Saturday, September 27, 2003

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.


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