Friday, February 27, 2004

One of These Sarahs is Not Like the Other | The record got virtually no mainstream airplay, but when Sarah Harmer's You Were Here hit critics' headphones in 2000, the verdict was nearly unanimous: Here was a startlingly accomplished debut record, chock full of wonderfully narrative songs and spiced with a musical bite one rarely hears from introspective singer-songwriters. After hearing a few of Harmer's tunes on WXPN, I bought the CD on the considerable strength of what passed as its lead single, "Basement Apartment." Like all those critics, I fell, and hard, for You Were Here, a welcome respite from the boring, synthetic Britney soundalikes on one end of the female musical spectrum and the precious, sleepy Jewel types on the other.

Who'd have thought that I'd be more excited about Harmer's follow-up than the new record by fellow attractive Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan? All of Our Names hits stores next month, and I heard the new single, "Almost," earlier this week on, God bless it, 'XPN. I'll need to hear it a few times more to really have a feel for it, but on first listen it sounds pleasant enough. Can't wait to hear the rest of the record.

Damage Control | Larry Bowa professes in both papers today (Inquirer; Daily News) to be an old-school baseball guy who can't understand why he's perceived as a Captain Queeg in cleats and a warmup jacket, then announces he's simply not going to worry anymore about his portrayal in the media. From Todd Zolecki's story:

"What do I have to prove to people?" he said. "That I care about my players? I don't understand that. That's why I'm talking about perception. What do I have to prove to people? I had to prove myself for 16 years in the big leagues because nobody thought I could play. I did that every year. Why do I have to prove to people that I'm a human being? That I'm not [somebody] that goes around with a whip and slashes people around the neck every day? I don't understand that."

If I could hazard a guess on behalf of the scribes and talking heads: What you have to prove, Larry, is that you can win. Your managerial career has consisted of a completely predictable flameout with a very bad San Diego Padres team, a nice but hardly overwhelming turnaround in Philadelphia, and an underachieving season in which you didn't make the playoffs despite a talented roster.

As his his style, the Daily News's Rich Hofmann, writing today about the Phillies' September collapse, kind of skates around the Bowa issue. He subtly indicts the manager by pinning the blame not on the much-maligned bullpen, whose well documented failures led to the blockbuster acquisition of Billy Wagner last November, but on mental pressure:

"Our starting pitching, from about Aug. 16 on, it seemed like they all hit a wall together," Bowa said. "[Vicente] Padilla pitched the best, but a couple of them -- [Kevin] Millwood and [Randy] Wolf, in particular -- I think they were just trying too hard. They tried to go the extra mile, tried to throw shutouts, put a lot of extra pressure on themselves. It's hard to pitch like that. Sometimes when you try too hard, it backfires on you."

Because of what? Why the wall? Millwood was quoted in the Daily News this week as saying he was mentally tired from having to help some of the pitchers on the staff get mentally prepared down the stretch, the implication being that he felt the need to be a buffer between those pitchers and Bowa and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. Bowa objected to that characterization yesterday, loudly.

"A bleeping lie," he said, more than once. But if not that, then why did they hit that wall?

Well, now, that's a good question, and one that's been addressed here previously. For all of Bowa's newfound carefree attitude when it comes to public perception, his thoughts yesterday sound to me like those of a guy desperate to have people believe that he's an okay guy. But facts are facts -- the Phils' hitters squeezed the bat too tight last September, their starters were completely spent, and a playoff spot that was theirs for the taking slipped to a rollicking, rampaging Marlins squad that was having the time of its life and rode the good times all the way to a World Series championship. If Bowa really wants to come across as having a clue, he should acknowledge that expectations are higher this year and that he's willing to do whatever it takes -- even alter how he approaches the season. It's far more reasonable for one manager who hasn't won a damn thing to offer to change his ways than to expect 25 mostly veteran players whose talent is widely acknowledged to bend according to the manager's will.

Get 'Real' | Look for angst and self-involvement levels in Philadelphia to be off the charts this spring. That's right, seven strangers, etc., etc., etc., will begin bunking together in Old City in a few months. Bring on the pixellation!

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Fingering Wagner | The Phillies' first injury of spring training is an inflamed middle finger on new closer Billy Wagner's throwing hand. An MRI turned up no structural damage to the finger, and Wagner will sit out for a week to allow the swelling and pain to subside. According to news reports, he tried to spin the news positively:

"It's good timing," Wagner said. "You have to look at the overall well-being of the team. We have guys like [Tim] Worrell and [Rheal] Cormier in the bullpen to pick me up. If Billy Wagner is out, it's not the end of the season."

Yeah, yeah, I know that when the Phils picked up Worrell and Roberto Hernandez, they made a big deal out of having guys who could step in if Wagner went down. But it's no secret that they're counting on Wagner to be The Man -- without him, they're back to the scuffling, who-do-we-use-now? days of last September. Let's hope that a splint and some Advil have Wagner back on the mound and throwing fireballs in no time. (It also would be nice for him not to refer to himself in the third person.)

Monday, February 23, 2004

Laying it Down | Clearly, Shallow Center's deputy South Jersey correspondent, known colloquially as Mom, is a woman at the forefront of public opinion. Several days after she gnashed her teeth at the prospect of a team having to teach multimillionaires how to bunt, Baseball Musings' David Pinto and new Phillies blogger John Yuda (welcome to the Show, John) express dismay at a report on the Phillies' Web site that coach Milt Thompson is sharing his bunting expertise with the staff.

From Pinto this morning:

I'm not a big proponent of the bunt in general, but it is the one offensive contribution pitchers can make. Why is this issue just being addressed now? Clearly, if pitchers weren't good at laying down bunts, something should have been done in the middle of last season. It shouldn't be that difficult to teach a professional ballplayer how to bunt.

And this from Yuda, also this a.m.:

I have no problem with pitchers sacrificing their outs, they generally aren't good hitters to begin with, and they were terrible at it last season.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to ask Mom what lottery numbers I should play tonight.

Pitcher/Peacemaker | While the city dailies check in from Clearwater with similar notes columns today, they diverge sharply when it comes to their feature stories. The Inquirer takes a moderately interesting look at the Phils' having two lefthanded starters (Randy Wolf and Eric Milton) for the first time since the painful Wolf/Bruce Chen/Omar Daal rotation of 2001. Raising more eyebrows is the Daily News's chat with Kevin Millwood, whose candid appraisal of his second-half fade last season includes this doozy:

"My biggest thing," Millwood said, "was, by September, I was mentally tired."

Playing big brother cost him energy and focus, especially as other members of the staff -- especially protege Brett Myers -- mirrored Millwood's second-half spiral. Millwood was 1-3 with a 5.94 earned run average during the Phillies' fateful September fade. In part, he said, it was because he had to be counselor for a staff whose relationship with manager Larry Bowa and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan deteriorated as the season progressed.

"I think that affected me," Millwood said. "I worried more about helping somebody else get mentally prepared rather than helping myself. This year, I'll concentrate on helping myself when I'm down."

Um, did I read that right? Did the staff's No. 1 starter say that he was distracted by having to act as a buffer between the pitchers and the team's manager and pitching coach? In a word, this is unacceptable. If Bowa and Kerrigan can't conduct themselves professionally enough to allow all of their pitchers to do their jobs without having to worry about anything except what happens between the lines, the Phils are in trouble. I respect that reasonable people can disagree, but if the staff is having problems with both Bowa and Kerrigan, it may be time to take a good, hard look at dugout management.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Hawks 76, Owls 53 | Early in the second half of Saint Joseph's game with Temple at the Palestra yesterday, a couple of Owl fans behind us began saying to each other, "They afraid to go inside!" These guys were referring to the Hawks' being content to play bombs-away from the outside, as is their style. Sure, occasionally the ball would find its way inside to center Dwayne Jones, or Delonte West would go slashing through the lane, but more often than not St. Joe's whipped the ball around the perimeter until it found an open guy, who'd launch a usually successful three-point attempt. Then the Hawks would D it up with their usual manic intensity, forcing a bad shot or a turnover, and point guard extraordinaire Jameer Nelson would bring the ball back up the court and proceed to run the offense with the virtuosity and precision of a Swiss watchmaker.

That formula -- ferocious defense, deadly outside shooting, and an unflappable demeanor -- has thus far spelled an undefeated season and a No. 2 ranking in the national polls for the Hawks. So there was really no reason to try to force the basketball inside. Afraid? Maybe, but only in the sense that Leonardo was afraid to paint in watercolors. When you find something that works, you stick with it.

The result yesterday was a 23-point pasting of the Owls, who played gamely but were completely overmatched. Saint Joseph's simply is operating at a different level than the rest of the Atlantic 10 Conference during this wonderful, special season. Besides their considerable physical skills, the Hawks are playing with extraordinary basketball sense and poise. Earlier in the week, Temple assistant coach Mark Macon, a star in his playing days, had inexplicably talked trash about St. Joe's and West; yesterday, West let his play do the talking in response.

By far the best part of being at the Palestra for yesterday's contest was the company -- I had the great fortune to be joined by my wife, my brothers (Boats Against the Current and There It Is), and their significant others (one wife, one girlfriend). Four rows off the baseline, we watched one of the nation's finest teams perform at a level equal to that of the game's most stories programs. The guys behind us were impressed that Temple was able to hang on for the first 10 minutes or so, but by halftime this one was over, one more victory in a season bursting with them. Hoopheads will be talking about the 2004 Hawks for decades to come, and for good reason. This is a team for the ages, and I feel fortunate to have been able to see them live so much, and to have the missus, my brothers, and their ladies join us yesterday.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Numbers vs. 'Nuts and Bolts' | Surf through the baseball blogosphere, and you'll find a ton of compelling writing by really smart folks who rely strongly on statistical measures to advance their cause. When the Dodgers got roasted by the Los Angeles media for hiring 31-year-old Billy Beane acolyte Paul DePodesta, it was the bloggers who came to the team's defense. To columnists who just couldn't get past DePodesta's age and lack of hard baseball experience, they pointed to the success of Oakland's Beane, Boston's Theo Epstein, and up-and-coming Toronto's J.P. Ricciardi, all of whom are converts to the Church of Sabermetrics.

I don't do a whole lot with stats, but it's not because I don't respect their power to predict performance. I just prefer that writing -- mine, especially -- not stumble over numbers and tables embedded among the prose. But while I find the approach less compelling as a reader and a writer, after reading Moneyball I can see why the approach is gaining so much steam.

In the meantime, really bright baseball guys like the Phillies' Mike Arbuckle are left behind when teams open GM searches. The Daily News's Paul Hagen files a story today examining the current situation of a guy who just a few years ago was "a hot name":

DePodesta is 31 years old and graduated from Harvard. Arbuckle is 53 and got his undergraduate degree at Northwest Missouri State and a master's at South Alabama. DePodesta relies on stats and computer printouts. Arbuckle has a wealth of hands-on experience gleaned from being a lefthanded pitcher who didn't sign after being drafted out of high school by the Cardinals, had his playing career end when he tore a rotator cuff and went on to coach at the high school, junior college and college levels. He broke into pro baseball as an associate scout for the Phillies in 1979.

In other words, Arbuckle isn't likely to be swayed by the flavor of the month.

"Individuals aside, I'm not sure the approach being taken by clubs [in hiring general managers] will prove to be a magic bullet over a 4- or 5-year period," he said. "I think at some point we'll come back to a nuts-and-bolts approach. Right now everyone thinks Oakland is the right way. That's just the lay of the land right now."

I'm so unqualified to say what makes a successful general manager, it's laughable. But the paucity of interest in Arbuckle is, given his notable achievements in rebuilding a farm system that was among the most barren in baseball. Whether Beane Ball is here to stay or not, Arbuckle has done a laudable job helping to put his team in position to win, and why that's not considered by owners who have openings in their front office is a mystery to me.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Now is the Time | Even if the Phillies weren't about to enter the season well-stocked with a balanced lineup, impressive pitching, and veteran leadership. . . .

Even if the Phillies weren't about to unveil the glittering jewel that Citizens Bank Park looks to be. . . .

Even if the Phillies finally look and act like a real Major League Baseball team instead of the Major League Cleveland Indians team assembled with the express purpose of losing so that Rachel Phelps could move the club to Florida. . . .

Even if the Phillies were about to embark on one of their vintage 90-loss seasons populated by major league has-beens and minor league never-should-have-beens. . . .

Even if all of the above were true, there would still be something worth savoring about today, the opening of spring training, the magical day when pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater.

It's not about everyone starting the season in first place and each team firmly believing that the pennant is well within its grasp. No, there have been plenty of years when we all knew the Phils would be lucky to play their way out of the N.L. East basement. This is about having a tangible sign that longer days and warmer nights are on the way. That the bourbon-smooth voice of Harry Kalas soon will come drifting comfortably out of my car speakers. That daily boxscores are on the verge of being at my fingertips once again. That very shortly, I'll be sitting outside on a beautiful summer afternoon, talking about my favorite sport with complete strangers while sipping a beer or two while Jim Thome blasts rockets into the rightfield stands.

Yes, the beginning of spring training is one of the year's very special days. When you throw into the mix that the Phils are walking around the Gulf Coast of Florida wearing t-shirts that say "Now is the Time," well, what can you say but: Play ball!

A New Way to Say, "You Suck" | Thanks to the good folks at HaloScan, Shallow Center now includes commenting capability. So fire at will.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

The State of the Game | The opening of spring training impels "Middie Back!" to lob a hand grenade at Major League Baseball and what he sees as poor leadership, ruinous financial disparity, and a damaging drug scandal. "I think baseball is on life support," he writes," and the country is discussing pulling the plug."

Likewise, in the wake of the Alex Rodriguez trade, the Daily News's Bill Conlin can do little more than shake his head and lament the increasing influence of evil-agent poster boy Scott Boras, whose fingerprints were all over the deal and who, Conlin says, "now runs the Yankees":

When Boras svengalied Tom Hicks, the cable TV mogul who owns the Rangers, into the $252 million contract that took major league baseball right to the penthouse of the funny farm, I wrote this:

"It is a fraud franchise that couldn't empty a boot filled with hot Dr Pepper if the instructions were written on the heel. And don't think the Rangers haven't collected some pretty good ballplayers while never winning a pennant in their miserable existence: Nolan Ryan, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Kevin Brown and Will Clark, to name a few.''

From the reaction that column stirred, you'd have thought I scrawled graffiti on the Alamo or impugned Dubya's National Guard record. Well, can I hear you now? . . .

What I do hear are gasps of disbelief provoked by this mind-boggling contradiction where the rich get richer and poorer at the same time.

And if you have a feeling of witnessing something more rare than a total eclipse of the sun or A.I. showing up early for 10 straight practices, you are responding to the tug of history.

Both Conlin and Shawn make good points, but I'm more inclined to share the view of the Inquirer's Phil Sheridan, whose column today reminds everyone that the Yankees have guaranteed themselves nothing by dealing for Rodriguez:

[T]he Mariners went from a 91-win season with Rodriguez to a 116-win season the year after he left.

The Rangers finished last in their division in each of the three years since they "bought a championship" by signing the "best player in baseball." If anything, their troubles and ultimate decision to unload Rodriguez should prove that splashy contracts don't translate into wins. . . .

The point is, you don't begin to know how these things are going to play out. The last few years, there has been much hand-wringing and hair-pulling because the Washington Redskins outspent the Eagles each off-season and would surely take control of the NFC East. Hasn't happened.

In hockey, the Flyers are among the deep-pocketed teams, able to acquire almost any player they need to fill a hole. They haven't won a Stanley Cup since Gerald Ford was president.

And everyone who had the Marlins winning it all back in spring training of 2003, please raise your hands. All except you, Steve Bartman. Keep your hands in your pockets, please.

The Yankees haven't won a World Series since 2000, which isn't exactly forever ago. But the team that went on the late-'90s run of dominance was balanced and had the right chemistry, as likely to get a big hit from Scott Brosius as from Derek Jeter.

Adding A-Rod makes the Yankees more expensive and more talented, but it doesn't necessarily make them champions. Ask the Marlins.

Meanwhile, Shallow Center's deputy South Jersey correspondent, known colloquially as Mom, brings it old-school in response to yesterday's post on the Phillies' need to improve in certain areas:

One funny -- I thought that you were taught how to bunt in little league. I also thought that you were taught how to run the bases. At least I remember you learning how to do these things during your little league years.

Two funny -- but why does anyone who is making millions to play a game that most of the males in my family would have paid to be able to play need "external motivation"?

Mom's right, of course. Just don't get her started on earrings on ballplayers.

One More Day | The day before pitchers and catchers report, the city dailies check in with pieces (Inquirer; Daily News) on Jim Thome's enthusiasm over the Phillies' off-season moves and his excitement to get the season underway. Todd Zolecki and Marcus Hayes both note that his mother's diagnosis of lung cancer in October has caused Thome to quit chewing tobacco. Other than that, the big man apparently considers his 2003 a smashing success, with the notable exception of the Phils' failure to make the playoffs:

"Last year was a really busy year," he said. "But this winter we sat back and said, 'Wow, what a great decision. What a great move.' You look and see what the team has done this winter. It's great. When I signed they said they were going to do what they've done. Now it's up to us to get it done out there."

Thome looks at the Phillies lineup and sees no holes. He looks at the pitchers the Phillies brought in -- Billy Wagner, Eric Milton, Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez -- and sees a tough rotation and an even tougher bullpen.

Like the T-shirt Larry Bowa wore yesterday: "Now Is The Time."

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

When Life Imitates 'The Onion' | One of the unheralded joys of working at a newspaper is watching stories move over the wire and laughing at the awkward way in which wire service writers and editors try to demonstrate their grasp of popular culture. This Reuters piece, for example, posted on, includes the painful headline "Polaroid warns buyers not to 'Shake It'":

OutKast fans like to "shake it like a Polaroid picture," but the instant camera maker is warning consumers that taking the advice of the hip-hop stars could ruin your snapshots.

OutKast's number one hit "Hey Ya" includes the "shake it" line as a reference to the motion that amateur photographers use to help along the self-developing film.

But in the "answers" section on the Polaroid Web site, the company says that shaking photos, which once helped them to dry, is not necessary since the modern version of Polaroid film dries behind a clear plastic window.

Bear in mind, this is a song that has been played and played and played on about a zillion radio stations for months now. Reuters only just figured out that it might be able to squeeze a story out of the song by checking Polaroid's Web site? Regardless, I'd have killed to be in the room when the copy editor on that story searched frantically for the correct spelling of "OutKast."

Two More Days | Larry Bowa and Pat Burrell aren't the only ones to check into spring training early for the Phillies. The Inquirer's Todd Zolecki is in Clearwater and files a story reporting that Bowa, predictably, is itching to get going. The Phils' skipper acknowledges to Zolecki that his veteran, talented squad should need less external motivation than the Terry Francona-led sleepwalkers he inherited in 2001. But he still has goals: fewer strikeouts and better bunting by his hitters, fewer stolen bases by the opponents' runners, and better baserunning by his own squad. And in a fascinating aside, Bowa professes not to understand why so many think he'll be behind the eight ball this season:

Many people expect the Phillies to finally snap Atlanta's stranglehold on the National League East, and many of those same people agree the Phillies have as good a chance as anybody to reach the World Series.

That's why Bowa has been tabbed as one of those big-league managers to watch, one of those managers that must win this year.

"I don't know where people get that from," said Bowa, shaking his head. "There's no pressure on me. Not at all. I try to win every game I play. I don't care if I'm playing Reading or Atlanta."

In this case Bowa is either stupid or stubborn. The Phillies' roster is the very best collection of players he's ever been given to manage. More importantly, many, many people who know a lot more about baseball than I do say that that roster is good enough to compete for the pennant. If the team stumbles, Bowa, like it or not, is going to get the lion's share of fingers pointed at him first and foremost. If he's denying this before spring training even starts, what's he going to say in July if the Phils are six games out?

Monday, February 16, 2004

Keeping the Peace | This is old news by this point, but bears noting regardless: By signing Kevin Millwood and Placido Polanco to contracts last week, the Phillies once again have enjoyed an arbitration-free off-season. DugoutDollars has the positive financial impact of the signings, but to me the more important aspect of the deals is the team's ability to preserve good relations with a couple of players they'd like to have around for a while. I've never much understood why teams go to arbitration, tell the arbiter all of the reasons their players don't deserve the kind of money they're asking for, and then think those players won't remember all of the negative comments when it's time to negotiate contracts with them the next year. To Ed Wade's credit, the Phils have largely been able to avoid the acrimony created by publicly declaring their employees' shortfalls.

Eh-Rod | Try as I might, I just can't seem to get all worked up about the Yankees' trade for Alex Rodriguez. I think I'm supposed to be outraged or surprised or enthusiastic or some combination, but mostly what I feel is a kind of expected resignation about the whole thing. The bloodsport in which New York and the Red Sox are engaged feels somehow separate from the rest of the game, and with each escalation, the "They did what?!" factor decreases. Peter Gammons is the annual winner of the Best-Known Sports Columnist in Need of an Editor Award, but I think he gets it right in a piece filed today on

Fairness is not the issue because the rules are the rules. When the Red Sox worked their deals with Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, they did what the Blue Jays or the Indians or the Padres couldn't afford to do. Just as what the Yankees did to get Alex Rodriguez was something only they could afford. That's just the way it is, good old-fashioned Republican baseball, and six strikes haven't changed the fact that the Yankees are in a different world from the Red Sox, who have a huge advantage over the Rangers or the A's, just as George W. Bush and John F. Kerry were born with an advantage because they were born rich.

With the last three World Series winners being the Marlins, Angels, and Diamondbacks, I can't help but feel that if George Steinbrenner and Larry Lucchino want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to prove, in essence, whose is bigger, well, that's fine by me. Both the Yanks and Boston will contend for the title this year, but so will a lot other teams, and at a fraction of the payroll.

I'll leave the final word to the Daily News's Rich Hofmann, who checks in with Sons of Sam Horn and concludes with this brilliant nugget:

And so it went. By early last night, there were more than 600 posts on the site that concerned the A-Rod deal, all fear and loathing. Amid all of the raw emotion, though, at least one guy was able to identify what really mattered:

As TheYellowDart5 wrote, "Anyone else feel sorry for all the baseball video-game designers? A week before pitchers and catchers and now they gotta draw A-Rod in a Yankee uniform. Does Steinbrenner have compassion for no one?"

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Four More Days | Pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater on Thursday, and the Inquirer gives fans a peek at what to expect out of spring training with a full page of storylines. Todd Zolecki's overview doesn't seem to be posted on the Inquirer's Web site, but you're not missing much. It's a lot of same-old, same old, with the most salient observation being that the Phillies are the only team in the division to increase its talent level; not only did the other clubs not stand pat, but they lost quite a few good players. Interestingly absent from Zolecki's musings was any mention of on-the-spot manager Larry Bowa, but Jim Salisbury, in his preview of the national baseball scene, has this to say:

Pressure, pressure. No two managers have more pressure on them to win -- and win now -- than the Phillies' Larry Bowa and the man he succeeded, new Red Sox skipper Terry Francona. Both will be asked about the topic a gazillion times this spring.

Hey, you can throw Joe Torre's name on the list, too. There's always pressure managing the Yankees and working for George Steinbrenner. Adding A-Rod will only increase the intensity.

As for Bowa, he's entering his fourth season with a team that has patched big holes with big talent (Jim Thome and Wagner). Anything short of the playoffs will be a failure, and Bowa can't be feeling all that cozy with Charlie Manuel and Bob Boone already collecting Phillies paychecks.

At least Bowa only has to make the playoffs. Anything less than a World Series title will be a failure for Francona's loaded Red Sox. And have we mentioned that Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez might be in bad moods after off-season trade talk?

As the season draws closer, I'm sure the Bowa angle will get played up more and more. Until then, I will wait in sweet anticipation for baseballs to start popping into mitts. Four days now. . . .

Monday, February 09, 2004

The View from On High | Our flight from Boston yesterday afternoon skirted the Atlantic coastline until we were just north of Atlantic City. There, we hung a right and descended gently over the myriad land types that comprise Southern New Jersey -- the dark green Pine Barrens, neatly arranged tract housing, ribboning highways whose cloverleaf interchanges unspool with amazing symmetry. We crossed the Delaware River just south of the Walt Whitman Bridge, giving me, in seat 17F, a look at the Sports Complex that was vastly different from the one I got the last time I flew, last June.

Stripped of its familiar blue seats, Veterans Stadium was a pitiful sight, ashen and empty. Its concrete shell had never looked colder or more unwelcoming. The Vet is not long for this world, and thank God for that; as it awaits its death, it exudes an unsettling air of helplessness that you want to get away from as soon as possible.

New life will come in the form of the more compact and angular structure just south of the Vet. Construction of Citizens Bank Park is proceeding on schedule, according to the Phillies. From my vantage point that was impossible to confirm, but, regardless, I could help but be cheered by the warm brick exterior, the natural grass, the more fan-friendly proportions. I turned to the missus and told her excitedly that my brother and I might be able to see the Ben Franklin Bridge from our new seats. To her credit, she refrained from rolling her eyes and saying, "So what?"

They're going to play baseball in a real ballpark in South Philadelphia, and more nights than not, at least this year, it should be good baseball.

On both counts, it's about damn time.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Yeah, Well, Brady's No Pedro | Sports performs a vital civic function, I've often argued. It allows people of completely different backgrounds to come together in celebration -- or, often, commiseration -- over the fortunes of a common, unifying entity. Main Line lawyers, South Philly contractors, South Jersey dentists -- regardless of who we are, we all rally 'round our teams. When one of our teams does well, we exchange high-fives with strangers; when it falters, we bitch to each other over beers at area watering holes. Whether our team is the Phillies or Eagles, the Sixers or Flyers, a rare kind of regional union takes place that identifies all of us as Philadelphians -- regardless of zip code, age, gender, religion, or race.

Then there's Boston. The Patriots just won their second Super Bowl in three seasons, and some fans up here can't even give them their due for more than a day, according to a story in the metro section of today's Globe:

"For one brief moment, it was the Patriots' day," said [Susan] Regan while sipping a beer at The Fours sports bar near North Station the evening after the parade. "But you know what? Now we're back to the Red Sox. Today was crazy. Today was great. But it wasn't the Sox."

The Patriots hardly could have done more to captivate New Englanders this season, running off 15 consecutive wins and returning home with their second championship in three years. But while fans proudly thumped their chests for the Patriots this week, the Red Sox's October demise at the hands of the New York Yankees was still eating at them inside.

Sox baseball caps rivaled Patriots hats at Tuesday's parade and rally, while banners and T-shirts featuring a vulgar expression about the Yankees dotted the landscape. Fans streaming out of the Super Bowl in Houston Sunday night erupted into chants of "Let's Go Red Sox, Let's Go!" Back home, one of the largest post-game celebrations in the city took place right outside Fenway Park.

Look, I've been to Flyers games when the "Let's go, Eagles!" chant has swelled up. But that happened during meaningless regular-season games, when the Eagles were churning through the playoffs. When there's success, we close ranks -- you should have seen the number of 76ers flags fluttering from car windows when the Sixers made the NBA finals a few years back. You want to smack these people up here and ask them if they realize what they've got. A second Super Bowl crown in three years -- and they ask what the Red Sox have done for them lately? Stop and smell the roses, folks. After all, some of us haven't gotten a whiff in more than 20 years.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Schilling Speaks | Newly arrived in suburban Boston for a weekend with the in-laws, I pick up today's Globe to see what's happening around here. And who do I see on the front page of the sports section but new Red Sox darling Curt Schilling, interviewed at length by the paper's Gordon Edes, who chatted up the pitcher at his Arizona home. It's pretty standard-issue stuff -- career overview, the anticipation of pitching with Pedro, etc. -- but there is also this little nugget that was news to me:

After Schilling signed a long-term deal with the Phillies in the spring of 1997, it seemed as if he was about to be traded in each of the next four years, speculation Schilling admits he helped fuel himself.

With the Phillies in a downward spiral and unlikely to sign Schilling to a long-term deal, he was open to a trade, though he insists he never begged out. Finally, in July 2001, in the midst of a contentious relationship with Phillies GM Ed Wade, Schilling received a call from Wade, informing him he was about to be traded to the Indians. Now, Schilling had put the Indians on a short list of teams to which he'd be willing to be traded, but when the moment arrived, he called his agent in a panic, begging him to stop the deal. Five minutes later, Wade called back.

"He was livid," Schilling said, "and rightfully so. I couldn't apologize more profusely. Eddie hangs up the phone and says they're not going to trade me to Cleveland. He called me back and said, 'Look, you tell me right now a list of teams, and when you're done, I'm going to take that list and trade you.'

"The next day, the Arizona deal was like done."

Man, is this guy, like, a control freak or what? That's the downside to Schilling's mound dominance -- his need to pull the strings even when he's not staring in at his catcher for a sign. I've said it before, and it bears repeating: Sox fans will absolutely love Schilling, but once the honeymoon is over and the vagaries of marriage begin, don't be surprised if makes noises about a quick divorce. He does that. He pitches great, and he wants things the way he wants them, and he'll be as big a pain in the ass as he needs to be to get those things, and if he doesn't get them, he'll want out. Consider yourself warned, Red Sox nation.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

We're No. ... 23! | By now the entire sporting blogosphere has glommed onto the 2004 fan satisfaction ratings published in the current issue of the awkwardly named ESPN The Magazine. But I've yet to see anyone focus on how our heroes in the City of Brotherly Love fared. All in all, it's not so bad; all four Philly teams finish in the first division. But the editors' interpretation of how our various squads scored across the eight criteria used to rank the teams is a bit curious at times:

23. Philadelphia Eagles: You'd have thought that an amenities-packed new stadium (HDTV video screens, 6,000 extra parking spots, no more rats) would have improved the Iggles' ranking. Alas, someone has to pay for The Linc: ticket prices skyrocketed 39 percent, more than six times the average NFL hike. But the bigger problem is all those spankings in NFC championship games. And fans aren't blaming Donovan McNabb (or Rush Limbaugh). The demon in Philly these days? Andy Reid.

Hard to deny any of this. After three straight seasons of always a bridesmaid, never a bride, the Eagles have gone from a well-managed, professionally run franchise to a team perpetually a few players short of championship-caliber. Or so it's perceived. And since Reid calls the shots, he's the one being held accountable, as he should be.

35. Philadelphia 76ers: Fans are tired of disappointing playoff runs, but their return on investment is still positive. One reason: management takes nothing for granted. "We compete with dinner, movies and the mall," says senior VP Lara Price. They do it with below-average ticket prices (around $42) and an impressive welcoming committee nightly at the gate: the Sixers Dance Team, Hip-Hop the mascot and -- our favorite -- Ambassador of Basketball World B. Free. If only he could still play.

This rating may fall should the Sixers continue to play uninspired -- that's sportswriter code for "losing" -- basketball. Allen Iverson is a great player and a noble warrior -- the dude never takes a game night off -- but he's not The Answer.

41. Philadelphia Flyers: Flyers fans pay the second-highest ticket prices in the NHL ($57.06 on average), and they guzzle the dearest beer ($5.50 for 12 ounces). Why pay happily through the nose? Because the Broad Street Bully in the front office (Bobby Clarke, if you haven't been paying attention) acts like he really wants a Cup, and Ken Hitchcock and Co. have averaged 101 points a season the past three years. They like effort at Wachovia, almost as much as they like a cold beer.

This is just a flat-out shanked slapshot of an analysis. First, to cite overpriced beer is just ridiculous -- if you want reasonably priced suds at a professional sporting venue, stick to the minor leagues. Second, I'm not so sure true-blue Flyers fans are as enamored of Clarkie as ETM seems to think. With just one Stanley Cup finals appearance -- and an "uninspired" one, at that -- in the last 15 years, and too many first-round flameouts to count, I think Clarke is starting to be seen as the myopic dinosaur that he is.

58. Philadelphia Phillies: The increasingly unloved Larry Bowa says his team is "ready to win right now." He'd better be right. Intimate Citizens Bank Park (19,000 fewer seats than the much-hated Vet) could be too close for comfort when it opens in April; in some places, fans will be 10 feet from the plate. Still, despite an NL-leading 13 percent price hike prior to last season, fans don't feel fleeced when they come to a game. The average Phils ticket ($17.24) is still cheaper than 14 MLB teams'.

Again, cleverly written but more wrong than right. Phillies fans have supported the team through many more bad times than good, and we've been salivating over a real ballpark for years now. Don't get me wrong -- we want the Phils to win. But even if they lose, well, we're kinda used to that around these parts, and we'd rather see them lose in a real stadium than a soulless concrete shell.

Now if they could only do something about the price of beer. . . .

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Ad Nauseum | In a rare turnabout, the Super Bowl was more fun to watch this year than the ads which funded CBS's airing of it. Slate's Allen Barra, writing the Sports Nut column, termed the game "terrific entertainment and lousy football," which is as good a capsule review as you'll find in five words or less. As for the commercials, Salon's King Kaufman pegged the whole thing very well:

Those who predicted a humdrum affair on super Sunday were rewarded not by the game but by the commercials, which failed to live up to their billing as being every bit the event the football game is.

This year's crop of Super Bowl ads was the weakest one I can remember. I suspect the passing of the dot-com boom times has meant the end of the heyday of the really outrageously expensive, pointless but jaw-dropping TV commercial. Oh, to see some cats getting herded again.

In fact, the commentaries on the commercials have been more entertaining than the commercials themselves. Brilliantly lamenting, "Where have you gone, Terry Tate, office linebacker?," Kaufman wrote:

Dodge used a monkey too -- as in, one on a guy's back, the monkey being that he can't find a car that ... oh, whatever. The Linux ad with the kid and Muhammad Ali: Can we just put a moratorium on pseudo-profundity in television ads? It usually shows up in commercials for financial firms -- you know, "What can a left-handed bacon stretcher teach us about investing?" But a particularly annoying version is the spiritual-spooky kid. That little brat in the car ad who whispers, "Zoom zoom." How do I love kids like that? Parboiled.

Gillette ran an incredibly hokey black-and-white ad that looked like one of those "Real Men of Genius" spoofs, only it was dead serious. Dudes, it's a razor. Settle down.

As a Patriots fan, Seth Stevenson had the onerous mission of carrying out his duties as Slate's Ad Report Card writer while also paying attention to the game. In his "selective Super Bowl ad diary," Stevenson, like Kaufman, ragged on the commercials, calling them "nothing to write home about" and "an exceptionally weak crop of ads." Thankfully, his piece wasn't bogged down by the effort required to write something amusing about such dreary efforts -- take this, for example:

A Levitra ad, starring spokesman Mike Ditka, compares football to baseball. Not surprisingly, since Levitra is an NFL sponsor and Viagra is endorsed by a baseball star, football comes out on top. Ditka actually says, "Baseball could use Levitra." Translation: Baseball is limp! You can't get it up, baseball! As I have previously shown, Levitra's euphemism for sex is the image of a football being thrown through a tire. In this ad, Ditka throws the football through the tire, and shouts, "You gotta love that!" This forced me to contemplate the thought of a sweaty Ditka, immediately post-coitus, shouting "You gotta love that!" at his partner. Horrifying.

(Warning: Clumsy segue ahead.) Hey, speaking of Super Bowl ads and funny writing, just about everybody has something on the AOL Top Speed commercials featuring the American Chopper guys, but nobody did it as well as "Middie Back!" He took advantage of the AOL ads to give a great shout-out to one of his favorite shows:

Since the bulk of my days are spent playing Playstation 2, watching "The Simpsons," and participating in "fantasy" hockey leagues (Shawn = NERD!), I try to look out for something stimulating on television. American Chopper fits the bill. Chopper is a reality series which highlights the inner workings of New York's Orange County Chopper, a popular motorcycle business which specializes in building custom choppers from scratch. The cycles, however, take a back seat (no pun intended) to the cast, which includes owner Paul, Sr., a man whose sole emotions are silence and rage, son Paul, Jr., craftsman extraordinairre, who merely tolerates "the old man," and youngest son/apprentice Mikey, whose sole purpose is to aggravate Paul, Sr. They are the Three Stooges of chopper design, with Paul, Sr. as Moe, and his sons as the oft-beaten Larry and Curly.

I'm willing to bet my daughter's college fund that the phrase "the Three Stooges of chopper design" has never appeared in published form, either print or electronic, before. Shawn may be a nerd -- check that, he is a nerd -- but he can sure bring the funny. Maybe he should be doing Super Bowl ads.

Bottoms Up? | Todd Zolecki files a bizarre -- and, if true, disturbing -- story in today's Inquirer stating that a Nicaraguan newspaper has reported that Phillies starter Vicente Padilla is "destroying himself" with booze:

The story, written by Nicaraguan sportswriter and broadcaster Xavier Araquistain, which a Dominican Republic newspaper also picked up, asserts that the Phillies have concerns about Padilla's alleged drinking.

"The management of the club knows of his behavior off the field and has told him that he should improve," the story claimed. "... Because of his behavior, the Phillies still have not acted to give him a long-term contract."

Padilla's agent and Phillies assistant GM Ruben Amaro, Jr., acknowledge that Padilla drinks, but deny that he has a problem with alcohol. But as a guy who occasionally engages in damage control, I sense just a whiff of something there. Maybe it's just me, but Amaro's denials, in particular, don't feel sufficiently emphatic to squash any possibility of truth to the rumor. Here's what he told Zolecki:

"There's nothing to comment on," Phillies assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "There's no basis for us to make any comments. To my knowledge, neither Ed [Wade] nor I have ever spoken to anybody in either of those countries about Vicente Padilla, so for them to make those kinds of comments is basically hearsay."

I just don't know. I hope, hope, hope that this is as simple as bad journalism. But if it isn't, I hope that Padilla can dry out and get his head on straight.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Bolstering Burrell | As all Phillies fans -- not to mention Shallow Center readers -- know, Pat Burrell in 2003 was more Pat the Bunny than Pat the Bat. To his credit, Burrell never ducked the media inquiries, never denied that he was letting his team down, and now he's in Florida for a couple of weeks of pre-training with Larry Bowa and Charlie Manuel. The Daily News's Marcus Hayes is in Clearwater and files a story today on Day 1 of what he calls "Camp Burrell," the Phils' attempt to erase the memory of last season from the once and future slugger's mind:

Bowa and Manuel exited the cages delighted.

"He came in with a completely different swing, as far as where he stands, where he's holding his hands," Bowa said. "That's a tribute to him. He could have very easily sat his butt at home and said, 'I'll go out there Feb. 1 and start all over.' But he didn't." . . .

"We talked about some things over the course of the winter,'' Burrell said. "It's just at the point now where you start working on the stroke, get back in the groove. It was a good first day."

So good, in fact, that Bowa figures Burrell is way ahead of the curve.

"He was closer to the plate. His hands were down. He's definitely worked. He's made adjustments without talking to anybody, which, to me, is a big plus," Bowa said.

Not that any of these adjustments is new to Burrell, Bowa said: "These are things Charlie talked to him about last year: 'You might want to move a little closer. Drop your hands.' The fact that he went out there and did it himself..."

If Burrell recovers his stroke, he'll join Jim Thome in a power pair unseen in Philadelphia since the Schmidt-Luzinksi glory days, which is all the more reason to hope that Bowa and Manuel succeed. What appears to be in Burrell's favor is his mental makeup. Burrell never quit last season, and the Philly faithful responded with remarkable and unusual encouragement through 162 games of wild swinging (and missing) and low-and-away breaking stuff. He seems to be a resilient kid -- the kind, one hopes, who can acknowledge but not dwell on past failures while looking to the future.

Get "Back!" | If only we all used our power for good instead of evil. Yet another member of the extended Shallow Center family -- let's call him "college pal Shawn" -- has entered the blogosphere. Shawn's site, "Middie Back!," has thus far touched on hockey, the Super Bowl, and Schoolhouse Rock. He's going to try to tell you that he was the dumbest guy in our college group, but don't believe him. First of all, we were hardly a collection of rocket scientists. And second, Shawn was a lot smarter, and a hell of a better writer, than he ever let on -- I just think he was trying to get girls. Surf on over, check him out, and drop him a line.

Housekeeping | Maybe you really do get what you pay for. After weeks of problems with Netscape's free Webmail service, I'm switching mail providers. Effective immediately, please direct all correspondence to Thanks.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Looking Ahead | Spring training is a few weeks off yet, but that shouldn't stop us, now that meaningful football has concluded, from taking a look at some storylines for the Phillies in 2004. In his Rumblings and Grumblings column Friday, for example,'s Jayson Stark discussed "Five Players Who Can Change The Season -- if only because they might be the five most critical 'ifs' in baseball." Among that quintet was -- surprise, surprise -- the Phils' 2003 human air conditioner, Pat Burrell, about whom Stark wrote:

If Burrell can bat fourth, between the left-handed-hitting Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu, "that lineup becomes a different animal," says one NL executive. "Where's the hole? Abreu? Thome? Then it's just a question of how you want to die."

But if Burrell can't undo all that .203 muscle memory, then the Phillies are back in the same mess -- trying to decide whether to bunch the two left-handed bats in the middle and invite every left-handed setup specialist on the planet to start getting loose for the last time through the order.

Let's assume that Burrell finds his stroke, that the good-but-not great rotation finds a way to get it done, that Jim Thome continues to be Jim Thome, that Marlon Byrd wasn't a half-season apparition, that Billy Wagner is everything he's advertised to be -- that the year goes as planned, in other words. (Hey, it's Groundhog Day -- a guy can dream.) In that case, it's not hard to envision a couple of the 2004 World Series possibilities about which Jim Salisbury mused in yesterday's Inquirer:

Phillies-Red Sox. We didn't get an Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl, but the baseball teams from these two sports-crazy regions have an excellent chance of meeting in October.

The Phillies would be out to avenge their difficult loss to the Red Sox in the 1915 Series. The Phils won the opener, then lost four one-run games. (What might have happened if they hadn't hit .182 in the Series?) The Red Sox had a 20-year-old pitcher named Babe Ruth. The Phils had a Hall of Fame-bound pitcher in Grover Cleveland Alexander.

The 2004 World Series would feature some dynamic talent -- Jim Thome, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, Billy Wagner, Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez. Phils pitching coach Joe Kerrigan once managed the Red Sox. And let's not forget Boston's Phillie Connection -- pitcher Curt Schilling (who really wanted to be a Phillie again) and new manager Terry Francona. There would be plenty of spice in this one. . . .

Phillies-Athletics. Maybe they could play stickball at 21st and Lehigh.

Salisbury also advises all of us hyperventilating Harry Kalas fans to switch to decaf for a while. Winning, he observes, correctly, will cleanse bad blood, and besides, the Phillies have bigger fish to fry:

Don't get us wrong, we love Harry and Wheels and the whole gang. We'll be happy when all this is worked out. But, with all due respect, there are about 100 other concerns involving the Phillies that outrank this rather nauseating drama.

That list includes such obvious concerns as Burrell's bat, Kevin Millwood's stamina, and David Bell's back, as well as this little inside joke: "Will Billy Wagner want to beat up a scribe who dares to ask: 'Are you talking?'" Sharp readers will recall that a similar question from Salisbury to Jose Mesa last season, after yet another display of pyrotechnics by the former closer, led to a clubhouse shoving match between the two.

Curse, Schmurse | Babe Ruth's ghost may continue to rattle around like Jacob Marley's chains in the attics of Red Sox Nation, but please spare me any more pitiful sob stories of how awful New England sports fans have it. (This means you, Bill Simmons.) After two Super Bowl wins in three years, it's time to give it a rest. Those of us who have gone without a championship in, oh, say, 21 years just don't want to hear it. We just don't want to hear the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy take time out of his gushing tribute to "one of the best and most beloved Boston sports teams of the last 100 years" to deliver this woe-are-we paragraph:

So now it's Groundhog Day, where the scene keeps repeating itself, much like in the Bill Murray movie, but there's no one left to beat. Too bad. Patriots fans surely would embrace six more weeks of football. In the wake of the coldest January since 1888, and the most disappointing Red Sox finish since 1986, New England needed a lift, and the Patriots delivered with a season for the ages.

Oh, boo-hoo. Congratulations to the Patriots and their fans all that, but just leave the rest of us alone to wallow in our self-pity awhile, 'kay?

How many days 'til pitchers and catchers report?