up with fast balls.

David Bell and Mike Lieberthal continue to struggle. Nothing new there. Bell is among the league leaders in grounding into double plays. After a brief period of production, Lieberthal’s average has continued its inexorable downward trajectory.

* * * * * * * *

Charlie Manuel may be considered something of a hitting guru, but the only thing he appears to know about big league pitching is that he couldn’t hit it.

Why would he remove Robinson Tejeda from last night’s game when the youngster had thrown four-hit ball over six innings while striking out six and allowing one earned run. Want more? He’d only thrown 79 pitches to that point, 62 of which were strikes. This is a kid with moxie as well as stamina. Why pull him for a pinch-hitter when the Phils were leading the game 3-1? I doubt Tejeda told the manager he was out of gas; he just doesn’t seem to know fear.

Manuel is so locked into using set-up men and relievers in a predictable pattern he can’t bring himself to stick with his starter even when things are going well.

* * * * * * * *

The Raphael Palmeiro case goes from bad to worse with each passing leak and revelation. Not only will the Orioles first baseman likely face charges of perjury from the United States Congress, he has all but lost what little sympathy may have been out there for him.

When the news first broke a few calm and compassionate observers publicly granted him some benefit of the doubt, assuming he would never be so arrogant and reckless to knowing use banned substances while forcefully claiming otherwise.

Few, if any, of those people are coming to his defense now. His chances of making the Hall of Fame have dimmed to practically nil in just forty-eight hours, at least where the current generation of voters are concerned. He may be voted in some day by a committee of veterans who played with and admired him, but his life will remain a sorrowful one no matter what the eventual outcome.

Palmeiro’s predicament will also likely have repercussions far beyond his own fall from grace. Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds should all feel the heat from further scrutiny.

[Addendum: Add Joe Morgan to the growing list of reporters and TV analysts who are piling on now that it is safe to do so. Asked why he didn't speak out years earlier when he heard the ongoing rumors about steroid use, the newly outraged Morgan replied: "It wasn't my job to speak out because I would have been another reporter at that moment, speculating.... But in hindsight, the only thing I wish I would have done is approach the commissioner's office sooner, but I didn't know how they would react." Very courageous, Joe.]

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Hardly A Big Hit

While everyone has been justifiably concerned with the Phillies’ starting pitching, the hitting hasn’t been anything to crow about lately either. In their last eight games the Phils have been shut down three straight times in Houston, once in Colorado and last night at home against the Cubs.

In the process they have wasted some fine starts by among others Vicente Padilla. Their inability to put together good pitching and hitting in something resembling a streak is the primary reason the Phils will not make the playoffs.

* * * * * * * *

Last night’s loss to the Cubs can be attributed largely to the absence of hitting noted above, but at least some of the blame falls on Charlie Manuel. Why did he insert Matt Kata as a pinch runner for Pat Burrell when the run he represented would not have mattered as much (Utley and Abreu were ahead of him on third and second and the Phils trailed by two runs) instead of having the switch-hitting Kata bat for David Bell against right-hander Ryan Dempster? Or, at the very least Manuel could have had switch-hitter Tomas Perez bat for Bell instead of waiting one batter later and substituting him for Mike Lieberthal? Bell, predictably, struck out. His average against right-handers hovers around the Mendoza line.

Perez’s at-bat wasn’t a thing of beauty either. He swung at one pitch at eye level and another one that was clearly a ball. Dempster had already walked the four batters in the inning before their at-bats, but Bell and Perez must have been watching another game at the time.

* * * * * * * *

Secretly, I harbored the fantasy that Placido Polanco would re-sign with the Phillies at the end of this season and play third base next year. But then I read the following:

The Tigers agreed to terms Tuesday with infielder Placido Polanco on a four-year contract extension that will stretch through the 2009 season. Polanco was acquired by Detroit from the Phillies on June 8 in the deal that sent right-handed reliever Ugueth Urbina and infielder Ramon Martinez to Philadelphia.

The 29-year-old second baseman is batting .362 with 22 runs scored, eight doubles, a triple, two home runs and 17 RBIs in 31 games with the Tigers. [He is hitting .337 overall this season.]

I didn’t bother to look up David Bell’s numbers for the comparable period.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Spare Us

That 12 – 1 home stand is not only a distant memory at this stage, it has entered into the nether reaches of aberrations and mirages.

The Phils simply cannot string together a series of games that include good pitching and good hitting on the same day.

There is no point in a recap of yesterday’s effort other than to say you know you are in big trouble when Endy Chavez gets half the team’s hits.

So the Phils drop two of three to a Dodgers team that came into the Bank six games under .500 and sporting a lineup that included a fellow who had been in the Mexican League a month before and a few others who had called Las Vegas home until recently. Hardly the stuff of legends.

* * * * * * * * *

I am not here to bury Tim Worrell, who has enough problems without my piling on, but it is a little strange the Diamondbacks wanted a guy with his recent history on and off the field. Not as surprising, however, as the Phillies interest in the player they received in exchange for the 38-year old reliever. Here is the scouting report on the newest Phil, Matt Kata, from Stats Inc.:

"Kata has somewhat of a gliding swing, making it hard for him to adjust to off-speed pitches. He does have some power. Kata has above-average speed and is an intelligent baserunner. He is a very good second baseman, with above-average range. Kata has experience playing shortstop and third base, although his arm is not really suited to much action on the left side of the diamond.”

You want more? Here is Ed Wade on the newest Phillie:

“We thought that Kata was a good fit for us. Our scouts have always liked him. He opened the season with Arizona last season before he dislocated his shoulder. We just think with his versatility that he has a chance to help this season, and going forward, also.”

Wade is really priceless. We sure are going to miss him.

“A good fit for us.” Where? Spelling Chase Utley? The Phillies already know Kata can’t play on the other side. Half a utility infielder.

“With his versatility…he has a chance to help….” Watch out Tomas and Ramon, there’s a new guy in town and his has at least one good arm.

Finally, you want piling on? Try this on for size: the Phillies also sent cash to Arizona in this deal.

Maybe the Phillies do have a plan and I just can’t see it. Let’s call it the Shawn Wooten Plan.

1. First, acquire a player whose career has been marked by modest accomplishments (to be generous) at his previous known addresses.
2. Next, tell the press your scouts have long coveted him.
3. Further, tell the press he brings versatility to the club.
4. Make sure he doesn’t have one specific position at which he excels.
5. Rarely play him.
6. Release him within six months or designate him for assignment he won’t accept.
7. Feign ignorance when the subject is brought up.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Infinite Capacity

My capacity for outrage seems infinite. The only question is where to begin?

I cannot resist a final swipe at the All-Star process, that is until they play the game itself and the Commissioner shows up. Then, I’m sure I will have additional fodder.

Should Jimmy Rollins have been named an All Star? The number of NL shortstops having good let alone great years is admittedly small. Rollins did not finish among the top five in votes at his position, but, then, we know how that works. Jimmy just doesn’t have enough ballot stuffers in his camp at that moment. Maybe if he swung at fewer high pitches and got on base more often he could rectify that. Still, rather than name him, how about Omar Vizquel, who is having a better year? And if we want to reward players regardless of position, I would have chosen Pat Burrell, who despite his ups and downs, has made a significant comeback and is among the league leaders in rbi’s. Burrell earned a spot. So the NL carries one less shortstop. Who cares?

Then there is Billy Wagner. OK, his stats say the southpaw is having a very good year, though some (including me) would say the numbers belie a soft first half. But the real issue is do you want someone representing a team which he holds in disdain? And for those of you who say, lighten up, he’s representing the league I say, he is introduced as a Phillie and wears a Phillies cap. By the end of this month the whole matter of his attitude towards the Phillies will probably be moot anyway. I expect Billy to go bye-bye.

* * * * * * * * *

The just-concluded series against the Pirates was vintage Phillies baseball. Up. Down. Up. Down. So, they return to the less-than-friendly confines of CBP for a three game set against the division leading Nationals. The Phils have a solid shot at entering the All-Star break below .500.

For weeks I have defended the players, insisting they were trying their best. Having lost 19 of their last 26 games I have to conclude their best just isn’t good enough. The split in Pittsburgh did change my mind about one thing, however; I don’t think I have ever watched a less intelligent team. They show an almost universal lack of patience or discipline at the plate. With one or two exceptions they haven’t a clue about how to work the count. Almost no one among them goes the other way with a pitch. Name someone who consistently moves runners along. They don’t hit and run. They are a team that simply lacks the fundamentals when it comes to batting.

As for pitching, I don’t know what to make of Brett Myers. Last night’s outing could have been even worse were it not for some defensive gems including one by Pat Burrell. Myers ran out of gas quickly on a night that wasn’t that warm according to the broadcasters. He took to walking around the mound in a visible and unsuccessful attempt to regain his composure. He didn’t like the calls he was getting. When he stepped back on the rubber he seemed to be in a hurry to throw the next pitch, to literally get it over with since he wasn’t getting it over in the other sense. In sum, he handled himself poorly and the results showed it everywhere but in the total number of runs he gave up. Myers has pitched poorly in three out of his last four outings. Prior to last night he pitched a real gem against Atlanta. But last night’s effort erased that memory quickly. Now in his third season Myers exhibits a lack of consistency one expects from a number one or two starter. Each time out has become an adventure again. He cannot be relied on.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Hold The Fort

I will be without internet access for the next week or so (shudder), but I can trust the rest of you to hold the fort.

Put me down as definitely from the half empty camp. . . .

How can the Phillies win eight of nine series capped off by a phenomenal 12-1 homestand only to go to Seattle and look about as moribund as they ever have?

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Ichiro Redux

Now that Ichiro has crossed one milestone in his American major league career some commentators have questioned whether or not his Japanese statistics should be included should he continue his level of excellence and one day be considered for the Hall of Fame.

My answer to those critics who denigrate Ichiro's prior accomplishments and the quality of ball played in Japan is this: Have you seen any drop off in his performance now that he is competing in the U.S.? If not, suggestions that he amassed a large percentage of hits against inferior competition are insulting in light of his record against "superior" opponents.

No matter who provides the opposition, Ichiro is a terrific player.

Building A Consensus

Opinion among bloggers and those who comment therein is running strongly in favor of the Phillies seeking pitching help and using minor league first baseman Ryan Howard as the bait.

The arguments are persuasive. In no particular order they are:

1. Robinson Tejeda is game, but his minor league record does not suggest he will be the answer to Randy Wolf's loss.
2. Howard's stock has never been higher (depending on whom you listen to) or is at the very least high enough to draw interest and someone of value in return.
3. Jim Thome is blocking Howard's path to the big leagues for the foreseeable future anyway.
4. The Phils not only need to replace Wolf in the starting rotation, they might have to replace Vicente Padilla, too, if he remains ineffective (See below). Padilla will also be a free agent at the end of this season according to one comment I read, so his departure seems assured sooner rather than later.
5. There are few quality starters out there and even fewer are left-handers, but at least one, Barry Zito, fits the bill for most of the bloggers and commentators who weighed in.
6. Based on their impressive play over the last month the Phils have a legitimate chance to win their division, but their chances are diminished significantly with the loss of Wolf. So, they must act now.
7. There isn't any other help down on the farm.

I'm sure I left out some arguments, but the above list addresses the majority of opinions I read.

Here is how I see things unfolding.

The Phils will try to trade Howard, a move I oppose given Thome's fragile health the last two seasons. Howard, you may recall, formally requested a trade at the beginning of the season when he was sent down to AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after a stellar year in 2004 and an excellent spring training. He was called up to the big club when Thome was on the DL, but he didn't produce until his final few games, when he started to hit with authority. He can hardly be faulted for struggling when he was given roughly 20 at-bats here and there, some as a pinch hitter, a role veteran players find difficult to fill. Anyone who judges him based on that brief period is kidding himself. The reality is that the 25-year old Howard is a proven hitter at every level at which he has played, one moreover, whose power and swing are ideal for Citizens Bank Park. The consensus is that since he cannot play for the Phils in the next few years, get rid of him while he is still coveted by other teams. The Phils will probably accommodate the majority in this case.

Barry Zito is the favorite object of the local bloggers' desire. Despite a down year in 2004 and a poor start to 2005, he is a proven commodity. Moreover, as many people point out, his record this season is deceiving. Though 3 - 7 overall with a 4.47 ERA, he has a 3.48 ERA for his last 11 appearances and has suffered from terrible run support for much of this year.

Zito, others remind me, signed a contract through 2005 with a club option for 2006, making it much more likely he would be more than a 3-month rental if the Phils were to acquire him. As a lefty, he would also fill that need in what now is an all-righthanded starting rotation here.

School is out on whether or not the lack of a lefthander is really a problem. I would have to defer to Charlie Manuel and Mike Lieberthal on this matter. Both said it could be. They know better than I do.

School is also out on whether or not the A's would even listen to an offer for Zito. They don't have to trade him. Further complicating this particular scenario, Oakland already has a young first baseman of their own, Dan Johnson, who was the MVP of the Pacific Coast League last year. On the plus side for all parties, the Phils play Oakland in a weekend series beginning tomorrow, so Zito wouldn't have to travel far to join his new club. Toppping off everything, in a delicious coincidence no press agent could have ever dreamed up, Zito is scheduled to start against the Phils Friday night. His opponent? It would have been Randy Wolf; instead, he faces Robinson Tejeda.

If Zito is unavailable another possibility would be...are you sitting down?...Eric Milton. OK, I know, he is having a horrendous season. All the more reason the Reds would be willing to let him go. The Phils would be intrigued because Milton pitched effectively here last year. True, he gave up a ton of homers in a Phillies uniform and is on course to give up even more in Cincinnati, but Milton produced here, leading the club in wins. He received tremendous run support last season, but in truth he could expect even more now with the way the Phils have been hitting. He wouldn't be my choice either, but I'll bet Ed Wade is going to make inquiries. This unlikely deal isn't without its own complications. Would Cincinnati want Howard with Sean Casey in residence? Not likely, so don't fret over these remote possibilities.

* * * * * * * * *

Seattle fans can be excused for wondering what all the fuss has been about the red-hot Phillies. In the first two games of the series the Phils managed a lone run in each. On Tuesday night they were held to three hits. Last night they managed eight, though five of them were by two players, Bobby Abreu and Chase Utley.

Jon Lieber pitched well enough to win Tuesday. The same cannot be said of Vicente Padilla, who continues to struggle. Staked to a one run lead in the top of the first he promptly surrendered two runs in the bottom of the inning on way to another loss. He pitched 5.2 innings and yielded three earned runs. Seattle's final runs came on a two run homer off Ryan Madson.
Nothing demoralizes a team faster, especially on the road, than jumping out to a lead only to have their starter give it right back. Padilla, who has often lost his focus during a game has developed a new wrinkle this season: he begins a game without focus.

* * * * * * * * *

Todd Zolecki writes in this morning's Inquirer that the loss of Randy Wolf is going to be far more costly than first thought. Not only will they lose the lefty's services for at least all of next season, they are obligated to pay his entire $9 million salary thus further hamstringing any efforts to sign someone else.

* * * * * * * * *

How quickly can things turn around? The Phils fell an additional two games behind division leading Washington following their losses in Seattle and are now three games back in second place.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Starts and Stops

A ninth inning rally. Now that’s a rarity.

The Phils received another strong performance from Brett Myers who threw seven innings of shutout ball against the Nationals yesterday. Myers didn’t get the win, but his team did as they scored three runs in the top of the ninth for a 3-0 victory.

Can someone please explain why this game started at 4:35PM? The light was awful for the hitters; witness the fact that both teams failed to score until the Phils broke through in the final frame. Myers was quoted as saying that after he batted for the first time he realized how impossible it was to see the ball. Consequently, he relied heavily on his fastball from that point on.

A glance at the schedule shows the Phils returning home (less than 150 miles from DC) where they have an off day Thursday while the Nationals host the Mets; therefore, the late afternoon start wasn’t made to accommodate the teams’ travel plans. Maybe the Nationals wanted to broadcast a game during drive time in the District’s infamous rush hour. That would certainly produce a captive audience. And with attendance running at less than half capacity at RFK Stadium ever since opening day, maybe the Nationals’ front office figured this was a good way to reach all those baseball-starved citizens in and outside the Beltway.

* * * * * * * *

The St. Louis Cardinals are off to a torrid 14 – 5 start, their best since 1968. Most remarkable is the fact that two of those losses came at home…against the Philadelphia Phillies. And you thought the Orioles’ Brian Roberts was the biggest story of April.

* * * * * * * *

I think I have finally figured out the Phillies’ plans for Placido Polanco. They plan to play him at all nine positions this season. Thus far our versatile hero has started at second, left and third. With Jim Thome and Mike Lieberthal struggling at the plate, I’d like to suggest that Charlie Manuel give each of them a day off and let Placido take over. Don’t worry, Jim, you are not going to be the next Wally Pipp. (Editor's note: no sooner had I posted this piece when I realized the Phillies' alleged brain trust should be given some credit here. Perhaps their plan is to play Polanco at every position in anticipation of the trading deadline, at which point any club seeking any player will think of Placido first. Clever move, guys.)

* * * * * * * *

Billy Wagner seems to have straightened himself out of late. One reason may be under use. That’s right, Wagner seems to thrive when he doesn’t appear on consecutive days. Of course the Phils alleged brain trust cannot be given too much credit in this case; Wagner hasn’t appeared that often lately because there have been precious few save opportunities. Wagner did pitch the ninth inning in both wins against the Nationals, but his appearances were separated by the loss on Tuesday.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Little Things

The little things are becoming bigger.

At the start of the eighth inning of last night’s game, the Phils were trailing 3-1. Jason Michaels led off with a grounder to short after thinking he had walked the pitch before. The ump thought differently and as usual had the last word. Chase Utley and pinch-hitter Kenny Lofton followed with singles, leaving fans to wonder what might have been with the Michaels non-walk. Mike Lieberthal ended all the speculation by grounding into a double play.

In the bottom of the inning lefty Aaron Fultz got two quick outs. Charlie Manuel decided to bring in right-hander Terry Adams, the man no one wants except the Phillies (twice!!), who promptly gave up two singles and a walk before getting out of the inning. I kept muttering to myself, “If he gives up a home run they should hand him his unconditional release before he hits the top step of the dugout.”

In the top of the ninth the Phils went down meekly.

Charlie Manuel has been managing himself into several corners lately. Last night he started Placido Polanco again in left field for the ailing Pat Burrell. When Lofton batted for third baseman David Bell in the eight inning, Manuel was forced to bring Polanco into third base and insert Lofton in center. Lofton, less a defensive replacement than a last resort, proceeded to overrun a ground ball single in his only chance of the night. He smiled for the camera, though.

With David Bell continuing to struggle, Manuel is quoted in today’s Inquirer as saying he is thinking of giving Polanco a serious look at third base. That would mean centerfield, second base and now third are in constant flux. Add in the abbreviated Gavin Floyd bullpen experiment and a rotation that has already seen six starters and what we have is an unsettled ball club a mere 21 games into the season. Things haven’t gotten ugly yet, but with so many starters struggling and moving in and out of the lineup it will only be a matter of time.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Out of Position

A sidebar in the paper the other day made it clear Placido Polanco wasn’t happy with his part time role. No problem. Left field is now an option.

It’s no secret I like Polanco, but his start in left field last night against Washington, the first time he ever played any outfield position, reveals just how poorly the Phillies’ alleged brain trust has put together the current roster: twelve pitchers, four legitimate outfielders, two second basemen and assorted pinch-hitters and utility infielders. They may get away with playing people far out of position for one game, but that kind of maneuver eventually backfires.

Fortunately, a solution can be found in the minor leagues. Marlon Byrd, who earned a starting role after a torrid Spring only to land in the minors and then the disabled list due to a finger injury, is scheduled to begin rehabbing soon. He deserves a call up.

* * * * * * * * *

Bobby Abreu had another adventure at the wall last night and it lead to a run. Scored a triple, the ball looked catchable from my recliner. We had better become accustomed to Bobby’s aversion to walls. At last report, every major league ballpark had several of them.

* * * * * * * * *

Jim Thome’s batting funk is alarming even if it is just April because in reality his slump stretches well back into last season. Thome, who played with assorted injuries all last year, is hitting .212 through last night. Last year he hit .274 overall but only averaged .240 over the final three months of the season. Moreover, his power figures, which dropped over the last half of 2004, are well off his career average again this year.

* * * * * * * * *

Washingtonians may have pined for major league baseball for more than three decades, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the attendance figures thus far. The Nats are averaging somewhere in the vicinity of 34,000 per game, hardly an impressive number for their first home stand in 33 years. The novelty of a new stadium may be missing for now, but a brand new team should be attraction enough. Things should only get worse when the city empties out in mid-summer.

Meanwhile, up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the first-place Baltimore Orioles (break up the O’s!!!) are seeing an increase in their attendance. So much for Peter Angelos’ contention that a major league team in Washington would hurt his club. And, oh, by the way, the surge in attendance at Camden Yards proves another thing: put a winner of the field and people will come. Are you listening, Ed Wade?

Monday, April 25, 2005

What Happened?

I went away for a long weekend and returned to discover disarray.

One might suppose the Phillies three straight losses in Atlanta would head the list, but no. Rather, I am struck by the complete about-face by the Phillies’ alleged brain trust on the status of Gavin Floyd, who is being sent down to AAA. Charlie Manuel is quoted in today’s Inquirer as saying (I paraphrase here) Floyd needed to know he was starting every fifth day both for his sense of equilibrium not to mention his command.

Why is it every blogger, cab driver, hotel doorman and hot dog vendor knew this was the best decision for Floyd’s future weeks ago? Let us hope the two week misadventure in the bullpen didn’t completely undermine Floyd’s self-confidence. It is noteworthy the usually accessible youngster declined to speak with reporters following his latest disaster in a relief role. Ed Wade & Co. deserve a hearty round of boos for this blunder.

I didn’t see a single inning of any of the losses in Atlanta and can only rely on reports and box scores. They suffice for me to conclude that the other note of special alarm was rung by Randy Wolf. Randy is officially a major source of concern now. He isn’t fooling anyone with his assortment of breaking stuff and average fastball. Even our cab driver, hotel doorman and hot dog vendor could hit him now.

In less than two weeks the Phils have gone from an embarrassment of riches on the mound to an embarrassment period. In less than two weeks the Phils bats have fallen silent. In less than two weeks players have used words like “panic” in their conversation, albeit only to insist there is no need for it…yet.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


After sixteen games a few patterns have emerged.

Charlie Manuel appears determined to give playing time to everyone on the roster. Whether you are the hero or goat, the next day your spot could be taken by someone who swings from the other side of the plate. Nothing personal. Far from it. Just need to get everyone involved and play the percentages.

While some may question the merits of such a strategy, it does keep the entire squad happier than one on which players sit week in and week out. On the other hand, sitting David Bell after he finally starts to find his stroke after a miserable start is a highly questionable decision.

The Phillies need to work on their base running. In Wednesday night’s game Jim Thome was doubled off second on a soft liner caught by the shortstop in shallow left field. In Thursday’s game, Bobby Abreu wandered too far off second and should have been picked off except the Colorado pitcher threw to the wrong man covering. Earlier in the season Jason Michaels ran the Phillies out of a bigger inning trying to reach third on a ball hit to left field. He was out by the proverbial mile. There have been a few other blunders I cannot recall at this writing. The most disturbing aspect of these lapses is the number of times players have used poor judgment on plays in front of them. That shouldn’t happen at this level.

John Lieber is more than the staff ace thus far; he’s been their stopper. When the Phillies need a pitcher to right the ship, Lieber is there. He isn’t flashy and he certainly isn’t overpowering. But he take the ball, works fast and always seems to have a plan. Lieber is also pitching deep into each outing since the season opener and that counts a great deal given this team’s bullpen woes.

Re-signing Todd Pratt was a great decision. During Spring Training there were hints he would be released and A.J. Hinch would be the backup. Pratt was reported to be very upset about that prospect and grew testy when the subject was broached, walking out in the middle of one TV interview. (He might be excused for being touchy about his own future, but Pratt doesn't appear to like questions from reporters on any subject.) He has always handled the pitchers very well and from all indications is the sort of presence whose influence is very positive. He may look like he will screw himself into the ground on every other swing he takes, frequently ending those violent swings by stumbling across the plate to the other side, keeping himself upright only by sticking the end of the bat into the ground like a cane, but he gets his principal job, catching and calling a game, done well. And every once and a while he comes through with the bat to the great joy and surprise of everyone, especially himself.

Re-signing Tomas Perez was another excellent decision. In the Thursday win over Colorado he played third base and started a crucial double play on the sort of hot smash that tends to handcuff David Bell. Perez can play any infield position very well and does. And every team needs a shaving cream pie expert.

A Game of Picas

An old family friend once described a particularly sensitive person we knew as someone “always willing to meet an insult more than half way.”

I recalled her observation more than once as I perused the NL East standings published over the last few days in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

It is customary when listing the home team to place them in the uppermost position when tied with other clubs, but the editors at the Inky have consistently placed the Phils at the lowest position even when they have the same record as teams listed above them. A trivial matter, to be sure, but telling. This hasn’t been a baseball town for years, especially in the Inquirer.

Maybe I'm being too sensitive.

* * * * * * * * *

It may be early in the season but indications are that Ryan Madson is experiencing some sophomore blues. Madson has been violating the cardinal rule of relievers, giving up runs consistently, inherited runners and those of his own doing. In the process his ERA has ballooned to 7.71.

The Phillies could afford the luxury of waiting for Madson to work his way through this rough stretch were it not for the fact that the rest of the relief corps has been equally unimpressive. With the exception of Billy Wagner, whose numbers may be good but whose luck is the far more telling statistic, the Phils relievers are giving up runs at an alarming pace. Tim Worrell’s ERA is 9.00; Gavin Floyd’s is 11.48; and Rheal Cormier’s 9.00.

It is fair to say the Phillies would have a better record if their relievers could hold the line.

* * * * * * * * *

It would also be fair to say the Phils would climb higher in the standings if they would hit with runners in scoring position. Last night they stranded eleven base runners. One clutch hit early in the game when the opportunities were ample would have changed the complexion of the game significantly. Chase Utley must have stranded more than half that total all by himself. His open stance leaves him vulnerable to breaking stuff in and major league pitchers are quick to take advantage, busting him inside. Utley is going to have to adjust. He is striking out nearly once every fourth at-bat (six times in 28 appearances).

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Not Quite An Embarrassment of Riches After All

So much for what to do with all of those quality starters.

Vicente Padilla’s 2005 debut wouldn’t have had to share top billing for the disaster du jour with Gavin Floyd’s inaugural outing as a relief pitcher if both of them hadn’t given up eight runs. Padilla might get the nod only because he allowed five home runs while Floyd held the Mets to a mere two.

It is difficult to assess Padilla’s performance given that this was his first big league start since suffering biceps tendonitis. Watching catcher Mike Lieberthal set up on the outside only to have Padilla come inside clearly indicated he lacked command at this stage. He also didn’t appear to have that much zip on his fastball, when he threw it. One start, no matter how terrible, provides insufficient data with which to evaluate Padilla’s recovery. The next start should tell all of us a lot more.

Gavin Floyd’s performance was another matter. We can endlessly debate whether or not it was a wise decision to relegate the youngster to the bullpen (I vote an unequivocal “no”), but two things are indisputable. One, this is his second straight poor performance, marked in large part by a complete lack of command of all of his pitches. Second, Floyd’s mechanics and delivery look all screwed up to this observer. He seems to be laboring in his delivery, pushing the ball up to the plate and following through in an awkward manner. In sum, he looks uncomfortable on the mound and the results show it. On the job training is bad enough; working fitfully out of the bullpen rather than on a predictable every fifth day is worse. The prediction here is that Floyd will be sent down to AAA where he can work regularly and out of the glare of the big-league spotlight. Let’s just hope he sees the “demotion” for what it should be, namely, a chance to gain more experience. The Phillies continue to be lousy at managing players’ psyches.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

All of Those Quality Starters

Welcome aboard, Randy. You’re next, Vicente.

Prior to last night’s appearance against a good hitting NY Mets team, Randy Wolf had struggled in his first two outings, his numbers inflating the Phillies starters’ overall ERA. Not anymore. Wolf used his assortment of big, slow curves, sneaky fastballs and change of speeds to hurl shutout ball through eight plus innings. Then he allowed three straight singles and a run to begin the ninth inning and was relieved by Tim Worrell.

Wolf’s performance was critical to him as well as the team. The Phillies only left-handed starter and senior member in terms of tenure on the club, Wolf is being counted on heavily. This outing was vintage Wolf as he kept Mets’ hitters off balance all night until he tired to open the ninth inning.

By the way, Worrell came in with two runners on and yielded a 3-run homer to Cliff Floyd making the game close. For his less than impressive effort, Worrell recorded a save. Something needs to be done about that sort of miscarriage of statistics. And something else needs to be done about Worrell’s ineffectiveness. The sight of him coming into a game hardly inspires confidence anymore.

Tonight, Vicente Padilla makes his 2005 debut following a lost Spring with biceps tendonitis and a stint on the Disabled List to open the season. Padilla will be watched very closely in his first few starts. If he falters, Gavin Floyd’s stint in the bullpen, a terrible decision in the first place, will be over and Padilla’s time in a Phillies uniform may be drawing to a close. In today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, Jim Salisbury writes that those close to Padilla, a very small group by any standard, say he looks sharp and is ready to fulfill his potential.

Padilla has suffered many of the same problems that plagued Brett Myers prior to this season: a short fuse and shorter attention span. Myers has made huge strides in both departments and is off to a tremendous start. Now comes Padilla’s turn to prove he can shrug off adversity, maintain his composure and learn to pitch not just throw. If he comes through, the Phils will be faced with a pleasant dilemma, namely, what to do with all of these quality starters.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Bailed Out

Placido isn’t going quietly. Neither is Chase. And apparently Billy intends to use all of the ballpark for the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, Bobby still approaches the wall as if it intends him bodily harm. And Brett has arrived.

It was quite a weekend series with Atlanta.

After Friday night’s meltdown, it appeared the Phils were slipping into a serious funk. They looked lethargic and outclassed by a Braves team that entered the game with an anemic offense. Five home runs later, the Phils had a three-game losing streak and the Braves had their two best pitchers on tap.

But the Phils had their two best pitchers scheduled as well. John Lieber, unflappable and largely unhitable thus far just takes the ball, throws strikes, works quickly, and departs a winner. At 35 years of age he has become the Phillies elder statesmen chronologically and temperamentally.

Brett Myers used to be at the opposite end of the spectrum on both of those counts, but no more. There is little doubt that when the season began, Myers was the great unknown of the starting rotation. Possessed of youth and great stuff, Myers only lacked the emotional maturity to work through difficult spots. Whether by osmosis or a change in pitching coaches or the arrival of Lieber or all three, Myers has been outstanding in April. Though 1 – 0, he could easily be 3 – 0. The bullpen cost him one win and a lack of support cost him another. Not only has he pitched brilliantly, he has also pitched deep into each game. And he appears more comfortable and confident.

Charlie Manuel seems determined to stick with the platoon setup at second base. Chase Utley’s heroics on Saturday, at bat and in the field, didn’t earn him another start with lefty Mike Hampton pitching for Atlanta. Utley did enter the game as a pinch hitter in the ninth with a chance to make it two-for-two in the heroics department, but he failed to deliver. So Placido Polanco seized the opportunity and knocked in the winning run in the bottom of the tenth.

With no rumors to suggest either player is unhappy with the situation at present, it appears Manuel is sticking to his guns and playing each strictly by the book.

Billy Wagner, working for the third day in a row, again made things interesting. He gave up a one-out double to Brian Giles and then ignored him allowing Giles to steal third. After striking out Chipper Jones, Wagner induced Andruw Jones to hit a slow roller on which David Bell made a fine play to end the threat. The double by Giles might have been caught by a right-fielder who is able to play the wall better than Bobby Abreu can; as it was, the ball was a few feet from being a back-breaking home run. After serving up two warning-track fly balls the day before, Wagner is developing quite a tight-rope act. Last season he was overworked by Larry Bowa early in the year and ended up on the DL twice. Saturday’s performance, his second in two days, could hardly be attributed to overwork; yesterday’s might be another matter. But nothing can excuse ignoring the runner at second base and allowing him to steal third with one out. Fortunately, his infield bailed him out defensively for the second game in a row and then, an inning later, bailed out the entire team offensively.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

He'd Rather Be Luck Than Good

Make no mistake about it. Billy Wagner would absolutely rather be lucky than good. And he was. For the second time in three outings Wagner was far from dominant as he gave up two hits, two long fly ball outs, a wild pitch and one sinking liner that second baseman Chase Utley dived for to record the final out as the Phillies hung on to snap a three-game losing streak by beating Atlanta 2-1.

Wagner is beginning to remind me a little of former Orioles relief pitcher Don “Full Pack” Stanhouse, so named because he allowed too many base runners or ran too many full counts in the opinion of O’s manager Earl Weaver, who allegedly smoked a full pack of cigarettes just during Stanhouse’s appearances.

Either Wagner has lost something on his fastball or batters are starting to catch up with it, but whatever the explanation, he has been hit hard in two of his last three appearances. Fortunately for him and the Phils it was Utley’s turn to start since right-hander John Smoltz was on the mound. Utley made the most of his opportunity going two for three, driving in a run and preserving the win with his glove. He earned the right to start tomorrow night when the Phils face left-hander Mike Hampton on national television in the series finale. And it’s time for Charlie Manuel to throw away the book on platooning and give the kid a chance to play every day.

Not Overburdened

Uncanny. Once again, the Phillies’ alleged “brain trust” is true to form.

After last night’s disastrous outing by Gavin Floyd, but not due to it, the Phils announced the young starter would be taking up new digs in the bullpen to make room for Vicente Padilla, who returns from the Disabled List.

Thus, faced with a choice of sending Floyd down to AAA where the youngster could get regular work as the starter he is or sticking him in an admittedly shaky Phillies bullpen where he has absolutely no place being, the baseball men who run this organization made the wrong choice. Normally, one might say the odds were even they’d make the right one, but “normal” isn’t in the cards where Ed Wade et al are concerned.

For his part, Floyd seems to have accepted his new assignment with an equanimity belying his youth. I hope his agent is less sanguine and raises a ruckus.

* * * * * * * * *

Last night against the Braves, Jimmy Rollins blew a chance to lead the Phillies right back into the game after Floyd surrendered four runs in the top of the first inning. Rollins was on second base and Placido Polanco was on first when Bobby Abreu hit a shot off the left centerfield wall. Rollins misjudged how far the ball was hit and retreated to second base preparing to tag instead of playing it at least half way. Even Andruw Jones had no chance to make the catch, but he did play the carom perfectly (maybe he could offer Kenny Lofton some lessons), threw a perfect relay to Raphael Furcal who gunned Rollins down at the plate. Had Rollins not retreated to within a few steps of second, he would have beaten the throw. Instead of having one run in, men or second and third and no outs, the Phils settled for two runs when Jim Thome followed Abreu and doubled.

Rollins blunder, a momentum buster despite the rbi double by Thome, recalled Jason Michael’s poor base running against the Nationals two weeks ago that also proved costly. It may be early in the season, but these are the fundamentals good teams are supposed to have worked on in Spring Training and execute right out of the gate.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Give Us a Break

ESPN’s obsession with the Yankees and Red Sox continues unabated. As is frequently the case in our society, cable television takes a cultural phenomenon, in this case an historic rivalry that over the years moves in and out of the nation’s consciousness, and overexposes it until the majority of the country resents everything about it.

Perhaps nothing better symbolizes how out of proportion the whole preoccupation has become than the focus on Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, which at various times is reported headed either to Cooperstown or to Ebay. Does anyone really care, except, of course, Schilling?

MLB accommodated ESPN and scheduled Boston and New York to meet in six of their first nine games. Viewers were [mis]treated to endless replays of Alex Rodriguez swatting the ball away from Bronson Arroyo in last year’s playoffs and, after last night’s contest, will no doubt be [mis]treated to endless replays of Gary Sheffield tussling with some of the Boston faithful in the stands.

The long-suffering and insufferable fans of Boston have been granted their championship at long last. Now, how about granting the rest of us a respite from hearing all the bloody details?

* * * * * * * * *

No one has been a bigger fan of Placido Polanco than I. On merit he should be a starter on some major league team. I have come to the conclusion, however, that team shouldn’t be the Phillies at this juncture. It is time to give Chase Utley a chance to play every day rather than shuffling him in and out of the lineup. How else will he find his groove at the plate and, more importantly, in the field? If that means throwing him in there against a Dontrelle Willis, so be it. The best every day players have to learn to hit all kinds of pitching.

As it stands now, Charlie Manuel has focused on centerfield and second base as his platoon positions. He is hardly the first manager to employ such a strategy. Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver are two notable managers who thrived on platooning. But it is too early in Utley’s career to use him as a part-time player.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Meanwhile, Back at the Ballpark

Some of the Phillies starting pitchers need more work on the logic than their stuff.

Randy Wolf had another shaky outing last week, allowing six runs in just over four innings. Afterwards, Wolf told reporters he had his best command of the Spring. Yikes!

Brett Myers had another lousy outing over the weekend but with a logic known only to himself declared he was pleased with his fastball. The line score read: 11 hits, six runs, 3 1/3 innings pitched. Myers now sports an ERA of 9.56. But, oh that fastball!

* * * * * * * * *

Poor Marlon Byrd. He has had a fantastic Spring and appears to be a cinch to head north with the club. Moreover, with Kenny Lofton still nursing a hamstring, Byrd looked like a good bet to begin the season as the starting centerfielder. So what happens? He dives back into first base to avoid a pickoff and dislocates a finger. As of yesterday, the finger was merely dislocated not broken, and no ligament damage seems to have occurred; but Marlon could be out as many as two weeks. Whatever the final diagnosis, it makes sense for him to sit until fully recovered. Jim Thome injured a finger last spring, tried to play through it, and never fully healed. But Byrd and the Phils must be disappointed.

* * * * * * * * *

Indications are David Bell will be in the starting lineup come opening day. That leaves our old friend Placido Polanco without a spot. I’ll spare readers my usual litany of Polanco’s virtues and simply predict he will get a lot of playing time before too long.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Hot Links

Looking for a new-age sign that the seasons really do turn? Take a glance at the list of hot links to the various sports that resides on the left side of ESPN’s opening splash page. Sure enough, MLB has moved up to the number three slot, right behind the NBA and College Basketball.

In Philadelphia, however, MLB would only rank number four. The locals can’t or won’t let go of the Eagles. As Grapefruit League play gets underway, most of the talk-show junkies -- hosts, guests and callers alike -- are far more preoccupied with whom the Eagles have signed, re-signed, declined to sign, tendered offers to, or not tendered offers to. The Phillies? Oh, yeah, the Phillies. Camp has opened, right?

The Inquirer’s Jim Salisbury devotes his entire column today to the region’s lack of enthusiasm for the Phillies. “This winter, you needed a high-powered stethoscope to detect a Phillies buzz,” Salisbury writes.

What is it going to take to turn a few more heads? How about winning? The Eagles have been to four straight NFC championship games and one Super Bowl. True, they lost all four of them, but they have routinely advanced deep into the playoffs. The Phils last made a playoff appearance in 1993. Since then, they have had seven losing seasons. Five managers have come and gone. Great players have been signed and lost. The one constant has been disappointment and mediocrity.

Will this be the year things change? Few if any observers are predicting an end to the futility. A lot of good things must happen, especially among the starting rotation, and already one on whom much hope is riding, Vicente Padilla, has been shut down for the remainder of spring training with recurring tendonitis.

The bright spot may be their offense. Much of its success will depend on two players, Pat Burrell and Mike Lieberthal. If the left fielder can regain his confidence and hit between .270 and .280, the heart of the order – Abreu, Thome and Burrell – will be potent. If Lieberthal can start as fast as he finished last season, the Phils won’t strand so many runners in scoring position. And with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and (I predict) Placido Polanco surrounding those three, the Phils should score runs.

Admittedly those are a lot of “ifs”, but, allowing for this big one, if the offense produces heads will surely turn and by the time the Eagles open training camp in July and the hot link to the NFL begins to rise over at ESPN, the locals will be too engrossed in a pennant race to be distracted.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Notes and Comments

Among the early reports out of Clearwater was an item regarding David Bell’s fragile back. The 32-year old third baseman said it was nothing, but similar woes cost him most of the 2003 season and several games last year. Just one more reason the unexpected presence of Placido Polanco may provide needed insurance. Polanco has previously filled in for the oft-injured Bell at third. Bell told reporters he has spasms about once a year and they pass. Speaking as someone who has had spasms and disc surgery, one can lean over in the shower to pick up the soap and suddenly. . . .

* * * * * * * *

Let me be among the first to pronounce the Ryan Howard outfield experiment a failure, not for lack of determination or effort on his part, but because the 6-foot-4, 230 pound left handed slugger is just not outfielder material. The move smacks of desperation on the Phillies ‘part, to get his bat into the lineup somehow and to keep the kid happy. But Howard doesn’t appear to be unhappy and I believe he still has options. The best thing for Howard would be to start the season at AAA, where he can play every day at first base and get his at-bats. And it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to keep in mind item number one above (see Bell-Polanco) just in case Jim Thome, who played hurt all of last season, goes down for a stretch.

* * * * * * * *

I saw an item where Rafael Palmeiro is considering suing Jose Canseco over allegations the former used steroids. The interesting aspect of the story is that were Palmeiro to pursue the suit, it is rumored he would hire the law firm of O’s owner Peter Angelos to represent him. Angelos made his fortune litigating asbestos cases, not defamation of character suits. Indeed, Angelos has arguably made a baseball career of destroying if not defaming the character of entire franchises, namely his own. Nevertheless, payment plans in such an arrangement would be easy, I guess; Palmeiro could simply have the fees deducted from his salary checks. On the other hand, were Angelos to lose the case, it might be awkward for Palmeiro to do any public relations for the team.

* * * * * * * *

Just a minor digression here. The 76ers made two trades Wednesday just before the deadline and in the process left themselves shorthanded with a league-mandated minimum of eight players for a game they eventually lost to the Knicks last night. For a team that is struggling to play .500 ball to “give away” a game seems inexcusable. I’ve heard the expression to “have a game in hand”, but that usually refers to teams who have the luxury of losing a game and still maintaining their advantage. The 76ers hardly qualify.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Be Optimistic

Every time I resolve to be optimistic about the Phillies’ playoff chances they pull me back in.

Granted, I am a major league worrier by nature and thus prone to looking for trouble, but the Phils always oblige by presenting me with ample opportunities to act in character.

Even before he was officially scheduled to arrive in camp, there was Pat Burrell, already weary of unconfirmed and, according to him, completely unfounded reports that his wrist was still sore. Moreover, Pat made it clear he is sick and tired of all of the advice he’s been offered the last few seasons on how to cure his now chronic hitting woes, pointing out that new batting coach Milt Thompson will be his fifth such instructor since reaching the majors.

Walk softly, Milt.

Pitching remains the name of the game and on that front the key starter may be Randy Wolf. Randy would like to put last season behind him. Who can blame him? The line on Wolf has always been that he possesses four or five major league pitches and mixes them up well, keeping batters off balance. In addition, Wolf has one of the best pick-off moves in the league and fields his position extremely well. I like Randy and want him to succeed, but his assortment of junk and off-speed pitches don’t impress me that much since he doesn’t really possess all that great a fastball to offset them. It seems to me batters lay off the 70 mph lobs and sit on that fastball. More troubling, he is prone to giving up fly balls in a ballpark that is, well, you know where I’m going with this one. What concerns me the most, however, is Randy’s health. He has made a few trips to the DL over the last two or three seasons and has been shut down at other times. His left arm just might not be built to take the strain. On the other hand, did we mention this guy can hit? Three home runs and eight RBI’s last season in a mere 45 at-bats. Randy may be a candidate for retrofitting.

What would the Spring be without a little controversy? Having dumped Larry Bowa, I would have guessed that whatever controversy there was to be had in Clearwater would not emanate from the manager’s office, but lo and behold, on the first official day Charlie Manuel opined that he would expect Placido Polanco not only to get his ab’s this season, but who knows, he could even start come April. Ed Wade, no stranger to the misstep himself, quickly countered the next day that he never even expected Polanco to re-sign with the Phils in the first place and that as far as he was concerned, Chase Utley was penned in to start at second.

Dare I say I am optimistic Utley will indeed be given every chance to prove he can handle the job?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Eleventh Hour

(Editor’s Note: This is the second digression from our principal topic, baseball, in the last few weeks. With catchers and pitchers reporting today, we expect to be more focused going forward.)

We baby-boomers have been accused of lacking perspective in most matters historical; our progeny are deemed even less conversant with the past. So when the NHL cancelled its entire season yesterday, a first for major league sports in North America, baby-boomers and their offspring everywhere, whether hockey fans or not, surely shook their heads and concluded that current labor relations in hockey must represent a new low in professional sport.

We may be right this time.

Recent history gave us the 1994-95 baseball seasons during which a strike lasting 232 days finally forced cancellation of the ’94 World Series, the first such cancellation in 92 years. (The strike began in August, 1994, and lasted through the end of the regular and post-seasons and all of Spring training in 1995. A few regular-season games were also lost at the start of the 1995 season before both sides put a halt to further self-inflicted wounds.) The NBA strike of 1998-99 lasted 191 days and cost 928 games. The NHL lockout of 1994-95 ran for 103 days and resulted in the cancellation of 468 games. And, of course, there was the infamous 1987 NFL strike during which the owners hired replacement players two weeks into the walkout before a settlement was reached.

Eventually the antagonists in these sports reached enough of an accommodation to salvage a portion of each season, though the cancellation of the ’94 playoffs and World Series after two months of a walkout certainly ended that season unceremoniously (pun intended).

A few things seem axiomatic about most labor negotiations, inside and outside the world of sport. For one thing, preliminary exchanges of positions seem largely a waste of time; most serious negotiations seem to take place at the eleventh hour. Second, final offers are rarely that. And third, both parties might say a lot of nasty things about each other but such behavior is considered posturing with at least one eye on the public.

At this stage, no one is sure what will happen with the NHL next season. Having allegedly come close to a settlement at their eleventh hour, both sides stiffened and refused to go further. Now, everyone associated with hockey is understandably reluctant to predict when, let alone if, the two sides will start negotiations regarding next year. The degree of bitterness is palpable, especially on the players’ side. And despite some “defections”, especially by European-born players who could and did sign with European clubs and played during the negotiations, the Union appears determined not to make more concessions.

For their part, management is expressing the customary sadness and disappointment, but in the final analysis they held the power to cancel an entire season and they exercised that authority. Their next collective decision is to determine whether or not they can afford to lose the lucrative sponsorships, media revenue and, yes, season-ticket revenues anticipated for next year. The guess here is they cannot.

Stay tuned . . . for developments at the eleventh hour.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005



Most people want it at one time or another. Some of them need it. Few ever achieve it.

The baseball blogger lives on the periphery, part of a community but far removed from its inner circles. His greatest advantage? Independence. His greatest disadvantage? Independence.

Years ago, as a young investor, I read an article on stock analysts and the difficulties they faced balancing responsibility to their employers (largely brokerages and mutual fund companies), the industries they followed, and the investing public. Needless to say their employers were interested in ratings that generated order flows. The industries they followed, and who provided them with some of their data and much of their guidance, were available as long as the resultant reports were not too negative. And the public? Well, let’s just say there are generally few “sell” ratings issued, at least not by analysts who want to remain employed or wish to maintain access to the companies they follow.

Bloggers, analysts of a sort, are not beholden to the teams they follow nor to any individuals – players, management, media or fans – associated with them. They are free to express their opinions, outrage and adoration. By the same token, as far as I know bloggers rarely if ever have access to most of these people either. The day may come when bloggers are poised by a player’s locker, PDA or electronic tablet in hand, taking down what he or she says and posting it nearly simultaneously, but for now that kind of access is unavailable. So, we tend to react to secondary sources, a newspaper column here, a radio or television commentary there, an internet post. What we lack is an opportunity to go directly to a source and ask our own questions. We are, perforce, observers and commentators not interlocutors.

Many bloggers might prefer to maintain their independence, but there are already precedents for others seeking and gaining access, the most notable being those bloggers who were accredited at the Democratic Party national convention last summer.

A few weeks ago I sought “press” credentials from MLB and the Philadelphia Phillies and was turned down ostensibly because, as the PR department of the Phillies told me, they have an exclusive online relationship with MLB that precludes “credentialing any online sources other than ESPN such as bloggers.” So for now, at least, I remain independent, without access, free and willing to express myself.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Mere Mortals

I’m sorry but Kyle Lohse just isn’t worth it. Last week, the Twins’ 26-year old starter, who earned $395,00 in 2004, won his arbitration case with the club and will receive $2.4 million in 2005. That's a raise of slightly more than a $2 million for those who are counting. This after going 9-13 with a 5.34 ERA last season. In four big league campaigns the right-hander is 40-39 with 4.86 ERA. I’d love to see a transcript of the arbitration panel’s deliberations if for no other reason than I haven’t read any good fiction in a while.

* * * * * * * *

Larry Bowa turned down the opportunity to despoil the Florida Marlins’ clubhouse for, what else, the bigger bucks and audience he will reach by appearing regularly on XM radio’s baseball channel and on ESPN. Don’t look for him to last more than a season at either venue. Four years of listening to the occasional post-game press conference convinced this observer Bowa has little insight to offer about the game and even less about those who play it.

* * * * * * * *

Curt Schilling, ever gracious, has donated his bloody sock to the baseball Hall of Fame thus sparing us a potentially awkward replay of the debate that gripped the entire Route 128 corridor concerning ownership of that other relic to enter Red Sox lore, “the ball” Doug Mientkiewicz gripped at the end of the World Series. Schilling, keenly aware of baseball history and his place in it, must have peeled off the sock immediately following his appearance on prime time television and forbidden the clubhouse laundry service from including it among the uniforms of his teammates, mere mortals that they are.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Rush to Judgment

It’s too easy to sit back and take pot shots at Jose Conseco. I am as guilty of the next party in assuming his allegations are unfounded and unscrupulous at best and his motives vengeful and base.

As I wrote yesterday, at this juncture it may be prudent if not fair to await comments by the main targets of those allegations before reaching any conclusions. My greater willingness to take a more even-handed approach to Conseco, whom I do not admire in the slightest, is prompted by comments made by Ron Rappaport, the sports commentator, on NPR’s Weekend Edition. Rappaport argued persuasively that the public was more than willing to accept the story by BALCO founder Victor Conte that Barry Bonds used steroids he supplied but has been equally quick to dismiss Conseco’s allegations as those of desperate man seeking to make a buck. Conte, Rappaport points out, may be motivated by a far greater need than that of Conseco, namely, staying out of prison.

Bonds is not well liked by much of the public and most of the media. Conseco’s reputation is even worse. But Victor Conte’s behavior hardly rises above that of either man. In the end the entire steroid matter is far too complicated and its implications too great to rush to any judgments.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Coming Clean or Not

Jason Giambi apologized. . . sort of.

The public rehabilitation of the Yankee first baseman got off to a rocky start with the media because he failed to specifically mention what he was sorry about. Giambi and his handlers attributed his omission to a court order forbidding him to mention specifics. The press are all over him largely because they see Giambi’s mea culpa as less an honest attempt to seek redemption and more a consequence of being outed and thus forced to seek the public’s forgiveness. Of course if Giambi had hit 73 home runs in a season while leading the Yankees to a World Series victory, a single “sorry” would have been sufficient for many people.

Giambi strikes me as being a decent guy who isn’t particularly overburdened. Whether or not his apology was thorough enough or prompted by the best intentions, he is the only high-profile figure willing to speak publicly at all. That is more than can be said for Bonds, McGwire, Sosa et al.

* * * * * * * *

Speaking of the above sluggers, one of those dreaded instant internet polls on ESPN yesterday was revealing if utterly unscientific. Asked whom the voters considered the single season home run champ (the choices were Roger Maris, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds), 45.9 % of 99,269 voters chose Maris. The results reflect several attitudes: disgust in general with the steroids allegations surrounding three of the choices and the ongoing antipathy towards Bonds, the undisputed single-season record holder until another asterisk says differently

* * * * * * * *

Nearly every Law and Order junkie knows it is very difficult if not impossible to make a case based on hearsay. Don’t tell Jose Canseco, who is doing just that with his new book. I’m hardly in a position to assess the allegations Canseco makes, but I would hazard a guess his last desperate effort to make a buck from baseball will have one result: some of the people he names are going to have to step up and face the court of public opinion more squarely. At this juncture, their teammates and former managers and coaches are doing most of the talking.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Commercial Coda

As the Hot Stove League winds down and Spring Training looms on the horizon it seemed an appropriate time to stand back from all the off-season commerce we witnessed and revisit Baseball’s Greatest Quotes (compiled by Kevin Nelson) for some perspective on the business of baseball. (Though long out of print, this book occasionally shows up at )

Starting off is this now legendary quote from Philip Wrigley, no stranger to hard bargaining:

Baseball is too much of a sport to be called a business, and too much of a business to be called a sport.

The last people who went broke in baseball were Roy and Earle Mack, Connie’s sons. And I claim they did it on merit. – Red Smith (columnist)

I'm going to write a book, How to Make a Small Fortune in Baseball. First, you start with a large fortune. -- Ruly Carpenter (former owner of Phillies)

I’m the most loyal player money can buy. -- Don Sutton (pitcher)

This loyalty stuff is a bunch of bull. Anybody should have a chance to make it while they can. --Wayne Garland (pitcher)

It isn’t the price of stars that’s expensive. It’s the high price of mediocrity. -- Bill Veeck (former owner of White Sox among others)

We live by the Golden Rule. Those who have the gold make the rules. -- Buzzie Bavasi (GM with Dodgers among others)

Barring the discovery of oil wells under second base, financial losses in the next five year will be nearly ten times greater than in the last five. -- Bowie Kuhn, Commissioner, 1981 (“citing skyrocketing players’ salaries in the free agent era.”)

Baseball as at present conducted is a gigantic monopoly, intolerant of opposition and run on a grab-all-there-is-in-sight policy that is alienating its friends and disgusting the very public that has so long and cheerfully given. . .support. -- Cap Anson (Hall of Fame player speaking near the turn of the 20th century)

All football has to do is play its games, and the baseball owners will chase their public to them with their ignorant greed. – Jimmy Cannon (sportswriter)

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Take a Good Look in the Mirror

Boys will be boys, but Cole Hamels had better grow up fast.

After breaking his pitching hand the other morning in a fight outside a bar, Hamels, one of the Phillies’ top pitching prospects, is expected to be out of action for about three months. With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to camp in a few weeks, that means Hamels would miss all of Spring training.

To make matters worse, Hamels lost most of last year to injury, so it is safe to say he is far behind whatever schedule the parent club envisioned for him. To make matters even worse, this may be he second injury he has suffered that is fight-related. The Inquirer’s Jim Salisbury reports there were rumors Hamels suffered a broken arm in high school because of a fight. Hamels denied it.

Hamels is one in a series of hot-heads the Phils seem to attract. Brett Myers and Vicente Padilla often lose their cool to the detriment of the club, but they at least have completed their minor league apprenticeships and pitched well at times in the majors. In Hamels case, management has made him one of the cornerstone of their future plans, refusing to include him in any trade discussions. Having let the side down, he is in real danger of upsetting the Phils best laid plans and in the process never making it to the big leagues. He needs to take a good look in the mirror.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Santa Redux

Here we go again.

With the Philadelphia Eagles in this year’s Super Bowl, the national press corps has seized the occasion to trot out the usual stories about how unruly and downright boorish local fans are supposed to be. Heading the list of sordid tales being dredged up is an anonymous AP piece in the New York Times the other day purporting once and for all to set the record straight regarding the 1968 incident in which Eagles fans booed Santa Claus.

A close reading of the article begins and ends with the unnamed author insisting, Those famously churlish Philadelphia fans cannot hide behind the urban legends. The truth is out there: they simply booed Santa Claus. Case closed. Quoting no greater authority than Santa himself, nee Frank Olivo, the author goes on to “dispel” the “legends” that Frank, I mean Santa, was drunk and dressed in tattered red rags.

Later in the article the author invokes another high authority to support his version of the story, Eagles’ super fan and current Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who, as it turns out, was at the game in question and opined that the fans were not venting their frustration at the “sad-sack Santa” (the author’s words, not the governor’s) but at the admittedly sad-sack team.

From that point on in this retelling, things get muddy. As legend purportedly has it, Frank, I mean Santa, was indeed a fill-in for the hired Jolly One, who was stranded by bad weather. The Eagles, already committed to a half-time entertainment show that included some sort of Santa, approached Olivo and asked him to stand in for the missing one. Frank was more than willing. The author picks up the story there: By 1968, Olivo, then a skinny 20-year old, had been wearing a Santa suit and fake white beard to the last Eagles’ home game for several years.

So, this was no urban legend; Frank was indeed a well-known impostor, and a skinny one at that, complete with a fake beard. Whether or not Olivo was inebriated will never be known though one suspects some sort of additive might have steeled his nerve. What is known, however, is that Frank, I mean Santa, did exhibit some distinctly un-Santa-like behavior during his moment in the spotlight. Again, let the AP writer describe the events that followed:

As instructed, Olivo ran downfield past a row of elf-costumed Eaglettes as the team’s 50-person brass band played ‘Here Comes Santa Claus.’

Thunderous boos erupted from a crowd of 54,535.

"When I hit the end zone, and the snowballs started, I was waving my finger at the crowd, saying ‘You’re not getting anything for Christmas,’"
Olivo recalled.

So, there you have it. You be the judge. Who was being “churlish” here? Frank, I mean Santa, who didn’t exactly look the part and most definitely didn't act it, by his own account, or the Philadelphia faithful, who knew an impostor when they saw one and, whatever other shortcomings they may have had, were not easily nor willingly duped?

One more issue needs to be addressed before you reach your verdict. The entire affair received little notice anywhere, as the AP author correctly points out, including the City of Brotherly Love, until Howard Cossel, a man not known to let the facts get in the way of a story, picked it up and gave it his usual understated treatment, that is to say, likened it to a public stoning.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Damned if you do. . . .

Damned if you do, really damned if you do out of desperation.

A few days after Orioles' owner Peter Angelos described the Miami Marlins’ 4-year $52 million signing of Carlos Delgado as “fiscal insanity” the O’s traded infielder Jerry Hairston and two prospects to the Chicago Cubs for 36-year old Sammy Sosa. To underscore just how fiscally responsible Angelo's believes his deal is, he can look himself in the mirror and say the Cubs will be stuck with 10-12 million dollars of Sammy’s $17 million contract for the coming year. What a steal! The O’s will only be paying a mere seven million dollars for a guy who batted .253 in 2004 with 35 home runs and 80 rbi’s in 126 games. Sosa's current contract also guarantees him $18 million for 2006 with a Cubs' option to buy out the contract for $4.5 million. Presumably, the Orioles would be assuming that portion of the contract and could decide based on Sammy's performance to exercise the buyout option and lose him to free agency in 2006. If they do cut Sosa loose, their deal works out to yet another one-year rental. One man's fiscal insanity is another man's loss leader.

The Orioles were expected to be very active in the free agent market this year but have thus far failed to land any player of stature or impact. After several years of losing, the natives are understandably restless, especially with no one of Cal Ripken's stature to ease the pain. Not to worry. In stepped Angelos who has a history of acquiring marquee players past their prime for ridiculous sums. Albert Belle, please stand up, if you can. Even more ominous, Sosa missed 36 games last season with back and hip injuries. Albert, are you still there?

Sammy, once considered the only guy not named Jordan who could unseat anyone named Daley for the top job in Chicago, has worn out his welcome in the Windy City after a series of incidents from a corked bat to an early departure from the friendly confines while a game was still in progress. Of course, it didn’t help matters that his batting average and home run production had dropped off considerably the last two seasons or that he didn't get along with manager Dusty Baker. Not to worry. When in decline, you can always count on Peter Angelos to open his heart and his wallet.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Pivotal Point

Brett Myers is already unhappy. Well, fella, that makes a lot of us.

In a piece by Jim Salisbury in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, Myers places most of the blame for last season’s mediocre record and sky-high ERA on nearly everyone but himself, citing a lack of focus due to conflicting advice and too much of it.

To be sure, micromanagers like the departed Larry Bowa and Joe Kerrigan bent too many players’ ears in opposite directions too often, but the always-simmering Myers didn’t help his own cause by imploding on the mound more than once when things didn’t go his way and by playing overweight and out-of-shape.

Claiming he “knows what is being said up here [Philadelphia],” Myers already appears to have placed a good-sized chip on his broad shoulders. What else should people “up here” be thinking when a pitcher for whom so much was expected obviously loses his cool on the mound frequently and fails to deliver time and again?

The Phillies are counting on Myers; indeed, they were counting on him last year, his second full season in the majors following an excellent 2003. At some point people stop regarding a player as full of potential and begin to regard him as someone who failed to reach his potential. For Myers this may be that pivotal point.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Florida Improvements

The Florida Marlins have signed free agent first baseman Carlos Delgado to a four-year $52 million contract. The 32-year old Delgado has hit 336 home runs in his career, including eight straight seasons with 30 or more.

The deal clearly strengthens the Marlins’ lineup and establishes them as one of the favorites in the NL East. Their only weakness, and it is a glaring one, is the bullpen. The big Delgado contract also marks a departure for a club known for leasing veteran players for short periods rather than signing them for longer terms, but that approach will have to change in the next few seasons if the Marlins expect to hold onto some of their young stars as they mature.

For those keeping track, Delgado’s last known address was Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

There is a growing consensus that the Phillies chief division rivals have all improved themselves significantly in the off-season while the locals have made only relatively minor adjustments except in the manager’s office. There will be ample opportunity to explore this topic as spring training unfolds.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Unconditional Love

I digress. The Eagles are the toast of this frosted town.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bill Lyons, as is his wont, put it best: If you were just coming of legal age when the Birds last won a championship, you are now collecting Social Security.

Philadelphians love their Iggles unconditionally. No matter what the disappointments, and there have been many more of those than triumphs over the years, when it comes to their gridiron heroes, all is always forgiven and forgotten in one huge collective embrace. The locals may have allegedly booed Santa Claus, but they never hold grudges against their football idols.

Something about this town’s makeup binds them closely to the sort of players who grind it out and get their uniforms dirty. And even though Philadelphia has become more of a service industry town like so many other former manufacturing centers, that lunch pail tradition persists and explains, in large measure, why teams like the Eagles and the Flyers engender much deeper loyalties than, say, the Phillies or Sixers.

This year’s installment of the Eagles has finally made it to the grandest stage after three straight near-misses. Naturally, their adoring public is besides itself. The Super Bowl will feature a Philly-Boston match-up befitting a long tradition whose archives include the legendary Sixers/Warriors vs. Celtics battles of the Chamberlain-Russell and Irving-Bird eras and the Flyers-Bruins Cup series of the early ‘70’s.

So, it’s Quaker Philadelphia vs. Puritan Boston once again. Don’t expect pacifism from those fellows in green.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Bargains Galore

Phillies fans, take heart, you could be living in Houston. After coming so close to their first NL pennant ever, the Astros have fallen on hard times. No Jeff Kent. No Carlos Beltran. No Lance Berkman for the foreseeable future. But the Astros will have Roger Clemens for another season and for $4.5 million less than his original asking price. Clemens has signed a one year deal for $18.5 million, a record figure for a pitcher. What a steal. I wonder if that amount puts Roger over the limit retired folks can earn without affecting their social security stipend?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Aging Wonders

Nothing personal, Jose, but why exactly do the Phillies need you? The signing of 36-year old Jose Offerman to a minor league contract gives the Phillies three utility infielders, Tomas Perez, Placido Polanco and Offerman. What, if anything, does GM Ed Wade have up his sleeve? Surely he doesn’t intend to carry three utility infielders next season. Offerman can play outfield, too, but the Phils already have Jason Michaels and Marlon Byrd backing up out there. I can hear the press conference now: Offerman brings a veteran bat, versatility and experience to the clubhouse.

No matter what his mysterious plan may be, Ed has been pulling out all the stops lately in his inimitable way. Lofton, Lidle, Lieber, Adams (yes, fans, Terry is back), Pratt, Perez and Offerman. The Phillies aren’t getting better just older.

Among the youngsters, the signing of Jimmy Rollins to a one-year deal is not encouraging in one respect: for some reason the Phillies don’t appear able to work out a longer-term deal with their star shortstop. The problem might not lie with management., however. This makes at least two straight years Rollins has resisted signing here for more than one season at a time. He may simply be determined to test free agency when his turn comes up. His loss would be tremendous.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Go Figure

What are the Phillies doing with Placido Polanco?

First, the free agent second baseman surprised everyone by accepting arbitration. Yesterday the Phillies avoided an arbitration hearing by signing him to a one-year deal worth $4.6 million. Given the Phillies have already handed the starting second base job to Chase Utley, the Polanco signing makes him one very expensive utility infielder, all the more so since the Phils also signed super sub Tomas Perez in late October to a two-year deal.

The guess here is one of several scenarios will unfold next season: either Polanco will be traded, Chase Utley will have to prove himself right out of the box or lose his job, or the Phillies are taking a wait-and-see approach to David Bell’s always-precarious health. Whatever the outcome, keeping Polanco, an excellent hitter and even better fielder, on the bench most of the season is a waste of his talent and value.

* * * * * * *

Roger Clemens had made his bid for another sort of immortality. The ageless wonder is asking for a record $22 million one-year deal from the Astros, a mere $8.5 million more than the club has offered. Had they re-signed Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran there might have been more incentive though hardly enough cash to keep Roger. Without those two, and despite the savings, the Astros will be harder-pressed to contend this coming season and would be crazy to waste the money on Clemens. Clemens has averaged 31.4 starts over the last five seasons. If the Astros capitulate, Clemens will earn just north of $700,000 per start in 2005.