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.