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.


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