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.


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