Friday, July 30, 2004

Poison Ivy

The Phillies need a standing eight-count.

After the Marlins staggered them with a four-game sweep, the Phils wobbled into Chicago, where the Cubs rocked them this afternoon with a come-from-behind, 10-7 win that was as demoralizing as any this season.

In the early to middle innings, this one looked like a game the Phillies could have used to swing a turnaround to what had been a wretched road trip. They were hitting Mark Prior hard, Eric Milton was locating his curve well, and there were some rare signs of life. Bobby Abreu's three-run homer to dead center, off an up and away Prior fastball that he simply destroyed, gave the Phils a 6-3 lead only a half-inning after a potentially crushing two-run dong by Derrek Lee had tied the score. Placido Polanco, playing perhaps his final game as a Phillie, made a spectacular, over-the-shoulder catch on a pop fly well down the rightfield line to end the fifth, then accepted jubilant high fives as he made his way through the Phils' bullpen while returning to the dugout.

But on a day when the Cubs' vaunted pitching was a liability, the Phillies' hurlers were even worse. Milton unraveled in the sixth, and Rheal Cormier and Roberto Hernandez were equally ineffective, and when it was over, a winnable game had turned into a 10-7 loss.

The trade deadline is less than 24 hours away, and while the Marlins swung a major deal today, the Phillies swapped Ricky Ledee and a minor leaguer for Giants reliever Felix Rodriguez, the kind of trade Ed Wade lives for -- a major bench contributor for a retread bullpen guy. On my way home tonight, I listened to WIP callers come out of the woodwork to point their fingers at Wade, and while Howard Eskin wondered why the writers have given the Phils' GM a pass, I screamed at my car radio that Eskin needs to go online, where feelings are a little different. Alas, those callers seemed to see this as a zero-sum game -- if Wade stinks, then Bo must be okay. Whereas the truth is that Wade's biggest failing is allowing Bowa to last as long as he has.

Two-thirds of the way into a season that saw them as the consensus pick to win the division, the Phillies are a game over .500. They have a manager unfit for Little League, a GM who's running his club as if it were a fantasy team, an ownership group more concerned with beer-stand concessions than wins and losses, and a roster stocked with slackers and crybabies. It's a wonder the Phillies are only 4 1/2 out.

UPDATE: Looks as if the Mets rolled the dice today, too.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Just When You Thought It Couldn't Get Any Worse

That gurgling sound you hear is the Phillies' season slowly and perhaps inexorably sinking down the drain.

Even by the considerable standards of this disappointing season, the Phils today really brought the stinky. A seven-run Marlin third, capped by light-hitting Alex Gonzalez's grand slam, put the morose Phillies into an 8-0 hole, and you could see them deflating before your eyes. They're spineless enough even when they're winning, but hit them with an early, eight-run deficit and they fold like Mo Gaffney on Celebrity Poker Showdown.

The final was Marlins 10, Phillies 1, marking a stunning four-game sweep by Florida. This was a disaster, from the first pitch to the last. Terribly misplayed balls -- a grounder to third that ate up Tomas Perez, a pop-up that Jimmy Rollins should have snared easily but instead lost in the sun in shallow center -- will be what you see on SportsCenter tonight, but just as damaging were Paul Abbott's completely useless start and the paucity of offense (five hits, zero spark).

That makes 14 consecutive losses at Pro Player Stadium, ensuring that if the Phillies do make it back to South Florida in a position to play meaningful games in September, the mental burden the Fish have managed to hang on them will still exist. More significantly, after everyone, the team included, targeted the critical stretch of 12 games in 15 that the Phils would play against division foes immediately following the All-Star break, they got thrashed, going only 4-8.

The Phillies are in bad, bad, bad shape.

I could feel myself getting progressively more upset, in a way I haven't yet this season, as the game unfolded silently on the TV screen in my office. It wasn't yelling and screaming, but sadness, the sense that all of that optimism in March was utterly unfounded. This series, at its beginning, had the whiff of a turning point, a chance for the Phillies to gather themselves and launch their pennant drive. Now that it's over, it still smells like a turning point -- but it sure looks like a wrong turn the Phils have taken.

Tyler Houston's Ghost

Salisbury today on "an almost annual phenomenon. Disenchantment in the clubhouse.":

This whole drama is getting ridiculous. Every spring, the players say they won't let Bowa's hiss and vinegar bother them, then every season they do. Why they can't accept him for what he is and tune him out -- for the most part, they are all richer and have more job security than he does -- remains a mystery.

The players always seem to be looking for Bowa to make a funny face and say something critical. The manager often obliges and the whole thing becomes a cyclical distraction that a team in a so-called pennant race doesn't need. Pennant race? Aren't they supposed to be fun and exciting? These Phils often approach the game as if it's drudgery, and shame on them for that.

Bowa is not a bad person or a bad baseball man. He works hard and he loves the Phillies organization. But, he is clearly in some of the players' heads (we don't think he can help it) to the point that they are obsessing on it.

Maybe that's part of the reason -- we'll give you injuries, but only to a point -- they can't put together a winning streak.

Eventually, maybe in the coming days, maybe over the winter, Wade is going to reach the point where he realizes there's little meshing of personalities here, and decides it's easier to remove one person than a dozen or so.

That's why Bowa could be in trouble right now. The Phils have 61 games left, plenty of time to save the season, especially in the mediocre National League East. Management spent $93 million putting this team together. It won't waste a chance at winning a very winnable division because -- regardless of whose fault it is - the players aren't seeing eye-to-eye with the manager.

Ed Wade has the power to fire Larry Bowa. Believe that.

Will he? We're not sure. But we'd bet he's thinking about it.

Hofmann, a little more supportive of the manager:

We have been here before, of course -- more than once, frankly. The most famous time was last year, after Bowa blew up at his team one August afternoon in Montreal during an epic downspiral. It was a gamble -- the players could have taken ownership of the situation or they could have folded, with rather negative consequences for the manager's long-term employment prospects. But it paid off for Bowa -- the team started winning again, and competed for a wild-card playoff berth until the final week of the season.

That's the key point here, and always has been. Specifically: that even if there are players who don't like the atmosphere surrounding the team -- and there are -- there is no evidence that Bowa is an impediment to winning.

And now, well, the theory will be tested again.

In a sense, Bowa is right: The players should be embarrassed. They're being paid an awful lot of scratch, and they're not performing. But this is a theme common to every single season Bowa has managed in Philadelphia. If he were a guy with a winning track record, hey, more power to him. But we're talking about someone who's 24 games under .500 as a manager. Who has no clue how to handle his pitching staff. Who has shown no ability to motivate players to achieve more, and not less. Who is neither liked nor, more importantly, respected in the clubhouse.

Tell me again why you'd want someone with that profile managing your team?

The season isn't yet lost. There are two months left, and the Phillies are just two-and-a-half back in a weak division. Each passing hour reduces the likelihood of landing an impact player by the trade deadline. But imagine the potential effect in the clubhouse of replacing Bowa, who must be greatly perceived there as an impediment, and not a conduit, to winning.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Let's Make a Deal

An interesting discussion in the comments section of my last post concerns how hard the Phillies should be pressing to make a trade, and for whom. My argument boils down to this: The team as currently constructed is not succeeding, nor do I see it doing so come late September. The talent, I think, is there, but something necessary and intangible is missing. Nobody seems to have any stones in the clubhouse, or any ability to shake off bad stuff and focus on the next game. The papers described the mood following last night's loss as funereal, and Rheal Cormier said "you could tell" that the Phillies believed themselves doomed while sitting out an eighth-inning rain delay down a run. "I feel that even though we're down a run or two, we should never be out of the game," he said. "There are a lot of times when you're walking off the field and you're down by one, you feel the game is over, and we still have one more inning to go. It's frustrating."

Something's not right. The 2004 Phillies, like the 2003 version, are something less than the sum of their parts -- even counting injuries.

My favored solution is to hire a new manager, but at this stage of the season, with just two months to go, that's not going to happen. It should have last November, should have this May, should this fall. But it won't happen now. Given that, you have to look at where and how to upgrade the roster.

And that's why Ed Wade has the town's toughest job right now. Would Steve Finley be an improvement over the three-headed monster of Ricky Ledee, Jason Michaels, and Doug Glanville? Probably, but he wants to stay out West. Would Kris Benson be better than Paul Abbott? Almost certainly, but he's likely to end up in Minnesota. Would Ron Villone provide a veteran presence in a bullpen stocked with Triple-A arms? Yes, but he's said to be off the market now.

Even if Wade can identify the right peg for the right hole, he has to ask: At what cost? Lots of Phillies want him to swing a deal, but concede that losing guys like Chase Utley, Ryan Madson, Cole Hamels, and Gavin Floyd is too high a price. Yet legitimate shots at a championship -- not the pie-in-the-sky, happy-to-be-here long shot that the '93 Phils were -- don't present themselves very often in South Philadelphia. And so it's hard to fault Rich Hofmann's argument in today's Daily News:

The fundamental divide- - whether they should husband their prospects or use them as chips in deals now, whether they should be patient or overpay for today -- remains in place. And we'll state the obvious again -- that the Phillies need to do something now, even it means taking a dip into the pool of the untouchables. The team needs it. The clubhouse needs it. The fans need it.

Does the clubhouse need it? There's no consensus among those who should know best. Similarly, those of us who watch with vested interest and write what we see and hope and believe are at a loss ourselves. Brian at the Citizens Report notes seasonlong problems and says, not unreasonably, "[Wade] has to come up with something or it's devastating. ... [W]e are three days away from the trade deadline ... nothing. All the while the team has been meandering around .500 since the All-Star break." But as Swing and a Miss's Tom Goodman points out, the pickings are pretty slim: "Nearly every hoagie shop patron in the Philadelphia area and many Phillies players willing to be quoted are imploring GM Ed Wade to do something before the July 31 trading deadline; but it doesn’t appear likely the acquisition of anyone short of Randy Johnson will help all that much unless, of course, Steve Carlton is reading this blog and can make it to South Florida before tonight’s game."

No doubt Lefty is too concerned with Zionist conspiracies and black helicopters to get involved at this point. But I wonder what Garry Maddox is doing these days ... .

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Wading into the Deep End

Finley. Benson. Lofton. Villone. Hernandez.

The names blur together in the last week of July. The Phillies, potential buyers for the second year in a row, look at who's available.

Byrd. Polanco. Utley. Hamels. Floyd.

The front office gathers to determine whom they're willing and unwilling to part with in order to pry loose those key missing pieces from the sellers. It's far from easy. But as the gaps grow ever wider, the need to fill them becomes more and more pressing. Time is of the essence.

Wade? Bowa?

A change in field management is very unlikely, though in my opinion, and others', the Phillies have underachieved for more than a season-and-a-half, and at some point you have to ask whether something more than physical talent is the issue. Larry Bowa's shortcomings have been well chronicled and continue to be much despised -- deservedly. But now Ed Wade also finds himself a center of attention -- and not just from the media and the blogosphere, but from his own players as well. Wade's in-season moves over the last two years have been far less decisive and significant than what he has done in the off-season, much like a football coach who prepares his team well during the week yet suddenly grows gun-shy and ineffective at 1 o'clock Sunday afternoon. (Sound familiar, Eagles fans?) And people are starting to notice. So while not excusing Wade's profanity-drenched tirade at a reporter Sunday, Bill Conlin at least understands it:

Timing really is everything and I can identify with Ed [Wade]'s short fuse and his discomfort with the 24/7 media scrutiny suddenly engulfing his stewardship. His expensive team has underperformed and he is feeling suffocating pressure to make a major move.

Everybody has given Ed his props for capably spending the franchise-record money Dave Montgomery made available, banking -- pun intended -- that the Money Pit revenue stream would transform the Phillies into a big-market player. He got Jim Thome and David Bell because he was able to overpay. He got Kevin Millwood because his contract was too heavy and the Phils had the young catcher the Braves had to have.

But Wade has also acquired an in-season record of unfulfillment. Some very bad things have happened on his watch. J.D. Drew, who refused to sign here for reasons both financial and personal, is the most potent hitter on a rival Braves team that has overhauled the Phillies. Curt Schilling forced the 2000 deal to Arizona that left the D-backs with eventual World Series rings. Now, Schilling, who wanted to return here, is a Cy Young candidate in Boston. The Phils re-signed Millwood instead. Current MVP candidate Scott Rolen forced a 2002 trade to St. Louis after inflicting a big shiner on Wade and Montgomery, charging a lack of commitment to winning.

Drew ... Schilling ... Rolen. That's one hell of a hit for the services of a currently disabled pitcher and Placido Polanco.

Perhaps someone should remind Ed Wade that the time is now. Isn't it?

Monday, July 26, 2004

Heading South

How many times this season have we read stories in which the Phillies acknowledge that their upcoming slate of games is pretty gosh-darn important, and, gee, it sure would be nice for us to get on some kind of winning streak?

As Mr. Pink said in Reservoir Dogs: A lot.

Yet each time, it seems, the Phils can't get their shit together. The latest incarnations -- the post-All-Star break stretch involving divisional foes and the two-week road trip that began tonight -- are overlapping with the current four-game series against the Marlins in Miami. And true to form, the hometown nine came out flat, dropping an 11-3 game to the Fish. With few people in the stands to watch fading Florida, the Phillies evidently thought they could trot out their Bad News Bears act without anyone noticing. They left 14 men on base. Kevin Millwood, after a couple of good starts, resembled the stumbling softball pitcher of the season's first half. Pat Burrell looked as clueless as a major leaguer can look while losing a fly ball in the lights. The bullpen, already damaged by an injury to Ryan Madson, rolled over and threw its paws in the air in the seventh and eighth, crippling a potential comeback attempt -- not that any such effort was visible.

Meanwhile, Ed Wade, normally about as excitable as Untouchables accountant Oscar Wallace, tore a new one in a reporter who had the temerity to ask him yesterday about the Phils' attempts to swing a trade. Wade, alas, profanely lost it in front of hundreds of fans before the game at the Park. (Brian Peoples at the Philling Station has an excellent recap of the current status of possible deals.) Maybe the GM is starting to realize that his manager is not the only guy on the hook this season.

Holes in the Ozone

A new kind of hero debuted in a new kind of TV show in the late 1980s. The hero was Vinnie Terranova, an enormously conflicted cop assigned to infiltrate criminal organizations, get close -- very close -- to their leadership, and take the whole thing down. The show was Wiseguy, the first to expand beyond the usual episode-by-episode format and tell stories over sprawling, multi-episode arcs. Vinnie had spent a year in the joint to give him the kind of street cred necessary to cozy up to the bad guys -- charismatic, eccentric types like Sonny Steelgrave and the Profitt siblings, Mel and Susan. Wiseguy's writers and producers often allowed the crooks to take center stage, giving the audience a chance to see why Vinnie would end up bonding, in a way, with them. After tearing down whichever criminal empire he was investigating in a particular arc, Vinnie would torture himself with feelings of disloyalty and treachery -- sure, he had taken down evildoers, but those people had trusted him, and he had betrayed that trust. He'd retreat into a haze of booze and self-loathing until his boss, Frank McPike, would wander onto the beach where Vinnie was brooding and stoically convince him to return for his next assignment. Which Vinnie would do.

Ken Wahl played Vinnie with just the right combination of Italian machismo, vulnerability, and cool, and he and the show quickly won over critics, if not viewers. Talk about a guy who should have had it all. But if you thought Vinnie was troubled, you ain't seen nothing yet, boyo. Dalton Ross's interview with the uber-reclusive Wahl in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly is a disturbing portrait of wasted talent and self-destruction. Stephen J. Cannell couldn't have cast a better guy to play Vinnie Terranova. In many ways the trajectory of Wahl's life has mirrored that of Wiseguy, which exploded onto television with layered, complex storytelling and pitch-perfect actors in all roles, then veered into a self-conscious, esoteric weirdness before finally collapsing, just three years after its promising beginning. Ken Wahl needs help, but you have to wonder whether, like Vinnie, he's too proud to seek it.

The Big Picture

Last year, when Kevin Millwood no-hit the Giants, I was out with the family running a bunch of Sunday-afternoon errands. Scott Graham's ninth-inning play-by-play on WPEN was my only lifeline to Millwood's gem. So when I took a break from yesterday's chores to check the score on TV and found out that Eric Milton had kept the Cubs hitless through six, I cleared the decks and hunkered down.

Milton, of course, lost his no-hit bid, and then the lead, in the ninth, but watching those couple of innings, hearing the sellout crowd at the Park roaring with every strike, seeing them stand and salute the Phils' hurler as he walked to the dugout after each inning and, finally, when Larry Bowa took the ball from his hand, well, all of that is why I love sports. On any given day, you have the chance to see history made. He's not referring to yesterday's game, but Bill Conlin's column today reflects a similar sentiment. Urging fans of all sports to take a peek at the wider world, Conlin recalls his own history growing up as a fan: "I learned from other disconnected but thrilling events of the day that sports is a movable feast and just being there can be enough. You can focus a lot of passion on your team, the one you live and die with. But while celebrating the latest victory or agonizing over the latest loss, it is possible to come up for air once in a while for a look at the big picture."

The Phillies' ninth-inning win was the most important news of the day, of course, but Milton's heroic start seemed to inspire a lot of searching for the larger picture to which Conlin refers. Doug Glanville's sacrifice to set up the winning run, a half-inning after he misplayed a pair of balls in centerfield, including the bloop double that broke up Milton's no-hitter, soothed the souls of many Phillies bloggers, who have made him their personal whipping boy throughout the season. Chase Utley and Pat Burrell earned big props. And nobody seemed to notice that the Braves had maintained their half-game lead over the Phils. The race resumes for the Phils tonight in Miami, but for an afternoon it was enough to watch one man's supreme and nearly successful effort.

UPDATE: Actually, Bill Liming is in a pretty unforgiving mood when it comes to Glanville.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Frank Talk

Inquirer food columnist Rick Nichols takes a swing today at the hot dogs at Citizens Bank Park, but only after his admittedly damning-with-faint-praise observation that the Park's chow "is head and shoulders above the wretched fare at the late Vet ... ." Nichols describes a couple of my CBP faves, Peace a Pizza slices and the roast pork sandwiches from Tony Luke's, in moderately complimentary terms, though he tragically fails to mention the Schmitter. Anyway, after a few 'graphs of this, he starts grilling the Phillies on the ballpark's biggest culinary failing:

If you want to actually see the game, on the other hand, you can grab a hot dog. But there's the rub. Someone forgot to pay attention to the official nosh of the national pastime: The dogs, not to put too fine a point on it, bite.

The worst of the lot are the rubbery tubes of barely warmed baloney, turning their buns to mush in stacks of foil body bags ($3). You can pay a couple of bucks more at the Hatfield stands, where they griddle foot-longs. They're better, but not much.

This is a towering shame because hot dogs are meant for the masses. They're quick, cheap, customizable, portable (though, lamentably, I didn't see a single roving hot dog vendor) and forgiving. Just because they're easy, though, doesn't mean they don't deserve respect.

Build one right, and they will come and remember -- and be fans forever.

It's a hell of a thing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a gleaming and immaculate new stadium only to screw up one of the very basic parts of the ballpark experience. Of course, if that turns out to be the biggest problem with which we have to contend this year, then it will have been a good year. Oh, that's right -- the Phillies' mind-blowing inconsistency and enormous, gaping holes in centerfield, in the rotation, and at the top of the lineup are pretty bad, too. Yesterday the roller coaster began climbing back up, which means we can expect it to plummet again any day now. Hot dog!

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Cubs 5, Phillies 1

The evening had started with such promise. Late-afternoon and early-evening rain showers ended just before game time, enabling Brett Myers to deliver his first pitch at the scheduled 7:05. But the heavy drenching kept crowds in Ashburn Alley lighter than usual, and my brother and I had only a few minutes' wait in the line for Tony Luke's. Soon each of us was enjoying a roast pork sandwich, the Park's most delicious food option. (The Schmitter remains the stadium's best value, as measure in taste-to-waiting-in-line ratio.)

Matthew had even managed to solve the mystery of Eric Gregg's disappearance. The last known sighting of the rotund former umpire was last season at Chickie's & Pete's at the Vet, where he poured me suds once or twice. Last night, though, Matthew ducked into a small C&P french fry stand shoehorned into a little-used corner of Ashburn Alley, and there was Gregg serving beer.

Myers pitched a decent game, his best in a while. He had good command of his curveball, and when the Phillies plated a first-inning run on Jimmy Rollins's triple and Placido Polanco's single, we thought we were in for a good night. But then the Cubs started playing longball. Derrek Lee and Moises Alou went yard early, and Sammy Sosa put Ryan Madson in his book with an impressive bomb to center. Meanwhile, Kerry Wood cruised. Jim Thome, out with a sore finger, was missed by the Phils; Bill Wagner, out with a sore shoulder, wasn't, as the team never came close to needing him.

Wood's performance was overwhelming, but the Phillies helped his cause with their usual tendency toward impatience at the plate. And despite a crowd that was, for once, less interested in walking around the concourse and more inclined to stay focused on the action, the Phils were maddeningly lifeless, accepting their loss with docile glumness. Their dugout was devoid of anything resembling emotion, and two of their three ninth-inning outs came on called third strikes. Then again, we fans were pretty silent ourselves; there just wasn't much to cheer for. It was up to the depressingly large number of Cubs fans scattered throughout the Park to make some noise.

And so the Phils fell out of first by a half-game, thanks to the Braves-Mets rainout last night. A playoff spot, once a virtual certainty, grows ever more tentative by the day. You wonder if the folks in the Phillies' clubhouse and front office know that. I mean, really know it.

Friday, July 23, 2004

News Flash: More Movies Portraying Cursing, Sex-Obsessed Elderly People, Too

It goes by many names: A kick in the jimmies. A blow to the boys. Sportscasters prefer calling it a "deep thigh bruise." My friend John memorably referred to it once as a "nadectomy."

That's right, we're talking about a shot to the male crotch. Or, rather, the Los Angeles Times is, in a hilarious piece earlier this week that attempts to make the case that such (literal) male-bashing, usually played for laughs, is on the upswing in movies and on television.

Citing current films DodgeBall, Napoleon Dynamite, White Chicks, and Anchorman, Martin Miller argues that more and more writers are seeking to "elicit the crowd-pleasing merriment of watching a grown man take a monster shot to the groin."

Two points here: First, this feels like a classic case of an axiom that was often bandied about in a newsroom I worked in: News is what happens to editors. I'm guessing a soccer mom on the city desk took her 12-year-old to a DodgeBall matinee, was stunned by what she saw, and breathlessly told the entertainment editor that "we really need to do a piece on that." But even a casual pop culture observer realizes that taking a basketball where it hurts is hardly a 2004 phenomenon. I mean, my God, Bob Saget was able to put three kids through college and buy a house on the Riviera simply by grimacing his way through a few seasons of America's Funnies Home Videos more than a decade ago.

The second point involves why Miller's story is so funny: Anytime you can get culture studies professors with Ph.D.'s to talk about getting slammed in the crotch, well, friends, that's comedy.

Alas, Miller's piece falls short a couple of important ways. First, any male will tell you that the recovery time of on-screen incidents is impossibly short. Even a glancing blow is enough to have a guy writhing on the ground for a good 15 or 20 minutes, slowly breathing and reciting the names of his second-grade classmates in alphabetical order in an attempt to distract himself from the searing pain he's feeling and keep from throwing up.

And Miller misses the boat on the best crotch shot of the last 20 years. Leave it to Bill Simmons to clean up the mess. The Sports Guy, in a laugh-out-loud, wet-yourself-funny piece in which he lays out his Vengeance Scale, puts it at 9.6 out of a possible 10.0: The scene in Pulp Fiction in which Ving Rhames's Marcellus Wallace, after being rescued by Bruce Willis's Butch, fires a shotgun into the groin of the redneck who was violating him. And then the promise of retribution, delivered in Rhames's devastating rumble: "What now? Let me tell you what now. I'm gonna call a coupla hard, pipe-hittin' n-----s, who'll go to work on the homes here with a pair of pliers and a blow torch. You hear me talkin', hillbilly boy? I ain't through with you by a damn sight. I'm gonna get medieval on your ass."

Kinda makes a dodgeball strike seem not so bad, huh?

Maybe It's the Groundskeeper's Fault

Marcus Hayes says give Larry Bowa a break. Bill Liming says you gotta be kidding me. Mike Carminati says Ed Wade needs to pick it up.

Bill Conlin says Mike Lieberthal and Pat Burrell have to step up. J. Michael Weitzel, one of the Berks Phillies Fans, agrees about Lieberthal. Todd Zolecki begs to differ on Burrell.

Balls, Sticks, & Stuff's Tom G. and others say deal Ryan Howard now, if not yesterday, while he still as value.

Jane Conroy wonders why following this first-place team feels so unfulfilling. Carminati has the answer:

Still, the Phils somehow exceed true mediocrity. I think a better way to look at the Phils is that they are a wildly uneven team, a team that is measured, almost on a daily basis, by their plusses and their minuses. After the wild mood swings of the first month and a half of the season, they have reached a sort of stasis. It depends on any given day which Phils team will show up. ...

One thing is good about the [trade] deadline. It creates a sense of finality for the calcified Wade. Maybe it will be enough to nudge him into an actual deal. Without it the Phils may have a share of first, but it'll be fleeting. Like the ground Napoleon conquered in Russia before having to retreat inevitably.

Meanwhile, the dog days approach, and the traction-less Phillies are still digging in their junk drawer in an effort to locate the leash -- and with the rest of the division's pooches snapping at their heels.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

The One That Got Away

The Phils battled back from a 10-3 deficit to draw to within two runs, but wasted a bases-loaded, one-out chance in the eighth on their way to a loss to and predictable split with Florida this afternoon at the Park. Randy Wolf couldn't make it out of the fifth, and the offense, forced to play catch-up for most of the afternoon, just couldn't get over the hump. The Braves, naturally, won today, returning to a first-place tie with the Phillies. The Fish are just two games back, with the Mets a game behind them. And so it continues. I'll be at the Park tomorrow night for the opener of the weekend's three-game set with the Cubs.

Mom's Review

Shallow Center's Deputy South Jersey Correspondent, known colloquially as Mom, e-mails her first impression of Citizens Bank Park, where she saw last night's Phillies win:

It was terrific -- the place is really great. Even better were our seats ... . Section 115, row 1 is beside the Phillies' dugout. At the end of the dugout are the photographers/cameramen, then there was us ... . The game was great since we finally beat the Fish and Dad came home with a ball. Placido Polanco made the last out in the top of the first, and as he was leaving the field Dad yelled loud enough that Polanco looked up and tossed the ball to Dad. Polanco is now his favorite player!

The only downers were the length of time it took us to get out of the parking lot at the Linc and onto the Walt Whitman, and the lines to get food at any of the decent places. We arrived at 5:20, for a 7:05 game, and could not get in McFadden's or Harry the K's, and the lines for Tony Luke's and Bull's were unbelievable.

Overall, a good time was had by both. The park really is a great place.

Mom is completely right about the lines; likewise, my brother was correct, in his response, to recommend that Mom try a Schmitter from the Cobblestone Grill tucked in just behind the leftfield foul pole. It's a hell of a sandwich, and the most I've ever waited for one was about five minutes. As for my father's little gift, I guess it makes up for the foul ball that fell straight through his hands at a game a number of years ago. The bruise on his thigh was visible for weeks. No, really. I'm glad you were able to handle this one, Dad.

On the Links

Longtime reader Tom G. has realized that, well, this ain't rocket science, and launched his own blog, Balls, Sticks, & Stuff, to chronicle "sports ... and other stuff too" (sounds familiar!). Elsewhere, Tom Goodman has come out swinging, appropriately enough, on his new blog, Swing and a Miss. Sharply worded posts on Larry Bowa and Citizens Bank Park portend another intelligent and contrary voice within the Phillies blogosphere. Welcome to the Show, boys; I look forward to reading your stuff.

Meanwhile, I've rediscovered Baseball Desert, written by an Englishman living in France. Talk about a fascinating look at the national pastime. Iain writes with a big heart, and his love for baseball is refreshingly free of cynicism. Plus, as he recently pointed out, we're both Del Amitri fans, and that counts for a lot. Check him out.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Airing Grievances

A few quick words on the radio and TV broadcasts of tonight's game. While cleaning up in the kitchen, I caught a couple of innings on the radio, and, as usual, found myself shaking my head in amazement at Chris Wheeler's rampant whining. At least three or four times, he talked about this being another "strange" or "weird" Phillies-Marlins game. The talk only intensified when the Fish tied the game in the top of the seventh and again when Ricky Ledee went yard in the bottom of the inning. What Wheeler was doing was prepping his audience to blame the fates, or Providence, or bad luck, or whatever -- anybody but the Phillies -- should the Marlins win. Florida's domination over Philadelphia last year and this isn't due to chance -- the Fish have won too many games to chalk it up to strange happenings. Wheels surely knows this, and shame on him for trying to spin bad news to fans whose howling passion shouldn't be mistaken for gullibility or stupidity. His home-town hucksterism is an embarrassment.

On the TV side, listening to Harry Kalas and Larry Andersen call the ninth when Wagner pitches is becoming increasingly difficult. Their practiced nonchalance when the Phils' closer hits the upper 90s or three digits on the radar gun was cute for a game or two, but it's late July, and they're still doing it. All of Philadelphia knows that Wags can bring it, and we're all impressed by it. Andersen is a below-average color man, while Kalas, a Hall of Fame broadcaster on merit, is showing some signs of slippage. Put them together with Billy Wagner on the hill and the result is, sad to say, more reminiscent of a minor-league broadcast than anything else.

Fish Phry

Kevin Millwood gave the Phillies the kind of start they're paying him for, Ricky Ledee saved a homer with a great catch in left and then lined a solo shot into the first row of the rightfield seats, and Billy Wagner went an inning and a third, all of them combining to help the Phils, finally, beat the Marlins. The 2-1 victory was as important psychologically as it was in terms of standings, as the Phillies hadn't beaten Florida since last September.

Larry Bowa's use of Wagner lately has been especially noteworthy. It's as if he's been checking out the blogosphere, which has been much more critical than the print media of his (and others') typical limiting of closers to ninth-inning appearances only. New blogger Tom G. of Balls, Sticks, & Stuff has already checked in with a brief thought on Wagner's four-out save tonight. Frankly, after watching Billy labor through the ninth last night, I was surprised that Bowa brought him in so early tonight, especially with Tim Worrell throwing well. All's well that ends well, as the poet says, but it would be nice for the offense to show up Thursday and give Wags a break.

One Step Forward (For Now)

The very best part of the Phillies' important, come-from-behind win over the Braves last night was that it came only hours after the 76ers had traded Eric Snow, ensuring that Inquirer hack Stephen A. Smith would be writing about basketball, and not baseball, today.

Well, okay, maybe the best part was that the Phillies stole a game that they absolutely had to have. Billy Wagner's atypically wobbly ninth made Phillies Fan's Bill Liming and Phillies Foul Balls' Jeff Hildebrand a little nervous, but I'm more concerned that the Phils again seemed to be aimlessly strolling through this one, as they had the night before. The late-inning heroics were fun to watch, but where was the team before the eighth? And they managed to squander the chance to score even more; think of how damaging that would have been had Wagner unraveled further.

In an interesting change of pace, it was the opponent's manager, not ours, whose behavior warranted second-guessing, as David Pinto questioned Bobby Cox's use of John Smoltz here and here. Still, while Mike Carminati, like Jane Conroy, loathes Atlanta, he points out that Cox's ability to extract above-average results from a less than stellar roster would be much appreciated in Philadelphia.

Back in South Philly, the Phils welcome the Marlins for a two-game set at the Park beginning tonight, leading the Daily News's Sam Donnellon to file an amusing if inconsequential piece on Florida's replacing New York as our hated geographic adversary. The Phillies, dominated over the last two seasons by the Fish, say they're not afraid of the Marlins; Florida, though, has been struggling with the same kind of inconsistency that has plagued Philadelphia. If form holds, of course, the teams will split.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

It's a Crying Blame

In addition to the pain of being passed in the standings by the Braves, the Phillies now are experiencing the added hurt of increasingly greater numbers of pointed fingers being stabbed into their sides. With each successive day of underachievement -- or perceived underachievement -- the blame game intensifies. The shame of allowing Atlanta, whose very public off-season cost-cutting essentially told the National League that it would mail this year in, to leapfrog over them and into first place last night exposes the Phils to the added shame of being dumped on by the Inquirer's Stephen A. Smith today.

In typical fashion, Smith buries his precious few nuggets of readable insight underneath mountains of excruciating and tangled prose. Just when you think you've found something to agree with -- that both Larry Bowa and Ed Wade must share blame for this disappointment of a season -- he snaps his head around, like a toddler who suddenly realizes Sesame Street is on, and locks onto "the name that mattered most ... that of team president David Montgomery ... the man both Bowa and Wade ultimately answer to, with the power to get rid of both of them."

Meanwhile, the blogosphere checks in with its own finger-pointing. Mike at a Citizen's Blog fears a third-place finish, while Phillies Fan's Bill Liming, who seems to have been at last night's game at Turner, supplements my thoughts on the Phils' sleepwalking with an interesting observation of the varying degrees of liveliness in the opposing dugouts as the game progressed. You can probably guess whose dugout was raucous and whose was solemn.

Elsewhere, commenting on Smith's mess of a column, Baseball Musings' David Pinto defends Wade as "a weak general manager ... doing the best he can to survive and win" and as having "put a good team on the field," but I think we need to reserve judgment on that until we see the end result. He's certainly on the hook for Bowa, who should be managing in A-ball somewhere, and if he fails to bolster a team in dire need of another starter and a major league centerfielder, he should be on the hook for that, too. Yes, the Phils' burgeoning payroll was a welcome change this year, but countless teams have shown that there's an enormous difference between spending money and spending money wisely. Should the Phillies flounder their way to another season of October-less baseball, Wade should be called on for spending money foolishly.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Wake Me When It's Over

Their hustle was amazing, their play inspiring. Outfielders diving for balls with reckless abandon. A starter with complete command of his pitches. Young players, in the thick of a pennant race, performing with confidence, with grace under pressure. A sure-handed manager who handles stars and role players with equal aplomb.
Yeah, those Braves are an impressive bunch. Mike Hampton dazzled the Phillies tonight, allowing just five hits in seven innings, and John Smoltz closed the deal with two innings of scoreless, one-hit ball, propelling Atlanta into first place by a game.
Let that sink in for a minute. On July 19, the Braves beat the Phillies to return to first place in National League East.
Stop me if you've heard this before -- well, actually, don't -- but the Phils, as they have since April 2003, played another game as if they were attempting not to lose. While Larry Bowa smolders in the dugout, his charges lazily punch the cruise control button and expect to glide along in the left line, obstacle-free, at a constant 70 mph. It's just that someone forgot to tell the Braves (and the Marlins and the Mets). At one point in the middle innings, a frustrated Larry Andersen said the Phillies needed some sort of spark, and Chris Wheeler, the ultimate toady, faced with evidence so damning even he couldn't spin it into somebody else's fault, reluctantly agreed.
By then, though, Paul Abbott had dug his usual hole, in this case four runs in four-plus innings, and the Phils' offense, so potent leading up to the All-Star break, continued its feeble, post-break sputtering. Tonight's 4-2 loss sets up an important game tomorrow, for after closing the brief series at Atlanta, the Phillies return to the Park for a pair against Florida, against whom, you'll recall, they've dropped a zillion straight.
Thank God now is the time. I mean, I'd hate to see how the Phils would play if this were a rebuilding year or something. They'd probably be hovering around .500, right? A perfectly acceptable so-so season, just like so many in this franchise's sad-sack history.
Anybody else notice the 2004 version seems hell-bent on continuing that legacy of mediocrity?

Trump the Shark II

As much as I want to loathe Donald Trump, there's a part of me that admires the stones he has. After squeezing his way back into the national spotlight thanks to Mark Burnett's enormously entertaining The Apprentice, Trump could have kicked back, fired up a stogie, and thanked whatever god he prays to that people were talking about The Return of The Donald and not The Impending Collapse of The Donald's Casino Empire.

Instead, Trump apparently recalled his near-ruin of the 1990s and decided to strike while the iron is hot. He's doing syndicated radio commentaries. There's talk of a Trump magazine. The second season of The Apprentice will air on NBC soon. He's on the cover of the August issue of Esquire, which arrived in my mailbox last week. He's doing commercials. I'd joke about a Trump breakfast cereal or a Trump-edition Lexus, except that I fear those things are just around the corner.

He's one overexposed son of a bitch, but that's not his fault. Trump's "always been a better self-promoter than businessman," somebody really smart once wrote, and he's quick enough to realize that his run won't last forever. His jump-the-shark moment has to be coming soon, and by the time America moves on to its next bizarre infatuation, Trump will have made enough to keep him in ex-wives for the rest of his life. Or until he needs to spring for a new set of hydraulics to keep that painstakingly constructed 'do from looking even more hideous than it currently does.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Split Happens

With the in-laws in town Friday night, and then the whole lot of us in the Shenandoah Valley yesterday and today, keeping track of the Phillies was much tougher than usual. I caught an inning of Fox's telecast yesterday while in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and then a couple of innings on the radio while making the return trip on the Pennsylvania Turnpike today, and that was it. From the looks/sounds of things, the Phillies' series with the Mets comprised a pair of well pitched wins and a pair of weak-hitting losses. Undoubtedly in tomorrow's papers the Phils will make noises about being happy with a split on the road against a tough team, but the truth is that after taking two of the first three, they needed to step on the Mets' throats. Instead, the Phillies allowed the New Yorkers to claw their way to within two games, and Atlanta abused Montreal to climb into a first-place tie. Up next are a crucial pair against the Braves at Turner. The hometown nine don't make it easy, do they?

Friday, July 16, 2004


If you have cable, even your most cursory surf through the channels is guaranteed to turn up at least one of three things: (1) Either The Shawshank Redemption or The American President; (2) an episode of Law & Order in one of its three variations; or (3) one of VH1's I Love the ... series.
All are compelling for their own reasons, but for sheer crack cocaine-like addiction, nothing beats the VH1 stuff. The series is now examining the 1990s, and while I've been helplessly sucked into a few installments, I must confess to a certain discomfort over watching.
It's not as if the '90s lacked trends and icons to mock. But we're just too close to the things they're laughing at. The "I've fallen and I can't get up" lady? Sure, I remember her -- laughed at her then, too. The Ally McBeal dancing baby? Sure, I remember it -- thought it was stupid then, too. Look, anything that gets Liz Phair on the air more is something I'll all for, but there's something missing here. The distance between now and prior decades is what made I Love the 70s and I Love the 80s such a kick, and what drains I Love the 90s of its desperately needed "Oh, yeah!" value. If things continue as they are, in about six weeks Michael Ian Black will collapse under the weight of his own understated irony:  

Ed was about a bowling alley owner ... who was also [eyebrow cocks] a lawyer. Because so many lawyers are looking for second careers involving [head tilts] recycled shoes. And then the guy who plays the bowling alley sidekick [eyes twinkle, lip quivers] moves onto a cable series mocking ... . [Head explodes in meta-ironic spectacle.]

No Offense, But... .

Well, so much for starting the second half on a high note. I realize that this space may sound overly pessimistic, that those with some distance might see the Phillies' position in a more forgiving light than I, but I just can't help but feel that there's something not quite right with these guys. They are, as my pal said last night, awfully hard to root for.
Last night the Phils' impotent offense wasted a good start from Eric Milton and some generally good bullpen work, Roberto Hernandez's 11th-inning implosion notwithstanding. Baseball Musings' David Pinto joins Bill Liming in asking where the hell Billy Wagner was while the ugly scene unfolded at Shea. It's a terribly valid question.
The Phils have begun a stretch during which they will play a whole slew of games against teams that are close in the standings. As the Daily News's Rich Hofmann, in New York with the team, observes today, the next three weeks could be very rewarding for the Phillies -- or disastrous.
But, hey, at least Larry Bowa acknowledges that a barely-above-mediocre four games over .500 isn't anything to write home about. That's progress, right?

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Pray to Jobu

The city dailies offer the predictable second-half previews today -- Todd Zolecki's evenhanded breakdown in the Inquirer; and, in the Daily News, Marcus Hayes's half-full assessment and Paul Hagen's half-empty one. The blogosphere is similarly conflicted; Phanatic Phollow Up's Jane Conroy and Phillies-Fan's Bill Liming counsel patience, while Mike of a Citizen's Blog and Brian of the Citizens Report, like me, are more concerned.

I'm reminded of a couple of movies as the season's second half gets underway.

The first is Rocky III, and the scene playing in my mind takes place after Rocky has gotten his ass kicked by Clubber Lang. He's moping around a gym, mourning Mickey and feeling sorry for himself, when Apollo Creed shows up. Apollo gives Rocky a necessary reality check, telling him that while Mickey's death undoubtedly contributed to the merciless beating inflicted by Clubber, "you lost that fight for all the wrong reasons."

Likewise, the slimness of the Phils' first-half lead is for all the wrong reasons. I don't want to hear about injuries. I don't want to hear about slumps. The Marlins lost a lot over the winter, but they're right there. The Mets were thought to be at least a year or two away, and they're right there. The Braves are a shell of their 1990s dynasty, and the Jones boys have been an embarrassment this season. But they're still there. The Phillies, meanwhile, like last year's squad, are a team whose total is less than the sum of its parts. Every few weeks they look around their locker room and say, geez, now would be a great time to pick thing up, and then they go out and go .500 against the likes of the Expos and Royals. On paper the class of the division, they are in reality its biggest disappointment, and there is no close second.

The second movie I'm thinking of is Major League. The Phillies are about to play 19 of 24 games on the road, including four series over the next two weeks against Florida, Atlanta, and New York. They desperately need to tear off the kind of streak the Indians put together after Jake Taylor told his teammates they had to "win the whole fuckin' thing" just to spite their owner. In one of the greatest sports-film montages ever, the Tribe do absolutely everything right -- stay late for additional batting and fielding practice; take the extra base; pick one another up; star in an American Express commercial -- and are rewarded with a first-place tie with the Yankees. I long to pick up my morning paper in late September and see the kind of stirring headlines and photos that the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran to accompany the Indians' fictional romp through the American League.

And if that doesn't happen anytime soon? Well, don't expect Larry Bowa to pay the price. As Hayes notes in his story, GM Ed Wade is

not considering firing the manager or coaches.

"I think our staff's done very well," Wade said, especially lauding Bowa. He was dubbed by many the manager most on the hot seat as the season started, with the club that faded out of two wild-card races in his first three seasons now carrying a team-record $93 million payroll. "One of the things is keeping an even keel. Letting the guys develop their own chemistry."

As Bowa often says, chemistry equals winning.

With 12 of their next 15 games against division rivals New York, Atlanta and Florida, against whom they are a combined 8-18 this season, the chemistry's volatility will be tested immediately.

Now is the time, boys. Again.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Odds and Trends

It wasn't all that long ago that we were basking in the glow of preseason predictions, nearly all of which saw the Phillies as the rampantly obvious team to beat in the N.L. East. It was hardly a dangerous pick -- the Phils had patched obvious holes in the off-season and were moving into a cool new ballpark. The stage seemed to be set.

What a difference 87 games can make.

Inconsistent pitching, injuries, an offense that can't seem to sustain itself over the long haul, and a petulant, clueless manager who's more caricature than field general have kept the Phillies from opening up any distance in the division. If the season ended today, the Phils would be the worst of the six teams to make the playoffs -- and that's the good news. As Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci observes, four times over the last 10 years the Phillies have, including this year, held a playoff spot by a game; the previous three times, they've failed to make the postseason. In a division the Fightin's should absolutely own, not one team, according to Verducci, can be given a playoff edge.

Even among the hometown bloggers, typically a bastion of optimism, there is discontent. A Citizen's Blog recently surveyed the team and concluded that

the Phils are in trouble. This team is better off in the standings now then in ’03 (when they trailed the Braves by ten or so games), but they have a worse record this year (46-41) than last (52-40). They are playing too inconsistently, and they have real competition: the Mets and Braves are playing well, and the Fish will rebound from their June slump.

Indeed, I don't know whether to be relieved or concerned that the Phils' biggest objective backers these days seem to be the bent noses and leg-breakers.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Dressed to Hurl

It's time to start saying "no" to the retro uniform renaissance. Walk around Citizens Bank Park's main concourse and you'll see a slew of t-shirts and hats emblazoned with that bizarre, 1970s Phillies "P," the one with the goofy-looking baseball in its center. And the colors -- the horror, the horror! You'll see caps in the horribly glaring home uniform maroon, and shirts that resemble that era's fey road powder-blues. Yes, I know the Phils won their only World Series in these unis, but there's a reason they were jettisoned after less than 25 seasons' use: Much like the old woman's age spots in that commercial from the '70s (there's that decade again), they were ugly. (Or fugly, as the missus and I put it when something is really heinous.) It's not a look for the 21st century. It screams polyester leisure suits. It yells disco. It bellows AMC Gremlin. It's as much a hideous symbol of its time as Houston Astro orange and Vancouver Canuck brown.

If you have to go retro, Phillies fans, I say do it right -- go back to the turn of the 20th century, when the players wore a cool, block-letter "P." It was much more imposing symbol that the smiley-face, touchy-feely version that polluted the '70s uniforms. And in case you're wondering, the Phils did reach a World Series playing in those unis, in 1915, when they were beaten by the Red Sox. Those Phillies uniforms were extremely effective, producing an ordeal so arduous to Boston that the Sox have been able to win only one other title, in 1918, in the 89 seasons since. And there wasn't a stitch of powder blue in sight.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Playing the 'Race' Card

Television's best reality show has returned, and airs its second episode of the season tomorrow night. CBS's nifty The Amazing Race relaunched last week by sending its 11 two-person teams from Los Angeles to Miami and then on to the unlikely destination of Uruguay. (Don't worry, it's a real country -- I checked.) Each week the teams will scurry across the globe, completing challenges, dealing with all sorts of foreign inconveniences, and trying to avoid finishing last during a leg, until one teams finally returns first to L.A. to claim the first-place prize of a million bucks. For a few seasons now, CBS has seemed uncertain on bringing the show back, and each time, thankfully, the network has made the right call. The Amazing Race is hands down the most exciting and honest show of the reality genre, which I realize is the very essence of damning with faint praise. Just trust me: If you're not watching, start.

What distinguishes the show from its peers is that there is no filler. Nobody's lying around, scratching their bug bites while they try to catch fish. Nobody's trying to "find love," which is TV code for "get laid by a bunch of hotties while simultaneously avoiding any semblance of commitment." Nobody is lying and cheating to win a chance to be mercilessly browbeaten by Donald Trump for a year. Nobody is abusing the nation's canine population with unbearably off-key singing. From the minute it comes on the air to the minute the last-place team gets booted from each leg of the global pursuit, The Amazing Race is an undiluted adrenaline rush of pedal-to-the-metal excitement.

And personality clashes. Unlike other reality competitions, which pit individuals against one another, The Amazing Race is team-based. Each pair has an existing relationship, which creates some enormously entertaining mini-psychodramas each week. Dating couples who somehow think the stress of a nationally televised chase will bring them closer; fathers and daughters seeking to gain each other's respect under difficult circumstances; best friends who have done nothing more challenging together than drink beer over a backyard barbecue -- just about any two people wrapped up in the cloak of mutual dysfunction seem to find their way into sketchy backwater airport terminals, checking their watches every five seconds and worrying that they're losing ground to the other teams.

The whole game is entirely merit-based. If you breathlessly reach each week's pit stop and check in with the refreshingly un-Probst-like Phil Keoghan after all the other remaining teams have, you're gone. You can be obnoxious, annoying, or even outright evil, and it doesn't matter. This is, praise the Lord, not a popularity contest.

And speaking of the Big Guy upstairs, my favorite moment from last week's premiere came when the twentysomething team of Brandon and Nicole, models and self-professed Christians, noted the confidence they're placing in God to guide their success. I observed out loud that I sincerely doubted the Almighty's interest in helping these clowns carry a 50-pound side of beef a half-mile to a Uruguayan butcher shop, given the other slightly more pressing issues in the world demanding His attention. The missus trumped me by smartly noting, "Uh, God allowed a gay team to win last time."

It's too early in the race for me to have a favorite team for which to root, but I certainly have targeted some I don't want to win. I'm hoping the God Squad drops out soon -- banished to last place, perhaps, but a group of slow-driving atheists. I'm also pulling for a quick demise for the pizza-making brothers from Dallas (just go with it, folks), a couple of big, honkin' tools who have already shown themselves to be sexist and bigoted. Undoubtedly they also kick puppies. God wants them to win even less than He did Reichen and Chip, I'm guessing, and that's good enough for me.

Inbetween Days

Faced with a 14-game, make-or-break homestand, the Phillies did neither, going an uninspired but not awful 8-6 and hitting the All-Star break in first place but not comfortably so, with three teams within two games of them.

Since my last post, the Phils played four games that could serve as a microcosm of the season so far. On Thursday night Bobby Abreu's ninth-inning heroics saved the Phillies from the ignominy of dropping three of four to the Mets at home. (Yes, I have noticed Bobby's recent fine play, as well as his selection to the All-Star team. I may not always like the way he plays, but I acknowledge achievements when they happen, and, hey, I voted for him in the online poll, so step off.)

Friday night saw me, my brothers, and a friend at the Park for my annual birthday present (last year's trip was to Yankee Stadium), and boy did we see a doozy. The Phillies clawed out of a 6-1 hole with runs in the eighth, ninth, and 10th to earn a 7-6 win over the Braves in a terrifically exciting game. Early on, Rafael Furcal had homered down the leftfield line; replays would later show the ball to be clearly foul. Nestled just behind the rightfield foul pole, we were about as far from the disputed tater as one could be, but from the way Pat Burrell blew in from left to protest the call, we thought immediately that maybe the umps had gotten it wrong. A few batters later, after the replay presumably had aired on the clubhouse TV, Larry Bowa got run, prompting him to let the home-plate umpire have it. With fans screaming in support, Bowa, his leg twitching from time to time, went toe-to-toe with the ump and got his money's worth. (The over-under on the date of his on-field stroke, by the way, is August 2.)

The Phils chipped away, though, and the CBP crowd was more into the game, and not just the ballpark scene, than I've seen it this season. When Chase Utley took a really good, down and in pitch from John Smoltz over the right-center wall to tie the game in the ninth, the place exploded. An inning later, Tomas Perez's base hit plated Mike Lieberthal, and our little party drifted to a great little neighborhood bar near the Parkway to celebrate the victory.

It was a wonderful win, the kind of gut-check performance that can propel a team into a hot streak. Oh, right, this is the Phillies. They followed up their pair of last-inning Ws with a clunker against Mike Hampton Saturday and yesterday's Randy Wolf implosion.

And so, 87 games into the season, we know about as much about this team as we did in late March. Which is to say, not much. As Bill Conlin asks in today's Daily News:

With all the body-English agonizing over the water-torture game this team seems to play most days, is it possible that this is all there is? Maybe there is no there here.

Did everybody miscalculate how good these Phillies were going to be, everybody from Ed Wade to the fans in the not-so-cheap seats?

If so, can any amount of trading and body-shuffling do enough to redeem what might be a basic slightly over-.500 team?

The Phillies have 75 more games to answer that question.

Most observers think that the Phillies probably have enough to win, but are unwilling to call them a lock. Writing in yesterday's New York Times, for example, Murray Chass rather heavy-handedly called the Phils "kings of the underachievers," but noted "[t]hey may still take command." Likewise, Phil Sheridan, in yesterday's Inquirer, pointed out that the chance to grab the division is still right there, but without a certain "chemistry or personality or whatever" that the really good teams all seem to have, they're going to have to battle their own legacy:

At the all-star break ... the best you can say is that the Phillies haven't blown that opportunity.

They haven't exactly seized it, but they haven't blown it. Unfortunately, given their history, you get the queasy feeling they're more likely to blow it than not.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Torture Chamber

Local sportswriter Sal Paolantonio gets the honor of writing the Page 2 piece explaining Philadelphia's selection by the Deuce's Cold Pizza as the country's second most tortured sports city. Ever the former political reporter, Sal Pal delves into America's origins, when the fledgling nation's government fled to Washington and its financial center beat a path to New York, to explore Philly's perpetual second-city status. With the Phillies contending (though by no means a lock) in a polished diamond of a ballpark, in the shadow of Veterans Stadium's rapidly decreasing rubble pile, Paolantonio speculates that maybe, just maybe, the Philadelphia curse has been exorcised.

As for the local faithful's notorious mean streak, he runs a great quote from Larry Bowa:

"They work for every dollar they earn," said Bowa, who was on the '80 [Phillies] championship team. "Nothing is given to these people. They're blue-collar workers. They love to see people get their uniform dirty. They love to see people put in time at their job. They love to see passion, emotion."

Now, the No. 1 most tortured city will be revealed Tuesday. The obvious suspects -- Boston, Chicago, and Buffalo -- have already appeared on the list. There are just two major metro areas that have sporting legacies but are not represented: Los Angeles and New York. Given the Lakers' recent success, you'd be hard-pressed to call what passes for fans in the City of Angels tortured. (That's a little harsh, I guess; you can find a real fan or two in Southern California.) They wouldn't dare choose New York, would they? I know the Yankees haven't won a World Series in, like, three years, but still. Calling New Yorkers tortured sports fans would be insane even by sports media (official motto: "If it happens in New York, it's NEWS TO YOU. So sit back and read it, loser boy.") standards, wouldn't it?

Wouldn't it?

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Half and Half

The Phillies kicked off the second half of their season with last night's 4-1 loss to the Mets at Citizens Bank Park. Florida and New York both cut their deficit in National League East to two games, and Atlanta is just a half-game behind those teams. It would seem that the Phils are determined to make the latter half of the year as agonizing as the front half. Lucky us!

The Fish just keep hanging around, the Mets have used bubble gum and twine to fashion a contender, and, according to ESPN the Magazine's Tim Kurkjian, the Braves won't be rolling over and throwing their paws in the air anytime soon.

As for mid-season assessments, the Black Table's Will Leitch checks in with a concise and perceptive view of the Phils, one which includes the requisite (and necessary) poke at our beloved manager:

The Phillies should be running away with the National League East, just like they should have run away with the division last year. When you look up and down the Phillies' roster, it is inexcusable that they are still battling with the Mets -- the Mets! -- around the .500 mark. It's difficult to find any major weaknesses. Except for that big gaping one in the dugout who has roiled away like Napoleon's exiled corpse for nearly five years now.

Eighty games to go, right?


The time I spent with my family at Citizens Bank Park Friday night was so great that I ended up putting blogging on the back burner and being a husband and dad (and in-law and uncle) for most of the rest of the long weekend. Thanks to the rest of the Phillies blogosphere, however, I was able to keep up easily with the happenings at Citizens Bank Park.

A special tip of the cap to some new kids on the block. Brian Peoples has taken over the Philling Station from Eric Charlesworth and done a fine job with regularly posted pieces that have a clear point of view. Kudos to Brian, as well, for sharing the thoughts of the suburban papers' beat writers -- it's good to hear from those beyond North Broad Street. Further west, a group of Reading-area folks are contributing to the new Berks Phillies Fans blog. Welcome to the Show, fellas.

Finally, Jeff Hildebrand has returned to the blogosphere and begun posting again at Phillies Foul Balls. Welcome back, Jeff.

Keep writing (and reading)!

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Child Pitch

Baseball is a game passed on from fathers to their children, and last night, I began to do my part. The missus and I took the youngest member of the Shallow Center household to Citizens Bank Park for her first game, the opener of a three-game set against the Orioles.

In my mind's eye, the scenario would unspool in classic fashion: My daughter, instantly enraptured by the poetic storyline unfolding before her eyes, peppers me with questions. Her curiosity is insatiable. I teach her to keep score. The Phils and O's dazzle us with a taut, well-played game, one the Fightin's pull out with a couple of timely eighth-inning runs and a blistering Billy Wagner save.

The reality was substantially different, as it often is. The girl is two months shy of three, so it would be charitable to describe her attention as wandering. We arrived at the ballpark an hour early, the better to wander around, catch some glimpses of the lush field, and get acclimated to the crowd. As soon as she heard the phrase ice cream, though, every last neuron locked onto the notion of soft-serve. Nothing else -- not the impending ballgame, not the presence of her proud and smiling parents, not the prospect of seeing Jim Thome, for whom her favorite stuffed animal is named, with her own eyes -- could detract her from this most worthy goal.

And so, while the girl and I sat through the national anthem, the missus was back at the concessions, dutifully obtaining a chocolate-and-vanilla swirl in a small, plastic Phillies helmet. We polished it off, and were heading for the exits by the end of the first inning, a limit imposed both by the girl's bedtime and by an unusually long frame.

Indeed, the Phils and O's graciously treated us to an entire game's worth of action in the single inning we watched. Each team rapped four hits in its at-bat, and the score after one was Baltimore 5, Phillies 3. The girl even got to witness Bobby Abreu's gaffe of the evening -- with the sacks drunk with Orioles, Larry Bigbie dumped a base hit into right, scoring two. Abreu, typically, eased after the ball, then came up seemingly unsure of where to throw it. Javy Lopez -- a catcher, mind you -- took advantage of Abreu's hesitation and sprinted to third. He then scored on an infield groundout.

When Bobby's defenders wonder how Phillies fans can overlook several years' worth of top-level stats, and why so many of us rag his ass, I want to point out these kinds of plays to them. Whether through laziness or cluelessness, Abreu made an awful baseball play; there's simply no excuse for a major league outfielder not to know hot to gauge the force of a hit and whether it will plate one runner or two.

The Phillies fought back to take a one-run lead long after our departure, but Miguel Tejeda tied it with a solo shot off Tim Worrell in the seventh. Now, had Abreu done his job and come up throwing to third, Lopez never would have scored, and Tejeda's dinger would simply have drawn the O's to within a run. Instead, Baltimore was able to force extra innings, and eventually notched a 7-6 win in 16.

As for how well the girl enjoyed the game, there was bad news and good: Yes, a book did make an appearance. Yes, she was more interested in the helmet full of ice cream and her bottle of water than the first-inning action. But she clapped when those around her did. She yelled "Go, Phillies!" periodically. She cheered for Thome. And she didn't cry, because, after all, there's no crying in baseball. I might just turn her into a fan yet.

Friday, July 02, 2004

High Seize

The Phils took care of business last night, salvaging a 3-1 series win over the Fairfax Congressmen (or Dulles Lobbyists, if you will) with yet another offensive explosion. The 10-5 victory included seven innings from Randy Wolf, who recovered from early trouble and finished strong.

Meanwhile, the fire-Larry Bowa chorus is starting to come together. Sam Donnellon's column in today's Daily News is, as far as I can tell, the first explicit pink-slip cannon to be fired this season among the mainstream media. Donnellon points mainly to the team's maddening inconsistency -- not just this season, but during Bowa's entire tenure as manager. He also notes that no players have improved during that time, that the Phils continue to skate just above mediocrity despite upgrades at every position except for third base, and that "there would be no mourning" in the clubhouse should Bowa be shown the door.

Elsewhere in the DN, Paul Hagen implies that the Phillies need to seize the day and swing a big deal. Discussing "how quickly the window of opportunity can slam shut," he checks in with the Seattle Mariners, just a few years removed from a 116-win season and now auctioning off big-salaried players to contenders.

What to change? Manager? Players?

Carpe diem, Ed Wade. Carpe diem.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Worry Up

After abusing Montreal pitching for two games, the Phillies' offense ran out of gas last night. In their 6-3 loss to the Expos, the Phils left 13 men on base and were a completely futile 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. So while Tim Worrell's eighth-inning implosion will earn him lots of pointed fingers, the bats played an equally significant role in the defeat.

(An aside: D.C.-area residents salivating over the prospect of the franchise's move to the capital may insist on calling them the Senators, but that name is so burdened with a losing legacy it's hard to imagine anyone embracing it. Maybe the legislature's lower house would prove to be a stronger good-luck charm. Okay, then: the Fairfax Congressmen it is.)

Meanwhile, amidst All-Star hand-wringing -- Phillies management crying about Jim Thome's lack of support, Salon's King Kaufman advocating for Bobby Abreu -- more substantive concerns about the team are beginning to appear, and not just in the perpetually glass-half-empty blogosphere. Phillies hitting coach Greg Gross, for example, is worried about team's tendency to loft soaring, but catchable, fly balls, while the Daily News's Sam Donnellon hangs his qualms on inconsistent starting pitching:

Said [Randy] Wolf, "I'd rather have four or five starters who give you a chance to win every night" [instead of a single ace].

Theoretically, at least, the Phillies have that right now in [Eric] Milton, Wolf, [Kevin] Millwood and Brett Myers. All have the stuff to keep their team in games, and yet 30 times already this season, including last night, the Phillies' starters have failed to finish the sixth inning.

An ace like [Randy] Johnson would help those numbers.

A second half of the season in which the staff pitched to its potential would, too. The Phillies shouldn't need an ace to reach the postseason.

Then again, they shouldn't score 31 runs in two games against the Expos, yet still manage to be playing only .500 ball against them over the last 9 days.

I'm just glad I'm not the only one who's worried.