Monday, June 30, 2003

Oops, I Did it Again

Yep, the scorching Phillies won again tonight, and, yep, I watched but a couple of innings. Coupled with a Braves loss to Florida (Maddux was manhandled, yielding seven runs in just four innings), the Fightin's' 4-3 come-from-behind downing of the Cubs put them a mere 5.5 games behind Atlanta, two games before hitting the season's halfway point.

Obviously, my inverse strategy of not watching the Phils is paying huge dividends. Just as carrying an umbrella negates any chance of rain, and vice versa, my viewing of the Phillies puts the kibosh on any hope of victory, and vice versa. (I should be so smart with my fantasy league team.) Which means that I'll try to keep my eyes close when Dad and I settle into our seats Tuesday night at the Vet to catch Randy Wolf and Mark Prior.

Anyway, what's up with these guys? It seems to me that the outstanding pitching, especially from the starting rotation, has given the hitting sufficient time to learn and come together. Jim Thome bashed his 21st dinger tonight – a Phillie with 21 homers before the All-Star break? – and the entire offense is starting to play the right way. They're moving runners, scoring on sacrifice flies, and getting extraordinarily timely hits. Writing in the morning's Inquirer, columnist Phil Sheridan quotes both Placido Polanco and Joe Torre on the benefits of patience when dealing with a newly assembled team.

And you can see the Phillies' confidence now. Winning begets winning, and the Phils are just plain winners now. This could be one hell of a summer.

But don't take my word for it. The man is a rambling writer, but Peter Gammons has watched an awful lot of baseball in his career. In his current column, he notes, "The Phillies, D-Backs, and White Sox are all teams with preseason expectations and pressures that did not implode when they struggled. Which makes them all the more dangerous the rest of the way."

In other words: It could be one hell of a summer. I know, I know -- I said that already. But for way too many years, July 4 has been not a halfway point in a thrilling pennant chase, but a checkpoint in the march toward Eagles training camp. So pardon me if I'm repeating myself -- it's just a little hard to believe sometimes.

Told Ya So

Don't say I didn't warn you. As predicted in this space recently, the new Liz Phair album gets the expected, harrumphing lament from overwriting Inquirer music critic Tom Moon in yesterday's paper. Moon, in essence, scolds Phair for not acting her age, pointedly accusing "the divorced single mother" of trying "to erase every bit of goodwill lingering from . . . Exile in Guyville"and calling Liz Phair "one of the saddest chapters in the short history of alt-rock." A similar chapter is when one of the guys in Radiohead hummed along to an Anne Murray song in his local supermarket one night three years ago.

Look, I've heard virtually none of Phair's record, so I can't at all say whether it's worth listening to. But Moon's review -- like many others, I suspect -- exhibits an almost personal sense of hurt feelings, as if Phair has turned her back not on her own legacy but on True Fans such as Moon. Which leads me to wonder: If the work is even half-decent, will any critics have the stones to say so?

Friday, June 27, 2003

While I Was Out

I guess the key to a successful Phillies season is my not watching any of it. With company in last weekend, followed by a brief road trip, I've been really out of touch with the Fightin's – so of course they've played solid baseball and erased a couple of games off the Braves' National League East lead.

This despite Pat Burrell's ongoing cluelessness with a bat (d'oh!) and Kevin Millwood's struggles on the mound. The rest of the staff, though, has settled into a nice groove, and the lineup has found a rhythm, too. In days of old I'd concede the race to Atlanta -- 7.5 games up at the end of June was practically automatic for the Braves -- but I'm not ready to do that just yet. I still think they're capable of sliding down to a level of play that was predicted for them by a lot of observers at the beginning of the season. Yes, Andruw Jones is having his first truly studly season, Gary Sheffield continues to hit anything, Chipper Jones has been solid (though certainly not spectacular), and the Braves have been getting contributions from a lot of heretofore unremarkable players. But I still get this sense that Atlanta is playing on borrowed time, that its unsteady pitching will come into play at some point.

The Phillies showed considerable character by rebounding from that awful thrashing by the Reds -- in the Adam Dunn/Carlos Silva brawl game -- and winning two series from the Braves and taking a pair of games from the Red Sox. There may be life in these guys yet.

A Gay Old Time

Supreme Court observers talk often about the brilliance of Antonin Scalia's legal mind. Even those who disagree with him cite his intelligence and reasoning capacity.

So what to make of the most-quoted portions of his dissent in the Texas sodomy case? I haven't read any of the decision in full, but what struck me in the news reports I heard was his lamenting that the Court had "taken up the gay agenda," or something similar, and had entered into the so-called cultural war.

Well, wasn't the Court going to take a side in the culture war regardless of which way its decision went? And the notion of six justices taking up the "gay agenda" -- whatever that means -- is offensive. The case could be distilled into a simple question: Should the government be able to criminalize what happens between two consenting adults in the privacy of their own bedroom? This is as easy a no-brainer as it gets. Forget all of the hyperventilation from the family-valued crowd about the slippery slope to pedophilia and bigamy. There's enough flexibility in American jurisprudence to protect those who are truly victimized. Neither party in a consensual, adult, gay relationship should be painted as either perpetrator or victim. Bravo to the Supremes for dragging Texas and other states kicking and screaming into the 21st century. (And shame on the Court for waiting so long to do it.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Phair Ball

The critics and fans who lamented that having her new record produced by the Matrix would make Liz Phair sound like Avril Lavigne are right -- and wrong.

Phair's self-titled record hit stores yesterday, and I caught her new single, "Why Can't I," on WXPN this morning. I'll need to hear it a few additional times to render a more specific judgment, but off the top of my head it sounded like a bouncy little pop/rock number. Nice harmonies, jangly guitars, and all the rest. Though she's been styled a neo-punk savior, Lavigne sings pretty traditional pop songs about boys and love. Based on a first listen, "Why Can't I" falls into that category.

But what many seem to have forgotten is that while Lavigne brings to the studio a young, solid sound, Phair is nowhere near an accomplished singer. As much as the Matrix has buffed and polished her voice on "Why Can't I" -- and presumably the rest of the album -- it remains a little flat, just slightly off-key, and a hell of a lot more interesting than Lavigne's or almost anybody else's. Phair's songwriting -- brutally frank sexually and so unexpected from a young, preppy woman, at least back then -- helped to launch the grrrl-power movement, but it was her voice that gave the tunes their "Oh, my God, you have to listen to this!" allure. The world can and should pass on Avril sound-alikes; one is enough. But so long as Phair retains that distinctive imperfection -- the one thing that makes are stuff so compelling -- I'll happily plunk down 15 bucks at for the new work.

Phair has been all over the mainstream media of late, flirting with Entertainment Weekly's camera, inviting the New York Times along for a night out, and singing in front of Jay Leno's house. She knows she's going to get her ass kicked by those expecting a Liz Phair Record, and in recent profiles she's punched back, a little too defensively in my eyes. I mean, let's face facts -- she is selling out. She is trying to sell more records. But who am I to deny her that right? Phair more than established her credibility a decade ago. If she wants to make a buck or two along the way, more power to her.

Besides, it's not as if her move is unprecedented. Plenty of influential and talented acts have surveyed their careers and gone in new directions. U2, faced with the impossible task of topping The Joshua Tree, chose to go techno for a few albums before returning with a more traditional rock record. R.E.M. lost its mumbly Michael Stipe sound on Out of Time, then took a darker, more mature turn with the layered and deeply satisfying Automatic for the People, for my money the band's best work. On her final record, the stimulating Tropical Brainstorm, the late British popster Kirsty MacColl applied her considerable songwriting and vocal talents to Cuban rhythms. The result was a flawed but intriguing collection of songs that remain well worth listening to.

Many, many other examples can be found. Some of these moves were great, some not so much; many were interesting. Regardless, all these acts should be given credit for wanting to try something new. You may not have bought these records or enjoyed these songs, and that's okay, but at least offer a nod of appreciation to those who stretched themselves and challenged their fans with material that was beyond their usual fare.

Unfortunately for Phair, the direction she has chosen is not likely to win her much acclaim in newspapers and magazines. Critics' darlings typically don't offer much user-friendliness. Rare is the Norah Jones type who both wows music writers and sells a ton of records; more common are cult artists -- think the prolific but inaccessible Ani DiFranco, who can't belch without recording it and trying to sell it. A move toward a more pop sound is seen as diluting one's essential gifts in an unseemly effort to move more product. Never mind that in the right hands, pop music is one of our most joyous, enjoyable, and rewarding artistic efforts. It may not be deep, but it sure is fun. And what's wrong with a little fun once in a while?

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Phillies 3, Braves 2

The reason they say timing is everything is that timing is everything. After watching the Phillies get no-hit by Mike Hampton through seven innings this afternoon, and with the Braves threatening in the eighth, a few of us in our group of eight headed out.

So of course we hear from the very competent Scott Graham on the ride home that Turk Wendell pitches the Phils out of a jam; they finally crack Hampton with a couple of hits in the eighth; Placido Polanco somehow dumps the unhittable John Smoltz into shallow right to tie the score; Pat Burrell doubles off the wall to start the ninth; and Jimmy Rollins brings a pinch runner home with a base hit for the win.

Today's game was the first the Braves have lost all season when leading after seven. More importantly, the Phillies won the series, picking up a game in the standings and providing some small spark of hope. More challenges await: The Red Sox are in for the weekend, with Pedro taking the hill Saturday night, and then the Fightin's are on the road for three in Atlanta. Now would be a good time for some momentum, boys.

The Sounds of Silence

The late-game heroics of the Braves series notwithstanding, the Phillies have spent far too many games sleepwalking. I know this is now a veteran team and that the season is a marathon, not a sprint, but it would be nice to see a pulse once in a while -- something to indicate that this inexplicably weak-hitting bunch is as pissed about it as the rest of us.

The Phils' laid-back approach was supposed to be gone once guys like Travis Lee and Scott Rolen skipped town. Instead, all of the excitement generated by the off-season signings and trades has dissipated; watching a game at the Vet these days is like drinking flat soda. Sure, it used to have a kick to it, but now it goes down easy -- too easy.

The malaise has extended to the parking lot. On our way to the car today, we strolled past an unofficial vendor hawking his wares from a shopping cart with the most unenthusiastic sales pitch I've ever heard. "Fresh pretzels, cotton candy," he said (not yelled -- said). "Cheaper out here." And just as tasty, I'm sure.

Citizens Bank Park will generate a lot of off-season buzz after this year, but unless the Phillies remember that fans like wins a hell of a lot more than cool sight lines and retro dimensions, they risk becoming the Tigers or Pirates, who play in spectacular new stadiums in front of sparse crowds.

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Phillies 5, Braves 4

The Phils began a critical stretch of their season with a nifty little ninth-inning win over Atlanta. It almost felt like old times at the Vet, with David Bell smacking the first pitch he saw over a drawn-in outfield to plate Nick Punto. Twenty-four thousand fans, minus the pockets of Braves faithful who showed up, roared their approval as the Phillies cut Atlanta's National League East lead to (gulp) nine games.

Brett Myers started and pitched decently into the sixth. Chipper Jones -- who absolutely dogged it on a Jimmy Rollins pop down the left-field line; Rollins hustled his way into a double -- touched Myers for a two-run, game-tying dinger, but the Braves' other two runs were not the result of hard-hit balls. Myers mixed his pitches well, but left the game trailing by a run.

Mike Lieberthal picked him up with a sacrifice fly, and Terry Adams and Turk Wendell pitched very well out of the bullpen, setting up the ninth-inning victory. It was the first win I've seen live this year, and there's nothing like one of those to send you home in a good mood. It was almost enough to gloss over the Phillies' leaving 14 men on base. Almost.

Millwood tonight against his old 'mates, then I'm back at the Vet for tomorrow's BPS.

Citizens Bank Park

No great insights struck me last night regarding nicknaming the under-construction new stadium. Randy Wolf offered the hopeful thought that most Philadelphians will call it, simply, "Citizens Park," making the place sound like the people's stadium. Regardless, you can really see the thing beginning to take shape. The construction area has been enlarged further into the Veterans Stadium parking lot, and there is now a section of brick -- an actual exterior surface! -- on the side facing the Vet.

As my buddy Joe and I have long discussed, an absolute must at CBP (boy, is that a shitty nickname) is an out-of-town scoreboard that's not an embarrassment. The Vet scoreboard offers only pitching changes and the occasional homer, and is updated less frequently than the Web site I maintain to post photos of my daughter. In this era of fantasy leagues and instant information, an improved scoreboard is not too much to ask. As with so many parts of the Veterans Stadium experience, the bar is pretty low.

Get Bent

So it was announced that David Beckham will play for the Real Madrid soccer team, not for Manchester United or for Barcelona, and all of America yawned, took another sip of coffee, and turned to the "Transactions" column to catch the latest news of players on the disabled list. Well, everyone except, presumably, my sister-in-law, who returned from London a couple of years ago sporting a very cool replica of Becks's Manchester jersey. Now that this story has played itself out in the States, perhaps headline writers can riff on a movie title other than Bend it Like Beckham. Anyway, sure hope Posh likes tapas.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Bank Shots

So it's not going to be Ashburn Field or Schmidt Stadium or Klein Ballpark. The Phillies' new stadium, like its South Philadelphia hockey, basketball, and football brethren, will be named for a financial services sponsor.

As corporate names go, Citizens Bank Park is nowhere near as heinous as some others. San Diego's new stadium will be called Petco Park -- appropriate, given the number of years the Padres have played like dogs -- and Houston, of course, was home to Enron Field before that company imploded in scandal. Citizens Park -- minus the "Bank" reference -- would have been a nice, populist choice, but as company officials acknowledged, the whole point of buying naming rights is to emphasize the brand.

Since the news was leaked many weeks ago, and was even confirmed yesterday, today's announcement surprised no one. This morning's Inquirer and Daily News offer different avenues of coverage, with sports business writer Larry Eichel's piece landing on the front page of the Inky and sportswriter Dana Pennett O'Neill's story folded into the back part of the DN. The Inquirer also includes on the front page of the magazine a pedestrian effort from the once-sharp Karen Heller lamenting that Citizens Bank Park has no local connection. What about Pat's, Geno's, Tastykake, or Campbell's Soup, she asks, predictably.

The challenge will be how we Philadelphians refer to the new ballyard. Veterans Stadium was perfectly distilled to the Vet, and the Spectrum's name was so singular it didn't require a nickname. The construction of the CoreStates Center ushered in a more problematic era. I pushed hard for "the Core," but almost as soon as the doors opened, First Union swooped in from Charlotte and bathed the area in green. And so for several years now we've lived with, yes, the F.U.C. in South Philly. As can be imagined, that never really caught on with the mainstream media, which often referred to the facility as "the Center" or "the bank building." And First Union is due to disappear in a matter of weeks after being gobbled up by Wachovia. Stay tuned.

Thus far the consensus reduction of the Eagles' new stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, is the unoriginal "the Linc." I'll be at the Vet tonight for the Phils-Braves tilt, and I'll be walking by the future Citizens Bank Park. If any nickname lightning strikes, I'll let you know.

If anything, I sincerely hope the new sponsor inspires some better investing on the Phillies' part. The jacked-up payroll has resulted in a 10-game deficit in National League East and an offense that scores less than I did in college. Fifty-million-dollar man Pat Burrell, in addition to dragging down the middle of the Phils' order, is destroying my fantasy league team. The Tomatoes sit at seventh place in an 11-team league, and if Pat the Bat continues being Pat the Bust, I'm dead. I mean, let's keep things in perspective, right?

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Why "Shallow Center"?

Among the many changes fatherhood wreaks on a man's life is the destruction of any significant chunks of personal time. When you consider yourself a writer who happens to have a day job, this is a major negative, in that one of the things serious writing requires is, well, significant chunks of personal time.

Hence this blog. Here I hope to post my thoughts -- sometimes serious, often not -- on things that matter to me and things I find interesting. My New Yorker debut will have to wait until my sweet, wonderful daughter generously returns some of my time to me. Until then, I'll have lunch hours, late nights, and other random times to do smaller bits of the kind of writing that isn't as abundant in my life these days. Essays, sports observations, reviews, commentary -- just about anything is fair game, except for a Bob Graham-like daily diary of my life's most mundane details.

Why "Shallow Center"? First, I love baseball. Second, I'm a centrist -- the world is colored in many, many shades of gray, not black and white, and centrism offers the most reliable way to interpret it, I believe. Third, I intend to write about a lot of unimportant stuff. No one needs another mid-thirtysomething fella's views on What's Right and Wrong. (Though that probably won't stop me from taking a whack at it from time to time.) But a regular guy's view on The Matrix Reloaded? Well, that's another story.

Feedback is welcome and encouraged. I will post as often as I can -- and if I know someone, anyone, is reading, I'll be much more willing to do so. Thanks for checking in.