Monday, September 29, 2003

Until I'm Boo in the Face

Ah, the self-referential world of blogging. The Baseball Crank links to this post and writes, "Tom of Phillies blog Shallow Center defends the meanness and negativity for which Philadelphia fans are famous."

This prompted a couple of comments to the Crank. Flem Snopes offered, "i love this kind of thing. the philly 'fan' takes his drunken malignant sociopathic attitude and makes it a VIRTUE. yeah, we had a magistrate hold misdemeanor court in the old Vet but it was a GOOD THING. it demonstrated philadelphians' commitment to law and justice after all. the O! so knowledgeable philly fans 'demand better' of their teams. gotcha. so please explain, Tom of Philly: why did you punks boo the best third baseman, ever -- the venerable Mike Schmidt, Esq. -- on the day the franchise honored his entry into the Hall of Fame? my own take is a bit different from Tom's. it is this: philly fans are a gooey undisguiseable herpes sore on the face of professional sports."

For a less hysterical (and better punctuated) opinion, this from John Salmon: "Shallow Center is one of my favorites, but I really can't agree with the point he's making. Booing Jose Mesa before he even throws a pitch isn't exactly productive, and the treatment of Scott Rolen when he was in town recently was shameful and frankly, embarrasing. It must be added, though, that fans in Boston and NYC are only marginally better, if at all. Ted Williams swas routinely booed in Boston, and I'm not sure I'd want to try to make the case that it was all his fault."

I should have been clearer in my original post in the distinction I draw between illegal fan behavior and legitimate, performance-related complaints by paying customers.

So: I in no way condone illegal fan behavior. (Way to take a stand, huh?) People who threw batteries at J.D. Drew should have been arrested and prosecuted. The anarchy that raged in the 700 level of the Vet during Eagles games was a civic embarrassment. Flyers fans who dump beer on a guy who happens to be wearing a Rangers jersey in the Wachovia Center are tools of the highest order.

But to equate those example of abhorrent behavior with booing -- with paying ticket holders expressing their displeasure over the performance of the losingest team in American professional sports history (no, really) -- is lazy reasoning. We boo not because we're mean or overly negative but because we want to win so bad. We boo because decades of losing hurts so damn much. We're in love with our teams, with the Phillies, the Eagles, the Sixers, and the Flyers, and when they reciprocate with subpar efforts and lame excuses, we call them on it. So sue us.

That said, yes, it can go too far. Mike Schmidt should have been treated much better than he was here. Likewise Scott Rolen, who played as hard, day in and day out, as any Phillie I've ever seen. (For more on Philadelphia's unfair abuse of Rolen, click here and scroll to "Boos' Clues.") Mesa, on the other hand, never gave us a chance to like him, brushing off reporters' attempts to interview him and even shoving the Inky's Jim Salisbury after one especially heinous outing.

John Salmon says fans in New York and Boston are only "marginally better." I'd argue that they're just as bad as we are. But because we in Philadelphia have been typecast as the booers, because the media -- and the national media in particular -- are too lazy to really take a hard look at things, our reputation continues. Big, big props, though, to Fox's Tim McCarver, a former Phillie, who on Saturday's broadcast of the Phils-Braves game contradicted his play-by-play man (it wasn't Joe Buck, but I don't recall who it was) and said that Phillies fans have treated Pat Burrell with incredible warmth given his disastrous season. McCarver may be an insufferable know-it-all at times, but he showed lots of guts in going against the pigeonholing and telling the truth on national television.

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Chasing History

Jim Thome is on the verge of Phillies history after whacking a pair of dingers in the team's 10-inning defeat of the Braves today. Thome's homers were No. 46 and 47, putting him just one behind Mike Schmidt on the all-team single-season list. Man, he's a hell of a fun guy to watch play.

And how about the Phillies getting to John Smoltz in the ninth again? If only it meant something. . . .

Cubs Win! Cubs Win! (Finally.)

The White Sox may have tanked down the stretch, but the Windy City is celebrating tonight after the Cubs swept a doubleheader against Pittsburgh and the Brewers downed the Astros, giving Dusty Baker's crew the National League Central crown.

Phil Sheridan, anticipating Chicago's ascending to the post-season, weighed in with a nice piece in this morning's Inquirer that encourages Phillies fans to hope for a Red Sox/Cubs World Series. Only Philadelphians, he notes, can truly appreciate the kind of suffering endured by Boston and Chicago baseball fans. The difference is that while those folks have embraced their teams' failures as a "badge of honor," Sheridan says, "Phillies fans are every bit as loyal, but they get zero satisfaction from the constant disappointment. . . . The fans here see nothing lovable about the way the Phillies lose. It isn't charming or romantic. It's grueling."

This is completely accurate. Viewed this way, the national media's constant harping on Philadelphians' tough standards reveals a terrible laziness in thinking. We should be applauded, not denigrated, for demanding better of our teams. The Red Sox and the Cubs may be lovable losers, but they're still losers. Boston and Chicago deserve better, but they're too wussy to realize it. We in Philadelphia know we deserve better. That's why we boo when Pat Burrell fans, again, on a pitch about six feet outside, or when the Eagles, in their new, publicly financed stadium, look as adept as a peewee football team tripping through its first scrimmage.

For good measure, Sheridan takes a completely warranted poke at Diamondbacks and Marlins fans, who erroneously considered themselves sports victims because their newly minted teams didn't win right away. Sheridan, who was in Miami to cover the Phils/Marlins series, writes:

One of the big stories in South Florida this week was that, ahem, fans actually showed up for the games the Marlins won to eliminate the Phillies. More than 25,000 on Tuesday. More than 30,000 by Thursday. Yippee.

They were doing the wave by the fourth inning. They roared at every fly ball as if it were bound for the upper deck. They were almost certainly nice people, but come on. This franchise won the World Series in just its fifth season. That was 1997, just six years ago. And the fans get credit for showing up like bunch of front-runners in the last week of the regular season? Please.

Jack McKeon is a pretty funky old guy, and the Marlins are fun to watch. You can root for them in this postseason if you want.

But if you're rooting for fellow fans, then here's to the Cubs and the Red Sox reaching the World Series. Here's to somebody who deserves it and understands it looking up toward the heavens and shouting, "Finally!"

Selling the Vet

Yes, it's sound business, but there's something unseemly about how the Phillies will begin stripping Veterans Stadium just after tomorrow's game as if it were a recently boosted Accord spirited away to a chop shop. The Phils have every right to make a buck, especially if they're on the hook for the cost of imploding the Vet and clearing the rubble. But the amount of public money that is funding the construction of Citizens Bank Park makes the whole thing feel kind of grubby.

In fact, if you widen the scope to the way the team has been talking up the place, knowing there's some scratch to be had, it becomes downright insulting. The Phillies spent a lot of time and money telling anyone who would listen what a lousy place Veterans Stadium was to play baseball. But once they finally secured a deal to build their new ballpark, all of the sudden the Vet was something to be treasured. The Phils made Dan Baker, the public address announcer, welcome fans to "beautiful" Veterans Stadium before the start of every game; they milked every last bit of nostalgia out of a place they frequently derided as inadequate in every respect; and now they will sell off everything -- including the kitchen sinks -- while funneling only a portion of the proceeds to charity.

One wishes management had applied this business acumen to the running of a professional baseball franchise over the last 20 years. Perhaps then we fans would have enjoyed more than one playoff appearance in that span.

Here We Go Again

In Miami last night, the Marlins claimed the wild-card slot so many of us thought the Phillies were destined for. The Phils, meanwhile, kicked off their "Final Innings" weekend at the Vet by getting blanked by the Braves.

Ed Wade pledged before the game that Larry Bowa would return to manage next season. Phil Sheridan, in yesterday's Inquirer, predicted as much, calling Bowa Wade's "Human Shield" -- a person on whom blame can be placed should the Phillies falter out of the gate at Citizens Bank Park.

Sheridan expounded on that for a while and then got to the critical issue:

Alert readers will note a willful avoidance here of the harder question -- not will the Phillies fire Bowa, but should they? What of Napoleon, after his waterlogged Waterloo?

You could endlessly debate the responsibility for this year's ugly fade. It was the players. It was Wade. It was Bowa's nerve-jangling management style. But the question at the heart of it all is the one thrown out earlier:

Are the Phillies better off with or without Bowa going into 2004?

Who do you want massaging Pat Burrell's psyche through spring training? Who will do the best job nurturing Chase Utley's transition to everyday player? Who has the best chance of persuading some of the more coaching-resistant players -- Bobby Abreu and Jimmy Rollins, come on down -- to adjust their games for the good of the team?

Bowa? Or someone who doesn't go from idling to the red zone in the time it takes to swing a bat?

The ideal would be for Bowa to become that guy, to somehow develop the gravitas that makes Joe Torre, Dusty Baker and Bobby Cox such compelling figures.

Example: Rollins, who has the skills to be Juan Pierre but insists on swinging like John Daly. Imagine Brian Westbrook insisting on playing guard and you have some idea of the problem.

"I have to push him more next year," Bowa said last night, "and I don't mean push him in a bad way. Instead of asking him to bunt for 10 minutes every other day, I'm going to make him bunt for a half-hour every day. He's a good player who can be a great player."

The suspicion here is that Bowa won't be able to change, not for the long term, and that's a shame. Bowa is a Philadelphia legend and a throwback and, in spite of all the scowling, a decent guy. In a couple of months, he's going to be one other thing.

A Human Shield.

Over in the Daily News, Paul Hagen soft-pedaled it, offering only an observation that this year's team was "a huge disappointment," but pointing no fingers at who should be held accountable. Wade? Bowa? The underachievers themselves? Hagen doesn't say.

Today's papers take different tacks. The DN's Marcus Hayes focuses on the huge number of strikeouts accumulated by Phillies batters and features hitting coach Greg Gross pleading to keep his job. The Inky's Jim Salisbury writes that the Phils will look to resign Kevin Millwood or another No. 1 starter to replace him, as well as a closer; Tom Gordon is the name being bandied about. Salisbury also cautions fans not to expect the team to chase free agent shortstop Miguel Tejada or anyone else who would command Thome-like dollars in this year's off-season market. He closes with a warning that new ballparks don't guarantee winning teams, and says that if the Phillies start losing and attendance drops, the new revenues CBP is projected to generate will fall off, thus hampering their ability to spend the money needed to pay good players.

And so will end, in 27 hours or so, another Phillies season -- one that offers more reason to hope than almost all previous years, yet one that will conclude, again, without a parade down Broad Street.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Wait Till Next Year

The Phillies trail Florida, 8-2, in the 6th as I write this, and should they go on to lose, they'll be eliminated from playoff contention. Thus would effectively conclude a season of significant underachievement. All due credit to the Marlins, who lost one of their good young starters before the season began, fired their manager early on, and saw their best hitter go down as the stretch run got underway, yet still hung on as a team whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Unlike the home nine, whose performance never matched their potential.

I'll need a little time to decompress from the disappointment and reflect on where the Phils go from here. The columnists, though, have already unsheathed their knives. Both Sam Donnellon and Phil Sheridan, filing last night from Miami, note that two Marlins who have killed the Phillies in this series, Jeff Conine and Ugueth Urbina, were obtained for the kind of prospects with which the Phils were reluctant to part. While Ed Wade was content to play his hand, the Fish asked for four new cards. And guess who's going to the playoffs?

Donnellon, in this morning's Daily News, blasts Wade for allowing the Marlins to steal the wild-card race. While Wade focused on big things -- the acquisition of Jim Thome, for example -- he fumbled on the little things, according to Donnellon, allowing Tyler Houston to walk, not even making a play for Urbina or Brian Giles, and failing to recognize that Randy Wolf, not Kevin Millwood, is the Phils' real ace. He writes:

"We know it's definitely out of our hands," Larry Bowa said. "We've got to get help from people."

You wish they had figured this out in July, when Jose Mesa first started going on the blink, when the Marlins were trading some of their future for Urbina. The Marlins were three games over .500 then. They have a chance to be 20 games over .500 before their energized regular season ends, before taking their shot in the postseason. You can't help thinking it could have been your team.

In the Inquirer, Sheridan makes a similar charge:

General manager Ed Wade has some serious thinking to do. His mantra all summer was that this team was a playoff-caliber team.

He said it in spring training and he went even further when the July 31 trade deadline was looming.

"I think we have a championship-caliber team," Wade said then.

So either Wade was wrong or this team underachieved. Maybe both.

Additionally, each takes a poke at Bowa. Donnellon gripes that the manager's "body language garners as much attention as the Harry Potteresque bat of your $85 million slugger." Sheridan goes further, pointing out that baseball "should be fun," though "the way Larry Bowa manages the Phillies, it is anything but. . . . Bowa went to the whip in Montreal and, after a nice 9-1 surge, this horse faded badly. As of last night, it has a Monday reservation at the glue factory."

Time to buy stock in Elmer's. Should be a fun off-season.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Ace in the Hole?

Publicly, the Phillies have talked all season long about their desire to resign Kevin Millwood this off-season, after his contract is up. Privately, though, they must be wondering whether he really is the No. 1 guy they envisioned him to be when they shipped Johnny Estrada to the Braves for him last off-season.

Indeed, both Philadelphia papers, deconstructing last night's bitter loss to the Marlins, note that the putative ace fell apart awfully quickly after dominating the Fish for six innings. The Daily News's Sam Donnellon observes that while Millwood hasn't put his team in position to win as often as he did last year, these Phils aren't exactly those Braves:

Millwood has been mediocre, and he has been brilliant. His April no-hitter, his 7-1 start, fueled the Phillies when even [Jim] Thome couldn't hit a lick. It's been a crapshoot since then, but Millwood has been good enough this September -- good enough if he were still a Brave.

There, his margin of error was great. Especially at this time of the year. On his current team, with a bullet-riddled bullpen and a maddeningly inconsistent lineup, it has been as slim as one bad pitch. The Phillies are not on a respirator today because of Kevin Millwood. He's not even near the top of the malpractice list, not nearly as guilty of wasting so many great efforts this season as such players as Pat Burrell and Jose Mesa. But it could have been much different if, this September, he were the guy from last September.

In the Inquirer, Phil Sheridan says last night's loss puts the Phillies "in a dung heap" and writes: "This is what being the ace of a staff is all about. This is the guy the Phillies wanted out there with the stakes at their highest. Millwood, who came to Philadelphia looking to play that role, was not up to it. Not last night."

Still, Sheridan defends Larry Bowa's decision to leave an obviously laboring Millwood in the game to pitch to Jeff Conine, but notes the result reveals that the Phillies may not have the lights-out stopper they thought they had: "[Bowa]'s right in this case. You go with Millwood. You go with your ace. And if he's truly an ace, he gets Conine out. And if he's not, well, he turns around and watches the ball disappear between the scoreboard and the upper deck."

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Let the Skepticism Begin

Second-guessing in baseball is as much a part of the game as players adjusting their cups on national television. Even we uninformed civilians, those of who stopped playing organized ball after, say, ninth grade, to pick a random time, get into the act despite our formal expertise in matters other than what happens between the lines.

And second-guessing Larry Bowa is much a part of Philadelphia as finding a great corner cheesesteak shop. Bo provided a lot of fodder tonight:

First, he stuck with Kevin Millwood for one batter too many in the seventh. On a hot, humid Miami night, a sweat-drenched Millwood walked the first two batters of that inning and was clearly laboring all the while; Jeff Conine then took Kevin over the left-field wall.

Second, how do you hit your 44-homer guy fifth in the lineup? I know that against the tough southpaw Dontrelle Willis, you might want to go left-right-left, as Bowa did with Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal, and Jim Thome hitting 3-5, respectively. But don't you want your team's best power hitter in 20 years to get as many at-bats as possible, regardless of percentages? With Willis long gone, Thome was in the on-deck circle when Lieberthal grounded to first to end the game.

Third, I like David Bell -- he seems like a professional guy who does his job well and adds value on and off the field. His failure this year was not due to lack of effort or talent but injury. So I was as glad as the next guy to hear he was healthy and back with the team. But was it wise to start him against a power pitcher like Willis when he had just a few Instructional League games under his belt? Was he really the Phils' best option at third tonight?

My feelings on Bowa are no secret. For a different view, check out this Thomas Boswell piece I missed while on vacation. (Thanks to the politically tiresome blogger who runs (Not-so-Vast) Right-Wing Conspiracy: Music, Culture, Politics, Baseball for the link.) Boswell, one of the country's most estimable baseball writers, was in Philadelphia for last Thursday's hurricane special against the Fish, and filed a column lauding Bowa and Marlins manager Jack McKeon as old-school skipper who properly kick ass when necessary. Never mind that this is 2003, not 1953 or even 1973; the dynamic of player-manager relationships, like that of all employee-employer relationships, has changed. To expect it to remain the way it was is foolish and naïve. And how would Boswell react if his editor bitched him out in front of his newsroom colleagues for missing a comma?

Anyway, elsewhere in baseball blogland, Baseball Musings calls tonight's game in Miami a "tough loss for the Phillies" and observes interestingly that the Phils "now need to win the next two games to get their destiny back." Destiny is an intriguing word to use, for, indeed, the signings of Thome and Bell and the trade for Millwood had me salivating for the start of the season last December. But this is the Phillies, remember? Enough whining from Red Sox fans -- it is the Phillies, truly, who do only well enough to break your heart.

The One That Got Away

This one stings. Kevin Millwood was cruising and the Phillies had touched Dontrelle Willis for three runs when the wheels came off in the bottom of the seventh. Millwood walked his first two batters of the night, and Jeff Conine followed with a line-drive homer to left. The Marlins tacked on a couple more runs, and though the Phils got one back in the top of the eighth, they went down in order in the ninth to conclude a 5-4 loss.

Florida now holds a two-game wild-card lead with five games remaining. The Phillies, meanwhile, will try to sleep tonight knowing that besides the very uphill climb they now face against the Fish, they also must deal with the sticky situation in National League Central, where the streaking Cubs rode Kerry Wood's shutout into first place over the Astros, who are getting pounded by the Giants as I write this.

It may be academic for the Phils. Watching the Marlins rampage through the last third of the game tonight was to see a team playing with no fear. They just have that look, whereas the Phillies, competing in a must-win game, could scratch out only seven hits and left their usual staggering number of men on base (16 tonight). While I will hope against hope for Philadelphia to take the next two, then sweep the Braves over the weekend, a more realistic assessment has Ed Wade already beginning to figure out what he needs to do to make the team better next year.

That may mean Larry Bowa's sacking; it surely means a more dependable closer than Jose Mesa. It also must mean a professional performance from Pat Burrell and the return of David Bell, whose nonpresence due to injury cannot be underestimated. Besides forcing Bowa to start Tomas Perez at third too often and besides depriving the clubhouse of a true leader, in a season when the team really could have used one, Bell's absence left a gaping hole in the 6-7 slots in the lineup. Jimmy Rollins as a No. 6 hitter just doesn't cut it.

It feels almost sacrilegious, a terrible violation of baseball's innate optimism, to be looking toward next season when so much can happen over the rest of the week. But tonight's game revealed a team that is spent, that has gone as far as it can go with the people currently in place. If I tell myself that often enough, perhaps it will ease the stabbing disappointment of a season that never really got rolling the way I and so many others thought it would.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Six Games, Seven Nights

The Phillies will -- or should -- spend today kicking themselves for dropping two of three against the Reds over the weekend. They will spend tonight tuned in to TBS, hoping the Braves can again knock off the Marlins, thus pulling the Fish back into a tie with the Phils in the wild-card race. And then they will spend Tuesday through Sunday playing Florida in Miami and then hosting Atlanta at the Vet. All the while they will peek at the out-of-town scoreboard to see what the surging Cubs are up to.

This week is the team's most important in 10 years. A season's worth of inconsistency comes down to six games against a pair of divisional foes. Which squad will show up? The rollicking, rampaging band of sluggers that can put up 11 runs on any given night? Or the clueless gaggle of Little Leaguers who made a couple of Cincinnati no-names look like Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling?

As Jim Salisbury points out in today's Inquirer, that inconsistent offense would have been in much better shape had Pat Burrell not been engaged in a crushing, season-long slump. The Phils' $50 million man -- and the player who single-handedly sank my fantasy-league season -- has ridden the pines for three of the last four games, and four of the last seven, in favor of career bench guys like Jason Michaels and Ricky Ledee. And, as Salisbury notes, Burrell has become a Bench Dog on merit; indeed, in his case, the emphasis must be on the canine portion of the utility guys' self-imposed nickname.

Elsewhere in the Inky, Phil Sheridan weighs in with a completely generic effort on the fact that the good-but-not-great Phillies have given themselves no room for error as they head down to Miami. While Sheridan touches on comments made by Reds pitcher John Riedling that the Phils don't look as hungry as they should be, he really pulls his punches. A lack of effort at this time of year is inexcusable, and the Phillies need to be called on that -- loudly.

Over in the Daily News, Bill Conlin grants Jim Thome folk-hero status, noting that the big first baseman has carried the Phillies on his back over the last five weeks. In the process, Conlin manfully apologizes for characterizing Thome as "a one-trick pony" last month and writes, "Jim Thome is most of the things Mike Schmidt was and many of the things he was not. In a town desperate for a hero that loves it back, he appears to be the most perfect warrior to pass through our midst since Julius Erving."

Conlin also zings Tomas Perez for whiffing on three straight pitches to end yesterday's game, after Chris Reitsma walked Jimmy Rollins on four pitches; Larry Bowa for axing pinch hitter extraordinaire Tyler Houston; and Bowa again for dodging questions on Burrell's status.

Paul Hagen observes that the series against the Reds was so heinous, the Phils would ralph on their spikes if they thought about it too much. Hagen delivers his knockout blow early in the piece: "The Phillies, a team fighting desperately to win the National League wild card, lost two out of three to a team featuring more than a dozen players wearing numbers most commonly seen on linebackers, guards and tackles." And the DN relegates Burrell's benchwarming status -- indeed, it was Todd Pratt, not Pat the Bat, in the on-deck circle when Perez punched out -- to a sidebar to its game story.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Seeing Red

From a team perspective, the Braves didn't have much reason to be extending themselves against the Marlins today. Sure, they're playing for home-field advantage in the playoffs, and yes, they were trying to help Greg Maddux become just the second pitcher in baseball history to win 15 games for 16 straight seasons. But having already wrapped up National League East, Atlanta's biggest concerns are properly lining up its post-season pitching rotation and playing the final games of the season without sustaining major injuries.

So the Phillies should have looked at the Braves' thumping of the Fish today as the gift from the baseball gods that it was. For a tantalizing hour, Philadelphia and Florida were deadlocked in their wild-card race. Successfully nursing their 3-1 lead over the hapless Reds would have given the Phillies a half-game lead entering the season's final week.

Alas, Cincinnati scored once in the sixth and twice in the seventh to spoil the Phils' parade for the second straight game. Wasted were a decent start by Vicente Padilla and Jim Thome's 44th tater, an electrifying three-run blast that brought the Veterans Stadium sellout crowd to its feet. Thome now has hit more homers in a season than any left-handed hitter in Phillies history, and the sole Phil ahead of him is Mike Schmidt, whose 48 dingers in 1980 were part of an MVP season that saw Philadelphia bask in the glow if its sole World Series victory.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Welcome Home

Shallow Center is back in the greater Philadelphia metro area after spending the last week on the road, on Cape Cod. I returned earlier today to find the Phillies up a half-game in the wild-card race and the Eagles about to sit through a frustrating bye week after an embarrassing loss to the Patriots last Sunday. I tracked the Phils' progress through wire-service summaries in the Boston Globe, but was exposed directly to the Iggles' debacle in all its televised atrocity last weekend. More on these and other matters after a full night's sleep -- the 7.5-hour drive from East Dennis is a draining one.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Two Years Later

The second anniversary of the unspeakably sad events of September 11, 2001, elicited eloquence from writers and journalists across the country. Yet the most poignant remembrance I came across in yesterday's coverage was the thoughts of three of the four people who rode in the last elevator to descend from the World Trade Center's Windows on the World restaurant before the building was struck by one of the highjacked jetliners.

NPR's Morning Edition broadcast its interview with the three at quarter to nine yesterday morning, about the time the first of the Twin Towers was hit. (Click here and scroll down to "The Last Elevator.") No interviewer's voice was heard; the voices of the trio were separated only by somber piano music. What emerges is the realization they came to quickly and with brilliant clarity -- that through fate, or luck, or God's will, they were spared. As one put it, if she had had simply an extra cup of coffee with breakfast and needed to go to the ladies' room, she'd be gone.

They spoke with appropriate reverence for their good fortune, and none seemed afflicted with survivor's guilt. The fourth person on the elevator, noted Bob Edwards, declined to be interviewed, leaving me to wonder whether he or she found the prospect too distasteful or was simply unable to come to grips with the fact that but for mere seconds, the list of nearly 3,000 dead in Lower Manhattan would have lengthened by one.

Shallow Center's Washington correspondent lost a dear friend that day, a bright, young physician, committed to the noble pursuit of public health, who was aboard the plane that was crashed into the Pentagon. I was not as close to Paul as SCWC, though to be in his presence even briefly was to absorb the incredible joie de vivre he radiated like sunlight. A month after the tragedies, a participant in one of Carolyn Hax's chats, responding to a post from a woman who was frightened to get on a plane to go see her beloved, submitted something I have kept on my computer desktop ever since and read from time to time. I think Paul would have approved:

My wise father said something to me last weekend: the courage that is required now is defined by looking into the face of potential death, recognizing and grappling with the reality that it could happen, and then going forward bravely in that knowledge.

We're in a different world now, and it does require living. Here's what I say to the woman: fly. You get one chance in this life to be with your sweetie. There's lots of security right now and you're probably as safe (statistically) as you've ever been.

Live your life. Do what you love. Strip out the crap and pay no mind to it anymore. Be yourself.

It's all we have, really. And that, when looked at closely, is quite a lot.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Tomahawk This, Pal

The Phillies, needing to beat Atlanta tonight to salvage a split of their four-game series with the Braves at Turner, chased Greg Maddux in the fourth and now hold an 8-2 lead in the seventh. Bobby Cox got the heave-ho early in this one; it was his eight ejection this year, which is an amazingly high number for the manager of the team with the most wins in baseball and a team that has gotten plenty of generous umpiring over the years. Anyway, a win would give the Phils an impressive 5-5 record in Atlanta this season and pull them to within a half-game of the wild-card-leading Marlins.

Maddux is a future Hall of Famer, but the Phillies have hit him pretty well over the years. And they've played the Braves tight this year, winning eight and losing seven heading into tonight's game. In fact, as Jayson Stark notes, the Phils have baseball's best record against teams contending for playoff spots. Which means if they can reach the playoffs, the Phillies could do some damage. Of course, it also means that if they hadn't screwed around so much against teams like the Brewers and Expos, they'd be in a much more comfortable situation right now.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Stadium Stuff recently completed its roundup of MLB stadiums with a surprising and refreshing choice at the top of its list: Pittsburgh's glorious PNC Park.

As Jim Caple writes, "This is the perfect blend of location, history, design, comfort and baseball. It's as if the House That Ruth Built had first been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and then run past Ray Kinsella for final approval."

Choosing PNC as the best was a gutsy call for It would have been far easier to go with either a classic (Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium) or one of the better new retro parks (Oriole Park at Camden Yards, PacBell Park). Such a pick would have been effortlessly defended, and no one would have complained.

I haven't been to Wrigley or PacBell yet -- they're the next two on my must-go list -- but I sat just behind home a couple of summers ago for a Phillies-Pirates game at PNC and was completely enthralled. The stadium is intimate without being tiny, and fresh without being artificial. The place just feels genuine. From the sparkling view of the Roberto Clemente Bridge spanning the Allegheny River to the delicious Primanti Brothers sandwiches washed down with an Iron City, everything about PNC is first-class.

Except, of course, for the play. It must be said that while PNC shines, the team that calls it home is a brutally bad lot. As Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park rises in the parking lot adjacent to Veterans Stadium, Phillies fans need look only across the state at the Pirates to see that a glorious ballpark is no guarantee of success. Fans in Baltimore, Detroit, and Texas would say the same thing. The Bucs used their increased stadium revenue to spend foolishly on free agents (Derek Bell, anyone?), the Orioles are being run by an owner without a clue, the Tigers seemed locked in a perpetual cycle of failure, and the Rangers forgot that 45 homers and 130 RBI from Alex Rodriguez can't mitigate the team's minor league pitching staff.

Not that I'll miss the Vet at all. The big concrete bowl in South Philly placed next-to-last on's list, ahead of only Montreal's Olympic Stadium. In a fair review, Jeff Merron noted, "It's hard to enter the Vet without the lowest of expectations. The stadium is better than bad, despite its reputation. So, these are its bonus points: a) Good move, putting in those dark blue seats in '95. They're a great improvement over the old orange, yellow, and brown ones. b) You know you're in Philly when you're there. Inside the ballpark, there's that Rocky-ish, we're-underdogs-but-we're-tough aura. c) So long, Vet. You will be missed. Sort of."

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

With Bart as the Halftime Guest. . .

When I was a regular viewer of The Simpsons, I'd get some of my biggest laughs out of the show's media satires. Whether it was Kent Brockman hosting Eye on Springfield or Rainier Wolfcastle (star of the show's fictional "McBain" series of movies) playing the Mel Gibson part in a Lethal Weapon rip-off, the segments, often so brief as to be afterthoughts, were concisely drawn moments of pristine comic genius. What made them so funny was their over-the-top yet not out-of-the-question nature; while clearly this wasn't how things were, you easily could imagine them getting there someday.

Someday has arrived.

Viewers watching ABC's coverage of last night's Eagles-Buccaneers stinker were greeted at the outset by a bit with Sylvester Stallone hurling body blows into a heavy bag and saying to Philadelphians: "New day, new house, new season. Are you hoping for the best? Are you prepared for the worst?" Not some guy playing a Rocky Balboa knockoff -- the actual Sylvester Stallone, looking cut and nimble. (And, actually, the piece was his best performance since Cop Land.) I sat on the couch, Homer Simpson-like, and blinked my eyes silently, not quite believing what I was seeing.

In addition to several pages of game coverage, the Inky and DN weigh in with tame pieces on the Monday Night Football telecast. Disappointingly, neither Larry Eichel's account nor Bill Fleischman's editorializes much, and Fleischman really pulls his punches when it comes to sideline reporter Lisa Guerrero. I thought Al Michaels was his usual professional self, but John Madden demonstrated yet again why he's a better video game marketer than analyst. Out of coaching for nearly 25 years, he remains on the country's top-rated football broadcast not because of his talent but his persona. Madden trips over his words constantly, repeats himself incessantly, and throws in a "Boom!" or "Pow!" here and there to distract viewers from his utter lack of coherent expression. All of which would be fine if you got some, you know, football knowledge along with it. But Madden seems more interested in being Mr. Funny Guy -- remember his eight-drumstick Thanksgiving turkey? -- than Mr. Football Guy.

The less said about Guerrero, the better. It's one thing to be a lightweight -- many sideline reporters are -- but at least have the talent to fake it for three hours. Guerrero was embarrassingly out of her league. In addition to being better looking, Melissa Stark, whom ABC dumped once she got pregnant, brought a quiet competence to her work. Guerrero's contributions were vapid and useless. Kent Brockman would have been proud.

Phillies Phollow-Up

One night after Kevin Millwood coughed up a 4-0 lead en route to a 6-4 loss at Turner Field, the Phillies are in the process of trashing the Braves tonight. It's 13-2 in the sixth, and Randy Wolf seems to be in command. The Marlins, meanwhile, who are deadlocked with the Phils in the wild-card race, plated two in the top of the ninth and lead the Mets, 3-1, at Shea in the bottom of the ninth.

Jim Thome has crashed 39 homers thus far, and his two RBI tonight give him 109 on the season. His dingers are works of art, really, soaring parabolas that arc through the sky and leave vapor trails in their wakes. While conceding that Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds are the likely National League MVP contenders this year, the Inquirer's Phillies beat writer, Todd Zolecki, makes the case for Thome, saying, "Thome has been extremely valuable to the Phillies this season, posting MVP numbers on a team in the thick of the National League wild-card race." The Daily News's Marcus Hayes offers Atlanta's Gary Sheffield as the long-shot candidate.

Finally, the Inky's Jim Salisbury, writing from Atlanta, chips in with a weak effort that tries (and fails) to illustrate that despite the Braves' huge divisional lead over the Phils, the current series still means a lot to both teams. After all, the Phillies are trying to win the wild card, and the Braves are chasing individual achievements. Sorry, Jim, but the reason this was going to be so special was that it was to have decided the division winner; with that tension gone, this is a much more routine set. Important, sure -- but every game is important to the Phillies now. They could be playing the Padres and the games would -- or should -- mean something.

Monday, September 08, 2003

R.I.P., Excitable Boy

Warren Zevon lost his valiant battle with cancer yesterday. While I can't claim ever to have been an enormous fan of his music, I always felt a little bit sorry that most people's exposure to it consisted of watching a pompadoured Tom Cruise lip-sync to "Werewolves of London" while pirouetting around a billiards table in The Color of Money.

This seems something of a shame, because Zevon was by most accounts an accomplished musician, and to delve even slightly into his catalogue is to appreciate his knack for writing dark, smart, cockeyed tunes. "Werewolves of London" very nearly reaches the level of novelty song; take a listen to "Excitable Boy," "Lawyers, Guns and Money," "Tenderness on the Block," "Carmelita," and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," to name just a few worthy efforts, and you'll hear his true wit emerge. Zevon died just weeks after releasing his final album, the well-reviewed The Wind. In his own quiet, strange way, he'll be missed.

Phillies 5, Mets 4

Scoring single runs in the eighth, ninth, and 11th, the Phils came back to beat New York last night and retain their one-game lead over Florida in the wild-card race. Playing a sloppy game in front of a national television audience, Philadelphia notched its first victory of the season after trailing entering the ninth. With the bases loaded, the white-hot Marlon Byrd dropped a Texas leaguer into shallow right over a drawn-in infield to score the winning run.

If you're keeping score, that makes nine wins and just one loss since Larry Bowa's Montreal detonation. And the win pushes the Phillies to 15 games over .500, matching a season best. In other words, it's as if the heinous Milwaukee/St. Louis/Montreal self-destruction never happened.

Much of today's local sports coverage is devoted to various previews of the Eagles' season opener on Monday Night Football against the Buccaneers tonight. As a result, both papers check in with little more than game stories and sidebars noting the Phils' upcoming road trip to Atlanta and Pittsburgh. Sam Donnellon, though, shakes his head and marvels at the Phillies' pluck in today's Daily News. Comparing the team to another institution that somehow manages to keep on keeping on, he writes: "Five decades after she appeared on Ed Sullivan, Cher's still here, still singing, still wearing those clothes that suggest something, but show nothing. A nuclear survivor. Nineteen games left and the Phillies are still here, too. Kicked, stepped on, given up for dead like a bug trapped under a shoe. And still alive."

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Diamonds Aren't Forever

A few readers have pointed out that the posts on Shallow Center have been very baseball-heavy lately. They're right, of course. This is the result of having a playoff race to experience and write about -- Phillies fans know what a rare occurrence this has been over the years. Throw in the unexpectedly high level of off-field drama and you can see why it might be hard to delve into other topics, given the limited amounts of time my duties as a husband, father, and employee afford me.

Please know that your comments have been noted. I do intend to turn my attention to music, movies, TV, books, and other sports as soon as possible. Also realize that once baseball season ends, there will be that much more opportunity to get away from the diamond.

Until then, do keep rooting for the Phillies, who are down a run to the Mets after the eighth at the Vet tonight. A win for the home nine would give the Phils six victories in a row and nine of 10 since the ugly sweep in Montreal. It also would allow them to stay a game up on the surging Marlins in the wild-card race.

Happy Birthday, Baby

Back in the day, when I was launching this little effort, I promised not to write anything resembling "a Bob Graham-like daily diary of my life's most mundane details." While I'm not going to tell you what I had for lunch today, I am going to take a break from the usual postings, in part to explain why there was no new content yesterday, even after the Phillies won their fifth straight.

The youngest member of the Shallow Center household turned 2 yesterday. Those of you without children may not think much of this fact, but parents know how amazing it is.

To look at my daughter -- 2 years old, sweet, funny, energetic, bright, beautiful, full of spirit -- is to regain my hope in the world. It is to see how she seeks and accepts love, attention, and approval, and is so quick to offer them as well; how she forgives my shortcomings as a father; how staggeringly quickly she learns. It is to know that I would give absolutely anything I possess, up to and including my own life, to make her happy and safe.

Parenthood is not for everyone, and those who don't want children should never be made to feel bad about it. But for me and the missus, our daughter is a gift. She is an unqualified and absolute joy, and where once I would have considered only the hardships and sacrifices involved in being a dad, today I recognize it for the privilege it is.

Thanks for your indulgence while I digressed from the usual nonsense. Taking the day off from posting here was more than mitigated by watching my little girl begin her third wonderful year of life. Happy birthday, sweetheart.

Friday, September 05, 2003

Phillies 6, Mets 5

The boos began as soon as Jose Mesa emerged from Veterans Stadium's right field bullpen and started trotting toward the mound. They intensified when public address man Dan Baker announced his appearance in the game to begin the ninth. With the Phillies up by a run and Mesa's disastrous appearance against the Red Sox Monday still fresh in many fans' minds, the crowd was in no mood for another bullpen high-wire act.

Too bad, because that's what we got.

Leading off the top of the ninth, Prentice Redman, in just his eighth major league at-bat, whacked a Mesa offering into the netting of the leftfield fair pole. The crowd really let Mesa have it at that point. The Phils' soon-to-be-former closer whiffed another Met no-name, Jorge Velandia, before Timo Perez blasted a rocket off the right field wall; the ball was hit so hard that Perez had to settle for a long single.

Larry Bowa popped out of the dugout with surprising speed and agility. But his stroll to the mound was long and leisurely, allowing the crowd to deluge Mesa with wave after wave of verbal abuse. This wasn't the scattered, disappointed rumbling that moves through the Vet when Pat Burrell punches out with the bases loaded; no, this was loud, sustained booing, the kind for which we've become famous.

New guy Valerio De Los Santos -- and how pathetic is it to shore up your bullpen by raiding the Brewers' relieving corps, for crying out loud? -- retired the Mets without further incident.

Happiness returned in the bottom of the ninth. Marlon Byrd walked and was sent to second on Jimmy Rollins's second beautiful sacrifice bunt of the game. After Bobby Abreu made an out, unlikely cleanup hitter Mike Lieberthal (eight home runs) dropped a single to left-center, scoring Byrd without a throw and sending the Phillies to victory.

Somewhat lost in the shuffle was a strong outing by Randy Wolf, who allowed just four hits and two earned runs in seven innings; Rollins's three-run blast to left in the fifth ; and Jason Michaels's pinch-hit homer in the seventh.

More important, the win kept the Phils tied with the Marlins, who had defeated Pittsburgh earlier in the day, in the National League wild-card race.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Shallow Center Goes National!

Thanks to Baseball Musings and Baseball Blogs for their respective listings of Shallow Center on their sites. The former is a mostly quick-hit and reasoned collection of thoughts on baseball news and games, posted even while they're in progress; the author is David Pinto, the former lead researcher for ESPN's Baseball Tonight. The latter is a listing of baseball blogs broken down by team, as collected by Web developer and baseball fan Todd Muchmore. Check them out when you get a chance.

Well, Maybe I'll Yell at an Umpire for a Change. . . .

We'll have to wait until tomorrow to see how Larry Bowa's first-inning ejection is deconstructed, but from my seat in the 300 level, it didn't look smart. The AP story filed tonight has Bowa going to the wall for his ace, saying, "Millwood doesn't ever complain. Ever. They were all strikes. I'm going to stick up for him. He's our No. 1 pitcher."

Geez, what to make of that? After the previous week's mess, much of which focused on how many times per game various Phillies mentally tell Bowa to conduct an anatomical impossibility upon his person, here comes Larry, the Players' Manager.

Yeah, okay, but the one thing that umpires absolutely will not tolerate is questioning of balls and strikes. By going off in the first inning on Alfonso Marquez in a game against a divisional foe and wild-card rival, Bowa furthers the public perception that he's an out-of-control problem child who doesn't work or play well with others. And what good does the early thumb do for his team? Umps don't look kindly on being called out as Marquez was, and if there were any make-up called proffered to even things out, I didn't see them. If Bowa did it to fire them up, he's just plain stupid; if last week's verbal thrashing in Montreal failed to accomplish that, getting booted in the first sure won't.

I'm not saying the guy shouldn't offer his full support to a pitcher the team is desperately hoping to re-sign in the off-season. But aren't managers supposed to be able to work umps in more subtle and beneficial ways than showing them up between the mound and home plate?

An aside: Since the Canadian discussions -- manager with players, players with each other -- the Phillies are 5-1. And there is ample opportunity to pad that figure, as the hopeless Mets come to town for a four-game series that begins tomorrow; I'll be there for my final regular-season game at the Vet.

Phillies 8, Expos 3

Veterans Stadium's final businessperson's special sure didn't begin on a promising note. After punching out Brad Wilkerson and Orlando Cabrera to open the game, Kevin Millwood walked Jose Vidro and Vladimir Guerrerro on close pitches. Wil Cordero followed by slamming a ball over the leftfield wall.

After Ron Calloway took yet another borderline ball, Larry Bowa strolled out for a visit with Millwood, and right away you knew something was up. Home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez must have thought so, too; instead of allowing Bowa some time to say his piece to Millwood, he stomped almost immediately to the mound, where Bowa immediately engaged him in an animated discussion. Seconds later, Bo was tossed, though he stayed around a minute or two to bob his head furiously and blister Marquez's eardrums while shadowing him back to the plate.

Montreal starter T.J. Tucker, meanwhile, set down seven straight Phillies before Todd Pratt, playing for Mike Lieberthal, poked a line-drive homer to left. Tomas Perez and Millwood were retired, and then the Phils put five on the board with two outs. Unlike last week's debacle at Stade Olympique, there was little doubt that the Phillies would make this one hold up.

Millwood settled down after his shaky first and plowed through the Expos with ease, departing after eight innings in favor of Carlos Silva, who pitched an easy ninth. The Phillies tacked on insurance runs in the fourth and sixth, but they weren't necessary. After being swept by the Marlins in Miami and losing to the Phils last night, Montreal played with little fire this afternoon, and the Phillies cruised to a thoroughly professional win. Lousy weather kept the crowd relatively sparse, yet the 18,000 who attended managed to make a fair amount of noise.

The Expos, like the rest of the National League wild-card contenders, failed miserably to take advantage of Philadelphia's and Florida's recent slumps, and now, five games behind the Phils, seem relegated to wondering where the hell they're going to play next season.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Red Sox 13, Phillies 9: The Aftermath

Lots and lots of Philadelphia sportswriters jammed the press box at Veterans Stadium for yesterday's implosion against Boston, and the media criticism of Larry Bowa is approaching critical mass:

* The most interesting Phillies season in 10 years has brought out the best in the Daily News's Bill Conlin, whose stuff has been terrific lately. His column earlier today, another sharp effort, notes that Bowa's dissing of Tyler Houston as "a loser" is a slap in the face to the guy who signed him -- his boss, GM Ed Wade.

* In the "This is News?" category, Bill Lyon of the Inquirer sympathetically describes Bowa's old-school ways and sneeringly dismisses the whiny, me-first, current generation of players before informing us that the gap is insurmountable and should lead to the manager's sacking.

* Paul Hagen, one of four Daily News writers at the game, takes a closer look at the fifth inning, when Bowa burned through three relievers, depleting the bullpen by the time the ninth rolled around. "If Bowa hadn't gone for the kill four innings earlier, he would have had some more options," Hagen writes. "Instead, his hands were tied by then. It could have worked. It didn't."

* Inquirer baseball columnist Jim Salisbury, who got into a shoving match with Jose Mesa a few weeks ago, offers that the Phillies really need their beleaguered closer down the stretch. Uh, really? Only Mesa and the inconsistent Carlos Silva have "closer's stuff," writes Salisbury. If a static, low-90s fastball and a breaking ball that rarely is thrown for a strike count as closer's stuff, the Phils really are in trouble.

* Sam Donnellon of the DN points out that not only is Bowa disliked by his players, he has no sustained record of success on which to hang his hat. So you can't even say they grudgingly respect him because of his past managerial achievements. Cutting guys like Tyler Houston is one thing, writes Donnellon, but if Bowa is the subject of Pat Burrell's pouting and can't win a public vote of confidence from Jim Thome, "this dream of a string of championships is not going to work." Donnellon continues: "Right now, [Bowa] seems to be more of a problem-maker than solver. . . . Larry Bowa has a month left to prove there is method to his madness and not, as it appears now, the other way around."

So, in sum, Larry Bowa can't get out of his own way. He trash-talks about his boss in the press. He has no clue what makes players in 2003 tick. He doesn't know how to work his pitchers properly. He keeps giving the ball to a closer whose best days are at least two years behind him. And the team's two highest-paid players trip over themselves to sell him down the river. Hmm -- it all sounds vaguely familiar. . . .

Meanwhile, Baseball Prospectus's Postseason Odds Report gives the Phillies a 47.3 percent chance of winning the National League wild card; the only other team in double digits is the Marlins, at 31.6 percent. I've no clue how accurate the good folks at Baseball Prospectus are, but I'll be at the Vet tomorrow and Thursday to see for myself what kind of September the Phils are in for.

Anyway, as of 10 p.m., Chase Utley's bases-loaded triple has given the Phillies a 5-3 lead over the Expos in the eighth; Florida, which just swept Montreal in a four-game set to take a one-game wild-card lead, lost to the Pirates, 3-2. So the question is: Who comes in to finish this one? Stay tuned. . . .

Monday, September 01, 2003

As the Vet Turns

Our Phillies sure are considerate. Not only have they provided us with a pennant race, they've given us a soap opera to watch! Woo-hoo!

Last week brought the ruinous Montreal leg of the two-week road trip, the lowlight of which was Larry Bowa's clubhouse detonation. The cliched players-only meeting followed. In New York Friday night, Pat Burrell bashed a two-run homer, then pointedly returned to the middle of the dugout instead of the more typical route -- to the end closer to home plate -- thereby avoiding Bowa's congratulatory handshake.

The next day, the Phillies released baseball's best pinch hitter, Tyler Houston, one of the team's so-called Bench Dog. Phils brass cited Houston's clubhouse grumbling over a lack of playing time and worried privately that he was a bad influence on Burrell. In an interview with the Courier-Post, Houston savaged Bowa, saying that his team hates hit guts and that the players' meeting resulted in a commitment to band together in spite of the manager, not because of him. The Phillies, Houston maintained, resented such an uprising and needed to make an example of someone -- and he was it.

Bowa responded by calling Houston "a loser" and telling reporters to ask Jim Thome whether the players dislike him. The Phillies' $90 million man sidestepped the question more than once, asking reporters to focus their queries on what happens on the field.

Oh, yeah, meanwhile the Phils were busy sweeping the Mets. Terrific starting pitching, from Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf, and Vicente Padilla, carried the day, and the rest of the team chipped in with timely hitting, nifty fielding, and a lot of fundamentally sound play. The series at Shea brought the Phillies home on an upswing for a week's worth of games -- a makeup today against the Red Sox, a pair with Montreal, and then a four-game weekend set versus the Mets.

Sixty large were at the Vet to watch the Phils take on Boston, and they saw a corker. Brett Myers, whose locker-room feud with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan was part of last week's drama, quickly coughed up a four-run lead and lasted just four innings. The teams traded leads several times through the course of the game, but the Phillies seemed to sew it up with three in the eighth -- a pinch-hit solo shot by Ricky Ledee tying the score and Thome's liner to right plating the go-ahead two runs.

Jose Mesa, supposedly all straightened out, came on and promptly got into trouble. Yeah, he got squeezed a lot by the home plate umpire, but still. Closers close, no matter who's calling balls and strikes. Instead, Mesa loaded the bases, then gave up an infield hit that brought the Sox to within a run. Turk Wendell, reliable all season long, was summoned, only to walk in the tying run and get rocked by Trot Nixon for a salami to right. Final score: Boston 13, Phillies 9.

Given a golden opportunity to slingshot into a big homestand with crucial momentum, the Phillies coughed it up. Fourteen walks. Ineffective starting pitching. A bullpen collapse. No runs after beginning the seventh by loading the bases with nobody out.

So, just when we thought last week's clown show had left town, we look up to see the anointed closer again wearing a red nose and big shoes.

Is this any way to win a playoff spot?