Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Mutants and Madness

Blessed with an abundance of paid leave over the holidays, the missus and I rented not one but two DVDs over the weekend and actually managed to watch both before they were due back. In hopes of jump-starting a movie-watching spree the likes of which haven't been seen since the birth of the youngest member of the Shallow Center household, we've also opened a Netflix membership, so don't be surprised if you start seeing thoughts on months-old films popping up here.

For example, the weekend's viewings were of the not-so-recent X-Men and A Beautiful Mind, which on the surface would appear to have little in common. Viewed back-to-back, though, they resonate with themes of paranoia and the dangers inherent in accepting things at face value.

Bryan Singer's X-Men is a trim, lively, and conventional comic-book movie. The presence of mutants -- humans with various genetic alterations -- at a point sometime in the near future is a given; the problem for the mutants isn't escaping discovery, but a growing fear among the rest of the population of their potentially harmful powers. As Congress considers legislation that would require mutants to register with the authorities, a splinter group of outcasts, headed by Magneto, unleashes a destructive plot meant to defend all mutants from what he perceives as repressive, fascist government oversight. Equally concerned about governmental consequences but much more confident in human's ability to do the right thing are the good mutants, headed by Professor Xavier and including Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Dr. Jean Grey, and Rogue. After several scenes of fisticuffs and derring-do, the film reaches its tidy, inevitable conclusion, with Magneto behind bars and the various X-Men dealing with the fallout of their new relationships with each other.

X-Men's heavy-handed approach -- xenophobia is, like, bad -- is hardly atypical for a comic book, and just to make sure his audience gets where the picture is coming from, Singer begins it in a Polish concentration camp. Still, he and fellow writer Tom DeSantos earn points for making Magneto's position defensible, even if his tactics are anything but. The good mutants are also human and fallible, and it's fun to watch them grapple with their conditions without the benefit of the moral superiority that can make conventional superheroes unbearably smug at times. The film includes some nice moments of humor and a thoughtfulness absent from most of its genre (see Daredevil; or, rather, don't). Regardless of its strengths and limitations as Cinema, as entertainment the movie is a dandy -- swift and funny and bursting with seamless special effects. And, whaddya know, it's sequel-ready, too! Last summer's X2: X-Men United, praised by many as being superior to the original, just arrived yesterday from Netflix. More on that later, after I see it.

As for A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard's biopic of Nobel-laureate mathematician John Nash copped a ton of Oscars a couple of years back, but I felt betrayed by the hype. It's not a bad movie -- it just didn't seem, I don't know, special enough to warrant all of the applause. For all of the talk in the picture about the immense strength of Nash's intellect, the bulk of the film is spent on characters who turn out never to have existed except as schizophrenic delusions concocted by Nash's damaged psyche. Yes, yes, I know, it's a love story -- Nash himself claims at the end of the movie to have been saved by the love of his wife, Alicia. But the young Nash, before being beset by his personal demons, is such an antisocial dork that it's hard to imagine anyone falling for him. Well, maybe for his mind, but Howard gives us precious little to work with there, to explain what made Nash tick. What, exactly, about his mind was so beautiful? The theory that would win Nash the Nobel in economics a decade ago is offered up almost as a throwaway scene, an effort on Nash's part to increase his chances of getting laid. There's no sense of how his theory was applied in the real world, nor is there any depiction at all of Nash even conducting research on it.

As Nash, Russell Crowe is fine; I'm not a huge fan of Academy Award nominations for playing handicapped characters, but he does a nice job getting inside Nash's head as best as the script will allow him. His performance as the elder Nash, played with appropriate understatement and gravity, is particularly striking. Even better, though, is Jennifer Connelly, whose performance as Alicia earned her a completely deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Connelly and Howard could have been content to let her jaw-dropping, dark Irish looks carry the day, but instead she infuses Alicia with the heartbreaking humanity of someone who must suffer almost unbearable pain as she watches a loved one spiral into madness. Props to Howard for drawing such a performance out of her. If only the rest of the film had been as dazzling as Connelly.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Phair Thee Well

Liz Phair's most recent record, eponymously titled, has been in my car's CD changer for a couple of weeks now, and I'd been meaning to praise it here when I began to come across various outlets' year-end best-of lists.

In late June, shortly after it had been released, Liz Phair -- and Phair herself -- were carpet-bombed by Inquirer music critic Tom Moon, whose typically overwritten, inside-baseball piece called the CD "a spectacular career spinout, a car wreck in 14 torturously labored segments sure to leave devoted supporters wondering "What was she thinking?" Moon's review, a tsk-tsk screed castigating Phair for abandoning her indie roots, sounded like such a huge case of sour grapes that I was moved to write: "If the work is even half-decent, will any critics have the stones to say so?"

Well, yes. In an e-mail exchange in Slate last week, Sasha Frere-Jones, a New Yorker writer and musician, cited a couple of Liz Phair's songs in her year-end wrap-up, while Philadelphia music writer Keith Harris included the CD at the top of his "Best Albums" list. (Frere-Jones also pegged Phair as the year's No. 1 album on her own site.) Entertainment Weekly music critic Chris Willman may have gotten it best with his spot-on rationale for including Phair in his year-end Top 10:

The haters zeroed in on Phair's handful of sellout pop singles, failing to notice that these go-for-broke bids at stardom were grafted onto an otherwise deep enough, conventionally terrific singer-songwriter album. Actually, the sellout pop singles were pretty wonderful too.

Indeed, Phair, while too derivative to be considered a great record, is accomplished enough to warrant very good status. The stripped-down grit of Phair's previous CDs is gone, replaced by a big, noisy, pop-rock sound that serves to boost, but not obscure, her delightfully flat voice. The songs are catchy and fun and occasionally dirty -- this is Liz Phair, after all -- and, as always, uncommonly frank. Phair is a mid-30s, divorced mom who adores her son but still can get caught up in the sexual thrills of a new -- and younger -- guy, and who among us is pure enough to deny her that?

The Inky's Moon apparently thinks he is. Last Sunday's paper included his and fellow pop music critic Dan DeLuca's year-end wrap-ups, and Moon actually wrote this:

At times, it seemed like everything to do with music was about sex -- Kelis' "Milkshake" ditty, the Beyoncé lingerie-modeling videos, Liz Phair's failed attempt to tart herself up. That moment of swapped spit between Britney Spears and Madonna on MTV's Video Music Awards was the most-talked about thing on TV, at least until Paris Hilton came along.

Now, Moon is an outstanding writer, and his knowledge of the nuts and bolts of music -- not the industry, but things like notes and production and such -- places him in rarified air among music critics (Boats Against the Current recently had an interesting take on the difficulty in wrapping one's arms around music criticism), but makes him a must-read for purists only. I mean, my God, man, what the hell is he talking about, and what has he been listening to for the last four decades? Pop music has always been about sex. The Beatles didn't sing, "I Wanna Just Be Friends." In his own recap of 2003, DeLuca sang the praises of Amy Rigby's Til the Wheels Fall Off by observing smartly, "At bottom, pop music is and ever shall be about the pursuit of carnal pleasures."

Which reminds me: The next time you're talking to Phair, please pass along that there's an Xbox in the Shallow Center household.

Friday, December 26, 2003

Keystone Kapers

Way over in western Pennsylvania, the lovely PNC Park has been charming baseball fans for three seasons now. The Pirates may suck, but at least their backers have a jewel of a ballpark to enjoy. Meanwhile, here in southeastern Pennsylvania, Citizens Bank Park still isn't done -- despite the state legislature's approval of stadium money for both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia simultaneously several years ago.

What gives? As the Inquirer reported yesterday, a new book by a couple of area academics offers some insights into why the Steel City was able to get its act together while the City of Brotherly Love farted around for way too long:

According to the book, Public Dollars, Private Stadiums , published by Rutgers University Press, the reason for the difference was that Pittsburgh has a strong local growth coalition and Philadelphia doesn't.

To quote the authors: "In the absence of corporate champions, the path to new stadiums in Philadelphia was blazed almost completely by political actors. The main ramification of the politically rooted pro-stadium movement is that it moves much more deliberately than a corporate-rooted movement does."

[The authors] are no fans of using public money for stadiums; the evidence, they say, indicates that such money is almost never well-spent.

So stadium advocates, in making a pitch for public funds, have figured out that they're better off appealing to a community's collective self-esteem rather than the potential for economic development.

"A community's collective self-esteem" -- there's the crux of the matter. Philadelphia has so little regard for itself that it can't get important things done. I am in love with this city, but trying to get it to see its own wonders and strengths -- which are real and considerable -- is next to impossible. Philly just can't seem to get out of its own way, and when we somehow stumble into a spot of success, we're embarrassed by it, as if we don't deserve it because we're not New York, or Washington, or Boston -- you know, big, obnoxious places where the people think they're special or something. God save us from that malady.

So in addition to crumbling schools, corrupt, 19th century-style politics, and a dwindling population, we've come to expect as our lot in life a joke of a baseball stadium, located nowhere near anyplace where people might want to go before or after games, and the losingest franchise in American professional sports history. Granted, the Phillies should win a lot more than they lose next season, and CBP will be a quantum leap of an improvement over the Vet, but it'll still be surrounded by acres of parking in South Philly, and not blocks of brewpubs and restaurants in Center City. And the national media wonder why we act so embittered. . . .

Monday, December 22, 2003

In Other News

Don't pop the champagne just yet. The Daily News reported Saturday that the Phillies won't demolish Veterans Stadium until the spring, not in February, as had been planned, for "reasons which they will discuss early [this] week." My guess is that there are so many people who want to push the button, they need more time to determine who will get the honors.

In player news, the Phils resigned solid bench guy Ricky Ledee and spot starter Amaury Telemaco to one-year contracts, made arbitration offers to starter Vicente Padilla, infielder Placido Polanco, and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, and cut loose reliever Valerio De Los Santos, who had a late-season cup of coffee with the team after being traded from the Brewers.

Chris Wheeler is a Tool

It appears that the Phillies' biggest contract issue this off-season won't involve Kevin Millwood but Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas. The Inquirer's Todd Zolecki reports that Kalas has hired a serious, West Coast agent to get the ball rolling on a new deal. Kalas's agent reportedly calls Harry underpaid, but by far the most interesting aspect of the story involves his fellow on-air talent:

. . . Kalas . . . wants to change his broadcast partners because he said his relationship has soured with longtime booth mate Chris Wheeler. His current contract expires at the end of this month.

"I definitely do want to come back," he said. "I'm excited about the new ballpark and the 2004 Fightin's. I think it's going to be a very exciting year. . . . I'm sure something will get done. It might take some time, but it's going to be up to the agent and the Phillies."

. . . Sources have said that [his agent] believes Kalas, the 2002 Ford C. Frick Award winner, has been underpaid and is due for a raise. Kalas also said he prefers to work with Larry Andersen, John Kruk and Scott Graham, but not Wheeler.

"I feel more comfortable working with L.A. and Kruker," Kalas said. "It is uncomfortable to work with [Wheeler]."

Attempts to reach Wheeler last night were unsuccessful.

Kalas joined the Phillies in 1971 and shared the broadcast booth with Richie Ashburn for 26 seasons before Ashburn died.

"When Whitey died, I was under the impression that L.A. would take Whitey's place," he said. "It would be a me-and-L.A. sort of thing."

Finally, someone whose opinion counts for something has stated the obvious. Over the years Wheels has gone from being an annoying presence on the air to an all-out tool, unable to mount even the most gentle of criticisms when the Phils deserve it. (And over the last couple of decades, who can argue they haven't deserved it?) It's not as if he offers probing baseball insights to overcome his rampant sycophancy. Wheeler never played professionally; he has been nothing but a public relations hanger-on, sucking up as often as necessary to maintain his spot in the booth. Bravo to Harry the K. for calling him on it -- even if it was only in so many words. To call Kalas beloved in Philadelphia is an understatement of biblical proportions. His words carry weight, and I have no doubt that Wheeler will be locked in a basement somewhere deep within Citizens Bank Park when Kalas is on the air next season.

Milking Millwood

The dailies took varying approaches to reporting Kevin Millwood's acceptance of arbitration. The Inquirer's Todd Zolecki was more enthusiastic, writing Saturday that the Phillies' 2004 rotation "shapes up to be one of the deepest rotations in baseball, with four former all-stars and all five capable of throwing more than 200 innings if healthy." But the Daily News's Marcus Hayes couldn't resist needling Millwood's agent, Scott Boras, who tried and failed to secure a long-term, big-bucks deal for his guy. Hayes wrote gleefully:

No team besides the Phillies came forward with a solid, fair, multiyear offer. Millwood, 29, could be sitting on as much as $35 million for the next three seasons, the Phillies' best offer since they acquired him last season. This, after a disappointing season capped by a late fade -- 0-3 in his last five starts, two of which came against Florida, who overtook the Phillies for the wild-card playoff slot. He compiled a 14-12 record and a 4.01 earned run average in his first season as a No. 1 starter, his first with the Phillies after six with the Atlanta Braves, who traded him to cut costs a year ago today.

Instead, he's looking at a 1-year deal and a small raise, probably to a salary not exceeding $12 million.

I would have preferred that Ed Wade take a shot at a true No. 1 guy, as I'm not sure Millwood is capable of such status, and none of the other starters, including Eric Milton, has so far shown himself worthy of it. That said, Wade has been able to assemble a rotation of startling depth without committing Yankee-type scratch and without parting with key components at either the major league or the minor league level.

Reaction among observers, both the faithful and the objective, has been predictably favorable. The Philling Station pegs the Phils as "clear" division favorites, and literally is putting his money where his mouth is: ". . . I just slapped 25 bucks down on the club to take the NL pennant at 8 to 1 odds. Yes, Millwood struggled down the stretch last year but it is conceivable that with the improved bullpen, another year of seasoning for the young guns, and Milton in the rotation, that there will be far less pressure on him this year." The more sober David Pinto writes that Millwood's return "gives the Phillies a very solid pitching staff going into the 2004 season," and he makes an interesting point concerning the economics of the situation:

There [is] a significant chance the Phillies can win this year, especially with the Braves offensively weakened by their departing free agents. Making the playoffs their first year in a new stadium is going to mean big crowds, and that extra revenue might make up for Millwood's salary.

Much was made of Millwood's tossing his glove into the stands after he was hooked in the team's final game. But in the stories reporting his acceptance of arbitration, he said that he likes us -- he really, really likes us: "I always wanted to play in Philly. I like the people there. I like everybody in the organization. I like my teammates. And you've got fans that care. I'm definitely happy to be back where I'm at right now."

Hey, regarding the glove thing, no hard feelings, Kevin. And I'm not the only one who feels that way. On my way to the superb New Jersey wine retailer Moore Brothers Friday to stock up on holiday beverages, I passed a pleasantly dumpy sport bar whose sign read, in all its misspelled glory, "MILWOOD!" -- mere hours after the news broke. As Zolecki wrote in his lede Saturday, "So when again is opening day?"

Friday, December 19, 2003

Kevin's Countdown

The Phillies will know by midnight tonight whether Kevin Millwood has accepted their offer of salary arbitration. The Inquirer and Daily News bury the newsless reviews of Todd Zolecki and Marcus Hayes, respectively, deep in today's sports sections. Both reporters note that they could find no evidence to support the claim of Millwood's agent, Scott Boras, that the pitcher will have a multitude of free-agent offers from which to choose. Should Millwood accept, the Phillies will have one of the deepest rotations in the National League -- what a sweet little early Christmas present it would be.

Meanwhile,'s Tim Kurkjian offers his December overview of the 2004 Phils and concludes that Larry Bowa "knows, finally, that he has the necessary pieces to win." The question for the Phillies, of course, is whether Bowa himself is one of those necessary pieces. I don't think so, but Ed Wade's actions certainly leave no doubt as to where he stands on the matter.

UPDATE: Merry Christmas, Phillies fans!

Thursday, December 18, 2003

On the Road Again

Both papers send their Phillies beat guys on the road, and the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki gets the long end of the stick. Reporting from Fort Myers, Florida, Zolecki files a look at recently acquired starter Eric Milton today, and notes that the Phils' trade for him drew positive reviews:

Baseball people like this acquisition for the Phillies. They believe Milton will benefit from pitching in the National League, and from having a healthy knee.

Milton, who will make $9 million and be a free agent after next season, had knee surgery that forced him to miss most of last season. He said he is ready to go. The Phillies and Twins think so, too.

"You got one of the hardest-working kids ever," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's a gamer. A fierce competitor. You're going to love him, I'm telling you. He's learned to pitch a little bit, too. He was a thrower for a while. He learned to use his pitches now."

The Daily News's Marcus Hayes, meanwhile, is in Crozet, Virginia, to profile new closer Billy Wagner. Even more than Zolecki's profile in Tuesday's Inky, Hayes really digs into Wagner's very troubled, almost Dickensian past: an upbringing marked by abject poverty, bad parenting, and a twice-broken right arm at the age of 5; the murder of his in-laws the day after he made it to the Show; the concussion he sustained in 1998 after being struck in the head by a batted ball; and elbow surgery in 2000. As Hayes writes, "You get the feeling that, no matter how cruel Phillies fans are when his bad times come as the team's new closer, his manager won't need to shelter him at home, as Larry Bowa did last season when [Jose] Mesa became ineffective."

The story also reports on a fascinating friendship that Wagner began to develop with Barry Bonds during a period of struggle in 1997:

Before the Astros played the Giants in a game that season, Bonds called Wagner out of the clubhouse for a meeting in the stands and told him, "Hey, you're good. Don't worry about this."

That encounter developed into a friendship that allowed the pair to investigate each other's feelings on showboating, a pastime that Wagner detests but for which Bonds is a poster child.

"I told him, 'If I strike you out, I'm not going to show you up,' " Wagner said. "Barry said, 'What if I hit a home run off you?'

" 'Well, if it's a game-winner, I ain't gonna do nothin'. You can do what you want. That's a special moment in a hitter's career. But if it's a two-run lead and you hit a solo, I'll hit you the next time.'

" 'You'd hit me?'

" 'I wouldn't hit you because I want to hit you. I'd hit you because it's necessary.' "

Wagner struck out Bonds last season, the only time the pair faced each other since their conversation. Typically, Wagner did not celebrate. It's not his nature.

I think he's going to fit in around here just fine, don't you?

While the Eagles continue to roll through their schedule and the Flyers and Sixers play well, the Phillies keep on drawing ink from the dailies. Profiles such as those that run today typically appear around the start of spring training. That the papers are spending so many column inches on the Phils in mid-December reflects that fans aren't the only ones jacked about the 2004 season.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Pitching Points

The Inquirer gives Billy Wagner a big wet kiss today. Under the headline "A Perfect Fit," complemented by a deck that reads "Gritty Billy Wagner, the Phillies' new closer, should be a hit with Philly fans," Todd Zolecki profiles the hard-throwing southpaw, writing:

Phillies fans should love Wagner, and not only because he is the sure-thing closer they desperately have craved. They should love him because he worked hard for just about everything he has and everything he is.

I'm all for positive coverage when it's warranted, and Wagner seems like good guy who has indeed overcome what the sportscasters like to call "adversity." But, honestly, is it really, you know, news that someone has "worked hard for just about everything he has and everything he is"? Haven't all of us not named Paris Hilton done that?

Elsewhere in the Inky, Jim Salisbury reports on the Phillies' signing of Roberto Hernandez; see Paul Hagen's story in today's Daily News here. (The Baseball Crank isn't enamored of Hernandez, but is glad he came cheaply.) Salisbury's and Hagen stories also note that the Phils are targeting either free agent Eric Owens or likely free agent Brian Buchanan to serve as a right-handed bat off the bench. Additionally, Salisbury all but chants "Liar, liar, pants on fire" to Scott Boras:

The Phils are keeping a close eye on [Saturday] because they have offered pitcher Kevin Millwood arbitration. On the surface, interest in Millwood appears to be slight, but agent Scott Boras continues to maintain that his client has suitors other than the Phillies.

"Kevin has been the ultimate submarine racer here," Boras said before leaving the [winter] meetings yesterday. "He's going to have a couple of good decisions to make."

It is believed that Millwood would agree to pitch only in Philadelphia, Atlanta or St. Louis. The Braves are not in the running, and the Cardinals could be out since they signed righthander Jeff Suppan yesterday to a $6 million, two-year contract.'s Jayson Stark is even blunter:

For two guys [Millwood and Greg Maddux] who have won nearly twice as many games as they've lost in their careers, it sure has been a quiet free-agent winter. A little too quiet.

But that seems to have more to do with the mammoth price tags Boras has been floating around the marketplace than it does with their desirability.

Before Boras turned down a since-yanked three-year, $30-million offer from the Phillies on Kevin Millwood last month, he intimated Millwood had a five-year offer at big-time bucks that he couldn't wait to accept. Instead, Millwood seems almost certain to take the Phillies' offer of arbitration -- and go back to Philadelphia on a one-year deal at $11-12 million.

The alternatives? Oh, the Cardinals and Mets have poked around, exploring what it might take to keep him from saying yes to the Phillies. And Boras tried his best to add to the intrigue Monday by calling Millwood "the submarine race of the winter meetings" (meaning there's lots of excitement about him below sea level).

"He's going to have a couple of good decisions to make," he said, at his cheery agent-like best. But Millwood's friends say it would be a shock if he ended up anywhere other than Philadelphia -- unless the Cardinals clear a huge chunk of payroll in the next few days. And there's no sign that's doable.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Seven Up?

The Phils reportedly have made a contract offer to reliever Roberto Hernandez, who did so-so work with the Braves last season. Baseball is lousy with bullpen types such as Hernandez -- nothing-special arms who can give you an inning, usually the seventh, between your starter and your setup guy. I can't imagine that it'll cost a whole lot to get him here. Similarly, the Philling Station is not impressed:

With the ninth inning (Wags) and eighth inning (Worrell) apparently under control, the Phils set have set their sites on acquiring someone who can pitch the seventh inning. Unfortunately, that person is 67-year-old Roberto Hernandez. Last year Hernandez had a decent year (4.35 ERA) with the Braves, but he walked 43 and only struck out 45. Not pretty. But when you find out the other guy the Phillies are interested in is 71-year-old Kent Mercker, Roberto doesn't look so bad.

UPDATE: Done. And with 320 career saves, Hernandez at least has a decent track record.

Hello, Larry

The only major Phillies-related news to come out of the winter meetings, which end today, was manager Larry Bowa's contract extension. The Inquirer's Todd Zolecki played the announcement as a warning shot to the clubhouse, which, you may recall, exhibited some mutinous tendencies during last season's disastrous late-season road trip. Locked up through 2005, with team options for 2006 and 2007, Bowa "has security," Zolecki wrote. "And the players in the clubhouse, some of whom haven't seen eye to eye with Bowa in the past, know it."

Lacking anything meaty to report, the city dailies fell back on color-by-numbers stories. The Daily News wrote about baseball executives and managers falling over themselves heaping praise on the team's moves this off-season, while the Inky interviewed Bowa on the need to translate those moves into success on the field.

Writing today, Zolecki speculates that Kevin Millwood is almost certain to accept the Phillies' arbitration offer, since all evidence indicates that, contrary to Scott Boras's hot air, no one is interested in signing his client to the long-term, megabucks contract he's been pitching. Even the Phillies stopped negotiating a multiyear dear once they traded for Eric Milton. "We're very interested in having him pitch for us, but what we're talking about is a one-year contract and the ability to reengage at some point beyond that if it makes sense," Wade told Zolecki.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Winter (Meeting) Wonderland

The Inquirer's Todd Zolecki and the Daily News's Paul Hagen file stories today observing that the Phillies will have little pressing to do at this year's winter meetings, which begin today in New Orleans. Having moved quickly to obtain a starter, a closer, and a setup guy, and to lay the groundwork for Kevin Millwood's return for another season, Ed Wade is in the comfortable and pleasant position of playing things cool and seeing what develops.

Unlike Zolecki, Hagen files today from New Orleans, allowing him to report that the Phillies denied an interesting rumor that arose last night. The rumor had the Phils talking with the Red Sox about dealing Jimmy Rollins and Bobby Abreu for Nomar Garciaparra, whom Boston will have to move should the long-anticipated Manny Ramirez-for-Alex Rodriguez trade come together. The Inky's Jim Salisbury previews the meetings today, but isn't in the Big Easy yet.

One thing Wade may want to keep an eye out for is a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen. Contrary to what the papers have been reporting for weeks, Dan Plesac yesterday announced his retirement. (Daily News, Inquirer.) Plesac's comments indicate that he'd been considering retirement much more strongly than either of the papers' coverage has reflected. This is simply a case of lazy reporting -- the beat guys should have asked the pitcher himself rather than rely on official team reports.

UPDATE: Shallow Center's South Jersey correspondent would swap Abreu and Rollins for Garciaparra "in a heartbeat": "If not for the on-field talent," he writes, "how about for the off-field talent that would come with him?" Presumably this is a reference to Mrs. Nomar, the very, very attractive Mia Hamm. Were such matters about off-field talent only, then the deal would indeed be a no-brainer. Alas, the World Series, not ogling hot women's soccer players, is the ultimate goal, so the discussion would have to be along those lines. And since the trade seems so unlikely -- to call it a long-shot rumor would be generous -- it's not even worth talking about.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

The Phillies' second straight off-season spending spree receives Bill Lyon's stamp of approval, delivered in typically lyrical, rhapsodic style, in today's Inquirer. tabs the Billy Wagner trade as the No. 3 fantasy move of the off-season and adds that Eric Milton is "a sleeper this season, assuming he can stay healthy." And Mike's Baseball Rants takes the Tim Worrell signing and checks in with an amusing look at the Phillies' generally dismal history of picking the wrong family members to play for and manage the team: "In almost every pair of baseball brothers, the Phils have gotten their hands on the runt of the litter almost every time."

Meanwhile, before Kevin Millwood's return to the fold seemed likely, Ben Jacobs of Universal Baseball Blog, Inc., worried about the Phils' lack of an established starter (there's no permalink; see "The art of dumping salary" from December 4):

The problem I have with Philadelphia at the moment is that its rotation contains four pitchers who, while young and full of potential, have all been inconsistent. If all four take a step forward and fulfill their promise next year, the Phillies could have a great rotation. If all four take a step back, then Philadelphia's rotation will be a big weakness. Most likely, the top four will be a little above average and the rotation as a whole will be somewhere in the vicinity of average. With a good offense and a good bullpen, that could very well be good enough to make the playoffs.

I'll leave the last word to Mike, whose piece on this year's changed free-agent market included this once-unthought-of counsel:

If all this leaves you disillusioned and disaffected, my advice is to root for a team like the Yankees, Red Sox, or Phils. At least they are trying to field the best team that they can get their hands on. Are they spending hoards of money? Yes, so? Is it your money? Isn't that preferable to a team like the Brewers that gets handed a new stadium and then so mismanages the team that it must trade any and all veteran players to whittle down the team salary to the lowest for a team since the 2001 Contraction Twins?

If your cynicism runs so deep that you eschew these teams -- thinking that the Phils will be in the same boat as the Brewers after their new stadium funds run out in three years, that the Red Sox genius GM, Theo Epstein, needs a boost, or rather a booster seat, from Bud whenever he makes a transaction, and that the Yankees are starting to make
The Onion headline from last season, that they were buying every player in baseball, a reality -- well then there's always the unalloyed pleasure of the holiday season. There's no materialism at this time of year. And then enjoy the unselfish statesmanship of next year's presidential election to avoid the tawdry baseball season.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Capital Offense

I enjoy watching hockey, but certainly don't follow it with the same fervor as I do baseball. And ordinarily the pink-slipping of Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Cassidy would be a story I'd pass over swiftly.

Except that I watched the Caps play earlier this year, live and in person, at the MCI Center in downtown Washington. And what I saw made it clear even to these untrained eyes that the Capitals suck. As crude and unsophisticated as that verb is, in this case it is entirely warranted. In the game I saw, sitting way up top with Shallow Center's Washington and South Jersey correspondents, the Caps were thoroughly abused by the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was like watching the Mighty Ducks -- not the NHL team; the squad of kids coached by Emilio Estevez -- take the ice against the Soviet Red Army. It's a wonder Cassidy lasted 28 games this season.

The Caps' biggest draw is Jaromir Jagr, the former Penguin and until recently one of the top five hockey players in the world. In our game was saw him make one nifty, Jagr-like move, which led to a sweet goal; other than that, we could barely even tell when he was on the ice. The rest of the team appeared to be playing with their skates tied together.

Social Insecurity

Writing in Slate today, the Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman launches a dual salvo at two of my favorite targets -- senior citizens and baby boomers.

Using the recently passed and signed Medicare prescription-benefit bill as a jumping-off point, Chapman observes that America's seniors, though healthier and wealthier than they've ever been, continue to demand -- successfully -- that they be the most pandered-to special-interest group in the nation:

America's elderly have never had it so good. They enjoy better health than any previous generation of old people, high incomes and ample assets, access to a host of medical treatments that not only keep them alive but let them enjoy their extra years, and a riotous multitude of ways to spoil their grandchildren. Still they are not content. From gratefully accepting a basic level of assistance back in the early decades of Social Security, America's elderly have come to expect everything their durable little hearts desire.

They often get their way, as they did recently when years of complaints finally induced Congress and the president to agree to bear much of the cost of their prescription drugs. From the tenor of the debate, you would think these medications were a terrible burden inflicted by an uncaring fate. In fact, past generations of old people didn't have to make room in their budgets for pharmaceuticals because there weren't many to buy. If you suffered from high cholesterol, chronic heartburn, or depression, you were left to primitive remedies, or none. Today, there are pills and potions for just about any complaint -- except the chronic complaint that many of them are pricey. It's not enough to be blessed with medical miracles. Modern seniors also want them cheap, if not free.

Chapman then takes aim at everyone's other favorite self-involved demographic:

It's surely no coincidence that the new drug benefit is being enacted just as the first baby boomers are nearing retirement age. Nor can it be forgotten that the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired People -- it's now just AARP -- has lately broadened its membership to include all the boomers it can get its wrinkled hands on. AARP, to the surprise of many, endorsed the plan. And what a surprise it is that the prescription drug program, which will cost some $400 billion over the next 10 years, could balloon to $2 trillion in the 10 years following that -- when guess-who will be collecting. You would expect taxpayers in their peak earning years to recoil in horror from a program that will vastly increase Washington's fiscal obligations for decades to come. In fact, they -- make that we -- can see that the time to lock in a prosperous old age is now, before twentysomethings know what's hit them.

Boomers have gotten our way every since we arrived in this world, and the onset of gray hair, bifocals, and arthritis is not going to moderate our unswerving self-indulgence. We are the same people, after all, who forced the lowering of the drinking age when we were young, so we could drink, and forced it back up when we got older, so our kids couldn't. On top of that, we're used to the best of everything, and plenty of it. We weren't dubbed the Me Generation because we neglect our own needs, Junior. If politicians think the current geezers are greedy, they ain't seen nothin' yet.

Chapman hopes that the boomers' "insatiable desire to furnish our kids with every advantage known to humanity" will enable them to overcome their staggering narcissism, come to their senses, and stop mortgaging every succeeding generation's future. I'm not so sanguine. A baby boomer is, after all, an elderly person waiting to happen, and as each boomer slides seamlessly from middle to old age, the potential for even further self-centeredness and sense of entitlement is hopelessly explosive.

It's just a shame that my generation -- yes, good old Generation X -- can do nothing to stop America's politicians from voting for every senior-friendly piece of legislation regardless of cost. What's that you say?

We could vote more regularly and force them to heed our counsel for a change?

Dude, I'm too busy playing Xbox to do that.

Wade Strikes Again

Ed Wade continued his ruthlessly efficient quest to plug the Phillies' gaps, inking well traveled but dependable reliever Tim Worrell to a two-year, $5.5 million contract yesterday. (Inquirer, Daily News.) Worrell will set up Billy Wagner, but can be used a closer should something happen to Wagner; the 36-year-old saved 38 games for the Giants last season after Robb Nen was felled by injury.

If there were any doubts remaining that the Phils are serious about making a World Series run next season (and beyond), they should be gone now. Over the last two years, Wade has spent serious money to acquire a game-breaking power hitter, a seasoned and effective (when healthy) third baseman, a pair of top-of-the-rotation starters, one of the game's premier closers, and a quality setup guy. He also has locked up the team's best young players with long-term contracts. After years of applying Scotch tape when a blowtorch and soldering iron were needed, the Phillies finally are acting like a team that plays in the country's fifth largest city.

The Braves, Marlins, and Expos have all suffered significant losses since the end of the World Series, and the Mets are at least a season or two away from contending. The Phillies, on the other hand, have taken decisive steps to address their weaknesses and should enter their inaugural season at Citizens Bank Park as the consensus favorite to win the National League East, if not the pennant.

Don't take my word for it. David Pinto at Baseball Musings writes:

Unlike the Brewers, Tigers and Pirates before them, the Phillies appear to be serious about combining a new ballpark with a winning team. With Atlanta losing two key offensive players in Sheffield and Lopez and with Florida losing one in I-Rod, the Phillies are looking more and more like the favorites in the NL East.

(Pinto's post also led to an amusing exchange that invoked Larry Bowa and Mr. Ed. No, really.)'s Tom Singer chips in:

Ed Wade continues to go through his checklist, and assemble his team, by the numbers.

And the number one keeps looking better for Philadelphia. The Phillies have supplanted the Braves atop the National League East polls -- at least on paper, at least in the dead of winter, at least before John Schuerholz swings into action. ... Watching Wade fill up the Phillies one hole at a time, it doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to envision a championship for Citizens Bank Park's housewarming.

Even the cynical types at the Daily News are impressed. Sam Donnellon points out:

The Phillies are no longer cheap. If Ed Wade is slow, then rigor mortis has set in for George Steinbrenner. On the day after we learned the Florida Marlins will not even offer arbitration to Ivan Rodriguez, their World Series MVP, that the Braves don't want Greg Maddux back, the Phillies' general manager threw another fat check at another proven reliever and moved closer to retaining Kevin Millwood.

... [I]f Millwood accepts arbitration, the Phillies' payroll will be closing in on $100 million when they walk into their new park next season. And clearly the front-office types aren't bracing for that -- they're excitedly anticipating it, especially after Millwood called their arbitration offer a relief the other day.

"I was happy to see that," Wade said.

The Phillies can do both Millwood and Eric Milton, Montgomery said, because they likely will eclipse 3 million in attendance next season, and because their anticipated revenue streams will also include concession and parking income.

"Flexibility," Wade said.

"Flexibility," said Montgomery.

(Please add this to your official Phillies front-office vocabulary list. You know, the one with "due diligence" on it?)

Most years I like December to stroll leisurely through my life, to make the most of sweet Christmas anticipation. Last year and this, though, I'd rather it be on its way, the better to usher in April sooner. Is it Opening Day yet?

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Millwood's Millions

Kevin Millwood tells the Inquirer today that he will "likely" accept the Phillies' arbitration offer. Saying the offer "was a huge relive" and "a pleasant, pleasant thing to happen," Millwood continued to insist that he likes playing in Philadelphia, and added that he's been working on what Todd Zolecki describes as "the most strenuous off-season conditioning program of his career, maybe his entire life." Should he accept the offer, he will earn at least $11 million this season, maybe more, which is not an insignificant amount -- but it's a far cry from the $75 million contract his agent, Scott Boras, was peddling.

While the Inky is all over the story, Marcus Hayes and the Daily News play catch-up. Hayes's story in today's paper talks mostly about the Phillies' arbitration offer reflecting their desire to have Millwood return for next year, and not as a tool to gain compensatory draft picks. His lunch eaten by Zolecki, Hayes can do no more than quote a story in yesterday's Bucks County Courier Times which said that "Millwood ... would gladly return to the Phillies for one season." (See Randy Miller's story here.)

Regardless of who's reporting it, this is a win-win deal. The Phillies will spend more this year than they had projected, but still won't be on the hook for an onerous multiyear deal. Millwood gets another season to build his resume in hopes of attracting the kind of scratch Boras was seeking for him. And we fans get to watch a rotation of four former All-Stars and a No. 5 guy who would be a No 3 on many teams.

With Felicity Huffman as Placido Polanco

It was rather a throwaway line, but Dodger Thoughts blogger Jon Weisman made me laugh out loud with this, from his review of free agents not offered arbitration:

One year after a near-lifetime with the Dodgers, Eric Karros has joined the ranks of the itinerant -- the Reggie Sanders and Kenny Loftons, who rack up new teams like Paula Marshall racks up new shows. I feel bad ... mostly for Paula. She deserves another Cupid.

This is such an exquisitely drawn analogy that it makes me wonder why I even
try. And that's not even mentioning Jon's taste in the lovely Ms. Marshall. Well done, sir.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Groceries Aren't Free

In eulogizing the recently deceased British actor David Hemmings, Boats Against the Current wrote on Saturday, "I did not know that, in the 1980s, he spent some time in Hollywood directing vintage '80s TV shows like Magnum, PI, The A-Team, and Airwolf. Whatever pays the bills, I suppose. But who am I to even say something like that?"

True enough. A guilty pleasure of weekday afternoon TV is hunkering down in front of reruns and watching the "Guest Starring" credits to see which of today's stars was earning rent money back then. (George Clooney on The Facts of Life, anyone?) For my money one of the greatest career leaps was made by another A-Team alumnus, Carl Franklin, who played one of the hapless military goons chasing down Hannibal, B.A., Face, and Murdoch, then went on to film the shattering One False Move and the polished Devil in a Blue Dress.

Who knows? Perhaps one day it will reported that a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction got his start with a foolish little baseball and pop culture blog. . . .

A Final Pitch for Millwood?

The Phillies' recent trade for Eric Milton led Shallow Center to proclaim publicly that "Kevin Millwood's tenure in Philadelphia will be a one-year hiccup in his career." Uh, not so fast. The team reportedly offered Millwood arbitration shortly before last night's midnight deadline, and the big righthander might just be headed back to Philadelphia.

Evil-agent poster boy Scott Boras -- think Jay Mohr's character in Jerry Maguire -- has been shopping Millwood for $75 million over five years, and interest apparently is scant. The pitcher has until December 19 to decide whether to accept arbitration. If so, he's back for another year -- at $11 million to $13 million, most observers believe -- and if not, the Phils at least receive compensatory draft picks from whatever team signs him.

This is, in other words, a gutsy, aggressive move -- something real teams do. If Millwood returns, then the Phillies will enter 2004 with one of the deepest rotations in baseball -- surely Brett Myers would be the game's best No. 5 starter. And if Millwood signs elsewhere, the Phils don't walk away empty-handed, and they still should have enough to contend until the trading deadline approaches, at which time Ed Wade can assess the situation and deal accordingly.

While I laud Wade's boldness, the Philling Station takes a clear-eyed approach, writing:

Chances are Millwood will be looking for a multiyear deal and move on, leaving the Phils with the picks. I think that's what management is hoping. Personally, I'd rather have him sign here. Because as the old saying goes, "It's not my money."

Todd Zolecki had the story in today's Inquirer, though not in the edition delivered to my house. Likewise, the Daily News's Marcus Hayes apparently didn't have his story in time for an earlier edition. Beating them both was's Ken Mandel, the beat reporter, whose story ran at 12:54 this morning.

Indeed, Major League Baseball has done plenty to shoot itself in the foot, but it deserves to be commended for the independence it grants to and the initiative it fosters among the reporters who file stories on official team Web sites. On Saturday, for example, Mandel posted a story on the Phillies' site noting that, unlike last off-season, players eligible for salary arbitration -- Vicente Padilla, Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, Valerio De Los Santos, and Amaury Telemaco -- will be offered one-year deals.

It was hardly a stop-the-presses kind of piece, but it was well reported and newsworthy. Flush with Army-Navy coverage and salivating with anticipation over yesterday's Eagles-Cowboys matchup, the city dailies had no Phillies stories Saturday, so Mandel's story even counted as a scoop. And with such sentences as "Burrell responded with the worst season of his professional life," it clearly was not a team whitewash.

Indeed, each article on includes an italicized line reading, "This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs." Wow -- uncensored, newsworthy stories, published as they're written. Wasn't that supposed to be a promise of the Web in the first place?

UPDATE: Wade says the Phillies' arbitration offer to Millwood is a legitimate attempt to retain Millwood's services for another year, and not to land compensatory draft picks. From the AP story:

If he accepts arbitration, Wade said the Phillies would be "significantly over budget." However, Wade said the team is prepared to take on the additional salary.

"We have the ability to fill our needs," Wade said. "Kevin accepting arbitration is a separate bonus to the organization. It creates an opportunity for us to evaluate a number of pitchers going forward and allows us to have some flexibility next offseason."

Saturday, December 06, 2003

These Boats are Made for Reading

The great blessing and the great curse of the Web is the ease with which anyone can spray opinions and observations like so much virtual graffiti. A lot of it is useless junk; some if it is worth a look from time to time; and a great minority should be bookmarked and read regularly.

Decide for yourself, but in that last category I place the new blog Boats Against the Current, by Shallow Center's Washington Correspondent, also known as the older of my two younger brothers. An exquisitely written look at "books, movies, TV, comics, a little politics, maybe even some baseball," BAtC in its short tenure has already examined The New York Times Book Review, The Simple Life, the writer Ross Macdonald, the critic David Denby, and a host of other eclectic topics.

Besides being a writer of uncommon clarity and precisely worded prose, BAtC is also much more well-read than I, so you may even learn something in the process of reading him. Surf on over and check it out.

Friday, December 05, 2003

When Bad Movies Happen to Good Music

Last night, while folding laundry and channel-surfing, I came across the Josh Hartnett vehicle 40 Days and 40 Nights. Harnett, who floats in and out of It-Boy status, plays a guy who -- get this -- gives up sex for Lent. No, it's not your average UPN sitcom -- it's a Major Motion Picture! Anyway, I wasn't the only one who stayed away from the box office. Both reviewers and the general public were underwhelmed, and the film faded to its appropriate resting place -- late weeknight showings on cable.

What kept me on that channel for more than the second or two I give most stuff before firing on to the next channel was a familiar melody. Yep, there it was -- "Chemistry," from the rock-solid Minneapolis trio Semisonic's sadly underheard All About Chemistry. What should have been blasting out of every car radio in the land for a full summer was instead relegated to 10 seconds in a crappy movie that not many people saw.

Okay, I've been around the block enough to know that what the masses like ain't always what's good, and vice versa. But "Chemistry" is such a delightful, pure slice of American pop music -- and from a wonderful, sweet album (check out "One True Love," an amazing tune with Carole King, if you don't believe me) -- that I could do little but shake my head mournfully (and then continue folding my daughter's kitty-cat pajamas). If the La's hadn't had at least a modest hit with "There She Goes," arguably the most perfect piece of pop recorded in the last 20 years, I'd feel the same way about that great song, which has turned up in enough trailers that people at least kind-of recognize it.

And on and on it goes. Look, I'm no aging hipster doofus who insists that anything made today isn't worth listening to, or watching, or buying, or whatever. (Well, maybe a little, but just a little.) There's a ton of great stuff out there, but you have to look for it, and give it a chance when you find it. And the more plastic and hurried our culture becomes, the more difficult that is.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

An Open Letter to the Red Sox Nation

Congratulations! You've gone and landed yourself a couple of former Phillies, sterling but loudmouth righthander Curt Schilling and nice guy but wishy-washy manager Terry Francona. And now you're probably wondering what you've gotten yourself into.

In Schilling you have a perennial Cy Young Award candidate, a throwback power pitcher who will give the Red Sox innings, strikeouts, and a ferocious desire to take the ball in big games. Schilling's baseball ability is matched only by his uncontrollable tendency to be a huge pain in the ass. He's colorful and outspoken and always gets his way while somehow claiming it wasn't him. Schilling forced a trade from the Phillies, then said he never demanded it, and he forced the most recent deal between the Sox and the D'backs less than two weeks after telling a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter that he would accept a trade to the Phillies or Yankees only. When he starts pledging eternal love to Boston, have your fun but don't believe him -- he'll have changed his mind by the time daylight rolls around.

As for Francona, if you thought Grady Little gave players a free pass, you ain't seen nothing yet. He couldn't even handle Bobby Abreu when he was in Philadelphia; Manny Ramirez will leave cleat marks on his back. It'll be interesting to see what Francona do now that he has players; his tenure with the Phillies, whose lineup was hardly fear-inducing, produced exactly zero winning seasons.

So good luck! Hope to see you in the World Series.

Shallow Center

Kevin KO'd; Eric Arriving

Kevin Millwood's tenure in Philadelphia will remain a one-year hiccup in his career. The Phillies yesterday rescinded their three-year, $30 million-ish offer to the righthander and instead dealt reliever Carlos Silva, backup infielder Nick Punto, and a player to be named to the Twins for lefty Eric Milton.

With Scott Boras, Millwood's agent, apparently demanding much more scratch from the Phils than GM Ed Wade was willing to part with, the team looked in another direction. "Kevin Millwood turned into a long shot for the Phillies, and they couldn't afford to wait," wrote the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki. "So yesterday they moved on."

Milton brings a recent history of injuries to the Phils, but when healthy, he was a solid double-digit winner for Minnesota. He gives up a lot of dingers, and his ERA -- 4.76 in six years with the Twins -- isn't grand, but he can bring a decent fastball, a good curve, a hard slider, and a changeup. The Daily News's Marcus Hayes reported that Phillies pitching coach Joe Kerrigan liked the trade. (Then again, what else would he say?)

Hayes also noted that Boras was seeking five years at $15 million a pop for Millwood. That's too much for a 14-game winner who couldn't deliver the goods in the season's second half. The Phils can offer him arbitration by Sunday, but Millwood then would have until December 19 to decide whether to accept it. Wade apparently was worried that backup policies such as Milton might be unavailable by then should Millwood turn the Phillies down.

The dilemma for the Phillies is that if they don't offer Millwood arbitration and he signs elsewhere, they'll lose out on a draft pick from the team with whom he signs; if they do offer it, they're looking at an $11 million price tag for next season, which would greatly limit their flexibility in shoring up the bullpen and bench.

Neither Silva nor Punto was likely to have any kind of big-time impact on the 2004 Phillies. Silva has never developed into much more than a hard thrower, and Punto brings a slick glove, good speed, and no bat to a utility infielder's role. So I'm okay with taking a flyer on Milton. A more proven starter would have been a great addition, though. Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, and Brett Myers now must really step it up, and as the DN's Bill Conlin observed perceptively last week, the Phils' big bats must be more consistent this year if the team is going to contend.

I'm not the only one who feels the deal doesn't have the jaw-dropping impact of Phillies acquisitions of the last few years. David Pinto of Baseball Musings writes, "I'd rather have Millwood, but Milton's okay. His main weakness is giving up a lot of HR. It would be nice if you could blame that on the HHH Dome, but he's given up more HR in fewer innings on the road during his time in Minnesota." At the Philling Station, Eric Charlesworth observes, "Milton missed most of last season after having knee surgery but has had solid peripherals throughout his career. Hence he is a perennial fantasy pick for me -- and one who tends to disappoint." Foolishly continuing to hope for a Millwood signing, adding, "I love Milton as a No. 5 though. Love him."

For what it's worth, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis played the trade as a salary dump that will enable the Twins to negotiate better with closer Eddie Guardado and outfielder Shannon Stewart.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Coming Soon. . . .

When the youngest member of the Shallow Center household takes ill, the missus and I go into lockdown. We take half-days at work, remain indoors, alternate comforting the little one, and feel lucky if we can find 15 minutes to choke down a couple of slices of cold pizza.

What we don't do is write about such things as Curt Schilling, the Phillies' search for more pitching, the rampaging Eagles, the continuing struggle of The West Wing to recover its mojo, and other important subjects.

Good health has returned to the household, however, so Shallow Center should be up and commenting again before too long. Thanks for your patience, and stay tuned.