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

Monday, September 29, 2003

Until I'm Boo in the Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Chasing History

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

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

Cubs Win! Cubs Win! (Finally.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selling the Vet

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

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

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

Here We Go Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Human Shield.

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

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

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

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Wait Till Next Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Inquirer, Sheridan makes a similar charge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Ace in the Hole?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Let the Skepticism Begin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One That Got Away

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 22, 2003

Six Games, Seven Nights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Seeing Red

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

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

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