Tuesday, October 30, 2007

They're Number One

There have been superstars in the past whose relationship with the press and public was frequently contentious. Ted Williams comes to mind. He didn't really care what people thought of him until very late in life, when he had mellowed to the point that he could accept the adulation of an adoring public -- including every living baseball player -- which showered him with love at the All Star game in Boston. Even when he was spitting at the fans, they never seemed to hold Williams in as much contempt as they have in the cases of Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez because the Splendid Splinter never felt anyone owed him anything... or vice versa. He performed at the same high level all of the time out of a sense of professional pride and excellence not out of what he thought was his due.

The public reaction to Bonds requires little further analysis in this space. Baseball's greatest home run hitter (to date) is a pariah in many quarters. He felt the cheaters in baseball were getting all the praise and titles and he wanted his fair share. If that meant cheating, too, so be it. So Bonds bulked up, passed Mark MacGwire and Hank Aaron and went straight into oblivion. The celebration of his accomplishments lasted at two or three minutes beyond the fifteen minute minimum fame is supposed to guarantee these days.

Rodriguez is another matter. He and his agent Scott Boras incurred the wrath of MLB for announcing his decision to opt out of his contract with the Yankees, the richest in baseball history, on the eve of game 4 of the World Series. Nothing exceeds quite like the excess of upstaging the game's biggest event. In the case of Rodriguez and Boras, however, nothing is done without considerable calculation. The guess here is Boras had a few motives:

1. He wanted to push the Yankees to announce the naming of Joe Girardi before he announced his client's intentions, thus forcing them to feel the wrath. Uncharacteristically, a Steinbrenner led franchise refrained.
2. He wanted to put the Red Sox on notice that not only could they pursue A-Rod should Mike Lowell depart, they could have him at their arch rival's expense. Boras was willing to incur the Red Sox wrath because he wanted them to believe this is just business, not personal. The timing suggests it is both business and personal.
3. It also doesn't hurt that another opt-out client of his, J.D. Drew, signed with Boston last winter. Boras also represents Dice-K Matsuzaka and Jason Varitek. Translation: both parties know what and whom they are dealing with here.
4. At the very least Boras was announcing he and A-Rod were open for business immediately before any teams with an interest (the Angels and Dodgers are considered serious contenders) spend a nickel elsewhere. If you think that's far-fetched, keep in mind the Detroit Tigers have already traded prospects for Edgar Renteria, who fills in at short with Carlos Guillen moving permanently to first base. Retooling teams wait for no man or his agent.

A-Rod is just as disingenuous as his agent. All along he professed his love of New York only to dump them at the first opportunity. Consider all his protestations of love more than just another bargaining ploy. He timed his decision for maximum impact in the press and on the team. If players like Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte were on the fence about returning if Joe Torre was fired, how are they going to feel about their biggest rbi guy leaving?

Meanwhile, some team out there can now sign Rodriguez for ten years at $30 million per and watch him march towards Barry Bonds' record, 3000 hits and maybe even that elusive World Championship. They can have all of that and a teammate who puts himself first. It's worth noting A-Rod has never meant the difference between winning and losing at any stop along his major league career.

Boras and his clients have been indifferent to public opinion for a long time. They aren't the first nor the last though it can be fairly said they have perfected the "art." This latest decision to have Rodriguez opt out of his contract simply underscores the reality that their interests are best served by worrying about numero uno, The question remains, however, which of these two -- the superstar agent or the superstar player -- can claim that title?

Monday, October 29, 2007

End Of The Year Musings

So, what exactly does it take to win the World Series these days? Well, to start with it helps to have excellent pitching from top to bottom in the rotation and front to back in the pen. Next, throw in power, speed and solid hitting throughout the lineup. Next, add good defense at most positions and adequate gloves at the rest. Finally, add a manager who is comfortable with who he is and in his relationships with his players. In sum, the Boston Red Sox.

And what of the other finalist this season, the Colorado Rockies? They appear to have a promising starting rotation filled mostly with live arms beyond their number one, but we must wait another season to see if the promises are fulfilled. Their bullpen is very solid. The lineup features power and average and their speed is adequate. Defensively, they led the majors this past season. Their skipper made a few missteps in the series, but overall appears to have management's and his players' confidence. If the starting pitching holds up, they should contend next season.

Are the Phillies close to achieving the same overall balance? Not really. Their starting rotation features a young number one whose health will likely be a concern throughout his career, a wily veteran who at age 45 cannot have that much left and a whole lot of question marks beyond them. The bullpen remains in serious flux with the closer an unpredictable commodity who really belongs in the starting rotation. The batters are impatient and streaky in the main. Team speed is excellent overall. Their outfield is in flux, especially with the current centerfielder likely to depart via free agency. Defense is very good in spots and very mediocre in too many others. Their manager is well-liked in the clubhouse but doesn't add much in the win column for those handful of games that are decided on strategy. Worst of all, there is precious little in the minor leagues in the way of help. Ownership and upper management assembled a core of accomplished young players but never surrounded them with the mix of veterans to get them over the top. Chronic inadequacies at third base and on the mound conspire annually to undermine them.

* * * * * * * *

Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract, the richest in baseball history, and now stands prepared to sign for a new record-breaking contract elsewhere. The Angels or Dodgers would be a good bet but so would Boston if Mike Lowell departs. Oh, the irony of it all.

Meanwhile, back at Steinbrenner central, the Yankees should name Joe Girardi manager as early as today or tomorrow. The good news is he will be back at the helm of a major league team; the bad news is he will be at the helm of this major league team. He is going to inherit the worst Yankee club in more than a decade with the pitching staff that is in transition to put it mildly and an everyday lineup with several key players departing or aging less than gracefully. The Yankees could finish third in the AL East next year.

* * * * * * * *

Will Lowell, the series MVP, leave Boston? The Sox can certainly afford to bring him back and the guess here is they will do so. Can the Sox repeat next season? Well, Big Papi needs knee surgery, Jason Varitek isn't getting any younger and Manny Ramirez is, well, Manny. But they all seem to have enough left in the offensive tank and the pitching staff remains formidable, even if Curt Schilling departs as is expected. The Sox have a lot of young pitchers who appear ready to move up a level and their young position players certainly acquitted themselves well at the end of the season and during the playoffs.

The Phillies would be expected to make a run at Lowell should he opt for free agency, but it seems unlikely they will get the chance.

* * * * * * * *

The World Series ain't what it used to be. For one thing, the last four series have been lopsided with three of the four winners sweeping. Only Detroit broke the string of sweeps by taking one game against St. Louis last year. Hardly the stuff of drama. Advertisers and MLB executives fret over the absence of enough big market teams in recent World Series, but viewers will hardly remained glued to their televisions when the games themselves aren't very compelling.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More Pepper Allowed

Let's get one thing straight: Red Sox Nation has as much currency outside Route 128 as America's Team did outside the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. You can be sure the man on the street in Topeka could give a hoot what happens to the Sox unless he went to college in Beantown.

* * * * * * * *

Let the cooling off begin.

Everyone talked about how the layoff was going to affect Colorado and it didn't take long to prove all those pundits right as the first three batters went down on strikes in the first inning of the World Series opener last night. Hitting is so much about timing and the Rockies' was clearly off. Of course, a lot of major league hitters' timing was off this season when fireballer Josh Beckett was on the mound. If Beckett is normally money in the bank in the post-season he was paying interest well above the going rate against a rusty Colorado squad.

* * * * * * * *

Don Mattingly cooked his own managerial goose when first he had to deny reports he felt awkward succeeding Joe Torre and second he pronounced himself ready to guide the Yankees. Methinks he doth protest too much.

* * * * * * * *

Barry Bonds is at it again. Now he's complaining about everything Giants from the name of McCovey Cove to his having been "fired" after all of his accomplishments. Responding to a cream puff question yesterday as to whether or not he achieved all those records, Bonds replied: "I did, and then I got fired. Shame on me, huh?"

The Giants got what they wanted from Mr. Bonds, lots of fannies in the seats as he chased Hank Aaron's legitimate home run record. And he got what he wanted, a huge contract for a part time player and full time louse and cheater. Now, it's time for Barry to just go away but the guess here is some American League team is going to sign him as their DH. Shame on whichever team that will be, huh?

* * * * * * * *

MLB should hold tryouts for network announcers. They're all dreadful but Joe Buck takes the cake. His earnest drone is the best soporific I've found yet but truth be told, I usually turn off the sound immediately after pressing the numeric buttons that land me on his fair and balanced [sic] network in the first place. Equally annoying in an opposite, hyperactive way is ESPN's Chris Berman, who sprinkles every report with words like "legendary" and "historic" even while the story is unfolding. Berman never met a superlative he didn't embrace. Carl Ravich is so superior to Berman it's a shame they let the latter pull rank when the stakes get higher.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Beginning of The End

On the eve of the final baseball games of 2007....

The World Series will not end until November, after at least one or two rain/snowouts. The Rockies will win it in six games because their young pitchers, unfamiliar to the Red Sox, will have the advantage and their bats can match Boston's. A few of the Rockies' veterans know Josh Beckett, which together with $5.75 will probably buy you a Coors Light (though heaven knows why anyone actually drinks that stuff.)

* * * * * * * *

From the like father-like-son-department, the new Yankees management won't be shy about upstaging the biggest event of the season: Joe Girardi will be named manager during the Series. Oh, and the Steinbrenner fils will continue to bad-mouth Joe Torre at every opportunity. For his part, Torre has said what he has to say and will move on.

* * * * * * * *

Aaron Rowand will not re-sign with the White Sox because as much as he loves that city, he doesn't love that team's prospects.

* * * * * * * *

Jimmy Rollins will be named NL MVP even though many pundits believe he is "only" the third or fourth best shortstop in the league. This may be the Golden Age of shortstops in the National League.

* * * * * * * *

Ryan Howard will be awarded a huge salary increase and his parents will still complain it isn't enough. I firmly believe his off-season pique in 2006 at not being made the highest paid second-year player in MLB history affected his play early in the year. The coming season will be a critical one for Howard. Is he a guy who can hit for average as well as power, or will he be a .265 hitter with power who strikes out at a prodigious rate?

* * * * * * * *

No matter what the outcome of the World Series, Boston is not deep in the starting rotation with Tim Wakefield ailing and Dice-K being less than the second coming of Cy Young let alone Luis Tiant. Therefore, they will probably attempt to re-sign Curt Schilling if he is willing to accept a short-term deal for less money and despite the fact that he has worn out his welcome in the clubhouse and around town. The politically conservative Schilling is not too popular in Liberal Boston.

* * * * * * * *

The San Diego Padres are living proof that good pitching is not enough. They must go after a big bat this off-season.

* * * * * * * *

Self-anointed genius Tony LaRussa has re-signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for two years. At his signing he admitted that he gets along with everyone on the team except Scott Rolen, who clearly has "his issues" with LaRussa. Who doesn't Rolen have issues with? Yes, I'm beating a dead horse, but Rolen's departure from Philadelphia really had little to do with the so-called unwillingness of the Phillies to build a winner and much more to do with the talented but now oft-injured third baseman's chronic discontent. More truths be told, Rolen thinks of himself as something of an intellectual among ball players and his ego was guaranteed to take offense at the equally super-sized one of his manager.

* * * * * * * *

Things we'd like to see this off-season: Chase Utley will be asked to join the All-Star squad that tours Japan after the Series but the Phillies will urge him to decline and he will agree with them.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Drumming Our Fingers Waiting for the World Series

Random thoughts on the East Coast while adjusting the thermostat on our air conditioning system on October 19th! (Good thing there isn't any global warming.)

Cole Hamels is a fine pitcher with a bright future, but he simply isn't a number one in a class with Boston's Josh Beckett. When the scowling Beckett takes the mound, the Red Sox are a confident team as they proved last night in a do-or-die win over Cleveland and their ace, C.C. Sebathia. Beckett is intimidating and dominating; Hamels is neither of these. Also, it's worth noting that Beckett has been this type of pitcher for a number of years now and is still only 27. The only thing that held him back in the past was a recurrence of blister problems.

Hamels may turn out to be the Phillies' ace in the long run, but he isn't going to intimidate anyone with a change-up as his best pitch. The Phillies haven't been able to send anyone similar to Beckett to the mound since the hey day of Steve Carlton.

* * * * * * * *

We've all lamented the pitiful scheduling MLB and the networks have subjected East Coast fans to in particular and now we are looking at a huge gap before the World Series gets underway. Here's something else to think about:

Denver's Winter/Cold Season Statistics

"Updated July 1, 2005"

Autumn First Freeze Information

Earliest Date of First Freeze:September 8, 1962
Latest Date of First Freeze:November 15, 1944
Average Date of First Freeze:October 7th
First Freeze Last 8 Years: October 14, 2004
September 14, 2003
October 4, 2002
October 5, 2001
September 22, 2000
September 28, 1999
October 06, 1998
October 12, 1997
October 21st is the average date in which Denver's normal overnight low temperature hits 32
degrees Fahrenheit for the first time.

Autumn First Snow Information

Earliest Date of First Snow:September 3, 1961
Latest Date of First Snow:November 21, 1934
Average Date of First Snow:October 19th
First Measurable Snow Last 8 Years: November 1, 2004
November 5, 2003
October 24, 2002
October 5, 2001
September 23, 2000
September 28, 1999
November 1, 1998
October 12, 1997

* * * * * * * *

Congratulations to Joe Torre. He has preserved his dignity by rejecting the Yankees' phony and insulting offer. The Yankees sure have a way of rewarding loyal not to mention successful employees. Now, the door is open for Tony LaRussa to step in and take the reigns. It would be a "marriage" made in baseball heaven: George Steinbrenner always acted like he knew baseball better than anyone else in the past and LaRussa still does. Let's see how genius works with a starting rotation in tatters, an aging group of position players at least some of whom are likely to walk and a closer who has already announced if Joe leaves he does, too. The Yankees could easily be a second division club come next season.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Whither The Fan?

Yesterday I was being flip when I wrote the Rockies would never lose again. Apparently they didn't see the humor. In this morning's Inquirer three teams were listed as having produced similar late-season runs: The Elias Sports Bureau reports that just three other teams in baseball history have gone on 20-1 runs or better after Sept. 1: The 1916 New York Giants, the 1935 Chicago Cubs and the 1977 Kansas City Royals. Significantly, all of those runs took place long before the pressures of multiple playoffs were a fact of life.

I'm tempted to write we are witnessing history with Colorado's run, but as it turns out very few people are witnessing any of it given the late starting times on the East Coast. That brings me to another matter, the business of television scheduling and the alleged waning interest in baseball in general.

The first point that needs to be made is that major league baseball set an all-time attendance record this past season, which means what's waning on the tube is waxing at the park. Fortunately for baseball, much of its season takes place while football players are recuperating and relaxing; unfortunately, just when baseball's races get exciting football players are donning their pads. Around these parts fans are all-too familiar with the traditional drop-off in interest let alone attendance at Phillies games once the Eagles report to training camp. There have been some seasons when more people showed up at the Eagles' training facility at Lehigh University than at Citizens Bank Park. The exception was this year when the Phils made their successful run for the playoffs while the Eagles stumbled and bumbled through the opening games of their season.

Despite the record numbers at the turnstiles, MLB frets whenever one of its big market teams is eliminated from the post-season. Even when a New York team makes it as far as the first round, MLB has already ceded television start times to the networks as part of their basic agreements; but, when two less-than marquee names made it past the first round of the NL divisional playoffs and both happened to be located in either mountain or western time zones, the handwriting was on the wall. Not only was fan interest minimal, but games started let alone ended when everyone but insomniacs were asleep on the East Coast, thus guaranteeing poor ratings. The common line in major East Coast dailies the day after normally said, "The Rockies-Diamondbacks game ended too late for this edition. For results, visit us on the web at...."

That fooftball surpassed baseball as the national pastime is very old news at this juncture. So, too, is the inescapable fact that the talent pool is being drained by the number of professional sports available. What has become obvious in the last several years is that baseball is no longer attracting black youth like it once did. Players like Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies and C.C. Sebathia of the Indians are taking steps to try and encourage more black youths to play baseball, but theirs is an uphill struggle as the numbers continue to decline.

Where baseball has seen a significant surge is in the presence of Latin American and Asian players. This raises yet another question. Are American households tuning out in some measure, however small, because of the makeup of the rosters, especially in smaller cities and rural areas who never have had a major league team? Is the hot-button immigration issue a subtle force in the lack of interest outside major urban centers? Is football still seen as a uniquely native sport played only by natives?

Frankly, a quick perusal of the rosters of the contending baseball teams shows a veritable UN of races, colors and creeds. Baseball is now the most international sport to have originated on these shores but in a country whose history clearly indicates that foreign misadventures are always followed by strong isolationist trends, the fans outside large urban areas may be voting with their remotes.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Pepper Allowed

We now know Colorado is never going to lose another game but can anyone tell me who in the world they lost to? Nineteen and one is more than impressive; it's unprecedented. Baseball pundits and columnists are scurrying to find post-season exploits of a similar dimension but the best they can come up with is Cincinnati in 1976, and their run was nowhere near as long. After last night's 4-1 victory in the rain the Rockies are one game away from the first World Series in franchise history. Raise your hand if you picked them to go the big dance. Heck, raise your hand if you had them making the playoffs altogether.

* * * * * * * *

The circus that is New York Yankee baseball just keeps getting more pathetic. The owner, reported suffering from some form of dementia, is apparently handing the reigns over to his two sons, who by all accounts have been meddling, er I mean running the show for some time now. The manager, who wears a perpetual weary expression, just concluded his latest stint on the hot seat and apparently was fatally burned. Now, several of his players who are eligible for free agency are publicly declaring they won't return if he doesn't. Meanwhile, their star among stars, A-Rod, may exercise his option to leave and his agent, the always understated Scott Boras, is promising the richest contract in baseball history should he depart. Make that the latest richest contract since A-Rod already holds the title.

* * * * * * * *

The other day Jim Salisbury mused about the return of two former Phillies: Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen. Actually, he admitted Schilling was only a possibility and Rolen a pipe dream. The Phillies aren't about to re-sign Schilling should he leave Boston. Schilling has too much mileage on his arm and mouth for the Phillies and would single-handedly upset the clubhouse atmosphere just when they don't need that complication. Rolen would come back to Philadelphia only if Rich Kotite were appointed to succeed Andy Reid.

* * * * * * * *

Dusty Baker is living proof that nice guys aren't finished as long as there are managerial openings somewhere in the big leagues. I am starting to lose count of where he has managed, but I think thethree year deal he just signed with Cincinnati is the fourth or fifth stop in his management career. Word that he is determined to manage as long as Kenny Lofton is an active player could not be confirmed by either party.

* * * * * * * *

I make no bones about rooting for Cleveland to go all the way this year. The Indians' faithful are nearly as long-suffering as the fans in a few cities we could name but hardly need to, the difference being that we aren't constantly subjected to stories of curses when their years in baseball's wilderness are discussed. The Tribe's comeback the other night in Boston was a real momentum builder. Not only did they take it to Curt Schilling early, but they rallied not once but twice against Boston at Fenway, something very few teams have done in the last few years. If the Indians do put away the Red Sox, they can take a crack at derailing the Colorado Express, not exactly an enviable task this season.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Getting Ready To Retool

This promises to be a busy off-season for the Phillies, what with their making the play-offs for the first time in fourteen years and promptly exiting same with nary a victory. The talent is clearly in place but so are the holes.

Management wasted no time in giving manager Charlie Manuel a two-year contract extension. To his great credit Manuel overcame far more than the series of devastating injuries and disappointments on his squad this past season; he also had to overcome the lingering snickers up North at everything from his Virginia drawl to his ongoing struggles with the double switch. He can't do much about the former but he can help with the latter, provided he seeks it. Someone among his many coaches must understand the practice so the question remains, does Charlie ask?

Of course his greatest asset appears to be his likability, especially among his players. Unlike marquee managers in some other locales (especially west of the Mississippi), Manuel has always deflected the spotlight from his considerable self to his players. They, in turn, like playing for him. Arguments as to how many, if any, games managers win or lose all by their lonesomes in any given campaign never yield any definitive answers, but the feeling here and around the league is that Manuel fosters a positive atmosphere in which to work and that contributes to winning. (Of course, there are numerous arguments with examples that teams can succeed in an atmosphere of open hostility, too.)

Now that management seems secure, the first order of business in the locker room is to improve the pitching, especially starting pitching. Right now only three players are penciled in for spots next season, Cole Hamels at number one, Jamie Moyer probably at number two and Kyle Kendrick at number...well...somewhere toward the back of the rotation. Kyle Lohse has reportedly expressed an interest in returning to Philadelphia but as usual that decision has as much to do with his agent as with the player himself and in Lohse's case that agent is none other than Scott Boras, who has a lousy history with the Phillies. Naturally, Boras has already begun building up Lohse as a premier commodity in both his age group and experience. His return is anything but certain and will not come cheaply no matter what.

The bullpen could also use some help and toward that end the Phillies will take a long, serious look at J.C. Romero, who performed admirably following his mid-season acquisition. Romero, too, has expressed an interest in returning here. That's not lip-service. When players depart, especially from Philadelphia, they rarely express regret; on the contrary, they generally cannot wait to vent. Just ask Todd Jones. On second thought, don't bother.

Another gaping hole remains at third base. The Phillies have already waved one white flag at that spot by releasing Abraham Nunez, the defensive stalwart who was signed as a free agent a few years ago after having a career-year at bat for St. Louis, where he subbed admirably for an injured Scott Rolen. Abe never hit a lick in Philadelphia. Heck, Abe hardly ever hit a fair ball here. Still, he could fill in at several infield positions (though it should be noted he never was called on to do so) and must be replaced. That leaves Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs as the only third baseman on the squad. In other words, the Phils have to go out and get a real one. Helms was a colossal bust in his first year here, carrying a very small stick and a big stone glove. He literally never got untracked. Dobbs, a super-sub, is not really a third baseman. Various names among potential free agents and trade prospects are being kicked around, principally Mike Lowell, the current Red Sox third baseman who will be a free agent at the end of the World Series. The 34-year old Lowell rejuvenated his career in Boston, where he was traded along with Josh Beckett two years ago when the Marlins concluded he was over the hill. Anything more than a two year deal with him would have to carry the term "saddled". Frankly, I'd stay away and go for someone younger. The Phillies haven't had a legitimate third baseman for so long it's finally time to stop interim solutions.

Re-signing Aaron Rowand looks like a long shot. The consensus seems to be that he will be too expensive and that the Phillies need to spend that money on pitching. They also have a legitimate center fielder in Shane Victorino, who should hit as well as Rowand, run much better, field much better and provide less power. That leaves Pat Burrell to man left field and Michael Bourn and Jason Werth to share duties in right. The Phillies might give the job outright to Bourn to see what he can do, but they might also trade him on the mistaken assumption that Werth can be the every-day right fielder. If they trade Bourn they immediately become very thin in the outfield. If they re-sign Rowand, Bourn immediately becomes the expendable one.

One area where the Phils appear set is at catcher. Carlos Ruiz handled the job splendidly and if he remains healthy should be solid there again. During the playoffs at least one commentator noted there were concerns about how he handled the pitchers. The notion is pure nonsense. Most pitches are probably still called from the dugout, at least on certain batters. Ruiz looks comfortable in his relationship with the pitching staff. He goes to the mound easily, whips the ball around the diamond without hesitation, and has done a fine job throwing out base-runners. Chris Coste will remain his backup.

Obviously, the Phillies are set at the remaining infield positions but there are areas that need improvement. It may be hard to criticize anyone who hits 47 home runs and drives in 136 runs, but Ryan Howard's season left much to be desired. The strikeout total, a new major league record, was ignominious enough, but worse was Howard's growing tendency to gripe at every called third strike. The image of Howard scowling and turning toward the umpire occurred all too frequently as the season wore on. Almost from day one opposing pitchers figured out how to stop Howard and he failed to adjust. Forty-seven homers and 136 rbi's seems like an awful lot of adjustment, but those totals also include a lot of mistakes. I haven't seen statistics on how many home runs Howard hit when the game was out of reach and would be interested if any readers have them available. In the field Howard went from bad to worse. I maintain his fielding problems are due to a lack of concentration not skill, but after 2.5 years in the league he should have learned how to focus.

Chase Utley had a terrific season marred only by his injury. Last year he wore down as the season wore on and it's difficult to imagine the forced time off didn't help his stamina down the stretch. He had a miserable playoff series, no doubt more disappointing to him than his legion of fans in Philadelphia and around the league. He is one of the best players to come along in many years.

Jimmy. What can we say about him that wouldn't somehow understate what he meant to the Phillies and their fans. He had a season unlike that of virtually any major league player in history. He played every game (and nearly every inning); set a major league record for AB's; fielded his position flawlessly; hit for average and power; stole bases; and, scored a ton of runs. And here's the key: he had a damn good time doing it. A lot of moments stand out from his season but the enduring image for this fan will always be of a smiling J-Roll, getting up from hitting a double, dusting himself off, turning around and talking to the nearest passerby, a second baseman or umpire, it didn't matter who, and just smiling and jabbering away.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Book Ends

And so the Phillies season ended much as it began, with a string of losses. Let's not despair, however, for much of the second half of the season was exciting around these parts as nearly the entire twenty-five man roster took turns playing hero. These Phillies led the major leagues in come-from-behind victories, a high-wire act to be sure, but one that had the faithful on the edges of their collective seats more often than not. The fans, more than three million of them, flocked to Citizens Bank Park, waving their rally towels and rocking the joint for the first time in its short history.

Leading up to and immediately following their capture of the NL East championship, nearly every lead to every story about this club made note of the injuries it overcame. True, many clubs overcome similar adversities, but this team endured an unusual number of them to key players and still managed to keep on keepin' on. In the end, they ran into a buzz-saw from the Rocky Mountains. Colorado is a fine team with an even more explosive offense than the Phils, one which is frankly far more consistent. Their defense is considered the best in the league if not the majors. The pitching staff is loaded with young, strong arms. Their sweep of the Phillies was no accident though unexpected in most quarters.

Next the Rockies face Arizona as the balance of power in the NL swings momentarily to the West. Two clubs, one of whom wasn't in existence when the Phillies made their last appearance in the post-season and the other of whom debuted that same season, will square off for the right to go to the World Series. For what it's worth, my pick is Colorado. They are 17 - 1 after last night's victory and look like they may never lose.

Meanwhile, back East, Phillies' fans, among the longest-suffering in all of major league sport not just baseball, must console themselves with having broken the long post-season drought and look forward to next year. They have probably watched Aaron Rowand play his last game here, but the rest of the core of gamers remains. The off-season will be spent trying to shore up the weak starting rotation and bullpen. For the first time in memory players around the league will take a second look at the Phillies, correctly surmising this club has a chance to go further into the post-season next year.

It was an exhausting season for this fan. The Phillies flirted with sea level for weeks before finally breaking through the surface and making their run at the NL East title. At this juncture a break from the constant ebb and flow is welcome. I'll watch snatches of the rest of the post-season, but with the home team on the sidelines I look forward to some time off. Beyond that, the Hot Stove League looms some months hence as well as the announcement that Jimmy Rollins, who had one of the most magical and memorable seasons I've ever seen, has won the NL MVP.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Great shot, you say, and it is indeed. The photographer certainly captured the essential J-Roll. Not to take anything away from the guy behind the camera, but can you show me a picture of the Phillies' wonderful shortstop in which he is not smiling? As for the curse of the cover, forget about it. Jimmy's magical season still has legs.

* * * * * * * *

Best lead, print division, thus far in local playoffs coverage goes to the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki, whose opener this morning reads: Here is how long it has been since the Phillies have been in the postseason: An out-of-town sportswriter showed up yesterday at the corner of Broad and Pattison and wondered, "Where's the Vet?"

* * * * * * * *

Thumbs down to MLB and TBS for scheduling the first playoff game in Philadelphia in 14 years for 3PM EDT. We all know the people who make these decisions could care less how long Phillies fans have waited for this moment; they want New York and Boston to play their games as close to Eastern prime time as possible. As for Rockies' fans, they get to sit down to their television sets a 1PM, which means the work day there basically ends at noon. At least in Philadelphia some employers are hoping they get another hour or two out of their work force before losing their attention. The start time is lousy for the hitters, too, but the weather forecast might just help if it remains overcast.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

White Vs. Red

It's been fourteen tortured years, but enough of this revelry; let's get back to reality, which arrives tomorrow in the collective person of the Colorado Rockies. As they say in the trade, these two clubs know each other having met a few weeks ago at the same venue. The clubs split that series with each team alternately bludgeoning the other.

They are going to be tough. Todd Helton is a charter member of the Phillies-killer club, Rocky Mountain division. Matt Holliday received an invitation to join and is only waiting for the formal induction ceremonies. Throw in Atkins, Tulowitzki, Taveras, Hawpe and a rejuvenated Kaz Matsui and you have an offense every bit as potent as the Phillies...if not more so. Their team batting average is .280, six points above the Phils. They have nearly scored as many runs per game.

On the mound Jeff Francis is a fine number one and the youngsters who baffled the Phils the last time they visited CBP have live arms. Their bullpen isn't San Diego's, or wasn't until Trevor Hoffmann picked the least opportune time in a Hall of Fame career to falter.

Colorado is white hot, having won 14 of its last fifteen games. The Phillies are red hot, having won 13 of 17. One of them is due to cool off. Let it be Colorado.

Monday, October 01, 2007

More On Jimmy

The afterglow is still bright and all is well in the City of Brotherly Love.

Reflecting on the regular season just concluded many moments and personalities stand out, but none more than Jimmy Rollins. One cannot help but be impressed with his character. After the game, Comcast stayed with the celebration for quite some time as players came back out from the locker room onto the field to mingle with family and friends and the remaining fans. At one point Leslie Gudel and Neal Hartman summoned Jimmy over to where they were seated. He stood behind them and draped an arm over Gudel's shoulder, discreetly and affectionately, and they chatted like old friends. He was magnanimous, obviously aglow, and utterly charming as he responded to their questions. There was no gloating, no "I told you so's", nothing inflated. He was almost matter-of-fact at times though clearly he was elated.

Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are critical to the team, but had they lost Jimmy for a month instead of either one of them, it would have been over long ago. He is the irreplaceable one on a team on which all 25 men (well, maybe not Adam Eaton) contributed.

At one point Howard came over, acknowledged to the camera how much Rollins means to him and the team, said J-Roll was clearly the MVP and that he, Howard, would "gradly relinquish his title" to him. Howard's words were spontaneous and filled with genuine affection for the veteran shortstop who had mentored him when the then-rookie first baseman came up to the big leagues for good. It's clear from a lot of things said and written that the players on this team like one another and pull for each other. Charlie Manuel has said they have the best chemistry of any team he's been a part of. Pat Gillick has said he always believed talent was the only thing that really matter but now, after watching this collection of players pull together he had to agree chemistry played a role.

It surely did and the catalyst of all those little chain reactions culminating in the final explosion of triumph was a bundle of atoms named Jimmy Rollins. Rollins isn't going to be the subject of a book like the Summer of 1941 which featured the race between the Yankees and Red Sox and Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Philadelphia simply doesn't play on the same national stage as those two franchises and its legendary stars. But Jimmy did have a season to remember, a record-breaking one which we as fans can point to years from now and say, "remember when Jimmy Rollins carried the Phillies from before spring training to the final day of the season" (and hopefully beyond.)? Fourteen years in the playoffs wilderness may seem like a long time, but it's been even longer since we've seen someone perform as joyously and magnificently as Jimmy Rollins did this year.

Mr. Right

So, in the end one James Calvin Rollins was correct: the Phillies were the team to beat in the East. To honor his prescience (and his contributions to said outcome), J-Roll will be named the league MVP later this autumn.

Couldn't happen to a nicer guy...or better teammate.