Friday, October 31, 2003

Manny Overboard

The Inquirer continues to beat the Daily News in off-season Phillies coverage. Jim Salisbury checks in today with the hardly surprising news that the Phils have no interest in either the paychecks or the baggage that comes with the recently waived Manny Ramirez's talent. The DN reports Ramirez's dumping by the Red Sox, but doesn't localize the story.

Both papers yesterday reported that Aramark would join former Phillie Garry Maddox's company in providing the food, beverage, and retail concessions and Citizens Bank Park (the Inky's much more comprehensive story includes a CBP update; the DN's effort is weaker). One hopes that the CBP Aramark experience will include employees who can think sufficiently outside the box to put peppers and onions on a cheesesteak if asked.

Anyway, as both stories note, CBP will include a year-round restaurant, McFadden's Restaurant and Saloon, and fans will be permitted to bring external food and beverages into the venue.

In addition, the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki filed a no-surprise story yesterday about Kevin Millwood's filing for free agency. The Phillies "still have interest" in Millwood, says GM Ed Wade, but I'm growing increasingly convinced that the Scott Boras-represented righthander won't be worth whatever he signs for, whether here or elsewhere.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Storm Clouds

Shallow Center's Washington Correspondent and I talk often about the frustratingly large number of pop culture critics who seem not to enjoy the various media they cover. Whether reviewing films, TV shows, records, or books, they revel more in their ability to turn a snarky phrase than actually offering intelligent, defensible opinions of the works they're covering. Granted, a lot of what they have to write about is trash -- would you want to review a new Celine Dion CD? -- but too many critics just don't appear to like what they do.

Exhibit A is in today's Inquirer, where TV critic Jonathan Storm's 465-word review of Fox's new Eliza Dushku vehicle Tru Calling contains exactly one word of explicit opinion about the show's quality. (For the record, the word is "phony.") Storm spends most of his review riffing bitchily on Dushku's hotness and on Fox's efforts to reel in young male viewers with discretionary income and loose wallets. As if any of that -- either Dushku's looks or the network's intentions -- is news.

Stop trying to be clever, Jonathan. Spend less time analyzing Dushku's wardrobe and more time telling me whether any part of the show -- writing? acting? set design? -- is worth watching. If that's too hard, keep your review at two paragraphs and find something else to cover that you actually might care about.

"That's . . . the Chicago Way!"

The Inquirer today takes the always-comforting step of endorsing a dead guy on its editorial page. As part of its rundown of City Council races, the paper recommends that voters in Philadelphia's 7th Council District vote for the recently deceased Republican Nestor E. Gonzales over thuggish Democratic incumbent Rick Mariano. By opting for Gonzales, the Inky says, voters "would be honoring Gonzales' long career of community involvement. More pragmatically, if a majority did so, that would force a special election for the seat, in which a new opponent could give voters an alternative to the incumbent."

Dead people can win elections, of course. Mel Carnahan, who perished in a plane crash, won a U.S. Senate seat from Missouri, which his wife then filled. Of course, if voters in the Show Me state had chosen to retain the incumbent instead of dumping him in favor of a ghost, we might not be enjoying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness under Attorney General Ashcroft. . . .

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

The Off-Season Begins

As free-agent filing gets underway comes today's unsurprising news that the Phillies will be more passive off-season players than they were last year. Telling the Daily News, "We want to see how the market develops," GM Ed Wade implicitly warns not to expect a repeat of 2002-03's atypically bold moves, which included the signings of Jim Thome and David Bell, an aggressive courtship of Tom Glavine, and the trade of Johnny Estrada for Kevin Millwood.

The DN's Marcus Hayes writes:

[The Phillies] told Kevin Millwood and his agent, Scott Boras, to call them if and when they're ready to discuss the possibility of Millwood's return. They contacted closers Ugueth Urbina, Tom Gordon and Keith Foulke as well as other free-agent pitchers, including relievers Terry Adams and Dan Plesac, veteran setup men with the Phils the last two seasons. They let teams know that, yes, when the time comes, they would be interested in talking trade -- which is how they would get hold of, say, Expos starter Javier Vazquez.

Lest we Phillies fans, accustomed to the team's historical bargain-basement approach when a trip to Rodeo Drive was called for, fear a return to the past, Hayes reassures us: "Don't worry, they're not standing pat. While they have options on the roster to fill their bullpen, they know they need a closer and at least one setup man. They need a starter, preferably a No. 1." Then, though, comes the cold-water-splash of reality: "But they're not going to overpay, and they're not going to rush. 'The right way could be through free agency; the right way could be a trade,' Wade said."

With the DN stuffed with Eagles coverage through the holidays, the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki is able to deliver a more extensive piece today that focuses on the team's search for a closer. He also slightly contradicts Hayes's reporting with a quote from Wade indicating that the Phillies won't lose sleep (surprise, surprise) if they're priced out of the market for a No. 1 closer, whether Millwood, Vazquez, or anyone else: "The better the guy, the better off we are. Whether it's a guy at the top end of the marketplace or somebody in the middle, we frankly think that with the progress that [Randy] Wolf, [Brett] Myers and [Vicente] Padilla have made that we have a pretty good framework to work around there. It'd be great to add a guy at the top of the rotation. But if we can add a guy in the middle of it, I still think we'd be OK."

Zolecki reported yesterday that Thome's buddy Charlie Manuel, hired last year as a special assistant to Wade, is a candidate to replace Grady Little in Boston. (File under "Job, Thankless.") He also scooped Hayes with the news that the 41-year-old lefty Plesac, who was extraordinarily effective out of the bullpen this season, would like to come back next year. His agent and Wade have begun preliminary negotiations.

I hope to file a more thorough review of the Phillies' 2003 season soon, but off the top of my head, Ed Wade in his heart of hearts can't think that landing a No. 3 guy will turn the Phils into a playoff team. None of the current pitchers he cited appears ready yet to be a No. 1. Wolf had a fine season, but the hurler whose profile fits him best, Glavine, wasn't even a good No. 1 for the Mets, for God's sake. Myers has a Josh Beckett-type look, and could develop in a similar way, but still needs more seasoning. As for Padilla, you never know which guy you're going to get in any given start.

Then again, I picked the Marlins to lose in every round of the playoffs. . . .

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Friends in Need

The missus and I settled down Sunday night to watch a tape of last Thursday's first-run episode of Friends. What we saw confirmed my decision a couple of years ago to cease being a regular viewer of the show.

The plot revolved around Ross and Rachel's throwing a party to celebrate their daughter Emma's first birthday. And, get this -- snicker, snicker -- but the other characters had other things to do! Chandler and Monica, for example wanted to head to a Vermont inn to -- I'm choking back laughter here -- try out a sex move Chandler read about in Maxim!

Look, even in its heyday, Friends was hardly groundbreaking. But it was rarely so ordinary. What drew me to the show in the first place was a group of characters who were my age, who were stumbling through the dating and career minefield on their way to marriage, children, and real jobs, and who were portrayed, and who treated each other, with uncommon (for TV) sensitivity and affection.

Now, though, the characters -- like me -- are in their mid-30s, and -- like me -- just aren't as interesting as they used to be. They're too old for wacky sexual hijinks, too settled to worry about career choices, and too well known to foster wild new plotlines. ("You mean Ross never told you that we had a child together in college?"). That leaves a lot of pedestrian topics for the writers to explore. As they did last week.

David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, and Courtney Cox have been playing these folks for 10 years now. I'll miss their characters a bit when they're gone -- supposedly after this season -- but I'll also wish they had bowed out while they were still interesting.

Perceptive Thoughts on Perspective

One is the most stories franchise in American professional sports history, while the other is younger than the Olsen twins. Perhaps this explains why the aftermath of the Marlins' World Series victory over the Yankees has focused far more on the losers than the winners. Even the estimable Rob Neyer uses the Series result as a springboard to discuss the long-standing national hatred of the Bombers.

In New York, meanwhile, the grim post-mortem is already underway. George Steinbrenner, we read, is enraged by his team's "failure" and vows changes. Already, bench coach/Pedro Martinez whipping boy Don Zimmer has left, though of his own accord, lobbing hand grenades at Big Stein on his way out the clubhouse door. Is there anyone to cheer for in the Bronx?

Well, the New York Times's Ira Berkow offers an excellent piece today in praise of Yankee manager Joe Torre's ability to keep the game in perspective. Why, asks Berkow, is Torre so successful?

Because, say people close to the team, he gets the best out of the players. He does that by not being confrontational -- unlike, oh, a certain owner. He never embarrasses a player in public. And, in most instances, he remains calm -- intense, yes; thoughtful, yes; but also calm. The players pick up on this. They trust him, and trust his actions and reactions. They are more relaxed, while remaining competitive. Tight players fail.

Hmm. Who in Philadelphia could stand to learn that lesson? I wonder. . . .

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Look in the Mirror, Larry

On the same day the Marlins downed New York to capture the World Series, the Daily News led its sports section with Marcus Hayes's pre-Game 6 notes column from Yankee Stadium. The reason is that Hayes at some point Friday reached Phillies manager Larry Bowa, whose wistful "That could be us" and "We were that close" musings are meant to give the impression that had the Phillies secured the National League wild card, they, like Florida, might have flared to life and run the table in the post-season.

Though Jim Thome did his damndest to haul the Phils to the playoffs throughout September, the team's hitting continued its frustrating, season-long clinic on inconsistency and failure to hit in the clutch. And in the biggest game of the season, ace Kevin Millwood looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but facing the Marlins in the swampland of South Florida. Nevertheless Bowa gives them all a pass and instead chooses to blame the Phillies' September swoon on the injury to setup man Terry Adams and the late-season hopelessness of Jose Mesa.

More to the point, Bowa completely fails to grasp the significance of Jack McKeon to Florida's post-season rampage. The Marlins, young, inexperienced, and with no one caring even in their own city, attached themselves to McKeon and played like demons for him. The Phillies, veteran, tested, and with Philadelphia booming with baseball excitement for the first time in 10 years, underachieved all year while being managed by a guy who has no real clue how to motivate men.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Pitching Pitchers

The Daily News's Paul Hagen caught up with Bobby Abreu and Ed Wade at Game 3 of the World Series. The only news value in Hagen's chat with Abreu is that he believes that fellow Venezuelan Ugueth Urbina, Florida's closer and a possible Phils free-agent target this off-season, "could be good" for the team. Wade, meanwhile, says the Phillies are "prepared to be aggressive" in its pursuit of pitching help. Hagen writes:

Since all the players the Phillies are interested in technically are still under contract to other teams, Wade can't be specific about names. He did, however, offer a couple of caveats:

First, rebuilding the bullpen likely will be a lengthy process that could stretch into spring training.

"Right now, we're in the trade phase of the offseason, and that will soon give way to the free-agent phase, which will be followed by what we think will be a significant non-tender phase," he said.

Second, the starting pitcher the Phillies end up with might not be one of the big names that's been thrown around. That's assuming that righthander Kevin Millwood leaves as a free agent. Wade said he's had no contact with agent Scott Boras since the regular season ended.

So, don't start dreaming just yet that Expos righthander Javier Vazquez or prodigal ace Curt Schilling will start for the Phillies on Opening Day.

"It's possible that it won't be a prototypical No. 1 starter, but someone we think would fit in well," Wade said.

Besides Urbina, other closer possibilities for the Phils to pursue via trade or free agency are the Angels' Troy Percival, the Astros' Billy Wagner, the White Sox's Tom Gordon, and the A's Keith Foulke, according to Hagen.

Elsewhere in the DN, Stan Hochman checks in with a useless piece proposing slogans for the Phillies to consider in 2004. Hochman can't bring the funny, and his too-long effort is a complete waste of 20 column inches.

Fumbling Toward Mediocrity

Once upon a time, Sarah McLachlan had the music world on a string. The Canadian delivered a couple of strong, passionate albums that earned lots of street cred but no mainstream play before exploding onto the pop music scene with 1994's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Behind the strength of the haunting "Possession," one of the '90s' signature singles, the record established McLachlan as the central figure in the decade's female singer-songwriter movement, culminating in the Lilith Fair tours, which she spearheaded.

Since then, though, McLachlan has failed to mature as an artist. Her follow-up album, Surfacing, was slickly produced yet strangely detached. The live record Mirrorball offered no substantive changes to the studio versions of her stuff, save the screams and sing-alongs of 19-year-old girls. And then she disappeared for a while to tend to being a mom.

McLachlan will return soon with a new album, Afterglow, and if the first single is any indication, listeners shouldn't expect too much. "Fallen" is marked by sappy songwriting and the same easy-on-the-ears, soft-rock resonance on which she's made a lot of scratch. Entertainment Weekly already weighed in with a B-minus, which is a tad generous.

Because McLachlan's performance on the song feels . . . lazy. Much like Natalie Merchant in her post-10,000 Maniacs days, McLachlan is relying too much on the unique tics of her vocal style. In moderation, this approach enhances an artist's sound and provides a wonderfully effective point of differentiation from other acts. But listen to Merchant's solo albums and McLachlan's more recent efforts, and what you hear are a pair of great singers who have decided to fall back on their voices as a way to distract from mediocre songwriting.

Perhaps Afterglow will turn out to be a stronger record than "Fallen" indicates. Even if it doesn't, McLachlan undoubtedly will sell a lot of copies, play to sold-out shows, and pop up on the late-night TV circuit. But it will still resemble a spring-training effort, as if she felt she didn't need to bring her A-game, knowing that her spot in the starting lineup was so secure.

Popping in on Slate and Salon

Charlie Pierce and Allan Barra, two very good writers who happen to write about sports, are engaging in an entertaining e-mail dialogue on Slate this week regarding baseball and the World Series. So far they've touched on why to root for the Yankees, the pleasure of watching Mariano Rivera, Hideki Matsui, and Josh Beckett play, and the unfolding steroid "scandal." It's fun stuff from a pair of smart, funny scribes.

Over in Salon, King Kaufman offers a grumpy piece skewering the game intros by Fox studio anchor Jeanne Zelasko. This is what's known as "mailing it in." Couldn't Kaufman have found a more difficult target -- people who talk during movies, maybe, or restaurant customers who engage in loud cell-phone conversations? I know Zelasko's no Jim McKay, but she's professional, poised, and easy on the eyes, and besides, who the hell watches the pre-game show, anyway?

R.I.P., Elliott Smith

The singer-songwriter Elliott Smith died yesterday, apparently of a self-inflicted stab wound. Smith, who reportedly had battled drug and alcohol addiction, gained critical acclaim for his work in the mid-1990s and snared an Oscar nomination for "Miss Misery," one of several delicate, moving songs he contributed to the excellent Good Will Hunting soundtrack. I can't say I was a huge fan, but his Hunting work perfectly complemented the movie's combination of melancholy, solitude, and optimism.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Little Talent

Bill Simmons,'s witty and perceptive Sports Guy, is a pretty unfocused writer even on his better days. His recent ALCS posts on the aftermath of the Red Sox's Game 7 loss to the Yankees have been all over the place. (See here and here.) But one can hardly blame him. The nature of the defeat was so numbing, so damaging, that Simmons should be forgiven his rambling.

Most of the baseball punditry, Simmons included, are flogging Boston manager Grady Little for allowing an obviously shot Pedro Martinez to remain in the game and give up the tying runs in the eighth. Sitting in a bar just north of Philadelphia, my brother and I couldn't hear the Fox commentators over the din of conversation, but with each successive Yankee hit, we'd look at each other and one of us would say, "Grady has to go get him now, doesn't he?" Neither of us has played organized baseball in 15 to 20 years, and if we could tell Pedro was done, surely his manager must have had a clue.

But, of course, no. Little stayed with Martinez, the Yankees rallied, and Aaron Boone delivered the knockout blow in the 11th. (While most of the attention has focused on Little's Pedro mistake, his decision to bring in Tim Wakefield was just as disastrous. A knuckleballer when there's absolutely no room for error? Yikes.)

As everyone has pointed out, that Martinez wanted to remain in the game is no surprise -- anyone who plays Major League Baseball would say the same thing. Imagine how pissed Roger Clemens was when Joe Torre hooked him in the fourth. But it was Little's job to overrule his tiring ace and tap his arm for one of the relievers who performed so splendidly for Boston in the playoffs.

As disappointed as I was for the Red Sox and their fans, the whole affair had an air of inevitability about it. Boston played with fire all season -- the Sox were down 2-0 to the A's in the divisional series, remember? -- and this time it burned them. The loss will linger for a long, long time for Red Sox Nation, but, honestly, the outcome of the series -- decided in the 11th inning of Game 7 -- was an accurate reflection of the Yankees' razor-thin margin of superiority.

The World (Sigh) Series

Why did it have to be the Yankees and the Marlins? I didn't need to see Boston-Chicago to be happy; just one of those sad-sack franchises would have sufficed. Count me among those who can't get too excited about the World Series this season. Sure, there's the anticlimactic hangover of the two superb League Championship Series, but more than that is the feeling that I don't really care who wins.

By rights I should be jumping on the Marlins' bandwagon. They're the only underdog left, and what they've accomplished this year is nothing short of amazing. Overcoming key injuries, a managerial change, and better opponents, Florida has earned its way to the Series, and even managed to swipe Game 1 from under the Yanks' noses Saturday night.

But shouldn't their fans have to suffer some more? Two World Series appearances in 11 years of play? C'mon. As the late and dearly lamented Kirsty MacColl once sang, "You just haven't earned it yet, baby."

Not only that, but the irrational Phillies fan in me can't help but manage a fair amount of juvenile resentment that the Fish stole the playoff slot that rightly belonged to the Phils. This is nonsense, of course. Florida is where it is on merit, and I shouldn't allow my anger at my own team's incompetence -- managerial ineptness, front-office caution, underachieving play -- to prevent me from giving the Marlins their due. But I will anyway.

As for New York, who can get behind the Yankees anymore? Yes, Joe Torre and Derek Jeter still seem like good guys, but, geez, does this team have to be in the playoffs every damn year? Rooting for the Yankees, it used to be said, was like rooting for U.S. Steel. Now it's like rooting for Microsoft. An omnipresent owner, a Borg-like presence in every baseball city in America (you can always find some frontrunner strolling the streets in a Yankees cap), and the sense that no matter how flawed they become, they'll still come out on top -- all that's missing from the Yanks is a paper clip in Yankee pinstripes asking Alfonso Soriano if he'd like help laying off the outside slider.

Putting it wonderfully was the Inquirer's Bob Ford, who last Saturday wrote, tongue firmly in cheek, that the Curses of Jeff Conine and Jeff Nelson had finally been lifted. "Call it silly if you like, but the real curses are gone now and the Yankees and Marlins are back after all this time," Ford wrote. "Explain that away."

Who Will Win: Yankees in six
Who I Hope Wins: Cubs or Red Sox

Monday, October 20, 2003

Blogged Down

Tuesday Morning Quarterback, lauded here as the best football writing on the Web, is no longer online at TMQ writer Gregg Easterbrook was sacked after a really stupid post on his New Republic blog concerning the new Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill: Vol. 1:

Set aside what it says about Hollywood that today even Disney thinks what the public needs is ever-more-graphic depictions of killing the innocent as cool amusement. Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner, is Jewish; the chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, is Jewish. Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence? Recent European history alone ought to cause Jewish executives to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice. But history is hardly the only concern. Films made in Hollywood are now shown all over the world, to audiences that may not understand the dialogue or even look at the subtitles, but can't possibly miss the message -- now Disney's message -- that hearing the screams of the innocent is a really fun way to express yourself.

Easterbrook apologized, acknowledging "poor wording" in his efforts to condemn Hollywood's glorification of violence, but the damage was done. yanked TMQ about as swiftly as its parent network cashiered Rush Limbaugh for his similarly woeful comments concerning Donovan McNabb.

A pair of former colleagues at Slate, where TMQ was launched, slam Easterbrook's posting while defending his character and staunchly denying that he is anti-Semitic. Mickey Kaus, himself a provocative and interesting blogger, notes that while Easterbrook is very smart and very funny, "he also has a slightly clumsy, emotional, well-meaning earnestness about him." Years ago, recalls Kaus, after making a similar "moral error" of his own in TNR, "I was busted and I learned something. That's what's supposed to happen. . . . That's what should have happened with Easterbrook." Writing in Slate's Press Box column, Jack Shafer discusses the perils of writing "without the safety net of an editor" and says that Easterbrook's scolding criticism of Weinstein and Eisner was "unimaginative, hackneyed, and trite," not to mention wrong. (The real Harvey Weinstein, he points out, is less Reservoir Dogs and more Shakespeare in Love.) He concludes, "By blogging so recklessly, Easterbrook deserves a day's damnation for mental tardiness, but anybody who wants to convict him of anti-Semitism will have to cross pens with me."

Disney's ownership of both Miramax and ESPN is a fact noted by many who believe ESPN acted way too harshly toward Easterbrook. Still, while I take Easterbrook's apology sincerely, it doesn't absolve him -- or anyone else who makes a living offering opinions -- from the responsibility of careful thought. Challenging viewpoints are vastly different from offensive viewpoints, as I'm sure Easterbrook well knows. Perhaps ESPN should have cut him a little slack, but given the network's speed in dumping Limbaugh, it really didn't have much choice in the matter.

And don't weep for Easterbrook. He surely wasn't getting rich from the ESPN gig, and, besides, TMQ is too well-liked, and too damn good, not to find a home somewhere else. I'll seek it out and happily continue to read his weekly NFL reports -- and hope that he leaves the idiotic posts to the idiots.

Breaking "News"

Yesterday's Inquirer had a lengthy and well publicized story in the Arts & Entertainment section about the pathetic state of local television news. Perpetually cranky TV critic Jonathan Storm watched the 11 p.m. newscasts of the CBS, ABC, and NBC affiliates for a full week and concluded, "The shows on Channels 3, 6, and 10 featured platoons of earnest people trying to spread what seemed like a heartfelt belief that viewers couldn't live without their important information. But most of it was worthless: rapid-fire conjecture, self-promotion, celebrity intrigue, and provincial tales of mayhem and tragedy in the daily lives of ordinary people. Only an optimist or a fool watches local news for information on anything but the weather anymore."

To which the entire Inquirer Sunday circulation responded: Well, duh.

Storm may think it's noble to tell us that local TV news is a wasteland of relevant information, but that horse left the barn long ago. Eyewitness News, Action News, News 10 at 11, The Ten O'Clock News, WB17 News at Ten -- call it what you will, just don't call it "news." It's entertainment, really, Access Hollywood wrapped, and not very well at that, in the guise of journalism.

Frankly, Storm's story was neither shocking nor news. Moreover, it's not even useful -- he didn't interview one news director to get his reaction, nor did he offer any suggestions for improvement. Meanwhile, the medium, once parodied so brilliantly by The Simpsons, has regressed so much that even Kent Brockman can't keep up -- or down. I'd revel in the public trashing, except that it won't make one bit of difference. Storm knows it, every "news" director in town knows it, and station management sure as hell knows it.

The Inquirer has done a nice job under new editor Amanda Bennett of bringing back intelligence and passion to local news coverage, but reading the newspaper takes more effort than watching television. Channel 6's Jim Gardner continues to be seen as a news authority, Channel 10 continues to offer up nice-looking guys with good voices, good suits, good hair, and empty heads, and Channel 3 continues to insist that its smoking-hot new anchor Alycia Lane was tapped for her journalism skills only, and people keep tuning in. The old saying should be changed -- no news is, well, no news.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Who Needs Harry Kalas?

I had a truly great baseball moment last night. On my way into Center City late in the afternoon for a work thing, I had the Red Sox-Yankees game on the radio -- God bless WPEN for picking up the ESPN radio feed; dare we hope for a format change someday? -- and was enjoying Boston's 4-1 lead when I nosed the Forester into a parking garage to run a quick errand. Ten minutes later, I was back in the car and listening in shock as Jon Miller was talking about the Yankees' 5-4 lead, with runners still on base.

I switched the game off, figuring the Red Sox were meat. Two hours later, finished with my work thing, I checked in at home. The missus was channel-surfing, and very kindly stopped on Fox and informed me that it was 9-6 Boston, bottom of the ninth. As I made my way to the parking garage, cell phone glued to my ear, she relayed the pitch-by-pitch action.

The missus is not much of a baseball fan, but she knows that her Boston-area parents, her Worcester-raised coworker, and her Yankee-disliking husband are rooting for the Red Sox. She stayed on the line, excitedly describing balls, strikes, and batted balls, including the great catch by "the cute guy in centerfield." And when it was over and the Sox had forced Game 7, she was rejoicing like a true fan.

No other sport could have offered such an encounter. I try not to get all poetic when it comes to baseball, but it's the only game whose pace and activity lend themselves to the experience I had. It's the same kind of thing that allows you to strike up deep conversations with complete strangers at Fenway Park -- try to imagine doing that at Lincoln Financial Field when the Eagles are going three-and-out against the Bucs. She doesn't know it, but hanging on the line and telling me about foul balls and pop-ups as they happened was one of the sweetest things the missus could do for me.

Why I Really Hope Boston Wins Now

Jon Weisman, who maintains the very well written Dodger Thoughts blog, tacked this on to the end of a post about the guy who prevented Moises Alou's catch down the left-field line in the eighth inning of Game 6:

My sport is baseball. For a Cubs-Red Sox World Series to slip away and be replaced by Yankees-Marlins, that's joyless.

Fear and hope, my comrades on either shoulder for another day.

Weisman's encouragement was for naught, of course, but his sentiment was correct. The prospect of a Yankees-Marlins World Series brings gloom not only to the bean counters at Fox Sports. It's just bad for baseball. Red Sox-Marlins wouldn't be much better, but at least there'd be one team for the rest of us to root for.

Uh, About that Curse. . . .

It's a convenient out, this Curse of the Billy Goat. Every news outlet outside of South Florida has trotted it out over the last 16 hours or so as a way to explain the inexplicable -- the Marlins' National League pennant victory over the Cubs, sending Florida to the World Series and banishing Chicago to yet another long winter watching ER for local landmarks.

You can talk about curses, you can talk about hometown fans and ill-advised reaches for foul balls; hell you can talk about voodoo. But if you really want to know what happened, you have to talk about Kerry Wood and Mark Prior coming up small when it counted most, and the Marlins doing what they've done over the last two months -- playing inspired baseball at exactly the right time.

Lost in the shuffle of Cub Fever was that Chicago wasn't all that good to begin with. The Cubs just barely won a weak division, they were the beneficiaries of the Braves' annual postseason implosion, and then they ran into a team that played better than they did. Theirs has always been a great storyline -- bad news sells papers, after all -- but games aren't played on newsprint.

If you insist on getting all mystical about it, though, blame the baseball gods. Cub fans have treated this year's World Series as their birthright, and the baseball gods frown on feelings of entitlement. Why do you think the Yankees have gone a few years without garnering a ring? Because their fans got so complacent after the incredible success of the mid-to-late '90s and began to see a championship as something they were owed, not something they had to earn. It'll be interesting to see if the baseball gods smite the Red Sox for their thuggish behavior in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Hi, Schmitty. Bye, Jose

The Phillies made a managerial announcement yesterday, but it wasn't the one I was hoping for. No, Larry Bowa will still be in charge when the Phillies christen Citizens Bank Park; the announcement was of the hiring of the team's greatest player, Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt, as manager of the single-A Clearwater Phillies.

A Shallow Center reader asked, tongue in cheek, whether the news means Bowa should dust off and polish his resume. The answer is no, of course, at least not right away; Schmidt has never managed before, and is taking the Clearwater job to see if he has any interest in doing this long-term. One only hopes that he has more success with Clearwater's players than he had this year with Pat Burrell, whom he has casually tutored for a couple of seasons.

The Daily News's Bill Conlin, a part-time resident of the Clearwater area and a longtime Phils chronicler, checks in with a superb column that gets inside Schmidt's head and tries to explain why he'd want what on the surface appears to be such an awful job. It's a beautifully written, evocative piece -- one of Conlin's best efforts in recent years.

In Phillies news that surprised absolutely no one, the team gave Jose Mesa and Mike Williams their walking papers. Mesa set a team record for career saves in this three years with Philadelphia, which tells you more about the quality of previous teams than about his ability. Shaky even in his best times with the club, he was a complete disaster this season; just running in from the bullpen elicited punishing abuse from Veterans Stadium crowds as the year wore down. Williams wasn't worth the paperwork he caused when the Phils traded for him over the summer. And third-string catcher Kelly Stinnett declined his part of the mutual option his contract included, opting instead for free agency. Sticking around for another year, though, will be Rheal Cormier, who had a career year after being reunited with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Rise of the Second City

Young Mark Prior, his socks pulled way up high, old school-style, is blowing away Marlins as I write this, and his Cubs are just five outs away from the World Series. The Chicagoans who have jammed Wrigley Field are hanging on every pitch, groaning at each ball and screaming at each strike. It's been 10 years since we felt that kind of electricity here in Philadelphia, and, God, do I miss it.

Three-zip Cubs, and if they win, they'll get two days off to prep for the winner of the Yankee/Red Sox series. What a terrific postseason this has been, with the promise of even more over the next week-and-a-half.

UPDATE: Trouble for the Cubs. A fan prevents Moises Alou from making a leaping grab down the left-field line, and the batter walks. Then: single, error, single. Tie game, and Prior is done for the night. The Fish will not go silently.

Wealthy Like a Fox

It's a great week to be Rupert Murdoch. On Friday, the Montgomery Burns-like media tycoon sold the Los Angeles Dodgers to a Boston real estate developer at a reported profit of $140 million. The next day the bloodsport at Fenway unfolded, guaranteeing a spike in Fox Sports' ratings for coverage of the American League Championship Series. Tonight or tomorrow the Cubs should clinch the National League pennant, setting up a Chicago/New York or Chicago/Boston World Series; either option will send ratings soaring.

In fact, the only bad news for Uncle Rupert is that Fox News's Bill O'Reilly apparently was too big of a puss to withstand a full hour of questioning from that hyperaggressive NPR pit bull Terry Gross. I guess "fair and balanced" counts only if Fox technicians are the ones pushing the buttons.

A (Former) Phillie Scores in the Playoffs picks up an interesting wire story on the Wyoming company that owns the trademark to "Cowboy Up," the Kevin Millar phrase that has become the slogan of the Sox and, by extension, all of New England. Wyoming West Designs has agreed to a licensing arrangement with the Red Sox and is now practically printing money. Seems that a partner in the company is one Ray Domecq, who once played in the Phillies organization. Who says the Phils aren't winners?

Let's Play Two!

What a great day for baseball -- the Yankees and the Red Sox play a rare late-series day game, followed by the Cubs and Marlins, with Chicago playing for, yes, the right to go to the World Series.

Sunday's rainout in the ALCS results in today's day game. Derek Lowe goes for the Red Sox and David Wells for the Yankees. Tim Wakefield again handcuffed New York last night to draw the series even at two games each. Boston really needs this game; otherwise it faces the daunting prospect of winning two straight in the Bronx.

In the National League, Cubs fans are giddy at the thought of having Mark Prior and Kerry Wood set to start Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7, respectively. Chicago took care of business in Miami, stomping on the Marlins in their first two games there to grab the series momentum and guarantee a return trip to Wrigley.

As David Pinto would say: Enjoy!

Back Again

Once again my day job got in the way of blogging for a while. Things are quieter now, so I hope to return to providing the groundbreaking content that all four of Shallow Center's regular readers find so critical to their daily intake of news and views. Thanks for hanging in there.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

How to Tell You're Not Cool

It's one thing to be 34 years old, married, father to a 2-year-old, and paying a mortgage on a three-bedroom, two-bathroom suburban house. It's quite another thing entirely to hear one of your favorite catchphrases uttered on one of television's most depressingly middle-of-the-road sitcoms.

Yet there I was the other night, getting ready to pack it in for the day, with the TV on as sheer background noise, when what do I hear? Jere Burns (yes, the guy who will forever be known only as "Kirk" from Dear John) saying, "That's what I'm talking about!" on the awful Good Morning, Miami.

I am now in search of a new favorite catchphrase. Do people still say, "Book 'em, Dano"?

Last Night's Action

The Cubs staked Mark Prior to a big early lead and then cruised the rest of the way, winning 12-3 and knotting their National League Championship Series with Florida at a game apiece. Over in the junior circuit, the Red Sox opened their ALCS against the Yanks by crashing three homers in a 5-2 win. Tim Wakefield's knuckleball totally baffled the Yanks over six-plus innings, and the Boston bullpen bent but didn't break to preserve the victory.

I watched most of the AL game and wasn't surprised to the Sox look so loose. Despite missing Johnny Damon, despite the cross-country flight from Oakland, despite having to face the more rested Yankees, Boston was the team that played in an easy rhythm. The Red Sox are in some kind of groove now, and they rode that groove to their Game 1 win. The real test comes tonight, when New York, you'd think, is back in its rhythm.

Game 2 is close to a must-win for the Yankees. A loss would leave them in a 2-0 hole and send them to Fenway Park, where the fans would be jacked beyond belief, to face a rested Pedro Martinez.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Some Final Words on the Braves

They are infuriatingly successful at replacing key players, their fans are racist rubes, their owner is Ted Turner, they're on TBS almost as much as The American President, and their manager whines more than my 2-year-old -- yet every year the Braves blow away the rest of National League East.

And then fall apart in the playoffs.

You know the story: 12 straight postseason appearances. One World Series victory. Endless anguished hand-wringing from the Atlanta media over what makes the Braves gag the way they do.

Atlanta has been so good for so long that it's impossible not to take a kind of perverse joy in their inability to win games when they matter. A peculiarly pleasing autumnal rite is reading about what the Braves must do to fix things. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Mark Bradley recommends blowing up the house and starting over:

This is the crux of the Braves' dilemma: The stuff that keeps getting them to October doesn't necessarily work once there. Contrary to popular belief, they haven't been the same old Braves every postseason, but every postseason since 1995 has yielded the same deflating result. Do they change for the sake of changing? Always before, their sensible contention has been that you can't win it all if you don't qualify for the playoffs. But now it's 12 division titles and only one World Series championship, and maybe they're as tired of this as everyone else claims to be.

If so, they should go beyond cosmetic surgery. . . .

None of the Braves blogs listed at has checked in yet with their own prescriptions for change, though a couple were not very gracious in defeat. As a Philadelphian, of course, I can respect that.

The League Championship Series

Baseball's Final Four are an interesting group. There's the monolithic juggernaut whom everyone expected to be here (Yankees); a pair of sentimental favorites (Red Sox and Cubs); and a "how the hell did they get here?" representative (Marlins).

Since I went 3-for-4 in predicting the Divisional Series winners, I thought I'd give it a try for each LCS:

Yankees/Red Sox: After the Twins' Game 1 victory, New York pulled itself together and cruised in three straight, looking nothing like the team that got bounced by Anaheim last season. The Yanks can throw a lot of arms out there, and Mariano Rivera was Gagne-like against Minnesota. As everyone will point out, New York is also very rested and not in the least jet-lagged.

As for Boston, it has the market cornered on guts this postseason. Down 2-0 to the A's, the Red Sox rallied for three consecutive wins. Late-inning comebacks have been a Sox hallmark all year, and their ALDS victory was no exception. This is a tight team that believes in itself and never, ever quits.

Boston's incredibly balanced lineup doesn't have an easy out in it. But after Pedro, the rotation is nothing special, and the bullpen juggles lighter fluid and lit matches with alarming regularity. My heart -- which loves the city of Boston, which loves a woman whose parents live near the city of Boston, which loves seeing Yankees fans taken down a peg whenever possible -- wants to give the Red Sox a chance to exorcise its demons; my head says they're too rough around the edges to take four of seven from a rested, focused New York team.

Who Will Win: Yankees in six
Who I Hope Wins: Red Sox

Cubs/Marlins: Watching Kerry Wood completely and utterly school the hard-hitting Braves was a lesson in the value of pitching in short series. Wood and Mark Prior give the Cubs the most overpowering one-two combination this side of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. And Chicago's offense, led by white-hot Moises Alou, did just enough against Atlanta to win. If Sammy Sosa can get his act together, look out.

As for the Marlins, I am so over them already. They knocked my team, the Phillies, out of playoff contention last month, and they had no business at all beating the Giants. I'm tired of Jack McKeon's folksy doddering, I'm tired of their crappy, half-empty stadium, I'm tired of seeing retreads like Jeff Conine and Juan Encarnacion get to soak in champagne, and I'm tired of reading the rah-rah coverage in the Miami Herald. Ivan Rodriguez is the only Marlin I'd pay to watch play. And I absolutely love that the Fish are the only underdog in sports history that nearly everyone hopes loses.

Who Will Win: Cubs in seven
Who I Hope Wins: Cubs

Monday, October 06, 2003

Boston Battles On

The Red Sox played long ball, getting a solo shot from Jason Varitek and a three-run tater from Manny Ramirez, and Pedro Martinez and the beleaguered Boston bullpen made it hold up for a series-deciding, 4-3 victory over Oakland at Network Associates Coliseum. A huge display of stones by Derek Lowe, who twice against left-handed hitters came inside with fastballs that tailed back over the plate for called strike threes, preserved the victory. Lowe, pressed into service when Scott Williamson walked the first two A's in the ninth, allowed a sacrifice bunt, then whiffed Adam Melhuse, walked Chris Singleton, and punched out Terrence Long to earn the save.

Now, then, is the time to invest in Bounty. Millions of rolls of paper towels will be needed to clean up the drool of Fox executives who had been eagerly anticipating an American League Championship Series between the Sox and the Yankees. It starts Wednesday.

In the National League, the only thing between the Cubs and the World Series is, yes, the Florida Marlins. The NLCS begins Tuesday night.

Thoughts on those series from Shallow Center after a full (or, at this hour, partial) night's sleep.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

Limbaugh versus McNabb

Just about anybody with an opinion -- and if you remember the 1988 Dirty Harry film The Dead Pool, you know how many people that comprises -- has weighed in on the Rush Limbaugh/Donovan McNabb controversy, so there's not much more left to say. As a sports fan, a Philadelphian, and a centrist, though, I have some thoughts of my own.

Taking Limbaugh away from his comfort zone of "conservatives" who must seek him out on their radio dial and forcing him to speak to a larger, more diverse, and more demanding audience -- and on a topic about which he possesses no true expertise -- revealed him for the loudmouth know-nothing that he is. Talk radio -- much like blogging, actually -- requires nothing more than a viewpoint and an outlet. The louder you can scream, and the simpler you can render the world, the more chance you have of finding listeners.

But put that same person in front of people who might actually talk back, and who can cite not just opinions of their own but real, live facts to back up those opinions, and suddenly he's on the defensive. And offering the unspeakably lame observation that if so many people are upset with what he's said, then he must be on to something. Most schoolyard arguments feature sounder logic than that.

Most sportswriters rightly called Limbaugh on his drivel, and he stepped away from his ESPN job Wednesday, just three days after the controversy began, sparing the world further "Rush to Judgment" headlines. The Inquirer and Daily News featured excellent pieces pointing out that McNabb has been judged on merit in Philadelphia ever since he got here. When he's been good, McNabb has received terrific press, and when he's been bad, nobody in town has shied away from saying so. And race was never a factor in those analyses.

The best piece I've seen comes from Salon's King Kaufman, who noted that ESPN got what they deserved. By taking on Limbaugh in the first place, he wrote, the network was slapping true sports fans in the face, telling them they didn't matter enough for ESPN to hire analysts with the credentials to do the job.

Limbaugh is a clown, a dog-and-pony show with no more insight into football than he has into politics, though he proved far less entertaining in his new field than he is in his regular gig. You can blame him for his dim-witted comments and lame attempts to shoehorn his political views into football analysis, but that seems like a waste of time. Do you blame a dog for sniffing butts? Limbaugh is what he is.

Blame ESPN for selling out the interests of its constituency for two-tenths of a ratings point and then pretending that it never happened. Sports fans deserve better.

There are a few lone voices who agreed in whole or in part with Limbaugh. Slate's Allan Barra, whose sharp writing usually overcomes his annoying smugness, criticized Limbaugh only for overestimating McNabb. Calling Donovan "barely a mediocre quarterback," Barra said, "Limbaugh pretty much spoke the truth." The Sports Guy also agreed that McNabb is overrated, but said that Limbaugh erred with his statement that the media and the league hype African-American QBs in their desire to see them succeed. What of Steve McNair, asked Bill Simmons, who has done yeoman's work in Tennessee only to find superstar status elude him?

McNabb, to me, is assessed as being about where he should be. I've seen him criticized both locally and nationally when his play deserves it -- the first two weeks of this season and last year's NFC Championship game were awful, awful performances out of No. 5 -- and praised when he rose to the occasion. There are times when McNabb appears unstoppable. Thing is, I think his bad performances reflect team shortcomings -- unimaginative play calling, a lack of big-play receivers, and no dominant running back. That the Eagles' offense has performed as well as it has over the last few years is a testament to McNabb's leadership and quarterbacking ability. Rush Limbaugh was fired, justifiably, because he said unacceptable things; he should have been sacked a lot earlier for being such a piss-poor football analyst.

A Plea to the Baseball Gods

In a few hours, Boston may be eliminated from the playoffs, and the issue rendered moot, but right now, as I write this, it is still possible for the Red Sox and Cubs to meet in the World Series. All sports fans should hope this happens, but not for the reason you may think.

The most cited rationale is that such a matchup would guarantee that one of the teams would finally, after decades of heartache, win the championship for which its fans have so long pined. My rationale is that such a matchup would guarantee that those fans would finally have to shut up about not winning the championship for which they've so long pined.

Every year, as the baseball season gets underway, one hears the same sob story about the Cubbies and the Sox. Ernie Banks and Bill Buckner, the Amazin' Mets and Bucky Dent, Harry Caray and the Curse of the Bambino -- every year, the same old nuggets of history get dug up and displayed in preview after preview. It's as if they're the only teams in the history of professional sports to break their fans' hearts or endure more than a few years of failure.

The support garnered by the Red Sox and the Cubs in the face of their numerous collapses has been admirable, but after a while you just wish everyone would give it a rest. Remember how tired you NHL fans got reading about the New York Rangers and their decades of futility? Remember how those stories stopped appearing once they won the Stanley Cup about 10 years ago? Remember how great it felt that everybody stopped caring about Rangers fans after that?

Should Boston and Chicago escape their divisional series -- an iffy proposition, given Oakland's 2-0 lead in its ALDS with the Red Sox -- and make it out of the League Championship Series, one of those teams will win the World Series. And one of those teams' fans will have to spend the next year dealing with the mind-blowing fact that they can no longer complain that their beloved Sox/Cubs haven't won a World Series since Woodrow Wilson/Teddy Roosevelt was president. And the rest of baseball can rejoice at having only one team whose fans' frustrations have been overhyped to the point of insanity.

Friday, October 03, 2003

I'll Be Back. . . .

The baseball playoffs rage, the new TV season is underway, hockey and basketball prepare to crank up their seasons, Arnold Schwarzenegger self-destructs, Rush Limbaugh is exposed as the fool that he is, and . . . where the hell is Shallow Center?

Buried in my day job, that's where.

More content to come, soon. Please do hang in there and keep checking back. Thanks.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

The Second Season

The first day of the baseball playoffs is very nearly the best day in sports, trailing only baseball season's Opening Day and the first day of competition in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. There's usually brilliant sunshine for a couple of afternoon games and a crisp, refreshing bite in the air for the evening action, all serving as a backdrop for games featuring the sport's best teams.

Pitching carried the day yesterday.

Jason Schmidt blew away the Marlins at PacBell to give San Francisco a 2-0 victory in Game 1 of their National League Divisional Series. Edgardo Alfonzo was in the middle of both Giant runs, laying down a sacrifice bunt that the Fish threw away to score the first tally and blasting a double to plate Barry Bonds with a late insurance run. Schmidt was in complete command the entire game, twirling a three-hitter and retiring the last 14 Marlins in a row.

In the first game, at Yankee Stadium, the Twins' bullpen held down the fort admirably after starter Johan Santana left early with leg cramps. New York played disturbingly sloppy baseball, Minnesota got a huge, acrobatic catch from Shannon Stewart in the leftfield corner in the ninth, and the Twins captured Game 1, 3-1.

In the nightcap, it took a while for the Cubs to get to Russ Ortiz, but once they touched him for four runs in the sixth, the game was over. Kerry Wood allowed Atlanta just two hits in 7 1/3 innings, and drove home two runs with a double, giving Chicago a 4-2 victory in Game 1 of that series.

I'm loath to offer predictions, mostly because while, I'm a fan, I have nowhere near the expertise to analyze each team's strengths and weaknesses and figure out which team will win three of five. Then again, if Rush Limbaugh can offer unqualified -- and jaw-droppingly stupid -- opinions on quarterbacking, why not me on the playoffs?

Yankees/Twins: Minnesota isn't the cute story it was last year, and the Bronx Bombers are no longer a fun team to root for. I could get behind Joe Torre's early teams, with O'Neill, Tino, Brosius, and a young Jeter, but the more recent versions, put together after frantic Steinbrenner spending sprees, feature too many mercenaries and surly malcontents (Clemens, Giambi, Matsui, Mussina, etc.) to hope they win. The Twins showed yesterday they came to play, but the Yankees appear to have too many weapons.
Who Will Win: Yankees in five
Who I Hope Wins: Twins

Giants/Marlins: Skippers Felipe Alou and Jack McKeon managed their first post-season games yesterday. McKeon has done sterling job getting the Fish to this point, but San Francisco won't fold the way the Phillies did.
Who Will Win: Giants in three
Who I Hope Wins: Giants

Braves/Cubs: Atlanta's days of dominance appeared to be over after it lost Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood before the season, but all credit to the Braves for again running away with their division. The emergence, finally, of Andruw Jones as a major offensive weapon, the career year fashioned by Javy Lopez, and Gary Sheffield's continuing rampage through National League pitching offset having to play Vinny Castilla and Robert Fick at the corners. Chicago rode the impressive arms of its young guns to the National League Central crown, and you know what they say about pitching and short series. The Braves, too good for too long to like much, again are playing for their legacy despite a decade's worth of first place divisional finishes.
Who Will Win: Cubs in five
Who I Hope Wins: Cubs

Athletics/Red Sox: Billy Beane squares off against disciple Theo Epstein in this transatlantic series. For all their low-budget success, the A's are still looking for a ring, while the Sox, as always, are chasing ghosts of their own. Oakland can throw out its young studly starters, while Boston features Pedro and an extraordinarily balanced lineup, along with a reportedly very tight team bond.
Who Will Win: Red Sox in five
Who I Hope Wins: Red Sox