Saturday, August 30, 2003

Must Bo Go?

The rumblings about Larry Bowa's fate are beginning to get a little louder. Bill Conlin started the whispering a couple of weeks ago, but with the Phillies' 2-9 (so far) road trip, the voices are coming into greater clarity. After all, the Marlins have slumped at the same time, and going merely .500 on the trip -- an entirely reasonable prospect, given three games against the Brewers -- would have left the Phils with a five- or six-game lead in the wild-card race. But the team's puzzlingly lackluster and uninspired play, at a time of year when they should be thrashing and tearing every inning, has focused greater attention on Bowa's shortcomings as a manager.

The thinking goes: He can't connect with a generation of players who don't approach the daily grind of the season with the same consuming passion he did as a shortstop. He has no clue about handling his pitchers, and seems not to care. (Bowa's early hook of Kevin Millwood a few weeks back helped to spur rumors that Millwood would seek to sign elsewhere once his contract expires, at the end of this season; he has denied the rumors.) He fails to use the Phillies' speed effectively.

More: Bobby Abreu stole a meaningless ninth-inning base -- giving the Cardinals an open first base, to which they happily sent Jim Thome, taking the bat out of his hands -- and faced no sanction at all for his ill-advised play. Bowa stuck with out machines Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, and David Bell way too long. Rollins's presence at the top of the lineup for so many weeks -- and, specifically, his woeful inability to reach base consistently -- crippled the offense by robbing big guns Abreu and Thome of RBI opportunities, while Burrell will likely finish the season hitting around .200. And Bell was off all season after getting nicked in spring training and trying to play through it; he may not play again until Citizens Bank Park is overcharging me for beer.

Some of these criticisms are fair; others wouldn't matter if the Phillies had been able to drive some runners home with men on base. Regardless, perception is reality, and what people are starting to say is that Larry Bowa may not be the long-term answer at the Phils' helm.

Dissecting the team's slump, Paul Hagen wrote in yesterday's Daily News that Bowa and general manager Ed Wade have been at odds over how much to rely on young players. Bowa loves veterans, while Wade has been pushing guys like Marlon Byrd and Chase Utley. Both men have emphatically denied any rift, and Wade yesterday loudly affirmed his support for Bowa.

Yet the voices get louder.'s current power rankings column puts the Phillies in the middle of the pack and says it's time to jettison Bowa. Locally, Phil Sheridan, in today's Inky, notes that players' dissatisfaction with Bowa extends well beyond any clubhouse tirades. Enough of his former charges have grumbled about "a steady erosion" of professional respect, Sheridan writes, "that there must be something to it." With Bobby Knight-style iron-fisted leadership fast fading in favor of "managing egos," Sheridan concludes: "It is fair to wonder how long Bowa's flint-and-steel approach can work. The way things have gone the last two weeks, it's fair to wonder whether it's working even now."

Bowa complains, somewhat rightly, that when things were going well he didn't seem like such a bad manager. And yet it's been obvious almost since the beginning of the season that the Phillies either have underachieved or were never quite as good as we were led to believe. Yes, the team is in the thick of a playoff race, as we hoped they'd be at the end of August, but all year long the Phils have seemed play below their capabilities. Simply put, it feels as if they should have won more games than they have.

As Conlin noted in his piece, the clock ticks on a manager the day he's hired. It's the nature of the beast. Bowa was a spectacular failure in his first big league managing gig, with the Padres, and had to wait many years before being given another chance. He claimed to have heard all the voices telling him to calm down and to realize that today's players can't be bullied. And yet. . . .

Fiery managers can still succeed. Lou Piniella won a lot of games in Seattle, even after the departure of Alex Rodriguez, while throwing bases and scowling through entire seasons. But he knew when to tone it down. Bowa never appeared to have learned that lesson, and while he may have been the right guy to blast the Terry Francona-enabled lethargy out of the Phillies three years ago, today he looks to me like the wrong guy for the job.

Thar She Blows!

A couple of nights ago, in the middle of the night, the missus misread the numbers on the clock radio and, thinking it was wake-up time, retrieved the youngest member of the Shallow Center household when she began to fuss. By the time the missus discovered her error, I was too awake to fall back asleep swiftly. Tired, cranky, and certainly not at my best, I picked a petty fight at 1 in the morning and eventually woke up feeling so bad about my boorish behavior, I apologized for it.

All of this is to explain that I understand why Larry Bowa finally unleashed his fury on the Phillies, who after Thursday's blanking by the Expos were 1-9 on their awful road trip and had fallen into something like a six-way tie for the National League wild-card spot. When things aren't going well, it's easy to, ah, externalize your frustrations.

Bowa peeled the paint off the Olympic Stadium visitors' clubhouse walls with a profane outburst directed at his underachieving team. Shortly thereafter, young, headstrong, and talented starter Brett Myers got into it with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who reportedly has irritated his staff by suggesting the Phillies' recent struggles are due in part to a failure to follow his plan. The pitchers said in anonymously sourced stories that they resent being micromanaged and criticized in the media.

Both Rich Hofmann and Phil Sheridan predicted Thursday's detonation would be the season's turning point. Writing in Friday's Daily News and Inquirer, respectively, each suggested that the team either will take Bowa's diatribe to heart or will finally turn on him and mail it in for the rest of the year. Everybody's story -- beat writers, columnists, wire-service guys -- noted that the explosion came only hours after Bowa had awarded himself a gold star for not having blown up before then.

The long-term effect remains to be seen, of course, but last night, after limping into New York, the Phillies pasted the Mets, 7-0, behind Kevin Millwood's three-hit effort. Pat Burrell, who morphs into Ted Williams when he walks into Shea Stadium, powered a two-run homer, and -- this being the completely hapless Mets -- there was no danger of a comeback similar to the one staged by the Expos earlier this week.

Today's game stories also point out that a couple of unnamed veterans conducted a players-only meeting on the bus to the Montreal airport. On the record, Jim Thome and Millwood called the meeting very helpful. One wonders whether the Phils decided to give Bowa a team-wide F-you and prove him wrong by turning it on for the season's final four weeks. Hey, whatever works.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Traveling Travails

The Phillies, nine games into a make-or-break, two-week road trip, have become a car accident. Desperately wanting yet unable to avert your eyes, you are compelled to watch as they stagger across North America and find ever new ways to lose games.

In Montreal, the Expos minutes ago completed a three-game sweep to draw to within a game of the Phils and Marlins, who are undergoing their own troubles these days. Also a game back are the Diamondbacks and Cubs; the Cardinals are a half-game behind them. And the light-hitting Dodgers are just two games out of the wild-card lead.

After Monday's night's blowout, the Phillies last night endured what must be the most heartbreaking regular-season loss I've ever witnessed. Leading 8-0 and 10-3, Philadelphia imploded in a flurry of bullpen failures and lost, 14-10. Tonight, the Phils battled back from a 6-1 deficit to tie the game on Marlon Byrd's grand slam, only to see the overworked relievers again fail to hold on. Expos 9, Phillies 6; the home nine are now 1-8 after dreadful series in Milwaukee and St. Louis and nearly at the end of the Montreal trip, which concludes today with a day game. Next stop: Shea Stadium for a weekend set with the Mets.

It is time, finally, to scale back expectations on this group. All season long, the Phillies have struggled to find consistency. Earlier in the season, impressive starting pitching covered up for a puzzling lack of offense; lately, the starters have struggled, negating an improvement at the plate. My mistake was to assume that the off-season additions and the team's reasonably solid start meant an automatic playoff berth. The reality is that the Phils simply have too many holes to warrant such consideration; they will have to thrash and tear their way into the wild-card slot. Expectations are a hell of a thing, and as the Fightin's are vividly illustrating, tamping them down can be easier on the fan base.

Even if they do make the playoffs, it will be just barely; Ed Wade cannot afford to stand pat this winter. Changes will have to be made if the Phillies hope to challenge the Braves as the class of the division.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Montreal Mauling

There's no shame in losing two of three to the Cardinals at Busch. But taking into account an inexcusable sweep in Milwaukee and last night's savaging by the Expos, the Phillies have begun the most important stretch of their season in awful fashion. Playing less like a team in the playoff hunt and more like the Phils of old, waiting for golf season to start, they've won one of their last seven. Worse, on the surface, anyway, one senses little urgency from anyone but the manager, and even Larry Bowa's comments have the feel of a guy going through the motions. The home nine have been much more fun to watch than in previous years, and it's wonderful to be debating playoff chances in late August -- but this problem has been going on all season. (See "The Sounds of Silence.")

Amazingly, for as bad as the recent slump has been, the Phillies awoke this morning to find themselves in a first-place wild-card tie with the Marlins.

Looking at a half-full glass, the Inquirer's Bill Lyon points out today that as flawed as the Phils are, they appear less flawed than the teams chasing them. ESPN the Magazine's Tim Kurkjian, writing Friday, agreed, noting the Phillies had begun to hit and that their "starting pitching is pretty good."

In Montreal last night, however, the DN's Rich Hofmann argues for the half-empty glass, accusing the Phillies of spending this season as they have seasons past -- taking the safe, nurturing path instead of making bold moves. Promoting Chase Utley instead of making a play for Aaron Boone, and patching holes with Mike Williams and Amaury Telemaco rather than seeking better arms on the trade market, Hofmann writes, make Florida and Arizona the wild-card favorites.

Each viewpoint has its merits, and the typical Philadelphian in me is inclined to side with Hofmann. But to look at the race dispassionately is to see the Phillies are the best and most balanced team in the hunt. They may not win the wild card, of course, but they've put themselves in the best position to do so. Now it's just up to them. (Cue ominous background music. . . .)

Friday, August 22, 2003

Bowa on the Block?

The fallout from the Phillies' jaw-dropping sweep by the Brewers has manager Larry Bowa questioning his players' toughness after yesterday's loss in Milwaukee. Of greater interest is the Daily News's Bill Conlin launching what is, to the best of my knowledge, the first open speculation that Bowa's job might be in jeopardy.

Conlin, whose baseball work this year has been really good stuff, after a few years of mailing it in, notes that the Phillies are making the kind of mistakes that eventually come back to the manager. Additionally, Bowa's handling of his pitchers and his slumping $50 million man, Pat Burrell, has come under quite a bit of scrutiny.

Bowa's hiring was meant to serve as an antidote to the Terry Francona era of player coddling and soft management. To be fair, he's done a nice job over the last few years kicking the young guys in the ass when they need it, and the Phillies, even when their talent wasn't up to the task, hung around in a couple of divisional races. But this is a different team -- older, more veteran, and, perhaps, no longer as receptive to Bowa's brand of intense leadership.

After all, you can get yelled at and abused only so many times before you start to tune out. Especially if you have a guaranteed contract that brings you wealth beyond your wildest dreams.

Players should play, regardless of what they're being paid and whom they're playing for. But Bowa increasingly is looking like the kind of manager who can get the Phillies to the brink of success without pushing them over. Hmmm -- Joe Torre always seems on the verge of a falling out with George Steinbrenner. Think he'd be interested in coming down the Jersey Turnpike for a few years before retiring to his inevitable broadcaster's gig?

(Completely irrelevant aside: How funny is the Seinfeld episode in which Steinbrenner (played by Larry David, filmed from the back) calls himself "Big Stein"?)

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Cover Your Eyes

The Phillies just got swept by the Brewers. This is not a misprint.

The 5-2 loss at Miller Park was as gruesome as it was disheartening. Mental mistakes and a continuation of the team's season-long inability to hit consistently in the clutch doomed the Phils to an embarrassing loss, one that at this moment draws Florida into a first-place tie in the wild-card race.

In the eighth inning alone, Tomas Perez turned a single into an out when he overran first base on an infield hit, juked toward second when the throw went wide, and was tagged out by Richie Sexson after turning and strolling back toward first; then Tyler Houston was pegged trying to turn a Texas leaguer into a double, when the pitcher covered second in place of the two infielders converging on the pop fly.

An inning earlier, with the Phillies down by a run, Bobby Abreu eased into third on a softly hit single to right, only to be waved around. The delay proved costly, as Abreu was punched out at home and turned his ankle to boot.

What a sad way to start this brutal stretch. Three ghastly losses to baseball's third-worst team -- this is unspeakably bad stuff. Unacceptable, really. Milwaukee obviously came to play, while the Phils, perhaps expecting the Brewers to roll over and throw their paws in the air, offered a passionless, wussy performance that earned them a broom out of town. May they be forced to drink the Miller Brewing Co.'s bland swill as penance on their charter to St. Louis.

You Can Not Be Serious!

I'm not one to channel John McEnroe, but it's simply impossible for a Major League Baseball team to lose two straight games to the Milwaukee Brewers. Yet the Phillies, the playoff-contending Phillies, with their two best starters on the hill, have dropped a pair to the awful Brew Crew at Miller Park. It's an extraordinarily inauspicious start to a vicious road trip that has the team away from the Vet for two weeks, and without a day off for nearly a month.

On Tuesday, with Kevin Millwood starting, the Phillies battled back from an early deficit to tie the game in the eight, but failed to grab the lead despite loading the bases with no outs. In the bottom half of the inning, pinch-hitter Mark Smith (all together now -- who?) crashed his first homer in nearly two years, a three-run shot that put the Brewers up for good. Final score, 6-4

Last night, Randy Wolf was hammered for seven runs on seven hits in four and a third innings, and the Phillies left a staggering 18 men on base in a 10-1 loss.

It's been a season-long conundrum: How can the team that looked so balanced and professional in sweeping the Cardinals be the same squad that can't get out if its own way against Little League-level Milwaukee? Damned if I know, but if they don't figure it out, Larry Bowa & Co. will be pulling out their 7-irons sooner than they hoped.

Luckily for the Phils, the Marlins are on a tough trip of their own, the dreaded Colorado-San Francisco swing (followed by three games against the Bucs at PNC Park). The Rockies did the Phillies a favor by pummeling Florida twice, so the Phils retain their half-game wild-card lead. For now.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Wayne's World

Tom Hanks's charming little 1996 film That Thing You Do! took its title from the song recorded by an Erie, Pennsylvania, one-hit wonder that presciently named itself the Oneders.

The song is an impossibly catchy slice of musical perfection. It's played in pieces or in its entirely at least eight or 10 times as the film unspools, and not once does it get repetitive.

"That Thing You Do!" (the tune, not the movie) was written by Adam Schlesinger, who in his day job is part of the stellar North Jersey quarter Fountains of Wayne. FoW recently released their third CD, Welcome Interstate Managers, which has been jangling through my iPod headphones quite a bit recently.

If the music world had any justice, Welcome Interstate Managers would have gone quadruple platinum by now. The record is an explosion of guitar-driven power pop, tight harmonies, sweet, smart songwriting, and hooks whose addictive properties approach crack cocaine levels. FoW has produced a work of immaculate musicianship, an accomplished collection of songs that are clever without being smug and that bounce joyfully around your head all day long.

Welcome Interstate Managers has spawned a modest hit in the form of "Stacy's Mom," the record's first single. "Stacy's Mom" tells the story of an adolescent boy's crush on his friend's mother, and is vividly illustrated by the song's bright, cheery video, featuring a smoking-hot Rachel Hunter as the title character. It's a snappy, accessible song from a snappy, accessible album.

Indeed, Fountains of Wayne have long been critics' darlings. That label sometimes serves as a warning to casual music fans and non-nerds to stay away. (See Radiohead.) In this case, the reviewers got it spot-on. Impeccably produced and fun without being sophomoric, Welcome Interstate Managers marks a step up in FoW's showmanship and in its maturation as a band. The Oneders would be proud. Grade: A

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Beef Kerry

John Kerry is a serious man. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a U.S. senator who is vying to represent the Democrats on the 2004 presidential ballot. No one has every questioned Kerry's smarts, conviction, or patriotism; you can disagree with his politics all you want, but it's impossible to say he's unqualified to lead the country.

Unless, that is, you pay attention to what happens at a corner in South Philly, where mayoral, gubernatorial, and presidential candidates annually traipse through for the ritual tasting of a cheesesteak from Pat's or Geno's.

(Never mind that each of these establishments qualifies as a tourist trap, and nothing more; if you want a real cheesesteak, you're better off at Jim's on South Street or Larry's on 54th Street or any of the scores of great neighborhood pizza and steak joints that dot the Philadelphia landscape as bagel shops do New York's.)

At Pat's last Monday, Kerry had the temerity to order his steak with Swiss cheese -- the horror! -- and then to ask that photographers refrain from snapping his picture while he attempted to eat it. A proper cheesesteak experience, as any Philadelphian knows, involves lots and lots of napkins, and if you're a Boston blueblood looking to increase your appeal to the common man, it can be a daunting challenge.

In fact, it was a challenge Kerry failed to master. He tentatively nibbled at his cheesesteak the way Survivor castaways delve into whatever stomach-churning creatures comprise the native cuisine of the land they're inhabiting. The senator was hit by a balled-up, greasy paper napkin from the Inquirer in a Tuesday sidebar to the paper's main story reporting on the Democrats' town meeting the previous day. The Daily News's Don Russell and the Washington Post's Dana Milbank(!) piled on in Wednesday's editions, and Inky restaurant critic Craig Laban, who was quoted in Milbank's piece, weighed in with his thoughts on the matter Saturday. Laban noted that he had been contacted by Good Morning America, and while I'm not a regular viewer of the show, I have to think his Herculean efforts to conceal his identity from Philadelphia's restaurateurs compelled him to turn down the invitation.

On one level, the amount of attention devoted to what the DN termed "Kerry's Mis-Steak" is patently ridiculous. This wasn't Michael Dukakis in a tank or George Bush the elder marveling at supermarket scanners. This was a forgettable photo op way early in the campaign, and one with absolutely no policy implications whatsoever. Had Kerry chowed down later in the week, the moment would have been lost among the countless broadcast hours and column inches logged by coverage of the Northeast power outage.

But on another level -- admittedly, a policy wonk kind of level -- the incident speaks in a small way to the senator's preparedness. The Pat's/Geno's voyage is a standard by now, and surely someone on Kerry's campaign staff would have discovered, through even a minimal amount of research, that Philadelphians may be quirky as hell, but we take our cheesesteaks seriously. (Too seriously, sometimes.) Pennsylvania's Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, a Penn alumnus and the city's former mayor, could have told Kerry that there is no dainty way to eat a cheesesteak, that in fact the sandwich tastes better the messier it gets.

After all, some would say, if we can't trust a guy with a cheesesteak, how can we trust him to safeguard the Republic?

UPDATE/8.19.2003/12:55 p.m.: Shallow Center's Washington correspondent e-mailed a reminder about a cheesesteak faux-pas committed by then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential campaign.

On a stop in Philadelphia, Governor Dukakis, in rolled-up shirtsleeves, was giving his standard rally-the-troops stump speech. He tailored it to fit the location whose citizens he was addressing, and here in the City of Brotherly Love, he was attempting to get in good with us by referencing our delicious, legendary sandwich of choice.

The problem, though, is that he mixed up the pronunciation. The standard line was that when he won the presidency, he'd return to town to celebrate with whatever food marked the region's cuisine. So Governor Dukakis told the assembled throng that he was going to win, and then he'd come back to Philadelphia "and celebrate with a bottle of beer, and a cheesesteak!"

Yes, with the emphasis on the second syllable. As with John Kerry's Swiss cheese gaffe, even a minimal amount of research would have revealed that you pronounce it "cheesesteak," not "cheesesteak." More importantly, an alumnus of Swarthmore College shouldn't have needed to be told how to pronounce it.

Of course, then-Vice President George Bush went on to hammer Governor Dukakis in the November election. Coincidence?

Phillies 5, Cardinals 4

Earlier in the season, when the Phillies were reintroducing themselves to Philadelphia after an extensive off-season makeover, a group of young fans took to honoring one of the newcomers with a sign in the upper deck of the outfield that read "Thome's Homies."

I haven't seen that sign at Veterans Stadium in a while, but Jim Thome doesn't seem to mind. Last night, for the second straight night, Thome climbed out of the dugout for a curtain call after blasting a key home run, this one a bomb to centerfield that gave the Phils a one-run lead over St. Louis in the sixth. Mike Lieberthal followed Thome's at-bat with a poke into the leftfield bullpen, and his solo shot turned out to be the difference after the Cardinals plated a run in the seventh.

While Scott Rolen, who must want in the worst way to shut up the Vet's clueless, classless masses, made up for Friday's hitless night with a dinger and a double, the more significant storyline was the reintroduction of Jose Mesa as the Phillies' closer. A couple of weeks ago, after more than a season of living on the edge, Mitch Williams-style, Mesa turned in one cover-your-eyes appearance too many, and was shipped to Joe Kerrigan's We Fix Pitchers chop-shop. That he hadn't been yanked even earlier in the year was amazing; a limp fastball and a tendency to begin every ninth inning with a four-pitch walk have been Mesa's hallmarks over the last season and a half.

The Phillies closed by committee while Kerrigan tuned up Mesa, and they did a decent job in his absence. With the sound on my TV down, I wasn't able to hear the crowd's reaction when he strolled in from the rightfield bullpen to start the ninth last night. But when Mesa got the first strike on Albert Pujols, then threw four straight balls, I easily imagined the uneasy murmuring rippling through the stands. In many, many ways, that, and not anything churned out by Gamble and Huff, is the Sound of Philadelphia.

He recovered, though, inducing a popup out of Tino Martinez. That brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the form of Rolen, who, as noted above, had already had himself quite a game. To the delight of most of the 35,000 in attendance, Mesa, after giving up a couple of hard fouls down the left-field line, whiffed Rolen on a dangerous fastball just above the belt and right down the middle. Bo Hart then punched out on a breaking ball in the dirt, and the Phillies maintained their half-game wild-card lead over the Fish, who just refuse to lose. Credit Brett Myers with the win and, yes, Jose Mesa, Joe Table himself, with the save.

Amaury Telemaco returns to major league action for the first time in two seasons tonight, as the Phillies attempt a sweep of the Cardinals on national television. Telemaco takes Brandon Duckworth's spot in the rotation, and is attempting to complete a comeback from major shoulder surgery in 2001. A win would be enormous, a great chance to build momentum before a brutal two-week road trip and to bury St. Louis even further in the wild card standings.


Yeah, yeah, yeah, my vacation was a month ago, and whatever happened to the second book that I read? While Moneyball was a flawed but successful look at how a Major League Baseball team can succeed on a minor league budget, what did I think about Empire Falls, the novel I took in? Dozens of e-mails have demanded the answers to these questions, and I'm happy to report in.

Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winner is an atypically accessible work of literary fiction. As fine writing so often does, Empire Falls proves highly perceptive, offering insights into the heart and soul that rang so true I found myself nodding in agreement while reading on the train between New York and Boston. Yet Russo's prose is extraordinarily readable; Empire Falls is a Great Book disguised as a page-turner.

Much of today's currently lauded work comprises little more than artfully written character studies. The writing often is breathtaking, but once you close the book you feel more that you ought to have liked it than that you actually garnered real enjoyment out of reading it. Nothing much seems to happen, though the characters are always sharply sketched and brilliantly nuanced. E. Annie Proulx and Alice McDermott fall into this category, as would 80 percent of the stories that show up in The New Yorker. The stuff is worth reading, but the words feel vaguely detached, approaching sterility.

What makes Empire Falls so breathtaking is its humanity. Vividly drawn characters -- even the minor ones have their moments -- move through the book with a lot to say and do. The action moves briskly, and while you're reveling in, say, the middle-aged author's ability to channel the special brand of hell that makes up high school in 2003, 50 pages have melted away like an ice cream cone spilled on the blacktop.

The book tells the story of Empire Falls, Maine, a once proud and now-fading former company town whose destiny lies seemingly in the hands of an aging but strong-willed matriarch. The protagonist, Miles Roby, was one of the few people to make it out of Empire Falls, but returned before finishing college in order to care for his terminally ill mother; now, 20 years later, he's managing the Empire Grill, the breakfast and lunch place that's a second home to many of the townspeople. There is, of course, a dark family secret that manages to influence the characters' lives for decades; but mixed in among the heartbreak and tragedy are healthy doses of joy, hope, and compassion.

Shallow Center's self-styled Washington correspondent astutely points out that Empire Falls's signature strength is the obvious affection Russo has for his characters, and it's hard to disagree. From the opening page, he writes with extraordinary empathy about real people. There are no stereotypes here; everyone, from the corrupt, piss-ant, small-town cop to Miles's bitter ex-wife, is treated fairly and is permitted to display the full range of emotions and behaviors that comprise the human condition. That is, every character, no matter how major or minor, gets his or her full due. This is another significant departure from contemporary fiction, with its almost joyful rendering of the dysfunctional and its sneering dismissal of how men and women actually live their lives.

I never read Russo's novel Nobody's Fool, but the film version was an understated, sharp, and, yes, affectionate look at small-town life. Empire Falls seems more ambitious in its scope, and is a marvelous success.

The first writer who came to mind after I finished Empire Falls was Michael Chabon. His debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was a well-written and solid, though not spectacular, look at young people in the Steel City. Wonder Boys, though, was completely fantastic, like Empire Falls a seamless merging of character, plot, and craftsmanship. Coincidentally, Chabon's own Pulitzer winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, sits on my nightstand to be delved into once I complete Charlie Pierce's collection of nonfiction magazine pieces, Sports Guy.

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Phillies 7, Cardinals 4

Last night's victory over St. Louis was, I think, the kind of game a lot us envisioned the Phillies playing when the season began. Filling in for Marlon Byrd, Ricky Ledee led off the Phils' first with a dinger, and they went on to score four more times in the inning to take a 5-0 lead. Starter Vicente Padilla cruised for a few innings, then was touched for a pair of two-run innings -- including a monster, upper-deck roundtripper from Jim Edmonds -- as the Cards made it interesting.

With the home crowd restless, Jim Thome sealed the deal. His seventh-inning tater, a moonshot that just barely cleared the right field wall, gave the Phillies a comfortable three-run lead and earned the big fella a curtain call. Excellent relief work from Terry Adams, the rejuvenated Turk Wendell, and Dan Plesac nailed down the win, allowing the Phils to maintain their half-game wild card lead over Florida, which hammered San Diego, 10-0.

As noted yesterday, this series is an important one for the Phillies, and it was heartening to see them beat both a good pitcher in Woody Williams as well as a good team. Padilla, who appears as capable of throwing a no-hitter in any given start as he is of getting bombed before notching an out, showed exactly that form last night. The Phils could use much more consistency out of their No. 3 starter.

Boos' Clues

The Cardinals' trip to Veterans Stadium meant that Scott Rolen visited his old stomping grounds for the first time this season. And it gave Philadelphia a chance to display its pathetic inferiority complex yet again.

Look, the City of Brotherly Love gets knocked around pretty good by the national chattering class, and a lot of it is unfair. Folks in New York and Boston and Chicago and Washington and Los Angeles boo just as hard as we do, and occasionally as inappropriately. That's why it's so frustrating to hear sports commentators ragging on us when it happens at the Vet or at the CoreStates/First Union/Wachovia Center.

But once in a while, we deserve all the abuse we get. Rolen was booed, loudly and viciously, every time he came to the plate last night, and all because he had the temerity to not want to play for Larry Bowa, who in the old days would have been described admiringly by the press as "fiery" -- which in today's words means he's an a-hole. I've been watching baseball for 30 years now, and can think of no other Phillie who attacked the game with the kind of abandon Rolen did when he played here. He was exactly the kind of guy Philadelphians are supposed to love -- modest, from a middle-class background, loves his parents, doesn't showboat. Just comes to the park and plays his ass off, every game, every at-bat, every pitch.

But after making up his mind that criticism from Bowa in the Daily News and Dallas Green on WIP wasn't his cup of tea, Rolen became a marked man. He declined to sign a new contract with the Phillies, and the team, in a move reeking of pettiness, leaked the amount Rolen turned down, turning him into an instant pariah among the leatherlungs at the Vet. It was as if Philadelphia took Rolen's decision personally. Because big-mouth blowhards Bowa and Green couldn't keep their pie holes shut, Rolen opted out, and the rest of us somehow saw that as a slur on Philadelphia -- and on us.

And thus the booing last night. All it does is cheapen us, and further our reputation is a resentful, second-rate city that would much rather focus on what it's not than on the wonder of what it is. Rolen is no J.D. Drew, a puppet of his agent who turned down fantastic money he hadn't earned so that he wouldn't have to play for a team which at that time didn't appear committed to winning. He is, rather, a lot like us -- a man who wants a pat on the back when he does a good job, and a private chat, not a public ass-kicking in the media, when he doesn't. Why that makes him such a bad guy to so many is beyond me.

The flip side is that when Bowa went to retrieve the ball from Vicente Padilla in the 6th, there were more than a few boos wafting down from the stands. Perhaps it's because the Phillies marketed Bowa for so long in their promotional materials, but you get the sense that some are taking out the Phils' underachievement on the manager. For a while he had carte blanche; he was the feisty former shortstop and the popular choice among fans to ride herd over the collection of young and disaffected players (Travis Lee, anyone?) who were then sleepwalking through season after season. Now that GM Ed Wade has loaded up on veteran talent, you'd think the Phillies would be neck and neck with the Braves inside of trying to fend off the Marlins -- the Marlins, for God's sake! -- and hold on to the wild card. This is, of course, not the case, and it's interesting to see Larry Bowa begin to feel some heat.

Friday, August 15, 2003

A Return to South Philadelphia

Shallow Center's self-styled Washington correspondent points out that there have been no Phillies-related posts since last weekend's unlikely win in San Francisco. He wonders if it's because they actually lost a game to the lowly Brewers at the Vet this week.

Well, no, the real reason is that I spent most of the week trying to get the site's new look right. Coincidentally, though, I was already planning on posting a few thoughts on the Milwaukee series, so this one's for you, D.C.

Specifically, the three games strike me as a microcosm of the Phillies' season. The wretched Game 1 loss, marked by No. 5 starter Brandon Duckworth's lousy effort, one which cost him his job in the rotation, went down very poorly. The offense exploded in Game 2, with Jim Thome crashing two homers and leading the Phils to the easy win. And last night, the Fightin's got just enough offense to supplement Randy Wolf's outstanding start and a nice job by the bullpen, especially Turk Wendell, to secure the series with a 4-3 win.

Inconsistent offense, generally good pitching, and sloppiness out of the bottom of the rotation. You want to know why the Phillies are out of the division race and locked in a wild card race? Check out the series against the Brewers and you'll have your answer.

Mrs. Shallow Center accompanies me to the Vet tonight for the opening game of an important three-game set against the Cardinals. St. Louis is in a doozy of a race with Chicago and Houston in National League Central, and whoever doesn't win the division will be battling the Phillies, Marlins, and Diamondbacks for the N.L. wild card slot. Scott Rolen and J.D. Drew always draw the attention when they return to Philadelphia, but as the Inky's Jim Salisbury points out, the Cards' real attraction is the inhuman Albert Pujols, who in less than three seasons has established himself as arguably baseball's most dangerous hitter. Look for a report tomorrow.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Link Up

As promised, here's the reasoning behind the recommended links in the right-hand column. I see this as a fluid list; as more sites find a prominent place in my browser, they'll be included, while others might fall off as I visit them less often. The only criterion for inclusion is that these sites -- or the entities they represent -- interest me in some way.

* Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News: The City of Brotherly Love has two daily papers, both owned by the same chain (Knight-Ridder), published under a joint operating agreement, and sharing the same building. Despite the coziness, the Inky and DN compete fiercely against each other, especially in coverage of local news, sports, and, of course, gossip (see here and here).

* WXPN/88.5-FM: The University of Pennsylvania's noncommercial, listener-supported radio station is a national treasure, offering up a mind-blowing diversity of musical styles and artists. If I ever leave Philadelphia, I'll be hard-pressed to decide what I'll miss most: 'XPN or cheesesteaks.

* Only a Game: Boston's NPR affiliate produces this hour-long gem, which chronicles the sporting life in much the same way Marketplace covers business. In other words, you don't have to be an insider or an expert to enjoy it. Heck, just listen to Charlie Pierce's weekly segments alone and you'll get a laugh. Alas, Philly NPR affiliate WHYY-FM dropped Only a Game a few weeks ago; when I e-mailed the station to complain, I got a terse reply saying it was part of a larger programming effort to enhance the listening experience, or some such nonsense. So a big Bronx cheer for 91-FM.

* Radio Paradise: The Web is lousy with radio stations, many of which, like 'XPN, are listener-funded and thus can stretch beyond the realm of classic rock and Avril Lavigne. Radio Paradise just happens to be the one I glommed onto; nice mix of the old and new, and the familiar and eclectic.

* Jayson Stark: The former Inquirer baseball writer was one of many lured to ESPN. Stark has one of sports journalism's deepest source lists, and infuses his writing with a pop-culture sensibility and a combination of respect for and skepticism of the game. He pulls his punches a bit now that he has a national audience, but it's still an entertaining, informative read.

* Tuesday Morning Quarterback: He's a Brookings Institution Scholar, an Atlantic Monthly contributing editor, and the author of a ton of highbrow articles and books, but Gregg Easterbrook's greatest achievement, for my money, is his weekly column on's Page 2. In addition to a detailed look at each weekend's NFL tilt, Easterbrook slips in commentaries on politics, movies and TV, babes, and more. This guy has found a way to use his incredible smarts in a very fun way.

* Slate Sports Nut: Microsoft's online magazine publishes regular sports stories by good writers. They're a nice diversion from Slate's D.C.-centric orientation.

* King Kaufman's Sports Daily: Slate's chief competition, Salon, runs daily sports commentaries. Kaufman is a decent writer who often presents provocative ideas, and his work, like the Sports Nut column, provides a welcome change of pace, in this case from Salon's lefty coverage of politics, technology, culture, and society. Not that lefty coverage is wrong, but after a while it kinda wears on you, y'know?

* Carolyn Hax Live Online: Finally, an advice columnist for people under the age of 60! Hax supplements her syndicated Washington Post column with a weekly chat that is at turns hilarious, heartbreaking, and inspiring. She kicks people's asses when they need it and provides a shoulder to cry on when that's what's called for.

* The Onion: If The Daily Show had a real online site, this would be it. That it reads so much like a real paper is a testament both to its writers' talents and to the pathetic state of contemporary journalism.

* TopFive: Remember the list of movie titles translated into Chinese and then back into English? It ran as a news story in a bunch of major outlets, including ABC's World News Tonight. Well, it was bogus, and it was from here. There is much hilarity at TopFive.

* Get Fuzzy: I'm the rare 34-year-old who reads the comics pages every day, and this is my new favorite strip. It sounds really stupid when you explain it -- there's a guy and his irritable talking cat and hapless talking dog -- but in reality it's subversive, offbeat (in a good way), and slyly amusing. Hell, just the rendering of the cat is funny. Yesterday's strip, which featured the rare neutering joke, made me laugh out loud. That's just something you don't get with Ziggy.

Happy linking!

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Hot New Look -- Same Great Content!

As you can see, Shallow Center has gone and dressed itself up.

The templates, or skins, offered by Blogger were pretty lame, and from the beginning I was never a fan of how the site looked. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, a quick Google search turned up, which offers a collection of several hundred free blog templates that have been designed by members. Including this one.

All primary content remains the same, and the site is archived week-by-week along the right-hand strip. I've added some links to sites I find interesting; I'll explain why in a post in the near future.

I like to think we clean up well here at Shallow Center, but drop me a line and let me know your opinion. As always, thanks for reading, and please do send a link to the site to anyone you think might be interested.

Saturday, August 09, 2003

A Key Day in the City by the Bay

In any baseball season worth remembering, there are a few key milestones along the way, events whose immense significance you grasp only when the joyride is all over.

In 1993, the last year of any import in Philadelphia, at least when it comes to baseball, three such moments come to mind. The first is Mariano Duncan taking the most dominant closer of his time, the Cardinals' Lee Smith, over the left field wall at the Vet for a game-winning grand slam on Mother's Day. The second is platoon left fielder Milt Thompson robbing the Padres of a salami by snaring a drive over the wall in San Diego, preserving a victory there. And the third is the challenge by catcher and locker-room alpha male Darren Daulton (whose adaptation to non-baseball life has been troublesome) to his pitchers, following a disastrous series (in St. Louis, I think), to find their cojones, throw inside, and pitch like men. Which they proceeded to do for the rest of the year.

Earlier today, in San Francisco, the 2003 Phillies may have done something similar. Against the defending National League champs and one of baseball's elite teams, the Phils rallied from a late three-run deficit to win in 10 innings. Pat Burrell hit a game-tying dinger in the eighth, then went yard for a two-run blast in the 10th to secure the win. It must be noted that Pat the Bat's two-homer game comes on the heels of (a) having his hair dyed blond and (b) my cutting his ass from my fantasy team.

All jokes aside, this is the kind of win that teams often rally around. Vicente Padilla gave up four first-inning runs then pitched extremely well, and the bullpen, in this case season-long studs Terry Adams, Rheal Cormier, and Turk Wendell (four and a third innings pitched, one walk, one hit, one meaningless run), was brilliant for the remainder of the game. If, if, if, if -- if Burrell really is emerging from his year of shittiness, the Phillies' offense will be transformed, and they should be able to leave the Marlins (who are on their way to a win and, thus, keeping pace in the even-Steven wild card race) behind between now and the end of September.

It's early August, yes, but the games feel more meaningful now. Each day's paper presents the wild card standings, and I'm checking on the Marlins (and the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals, and Expos) regularly. (Thank God the Mets still blow, as they should, year after year after year.) Football, basketball, and hockey are wonderful sports, but only baseball presents such daily drama as de rigueur. Even though the game's popularity has slipped, it remains the closest sporting approximation to everyday life -- where things happen over weeks and months, not hours and days, and one bad day doesn't doom your season to mediocrity.

Wacky, Wild Stuff

I haven't watched much of the Phillies lately, but unlike earlier in the season, the Law of Inverse Viewing no longer seems to be in effect. After getting stomped by the Giants at PacBell last night, Larry Bowa & Co. have fallen into a wild-card tie with Florida, which has used smoke and mirrors to fashion an unexpectedly strong second half of the season.

After scoring only 11 runs in three games at Coors Field -- you practically get that just for showing up, like the 400 points one garners simply for signing one's name on the SAT -- the Phils were three-hit by a quartet of San Francisco no-names. Randy Wolf got strafed for four runs in five innings, and Jose Mesa, in his first appearance since getting booted from the closer's slot, was taken into McCovey Cove by Barry Bonds. The media let Mesa off the hook, noting that an umpire blew what should have been an inning-ending double play call.

The Phillies' wildly inconsistent offense mirrors the season as a whole. Nine- and 10-run explosions are followed by lame, one-run efforts. Even with Marlon Byrd seemingly solving the season's earlier lead-off problems, the team still can't score regularly. Going into the season, left field and third base were supposed to round out a fearsome offense anchored by Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu. And though Mike Lieberthal has provided nice punch from behind the dish, Pat Burrell's and David Bell's disastrous seasons have rendered the Phils' attack merely average.

Phillies brass thinks Burrell will discover his stroke, but now that Bowa has been giving Ricky Ledee many more at-bats, that may be wishful thinking. Once Bell recovers from his achy back, he may prove professional enough to contribute as projected. But it sure looks as if the Phils will go only as far as their pitching takes them this year. Which means the bullpen needs to continue rocking, Kevin Millwood needs to rediscover his dominance, Wolf needs to pitch like the All-Star he was a month ago, and Brett Myers needs to forget that he's not even 23 yet and in his first full big league season.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Shallow Center Shorts

The Yankees and the Mariners swapped set-up relievers yesterday, Armando Benitez for Jeff Weaver, straight up. The change of scenery provided by going from Queens to the Bronx certainly didn't help Benitez ; perhaps the cross-country trip to Seattle will. (Doubt it.) Hate the Yanks all you want, but they correct mistakes in a hurry.

* * *

Getting cut by my second-division fantasy team apparently wasn't embarrassing enough for Phillies leftfielder Pat Burrell. Now he's decided that the cure for his mammoth hitting slump is an asinine new 'do. I guess the corollary to Crash Davis's "Respect the streak" axiom is: Unless it's a godawful streak. Then do whatever the hell you can to disrespect it.

* * *'s Page 2 takes a clever, often cockeyed look at the sporting world, and also delves into entertainment from time to time. (Sound familiar, Shallow Center readers?) Page 2's list of underrated women from music, movies, and TV is a treasure trove of women who are a hell of a lot sexier than Pamela Anderson. While I take issue with the notion of Diane Lane and Gina Gershon as underrated -- every heterosexual male I know over the age of 18 is moved to instant salivation at the mere mention of their names -- the presence of Shallow Center faves Cynthia Nixon and Lauren Graham is a reassuring validation of my taste. (Or of my occasional regressions to junior-high idiocy.)

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Playing Beaneball

Among the great pleasures of a non-tourist vacation was the chance to catch up on some reading. Last month I had the chance to delve into a pair of very satisfying books, Michael Lewis's Moneyball and Richard Russo's Empire Falls.

Lewis's book is a fascinating look at how the Oakland Athletics have managed to field a successful team over the last several years despite having among the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball. Mr. Tabitha Soren was granted intimate access to team officials and players, and the result is a very readable argument for how one guy is turning the game of baseball on its ear.

That guy is the hero of the book, A's general manager Billy Beane, a former can't-miss prospect of the Mets whose superior physical talent was derailed by a poor mental makeup. That makeup now manifests itself as a mercurial temperament that cost Beane his marriage and turns him into a foul-mouthed jerk from time to time. In his mostly fawning portrait, Lewis's descriptions of a couple of these dark episodes are the only dents he perceives in Beane's otherwise shiny armor.

(An interesting passage in Moneyball has Beane admiring his former minor league teammate Lenny Dykstra, who used a remarkable determination and an ability to accept and learn from failure to overcome inferior skills and enjoy a successful career as a player.)

Beane's genius has been to realize that the player traits that help a team most (in his eyes) are those that are least valued by MLB owners and fellow general managers. On-base percentage leads this list. Batters who take pitches get on base more, thus putting themselves in a better position to score runs while also wearing down opposing pitching. Speed and defense are overrated and, thus, overpaid. So even though Beane's A's have lost really good players over the years -- Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, to name just two -- he's been able to replace their skills and contributions in affordable ways.

By combing the waiver wire for castoffs whose talents remain hidden to other GMs, Beane has managed to build yearly contenders at a fraction of the cost of the Yankees and Red Sox, to cite a couple of American League competitors. The book also gives an insider's glimpse of the Athletics' participation in last year's amateur draft, and Lewis doesn't shy away from the tension between Beane's Ivy League sabermaticians and the old-school baseball guys that can't understand how the hell a laptop and T1 line could help them draft players that will win more games. By rebuilding the A's scouting system -- and its approach -- from the top down, Beane is ensuring that there will be a strong supply of young, cheap guys who play the game the way he feels it should be played.

Several times while reading Moneyball, I was struck -- and surely I'm not the only one -- by the notion that it's insane that more teams aren't following Beane's lead. My own Phillies, for example, overpaid for Jim Thome (whose year has been good, but not great) and David Bell (whose year has sucked), and inked Pat Burrell to a $50 million contract extension only to watch him flame out in an orgy of strikeouts and weak grounders. Now, I supported all of those moves, and understood that the team's history of failure necessitated overpayment in some cases. But while the Phils are firmly in the mix for a playoff spot, they're also unexpectedly way behind Atlanta in National League East. If Billy Beane's A's win so consistently on such tight budgets, why don't more teams give his system a shot?

Part of the answer has to do with baseball's economic politics, as Lewis describes. But what Lewis doesn't discuss is that while Beaneball works wonders for teams playing in markets such as Oakland, there are other ways to win besides cheaply. In other words, just because the A's need to pinch pennies doesn't mean the Braves need to.

However, the book's largest failure is its inability to connect Beaneball and Oakland's regular season success with playoff success. None of Beane's teams has won a league pennant, let alone a World Series. He hints that the playoffs are a crapshoot; series of five and seven games provide too small a sample size for his system to play out. The best you can do, he says, is develop three top-notch starters, throw them out there, and hope for the best. Which his A's have done, and the best hasn't been good enough.

So Beane may be right, but -- and here's where Lewis allows his admiration for Beane to get in the way -- the name of the game is a championship. The GM hammers the baseball cognoscenti who argued that the A's needed to change their tactics during last year's AL Division Series, which they lost to the Twins. But perhaps it really is a different game in the playoffs. After all, the competition is much better -- there aren't any chances to feast on the corpses of fallen teams like the Tigers and the Devil Rays -- so even though the Athletics scored more runs per game in the Minnesota series than during the regular season, they were facing a more talented offense than they did on average over the previous 162 games.

Moneyball is an intriguing, and different, look at the game. A more clear-eyed look at Billy Beane and his unorthodox approach might have answered what is to me a critical question: Is Beaneball destined to result in good teams that compete every year but never dominate? That leads to a second, equally vital question: If so, is that preferable to a less consistently good team that wins it all every so often?

A look at Empire Falls later. . . .

Monday, August 04, 2003

The Stranger

There wasn't any reason to look at him closely, so I didn't. What I could make out -- smallish guy, a little paunchy, balding, fleshy of face -- was completely unremarkable. I was more interested in the lovely young girl sitting across from him in the back corner of the hip Boston restaurant where we were dining on our recent vacation. Flowing dark hair, deep dark eyes, and a stylish black tank top. Very attractive -- and surely not with this old guy. As in, you know, with him.

"Hey," I said to Mrs. Shallow Center, "father-daughter dinner behind you." It could be nothing else. The missus, meantime, was eyeballing the groping young couple seated behind me. We gave each other updates as dinner progressed. At one point, I excused myself to use the men's room, and when I walked in and stepped to the urinal I found myself standing next to Mr. Old Guy himself. Still no direct view -- it was a men's room, after all, and there are certain unbreakable rules governing behavior in men's rooms the world over.

I did my thing, washed up, returned to the table; he did, too. Dinner continued. And then a movement caught my eye -- a graceful gesture that put the lie to any notion of a plain old dad treating his Harvard-attending daughter to dinner. Gracefully the lovely young thing unfurled her arm and extended her hand across the table, whereupon he grasped it and planted a kiss on it.

This ain't no father-daughter dinner, I informed the missus. She raised her eyebrows.

As we finished up dinner with dessert and coffee, I noticed activity. They were preparing to leave. As he stood from the table, he knocked a glass over, and the noise gave the missus and me the perfect excuse to steal a closer glance.

At the same time we realized the identity of the apparent sugar daddy seated behind my wife.

Squiring a woman who certainly appeared young enough to be his daughter was Mr. Billy Joel.

The Piano Man. A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. And the guy who single-handedly tore me out of the dark ages of my folks' oldies records and wooshed me into the world of contemporary music. (Granted, I've left Billy behind as my tastes have matured and grown more complex, but still. The dude, like, influenced me, man.)

In the flesh, at the table next to ours, with his young hot girlfriend. Standing next to me, as intimately as two heterosexual men can, in the freakin' men's room, for chrissake.

Still rock and roll to me, indeed.

Riversharks 6, Patriots 5

In a sense, it's almost unfair to dump on Veterans Stadium as much as I do. Ever since the Phillies and the Eagles began looking to play elsewhere, the City of Philadelphia, the owner of the stadium, has had little incentive to provide the kind of accommodations other venues now do routinely. Well, aside from, you know, customer service, but that's never been a hallmark of government practice.

But when an independent minor league ballpark blows the nearby major league stadium out of the water, you know how heinous the Vet experience must be.

Pristine Campbell's Field sits just south of the Ben Franklin Bridge, in Camden, N.J., just on the waterfront. The place seats six or seven thousand, and of course there's not a bad seat to be found. And while the field views are wonderful, what can be seen outside the park is astounding. The bridge swoops across the entire open outfield; if you really caught hold of a fastball, you might get close to the massive stone support just beyond the leftfield wall. One and Two Liberty Place and other selected portions of the Philadelphia skyline peek above the third-base grandstand.

Okay, the Vet is what it is -- to expect scenic vistas of a South Philly parking lot is unreasonable. But, damn, the concessions at Campbell's are better, too. And not by a little, either. I bought a Blue Moon draft from the stadium tavern, and it set me back just $4.50. The food is junky, of course, but it's a notch or two better than typical Vet fare -- the pretzel cheese dog, in particular, was a high-cholesterol feast. The concession workers are friendly and polite -- I bet any one of them would be happy to put peppers and onions on a friend's cheesesteak, even if those delicacies were supposed to be reserved for sausage sandwiches. And the place is spotless.

The game itself? Well, nothing to write home about. The Sharks took an early lead off Somerset, then fell behind, then chipped away until a two-run ninth-inning rally sent everyone home happy. The level of play is commensurate with a $9 ticket that puts you four rows behind the first base dugout. Even my minimally trained baseball eye was able to spot some fundamental errors; and like their Major League Baseball brethren, not enough of these guys can bunt. The Riversharks, the Patriots, and their fellow Atlantic League teammates aren't aiming for the majors; their hope is to be picked up by MLB-affiliated minor league teams.

So the baseball is okay. Not awful, but not great, either. The league's managing and coaching corps is populated by former big leaguers -- ex-Yankee Sparky Lyle skippers the Pats, former Phillie Mitch Williams the Atlantic City Surf -- and the between-innings entertainment is everything you saw in Bull Durham, and less.

If the baseball is only passable, the experience in many ways is better. Certainly you get more bang for the buck. Citizens Bank Park likely won't challenge Campbell's Field in that regard -- I'm fully prepared for a pricing structure that borders on the felonious -- but I expect that the Phillies will offer a much more competitive stadium experience. They'd better. More importantly, of course, they'd better continue to field a watchable product, because all of the bells and whistles in the world haven't kept Pittsburgh's PNC Park, to name just one new stadium, from turning into a ghost town.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

The Boat to Ensenada

The Festival Pier at Penn's Landing is a wonderful place to see a show. The stage is practically on the riverbank, so as you face it, you can turn to the right and see the clean azure lines of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge arcing over the Delaware River toward Camden.

Yes, it's a wonderful place to see a show, unless it's raining and windy and 70 degrees. Then it becomes a potentially wonderful place to see a show.

Such was the case Thursday night. Penn's Landing was a swirl of wind and rain, though that didn't stop us from venturing out to see what was billed as Lyle Lovett and his Large Band. Perhaps cotton t-shirts aren't the only thing that shrink in the wash; the Large Band ended up being a percussionist, a guy on an upright bass, and a guy on a bass fiddle. (Also muted was Lovett's signature, Krameresque hair; he looked weirdly restrained.)

No matter. A mere nine rows from the stage, we gutted it out for an hour, shivering under out umbrella nearly the entire time, and were rewarded with a intimate performance marked by Lovett's unexpectedly strong voice and incredibly charming manner.

Comfortably dressed in a long-sleeve white shirt and jeans, Lovett opened the show with some of his more traditionally country tunes and some stuff from Step Inside this House, his tribute to Texas songwriters. While we were there, he delved into The Road to Ensenada once, for the sly "Her First Mistake," and bounced through a favorite of mine, "If I Had a Boat."

In between songs, Lovett displayed a relaxed, humorous bent, accepting with graciousness the beery shouts of those requesting songs -- the venue was close enough that the requests could be heard easily -- and several times offering sympathy to the drenched crowd. He's a legitimately funny fellow, a trait evidenced by his records and emphasized by Thursday's show; anyone who can't understand what Julia Roberts saw in him obviously hasn't heard him play.

We tried like hell to last as long as we could, but at long last the weather got the better of us. In younger days we would have attempted to stick it out for the duration, but on this night, 60 minutes of professional, amusing, accomplished showmanship had to do. I hope Lovett comes around again, soon, because his show deserves to be experienced in its entirety.

The Case of the $6.75 Beer

An anonymous, concerned Shallow Center reader wrote to ask whether visitors to the site deserved to know that the $6.75 Bud Light I quaffed in the upper deck at Yankee Stadium was not, in fact, purchased by me. The answer is yes, they do deserve to know. Full disclosure is a central tenet to Shallow Center.

So, the truth: My Yankee Stadium outing was a belated birthday present, given to me by my brothers. One of those brothers, who, coincidentally, happens to share the exact same hometown (Oh. My. God!) as the concerned reader, ponied up the scratch for the suds. Thanks much, pal. An Anheuser-Busch product never tasted so refreshing!

Phillies 4, Dodgers 2

After the authentic experiences of Yankees Stadium and Fenway Park, I returned to the Vet Wednesday night for the middle game of a three-game set against Los Angeles. In introducing the starting lineups, P.A. announcer Dan Baker always welcomes spectators to "beautiful Veterans Stadium." The Phillies did an awful lot of whining about the Vet's numerous deficiencies in order to wheedle taxpayer money out of City Hall and Harrisburg to fund Citizens Bank Park. There's something vaguely dishonest, then, about turning around and lamely trying to convince everyone that the current dump, the place they've spent years heaping abuse on, is "beautiful."

Anyway, back in the concrete jungle, far removed from sellout crowds and natural grass, I settled into the 300 level and let my eyes drift over the acres and acres of empty blue seats. The Phillies are in the thick of the wild-card race -- the division race now must be conceded to the damn Braves, who somehow have run away with it -- but on this decent summer night, they could draw only 25,000 people.

Those who stayed away missed a pretty good game. Brett Myers was on the hill for the Phils and Kevin Brown for the Dodgers. Brown has been almost untouchable this season, yet the Phillies had him on the ropes in the first, scoring a pair of runs but unable to land the knockout blow. Myers, whom I find more impressive with each start, gave Larry Bowa six good innings. The anemic L.A. offense was able to tie the game off the young hurler, but that was it. Brown settled down quickly, and Myers' effort helped keep the Phillies in the game.

Ricky Ledee, filling in for the brutally sucky Pat Burrell, will never be the star the Yankees envisioned, but he has played very well off the bench for the Phillies. In the seventh he rocketed a triple off the center field wall, scoring Marlon Byrd -- though just barely -- with the eventual winning run. The Phils' setup guys pitched an uneventful seventh and eighth, then yielded to Jose Mesa, who provided his all-too-common fireworks before finally closing the door.

An interesting part of watching the Dodgers play is the sight of Ricky Henderson attempting to patrol left field and hit leadoff. He's 45 or 46 now, and really showing his age. Over the course of his career Ricky has done his damndest to disprove the axiom about there being no "I" in "team," but his act is far less charming now that his skills have diminished so much. (His being signed by Los Angeles from the independent Newark Bears tells you all you need to know about the Dodgers' dry spell at the plate.) He completely dogged it to first after hitting a grounder to Jimmy Rollins in the seventh, and my two-year-old daughter could hit the cutoff man more effectively than he. In the first, Henderson's weak throw home was laughably inept; having apparently gotten the joke by the seventh, he didn't even bother to throw after catching the sacrifice fly that plated Ledee with the Phillies' fourth and final run.

To tell you the truth, the familiarity of the Vet was rather welcome. From the fan seated down toward the field wearing a jersey that bore the phrase "P. WHIPPED" across the back to the fan-friendly concession worker who wouldn't put peppers and onions on my buddy's cheesesteak because that stuff is reserved for the sausage sandwiches, it felt like home. I knew where to buy good beer, what gate to use to ensure the quickest route to my car, and where to go to see former umpire Eric Gregg, now pathetically reduced to pouring suds at one of the in-stadium bars. (Hopefully they don't let him anywhere near pitchers; no doubt he'd miss by a foot or so, especially if he was pulling the tap for Greg Maddux.)

Meanwhile, the Phillies would go on to sweep the Dodgers Thursday, then opened a four-game series against the Padres last night with a 6-0 victory. Kevin Millwood was back to his dominant self, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth and finishing with a three-hit complete game. Jim Thome and Tomas Perez, one of the Phillies' very talented role players, had big hits for the Fightin's. A studly Millwood and the kind of timely hitting they get when they win would go a long way toward securing post-season play in Philadelphia. The Phils have been wildly inconsistent all season; now would be a great time to start playing solid baseball for a change.