Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Counting Down | Opening Day is less than a week away -- it's pretty hard to think of the Yankees/Devil Rays series in Japan as real baseball, isn't it? -- and the Phillies are the consensus choice to win the National League East.

Did I really write that?

This year's offseason moves, combined with the significant losses of the division's other teams, have rendered the Phils the team to beat.

Did I really write that?

Well, yeah. You know it's been some kind of spring when two enormous keys to the season -- slugger Jim Thome and closer Billy Wagner -- get shut down with injuries, only to fire it up again within a few weeks. You know it's been some kind of spring when the biggest roster decisions involve the last player on the bench -- Chase Utley or Doug Glanville -- and the last reliever in the bullpen -- David Coggin, Ryan Madson, or Amaury Telemaco. You know it's been some kind of spring when Bill Conlin is raving about your new spring training digs:

Bright House Networks Field was such a breathtaking joy of a ballpark, it seems almost sacrilegious to complain about the very real parking problems that had so many senior citizens literally exercised about the long hike from the Joe DiMaggio Field lots on the north side of busy Old Coachman Road. But it was what it was -- a problem that needs to be fixed so the real enjoyment of what might be the most fun spring-training ballpark ever is not diminished. I mean, where else in baseball can you walk a complete lap around a ballpark's incredibly wide mezzanine level, run into dozens of people you know, stop for a cheesesteak on the first-base side, lounge with fans on the grass of the rightfield berm, stop behind the bullpen in left to watch Billy Wagner dialing up his super-unleaded gas, enjoy a cold beverage of your choice at the enormous Tiki Bar, then shop for souvenirs in the shop down the leftfield line? And never, not once, will you miss a pitch. I am told Citizens Bank Park will be just as wide open to cruising, schmoozing and, yes, boozing. If so, fans will die poor, but happy, now that the Phillies' average ticket price for 2004 is No. 3 in the majors.

Late March is a time of optimism for fans of every team, of course, but for once, we Philadelphians can say with legitimacy that our glass if half-full. So let's drink up.

Boo-Yah . . . or Just Boo? | Writing in Slate's Sports Nut column, freelancer Matt Feeney delivers a spot-on deconstruction of the depths to which ESPN's SportsCenter has fallen since its talented A team of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann split in 1997, ending the show's glory days. Feeney uses the network's recent reality entry Dream Job, whose countless promos teased a piece of televised irrelevance that seemed completely unwatchable, as a way to point to SC's many, many faults:

Dream Job was something of an ordeal to watch. The contestants read too fast or too haltingly, exclaimed inappropriately, got snagged on Slavic hockey names, and painfully tested look-at-me catchphrases and snarky tonal flourishes. It's strange that ESPN added Dream Job to its lineup since they already have a show in which aspirants compete, with an irritating surfeit of eagerness and theatrical sarcasm, to capture the singular vibe of Dan and Keith. It's called SportsCenter.

It's not hard to realize where Feeney takes the rest of his piece. While Patrick still handles the 6 p.m. show, the coveted 11 p.m. slot is now in the hands of a collection of white-guy faux-playas and shouting hipsters who should have the word "IRONY" tattooed on their foreheads in bright crimson letters. If there's a flaw to the story, it's that it should have been written about four years ago, when SC had already imploded in a nightmarish jumble of self-parody, missing identity, and lax journalism. Of course, this never would have happened had Casey McCall and Dan Rydell gotten the job.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Blame the Media | A final note that needs to be shared before I can close the books on Saint Joseph's unparalleled season: In the interview room after Saturday's loss in the regional final, I and dozens of reporters waited for Hawks head coach Phil Martelli to appear and address the media. According to the name tags on the dais at the front of the room, Saint Joseph's two best players, Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, would represent the team.

Well, immediately after his attempt to tie the game had bumped off the front of the rim, Nelson fell onto his back and lay prone for several seconds before a handful of Oklahoma State players graciously helped him off the floor. West, in front of the Hawks' bench, stood bent forward at the waist, his head buried in his hands. Neither appeared to relish the prospect of standing in front of national television cameras and telling the Bergen County Record's basketball writer how he felt in the wake of the result.

So I was not surprised when an NCAA media representative replaced their name tags with those of Pat Carroll and Tyrone Barley. Yet immediately there was audible grumbling. "You gotta be kidding." "That's not acceptable." "Un-freakin'-real." When the moderator announced the switch, one reporter actually had the temerity to ask why.

Nelson eventually made his way to the dais to join Carroll and Barley, and of course no one asked him any question of consequence or substance. They just wanted him there -- wanted to see if he would break down, wanted to see if he would bitch about the officiating, wanted to see if the four-year persona of a classy warrior and stand-up guy was real or just a facade. Wanted to see if his wheels would finally come off.

Look, I know the media have a job, and a big part of that is asking uncomfortable questions of people who may not wish to answer them. But we're talking about 21- and 22-year-old kids who have just lost, in brutally agonizing fashion, the biggest game they've ever played in. And this program has been second to none in offering access to players, coaches, and the campus. The fourth estate wouldn't have fallen if a roomful of reporters had cut them some slack for one night.

In case you're wondering, by the way, yes, it still hurts like a son of a bitch.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Cowboys 64, Hawks 62 | Oh, man, this one hurt. Hurt like a son of a bitch. Hurt like a hard punch to the gut, the kind that explodes all of the air from your body and leaves you gasping and dizzy for a long time afterward.

Twenty-four hours later, it still hurts.

In the space of less than 30 seconds, my world went from ecstasy to agony. Pat Carroll, struggling with his shot all night long, drains a trey from up top to put Saint Joseph's up by a point; Oklahoma State's John Lucas then ends up with a loose ball and hits a three of his own, an ugly line drive that somehow finds twine; and Jameer Nelson, directly in front of my courtside spot, comes up short on a fadeaway from the lane as time expires. Oklahoma State is headed to the Final Four, and my Hawks trudge off the floor noble losers.

The casual sports fan caught the score on SportsCenter or in his morning paper and figured, wow, St. Joe's sure hung in there. Guess the Cowboys were just too much.

A natural reaction -- and completely wrong.

Because the fact is that Saint Joseph's had that game last night. It owned a 6-point halftime lead that easily could have been 15 and was simply the better team for most of the night. OSU didn't win that game -- the Hawks lost it. They shot 8-for-26 from the arc, and when the long ball is your bread and butter, you have to do better than that. Just a couple more 3-balls and SJU would be flying to San Antonio. It was a golden opportunity lost. The little Atlantic 10 school stood up to the fearsome Big 12 team and largely outplayed it, only to fall on the kind of last-second shot that underdogs are supposed to make. As the estimable Jon Weisman wrote in response to my last post: "Sigh ... it should have gone differently."

In a few days I'll be able to gain the proper perspective on the Hawks' historic season, but for now . . . well, for now it just hurts.

Like a son of a bitch.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Hawk Eyes | There's a good reason why this space hasn't had much new content over the last few weeks. My focus has shifted from baseball to college basketball, and specifically to the Saint Joseph's Hawks, who are but one win away from San Antonio and the Final Four.

It's been my great privilege to attend quite a few games during the Hawks' magical mystery tour of a season. As the postseason began, my day job ramped up, requiring me to travel with the team and giving me precious little time to post here.

I was courtside in Dayton, where Saint Joseph's suffered its sole loss of the year, a trampling by Xavier, whose win last night landed the Musketeers in the Elite Eight as well. So much for the weak Atlantic 10. I was courtside in Buffalo, where the Hawks blasted Liberty and outslugged Texas Tech to reach the Sweet 16. And I've been courtside here in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where SJU was just a hair better than Wake Forest on Thursday to set up tonight's regional final against Oklahoma State.

My talent is in writing and reporting, not predicting, and tonight's matchup is way too close for me to offer a forecast. The Cowboys are big; the Hawks are quick. Saint Joseph's is among the best long-range shooting teams in the country; OSU defends the arc with ferocity. Vegas likes Oklahoma State by two-and-a-half; SJU will have the best player on the floor in Jameer Nelson.

So you pick it. I'll be content to watch, and hope. This is a special collection of players and coaches, a group of guys who like each other and play with passion, precision, and purpose. Amidst the sweat and sneakers, there is beauty in their performance. America deserves to see more of them; they deserve a chance to play on the game's largest stage.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Jim Dandy | Jim Thome's broken finger has healed sufficiently to allow him to resume playing. The big guy has to wear a splint for the next couple of weeks which may cause some discomfort, but at the very least he'll be able to begin regaining his game legs. This is all very good news, of course. Thome apparently was correct when he called himself a fast healer, and thank goodness for that.

Disabled Veterans | I was on the wrong side of the plane to see the aftereffects of yesterday's implosion of Veterans Stadium, but those in the starboard seats reported as we descended to Philadelphia International a few hours afterward that the resulting pile of rubble was impressively flat. Most of the news reports detailing the destruction note the wildly divergent emotions of people connected with Philadelphia sports -- players, coaches, and fans -- and that's not surprising, given the fierce loyalty we have toward our teams. (Though I was a little disturbed by the photo on the front page of today's Inquirer of the South Philly resident who was in tears.)

While I salivate over the prospect of watching games in Citizens Bank Park, I'll admit to a little bit of sadness over the Vet's demise, though not because it's where the Phillies won their only World Series or because it's where I witnessed the epic 15-14 game of the '93 Series. No, I grieve for the Vet because it's where I saw my first game. It was the summer of 1977, and my dad took me and my brother to an afternoon game against the Braves. We sat in right field, in the 600 level, I think, and Bake McBride looked close enough to touch. After watching countless games on television, experiencing the scope of the stadium with my own eyes and ears was breathtaking. The bloom came off the rose soon enough, especially as I began attending games in cities with real ballparks, but all fans hold a special place in their heart for the day they took a seat and watched the best baseball players in the world practice their craft.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

What Would the Puck Say? | Apparently on MTV's fall schedule is a new series, Real World/Teamsters Challenge. Look, I'm not one to mourn the loss of a bunch of whiny slacker posers in Philadelphia's Old City section, but for The Real World to be chased off by a bunch of union thugs is nothing less than a civic embarrassment. Why Philadelphia tolerates this kind of behavior -- and make no mistake, the pickets of yesterday would have given way to vandalism, threats, and worse tomorrow -- is beyond me. This is such a great, great city, except that its citizens accept with a world-weary shrug the mediocrity of its leaders. The only thing missing around here is Tammany Hall. The Daily News, bless its little heart, has launched a petition drive to reverse the production company's decision, but at this point the damage is done.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Catching Up | Since last I checked in with Phillies-related material, Jim Thome's broken finger turned out not to need surgery and Bill Wagner began throwing again. On the down side, David Bell now is sidelined with shoulder tendinitis. Bell is one of Larry Bowa's guys, but in a year-plus, we've yet to see him play healthy as a Phillie, and he appears in danger of becoming one of those players who are never quite right. Maybe it's a hamstring one week or a fouled ball of his foot the next, but sometimes the baseball gods will just pick someone and mess with him for a few years. Bell insists he'll be fine, and indeed I sure hope so, because, frankly, Chase Utley, who would play second while Placido Polanco slipped over to third should Bell be sidelines, didn't show me a whole lot last year.

Speaking of bad shows, city officials are warning fans not to head to South Philadelphia in an attempt to watch next Sunday's implosion of Veterans Stadium. Figures -- there's finally something about the Vet worth watching, and they're not selling tickets.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Remember Me? | Yikes -- a week since my last post! For reasons similar to the ones that silenced Boats Against the Current recently, blogging has been a low priority of late. But Opening Day is just a few weeks away, so I plan on ramping up again. Hang in there -- and thanks.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Uh-Oh | Jim Thome broke the middle finger of his right hand during a fielding drill yesterday and is out three to six weeks. The big guy hopes to be back by the season opener, but until his return to the lineup is set, as "Middie Back!" notes, "there will be a lot of Maalox passed around Citizens Bank Park." And how. Get well soon, Jim. Like, real soon.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Paging Kent Brockman | Throwing punches at broadcast news, and especially the local folks, and especially during sweeps periods, is about as easy as it gets. The inane, dippy stunts long ago staggered into the gutter of self-parody. Hyped with breathless copy, disturbing images, and stupidly ominous music, the spots are no more than blatant ratings grabs, completely barren of news. It's a relief when they're harmless, but all too often they venture into the realm of the irresponsible.

The Daily News's Dan Gross yesterday broke the story of an NBC-10 sweeps stunt that clearly falls into the latter category: The station rented a house in Newtown Square, a well-off Philadelphia suburb, and then went online posing as 14-year-old children in an effort to lure pedophiles. The sting was meant "to give a disturbing, but true, sense of how easy it is for pedophiles to prey on potential victims," the station's news director said yesterday, presumably with a straight face.

Yeah, right.

I'm not the only one who's skeptical of NBC-10's noble motives. The Delaware County district attorney's office is looking into whether the station broke any laws, notes today's Inquirer, which quotes D.A. G. Michael Green as saying: "It was only good luck that no one was injured, no weapons were drawn, no child was attacked, and no citizen who happened to be on the street at that hour was accosted."

For his part, Gross filed a brief follow-up today under the completely appropriate headline "Shame, shame, Channel 10." Both he and the Inky also include harsh words from Newtown Township police chief Lee Hunter: "I am totally, absolutely disappointed and disgusted with Channel 10 for the way they handled this situation. We are highly upset. We feel it was unethical, unprofessional, and dangerous. It's unfair and unsafe for citizens and kids and we are going to follow every avenue we can to eliminate this problem from happening again."

In a prior life I was a newspaper reporter, so I understand and respect the need to occasionally surprise complacent readers (or viewers) who think it, whatever "it" is, can't ever happen here, wherever "here" is. But limits are required. The youngest member of the Shallow Center household is but two-and-a-half years old, and if I found out that anyone had purposefully brought into my neighborhood even a single pedophile in hopes of raising my awareness, I'd be apoplectic -- and fighting mad. NBC-10's behavior is the height of journalistic arrogance, and I hope they pay a heavy price for their foolish and unnecessary attempt to teach parents a lesson we all, sadly, already know.

Boom! | Like many Phillies fans, I suspect I'll have mixed feelings when the Vet is imploded in a few weeks. The place was a dump, but it was the only Phillies venue to see the home team win a World Series, and it was where I saw my first major league game. You just don't forget that, ever.

And the Pitch ... . | Real games start today for the Phillies. Well, "real" games, anyway. The Phils opened their exhibition season a little more than a half-hour ago, with the Yankees visiting Bright House Networks Field. Even though the game is meaningless, it's impossible not to feel just a little bit of juice over the fact that they're keeping score again.

With real games, alas, come real concerns, beginning with the news that ace backup catcher Todd Pratt will have minor knee surgery tomorrow. Pratt hopes to be ready to go by the season opener, and the Phillies sure hope so, as they're painfully thin at the position.

Away from the news about aches and pains, and balls and strikes, the Inquirer dumps an absolute puff piece on the Clearwater scene by pop culture writer Dan DeLuca into its Magazine section. The story seems to exist solely to remind readers who wouldn't think of opening the sports section that there is a professional baseball team in town, and that it should be good this year.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Premature Praise | You know Pat Burrell had a bad year when the big news out of Clearwater yesterday was that he hammered a hanging curveball out of Bright House Networks Field in an intrasquad game. I mean, what's next? Breathless reports that Jimmy Rollins took a 3-0 pitch after the pitcher had walked the bases loaded? (Well, actually ... .) Believe me, I would love for Burrell to regain his stroke, but let's wait until we start seeing some real pitching out there before get all dreamy-eyed, okay?

Hawks 82, Bonnies 50 | Just about every media outlet in the country has something on Saint Joseph's historic victory last night. You can check them out for yourself, though a must-read is Phil Sheridan's front-page piece in today's Inquirer, in which he appropriately scotches any talk that this wondrous season should be chalked up to magic or anything other than sweat, hard work, and mutual trust:

They wear T-shirts around campus that say "Jameeracle on 54th Street." And that's clever, but not exactly right. Calling this thing a miracle, if anything, diminishes what Martelli and his players have done. Are doing.

They built this incredible season one practice, one game at a time. They beat good teams and great teams and mediocre teams. They won by 50 points and they won by 2. When the streak grew long and the pressure more intense, they took [Phil] Martelli's cue. They smiled and hugged each other and huddled up and kept on winning.

They did this -- 27-0 -- for themselves, but also for the rest of us. For everyone who slogs through the news about steroids and contracts and defense motions and wonders where the magic went.

It was here last night. Remember.

Having been in Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse for the game and for the dual ceremonies which bookended it, I can testify to how uplifting and heartfelt the whole scene was. In a season of extraordinary singularity, last night stood out. As long as college hoops is played in Philadelphia, the 2003-04 Saint Joseph's Hawks, and what they accomplished on March 2, 2004, will be remembered with reverence.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

26 Down, 1 to Go | In three hours my Saint Joseph's Hawks will tip it off against a very bad St. Bonaventure team, and if all goes according to form, the Hawks will emerge as the first team in 13 years to complete an undefeated regular season.

Hot on the Hawks' heels (or wings) is Stanford, enjoying a similarly flawless year. The two teams go 1-2 in the national polls, but more than a few of pundits see Saint Joseph's as the clearly inferior team. San Jose Mercury News columnist Skip Bayless filed a petty, nasty piece yesterday that simultaneously victimized the Cardinal and slammed the Hawks:

Undefeated St. Joe's doesn't belong in the same sentence, paragraph or four-volume anthology with undefeated Stanford. Underappreciated Stanford is a textbook Final Four team peaking just as February turns to March Madness. St. Joe's is an overrated East Coast media sensation -- or creation -- that will go quickly from March Fadness to Sadness.

There's a lot more where that came from, but it doesn't bear repeating. Leaping to Saint Joseph's defense today was Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon, in a piece that ran on the paper's front page, above the fold:

The month of the fine madness is upon us again, not a moment too soon, and as a prelude to tournament frenzy, the Hawks are about to finish a regular season that contains not a single wart, smudge, stumble, blemish or blot.


Quite a winter's work.

Yet there are those, the professional grumps and sour scoffers, specialists in finding lint, who sneer at that achievement, deriding the caliber of competition against which it was compiled. Whom, they demand, have the Hawks beaten?

The answer is, everyone who has been put in front of them.

More, you cannot do.

Lyon, as is his style, takes the high road. The guy who really nails it today is the Daily News's Rich Hofmann, in a piece that rightly takes Bayless to task for being the latest on "the list of people who don't get it." Citing the Bayless paragraph from above, Hofmann writes:

This is an interesting paragraph. It is hard to decide just what is most impressive about it: the intellectual gymnastics it took to conclude that the No. 1 team in the nation is somehow underappreciated, or the ability to type so flawlessly with Cardinal red pompoms stuck firmly in both hands.

That isn't the point, though. That isn't why Bayless doesn't get it. The fact is that he might be right, and Digger Phelps might be right, and Billy Packer might be right, and all of the people who knocked the Saint Joseph's Hawks might be right. There are no guarantees in the NCAA Tournament. They will play the games and we will all find out, once and for all.

It isn't the prediction of doom that is wrong, but the gleeful necessity they all feel in making it. Why is there this imperative to see the future and ignore the present? It is an affliction shared, frankly, both by the Hawks' detractors and by the St. Joe's supporters who have been talking about March since November. There are too many people who have been so fixated on the future that they have seemed unwilling to experience what is.

That is really the sad part, the sign that they don't get it, because this isn't likely to happen again, not in our lifetimes. Yet something so special, something that should be savored, instead has been turned into a source of contention by too many people.

Why is there this need to slight the Hawks' success? Who are they harming? Who are they threatening? This isn't going to happen again in 2005 or 2015, and probably not in 2055, either -- not 26-0, not No. 2 in the nation, none of it.

The Hawks are not bucking for lifetime membership in the Top 5 club, which wouldn't even exist, by the way, if not for the revenues generated by big-time college football. Saint Joseph's is just visiting, and everybody knows it. The Hawks have elevated their program to a new level in the last half-dozen years under coach Phil Martelli, but fun is fun. We all understand that this season isn't happening again.

I've been blessed to watch these Hawks with my own eyes several times this season, and I'll be equally fortunate to be with the team during the Atlantic 10 and NCAA tournaments. Take away the sheer ballet of this team's selfless passing game, the ferocity of its defense, the cold-blooded accuracy of its outside shooters, its immense heart and basketball IQ, and you're still left with what should soon be 27 wins and no losses, at a school where ballplayers go to real classes, the coach does his weekly TV show in the student center, and the gym resembles nothing so much as the home court in Hoosiers.

It really doesn't matter if Saint Joseph's isn't as good as Stanford. The Hawks are simply more fun to follow.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Paging Danny Tartabull | Billy Wagner's return to throwing was pushed back a few days earlier today. Everyone is saying it's probably nothing -- well, not quite everyone -- yet I still get this uneasy feeling about it. An MRI turned up no ligament, tendon, or joint damage in the middle finger of Wagner's left hand, but it still hurts. Geez -- the guy hasn't even thrown a pitch that matters, and already he's causing Phils fans the same kind of agita that Jose Mesa did.

And speaking of our old buddy Joe Table, he had this to say about the Phillies in a profile in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week:

"They didn't give me the opportunity. They were playing with my mind too much and lost confidence in me. When the manager loses confidence in you, there's nothing you can do," Mesa said. "It was tough. I don't blame them. Today you're here. Tomorrow you don't know where you're going to be."

Well, way to be a stand-up guy, Jose. If he's at all honest with himself, a trait that most professional athletes find difficult at best, Mesa must realize that he pitched himself out of the closer's role in Philadelphia. If anything, Larry Bowa probably hung on a little too long. "Playing with my mind"? Come on. Closers aren't supposed to have ERAs over 6, comprende, amigo? And to top it off, Mesa even plays the athlete's favorite game, Blame the Media:

The word also was that Mesa didn't talk to the media and that he got into a shouting and shoving match with a Philadelphia reporter last year. But when asked to do an interview yesterday, Mesa was approachable and pleasant. Is Mesa turning over a new leaf?

"I've always talked to the press. The thing is, some places I've been they ripped me off. I decided not to talk to the people who are doing it," Mesa said. "Sometimes you get mad and don't want to talk, so you tell them that we can talk tomorrow and then they get mad. If you blow a save, I'm the kind of guy who takes that personally. I don't like to talk after I blow a save. The next day, when your mind's fresh, we can talk about it."

Ay, caramba!

Tick ... Tick ... Tick ... | A few weeks removed from seeing Citizens Bank Park from above, I was able twice last week to get a ground-level view of the new stadium. The Phillies promise -- they really, really promise -- that the place will be playable by the team's April 3 exhibition game, but it's hard to share their enthusiasm for that timetable when you see the facility up close. Don't get me wrong -- it's going to be gorgeous. The imposing brick exterior gives the park an old-time look, with sleek glass and steel touches providing a nice modern contrast. It's just that, well, when you peer into the glass or look through the openings in the brick into the park's interior, it sure looks like there's a lot of significant work yet to be done. You'd think that since we've all been waiting so long, opening the place on time wouldn't have been an issue. ...