Saturday, April 24, 2004

Road Trip | I am out of the country through next week, and I'm unsure whether I'll have the time to post regularly while here overseas, so if you don't see anything in this space for a while -- believe me, I've learned from past vacations -- don't panic. (I sound like the Phillies after a 1-6 start.) At the worst, I'll be back online the first week of May. Till then, go, Phils!

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Welcome/Welcome Back | A pair of voices, one new and one familiar, have joined the blogosphere to add their respective two cents on the 2004 Phillies.

Maintained by an unnamed fan, PhilliesBlog has begun the season with some funny commentary written in an engaging, bang-bang style. Check him out.

Meanwhile, Phillies fan John Salmon, of the defunct (Not so Vast) Right-Wing Conspiracy, has returned to the blogosphere with Crisis Mode. He hasn't posted any baseball content yet, but a guy can always hope. Welcome back, John.

Pitch and Moan | You'd think that playing a few seasons for Dallas Green and managing a few seasons in Philadelphia would give a guy some thick skin. Not Larry Bowa. The hypersensitive skipper apparently got all wiggy over media criticism of how he handles his pitchers -- what, he doesn't read blogs? -- and shot back with a sharply worded rebuttal yesterday. The Inquirer's Todd Zolecki and the Daily News's Marcus Hayes include Bowa's response in their respective notes columns today, and while Zolecki files a fairly straightforward account of the session, Hayes sticks to his guns:

Bowa's claim that "two or three of [the Phillies beat writers] are doing everything in your power but sticking a bleeping knife in my back" seems a bit overdone, especially in the light that two veteran relievers last season faded after particularly tough stretches.

Turk Wendell, who missed 2002 with elbow tendinitis, began 2003 on the disabled list, and the Phillies were very careful with him until August. He then complained of overuse after pitching three games straight Aug. 13-15. He gave up 11 runs in his next 4 1/3 innings. His ERA before Aug. 15 was 1.93; afterward, 9.24.

Also, Terry Adams pitched eight times between Aug. 14 and 23. At the end of those games, his ERA was 2.30. He made only two more appearances. He first was sidelined by a strained oblique. Then he was lost for the season with loose bodies in his elbow.

Bowa vociferously pointed to his team's unremarkable usage of relievers overall, but the greater point to be addressed was not overall bullpen innings; rather, it was using certain relievers in certain situations.

Geez, what's Bowa going to do when he finds out some of us aren't so crazy about his lineups, either?

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Hey You, Peyroux | While paging through last week's City Paper, I came across a brief but encouraging note that the beguiling vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, whose face had begun showing up on milk cartons, has been playing some dates at Philadelphia's Tin Angel and is working on a new record. Peyroux's debut (and her only full-length album to date), 1996's Dreamland, was a remarkably mature and accomplished collection of covers and original stuff, considering she was in her early 20s at the time. Her sound channels Billie Holiday, a lazy yet not inaccurate comparison, and it's anybody's guess why Peyroux didn't use Dreamland as a sprinboard to It Singer status. As CP noted, "It's not clear why her star-is-born career trajectory took a dive, but in the days before Norah Jones, Peyroux's retro stylings didn't make much of a dent on the charts, despite the 200,000 copies sold."

Now, I'm still not sold on the whole Jones phenomenon. She's a perfectly nice singer, but the languorous quality of her songs just hasn't grabbed me as it has millions of others. Peyroux, though, injects her treatment of standards with an infectious and winning sprightliness. I'm tremendously glad to hear she's working again and look forward to hearing her new record.

Mauling Marlins | After both papers noted (Inquirer; Daily News) that Florida just might be a team the Phillies should consider beating once in a while, the home nine fell meekly to the Fish tonight at the Park, 3-1. For those of you scoring at home, that's four straight losses to the Marlins so far this season, and 16 in the Phils' last 18 against Florida.

Reverting to their opening week form, the Phils could muster just four hits, and hung Vicente Padilla with another loss despite a decent starting effort. Would-be table-setter Jimmy Rollins was 0-for-4, and the slumping Bobby Abreu and Marlon Byrd were both rested, though Abreu pinch-hit and lined out in the ninth. The team played atypically sloppy defense and was charged with three errors after having booted only one ball in all of its previous games. But, hey, at least the Phillies held Dontrelle Willis hitless. What's that? Moral victories don't show up in the standings?

Monday, April 19, 2004

Home Cooking | The Phillies are 4-1 at Citizens Bank Park, and the Inky's Phil Sheridan draws a couple of conclusions after just a week of games at the new place: One, it sure does generate considerable excitement among fans, and two, batted balls seem turbocharged.

Yesterday's win (Inquirer; Daily News), meanwhile, was not without a few eyebrow-raisers.

I've long complained that in addition to having no clue on how to motivate people, Larry Bowa is an inept handler of pitchers. Well, he provided the jury with a couple of huge pieces of evidence yesterday. Exhibit A: He lifted Randy Wolf, who got past a rocky first inning and by all accounts was sailing along, after six innings, despite Wolf's allowing just three hits and no runs over his last five innings and throwing just 86 pitches total. Exhibit B: Bowa called on closer Billy Wagner for a fourth straight game, even though the game was tied when he entered it. Wagner made all the right statements after the game about being a competitor, and he did pick up the win, but he admitted that he was exhausted and without his best stuff. Larry, it's April, for Christ's sake -- you don't need to run him out there every day yet. Bowa claimed that neither he nor pitching coach Joe Kerrigan "dictates" appearance terms to Wagner, to which I say: You're the manager! That's exactly what you're supposed to do! Someone please tell Bowa that this line of thinking got Grady Little run out of Boston, and Little was within a few outs of reaching the World Series, an event that has been nothing more than a rumor to Bowa during the course of his managerial career.

As for the hapless Expos, they suffered severely bruised egos after getting a taste of Philadelphia hospitality courtesy the leatherlungs who can get up close and personal just above the visitor's bullpen at CBP. Poor, poor dears. Thank God they have all those dollar bills to stuff in their ears to drown out the noise.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Four to Score | The most unlikely Phillie you'd pick to crash a game-winning homer might be blogosphere whipping boy Doug Glanville, but his leadoff tater in the bottom of the ninth sent the Phils to their fourth straight win and a sweep of the Expos this afternoon at Citizens Bank Park. Jim Thome added a dinger for the home nine, and Randy Wolf survived a wobbly first inning to go six. Billy Wagner picked up the win after twirling a scoreless ninth.

Glanville's late heroics made crow-eaters, at least temporarily, out of I'm Not An Athlete and the Philling Station, both of whom apologized for previous weeks' bashing.

More importantly, the Phillies are now just two-and-a-half back of the Marlins, who come to town for a three-game series beginning Tuesday. The Fish, of course, have owned the Phils over the last year; the Fightin's need to stand up to Florida and prove they have the mettle to play with the defending champs. Vicente Padilla opposes Dontrelle Willis in the opener.

Blogged Down | Welcome to all who have come here after reading Barry Sparks's story about baseball blogs in today's York Sunday News. Sparks was kind enough to include Shallow Center in his piece and to quote me as well. He surveyed an impressive array of bloggers -- I can't speak for the rest, but I answered his questions by e-mail -- to give south central Pennsylvanians an overview of what we do and why we do it. Now if only his story had included links to the blogs... .

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the recent roundup of the baseball blogosphere by Slate's Josh Levin. No, Shallow Center wasn't mentioned, but the excellent clearinghouse was, and if you can get past the occasional nose-in-the-air tone -- "Even the Twins have five blogs devoted to them. Can you believe it?" (note: not a direct quote) -- Levin offers some very cogent thoughts on why "[b]aseball and blogging are a perfect match":

Each day of the 162-game season brings a new torrent of information -- another round of at-bats, boneheaded managerial moves, minor-league games, and scoreboard dot races -- that requires instant analysis. There's also a huge body of baseball knowledge on the Web, ready to be mined for cross-referential links: local papers, statistical encyclopedias, analytical clearinghouses, other baseblogs. For fans living far from their favorite team, and without the time or inclination to order MLB Extra Innings, a dedicated blogger is local color -- a friend who can't help but complain about the local TV announcers and a beat writer who doesn't lard his copy with boring player quotes.

Finally, the Gray Lady herself checks in today with a look at Ana Marie Cox's gossipy D.C.-centric blog Wonkette. The piece is a bit stiffly written (e.g. "Despite some criticism, Ms. Cox's knack for mockery has attracted quite a following") and somehow manages to portray Cox as both a profane and irreverent outsider whose lack of credentials gives her blog street cred as well as a Washington insider connected enough to have Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, former Clinton flack Joe Lockhart, Slate political blogger Mickey Kaus, and former Howard Dean spokeswoman Tricia Enright attend a party celebrating the launch of her blog last month. Um, which is it?

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Trump the Shark | I hadn't anticipated latching on to NBC's Donald Trump reality show, The Apprentice, when it premiered in January, but damned if Mark Burnett didn't suck me in anyway, just as he did a few years ago with a stupid-sounding but ultimately very compelling competition among 16 strangers dropped onto a remote island and left to fend for themselves.

Fueled by the network's out-of-control promotions department, The Apprentice became a big hit, with Thursday's final episode, in which Trump hired jittery cigar salesman Bill over somnolent Harvard MBA Kwame, drawing big viewership numbers. There are sequel series planned, and the show was a true water-cooler phenomenon.

Journalists being the lazy sorts that they are, most of the coverage of the show centered unjustifiably if understandably on Trump, who's always been a better self-promoter than businessman. His casinos are on shaky financial ground, he invested poorly in wives, and he recently launched an absurd and hopefully ill-fated bid to trademark the phrase "You're fired."

But he sure makes for good TV. Right?

Well, maybe not. The thing is, after watching most of the series's episodes, I'm still not convinced that the real purpose of the show was to milk Trump's "expertise" in order to identify the most promising management hopeful among the 200,000-plus people who applied to be on. Indeed, the various competitions in which the hopefuls engaged as they vied for Trump's imprimatur did nothing more than single out successful salespeople. Whether lemonade or real estate or shitty art, week by week the contestants were asked to sell stuff. That's it. Sure, Thursday's installment had the two finalists shepherding a charity golf tournament and a Jessica Simpson concert, respectively, but event management, a tactical business endeavor, is a far cry from the kind of strategic thinking that today's corporations need to remain nimbly ahead of the curve and be successful.

Burnett's great secret, though, is that his shows aren't about business, or restaurants, or tropical island survival. They're about people and interpersonal relationships, and that's why there so freakin' much fun to watch. The anchor of The Apprentice isn't Trump; with just a modicum of media training, even a stiff such as Bill Gates could pull off a boardroom appearance. No, what grounds the show and makes people want to watch is that it stars real people -- well, as real as one can be trying to sell lemonade in front of an armada of TV cameras and scruffy guys holding boom mikes -- doing real things, with real results.

And with no candy-ass, dating-challenged, backup quarterbacks anywhere to be found.

Lonely at the Top? | Larry Bowa's desperate insertion of an overmatched Jimmy Rollins at the top of the Phillies lineup may have lasted all of two games. Rollins was hitless in four at-bats both Thursday and Friday, and today Marlon Byrd was back in the leadoff spot, with Tomas Perez getting the start at shortstop and hitting seventh.

Rollins is what he is, an unfortunately free-swinging 5-8 shortstop with a penchant for swinging from the heels. He has some pop when he makes contact, but strikes out way, way, way too much for a guy with his speed. Really, his nickname, J-Roll, should be changed to K-Roll. For the past couple of springs Rollins has gone to Southern California to be tutored by Tony Gwynn, and he returns pledging to morph into a slap hitter able to take advantage of his swiftness. If the brutally awful bunt he laid down Thursday is any indication -- it reached the front of the pitcher's mound in about half a second -- Gwynn stole the Phils' money.

For the record, Byrd, like Rollins, is off to an awful start, though the historical data favors Marlon leading off. Regardless, the Phillies blogosphere has featured almost as much criticism of Bowa for jumping back on the K-Roll bandwagon as for permitting Doug Glanville instead of Chase Utley to occupy a spot on the Phils' bench. The news even inspired a statistically supported dressing-down from the well regarded baseball blog Mike's Baseball Rants, which took time out from lobbing hand grenades at Joe Morgan to decry the move:

As if the Ides of April weren't bad enough already with the attendant mad dash to file your taxes, Larry Bowa felt compelled to add to your burden, at least if you're a Phillies fan. Bowa is moving Jimmy Rollins back to the top of the order with erstwhile leadoff hitter Marlon Byrd moving down to the seven spot. Resumes for the Phils' managerial job are starting to pour in as we speak (type?).

I predicted that if Bowa returneth to J-Roll, then he would be canneth by May 1. The way that the Phils are playing, I see no reason to change that prediction. Bowa had been too quiet. The last change to the lineup had been to rotate the 3-4-5 spots to move Bobby Abreu back to the number three hole in the 4-1 loss to Cincinnati in the home opener Monday. Abreu did homer, but the Phils did little else against redoubtable Red pitcher Paul Wilson. Rollins had lead off against Darren Oliver on Saturday, but now takes over officially, whatever that means.

It'll be interesting to see where Rollins bats in tomorrow's lineup.

Threepeat | Hold off on that Larry Bowa speculation. After their unfortunate 1-6 start, the Phillies have won three straight to climb out of the division cellar. The latest victory, this afternoon's 6-3 triumph over the limp Expos at sparkling Citizens Bank Park, was keyed by homers from David Bell, the white-hot Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, and Placido Polanco. Billy Wagner closed the door to earn his fourth save in four tries.

What's notable about the Phillies' rebound is that they're winning games exactly the way most anticipated. The bats are coming around, especially in the long-ball department, yet the offense is too inconsistent to be blowing teams away. Burrell looks much more like the 2002 version, and Bell, healthy at last, is performing like the professional Bowa promised he was. The starting pitching has been decent but not overwhelming -- not surprising for a staff with a bunch of No. 2 guys but no real ace. Middle relief and setup have been solid. And Wagner has been the kind of lights-out certainty we all longed for when Ed Wade acquired him from Houston. As Phillies Fan's Bill Liming noted, "This is the team we expected to see right out of the gate."

Just before the winning streak began, Jayson Stark surveyed scouts around the league for their opinion on whether the 1-6 start was reality or illusion:

"They're a boom-or-bust club offensively," said one advance scout. Another scout wondered about their lack of "that prototype leadoff guy." And scouts who have watched them see a palpable tension in the way their hitters approach big at-bats -- and wonder if that reflects the personality of their tightly wound manager, Lawrence R. Bowa.

Whether it does or not, this is a club with no excuse not to win its division. So while Bowa is not in imminent danger, remember that this is a team committed to all of its significant players for the next three to five years. And this is too important a season in the life of the franchise to expect that the men at the top could possibly sit back and let this season fall apart without making a change.

On the other hand, there is also so much talent here, there is no reason to think this outfit can possibly keep playing this lousy. So our panel's verdict: illusion.

The Phils will go for the sweep tomorrow afternoon when Randy Wolf takes the hill against Claudio Vargas. After an off day Monday, the how-the-hell-are-they-doing-it-again Marlins come to town for a three-game set, giving the Phillies a chance to make up some ground in the N.L. East.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Phillies 6, Reds 4 | Brilliant sunshine rendered Citizens Bank Park a glittering, flawless diamond Thursday afternoon, a welcome change after Monday's sodden Opening Day disappointment and last night's rainout.

But the Phillies came out flat, again, against the Reds, scratching out just two hits through the first six innings. Cincinnati touched Vicente Padilla, who faded after a strong start, for four runs in five innings, and the home crowd was in a restless mood, although CBP's open design doesn't capture and retain catcalls quite the way its more insular predecessor did. As a fellow fan in the 300 level remarked, "The boos don't resonate the way they did at the Vet."

Strong middle relief from Roberto Hernandez and Rheal Cormier kept the Phils' deficit at four runs, and when David Bell punched a hole in the brisk left-to-right wind with a two-run dinger in the seventh, we regained some hope. An inning later, Placido Polanco and Bobby Abreu reached base, bringing Jim Thome to the plate and 37,000 fans to their feet. For an instant Thome appeared poised to add to his folk-hero status, but his towering drive to right was nudged just foul by the stiff breeze. His subsequent fielder's choice groundout put runners at the corners for Pat Burrell.

Two quick strikes looking put Burrell in an 0-2 hole, and he seemed destined to halt the rally in its tracks. Swinging off the wrong foot, he reached out on a tough outside pitch and dumped a base hit into shallow right that plated Polanco to draw the Phillies to within a run. It was an uplifting moment for Burrell, who is famously trying to wipe last season from everyone's memory.

With Billy Wagner now heating up in the bullpen, Mike Lieberthal slammed a pitch deep into the leftfield seats to give the Phils their first lead. CBP rocked with joyous bedlam.

Enter Sandman.

As Metallica boomed from the stadium speakers, Wagner sprinted in from the centerfield bullpen, circled the mound, picked up the ball, and took his warmups. Adam Dunn never took the bat off his shoulder and went into the book as a backward K for the first out. Jason LaRue, flailing desperately, somehow got wood on a fastball and blooped a single into right; Abreu probably never had a shot at catching it, but didn't help his cause among the fans with his lackluster pursuit of the pop-up. Wagner, who elicited cheers by hitting 100 on the stadium radar gun, was unfazed. He simply overpowered the pinch-hitting Barry Larkin, inducing a weak grounder to second that Polanco and Jimmy Rollins converted into their third smoothly turned doubleplay of the afternoon.

The twin killing gave the Phillies their first home win and just their second W of the season. The Expos now come to town for a weekend set.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Byrd Flipped | The ever-vigilant Phillies Fan reports, via Roto Times, via AP (stop me before I via again!) that Marlon Byrd's slow start is getting him dropped in the lineup from first to seventh. Your new leadoff hitter, Philadelphia, is one Jimmy Rollins, the previous No. 7 hitter.

Please tell me this is not happening.

Admittedly, Byrd has struggled thus far, hitting just .200 with seven whiffs, but his replacement is scuffling even more, batting all of .160 with five Ks of his own. According to the story, Rollins plans on emulating Florida leadoff whizzes Luis Castillo and Juan Pierre, while Byrd, ever the good soldier, is saying all the rights things.

Color me skeptical. Rollins has done nothing in his career to warrant the leadoff slot, fanning at an alarmingly high rate and lifting more harmless popups to shallow left than I care to count. Perhaps J-Roll has finally had some of that Tony Gwynn magic seep through his thick skull, but until I see evidence of that -- and I'll be watching closely when I'm at CBP tomorrow -- this smells suspiciously like Larry Bowa's first significant blunder of the season. As Phillies Fan states, aw, crap.

(No) Panic Room | Rained on, miserable, and locked in the basement of the N.L. East, our own Soggy Bottom Boys, the Phillies, are finding themselves having to deal with the expectations game just a week into the season.

The team spent yesterday's off-day reiterating that the time for panic is far, far away, and, well, what did you expect them to say? But with expectations as high as they've been in two decades, the entire country is noticing the lackluster start -- witness that the AP's don't-panic story was Yahoo! Sports' top item late yesterday afternoon.

The Larry Bowa speculation, which began at a low hum as early as spring training, is now the subject of open conversation. Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci yesterday predicted significant player and management changes should the underachieving continue, noting, "There ... is understandable reservation about whether Bowa is the kind of manager to calmly hold a team together and steer it through a rough start." The voices around the Phillies blogosphere are less dispassionate. Phillies Fan's Bill Liming has begun a game-by-game review of Bowa's hits and misses, the Citizens Report stridently dislikes the manger's lineup tinkering, baseball titled a recent post "Larry Bowa Suicide Watch," and I'm Not an Athlete is just plain livid:

The only positive thing that I can possibly see coming out of this dreadful start is Larry Bowa getting fired, although I'm not sure that's going to happen anytime soon. Under normal circumstances, I don't think a 1-6 start justifies firing a manager -- in fact, I usually think it's stupid when the first scapegoat for a team's bad start becomes the manager. Of course, when the guy should have been canned months ago and he happens to be the manager of your favorite team, it's different.

Ditto the Philling Station:

Yes, it is early. But count me among the people calling for Bowa's head. Are there other people? I don't know because I am also on strike from reading about this crap. I hope there are others.

Oh, yes, there are others, though judging from the mostly positive reaction during introductions at Citizens Bank Park Monday, Bowa still enjoys support among the non-blogging fan base. He should have been canned during the offseason, but now that the year is underway, I think Bowa deserves a bit more time to see whether he can pull this group together ... but not too much more.

Speaking of CBP, the Daily News's Marcus Hayes ignores the players' "It's still early!" exclamations and instead takes a look at how different the ball travels, in the air and on the ground, than it did at Veterans Stadium. And Verducci, in his piece from yesterday, confesses to being less than overwhelmed by the park. Oh, it's nice and quite an upgrade from the Vet, he writes, but after a while all these new facilities begin to look the same:

CBP is just another new Camry in the driveway: likeable enough and loaded with the latest features, but impossible to distinguish from any another new Accord, Tempo, Malibu, Galant or any other family sedan in driveways up and down the block. The out-of-town scoreboard embedded in the outfield wall? The terraced bullpens? The exposed brick? It looks too familiar by now.

Gee, who says sportswriters have lost touch with the average fan? Uh, Tom? I've got news: It's only familiar if you make your living watching baseball games in person all over the country. Verducci's patronizing attitude is a mean-spirited and unnecessary punch in the gut to those of us who were appropriately wowed by what we saw Monday. We have plenty of precipitation this week without needing Sports Illustrated to rain on our parade.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Aftermath Analysis | As A Citizen's Blog points out today, the papers' Citizens Bank Park reviews come off as expected. Given the high profile of the stadium's inaugural official game, a larger than usual media presence was on hand, and since the ballpark analysis really already happened, during that weekend exhibition series with the Indians, there's plenty of focus today on the underwhelming on-field product.

In the Inquirer, Phil Sheridan doubtless had scores of fans spitting out their morning coffee with his column uncomfortably linking the early 2004 Phillies with the disastrous 1987 team managed, albeit briefly, by Where Is He Now? Poster Boy John Felske. Jim Salisbury strikes the right balance, I think, between the need for perspective as a long season gets underway and a realization that at some point the Phillies need to wake up and realize they were built to win now:

The Phils didn't look good in spring training and it was dismissed as, well, just spring training. They look bad now and it can't be dismissed. They'll get a lot of attention this season because of their spiffy new ballpark, but even the fans saw through that yesterday. They booed the boys several times, especially at the end of the game.

Fans have a right to be impatient -- especially when they're paying an average ticket price of $28 and forking out big coin to park.

Players have a way of being less edgy.

The refrain in the Phils' clubhouse is still, "It's early; don't panic."

Yeah, it's early. But it's still almost surreal to see this club 1-6, especially after a winter of hype.

The Phillies were supposed to be better than this, weren't they?

Were we all fooled?

The Daily News is more subdued, with Paul Hagen's exploration of Larry Bowa's futile lineup shuffle serving as the only critical look at what's been happening with the Phillies. There are other sidebars and columns, but mostly they're puff-piece fillers. It's a shame Bill Conlin is away for a while; his acerbic and perceptive viewpoint would have produced an entertaining piece.

For proof that the Phils are basking in a far brighter spotlight these days, note that the thoughtful if occasionally snarky writer Allen Barra filed a piece on the team and the ballpark late last week in Slate's Sports Nut column. If memory serves, Barra is something of a local, perhaps from Princeton or thereabouts, so his musings on Philadelphia and the Phillies, like those of Jayson Stark (who has his own rambling but fun look at yesterday's festivities), carry much greater weight than most national pundits'. When Barra writes "I don't know how far a new stadium and a winning team can go toward relieving a 100-year inferiority complex, but this century is sure starting off better than the last one," I can take a deep breath and recover a small scrap of the optimism which lies crumpled up like a used hot-dog wrapper.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Reds 4, Phillies 1 | It was Sergio Leone Day this afternoon in South Philadelphia, where the Phillies updated the classic Spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. Its 2004 working title: The Park, the Game & the Weather.

*** Citizens Bank Park ***

Remember when you already knew what the best present under the tree was going to be when you got up Christmas morning?

You knew, but that didn't stop you from blasting down the stairs and bolting for the tree. Then you got there, tore off the paper, and that shiny, perfect bauble looked even better in your hands than it did in your imagination the night before.

Welcome to Citizens Bank Park.

The color green whooshes out to meet you the instant you're within sight of the field. Lush, perfect grass contrasts nicely with the more olive leftfield and centerfield walls. The outfield is pleasantly asymmetrical, with a great out-of-town scoreboard and video screens spanning the rightfield wall. The concourse which circles the stadium is conveniently at entry level and provides stunning views from just about every vantage point. A huge Liberty Bell replica in center glows and moves, the bell one way and its clapper the other, whenever a Phillie homers. The big-screen TV in left-center offers jaw-dropping clarity in its instant replays.

Today's weather -- cold, rainy, and windy, a truly nasty early spring day in the Northeast -- prevented a great deal of reconnaissance, but on a quick trip around the park after the second inning I saw a great many things to like. Lots and lots of fans agreed with me; I overheard many, upon their first view of the field, say something like "Oh, my God." And in a good way.

The ballpark's startling openness is a refreshing change from the concrete monotony of the Vet. There is a large break in the outfield, and the previously mentioned concourse offers the welcome impression that you're just off the field, not sequestered from it in a soulless food court. Shallow metal shelves, designed for stand-up eating, are plentiful and afford the opportunity to hang with a pal and check out the action while you chow down and drink up. It's a stadium with atmosphere, and I don't just mean ambience; I mean moving air, and sights beyond the stadium, and sound that is clear but never overpowering, now that it has someplace to go instead of just booming around an empty upper deck.

The Phillies did a superlative job in localizing the place, too. Yes, the location sucks -- I mean, it really and truly sucks, as Phil Sheridan explains more eloquently in today's Inquirer -- but the number of local nods in food choices is dazzling. Want a cheesesteak? You could hit any of the many grills lining the concourse, but the better idea is to stroll down Ashburn Alley for a sandwich from Tony Luke's. (There's a Geno's outlet, too, but if you're going to spend that kind of scratch, don't get suckered into the tourist trap -- Tony Luke's is the way to go.) Turkey Hill ice cream, Peace a Pizza slices, Schmitter sandwiches from McNally's Tavern in Chestnut Hill, Yards beers -- there are many fine options if you want to extend beyond a lukewarm hot dog and a watery Bud.

About the only complaint today is that the lines at the good places were so long, and appeared to be moving so slowly, that I opted for said dog. As people get used to the options near their seats and grow more comfortable with the park, I envision that situation easing. As Yogi might say, maybe no one will go there anymore once it gets too crowded.

Ladies and gentlemen, we Phillies fans finally have a real ballpark to call our own.

And the Phils didn't just not screw it up.

They got it really, really right.

*** You Snooze, You Lose ***

As far as the game itself, highlights for the home team were few and far between. Bobby Abreu lined the ballpark's inaugural home run into the leftfield seats in the bottom of the first, and Ryan Madson pitched three fine innings of scoreless ball after the Phils pinch-hit for Randy Wolf in the fifth, and that was about it.

If you're keeping count -- and judging by the unrest that rumbled around CBP as the game drew to a close, quite a few fans are -- that's 16 runs in seven games to start the season. This will change, of course, and the Phillies will begin to win more ballgames than they lose. There's simply too much historical evidence to expect otherwise.

In the meantime, what has become exceedingly frustrating over the season's first week is not the losses, but how they're being incurred. The Phils' bland acceptance of defeat, their passive, uninspired play, is no better in person than it is on television. I don't expect water coolers to be hurled out of dugouts, but I'd like to see some signs of life. The Phillies are committing perhaps the worst sin of all -- not only are they losing, they are boring as well. Does anybody on this team's bench even know what a rally cap is?

Phreaked Out | Yuck. The Fightin's return to Philadelphia burdened with an underachieving 1-5 record, and are lucky not to be winless. The offense apparently remained in Clearwater, and after a three-game sweep by the Marlins, the Phillies dwell in the N.L. East's cellar, four games behind the defending champs. I'll be at Citizens Bank Park for today's inaugural official game against the Reds. The Phils should feel fortunate their gorgeous new stadium -- at least, that's what I hear -- is open to distract fans' attention from their dreadful play. Time to pick it up, boys.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Fantasy Island | My brother sneers at those of us who play in fantasy baseball leagues. He thinks it dilutes our joy in being fans, because we measure results -- of individual at-bats, not to mention games -- in what it means to our fantasy team, not just in their impact on our favorite teams.

But I think playing in a fantasy league has made me a better fan. I have a far greater knowledge of other teams' players -- especially those in the American League -- and I follow results across MLB much more closely than I ever did before. And I never, ever let my affection for my fantasy team supercede my love for the Phillies.

Besides, for the better part of a day each spring, I get to hang with a bunch of great guys who love to talk baseball. (There may also be the occasional stray comment about women, I concede.) Yesterday was draft day, and as usual a great time was had by all. We had eight of our 11 managers present, with three guys drafting by phone, including one from his in-laws' place in Spain. That, friends, is dedication.

And because I know you care, these are the non-Phillies for whom I'll be rooting this season: Alex Rodriguez, Garrett Anderson, Scott Rolen, Aubrey Huff, Jay Gibbons, Orlando Cabrera, Eric Hinske, Michael Young, and Geoff Jenkins. These players are the 2004 Tomatoes. Kindly wish them, and their manager, well.

Lose Clues | The Phillies, my friend said yesterday, are playing as if they're trying to get their manager fired.

It's not difficult to see his point. The Phils limped into today's series ender with the Marlins at just 1-4, and they were lucky even to notch the single win. The culprits are familiar: woefully inconsistent hitting and wobbly relief work. The vaunted starting rotation has been decent but hardly dominating, and with the offense struggling to score runs, that hasn't been enough.

Yes, of course, it's way too early to panic. To a man the players insist the Phillies will right the ship, and almost certainly this is true. Jim Thome says what the Phillies need is an offensive explosion to loosen things up; I respectfully disagree. Last year's team scored a lot of runs, but its impressive run total was deceptive, padded by a few games of scoring orgies. What the Phils have to do is hit with runners in scoring position, taking advantage of opportunities that arise. I'm okay with winning 7-4 games; I don't need to see the occasional 12-2 score to convince me that Thome and his mates can swing the bats.

Whether the Phils truly are playing to get Larry Bowa pink-slipped -- or red-tagged, as one film put it -- is anyone's guess, but the early trend isn't promising. I noticed last year that the team seemed to take games off, and one must wonder whether the Phillies simply are tuning Bowa out. They absolutely should not need the external motivation of a fire-breathing manager -- no major leaguer should -- to compete at their best, so if they really are sleepwalking, shame on them.

And maybe, just maybe, it's because Bowa is such a hard-ass, and not in spite of it, that the Phils aren't showing a whole lot of spark here in the early going.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

That's More Like It | Scripted was the watchword of last night's ragged victory over the Pirates (Inquirer; Daily News). Several accounts of the game note that its last third unspooled as if written by Ed Wade and Larry Bowa: strong bullpen work, including a lights-out ninth inning from Billy Wagner, and a couple of eighth-inning runs to get Randy Wolf off the hook and give the Phillies a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

My viewing of the game was spotty, so I can't offer too much running commentary. The most impressive highlights were the Pat Burrell-to-Jimmy Rollins-to-David Bell relay that pegged Raul Mondesi, who was trying to stretch a double, and Wagner's blistering close to the game. I did catch the ninth, and have to admit to really becoming excited watching Billy take the hill. He blasted fastball after fastball past the Bucs, and even though he ran deep counts the entire inning, there was never any indication that a Mesa-like collapse was imminent. Jack Wilson managed a scratch single in the hole between third and short, and that was it. Four batters, three strikeouts, and the Phils evened their record at 1-1.

Citizens Report has a comprehensive destruction of the game. Elsewhere in the Phillies blogosphere, Phillies Fan astutely worries about shaky pitching -- Wolf coughed up a pair of leads, and Rheal Cormier allowed an inherited runner to score -- and an inconsistent offense (another 10 runners left on base), while Citizen's Blog exults over "the joys of an automatic closer." There will be more to come as bloggers fire up their PCs this morning, I suspect.

Vicente Padilla goes against Ryan Vogelsong in the rubber match at PNC, as the Phillies attempt to head for Florida with a winning record under their belts.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Opening Day Observations | The papers supplement their game coverage of the Phils' Opening Day loss to Pittsburgh with lots of sidebars and columns. The Inquirer's Jim Salisbury and the Daily News's Paul Hagen are all over the Jose Mesa angle, with Salisbury, blog-like, spinning off into a loopy meta-analysis involving his clubhouse spat with Mesa last season:

Of course, when it was over, there was only one question to ask.

Jose, are you talking?

Oh, yeah, he was talking. Talking and smiling and joking and enjoying every minute of his revenge. He even shook the hand of a certain scribe with whom he'd had a little dustup back in August.

Joe Table.

Mi amigo.

Both Salisbury and Hagen note the baseball gods' sense of humor regarding Mesa's save; for the record, Shallow Center posted his reference to the baseball gods' yukking it up yesterday.

Elsewhere in the DN, Sam Donnellon seems ready to press the panic button, Marcus Hayes reports that Larry Bowa wants Jim Thome's teammates to help him carry the offensive burden, and Bill Fleischman has an interesting take on Harry Kalas and Chris Wheeler's on-air camaraderie on Opening Day.

In the Inky, Bob Ford, in contrast to Donnellon, agrees with the Phillies that one shouldn't read too much into Monday's loss, Todd Zolecki profiles Pat Burrell's heartening game, and Michael Klein mails in a piece on reader suggestions for a Citizens Bank Park nickname.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Pirates 2, Phillies 1 | The season got off to a disappointing start at gorgeous PNC Park, where the Bucs edged the Phils in a chilly late-afternoon game. Kip Wells was just a bit better than Kevin Millwood, and the baseball gods displayed their twisted sense of humor by allowing Jose Mesa to slam the door with a one-two-three ninth. On the plus side, Millwood was pretty sharp and Pat Burrell rapped three hits; on the minus side, the Phillies stranded 10 baserunners, a frustrating carryover from last season's inability to secure key hits.

Around the blogosphere, both Phillies Foul Balls and Phillies Fan pin the blame on a failure to hit with runners in scoring position, while Citizen's Blog shrugs his shoulders and says simply that it was the Pirates' day. I'm Not An Athlete sums it up best with the final sentence in his recap: "The added sting of Mesa getting the save at the end for the Bucs didn't help either."

The joy of baseball, of course, is that you don't have to wait long for another game, and with 161 more to go, one loss is just that -- one loss.

Lashing Larry | There are a couple of interesting takes on the Larry Bowa situation in the Inquirer's baseball preview today. Jim Salisbury tackles it head-on in a piece headlined "Is Bowa the manager to make it happen?" Bowa, not exactly a guy you'd call self-aware, professes not to know why so many people in baseball think he's on the hot seat, though Salisbury is quick to tick off the reasons:

The complaints about Bowa are well-known: He is moody. He harps on the negative. He makes some players tense. He is difficult to play for.

Whether the complaints are valid, there is a feeling in the organization that if Bowa's personality becomes an impediment to the team, a change could be made. There is too much invested in the team -- there are high hopes, a team-record $92 million payroll, a new ballpark, and a town ready to embrace a winner -- to let it slip away because of poor relations between the manager and some players.

Unfortunately, none of Bowa's critics would go on the record -- nor, significantly, would any of the phantom "organization" types whom Salisbury feels are looking for a reason to drop the axe. Jimmy Rollins and David Bell, though, praise Bowa's passion and say they know not to take his dugout histrionics personally. Meanwhile, the manager's nightstand reading pile includes books by UCLA hoops coach John Wooden and sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman on "dealing with disappointment better." Somebody call Dr. Phil.

Elsewhere in the section, columnist Phil Sheridan sees a half-full glass, Bowa and all. Acknowledging the manager's flaws, Sheridan nevertheless envisions a new beginning, and urges everyone to wait and see what happens:

. . . [I]t is the manager's personality that draws the most scrutiny. There is a perception that he is the most volatile element in the mix, that he could cross the line from spark plug to blasting cap at the wrong moment and blow the whole thing apart.

That perception -- and, yes, there is a basis in fact for it -- has led to speculation that Bowa goes into the season with no margin for error. People have gone so far as to name Charlie Manuel, who is already on the payroll, as his likely successor.

"I don't pay attention to reports like that," [GM Ed] Wade said. "It starts with local reports, then goes national, then comes back to the local media."

He's right. There is a kind of echo chamber at work. But that doesn't mean there isn't some truth in all the noise.

Here's the thing: All of that speculation assumes things will go wrong and Bowa will take the fall. That's understandable, given the Phillies' bleak history. But why not go the other way? Why not look at the new ballpark as a chance to break with that history?

Sheridan's optimism is admirable, but he's been around Philadelphia sports long enough to know we're not much capable of it. And when you factor into the mix that Bowa's managerial track record is less than sterling, I think it's prudent for Wade to keep him on a short leash. To answer Jim Salisbury's question, no, I don't think Larry Bowa is the manager to make it happen. I don't know whether it's Charlie Manuel or Bob Boone, either, but Bowa's legacy is one of helming underachieving teams, and unless and until I see a change in how his players respond to him, I'll be skeptical of his ability to lead a champion.

Opening Day | Now is the time, say the t-shirts. Clearly the fans and media aren't the only ones who feel the division is the Phillies' for the taking. The players themselves seem to understand that this season represents a rare opportunity for the hometown nine -- an unparalleled convergence of talent, facilities, fan excitement, and ownership support have set the stage for this year's Phils to establish themselves as the N.L. East's team to beat.

Opening Day is always special -- it's one of my favorite days of the year, even when I know, in my heart of hearts, that the Phillies will be lucky to reach .500.

This year, though, Opening Day resonates with the unfamiliar, and entirely welcome, burden of high expectations. Baseball, to me, is always fun. This season, Phillies baseball should be fun, too.

Now is the time. Play ball, boys.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Airing it Out | Phillies fans are simultaneously blessed and cursed when it comes to the guys calling the action in the team's broadcast booth. Harry Kalas, one of baseball's all-time finest play-by-play men, owns a rightful place in the Hall of Fame, while Chris Wheeler, the ultimate company man, cannot help but lace every inning he does with a healthy splash of sycophancy. The two had a very public rift in the offseason, with Kalas seeking to have his new contract include a provision that he and Wheeler not work together. Well, Harry the K signed on the dotted line, but the team retained the right to pair up whomever it wished in the booth.

So there they were yesterday on Comcast SportsNet's inaugural broadcast from Citizens Bank Park. I didn't watch the whole game on TV or listen to it on the radio, so I don't know whether Kalas and Wheeler were ever on the air together. But I did see them throw pregame bits to one another, and it seemed as genial as always. One hopes that whatever personal gripes each has about the other, they can keep their on-air relationship professional.

That might be more difficult for Kalas, given Wheeler's maddeningly apologetic style. Yesterday, before the season even was officially underway, Wheels attached his lips to Bobby Abreu's rear end, noting that the Phillies rightfielder has become a bit of a "whipping boy" for fans because his style of play appears "effortless." I shook my head at that; I mean, come on. The reason fans got on Abreu last year was that at times his play was effortless. Bobby is a gifted ballplayer, and when the game is on the line he busts it as hard as anyone, but all too often he floats around right field as if he's soaking up the sun on an inflatable raft in his backyard pool. Philadelphia fans have always come down hard on guys who mail it in, and Wheeler should know that. We may be tough, but we're smart, too, and we know when someone's trying to whitewash the truth. Wheels should put his paintbrush away and stick to calling games instead of trying to issue on-air press releases.

Opening the Vault | Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron files an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink review of Citizens Bank Park in today's paper. Saffron's many impressions, in a nutshell: Good -- "impeccable sight lines"; wide concourses with great views of the action; and atypically strong efforts by the facility's architects "to create an urban appearance, as if there were buildings next door." Bad -- location, location, location; "a utilitarian, bread-and-butter feel"; a vanilla exterior; way too much baseball imagery; and poorly rendered bronze statues of Phillies greats Mike Schmidt, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, and Richie Ashburn. Sadly, Saffron infuses her review -- of a baseball stadium, mind you, not a modern-art museum -- with an unnecessary dash of snobbery:

Citizens Bank Park has real grass, impeccable sight lines, a quirky asymmetrical field, and double-wide concourses where families can joyously slurp their Turkey Hill cones in four-abreast harmony.

It also has all the pizzazz of a suburban office park.

That combination, which will probably suit many fans just fine, is the indirect result of playing it safe on the ballpark's location. . . . [emphasis added]

The Phillies got the basics exactly right. It will be a pleasure to watch a game in Citizens' gently sloped lower bowl, especially for the masses who endured a 30-year purgatory in the cavernous darkness of the Vet's 300 level and Himalayan heights of its 700 level.

So it's a shame that the exterior is dressed in the architectural equivalent of khaki slacks and a blue Oxford cloth shirt.

Okay, then. Inky sports columnist Bob Ford could have seen Saffron's review in yesterday's early edition before filing his piece for today. Ford concedes the obvious, that the park's location sucks, but otherwise was as wowed as the fans who attended yesterday's exhibition against Cleveland:

Those who know more about architecture but less about baseball won't care for the place because its beauty is elusive, defined by the possibilities it presents for the game rather than the environment it forces upon it. The new park is the stage, not the furniture.

There will be soft summer nights when friends can lean against a railing overlooking the bullpen and watch Billy Wagner warm up his furious fastball. They can amble toward home plate along with Wagner, take up a new station at a different rail and watch the pitcher save another game. This is as close to interactive ball as a fan can get.

Citizens Bank Park provides the freedom to take a game as seriously or as lightly as the fan could want. There will be games when a seat near the action and unblinking attention is the order of the day. But there will also be games -- which is the beauty of a 81-date home schedule -- when the company and mood make it a better idea to view the action from a barstool at Harry the K's restaurant overlooking left field.

The possibilities are all here, just waiting for the games to arrive.

INQlings columnist Michael Klein points out that no consensus has developed on a ballpark nickname; regardless of what one calls it, I'll be there next Monday to take in the home opener. Meanwhile, and more importantly, real games for the Phillies begin tomorrow -- and not a moment too soon.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Burgeoning Blogosphere | Bill Liming has launched the Phillies Fan blog, and he's off to a nice start so far. Drop on by and check him out.

Rain, Rain, Go Away | While the Phillies closed up shop in Florida with a nasty and mean-spirited loss to the Blue Jays, workers at Citizens Bank Park were busy yesterday making preparations for games that may not get played. The team was scheduled to work out at the ballpark this afternoon, but it's raining like a mo-fo here in Philadelphia, and the weekend forecast isn't much better, jeopardizing Saturday and Sunday exhibitions against the Indians. Regardless, Larry Eichel takes a front-page look at the scene in South Philly in today's Inquirer and offers a color-by-numbers review of how the Phils got from the Vet to CBP over the last dozen years. (Man, oh, man, do we need a nickname for the new place.) What I'm really looking forward to is Sunday's Inky, where architecture critic Inga Saffron, who seems disinclined to like anything built after about 1930, will share her thoughts on CBP.

In the Daily News today, Marcus Hayes reports on the not-so-startling news that nobody in red pinstripes is concerned about the generally subpar performances turned in by the pitching staff this spring. If you haven't yet checked it out, yesterday's DN had a cool wraparound previewing CBP. Lots of interviews, info, and graphics -- great stuff.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Their Two Cents | There are a few relatively new Phillies voices echoing throughout the blogosphere. Please join me in welcoming The Citizens Report, baseball, Phillies Foul Balls, and A Citizen's Blog for the Philadelphia Phillies to the discussion. I'll be checking them out regularly and linking to things I find interesting. It certainly wouldn't surprise me if even more bloggers jump aboard the Phils' bandwagon, given the prospects for the season; I hope we all have lots to write about, well into October.

Canvassing the Experts | By now the roundtable discussions on divisional predictions among's writers are old news, but it's worth noting, I think, that while "the smart money is on the Phillies," the N.L. East discussion includes a tremendous amount of questioning on Larry Bowa's impact. The intro to the piece concedes that there are "very few hard facts," but several writers nevertheless look to the Phils' manager with something less than complete confidence. Dodger Thoughts' perceptive Jon Weisman offer the best take, one which does include some hard facts:

I'm not swayed by the argument that Larry Bowa is nothing more than a hothead. It's not that I believe that everyone has to like each other to win. But I have just observed during his managerial career that he is an alienating force. And I think that alienation prevents his teams from performing up to their potential.

Bowa-managed teams have not won more than 86 games in a season. His career record is 333-360. He had a Padres team in 1987 with Benito Santiago, Tony Gwynn and John Kruk having wonderful years, and won 65 games (Pythagorean expectation: 71). In 1988, he was fired with a 16-30 record. The Padres then went 67-48 the rest of the way under...Jack McKeon.

Flash forward a decade and a half. Has Bowa learned anything? No doubt. And in fact, he slightly outperformed his Pythag expectations in 2001 and 2002 before faltering in 2003. His team may have the best talent in the division, but is there any reason to feel good about the leadership? I'm still quite open to opposing arguments, but for now, I think that just as the Marlins HAD to fire Jeff Torborg last year, the Phillies may have to fire Bowa this year.

By the way, are the Phillies still the last team to fire a manager when he was in first place (Pat Corrales, 1983)?

Salon's King Kaufman likewise picks the Phillies to win the division but is (repeat after me) wary of Skipper Shortfuse:

In 2001, Bowa's first year as manager in Philadelphia, the Phillies went to bed on Aug. 28 tied for first with the Braves. The rest of the way they went 15-16 and finished two games behind Atlanta, which hadn't exactly run away with the division. Last year, the Phillies went to bed on Aug. 17 a half game ahead of the Marlins in the wild card race. The rest of the way they went 17-22, finishing five games behind Florida, which went a solid but not spectacular 22-16. Could it be that by late August, Bowa's players are so sick of listening to him yell that they switch off? I'm suspicious of such ideas, but I'll believe it if it happens again.'s preview is here, but the boys in Bristol will wait until April 4 to make public their picks. Jayson Stark, meanwhile, tabs the Phils as the class of the division, with the team's pluses and minuses as follows:

Biggest assets -- Billy Wagner obliterating memories of Jose Mesa, five No. 2 starters, new-ballpark electricity. Biggest questions -- manager-player harmony, health of Jim Thome and David Bell, too much swinging and missing.

Elsewhere, Sean Forman, creator of the extraordinary, files a soup-to-nuts statistics analysis of the Phils and concludes: "96-66 and a first round playoff loss."

Opening Day is just four days away.