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.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Strike Four!

And all along we thought it was three strikes and you’re out.

MLB and the Players’ Union today announced a new steroid policy that imposes a suspension of up to ten days for a first positive test, a 30-day suspension for a second, a 60-day suspension for a third, and a one-year banishment for a fourth positive test. Under the old drug policy, a player got five chances before being suspended for a year.

The new agreement also calls for random tests throughout the year.

Commissioner Bug Selig remarked, ``I've been saying for some time my goal for this industry is zero tolerance toward steroids.''

Bud, zero doesn’t equal four no matter how you spin it.

Faced with a major scandal when Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds admitted using steroids (Bonds only admitted to unknowingly using them) and when former NL MVP Ken Caminitti, a known steroid abuser, died from a drug overdose, MLB has taken small steps toward so-called zero tolerance.

In the strictest sense, zero tolerance would mean some sort of lengthy banishment on the first offense to say nothing of a second one. But labor and management don’t have the guts to make a serious commitment despite Selig’s claim that ``We're acting today to help restore the confidence of our fans.'' Donald Fehr, the players’ union executive director, added, "The object is to stop [steroid abuse]. The object is not to penalize for the sake of penalizing."

Has anyone ever proposed penalizing players for the sake of penalizing them? What was Fehr thinking when he made that comment?

The commissioner and the executive director also insisted the new policies are as tough as any in major league sport. They aren’t. The NFL imposes much stricter penalties, including suspension for a minimum of 6 games (that is more than 1/3 the season) for a second offense and a minimum of one year for subsequent ones. But here’s even bigger news: minor league baseball players are subject to stiffer penalties and have been all along, including when compared to the major league’s previous plans, which this new one allegedly stiffens. And the big boys still refuse to include amphetamines among banned substances to be screened while the boys down on the farm have been tested for them for a few years now.

In the final analysis the new policy is tepid, a bone thrown to the fans who legitimately question the power figures put up over the last several seasons by Maguire, Bonds et al. Allowing four offenses before being banned for good hardly qualifies as a tough new policy. Anyone caught four times is an habitual user, plain and simple; someone who needs professional help and lots of it.

So, for now it’s one, two, three, four strikes you’re out of the old ball game. . . for a while, anyway.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Still Hope

Here are a few numbers to contemplate: $119 million and .267. In fairness to Carlos Beltran, baseball’s happiest camper, his lifetime average is a more decent .285. A few more figures to consider: 7 and 162. Carlos Beltran will receive his $119 for seven years of service, though undoubtedly his contract is structured to be paid out over a much longer period of time. Nevertheless, that works out to $104, 938.27 per game or roughly $26,234.57 per at-bat (based on four a game). Let’s hope he doesn’t swing at the first pitch too often; management might feel cheated.

Beltran was already being touted as this off-season’s free agent supreme well in advance of his astonishing post-season performance, but one cannot help feeling yet again his super agent, Steve Boras, succeeded in manipulating the market and in the process not only made Mr. and Mrs. Beltran wealthy beyond their imaginations, but also made baseball’s wealthiest owners look like the fools they are.

To repeat a mantra well-known to readers of this blog, Beltran is now with his third team in two years. Unlike many other free agents, his contract probably precludes his jumping to another one any time soon. But Carlos is only 27 years old, so the possibility remains that the other team in NY might sign him some day.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Not Your Usual Horse Trader

Now we know the answer to the question, “What does $500,000 buy in MLB anymore?” Terry Adams. Let us hope this move -- re-signing a guy the Phils didn’t want a year earlier -- isn’t their final one of the off-season. By the way, the Phillies are Adams’ sixth team in ten years and fourth (including the two stints here) in a single year. Very inspiring.

Ed Wade is trying to put the best face on the Phillies modest off-season acquisitions in light of the high-profile signings in New York and Atlanta, but he doesn’t sound very convincing. The guess here, though, is he is finished. The most likely candidate to be traded remains Placido Polanco, who clearly should be a starter by any standard but won’t be in Philadelphia, and one possible destination would be Arizona, which needs a second baseman and currently has a pitcher, Javier Vazquez, whom the Phillies covet. Vazquez, who prior to his trade from the Yankees in the Randy Johnson deal publicly stated he wanted to pitch on the East Coast, would be a welcome addition to the Phillies staff, but if the Phils acquired the young right-hander, who goes? Randy Wolf or Brett Myers would seem to be the likely candidates if such a trade were made, but where would they go and for whom? The Phils appear “set” in centerfield, their most glaring off-season need among position players until they signed stop-gap veteran Kenny Lofton. The only other position about which there has been speculation is catcher and Mike Lieberthal’s big contract remains a major obstacle to moving him.

So, Ed Wade has maneuvered himself into a corner again. When Polanco accepted arbitration, that was the first major surprise for the Phillies. It seems doubtful in hindsight the Phils would have made offers to Cory Lidle and John Lieber had they known Polanco would be available to trade. The equally quick move to sign Lofton smacked of Wade’s usual panicked approach and, again, he is stuck with the 37-year old center fielder for now.

The Phils still have needs and the means to fill them. But they lack the savvy to do so.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Standing Pat

Third or fourth. That is where the Phillies could conceivably finish this coming season.

While the Braves and Mets have improved themselves overall and the Marlins still boast an impressive starting rotation, the Phils added a rapidly aging centerfielder, one starting pitcher of modest accomplishment and questionable health, and re-signed a .500 career starter and a terrific second baseman whom they plan to keep on the bench. . . at least for now.

Long-term contracts are the key to the Phillies future moves and, more to the point, non moves. The biggest long-term contract looming is one they haven’t even signed yet; locking in Jimmy Rollins. Other contracts that have hamstrung the Phils include those of Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Mike Lieberthal. Two, if not three of these, may haunt the Phillies for years to come. Even Jim Thome’s deal could become something of an albratross moving forward, depending on his health. Nagged by injuries throughout 2004, the big guy is approaching that age when injuries occur more frequently and heal more slowly. The Burrell and Lieberthal contracts will tie up a lot of money for some time to come. Only Abreu’s deal looks good right now, but in fairness the Phils can’t be faulted for thinking Burrell’s contract was a smart move. At the time, they were applauded for locking him up.

Over in the NL Central, the Houston Astros, so close to making it to the World Series last year, having suffered several defections and will be hard-pressed to come in third within their own division in 2005. In a matter of weeks they lost Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran to free agency, Lance Berkman to an off-season injury, and the likelihood, slim though it might have been, that Roger Clemens would come back for one more season. The Astros are my nominee for this year’s poster team of what havoc free agency can wrought.

Back in the NL East, the New York Mets have clearly improved their fortunes and are now serious contenders for the division crown. In the same few weeks that saw the Astros fall from grace, the Mets have signed the aforementioned Beltran along with Pedro Martinez. They are also rumored to be looking seriously at free-agent first baseman Carlos Delgado.

The consensus is that Atlanta improved themselves significantly by moving John Smoltz back into the starting rotation and adding Oakland ace Tim Hudson. But the Braves also lost J.D. Drew and his bat will be difficult to replace. Even the Smoltz move is risky. He hasn’t started for several years and the strain on his elbow could be more than anyone in Atlanta bargained for. Still, the aspect of facing him and Hudson in a three-game series is far more daunting than facing, say, Randy Wolf and Brett Myers, or Vicente Padilla and John Lieber, unless, of course, Myers and Padilla finally realize their potentials.

In the end, the Phils’ prospects really rest on the arms of the young starters for whom so much has been expected. If they finally deliver, the Phillies will contend. If they are unable to improve on last season, Citizens Bank Park will see a lot of empty seats come July and August.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Still Ineligible

It now seems clear that one of the first orders of business following election to the Hall of Fame is for the new inductees to announce their positions on the status of Pete Rose. True to form, Mssrs. Boggs and Sandberg both urged that Rose be admitted. It should be noted Rose, who is not on the official ballot, received the fewest number of write-in votes this time around since his five-year waiting period following retirement elapsed. (It would have been simpler to write “since he became eligible” except for one minor detail: he isn’t.)

Next year is the last one in which Rose would have been eligible for election by the Baseball Writers Association of America. After 2006, should he become eligible, which I hope will never be the case, he would have to be voted in by the veterans committee. As currently constituted, that committee is more likely to rename the MVP awards the Charley Finley Award in the AL and the Marge Schott Award in the NL. But, as the current veterans retire or move on to that diamond in the sky, the generation of veterans who played with or against Rose will take their places and they tend to be much more sympathetic judging from their comments over the years.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Hooray and Boo

Congratulations to Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg, both of whom are worthy inductees into the Hall of Fame. Those who question Sandberg’s election might ponder this: he combined offense, power and defense more successfully than any other modern second baseman including Hall of Famers Joe Morgan and Bill Mazeroski. Only Jeff Kent’s offensive totals exceed those of Sandberg, and Ryne’s defense was clearly superior.

Condolences to Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage, who were equally deserving of election but were once again slighted by the majority of the membership of the Baseball Writers Association of America, which must be made up increasingly of people who skipped going to baseball games between 1972 and 1994 when these two dominant closers plied their trade.

Sutter, who was named on two-thirds of the ballots in his twelfth appearance on the ballot, and Gossage who was named on slightly more than half of them in his seventh year of eligibility, face increasingly long odds in their pursuit of baseball immortality.

Their best opportunity clearly will be next year when the list of eligible players won’t include any clear marquee names. After that, in 2007, the list will include Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn and Mark McGuire. I wouldn’t want to be on that list unless my last name were Mays.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Milestones and Musings

The Hall of Fame announces its selections today. The guess here is that Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg will be elected. Both are deserving. Many arguments pro and con have been made regarding the candidacies of Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage, two dominant relievers in their era. The most compelling advocates include Alan Schwartz whose excellent piece in the New York Times points out that both men pitched in an era when closers worked more than one or two batters let alone an inning and when saves were literally harder to earn.

My argument on their behalf is quite simple: both Sutter and Gossage largely defined the modern role of a dominant closer and it is now axiomatic that a team lacking one cannot hope to win a championship. In other words, they changed the game.

* * * * * * *

The St. Louis Cardinals are rumored to be pursuing a deal with 37-year old second baseman Roberto Alomar. The Cardinals could have had Placido Polanco but apparently didn’t attempt to sign him. Why they failed to make Polanco an offer is a complete mystery to me. Not only is he considerably younger and a much better player than Alomar at this point, he is a known commodity whom the Cards really like.

I remain convinced the Phillies plan to move Polanco. There is no place for him to play every day and he isn’t a utility man. The only way Polanco remains with the Phillies throughout the 2005 season is if something happens to David Bell.

* * * * * * *

Another rumor that has been floated alleges that once the Randy Johnson deal is completed and Javier Vazquez is the property of the Diamondbacks, Arizona will turn around and deal the young right-hander to the Phillies for Randy Wolf. Vazquez is already on record as saying he didn’t want to be traded away from the East Coast (that’s a switch!!!) so one might make a case for trading him back to a club there. But if the Phils trade Wolf for Vazquez, they will have a starting staff made up solely of right-handers, an untenable situation.