Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Time To Move On

Not all harbingers of Spring are welcome. Some, like Mike Schmidt’s annual public self-loathing, are tiresome. In the questionably therapeutic admonishment that is Dr. Phil’s stock and trade, “get over it”, Mike.

Next to Dallas Green skewering some player(s) publicly, we Phillies fans have grown accustomed to another annual rite of Spring, listening to the Hall of Fame third baseman repeat for the umpteenth time how much it hurt for him to hear the boos in Philadelphia during his long career. Nearly as predictable is Schmidt’s criticism of some current player who “reminds him of himself”, and the subsequent backtracking and public recanting that follows.

I guess by this point the Phillies are committed in perpetuity to bringing Schmidt into camp for a few days of tutelage and advice. The question is, who listens? This year’s target of Schmidt’s criticism and follow-up apology is Pat Burrell, who claims he is unaffected by Mike’s public scolding and who, from all accounts, isn’t interested in pursuing the matter further, including, apparently, the reason for all the consternation in the first place, his strikeout rate. Schmidt ranks in the top ten in major league history for strikeouts and does not want to see Burrell, who is on a pace to join him on that dubious list, continue down that road.

Meanwhile, writers remark on how complex Mike’s personality is as if that explains his dwelling on the treatment he received throughout a career that ended nearly twenty years ago. I have news for you, Mike, the fans have been cheering you for a very long time now. Try and enjoy it.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Spring Training Notes

Antonio Alfonseca is throwing well...in Spring Training. Good for him. Speak to me in April and May let alone June, July and August.

Big mouth Curt Schilling, on the other hand, is already in mid-season form. He issued his ultimatum and the Red Sox essentially called his bluff. Go ahead, Curt, they told him, opt for free agency because we aren't giving someone your age let alone with your personality a contract extension before things even get underway. Memo to Pat Gillick: pay attention here, Pat. The guy is a certifiable pain in the rear.

Derek Jeter and A-Rod aren't best buds anymore, at least according to the latter. Fine. As Jeter himself put it, let's just play baseball and not worry about the other crap.

Barry Bonds has arrived in camp a different man from last year's version. About this time a year ago Bonds was playing the victim. Not this time around. Instead, he is his old defiant self. If he remains healthy, look for Bonds to pass Henry Aaron by mid-season. Who said jerks don't finish first?

Proposal pictures? That's a new one on me. Pat Burrell hired someone to take pictures of him proposing to his fiancee and the photographer posted them on her blog. This from a guy who has been nearly invisible his entire career, who hardly communicates with the press, and has virtually no discernible relationship with the fans. What a moment to go public, eh? (Hat tip to Enrico over at 700 level for breaking this "news".)

Ichiro can become a free agent after this season. If he appears determined to file, will the Mariners trade him by the July deadline? I hope not if only to see what kind of price a genuine talent would command on the open market. If Carlos Lee can be handed $100 million, what is Ichiro worth? Of course, we all know things don't work like that. Lee hits home runs and drives them in. Ichiro scores runs and prevents them. Lee is such a pitiful fielder he should have signed with a team where he wouldn't even have to bring a glove to the park with him every day. Come to think of it, he was already with one before he moved from Arlington to Houston. There just ain't no comparables in baseball. Still, I'd bet a lot of teams would like to see Ichiro atop their lineups.

Which managers are on the hot seat already? My leading candidate is Charlie Manuel. If the Phils stumble out of the gate again this April, Pat Gillick is not going to waste any time. Who would replace Charlie? No one currently wearing a Phillies uniform.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Urban Legends

I have always been under the impression that Ken Griffey Jr. is generally credited with having begun the fad of wearing a baseball cap backwards. If indeed my recollection is correct, then I have some news for Mr. Griffey: you may have popularized the fad, but the fellow pictured below and to the right started it all and has been appearing in public wearing his baseball cap backwards (and his Eisenhower jacket frontwards) since the mid-1970's when I picked him up during a long journey through Mexico.

Spring Forward

Phillies fans don’t seem happy unless they are fussing about Jimmy. If he isn’t walking enough, they complain. Drop him in the order, they cry. If he’s swinging early in the count or for the fences, they protest. No patience! And if he’s proclaiming the Phillies are the team to beat in the NL East, they howl about his providing bulletin-board material.

C’mon, fans, lighten up and enjoy the talents and personality of one of the most enjoyable players to come to these parts in many a season. Rollins is fun to watch, on the field, in the dugout or outside the lines. Few, if any, players in memory enjoy playing the game more.

* * * * * * *

In a piece he wrote last Sunday, estimable Inquirer columnist Jim Salisbury noted there were the usual number of stories coming out of training camps about players who were issuing ultimatums of one sort of another about getting their due on the field and in their bank accounts. “Disrespect” is the common word heard uttered by many of these disgruntled “sign-me-or-else” types, as Salisbury labels them.

On the surface, it’s hard to figure how someone making north of $10 million a year could ever see himself as unappreciated. Sure, if a player with less talent, experience or statistics is making more money I can understand how someone would want to be paid as well, but is this “disrespect” or other forces at work? As Salisbury pointed out in his piece, should a team be rushing to throw more money and a contract extension at a 37-year old pitcher with a recent history of arm miseries no matter how great his career has been? One man’s “disrespect” is another man’s caution.

“Disrespect” is today’s sporting buzzword for a multitude of perceived injustices, virtually none of which have any foundation in reality. While it would be easy to slough off such talk as posturing or negotiating, it still grates in the context of its current usage as opposed to its original and real meaning. If anything, it’s misuse by many of today’s athletes is disrespectful of language.

* * * * * * * *

I and virtually every other blogger I read shudders at the thought of the Phillies going into the coming season with Antonio Alfonseca as the set-up man in the bullpen. It isn’t as if the 34-year old righthander hasn’t pitched well at some previous stops – his 2004 season in Atlanta was good – it’s just that his two most recent campaigns have been marked by ineffectiveness and injury. Then, too, there is the matter of his walking more than one batter for every two he fans over his ten year career.

Spring Training doesn’t offer relief pitchers much opportunity to show their stuff, but I would be very surprised if when the Phillies broke camp at the end of March they didn’t bring Fabio Castro north with them. Charlie Manuel may have “protected” Castro last season when they were forced to carry him on the 25-man roster as a Rule 5 player, but in his brief outings the youngster showed a lot of promise. He has a live arm and good stuff. What he lacks at this point is command, and there’s only one way to find out if a pitcher has that, and it isn’t throwing to the bullpen catcher.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Cold Facts

It isn’t difficult to focus one’s thoughts on the Phillies gathering in Florida when the real feel temperature around these parts is minus four degrees.

With several new faces joining a host of familiar ones and with a few major decisions still to be resolved, Spring Training figures to be more critical than in the recent past as the Phillies try to break their string of thirteen consecutive seasons without making the playoffs.

Chief among the concerns and hopes is Pat Burrell. Where does he bat in the order? Can he cut down on his strikeouts? Is he healthy? Does he harbor any ill feelings having been roasted, not toasted, by nearly everyone in town? And last but not least, can he rebound again? I haven’t a clue about the first four questions but I will hazard a guess about number five: in a word, no! Whatever spot in the order he bats, Burrell is going to strike out a lot, hit 24 – 30 home runs, drive in at least 85 runs, walk around 80 times, run the bases poorly, field his position adequately at best and not hit much above last season’s .258 average. At this stage of his career, Pat is what he is. There are no more makeovers in the offing. He is a decent offensive force and a below average fielder. Wishing and hoping for a rebound is pointless. If Pat were going to adjust, he would have done so by now. And if he hasn’t adjusted by now it’s because he can’t or won’t.

The Phillies have an alleged surplus of starters but they shouldn’t get too cocky. Fans know all the reasons to be optimistic and they should know all the reasons to be cautious. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Brett Myers is the number one guy. He has never fulfilled all the expectations of him though he occasionally shows flashes of brilliance. All the talk of great stuff does not answer the question that has always come up in any discussion of him: does he have the mental makeup? Count me among the skeptical. If Myers’ alleged makeover above the shoulders is real, you can also count me among the pleasantly surprised.

Cole Hamels had a marvelous second half of his season with the Phils, which was about half a season altogether. The sky is the limit with the gifted left-hander but there are questions about his health. No one can predict how he will hold up physically.

Speaking of health, newcomer Freddy Garcia has thrown a lot of innings over the last several seasons and most AL scouts agreed he’d lost something on his fastball last year. The White Sox may have moved him because they knew he’d walk after this season as a free agent, or they may have moved him because they guessed he’d already peaked. Baseball history is full of trades in which GM’s guessed a player’s best days were behind him. Sometimes they were right; sometimes they blew it. As a long-time Orioles fan I can always point to the trade of Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas as exhibit A of the latter. We all know the Reds figured Frank was past his prime when they dealt him to the O’s, and we all know how that deal turned out. Of course, in those days free agency played no part. Simpler times?

Adam Easton is a flat-out gamble and not an inexpensive one. Anyone who has lost as much time as he has to injuries cannot be counted on as a certainty; after all, he does have a track record. Given the presence of Jon Lieber and the bullpen problems that linger, Easton may be asked to fill two roles this season. For his part, Lieber has been inconsistent, especially at the start of each season. His physical problems are self-inflicted. If he wants to prove he can still pitch effectively, he’d better start by working on his conditioning. A picture of Lieber in this morning’s Inquirer shows him standing next to his obscene two-story big-wheel monster truck. He’s going to have to exercise more than simply climbing in and out of that thing!

Finally, the blogosphere is alive with buzz about a column by Bill Conlin that suggests, among others things, dropping Jimmy Rollins from leadoff to fifth in the batting order. Not wishing to restate the countless complaints about Rollins' failure to be the prototypical leadoff man, I will point out he tied for second in the NL last year for runs scored. The Phillies' offensive problems were largely due to Burrell's second-half swoon and George S.'s infamous "Black Hole" not the lack of a classic leadoff man. Despite the collective ineptitude of the bottom third of the order, Rollins still managed to score a ton of runs. I don't think dropping Jimmy is the answer though I am not opposed to it. Update: Check that last line; I am opposed to dropping him down. He hits for a good average and excellent power, knocks in runs, scores a ton of runs, steals bases and plays his position extremely well. Why tinker with that?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

One More Trip Down Memory Lane...For Now

This nostalgia thing is getting to be a habit lately here at Swing. I promise to get over it shortly as I literally run out of material.

The current wave has been prompted by the confluence of several events including celebrating a birthday on the cusp of what are generally called "big ones" and by going through and rediscovering personal effects in preparation for moving to a new home. A note to you younger readers out there: “big ones" are a moving target. As for the personal effects, years of accumulation in a reasonably large house is inevitable and effortless while prudent shedding of them is absolutely necessary when downsizing.

In the course of going through boxes and files, I have stumbled on memorabilia related to baseball such as the picture of me, a fellow high school chum and sports reporter and then-Orioles manager Hank Bauer. (See Another Loss below.) The passing of public figures of one's youth, whether athletes, politicians or celebrities, inevitably brings on fits of reflection. As a youngster, baseball players always seem so much older than we are, even in our teens when it fact they may only be six or seven years older. As we grow older, that gap, so wide when seated at great distances in the stands, narrows considerably and dramatically when seated in an easy chair reading an obituary in the newspaper. When players from our youth die a little bit of ourselves dies, too. In some instances, we are invariably moved to observe, “Why, he was only six years older than I am.”

In another recent post, Life After Baseball , I reflected on an earlier era when the money in baseball was not nearly as freely spent by owners and most ballplayers retired with little if any savings and went on to rather humble existences after their playing days were over.

Yesterday, when rummaging through a box of papers, I came across the following card. About the size of a credit card, it is made of thick paper that was obviously lightly varnished at one time as the cracks would indicate. Issued in 1956 by the Baltimore Orioles, or two years after their arrival in the city of my birth, the card bears my father’s name, the typewritten entry, Louis Goodman, still faintly visible. The back of the card more clearly reveals the dozens of holes punched into it by thumbtacks, used to fasten it to some bulletin board at our home.

The text “certifies” that my father, who was a surgeon and oncologist, had registered with the Orioles and been assigned the number 229. When in attendance at a ballgame, if my father’s answering service needed to reach him for an emergency, the PA announcer at Memorial Stadium would announce, “Will doctor 229 please call his answering service?” How, you might reasonably ask, would anyone seated among the cheering throngs (though admittedly, in 1956 the Orioles gave their fans precious little to cheer about) hear his number paged? Doctors develop a sixth sense for those subliminal summons, especially in the era before pagers and cell phones. Once, for instance, when my father and I were at a game, his number was called. I knew his number from examining the card, but naturally I did not hear it called. He did, however, and went to a pay phone and called his answering service, which informed him a patient was on his way into the ER with a possible acute appendicitis. Dad returned to his seat, looked at me and said, “No hurry. The residents will need to work him up first. We have plenty of time.”

Friday, February 09, 2007

Another Loss

I turned 59 the other day and to be quite frank wasn't thrilled about it. I was forcibly reminded of my advancing years when I read and posted the day before about the passing of former Orioles pitching star Steve Barber.

Today I learned another figure from the Orioles of my youth had passed away. Hank Bauer, former Yankee great (seen here hugging Joe DiMaggio) and manager of the 1966 Orioles team that stunned the favored Dodgers in a four-game sweep of the World Series, died today in Kansas City at the age of 84. I not only recalled the thrill of watching that youthful Orioles team featuring Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Barber, Paul Blair, Boog Powell, Davey Johnson and newly arrived veteran Frank Robinson among others, I had the opportunity to meet the manager himself in my capacity as sports editor of my high school newspaper. Following their October triumph in the Series, I sought and received permission to interview Bauer at his Memorial Stadium office. I was accompanied by the associate sports editor Steve Norwitz (seen in the picture below on the left). Needless to say, we were in the sports equivalence of heaven that afternoon. By the way, looking back forty-one years, I cannot help notice I was the only one that day not wearing a tie. I still don't wear them except under duress.

For his part, Norwitz, who went on to become a business writer and later the public relations director for major mutual fund company, wrote a wonderful caption headline for this picture: Bauer Hug.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Winter Notes

“A more mature Myers meets Philly media” the headline and subject beam on the front page of the Phillies web site. That’s quite a quick recovery by most standards. Myers’ sort of rage is not the type so easily contained in a relatively short amount of time, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and hope he was more than humbled by the events of last summer when he assaulted his wife on a Boston street. Clearly the Phillies PR department thinks he has recovered.

His self image has certainly taken a visible turn for the better. A leaner Myers has shed a reported 30 lbs. in anticipation of Spring Training. In the past, his conditioning betrayed him as the season wore on. Now, having just signed a $26 million three year deal, Myers is expected to anchor one of the best starting rotations in the National League. Exonerated in Boston, forgiven in Philadelphia, and rewarded by the only team he has ever known, Myers has much to look forward to.

* * * * * * * *

A few pundits caution that the Florida Marlins might suffer a collective sophomore slump this coming season, to which I would reply, “Utley and Howard”. Just don’t count those kids out, especially the position players. Before anyone jumps down my throat, I am not suggesting the Marlins have any players of the same caliber as the two Phillies All-Stars, but only one year ago some were cautioning that Utley and Howard still had something to prove in their second years as fulltime starters.

On the other hand, young pitchers, always delicate it seems in this era, are another matter altogether. Already there are reports that Anibal Sanchez and Josh Johnson have had some arm problems. One report mentioned that Johnson might not even start the season with the big club and Sanchez just underwent an MRI on his shoulder. Still, the Marlins can throw a fairly potent every day lineup at you and can be expected to be very competitive.

* * * * * * * *

The defending World Champs hardly improved themselves during the off-season. They lost Jeff Weaver and Jeff Suppan among others, re-signed an ailing Mark Mulder and aging Jim Edmonds and have the Scott Rolen-Tony LaRussa sideshow to contend with. I suspect winning a World Series will not substantially brighten Rolen’s outlook that much and LaRussa has never been one to yield on questions of control.

Of course the Cardinals also have Albert Pujols, the one-man wrecking crew ,Chris Carpenter, one of the most reliable starters in the league the last few years, and sparkplug David Eckstein, but they won’t be enough.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Life After Baseball

As an former Baltimore Orioles fan of long-standing, I always read with interest news items about the players I grew up watching.

Yesterday, Steve Barber, the first pitcher to win 20 games in a season for the modern franchise, passed away. In searching online for information about Barber, I came across this item from the Baltimore Sun. It was published in the September, 24, 2006, edition under the headline Where Are They Now?

I know the names will largely be unfamiliar to many of you, but what struck me were the jobs these former major league ballplayers held after their playing days were over. Their largely modest means of earning a second living are emblematic of a different, far less well-paid era if nothing else:

Player, Pos., Home, Occupation
Jerry Adair, 2B, Deceased

Luis Aparicio, SS, Maracaibo, Venez., Owner of insurance company

Steve Barber, P, Henderson, Nev., School bus driver

Mark Belanger, SS, Deceased

Frank Bertaina, P, Santa Rosa, Calif., Profession unknown

Paul Blair, OF, Owings Mills Retired, former baseball coach at Coppin State

Curt Blefary, OF-1B, Deceased

Sam Bowens, OF, Deceased

Gene Brabender, P, Deceased

Wally Bunker, P Lowell, Ohio, Potter, craftsman

Camilo Carreon, C, Deceased

Moe Drabowsky, P, Deceased

Mike Epstein, 1B, Denver, Private hitting instructor

Andy Etchebarren, C, Nokimas, Fla., Manager, Aberdeen IronBirds; Orioles' roving catching instructor

Eddie Fisher, P, Altus, Okla., Retired Oklahoma state golf director

Dick Hall, P, Timonium, Certified public accountant

Larry Haney, C, Barboursville, Va., Scout for Milwaukee Brewers

Woodie Held, IF-OF Dubois, Wyo., Retired backhoe operator

Bob Johnson, IF, St. Paul, Minn., Account executive for advertising firm

Davey Johnson, 2B-SS, Winter Park, Fla., Manager U.S. Olympic baseball team; consultant for Washington Nationals

John Miller, P, Mount Airy, Retired firefighter

Stu Miller, P, Cameron Park, Calif., Retired liquor store owner

Dave McNally, P, Deceased

Jim Palmer, P, Palm Beach, Fla., Broadcaster; spokesman for Nutramax, Wal-Mart and Baltimore and Frito-Lay

Tom Phoebus, P, Palm City, Fla., Retired elementary school teacher

Boog Powell, 1B, Grasonville Owner of barbecue chain

Frank Robinson, OF-1B Los Angeles Manager, Washington Nationals

Brooks Robinson,3B, Owings Mills, Assistant to president of Keystone Baseball, owner of four independent minor league clubs

Vic Roznovsky, C, Fresno, Calif., Homebuilder

Bill Short, P, Sarasota, Fla., Profession unknown

Russ Snyder, OF, Nelson, Neb., Retired soil conservation technician

Eddie Watt, P, North Bend, Neb., Retired minor league pitching coach


Hank Bauer, Overland Park, Kan., Retired

Bill Hunter, Lutherville, Retired

Harry Brecheen, Deceased

Gene Woodling, Deceased

Friday, February 02, 2007

Off-Field Activities

Well, as it turns out we will have Brett Myers to kick around for another three years following the announcement he has signed a 3-year $25.75 million contract extension. Myers faults and virtues are well known; there is no reason to recapitulate them now. He swears he is a new man already, working out hard this off-season to improve his conditioning and stamina and finally fulfill the high expectations of him.

No doubt he has looked at the Phillies, especially their starting rotation, and decided they can finally make it to the post-season with a good effort from him. Instinct tells me to give him the benefit of the doubt. History tells me he isn’t worthy of that benefit. The first time he gets squeezed by an umpire or gives up a soft home run will tell us a great deal about the “new” Myers.

* * * * * * * *

Nearly everyone wishes Barry Bonds would just go away…except for his current team. Major League Baseball is dreading the moment Bonds breaks Henry Aaron’s record. For his part, Aaron doesn’t plan to attend the game or acknowledge the new king, lowercase intended. But the Giants, in rebuilding mode and without any real stars, desperately need Barry to put fannies in the seats. The only things they probably dread are that he might hit the 22 home runs he needs to break the record in the first few months of the season and that number 22 comes on the road, god forbid. Then, attendance in San Francisco will fall off dramatically.

The parties will iron out the contract language and get the deal done. Then Bonds can claim his tainted crown barring an injury or indictment and baseball can breathe easily until the next big date in their mutual lives comes five years following his retirement. That moment should produce a few controversies.

* * * * * * * *

Allow me to join the chorus of those commentators, writers, bloggers and other pundits who decry the treatment Donovan McNabb has received ever since he signed with the Eagles. As the current controversy swirls and grows over how McNabb perceived the takeover by Jeff Garcia, I think it is worth pointing out that the Eagles were thriving under their first string quarterback until his injury and that their two most devastating losses, to the Giants and Titans, had absolutely nothing to do with his performance. Defensive collapses and poor coaching were responsible for those defeats. Without McNabb at the helm, things might have been much worse as the season got underway.

Are there still lingering doubts about his Super Bowl performance at the end of that contest? One might do well to reconsider the source of the disparagement of McNabb as time was running out. When Terrell Owens’ account of events are given credibility we are in serious trouble.

Through it all, McNabb has handled himself admirably. He wanted to travel to New Orleans with the team for the playoffs but was prevented from doing so because his coach has a silly rule about injured players accompanying the team on the road. As is always the case with the rigid Andy Reid, there are rules of administration and rules of reason. AS for Wilma McNabb’s comments about Garcia, the Eagles and her son, was McNabb really expected to be held accountable for his mother’s behavior? By the same token, was he supposed to be happy about sitting on the sidelines as his team rallied under Garcia, A J Feeley or anyone else for that matter? That would hardly be appropriate for a fierce competitor, and it is worth noting he wasn’t carping or saying anything that might undermine that miraculous run.

And finally, was he supposed to be pleased with all of the calls for turning over the starting job to Garcia for next season? He has handled himself with his usual equanimity. If only I could say that about the majority of fans.