Thursday, November 27, 2003

What I'm Thankful For

In no particular order:

I'm thankful I'm healthy. I'm thankful for a roof over my head, clothes on my back, and food in my belly.

I'm thankful I have the skills and inclination to hold a job whose duties I like.

I'm thankful for my daughter, who daily brings me a joy I never thought possible -- the kind of joy that moistens my eyes nearly as often as it pulls my face into a smile.

I'm thankful for my wife, who pushes me to be a better person while also fully appreciating me for who I am, and who is a shining example to our daughter of compassion, humor, dedication, and sweetness.

I'm thankful my parents are still alive, and in good health, and generous with their kitchen and their time.

I'm thankful for my brothers, who have been the staunchest, most loyal of friends as well as the toughest, most ball-busting of critics -- what great brothers should be, in other words.

I'm thankful for my two sisters-in-law, who have brought joy to the lives of my wife and my brother, respectively; have given my daughter a pair of wonderful cousins to love; and have shown me what I missed by not growing up with sisters.

I'm thankful for my brother-in-law, who is versatile enough to drink beer with, go to ballgames with, watch crappy action movies with, grill steaks with, play Xbox with, hang out with our kids with, and countless other activities that belie in-law status.

I'm thankful to be living in the United States of America, which for all of its many, many flaws is still the finest, most noble country humanity has ever produced.

I'm thankful my daughter has two full sets of grandparents who cherish her, spoil her, and love to spend time with her.

I'm thankful for coworkers who make coming to the office professional stimulating and personally rewarding.

I'm thankful for my cat, who reminds me what a pleasure it can be to lie in the sun and nap.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Bailing Brave

Jim Salisbury used his On Baseball column in yesterday's Inquirer to explore the resignation of Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten, which he speculated "might have been a sign that he didn't like the direction that the Braves were headed." Time Warner is much more concerned about the balance sheet than Ted Turner ever was, noted Salisbury, adding:

Kasten, [John] Schuerholz and [Bobby] Cox have set high standards for the Braves. Maybe Kasten left because he felt that it would be impossible to uphold those standards under Time Warner. Many people in baseball believe this to be true. The Braves are changing, and Kasten didn't like what they are about to become.

Salisbury then offered thumbnail analyses of the N.L. East teams. Atlanta and Florida are expected to slash payroll and shed talent, the Expos are in way too tenuous a situation to take seriously, and the Mets are a disaster. He continued:

The only team in the NL East that appears to be in an optimum position to win is the Phillies.

They have a new ballpark. They have new revenue streams that have allowed them to bring in top talent (Jim Thome, Billy Wagner). They have a solid lineup that will only get better if Pat Burrell returns to form. They have three starters -- Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers -- whom they can win with. They finally have a game-over closer in Wagner.

All that's missing is that pitcher to fit in at -- or near -- the top of the rotation.

Implicitly urging the Phillies to aim higher than the middle-of-the-rotation kind of guy whom Ed Wade has hinted the team might pursue, Salisbury pegged Curt Schilling, Kevin Millwood, Bartolo Colon, Javier Vazquez, and Livan Hernandez as desirable targets. (The Schilling saga took an interesting, and lousy (for the Phils), twist today; see related post.) "The Phillies have to end up with someone, and that someone has to be a formidable talent," Salisbury wrote, "because the NL East is ripe for the taking and this team is one move away from being in the best position to take it."

Imagine Pedro Followed by Schill. . . .

ESPN reported today that the Red Sox, Brewers, and Diamondbacks are in discussions regarding a three-way deal that would send Curt Schilling to Boston. This, of course, is bad news for the Phillies. The Inquirer's Jim Salisbury wrote yesterday that Schilling has said he wouldn't pitch for the Sox, but quickly added that "he is one to change his mind, so it wouldn't be surprising if the Red Sox made a call to Arizona if (when) Terry Francona is named manager. Francona and Schilling are close."

If the Boston talks falter and the Phils are still without a pitcher after Thanksgiving, Salisbury noted, keep an eye on December 7:

That's the date the Phils would have to offer Millwood salary arbitration. If the Phils offer Millwood arbitration, they will have to be ready to pay him possibly as much as $12 million or more if he accepts. If the Phils offer Millwood arbitration, that would close the door on Schilling, at least until Millwood rejects arbitration, and there's no guarantee that will happen. Last year, [Greg] Maddux, who like Millwood is represented by Scott Boras, accepted the Braves' offer of arbitration and signed a one-year contract.

I remain underwhelmed by the prospect of Millwood as a No. 1 guy, earning No. 1 scratch. Should Schilling still be available as December 7 draws closer, the D'backs, ever more desperate, "may have no choice but to take the Phillies' offer of second-tier players and prospects," wrote Salisbury. I'd support the acquisition of either Colon or Vazquez, but fear the price would be too high, so I still see Schilling as the best option.

But how eager do you think No. 38 would be to take a stab at halting the Red Sox' World Series futility? He may claim to want only Philadelphia, but Curt Schilling takes seriously such things as baseball history and tradition, and you can bet his considerable ego would relish the thought of being Boston's savior.

Friday, November 21, 2003

'The Birth of the Death Business'

President Kennedy was killed 40 years ago tomorrow, and if the wailings of the baby boomers who still dominate newsrooms are any indication, we still haven't recovered, four decades and eight presidential administrations later.

Philadelphia Weekly editor Tim Whitaker, for example, filed a painfully overwritten column that begins with a quote from Lou Reed's "The Day John Kennedy Died" and, I swear to God, ends with this paragraph:

Watching, it all looks as it did 40 years ago, when Matt was at the door with his basketball. But it doesn't feel the same. It can't. It won't ever.

Ugh. The rest of Whitaker's piece is no more relevant. Check out any paper or news Web site across the country and you'll surely see similar thoughts this weekend. Take, for instance, the three pieces on today's New York Times op-ed page alone.

For an even more tiresome angle, read Beth Gillin's story in today's Inquirer that draws the jaw-dropping conclusion that "for more than half of the U.S. population, not yet born on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy's death is an event unclouded by sentiment." Oh. My. God. You mean today's college students don't see as the touchstone of their lives something that happened 20 years before they were even in existence? Are you as shocked -- shocked! -- as I am?

Somebody in the Inky's newsroom should have spiked that story idea the second it escaped from some clueless, 50-year-old editor's lips.

On the other hand, Wednesday's paper had an insightful, clear-eyed commentary piece from Karen Heller arguing that JFK's assassination marked "the birth of the death business, a profligate fascination with the loss of celebrated Americans whose lives ended early." Heller cites the aftermaths of the premature losses of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix, and could have extended her thesis from the 1960s and '70s to the present day, when the passing of Princess Diana elicited a numbing amount of coverage.

Adding that "the man's legacy will never completely rest in peace," Heller perceptively writes:

For much of the baby boom and anyone younger, Kennedy has always been a martyr, a vessel. He's been known only in death. And this has helped fuel the prurient interest in his killing. Many of us, myself included, learned of his assassination before we understood he'd been president.

With that single bullet, or perhaps several, began a national pastime of celebrity necrophilia, an obsession with turning the dead into myth and embracing the myth more than the sometimes prosaic aspects of an actual life.

Magnum Opus

Fourteen years after ending his brilliant comic strip "Bloom County" and eight years after retiring its ambitious but overreaching follow-up, "Outland," Berke Breathed will return to the comics pages this Sunday with a weekly strip called "Opus." The star, of course, is the penguin himself, the central character in each of Breathed's two previous strips.

Breathed's political viewpoint often earned "Bloom County" comparisons to "Doonesbury," but the truth is that Garry Trudeau's strip is much more overtly political -- or, perhaps, satirical -- than "Bloom County" ever was. In lobbing grenades at the targets of the '80s, whether Reaganomics or Tipper Gore's record-labeling crusade, Breathed seemed to be aiming less for the "Good zinger!" response and more for "Hey, that's funny!"

Indeed, in an interesting and wide-ranging e-mail interview with Salon, Breathed was quick to emphasize comedy over parody. Asked whether "a strip [can] be socially relevant without resorting to pop-culture references," he replied:

Ya know, just reading those words "socially relevant" made me physically wince just now. Our job is to make people smile. If my cartoons stray into -- I'm sorry, I can't type them again . . . those words you used above -- it's an accidental byproduct in the effort to make ME smile.

I'll be reading Sunday.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Roster Moves and Garage Sales

The Phillies caught up on some housekeeping yesterday, naming first baseman Ryan Howard and right-handed pitchers Keith Bucktrot, Elizardo Ramirez, and Alfredo Simon to their 40-man roster. The roster now stands at 37 players, explains the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki, leaving "the Phillies space to add a starter, a set-up man, and a back-up catcher this off-season." The rest of the story is largely speculation and recap.

Elsewhere in the Inky, sports business reporter Larry Eichel notes that the Phillies' chop-shop stripping of the Vet is having mixed results. Around 26,000 seats were sold, but the team can't seem to find takers for elevators, escalators, metal railings, Phanavision, and the Liberty Bell replica that sat high atop centerfield. Let's hope the fire sale picks up -- Ed Wade needs some extra scratch to land a No. 1 starter.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Wing Dings

When Aaron Sorkin was late with a West Wing script once too often and was finally jettisoned from the once-sterling NBC drama, many of us anticipated Life After Aaron with some trepidation.

Sure, the show had grown increasingly preposterous -- by the end of last season, one week in West Wing world featured the unlikely combination of the vice president's resignation to head off a sex scandal and the kidnapping of the president's daughter -- but there's no one on television who can write with Sorkin's blend of brains, passion, and wit. Before the NBC hype machine forced more and more outlandish storylines, The West Wing was a deserved commercial and critical success, serving up interesting, well written stories and featuring likable, committed characters. (An even better example of Sorkin's talent was the criminally underwatched Sports Night, which ABC failed to position adequately and dumped after just two seasons.)

So when NBC finally cut the cord with Sorkin, John Wells was left with a tough act to follow. In many ways Sorkin was The West Wing. His vision and his voice were so connected to the show that it was hard to imagine his successors, well, succeeding.

Up until last week, these fears seemed to be well founded. Wells & Co. were forced to find their footing while also cleaning up Sorkin's mess. Rather than starting with a clean slate, they had to rescue Zoey Bartlett, dismiss Speaker of the House-turned acting President Glenn Walken, return President Bartlett to the Oval Office, and find a new vice president. Burdened with those tasks, the writers this year started slowly, turning out a half-dozen underwhelming episodes that somehow felt off.

Until last week. With all of last season's mayhem more or less wrapped up, The West Wing finally resembled the compelling drama it used to be. With an extraordinarily effective Matthew Perry reprising his guest-starring role as a Republican White House counsel, last week's episode, "Separation of Powers," turned its back on the recent improbable sensationalism and returned to its roots with substantive storylines on the failing health of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the budget negotiations between the White House and congressional Republicans.

The episodes final scene, culminating in President Bartlett's ordering of a federal government shutdown, was the program's most powerful in more than a season. It was shot with a handheld camera, and often at table level, giving it a welcome, striking verisimilitude, and featured a considerable amount of silence. One of the most notable hallmarks of the Sorkin era, of course, was the nonstop cacophony of crackling dialogue, ringing phones, and other noise. With Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme gone, Wing now includes quieter moments and longer reaction shots. These have taken some getting used to; indeed, they're not always appropriate for a show set in what must be the most frantic office setting on the planet, but at times, such as last week, they can be spot-on.

The Daily News's very solid Ellen Gray beat me to the punch on this today, calling "Separation of Powers" "probably the best show so far of the post-Aaron Sorkin era" and singling out Perry, deservedly, for high praise. Gray even suggests that Perry join the cast on a more permanent basis next season, when Friends bows out.

I hope that "Separation of Powers" marked the show hitting its stride and wasn't just a blip in a tumble to mediocrity. Wells's ER was at one time television's best drama, but after every episode produced "an event . . . you can't . . . miss," as the NBC promo guy would say week after week (after week after week), it began to feel empty and loud. At its best, The West Wing, for all of its noise, has been the exact opposite. Here's hoping Wells realizes that.

Wrap This, Pal!

I love Christmas. Love the presents, giving and getting. Love the spirit. Love the all-too-short focus on peace and goodwill. Love the sights and smells. Love the tree. Love seeing the youngest member of the Shallow Center household play in wrapping.

Love the music.

Hate that as of mid-November, not one but two Philadelphia radio stations had gone all-Christmas music, all the time.

Hate it. Hate it heinously. Hate it the way the Grinch hated Christmas before his heart expanded in his chest.

The earlier one hears Christmas music, the more diluted the season becomes. It's only a matter of time before someone here picks up on the cues of the Charlotte, N.C., station that went all-Yule on Halloween. As the season gets more stretched out, its specialness decreases. What's the point of having Christmas if it's going to run from Labor Day through New Year's?

So, please, station managers, please, please, please hold off on playing the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping," one of the best of the modern Yule tunes, until after Thanksgiving.

And then play it as often as you can. Christmas only comes once a year, after all, and we need that Christmas magic to bring this tale to a very happy ending.

Get Plesac Up

Todd Zolecki reported in yesterday's Inquirer that the Phillies are close to resigning reliever Dan Plesac for another year. Plesac is 41, yes, but is the quintessential situational lefty, the guy to call on to get Barry Bonds with a man on in the seventh of a tight game. That is, he doesn't pitch much -- just 33 and 1/3 innings last season -- so his age shouldn't be much of a factor. It's a sound move on the Phillies' part. Plesac was effective last year, is very comfortable with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, and, whaddya know, wants to be here!

Schilling Reax, Part III

Shallow Center's South Jersey Correspondent checks in with a response to my most recent post concerning the Curt Schilling situation:

"The Phillies are finally at a stage where the focus on winning is now, not at some point in the future, and Schilling would make that more possible, not less."

While I would love -- love! -- to see the Phillies win now, my point all along has been that they need to be in a position to win now and in the future, and that they can better accomplish this with Myers than with Schilling. I think I could live with them acquiring Schilling and not having to give up any of their Big Three prospects, though I think I would rather see them lose without him than win with him. There is such a thing as pride, after all.

To which the only answer can be to quote from the scene in Pulp Fiction in which mobster Marsellus Wallace is ordering crooked boxer Butch Coolidge to throw his upcoming fight. The exchange is salty, but bears repeating:

"The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That's pride fucking with you. Fuck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps."

Translation: I'm bone-tired of fighting the good fight and losing for a good cause. I want to win for a change. The Phillies are in a position to win now and in the future, and a move for Schilling would only help that. I'm not talking about Ed Wade giving away every blue-chip prospect to rent Schilling for four months -- this would be a two-to-three-year commitment. I still think Wade should consider packaging a couple of spare parts -- losing Jimmy Rollins would certainly not impact the lineup much -- and a lesser prospect to make it happen.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Catching Up with the Weekend Coverage

The Inquirer got its money's worth out of sending Jim Salisbury to the general managers' meetings. Salisbury reported Friday that the Phillies brass met with the agent of free-agent pitcher Bartolo Colon. The story appears to be more smoke than fire, as the price he'll command seems higher than what the Phils have indicated they'll pay. Indeed, Wade was pretty cool, saying simply, "It behooves us to have discussions about guys like Colon. It was a good meeting and we agreed to talk again down the road." Salisbury's interesting take is that the meeting could be a subtle message to the Diamondbacks and Curt Schilling that the team will not wait forever for a deal to develop on that front.

Both the Inquirer and Daily News reported the same day that sod -- you know, real grass -- has been laid at Citizens Bank Park. Each paper's coverage includes the obligatory photo of the Phillie Phanatic watering the grass.

And yesterday Salisbury wrote of catching up with Pat Burrell in Tempe, where the 2003 bust is training at Arizona State. Burrell opted out of a week of hitting in Florida in favor of maintaining his usual off-season routine, a tactic I think is sound. He's chalking up his awful year to simply one-of-those-things, and says he's confident that starting with a clean slate will make everything right again. That may sound blasé, but Burrell seems the kind of guy who can pull it off. He'd better.

It also must be noted that Burrell said all the right things to Salisbury, blaming no one but himself. He also spoke about Phillies fans' unexpectedly positive reactions to his helpless, season-long flailing:

Burrell understood Bowa's frustration. He also understood that the fans were frustrated with him. Still, he remains amazed about -- and appreciative of -- the support he received from the fans when they could have pounded his eardrums with boos.

"I'm sure there were times it was hard to watch," Burrell said. "But these fans were great to me. Ninety percent of the time, I'd be out to lunch and someone would say something nice to me.

"The people have been so good to me. I'd struggle for a week, then get a big hit, and the response would be unbelievable. I think, deep down, they knew how hard I was trying. I was probably trying too hard."

There's also a great nugget in Salisbury's story about Burrell's efforts to discover what went wrong:

Burrell actually started the search for his old self during the second half of the season, in a couple of phone conversations with retired slugger Mark McGwire.

Like Burrell, McGwire had early success in his career. But in his fifth full big-league season, in 1991, he could do little right, hitting .201 with 22 homers and 75 RBIs.

During his first conversation with McGwire, Burrell barely got a word out of his mouth before McGwire began to preach.

"This is going to be the best year of your life," Burrell says McGwire told him. "You're not going to believe all you're going to learn about yourself. You'll be better because of this."

In 1992, McGwire bounced back and hit .268 with 42 homers and 104 RBIs. Burrell believes that he can do the same sort of thing. He believes that he can be a survivor, just like McGwire.

"I have no doubt I'll get it back," he said.

Here's hoping.

Schilling Reax, Part II

You know you've written something provocative when your mom sees fit to weigh in:

I completely agree with the (other) South Jersey Correspondent regarding Brett Myers. In no way, shape, or form should the Phillies give up a 23 year old with the potential for a spectacular career ahead of him in order to get a 37 year old, who spent a good bit of time on the DL this past season, and who is a disruptive force in the clubhouse.

Tell Jason the Yankees can have him. In fact, it would be interesting to see Schilling and Steinbrenner go at it!

I'm not at all comfortable with the thought of parting with Myers. As many have noted, he could well be the next Curt Schilling. If Ed Wade could find a way to swing something while holding on to Myers, Cole Hamels, and Gavin Floyd, I'd be ecstatic. That said, he has to at least consider it. The Phillies are finally at a stage where the focus on winning is now, not at some point in the future, and Schilling would make that more possible, not less.


Just a quick thank-you for the recent nods from other bloggers, and an invitation to check out their sites:

* David Pinto's thoughtful and comprehensive Baseball Musings referenced my thoughts on last week's Curt Schilling interview in the Inquirer.

* Jon Weisman's excellent Dodger Thoughts now includes a link to Shallow Center and a couple of other sites under the heading "Baseball, among other things."

* John's (Not-so-Vast) Right-Wing Conspiracy linked to my recent posts on Schilling and Larry Bowa.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

'Absolutely Insane'?

My thoughts earlier today concerning Curt Schilling brought a couple of e-mail responses.

Shallow Center's South Jersey Correspondent couldn't believe what he was reading:

You are absolutely insane!! If the rumors are true on what the D'backs want, the Phillies cannot do this deal. We need to be positioned to win this year and contend in coming years. If it's true that Arizona wants three major league-ready players in return for Schilling -- one of whom must be Myers -- then that limits the Phillies to the possibility of winning only this year. How can you advocate trading Myers? He's going to be a really good pitcher for a long time, while Schilling will be here for maybe two years, with no guarantee that we would win anything.

Also, isn't it convenient that now that we're spending money, Schilling wants to come back here? I think that speaks quite clearly to his character. If he has so much loyalty to Philadelphia -- as he claims -- why must there be a contract extension? If he really wants to pitch here, he should go to Arizona's GM and tell him -- Garagiola Jr, yes? -- that he must do whatever it takes to get this deal done. He must then tell Ed Wade that he'll do whatever he has to do on his contract to make it work for the Phillies, not for himself. Then, and only then, I will believe him when he says he wants to pitch and win here.

I should have been clearer in my original post that I'd really rather not see the Phillies trade Brett Myers. I really, really like him -- he has the stuff and the makeup to be a very good pitcher for a very long time. I recall that when he was drafted a few years back, quite a few people were comparing him to one Curt Schilling. So, yes, I'd like to see the Phils hold onto him. My thoughts from earlier were meant simply to advocate that Ed Wade explore all avenues in an attempt to lure Schilling to the Phillies.

SCSJC then fired off a follow-up e-mail whose subject was "I forgot the most important point of all!": "The 'man' is nothing if not on thing: a clubhouse cancer. Just ask Scott Rolen, not that I'd listen to anything he had to say." Not having been in the Phillies clubhouse when Schilling was here -- a remark that can also be made of SCSJC -- I cannot venture an estimation of his cancerous qualities. Schilling has always looked out for Schilling, true; but he has also demonstrated an uncommon knack for rising to the occasion, a trait sorely missing in many of the home nine in 2003.

Meanwhile, my pal Jason, a die-hard Yankees fan, checked in with the following:

Completely agree with you about Schilling. Philly has to make this happen -- it makes sense all around. And from a Yankee standpoint, it really makes me mad that Soriano and (especially) Johnson are so close to being traded for yet another aging player. Yeah, Schilling is terrific, but the team needs to get younger, not to mention retain some players who make less than $6 million a year. So I'm rooting for you guys to get Schilling as well.

Jason, I think, raises a good point. The Phillies, a nice blend of veterans and young guys, are on the cusp of the playoffs, a player or two short, while the aging Yankees seem ready to blow it up and start over. It seems to me that a guy like Schilling would be a lot more valuable to the Phils than the Yanks.

Schill Game

Curt Schilling, who's never met a microphone he didn't like, tells the Inquirer's Jim Salisbury today that he'd like to finish his career in Philadelphia. The only problem, of course, is that the former Phillie is still under contract to the Arizona Diamondbacks, to whom the Phils traded him a few years back and whom he helped to win a World Series. The Diamondbacks now are looking to dump salary, and Schilling says he'd accept a trade to either Philadelphia or the Yankees.

For the Phillies, though, there would be significant fiscal and organizational obstacles to acquiring Schilling. He's owed a fair amount of scratch, and the Phils, thanks to the last couple of seasons of spending, have less of that lying around than they used to. Additionally, the D'backs are said to be demanding a lot in return for a trade. (Today's New York Times reports that Arizona is demanding Alphonso Soriano and Nick Johnson for Schilling and Junior Spivey, and that the Yankees are balking at that price.)

In Salisbury's interview, Schilling, as usual, throws everything on the table. But love him or hate him, it's hard to argue with much of what he says:

"If I had to bet, I think the only thing I'd bet on is I probably won't be in a Diamondbacks uniform when the season starts," he said. "I've said it before: If it's impossible for me to finish my career with them, I'd like to do it in Philadelphia, because that's home, and it's comfortable. That team has a chance to win the World Series. There's a new park. I love the fans there. The chance to pitch in that environment would be cool." . . .

Schilling understands the Phillies' situation.

"If the Phillies don't trade for me, it's not because they are cheap," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. The commitment they've made to winning, getting [Jim] Thome, now Wagner, it's certainly a change." . . .

Schilling did this interview while sitting at the kitchen table in his home late Tuesday night. The kids were in bed. His wife quietly watched television. As the pitcher spoke, he alternately scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad and reached down to pet his rottweiler, Patton. (George Steinbrenner will love that name.)

Schilling said he knew his words -- and his desire to return to Philadelphia -- would sound odd because it wasn't that long ago that his frequent questioning of ownership's desire to win led to his trade to Arizona in the first place.

"Except for one year, they sucked while I was there," Schilling said. "There were years we had 14 big-league players on the team. That stuff doesn't fly in that town.

"I didn't beg to get out of Philadelphia. That's taken on a life of its own. It got uncomfortable at the end, and something had to be done. But the strongest statement I made was to Ed Wade when I told him it was OK to deal me.

"I complained about the people who were inactive. I wanted people, top to bottom, to be as committed to winning as I was. Every fifth day, I take the ball and try to kick someone's butt. I expected my teammates to have that attitude, and I expected the front office to provide a team capable of doing that.

"There were some things I shouldn't have said publicly. There were some arguments I shouldn't have had. But the fact of the matter is, for a long time, there wasn't a commitment to winning there."

There is now. And Schilling dreams of being part of it, even if in reality it is just that -- a dream.

"Things come full circle," Schilling said. "Some people off the field might not want me, but not the people on the field.

"The Phillies are doing whatever it takes to get to the World Series. But I still feel they're one piece away. I could be wrong, because I'm certainly biased. I believe the team that gets me is thinking, 'This is the guy we want on the mound winning Game 7 of the World Series for us.'

"We'll see what happens."

Ed Wade absolutely has to find a way to make this happen. Schilling can be an enormous pain in the ass, but his dedication, his approach to the game, and his talent are undeniable. He'd be an improvement over Kevin Millwood, and he would take a more active role than Millwood in tutoring guys like Brett Myers and Randy Wolf. Can you imagine Schilling tanking it the way Millwood did in that late-season loss to Florida?

Three-and-a-half years ago, the Phillies did their own salary dump of Schilling, picking up Travis Lee, Vicente Padilla, Nelson Figueroa, and Omar Daal in return from the Diamondbacks. Only Padilla is still with the team. Lee is one of baseball's biggest wasters of pure talent, Figueroa pitched for his fourth team in four years last season, and Daal sports an 11-year winning percentage of .466 with a 4.29 ERA. It's time for Arizona to return the favor.

Wade already has parted with one prize pitching prospect this off-season in Taylor Buchholz, who was dealt to the Astros in exchange for Billy Wagner. I understand his reluctance to part with Myers, whom the D'backs are said to like; Myers has the look of a stud. But there aren't many Schillings floating around, and the Phillies are no longer rebuilding -- their time to win is now, not in five years. And Schilling would greatly increase their chances.

Plus, watching him and Larry Bowa try to coexist would be absolutely priceless.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Maybe McNabb is Underrated

Do rehab centers allow their patients to watch TV? I sure hope so, because repentant junkie Rush Limbaugh sure needed to see the end of the Eagles-Packers game Monday night.

Uninformed pundits, such as Limbaugh, who choose to measure Donovan McNabb's performance only by his statistics believe that McNabb has been overrated by the media. (Limbaugh, of course, then took this at-least-defensible statement into Bizarro World by saying the overestimation of McNabb exists because the NFL and the national media want a black quarterback to succeed.) What they forget is that he'll do whatever it takes for his team to win -- and that most of the time, it does.

McNabb's dissection of the Green Bay defense in the game-winning drive Monday was a thing of beauty. Playing on a soaked field, gripping a greased pig of a ball, and leading a hardly-formidable offense, he drove the Eagles down the field with surgical precision and hit Todd Pinkston on a short out route for the touchdown that won the game.

The physical play of the drive was impressive enough. But actually watching him carry himself -- and here's where TV has it all over live attendance when it comes to football -- should be enough to convince anyone that McNabb is the real deal. While Al Michaels and John Madden were frothing at the mouth in their insistence that he manage the clock better, McNabb was cool and unhurried. You could almost see the game slow down to meet him -- he rushed nothing, displayed absolutely no signs of panic, and in the end left Brett Favre and the Packer offense with less than 30 seconds to make their own last-ditch effort.

McNabb's performance in that final drive, which has been criminally underreported (only today's Daily News has mentioned it over the last two days, and it's buried), was Elway-like. It was reflective of true football leadership. It exposes the weakness of quarterback ratings and other stats. And it's why we Eagles fans hope to hell that Andy Reid finds him some real receivers someday -- imagine the possibilities.

Wading Into the GMs' Meetings

Both Philadelphia dailies have stories today on the baseball general managers' meetings in Phoenix this week, and once again the Inquirer trumps the Daily News. Each paper talks with Phillies GM Ed Wade, who says he'll be waiting and seeing how the free agent market shakes out before moving to acquire more pitching help. But while the DN's Marcus Hayes files a ho-hum story from here, the Inky's Jim Salisbury is in Arizona and includes much more news in his piece. Salisbury reports that Wade talked with Tom Gordon's agent and also may be interested in the Indians' Danys Baez. The story also has comments from Scott Boras, Kevin Millwood's agent, who continues to insist that Millwood hasn't ruled out returning to the Phils, especially now that the team has a real closer.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Dude, Where's My Seat?

Last year, jacked by the Thome/Bell/Millwood acquisitions, Shallow Center's South Jersey Correspondent and I ponied up for a pair of ducats on the Phils' 16-game season ticket plan. Despite the team's failure to make the playoffs, we still had a great time ringing out the Vet and anticipating the arrival of Citizens Bank Park.

Well, both papers report today (Inquirer; Daily News) that we'll know by next week where our new seats are. SCSJC and I dutifully filled out our questionnaire over the summer, calculated where we could afford to sit, and crossed our fingers that it'll be someplace good. Soon we'll know.

The team began running radio and TV ads yesterday for CBP season tickets. The slogan is "Real intimate, real fun, real grass," and the commercial I saw featured a host of Phillies bursting in on business meetings, walking down an office hallway, and popping up in other business situations, all to slap the same poor, clueless guy in the ass, ballplayers-style. One of the Phils is, yes, Jim Thome, who surely must have had better things to do than film a commercial, yet again put the team -- the organization, really -- ahead of himself, like the class act that he is. For the thousandth time, thank you, Cleveland, for this guy.

Duck's Worth

Paul Hagen of the Daily News catches up with new Astro Brandon Duckworth, who admits in a phone interview from his Utah home that he was "taken aback" by his trade from the Phillies so soon after the season ended. Duckworth's claim of disbelief is a bit hard to take; after all, as Hagen notes, Duckworth pitched himself out of the rotation in each of the last two seasons.

Still, he takes the high road, saying the Phils gave him his first shot. And while making the usual noises about being excited to go somewhere with a fresh chance, Duckworth offers a very revealing answer to Hagen's question about whether there's "a strong enough support system in place for a talented young pitcher going through a crisis of confidence": " 'That's a tough one to answer,' he said. 'There was some support there. It was the first time I'd really struggled and there was some support there. I do know that a lot of people were trying to help me.' "

At age 27, Duckworth shouldn't need that much handholding. But his reply to Hagen's query offers another piece of evidence to support an argument of mine: that Larry Bowa is an effective handler of his pitchers.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Crank Yanking

The Baseball Crank checks in with a late analysis of the Billy Wagner trade, saying he "has to help [the Phillies'] bullpen." However, the Crank cautions, "the victory will be Pyhrric if they can't re-sign Millwood." Well, not really. As noted here before, I'm fine with letting Millwood walk; the kind of scratch he's seeking can be better spent elsewhere.

Millwood was exactly the stud we hoped he'd be in the season's first half, even mixing in a no-no to boot, but fell apart in the latter half of the year. Scott Boras, his agent, will shop him hard, and probably will land him somewhere, at a huge cost -- that's what Boras does, after all. Millwood's new team then will cross their fingers and pray that he's a legit No. 1. Millwood never was that kind of guy with the Braves, and he wasn't one with the Phils. He's a good pitcher, but until he shows me a Maddux/Schilling/Clemens level of domination, I don't think he should be paid as such.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Boston Tito Party?

Former Phillies manager Terry Francona interviewed for the Boston manager's job yesterday, and the Associated Press reported he "came away from the meeting enthusiastic about the chance to manage the Red Sox." In fact, it sounds as Francona has done everything except buy full-page ads in the Boston Globe that scream "PLEASE HIRE ME!"

As AP's story points out, Francona's four-year tenure in Philadelphia included not one winning seasons. He came to the Phils during the beginning of a rebuilding campaign, and left under criticism for not being hard enough on players who were dogging it. (See Abreu, Bobby.) The need to counteract his laxity was a major factor in the hiring of hard-ass extraordinaire Larry Bowa. Francona seems like a good guy, but one wonders what he'd do the first time Manny Ramirez loafed after a base hit in left.

Francona never was given the tools to win here, and was cashiered too soon to enjoy managing with players who could compete. Still, he's diplomatic about his time in Philadelphia, saying, ""I was very young. I was learning kind of on the run. I had a goal back then to be a major league manager. Now I have a goal to be a successful major league manager. I think it can be done." Uh, Terry? Your goal should be success wherever you are, regardless of your age.

(Pop-culture aside: Could anyone else play Francona except the guy who's Charlotte's husband on Sex and the City?)

Red Zone

Monday, April 12, will mark the regular-season opening of Citizens Bank Park. The Cincinnati Reds, professional baseball's oldest franchise, will be the opponent. These and other schedule details are reported today in the Inquirer and Daily News, with the Inky again providing the more extensive coverage.

In other news, a backhoe operator working on Citizens Bank Park may have found Pat Burrell's lost mojo yesterday. Guess there was no need to send Burrell to Clearwater for extra instruction after all. . . .

Elsewhere locally, Bill Conlin tacitly acknowledges my point Tuesday that his column analyzing the Billy Wagner trade was a bit of a mess. In his "When I'm King of World. . ." piece today, Conlin writes:

I'm only going to say this once. In answer to e-mailers asking if I really like the Phillies' acquisition of closer Billy Wagner: Yes! I'd do it every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Some readers apparently misunderstood about my comment that the Phillies went high in parting with righthanded pitching prospects Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio. Hey, to get Billy Wagner, they had to go high and should have gone high. Yeah, I would have parted with Gavin Floyd (but not Cole Hamels) had the Astros insisted. No way a kid 2 or 3 years away would break the deal. These are, after all, the Phillies, an organization whose system has produced three 20-game winners since 1947. Of that trio, Fergie Jenkins did his winning elsewhere and Chris Short did it once. Only Robin Roberts made a habit of it. The fear that a Taylor Buchholz or Zeke Astacio was going to reverse 56 years of grim pitching history defines lottery odds. . . .

Conlin's point is well taken. Even if Buchholz is a fixture at Minute Maid Park for the next 10 years, the Phillies had to make this deal. What was so impressive -- and surprising -- about it was that it's something real ballclubs do. As with the Jim Thome and David Bell signings, as with renting Kevin Millwood for a year, the Phils are finally reversing two decades of uninspiring, patchwork, and patently futile attempts to build a competitive team on the cheap. It's a delightful process to watch and be part of. And it's about damn time.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Wait and See

The Inquirer relegates Todd Zolecki's no-real-news follow-up to the Billy Wagner trade to page 3 of today's sports section. According to Zolecki's brief story, Ed Wade will "see how the free-agent market plays out in the coming months" as he pursues another starter and some bullpen arms. Additionally, the Phillies' GM doesn't expect to make any moves related to the team's starting position players.

Nationally,'s Jayson Stark (formerly the Inky's national baseball writer) acknowledges the difficulty in landing a legitimate No. 1 starter, but says the Phillies deserve lots of praise for solving their biggest problem. He quotes one scout who feels that had the Phils had Wagner in 2003, they, not the Marlins, would have captured the National League wild card. ". . . No matter what happens on those other fronts, the Phillies' offseason is already a success," Stark writes. "A week ago, they needed a closer more than David Wells needed a salad bar. Now, one stunning trade later, they've guaranteed themselves of at least one full season of not having to watch their manager spend every ninth inning turning redder than his cap."

Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci calls the Wagner deal "a good trade for Philadelphia," but warns that the closer's hefty contract may prevent the acquisition of "the experienced starting pitcher and two set-up men they need." Verducci also worries that the Astros may have overused Wagner last season, as the A's burned out Billy Koch in 2002.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

The Expectations Game

My day job is in public relations, and an underappreciated aspect of that field is the management of expectations. Ed Wade and the rest of the Phillies' front office sure have been paying attention, though.

Almost since the season ended, the local baseball writers -- and fans -- have written off Kevin Millwood as departed after one year and speculated on whom the Phillies might target to replace him. Yet Wade has consistently attempted to dampen that talk, saying the team may sign or trade for a No. 2 starter or even a No. 3. If recent stories on the team's postseason needs and happenings are any indication, Wade's tap-dancing appears to have paid off.

All of the coverage of the Wagner trade, for example, has dutifully noted that landing a closer, not a starter, was the Phils' top priority, and that Wagner was the guy at the top of that list. By comparing the southpaw to Jim Thome -- that is, by identifying him as the player to pursue in the off-season -- Wade gives himself an out if he's unable to find a new No. 1 starter.

Jim Salisbury swallows the bait, writing, "At the moment, it doesn't look as if they'll get a premium No. 1 type, unless Arizona dramatically lowers its asking price for Curt Schilling. You have to wonder whether the Phillies have enough to get Javier Vazquez from Montreal, if he becomes available." Only Bill Conlin, savvy enough to know better, calls on Wade to supplement the Wagner trade with a top-shelf hurler. Referring to the kind of prospects the Phillies had to give up for Wagner, Conlin notes: "They might have to part with a few more gold nuggets to acquire the No. 1 starter that has replaced closer as their biggest need."

The PR guy in me admires Wade for attempting to manage expectations. But the Phillies fan in me, while thrilled beyond belief at the much-needed Wagner acquisition, worries about a team with no proven stopper.

The Media Weigh In

Just as they did last year, the Phillies have managed to steal the local sports spotlight from the Eagles, Sixers, and Flyers -- no mean feat in a nonplayoff year. The Billy Wagner trade gets lots of play in today's Inquirer and Daily News, including the latter paper's back cover.

Besides the straight news stories (Inky here, DN here), the papers carry three columns and a couple of sidebars.

In the News, Sam Donnellon notes the deal reflects the impressive investment the Phils have made in their farm system and compares it to the kind of trade the Yankees and Braves typically make. He also reflects on previous complaints, Donnellon's included, that the Phillies have failed to compete in meaningful ways when it comes to targeting good player and paying them adequately. "Yesterday was another resounding in-your-face to such doubt," he writes.

Bill Conlin is a bit uneasy about parting with Taylor Buchholz, whom he holds in higher regard than untouchable prospect Gavin Floyd. Still, in his rambling piece, Conlin praises GM Ed Wade for being "aware of the new realities of baseball economics" and "well-positioned to operate in a bottom line-based environment in which most ballclubs desperately need to lop millions from their gluttonous payrolls."

In the Inquirer, Jim Salisbury interviews three anonymous scouts who confirm Wagner's elite status among National League closers. "Like the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers, the Phillies finally have a closer who will make other teams feel defeated when the bullpen door swings open," Salisbury writes. "Amazing. The Phillies went from not having a closer for the final two months of the 2003 season -- a flaw that might have cost them the National League wild card -- to having one of the best."

Monday, November 03, 2003

The Players to Be Named

Besides Brandon Duckworth, the Phillies gave up minor leaguers Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio to obtain Billy Wagner, according at a brief story posted recently on the Inquirer/Daily News Web site.

You'll hear the words "change of scenery" wafting up hopefully from Houston between now and Opening Day as Astros fans try to convince themselves that all the 27-year-old Duckworth needs is a new place to pitch. But the real key to the deal is Buchholz, a 22-year-old on whom the Phillies have been high for a while. He spent last season at Double-A Reading, where he went 9-11 with a 3.55 ERA. Astacio turns 24 tomorrow; he was 15-5, 3.29 at Single-A Clearwater.

Buchholz is the kind of guy Ed Wade wouldn't part with in order to rent a player as the trading deadline approached. I would have preferred to see the Phillies be bolder than they were last July, but Wade has moved swiftly and surely again this off-season. In Wagner the Phils get a proven, top-shelf closer, which to me is worth the risk that Duckworth will rediscover his mojo or that Buchholz will continue to blossom into a good big league starter.

Billy, Don't Lose My Lead

It appears that Ed Wade is again dropping off early Christmas presents for the Phillies faithful. Peter Gammons is reporting that Wade has obtained closer Billy Wagner from the Astros today for Brandon Duckworth and players to be named. A 1 p.m. news conference is scheduled.

Despite a relatively small stature, Wagner is the kind of flame-throwing, lights-out closer that Jose Mesa never was here, even in his best days. Forty-four saves, an ERA under 2.00, 105 whiffs (against only 23 walks) in 86 innings pitched this season -- this guy is the real deal.

In a September 14 New York Times Magazine piece on fastball pitchers, Pat Jordan caught up with Wagner in Houston, where he closed out a win over the Cubs. "In one inning and a third, Wagner threw 11 fastballs," Jordan wrote. "One was timed at 98 m.p.h., eight were timed at 99 m.p.h. and two were timed at 100 m.p.h. No one murdered Billy Wagner's fastball." Additionally, Jordan's article frames Wagner as a grounded, regular guy, an attentive father to two young sons; one can't imagine him cursing out and shoving an Inquirer reporter who deigns to ask him about the save he just blew. (The Times story is too old to link to; sorry.)

Losing Duckworth, a demoted No. 5 starter who never fulfilled the promise he showed early in his career, is not a big deal. We'll need to see the names of the players to be named to determine exactly how big a price the Phillies paid. But for now, Merry Christmas, fans. And thank you, Santa Ed.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Tubular: Fox Follies

If you watched even half an inning of Fox's coverage of the baseball playoffs, you learned all you needed to know to wade into the second season of The O.C., a kind of 90210 updated for the '00s. Bad boy Ryan casts smoldering, Russell Crowe-like glances as smoking-hot Marisa, who's too busy dealing with her psycho mom to do anything about. Concerned foster parents Sandy and Kirsten act all righteous but still manage a little action of their own. The entire cast has undergone genetic enhancement to produce a race of perfect-looking people the likes of which never hung around my high school, nor yours, I'd wager. Even the show's token dork, Seth, is a good-looking kid.

Emily Nussbaum, writing in today's New York Times, argues that The O.C.'s parent characters are more interesting than the teens whose trials and tribulations are chronicled with such delightful cheesiness. According to Nussbaum, this marks a departure from the usual teen soap, such as Fox's own Beverly Hills, 90210, that presents cardboard-cutout adults who are either bumbling do-gooders or dysfunctional freaks. She writes:

". . . If into each teen show a little parental melodrama must fall, the parents in question have generally been presented from what might be a teen's-eye view: as worrywarts, embarrassments, flashy disappointments -- at best wholesome dorks, at worst walking explanations for their offspring's angst. The more gloriously trashy the teen show, the more likely the parents are to be as thin as paper. In a kind of narrative jujitsu, a cartoonish set of parents can cunningly make the most cartoonish main characters look comparatively sane and well-mannered."

Citing My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, and Once and Again, Nussbaum offers the flip side: that well executed programs ostensibly about teenage life present adult characters with far more depth -- as, like, real people, and stuff. Then again, I'll be surprised if my life is half as interesting as the dads on those shows when my daughter reaches her teen years.

Elsewhere in the land of Fox, each week brings new stories about how the network's executives are shaking their heads at the in-the-tank ratings of its heavily promoted Skin and Joe Millionaire. To me, the shows' lax viewerships confirm that while TV watchers may have low standards, while they may not recognize quality stuff when they see it, they certainly recognize crap for what it is, and can't be fooled into thinking it's something else.

Joe Millionaire's new faux rich guy, the Woody Boyd-ish David, is simply too stupid to pull off the scam. It seems only a matter of time before one of the European marks asks him flat-out if he really has that much scratch and, caught in the lie, he can do nothing except holler, "Look at that!" and then run away while his date's attention is distracted. As for Skin, what did Fox expect? They're running a show about a porn king on a broadcast network -- a place where they can't really show, you know, porn. They play up the sleaze angle -- all together now, imitate the Fox promo announcer: "Then, on Jerry Bruckheimer's Skiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. . . ." -- when they know they can't deliver on it. And viewers know it, too.

It's enough to make you long for Melrose Place. . . .