Thursday, April 27, 2006

Oh my!

A few of us scribes have a bet regarding the Phillies' top prospect Cole Hamels. If Hamels makes it to the big leagues during any part of the month of June, I win. If Hamels makes it here in July, Steve Miller of the Allentown Morning Call is the big winner. Any time after August 1 -- give the pool to the Courier Post's Mike Radano.

Of course we all laughed when Ken Mandel from went with May. That's just the way we are with Ken. But after Hamels' Triple-A debut, it looks like Mandel might have the last laugh.

Hamels pitched seven innings in his debut for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He allowed just three hits and he did not walk any one. Pretty good, right. Wait... he struck out 14 hitters. That's 14.

Let's look at it this way:

7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 14 K

Needless to say, Scranton won the game, 5-0, but it doesn't seem like I'm going to win the bet.

Don't blame Lieby
It's popular in some circles to heap some of the blame for a poor pitching performance onto the catcher. After all, goes the reasoning, the catcher calls the pitches (not always) and it's his job to know the hitters' tendencies, how well the pitcher is throwing, and all of the other nuances of a particular moment of a game.

Most of that is true to a degree.

What often is overlooked is that the pitcher throws the pitch. Ultimately, it's the pitcher's decision and not the catcher's.

At least that's what Ryan Madson says.

Still, Phillies' veteran catcher Mike Lieberthal has taken a lot of criticism for what many people say is his inability to call a good game.

"It's not Lieby," Madson said. "I throw the pitch."

Madson says that, yes, it's nice when he and his catcher are in synch. It helps with his rhythm to be ready to throw a pitch and see that the catcher is thinking the same exact thing, Madson says.

But more importantly, Madson says, it's not the pitch calling, relationship or rhythm that's important. It's the pitcher's confidence.

"I'm only going to be as good as I am mentally," Madson said. "It's the uncertainty that kills you."

Not Lieby, he says.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Here he comes

Regardless of the feeling one has about Barry Bonds, one thing is unmistakable -- he's a lot of fun to watch. The same thing goes for Mets closer Billy Wagner, who spent parts of the past two seasons closing games here in Philadelphia.

So when the two went head to head in the bottom of the ninth inning with one on and two outs in a 7-5 game in San Francisco, it was more than just interesting theater. It was an event.

At least that's how it here in the press box at Citizens Bank Park where the scribes were glued to the TV sets and then broke into their Wagner impersonations when Bonds blasted a fastball over the fence in left-center.

Tie game.

And everyone does a Wagner impression.

Nevertheless, Bonds' homer off Wagner was the 711th of his career, which make it distinctly possible that baseball's Public Enemy No. 1 could head into next weekend's series against the Phillies ready to tie or break Babe Ruth's mark of 714 home runs.

The Giants have seven more games until they arrive in Philadelphia, with five of them at home against Arizona and San Diego, so obviously the team's brass wants Bonds to pass the Babe at home. Plus, after two games in Milwaukee and then the three in Philly, the Giants return home for a week. It would not be too surprising if Bonds has some sort of injury that weekend.

It's also worth noting that Babe Ruth's last game was played at the Baker Bowl, the Phillies old stadium that was located in North Philadelphia at Broad and Lehigh Ave. on May 30, 1935. As a player for the Boston Braves, the 40-year-old Ruth struck out in the first inning and then hurt his knee playing first base in the bottom half of the inning.

He walked off the field and never played again.

These days, the site of Babe Ruth's last game is a partially a gas station and mini-market.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Fun facts

The ninth spot in the Phillies batting order is hitting .066 (4-for-61) with a .123 on-base percentage. All four of the hits have been singles and three of them came in one game by Ryan Madson -- the other was from pinch-hitter David Dellucci.

Meanwhile, the opposing No. 9 hitter are collectively hitting .328 with a .377 on-base percentage. They have six doubles, a triple and a homer with five walks.

Left-handed reliever Rheal Cormier has appeared in just one game since April 15. That game was on April 20 where Cormier pitched the eighth inning of a six-run loss to the Nationals at the Bank.

So far this year, Cormier has appeared in six games for 4 2/3 innings without allowing a run. Opponents are hitting .211 off him this season.


Monday, April 24, 2006

Monday Night at the ballpark

OK, everyone. Stop complaining. Charlie Manuel fixed his lineup for Monday night’s series opener against the Rockies. Ryan Howard is no longer buried in the hinterlands with David Bell, Mike Lieberthal and the pitcher’s spot. Instead, he has been bumped up to the fifth spot.

Chase Utley is no longer in the bottom half of the order, either. Now he’s in the No. 2 hole and Aaron Rowand is hitting behind Howard at sixth.

Though there isn’t the lefty-righty balance that all managers like, it seems as if Manuel is on to something here. It will be interesting to see how long this order lasts.

Birds of a feather…
Here’s a new one – a pigeon flew into the press box before the game and perched itself on the telephone directly to my left. Upon review I noticed the bird had tags – probably for identification – around his ankles.

After checking out the scene and realizing there was nothing to do in the press box, the bird flew away.

Later, Kent Tekulve sat in the seat in front of the bird’s perch.

No, we’re not doing well, thank you
After Forbes magazine printed a story where it reported that Major League Baseball and its teams were enjoying increased revenues and that the New York Yankees were the first professional club to reach a value of $1 billion, baseball’s executive vice president of labor relations and human resources, Rob Manfred issued a press release in response.

It read:

“Forbes has never had access to financial information from Major League Baseball or the individual clubs. The estimates published in the current issue of the magazine materially misstate the financial performance of the industry as a whole and of the individual clubs.”

A long time ago I used to write for a business newspaper in Harrisburg, Pa. Never during that time did an executive of a company issue a statement to downplay any type of favorable story about them. In fact, it was always the opposite.

It sounds pretty odd: A big time magazine writes a story lauding your growing revenues and the company issues a statement saying it’s misstated. Why?

Well, the collective bargaining agreement ends at the end of this season and Manfred certainly doesn’t want the players union to use the Forbes information as fact. At least that’s my quick, dime-store analysis.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Saw that coming

As soon as the umpire rotation for the Phillies' series with the Marlins was posted on the board in the press box on Friday afternoon, my first thought was, "uh-oh, someone is getting run."

The reason for the reaction was that Dan Iassogna's name was on the list. Now I don't know Iassogna at all -- I've never spoken with him because umpires are not required to talk to the media before or after games. But I've seen Iassogna work games and I just did a Google photo search on him, and, to be kind, the guy seems a little angry. Actually, he appears kind of confrontational.

Iassogna, as some remember, was the umpire who always seemed to drive Larry Bowa crazier than any other ump -- and that's saying something. It was Iassogna who got the notch on his belt for running Bowa for the first time as Phillies manager in July of 2001 and the two continued to have some run-ins during the length of Bowa's stay as skipper.

In fact, Iassogna actually made me feel a little sympathetic toward Bowa during a few of those confrontations. For anyone who knows me, that's saying something.

So when both Chase Utley and Charlie Manuel got the heave-ho for a game where there were more than 40,000 people in the stands, I figured Dan needed a little attention.

Then again, it's not like I didn't see it coming.

Howard's 496-foot home run
Wow... that should sum it up.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Rained out

If there was ever a day when the Phillies needed a rain out, Saturday was the day. We’re not sure, but it appeared as if Charlie Manuel was doing some sort of rain dance during his argument with third-base ump James Hoye last night. Maybe that’s why Charlie couldn’t get ejected – he was dancing instead of dropping the magic word.

Actually, the Phillies brass deserves a rare kudos for doing the right thing and calling Saturday night’s game before anyone showed up at the park. There have been way too many nights when the club would open the doors, get everyone in the park to wait around for an hour or two just to pull the plug.

That’s no fun for anyone. The players don’t like it, the media doesn’t like it, and the fans certainly don’t like it either.

With the escalating costs of going to a game for regular folks – not to mention the spiking gas prices – it’s nice to see that the Phillies thought ahead and let everyone stay at home to watch the hockey game on CSN.


Maybe they TiVo-ed it and tuned in to Henry Rollins’ new show on IFC. Rollins, of course, is the “aging, alternative icon” and media gadfly better known for work as the singer for the Rollins Band (and Black Flag) as well as a riveting spoken word performer.

Plus, Rollins is from D.C., which isn’t a bad thing.

Nevertheless, it’s apparent that the Rollins show is still finding its way, though it certainly has the potential to be as entertaining as IFC’s other show, “Dinner for Five,” hosted by actor/director Jon Favreau.

On the other hand…

As far as the other Rollins goes – Jimmy that is – his hitless skid reached 13 at-bats and 14 plate appearances. Since the club left Atlanta for Colorado last week, Rollins has just four hits in 28 at-bats (.143) and says his swing is a bit out of whack.

Plus, because of some blisters and callouses on his thumbs that sting when he swings right-handed, Rollins took Friday night off against lefty Scott Olsen. But he’ll be back in there against righty Sergio Mitre on Sunday afternoon.

“He's in a little funk right now,” Manuel said on Friday afternoon. “He pulling off the ball right now, dribbling it off the end of the bat. He'll sit and get a breather. When he's hitting line drives, he's short and quick to the ball. During the streak, he was pretty consistent with that. He'll get it back.”

See, the rainout was good. Everyone got to take a break.

Red-hot Thome
Not only did Jim Thome smash his ninth homer of the season in last night's win for the White Sox over the Twins, but also, the slugger scored another run on Saturday to keep his perfect streak going.

The streak? Thome has scored a run in every game this season.

It sounds like Thome is healthy.

Friday, April 21, 2006

More randomness

Well, I’m not a jinx… At least last night I wasn’t. Heading into Friday night’s game, David Bell has appeared in 12 games with 47 plate appearances without a strikeout.

In fact, based on some very quick research, Bell is the last of all the everyday players not to strikeout.

Not that anyone is going to mention it to him. At least not again.

Throughout the week, the press box has been over run with Major League scouts. That was especially the case on Friday night where the box was so filthy with scouts before the game that they took over the entire third row of seats and forced some of the regulars to find somewhere else to go.

Meanwhile, the presense of such a large number of scouts leads one to wonder if there is something going on. There has to be a reason they’re all here, right?

Sal Fasano sent 10 boxes of Peace-A-Pizza pizzas to the “Sal’s Pals” high up in section 307. At $3.75 and $4 per slice, it’s good to know that the folks at Peace-A-Pizza pitched in.

A blister on his hand and an 0-for-12 skid kept Jimmy Rollins on bench for Friday’s game.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Way to be a jinx

From the way-to-open-up-your-big-mouth-and-jinx-him file, I would be remiss if I did not admit that I told David Bell that he had not struck out all year following Wednesday night’s extra-inning win over the Nationals.

Bell claimed he was not aware of the fact – and I believe him – but as soon as the information left my mouth, writer Ken Mandel pointed out my faux pas with a, “way to go, jerk. You jinxed him.”

Bell downplayed my profuse (and, I’m sure, annoying) apologies, saying it was no big deal and, “an out is an out.” But the damage has been done. If Bell strikes out tonight, the code of baseball superstition says I’m to blame.

I certainly don’t root one way or another at a ballgame, so I’m hoping Bell keeps his perfect ledger in tact.

On another note, I am positive that Bell had no idea about the lack of whiffs because of the first time I had a conversation with him in the tiny clubhouse at Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater before the 2003 season. During that chat, I brought up some of Bell’s past statistics during his years with the Giants and Mariners and he very earnestly told me that he had no idea what I was talking about.

It wasn’t that he didn’t care about his statistics; it was just that he didn’t care.

Does that make sense?

Let me try again:

Baseball is the Bell Family business, and in any family business – especially one that stretches through three genereations – the bottom line is very important. To Bell, that bottom line isn’t his batting average or the number of hits or home runs. It’s how many wins his team has.

Yes, Bell wants to put up good statistics. But never at the price of costing his team a win.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Big games in April

As far as important games in April go, the next 10 for the Phillies are about as big as they come. At 5-7 and already five games behind the Mets in the NL East, the Phillies can make a dent in the standings with the Nationals, Marlins and Rockies in town for the next week-and-a-half.

Oh, but if only the next 10 were it for the Phils. For the next three weeks, the Phillies will play 15 of their next 20 games at home with no days off. Of those 20 games, 18 are in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (last we checked, Pittsburgh is still on the other end of the state).

So obviously, this is a big stretch for the Phillies.

Here’s a fun fact: Jon Lieber is the Phillies’ first Opening Day starter to begin the season 0-3 since Robert Person went 0-3 in 2002.

That season, Person lost his first three of his first six starts, went on the disabled list and picked up his first win on June 2 against the Expos. As some will recall, that was the game where Person blasted a pair of homers and drove in seven runs.

After pitching as well as any hurler in the National League in the final months of the 2001 season, the 2002 campaign was not one to remember for Person. Later that summer, the right-hander and manager Larry Bowa had a few “disagreements” before Person went on the disabled list following a two-inning blowup in a loss at Wrigley Field in late July.

Following that game, Person was done as a Phillie.

Since then, the affable pitcher from St. Louis battled injuries and bounced from the Red Sox and White Sox for a few years before winding up in the Atlantic League with the Bridgeport Bluefish last season.

Against the likes of Pete Rose Jr. and Ryan Minor, Person went 0-4 with a 6.37 ERA in 14 games.

As a side note, Cory Lidle’s brother Kevin was a catcher for the Bluefish.

Here’s another fun fact: Heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Nationals, David Bell had gone 37 consecutive plate appearances without striking out. Of all the Phillies to come to bat this season, only Bell and pitcher Ryan Madson (six plate appearances) are the only players not to strike out.

The Lost London column

Note: This was originally supposed to appear on CSN's weekly "Email Blast," but it was decided something about hockey would be better for the subscribers of the mailing. Since I don't really follow hockey other than to listen to Keith Jones tell me about it, hockey guy Al Morganti was chosen to pen this week's offering. I say it's a good choice. I do nuance, emotion, culture and baseball. Al has more hockey knowledge in the nail of his pinky than I will ever hope to obtain in my entire life.

I can tell some stories, though. Just ask Keith. Anyway, here it is:

Knowledge, as they say, is power. It starts revolutions, movements and empowers lives. Here at Comcast SportsNet, a little bit of knowledge is an amusing thing, because it starts good-natured arguments – some which even find the way to television.

And that’s one of the best things about working for Comcast SportsNet. Within our office on the south side of the Wachovia Center, there is someone who is an expert on something. Need to know if Fred McGriff is a Hall of Famer? Someone can break it down for you. How about the latest on the ATP tour or the European soccer leagues? Find Matt Howley and he’ll get scientific.

The intricacies of the salary cap or anything related to the NFL? Ron Burke, Lance Crawford, Derrick Gunn and Rob Kuestner are the go-to guys.

International marathon racing? Well... I guess that’s me.

See, we have it all covered.

Anyway, with the NHL playoffs and NFL draft looming, as well as the baseball season in full swing, it’s not to difficult to be unaware of what’s shaping up to be a historic (in a sports sense) day at next Sunday’s London Marathon. That’s too bad, because for as “boring” as running can seem watching on television or the Internet, this race could be full of drama from the very first stride.

Why? The runners in this year’s race are the greatest collection of athletes in one event. Of the seven men who own the top 10 fastest marathon times in history, four of them are set to go in London. Two of the runners – Kenyan Paul Tergat and American Khalid Khannouchi – have run four of the top five fastest races ever.

In addition to Tergat, the greatest cross-country runner ever and the world record holder (a mind-numbing 2:05:55 at the Berlin Marathon in 2003), and Khannouchi, the naturalized New Yorker with all of the top American records, including a claim to the title of the greatest marathoner ever based on his times (three races in the top seven), the race features Stefano Baldini, the 2004 Olympic champion, as well as Moroccan Jaouad Gharib, the World Champion in 2003 and 2005.

Kenyan Evans Rutto, who ran a 2:05:50 in Chicago in 2003, and Felix Limo, a 2:06 runner, join the field with defending London champ Martin Lel.

If this race were a boxing match, it would be like putting Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Joe Frazier, Rocky Marciano, Mike Tyson, Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson and Gene Tunney in the ring at the same time.

That’s a pretty impressive field right there, but it wasn’t enough for the directors of the London race. Oh no. They pulled out all the stops and passed out appearance money like those guys in Vegas who hand out those leaflets on the sidewalk. The real coup de gras is Haile Gebrselassie, the two-time Olympic champion and four-time World Champion, who Disney has made movie about, and is Africa’s Michael Jordan. He's going to show up in London next Sunday.

Regarded by some as the greatest distance runner ever, Gebrselassie has run two marathons, but started 2006 by demolishing – not shattering – three world records in distances and times that predict that it will likely take another record time to beat him on the pancake-flat London course.

Home for the summer
In past years, it always seemed as if all the local teams found a way to get into the playoffs. Winning the playoffs? Well, that’s another story, but from the Flyers to the Sixers, to the Kixx, Phantoms, and Wings, the post-season was a given.

But this season, it appears as if the Phillies won’t be the only local club left out of the mix. Now that the 76ers have officially been eliminated from post-season action for the second time in the past three seasons, they join the Phantoms, Kixx, and Wings at home.

Piquing the interest away from pre-season football and the baseball season are the Flyers, who head to a probable first-round matchup against the Rangers next week.

Meanwhile, the next few weeks should be interesting for the 76ers as they decide on a plan of attack to get back the glory days. The biggest question, of course, is whether or not Allen Iverson’s future in the NBA will be in Philadelphia or somewhere else. That’s the story to keep everyone talking.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The walls come crumbling down

Over the past three Aprils, Barry Bonds hit .378 with a .593 on-base percentage and 18 homers (tied for his most in any month over that span). Based on those numbers it’s fair to say that Bonds isn’t exactly a slow starter.

So why is he hitting .188 with just one RBI and no homers through the first six games of the season?

Do you really have to ask?

As if the news couldn’t get any worse for Bonds, the word that a federal grand jury is investigating whether or not Bonds committed perjury when he testified before a grand jury in the 2003 BALCO case.

According to a few lawyers I talked to, as well as ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack, federal grand juries rarely convene unless they have the goods. Moreover, a charge like perjury to a federal grand jury usually means jail time.

The implications something like this could have are unprecedented. Buster Olney wrote that it could give MLB the impetus to separate itself from Bonds. According to Olney:

But a conviction of Bonds in a steroid-related matter would effectively provide Major League Baseball with the opportunity to distance itself from his accomplishments. And I think baseball will seize on that chance.

Say Bonds were to finish next season with 765 homers, breaking Aaron's record, and say, for example, that late in the year Bonds' lawyers arranged a plea bargain that kept him out of jail but provided a firm confirmation that he had, in fact, been untruthful about his alleged steroid use.

It would be too late for Major League Baseball to suspend Bonds' playing career. But nothing would prevent MLB from announcing that, as a matter of policy, it does not recognize Bonds as the all-time home run champion. Hank Aaron, Bud Selig could announce, is the official home run champion of Major League Baseball.

So why is Bonds hitting .188 with just one RBI and no homers through the first six games of the season?

It’s probably because his world is crumbling all around him.

About last night
Fans must have liked to see Chase Utley have a breakout game at the plate with a pair of home runs, as well as Ryan Howard pick up a couple of hits to lift his average to .355 despite the fact that the big slugger says he still doesn’t feel comfortable at the plate.

Nevertheless, who would have guessed that in a game where the Phillies smashed three home runs in the first inning off Braves’ pitcher Kyle Davies (did he throw anything but fastballs in that first inning?), that a leadoff walk to Bobby Abreu in the seventh inning would have been one of the biggest at-bats of the game?

During that plate appearance, Abreu forced reliever Lance Cormier to throw 11 pitches by fouling off five pitches with two strikes. Following the walk, Abreu advanced to third on Pat Burrell’s nine-pitch single to right before scoring what ended up to be the game-winning run on Utley’s sacrifice fly.

Who says Abreu isn’t clutch?

Meanwhile, notorious slow starter Jimmy Rollins is playing very well with a hit in eight of the nine games this season, including his 14th leadoff homer against the Braves last night.

However, if you think Rollins has overhauled his game, the numbers tell a different story.

His on-base percentage is a very hefty .415, which comes largely because he has a .395 batting average. In 40 plate appearances Rollins has walked twice and a season after he faced a team-low 3.42 pitches per at-bat, the shortstop has faced even fewer pitches per plate appearances this season at 2.88. Among the regulars, only Mike Lieberthal’s 2.82 pitches seen per at-bat is remotely near Rollins’ number.

Still, it’s hard to say anything bad about a guy who is hitting the ball. Because Rollins bats leadoff, opposing pitchers don’t want to start off by getting behind in the count. Rollins realizes he’s going to see something thrown across the plate and is using the knowledge to his advantage.

On a funny note, after Rollins stopped at second in the sixth inning when he could have tried for a two-out triple (it would have been close), Courier Post scribe Mike Radano sent me an IM that read: “He’s just trying to pad his doubles.”

The bullpen
Watching Ryan Franklin nearly cough up a four-run lead in last night’s Phillies victory, I started thinking about just how important good relief pitching is. It also solidified my own theory – at least I think so – about a team’s chances if it doesn’t have a good relief corps.

If I were building a baseball team from scratch, my first area of emphasis – after I got a bona fide ace starting pitcher (or two) – would be the relieving corps. For some reason, I always had it in my head that a good team was built from the back to the front. Meaning, the guys who were on the field at the end of the game were very, very important.

In recent memory, those great Yankees teams from the late ‘90s were built with an ironclad bullpen, and so were the Angels in 2002 and the Red Sox in 2004

Actually, I thought the Phillies of 2004 were going to be a bona fide contender because the bullpen appeared to be so strong. I even wrote as much.

Anyway, my eyes tend to gloss over when I read statistical-laden prose regarding baseball. I know all of that Baseball Prospectus stuff is great and informative, and sometimes even correct, but a lot of it puts me to sleep (though I try to read Will Carroll’s injury column every chance I get). So when I was looking for something to prove myself correct, I dug up something written by BP’s Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner from a story written on July 8, 1999. Based on the author’s research, it seems as if a good ballclub must have a strong ‘pen.

From BP:

What we found was that teams with good bullpens actually won more games--about 1.3 more, on average--than would be expected from their totals of runs and runs allowed, while teams with bad bullpens won about 1.6 fewer games than expected. This is, we believe, the first time any study has pinpointed a subset of teams which routinely outperform or underperform their Pythagorean projection.

Unfortunately, I got a little sleepy when reading the entire story, but for those who have a subscription, it can be read here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Phillies vs. Braves in Atlanta

Cory Lidle appeared close to getting knocked out of the game before the fifth inning, and though he gave up 10 hits -- five for extra bases -- the cagy veteran cruised through his final two innings.

Know how? He threw strikes. In the fifth and sixth innings, Lidle threw 17 pitches and only one of them was a ball. It sounds so easy, but often it's so difficult -- throw strikes. Trust your fielders. Believe it or not, the Phillies are pretty strong defensively, so throwing strikes should not be a problem. Lidle didn't have a problem in throwing strikes -- of his 89 pitches, 62 were strikes and he didn't walk anyone.

Besides, Bill James' 10th idiom of his 15 virtues of sabermetic knowledge is: A great deal of what is perceived as being pitching is in fact defense.

So pitchers, take heed from Cory Lidle's final two innings of Wednesday night's start in Atlanta. Throw strikes. It will make you look good.

Maybe it's me, but those baggy uniforms with the bloused pants the Braves are wearing really look silly.

Since I questioned Charlie Manuel's decision to put Aaron Rowand in the No. 2 spot in the batting order, the center fielder is 4-for-10 with a homer, a stolen base, and two RBIs. Better yet, he's only whiffed once.

The Phillies lineup would still be better with Chase Utley batting second.

The Phillies' starting lineup came into Wednesday night's game with a .156 batting average against Braves' starter Jorge Sosa. In four innings, the Phils went 4-for-17 with an error and three walks off the young righty.

A trend continues: the Braves bottom third of the batting order went 7-for-12 with five extra-base hits. This season, the 7, 8 and 9 hitters are 37-for-93 (.398) with 21 RBIs.

That can't continue.

Here's a fun fact: Jimmy Rollins has a hit in 25 straight road games. Since 1990, 12 men have hit in 25 straight games on the road.

It's hard to have a must-win in April, but the Phillies certainly picked one up on Wednesday night to improve to 2-6. Aside from Lidle's outing, closer Tom Gordon looked particulary sharp using just a cutter and a changeup.

Pat Burrell snapped an 0-for-10 skid with a homer in the seventh, while every starter reached base... hard to complain about that.

So what is there to complain about? Well, neither Geoff Geary nor Rheal Cormier could get out of the eighth. Plus, Manuel still had Rowand hitting second.

Ten years already!?

Watching a game from Turner Field makes me think about the summer of ’96 when Atlanta was the home for the Olympics and the Braves’ field was configured quite differently. These days, it’s a typical nouveau ballpark that have popped up in nearly every American city, only Turner Field, nee Olympic Stadium, plays slightly in favor of the pitchers.

Since the Braves bread-and-butter has always been their pitching prowess, it makes sense that the stadium developers would skew things that way. It also gets very hot and humid during the summertime in Atlanta, which often causes the baseball the sail a little farther. They didn’t nickname the Braves old stadium the Launching Pad because it was kitschy.

Anyway, I always have to remind myself that some of the most memorable sporting events that I have ever seen occurred in that stadium during that summer 10 years ago. I’ll never forget Muhammad Ali, dressed in white, dramatically appear out of nowhere to light the Olympic torch. Now I’m not one who gets all choked up or overly-sentimental at sporting events – that’s just not how I am, because it’s just a game – but imaging Ali atop that ramp that hot summer night still gives me chills.

Along with baseball, track, specifically the distance events, is my favorite sport to watch. Most people would call these two sports among the most dull to watch, but I can’t really think of anything more interesting. Needless to say, the track events at the Olympics are about as exciting as sports spectating gets.

Call me crazy.

Anyway, the track events on that famously hard track that ringed Turner Field produced some events that running geeks still talk about. Like, for instance, when American Bob Kennedy brazenly surged to the lead at the top of the curve of the last lap in the 5,000-meter finals. It was a move that was so daring and unexpected that I shrieked (not smart since the race wasn’t aired until nearly midnight and woke up the entire house) and thought of what a bad-ass Kennedy was even though he faded to sixth place.

That was how Prefontaine must have done it, I thought.

Along that outfield warning track is also where Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia beat Paul Tergat of Kenya in the 10,000-meter dream race where Geb solidified his legend with an Olympic record. The two will meet up again in the London Marathon next weekend in possibly the greatest collection of marathoners ever, but more on that at a later date.

But the image that really sticks in my mind is Michael Johnson coming off the curve in the 200-meter finals so fast that either his gold shoes were going to burst into flames or he was going to soar into the humid sky. How can anyone forget the shock on Johnson’s face when he turned around to see the clock and saw that he had just moved faster than any human being on two feet?

If it were up to me, I’d have plaques placed on the spot where all of those memorable events occurred.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

One week down

Though the Phillies opened the season with three games against the fearsome St. Louis Cardinals, I don’t think too many people thought they would look this bad in the first week. Certainly, when the club broke camp with a 19-win spring, optimism was reasonably high and the Phillies were something of a trendy pick to make it to the playoffs.

Heck, even this guy was suckered into the positive vibes coming from Clearwater.

But after the 1-5 opening week and a three-game series in Atlanta beginning tomorrow, it might be a good idea to re-evaluate those preseason picks.

As Frank Costanza said about his lawyer, known as The Man in the Cape (and convincingly played by Larry David): “He doesn’t follow the trends.”

He was on to something.

Nevertheless, it isn’t time to panic, Phillies fans. Bobby Abreu is starting to swing the bat, and it seems as if the starters – excluding Gavin Floyd – are on the right path. Besides, after the three games against the Braves, the schedule eases up a bit. Starting next Friday, the Phillies play 18 of their next 28 at home against the likes of Colorado, Washington, Florida, and Pittsburgh.

Making his way
Everyone in Chicago, it seemed, was in love with Aaron Rowand. With a game that is all grit and intensity, including the ability to run gap to gap as well as any centerfielder in baseball, it was only a matter of time until he owned Philadelphia, they said.

But so far it appears as if Rowand has some work to do in order to win over the fans. No, it’s not as if Rowand has at the bottom of the trough with David Bell and Mike Lieberthal, or even the everyday, run-of-the-mill player, for that matter. But though Rowand has been an above-average fielder (the sun-blinded error, notwithstanding), he hasn’t exactly been inspiring, either.

The reason for that was the 0-for-13 skid and the two hits he collected in his first 18 plate appearances with five strikeouts before Rowand picked up a pair of clutch singles on Sunday. What’s more, Rowand doesn’t seem like the best fit for the No. 2 spot in the order where he started in four of the last five games, especially since he has averaged 105 strikeouts and just 31 walks over the past two seasons.

Regardless, based on the emotional reception Rowand heard from the fans at the ballpark formerly known as Comiskey when he went to pick up his World Series ring last week, it looks like there is something about the guy. Maybe the fans need a few more hits to go with the mellifluous way in which he covers the outfield.

Then again, it’s only been a week… maybe I ought to lighten up?

Sitting still
Earlier I wrote that the Schuylkill Expressway was the worst stretch of pavement in the United States. Upon reflection on my drive to the ballpark this weekend I have to admit that the statement is wrong and I should amend it.

The Schuylkill is not the worst road in Americait’s the worst expanse of concrete in the world.

Please note the correction.

Rainy Saturday

For some reason it bothered me that the Bobby Abreu’s Gold Glove Award was being put together as it was being presented to him. In fact, Abreu had the award in his hands when the golden decorative baseballs were placed in their proper holders.

And no, as Ken Mandel pointed out in the press box while waiting for the rain to stop, Abreu did not allow the balls to drop in front of him before he picked them up and put them where they belonged.

It was fun to see Dick Allen at the ballpark on Saturday. Allen, a favorite of my uncle Jim, showed up to present Ryan Howard with his 2005 Rookie of the Year Award. Though Howard officially received the award in New York last December, the Phillies wanted to re-gift it on the field before Saturday’s game against the Dodgers. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate.

Anyway, Allen, the 1964 Rookie of the Year and 1972 AL MVP, was none for his prodigious power and out-spoken nature in an era before juiced balls, maple bats, band-box ballparks and media saturation. Part problem child and free spirit, Allen’s colorfulness would undoubtedly make him a celebrity in today’s game.

When talking about Howard and old-time baseball, Allen was engaging and truthful. In fact, when asked if he had ever seen a player with Howard’s power to the opposite field, Allen said: “Yeah, Rico Carty, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays… ”

Then he paused and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “You want me to keep going.”

The response did not come off as a slight on Howard. Instead, it showed how the Phillies new slugging first baseman is part of the baseball oracle.

Along with his parents, Howard’s five-year-old son presented him with his Rookie of the Year Award. As someone with a son a week away from turning two, seeing Howard with his boy and parents was the highlight of my day.

I imagine it would be awesome to watch your dad hit homers and receive big-time awards just as I imagine it would be the greatest thrill ever to watch your son accomplish Herculean feats.

Friday, April 07, 2006


From my perch in the press box, I can see Mike Radano updating his blog. It’s the only baseball blog I read, which isn’t a knock on the other baseball blogs but he has access and the others do not.

Now if Radano could learn how to spell he’d be dangerous.

Media-favorite and former Phillie, Yankee, Cub, Giant, White Sox, Indian, Brave and Astro, Kenny Lofton, was back at the ballpark on Friday night.

Kenny is currently on the disabled list with the Dodgers.

On my way to the press box lavatory, I literally ran into Jay Johnstone. No one was hurt, but the first thought that popped into my head when nearly trampling the Dodgers’ broadcaster was, “Hey, I read your book when I was a kid.”

The book was called Temporary Insanity and it wasn’t too bad for jock-lit. There were plenty of good stories about all the crazy things baseball players like to do in their free time, including some of the finer details about Johnstone’s time as a Phillie farmhand where he spent most of his energy terrorizing his manager Jim Bunning.

Bunning, of course, is currently the senior Republican senator from the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and based on a conversation I had with him in 2003, he still has not let go of the mental anguish Johnstone caused him.

My favorite story from the book was when Johnstone caught wind that Bunning had been trying to nail him for any team rule infraction he could. So just to steam his manager even more than already necessary, Johnstone spread the word that he was organizing a wild, beer-drinking and card-playing night in his room at the team hotel. Thinking he was finally going to get his chance to burn Johnstone once and for all, Bunning showed up at the room after curfew only to find Johnstone sitting on his bed and reading a book.

During our conversation in 2003, Bunning said he campaigned for Johnstone to be called up to the Phillies so he could be rid of him. That turned out to be a pretty good move because Johnstone hit .303 with 33 homers, including going 7-for-9 in the 1976 NLCS, in five seasons with the Phillies.

Getting traded from the Phillies (to the Yankees for Rawly Eastwick) turned out to be a good move for Johnstone’s career. After leaving Philadelphia in the middle of 1978, Johnstone went on to win two World Series rings with the Yankees (’78) and Dodgers (’81).

Radano’s colleague Kevin Roberts has taken to inserting Gavin Floyd’s name into the popular Chuck Norris Facts. For some reason it’s still very funny.

Based on the volume of the boos, it sounds as if Scott Rolen is more disliked by the Phillies fans than J.D. Drew. In fact, it sounds like Drew would fit right in with the home team -- it wouldn't be any worse than the reception David Bell or Mike Lieberthal receive every time they dig in at the plate.

Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci was at Friday night's game. The matinee-idolesque Verducci was a favorite with certain elements in the Phillies Scribes Fantasy Football League.

I live in Lancaster, which is closer to Camden Yards than to Citizens Bank Park (that’s a different story), so I have to drive on the Schuylkill Expressway when I go to the park (well, I don’t have to, but you know… ). After spending some time sitting in the car while not moving I had plenty of time to think about some things and I’ve determined that the drive into Philadelphia is the worst of any city.

It’s worse than driving to Boston or Washington or New York. Worse than Denver, Cleveland or Las Vegas.

Yes, there might be some places where it’s very difficult to drive, like Los Angeles or Atlanta, but over the past two days, the Schuylkill Expressway was the worse patch of concrete in America.

One in a lifetime hitter

Albert Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen. Yes, that’s what I said. Albert Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen.

Sure, I caught the tail end of Rod Carew’s career and I remember seeing him play a few times on NBC’s Saturday afternoon Game of the Week with Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola in the late ‘70s with that big old chaw in his right cheek and that crazy batting stance of his. When my friends and I would play ball in the courtyard behind our home in Washington, some one would always imitate Rod Carew or Lee May, who was the DH and star for the Orioles before Eddie Murray came into his own.

And yeah, I remember George Brett, especially during the 1980 season when one of the 12 channels we got back in those days would cut in to the regular programming to let everyone know that Brett’s latest hit pushed him over the .400 plateau.

Then there was Tony Gwynn, who was as pure a hitter as there was and made it look like he was using a tennis racket at the plate. I remember a doubleheader at the Vet on July 22,1994 when Gwynn went 6-for-8 – four hits in the first game and two more in the second. For some reason it always seemed as if Gwynn got nine or 10 hits that day.

All of those guys are great hitters, but for some reason I think Pujols is the best. Maybe it’s the combination of power and hitting artistry. Mix that with his ability to deliver in the clutch – like that homer in the ninth during the NLCS in Houston last October – and it’s hard to deny that Pujols is heading for something otherworldly.

As big as the biggest ever… like Aaron or maybe even bigger.

Now here’s the crazy part: Pujols is only 26. He was born the year Brett hit .390 and the Phillies won the World Series. Born in 1980 with five years already under his belt, Pujols has blasted 204 homers, with a .332 lifetime average while coming off a season where he had a career-low 117 RBIs.

Just wait until he hits his prime.

I remember being at Yankee Stadium during the 2003 season when Tony LaRussa told reporters that Pujols was the bets player he ever managed. Later that year I remember being in the Phillies clubhouse at the Vet and listening to Mike Schmidt describe Pujols’ approach to hitting in hushed tones. Schmidt couldn’t believe that a player so young had so much knowledge about hitting.

“Look at how he spreads out,” Schmidt said, crouching into a copy of Pujols’ stance. “He treats every pitch like he already has two strikes.”

After the opening three-game series at the Bank, it’s hard to imagine the Phillies’ pitchers facing a better hitter. With three homers in the first two games, including one that might land sometime this weekend, in a 5-for-10 series with six RBIs and a 2.000 OPS, the baseball fans in Philadelphia might not see a better hitter come through town.

End of the line
Oddly, the Phillies were only 21-17 during Jimmy Rollins’ 38-game hitting streak. For as much as a catalyst he was during the team’s stretch run late last season, it felt as if the team was as good as Rollins.

Perhaps more telling was that the Phillies were 15-7 during Rollins’ streak when he scored a run and 30-10 in games in which Rollins scored a run after the All-Star Break in 2005.

Maybe that means the Phillies are better when Rollins gets on base as opposed to when he gets a hit.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

One for 123

The talk around the ballpark on Wednesday was Paul Hagen's trenchant expose on the recent futility of the Phillies. The venerable ball writer has put together a three-part series examining everything from the team's injuries to its corporate culture and emphasis on marketing instead of putting the best team on the field.

Here's the series:

April 5: Anatomy of a drought
April 6: Bad luck - or bad decisions?
April 7: Gillick is main ingrediant

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

One down, 161 more to go...

Last year on Opening Day, Charlie Manuel sat on top of the bench in the middle of the dugout and fielded question after question about why he chose to start Placido Polanco at second base over Chase Utley during his pre-game meeting with the writers. Actually, if an interview session were a prize fight, someone would have come in and stopped it.

But no more than 30 seconds later, Manuel walked up the dugout steps to talk to the TV folks who asked wistful inanities like, “Charlie, does Opening Day ever get old?”

This year, Manuel was asked why he chose to start Abraham Nunez at third base over David Bell, but there was none of the rancor or a challenging nature to the questions. It seemed as if everyone was OK with the skipper’s decision even though Bell was a little unhappy with sitting on the bench.

What a difference a year makes.

Either way, Opening Day always reminded me of going to church on Christmas. The press box is always packed with people who aren’t going to be back next time. They take care of their yearly obligation early and might show up at the end if there is a pennant race.

Jim Salisbury had an interesting story in Tuesday’s Inquirer about Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa’s role in Jimmy Rollins’ final at bat. According to the story, LaRussa told his pitcher Adam Wainright to quit nitpicking and throw something around the plate after the count had reached 3-0.

Also in the Cardinals’ clubhouse, Scott Rolen heard sarcastic boos from some teammates when he exited the training room and headed toward his locker. It seems as if they find the Philly fans’ treatment of the former Phillie very funny.

Which, of course, it is.

Rolen told me that he thinks his former teammate Jimmy Rollins has a really good chance to threaten Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. The reason, Rolen said, is that Rollins has the ability to beat out an infield hit with his speed, and he can bunt for a hit.

“He has all the tools,” Rolen said.

But, it’s not all about simply having the tools. There’s a mental part to it, too.

“Give him credit because he has to go out there and do it.”

When with the Phillies, Rolen and Rollins had different ways of doing things that sometimes caused a bit of (very minor) friction between the pair, but one thing for sure is that Rollins has a ton of respect for Rolen. Before a game in Washington last season, Rollins talked about how much he admired his former teammate as a player.

Then again, Rollins is a true fan of the game and anyone who is a fan of baseball has a real admiration for Rolen.

Apropos of nothing, Rolen and Randy Wolf are probably the most interesting and entertaining ballplayers to talk to. Rollins is up there, too, especially when talking about certain minutia of the game. Once, probably in late 2001 or 2002, he demonstrated to this writer how to come to a quick stop after running at full speed. It seems as if there is a proper technique and form to everything in baseball.

He has a point…
Before Sunday’s exhibition against the Red Sox, Manuel talked candidly about his lack of double switches last season. It seems as if Charlie didn’t think he had the artillery to yank a starter out of the game.

In fact, when Manuel contemplated a double switch, he said, he’d look to his right from the corner of the dugout and didn’t think Tomas Perez or Endy Chavez could get it done.

It’s hard to disagree with that.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

More on the trade

For my money – what there is of it – Buster Olney is the best baseball writer in the world right now. Oh sure, there might be other guys who are more analytical in regard to the Baseball Prospectus-type of writing that all of the kids are talking about, but numbers and statistics always left me cold. Baseball is about stories, and Olney is really quite interesting.

Yes, I lean toward the “Moneyball” theory in putting together a team, but at the same time I take more stock out of what an old scout or storyteller can teach me about the game than anything some guy with an MBA can show me on an Excel spreadsheet.

Besides, last summer former Inquirer writer Jayson Stark told me how hard Olney worked on his daily dispatches for ESPN after I had revealed to Stark how much I enjoyed his colleague’s work.

Gushing and name dropping aside, Olney had an interesting perspective on the Phillies’ deal for David Dellucci.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from Buster’s ESPN blog:

Phillies GM Pat Gillick knows Dellucci from his days as GM of the Orioles, and I don't think he'd be picking him up knowing that David would only be pinch-hitter type. There's more mad scientist in Gillick than any general manager I've covered; he always thinking two or three moves ahead, and he won't always tell you what he's doing. You have to think, on the face of it, that the acquisition of Dellucci is merely the first domino to fall.

Olney wonders if Pat Burrell is more hurt than anyone is letting on, or if there will be future deal involving Bobby Abreu. Nevertheless, it’s pretty fair to say that Gillick has been bold in putting together this year’s team… well, maybe he’s not bold per se, maybe we’re just not used to such proactive behavior.

It's 4:51 a.m., do you know where your new fifth outfielder is?

Phillies' GM Pat Gillick pulled off a late-night trade for the left-handed hitting, fifth-outfielder he coveted in the early hours of Sunday morning. For promising right-handed pitcher Rob Tejeda, and minor-leaguer Jake Blalock the Phils picked up David Dellucci from the Texas Rangers.

In other words, Gillick dealt Vicente Padilla, Blalock and Tejeda to Texas for Dellucci.

Dellucci is a 32-year-old, .259 hitter who spent the past two years with the Rangers, and has also spent time with the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Orioles. Last Season Dellucci had a career-high 29 homers and 128 games.

In 2001, Dellucci was a pinch-hitter for the World Champion Diamondbacks.

According to the UPI, the Rangers' GM Jon Daniels, said:

"It was hard trading David. He's been with us for two years. He has a strong relationship with the players and the community. He was pretty shocked."

According to the UPI, the teams had been working on the deal for nearly a week.

With Dellucci in the fold, that means the Chris Coste/Tomas Perez era in Philadelphia has ended... at least for now.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Back to work

Remember that old feeling you had on the first day of school? You know, kind of like your junior year when you know your way around, have a little bit of confidence, but still don’t have any real clout? Well, that’s the way it felt walking back into the ballpark for the exhibition with the Red Sox today.

And of course with any new year, there are a few changes here and there. The most noticeable were in the Phillies clubhouse, where Jim Thome’s things had been cleared out of his old locker just to the left of the double doors opening to the showers and Brett Myers had taken over. Instead of Billy Wagner slinking around and chattering away in the corner closest to the training room, Flash Gordon had parked his stuff.

On the other side of the room, a row of California kids had blossomed with Mike Lieberthal, Randy Wolf, Jimmy Rollins, Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell all staking their claims right next to each other. Interestingly, Burrell had moved his stall clear across the room from a macho row of sorts where he held court with departed pals Jason Michaels and Todd Pratt during the past two seasons.

Interestingly, Burrell’s old locker was being used by aging wunderkind Chris Coste. If location, location, location is truly the most important aspect of real estate, then it appears as if Coste might be hanging around in Philadelphia for a little while.

Stay tuned.

Rowand is in center
Newcomer Aaron Rowand’s prowess in center field was quite noticeable in his first home game at the Bank today. Yeah, he had that nifty sliding catch to take away a hit from Boston, and he appeared to glide like a gazelle when tracking down a well-struck ball to the right-center power alley.

But where Rowand’s ability really stood out was when he deftly played a carom high off the center field triangle area in the deepest part of the park. Instead of racing to the base of the wall and getting caught in a no-man’s land where the ball could rocket over his head, Rowand played it cool, waited to see where the ball would land, and then properly played the hop.

Had he not missed cut-off man Jimmy Rollins in short center field, Rowand would have had a chance to nab a runner scoring from first on the double.

Jimmy talks streak
Here’s my recording of Jimmy Rollins’ post-game conference where he talks about his epic hitting streak one last time before the season starts.

Missing is the short conversation Rollins, Mike Radano and I had about the shortstop’s experiment with contact lenses during the spring. No, Rollins doesn’t need glasses or anything like that – he was just testing out a pair of sunglass-styled lenses that made his pupils look orange.

And like any novice contact wearer, Rollins battled that “lens sweat” where it took roughly 20 hours just to get one lens in.

Bonds… Barry Bonds
Interestingly, Rollins addressed the Barry Bonds/steroid investigation crisis and how his hitting streak could potentially create a diversion. Though Bonds’ name didn’t come up very often today, the pall of the pending investigation seemed to suffocate the joy of the beginning of a new season.

Twice during the past month, I wrote a short column for the CSN e-mail blast about the Bonds story long before it was decided by Commissioner Bud Selig that an investigation was necessary. But because of events that trumped the column’s newsworthiness, it never was blasted through the ether. So if you’ll indulge me, I’ll just reprint the dead-letter here:

We interrupt this calm, quiet spring training for Bonds.

Barry Bonds.

Perhaps more than any event that has occurred since Charlie Hustle, Pete Rose, was banned for life for betting on his sport, the allegations that Bonds was a frequent and sophisticated steroid user printed in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated and the soon-to-be released tome "Game of Shadows" by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, will resonate long after the slugger is old, hobbled and scrawny.

But whether or not Bonds injected, swallowed or vapo-rubbed the cream, the clear, Deca-Durabolin, insulin, human growth hormone or those cattle 'roids really isn't the issue any more. Since he is already guilty in the court of public opinion as well as the minutia gathered by two bloodhound reporters, there really isn't much Bonds can do to restore an image that was nearly as low as someone who enjoys dropkicking puppies. The issue is whether Major League Baseball will truly investigate the claims John Dowd-style.

Dowd, of course, was the investigator who nailed Rose. He also said in a recent published report that commissioner Bud Selig should hire an outside investigator to research the allegations.

"If you do nothing, you leave a cloud on the game," Dowd told reporters.

Certainly Dowd is correct. Whether or not the greatest offensive era in the long history of baseball was simply a matter of correct chemistry rather than unquenched assiduity is a fair question to ask for fans that were blissfully duped all of these years.

But if Selig and his merry men only choose to dip their toe into the steroid pool to see if the tepid waters unmask simply the obvious, then it really isn't fair.

Bonds, owner of the record for most home runs in a season and rapidly approaching the all-time records set by Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, appears to be alone in the spotlight. And whether the allegations prove to be true or not, Bonds likely is not the only player in baseball history to use performance-enhancing substances. So if baseball is truly serious about a real investigation, which Selig said he is, then Bonds must only be the tip of the iceberg.

Did Mark McGwire use more than androstenedione before or after his historic home run chas in 1998? Do regular B-12 shots really cause one to fail a drug test as if he were using Winstrol, as one-time future Hall-of-Famer Rafael Palmeiro claimed?

More interestingly, will Jose Canseco be remembered as the man who forced baseball to address its dirty little secret once and for all?

How could we just let the impending divorce of Anna and Kris Benson pass without a comment? Seriously, if an ex-stripper and a professional athlete can’t make it work, what hope is there for the rest of us?

© 2006 - John R. Finger - all rights reserved