Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The Unbearable Sadness of Rooting

Back in March, when my brother and I whacked up the 17 pairs of partial-season tickets we had bought, we set aside most of the late-season games to attend together. Envisioning a pennant race and gripping, important baseball games, we thought it would be cool for both of us to be there when the most significant stuff was going down at the Park.

All of that was to have started tonight, but of course garbage time has already begun for the Phillies. My brother and I will be in Section 329, and we'll be cheering for the Phils to down the Braves, but I don't think our hearts will be completely in it. A Phillies win, after all, would cut their deficit to a jaw-dropping 10-1/2 games. We're going to games now for the baseball experience, not a playoff chase. (Well, okay, for the Schmitters and beer, too.)

As much as the blogosphere revels in its own snarky commentary -- believe me, I'm raising my hand -- I have to put aside sarcasm and pride in turning a clever phrase and admit to a very real sadness over this. I love writing, and I love writing about baseball and the Phillies, but it's tremendously disappointing to be spending so much time agonizing over a spectacular and all-encompassing failure. A successful season would have sooooo much more fun. After all, as Nuke LaLoosh once said, winning is, like, better than losing.

Monday, August 30, 2004

The Buck Stops There

They don't get it.

Any time you find yourself tempted to get all dreamy-eyed at the home-and-home sweeps of the Brewers, recall the home-and-home sweeps administered by the Astros. When you go .500 against mediocre teams, well, that means you're pretty damn mediocre as well. And when you throw in the talent level you started with and the juice of 40 large a night in your new ballpark, mediocre equals sucky. And that's where the Phillies are right now.

That Ed Wade didn't want to answer questions about Larry Bowa from the moment he poured his morning coffee to the moment he flossed at the end of the day every day for the next five weeks is hardly surprising. Nor is it surprising that the out Wade gave himself in the statement the Phillies released Saturday -- "As is the case at the end of every season, we will sit down at that point to review and address the status of our players, our manager and his staff." -- almost certainly means that Bowa will have a lot of time next spring to work on his golf game, as the Bucks County Courier-Times's Randy Miller noted in a scoop reported much more breathlessly than it deserved.

No, here's the kicker, from the Inquirer's Sam Carchidi Sunday:

And what about the general manager -- whose trading record, you could argue, has had a greater effect than Bowa on the Phils' underachieving season?

He's not going anywhere, Phils president David Montgomery said.

Yes, Montgomery is aware that Cory Lidle, Felix Rodriguez and Todd Jones -- three pitchers Wade acquired in deals in the last month -- took a combined 2-7 record and 6.69 ERA into last night. He said it was too early to evaluate those trades.

"You can't look at it in a narrow context," Montgomery said. "You have to look at the whole picture... and he gets great grades for the trades he made in the off-season." He said that he was disappointed, but that "there's still 20 percent of the season left. I'm in the middle of a book, and I'm not ready to close it."

Why isn't Wade part of the off-season evaluation? Has his performance been so sterling that his return is an unassailable certainty? If Bowa has been such a failure as to be fired, shouldn't the team at least look at the guy who gave him a contract extension less than a year ago? Where the hell is the accountability on this team?

The Phillies are conducting baseball operations under a model that was current about 30 years ago. They act as if the word sabermetrics refers to fencing. The blinding intensity of a single world championship in a century and a quarter of playing has lent disproportionate weight to the mindset which guided the Series-winning team; the result is an organization that listens to a guy like Dallas Green way more than it should and that believes that an unqualified manager such as Larry Bowa is an appropriate choice to lead a team solely -- solely -- because he, you know, hates to lose, and is "feisty" and "intense."

They just don't get it.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Rest in Peace

Major newspapers have regular obituary writers, but small-town papers must enlist the efforts of just about every newsroom contributor in chronicling the stories of those who have passed on. At the paper where I worked 10 years ago, the city editor would snatch faxed messages from funeral homes, hold them high over his head, and bark, "Who wants a dead guy?" And one of us would dutifully raise a hand and get to work.

The Phillies' humiliating self-destruction has turned their beat guys into obit writers. Both the Inquirer's Todd Zolecki and the Daily News's Marcus Hayes today launch joyless efforts to chronicle what went wrong and what to expect in 2005. It's about what you'd expect -- free agents-to-be, pressing needs, the likely changes in management and coaching -- and depressing as hell, considering it's not even September yet. About the only surprise in their pieces is that Hayes goes easier on Bowa than he should.

The blogosphere, too, is starting to fill up with opinions on what the Phillies need to do next year. Tom G. at Balls, Sticks, & Stuff, Bill Liming at Phillies Fan, and Dan at PhogLights have all taken thoughtful stabs at it recently; meanwhile, Tom Goodman at Swing and a Miss offers a sobering, if necessary, caveat: "A wholesale housecleaning may well be on tap for the Phillies but they cannot expect to fill all of the holes in one off-season. The first order of business may be to designate a triage officer."


Back to the Future

You may have noticed that Phillies content has returned to Shallow Center. After a lot of thinking and too many nights trying to post content in two places, I decided to consolidate my stuff and concentrate on things here. My friend Jane Conroy has returned Phanatic Phollow-Up to Most Valuable Network's Phillies slot, and I look forward to reading her as the Phillies play out the string. (Even Jane, a half-full person if ever there was one, is now conceding, "There's always next year.") My thanks to Jane and to Evan Brunell, whose commendable efforts to build a new community of thoughtful sports bloggers will receive all the support I can muster.

Meanwhile, I hope to make a Major Announcement about the future of Shallow Center at some point in the near future. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

Morning Bytes; Fitzpatrick Bites

In what I assume is his final Morning Bytes missive from Athens, Frank offers "some additional Olympic lists," which, distilled, are a mixture of no-f***in'-shit "observations" ("Though the Games were created to foster a spirit of international community, what you see most frequently is a strident, flag-waving nationalism."), impossibly lame attempts at bashing ("Mascots. Why does Athens, birthplace of Western civilization, feel the need to be represented by two clumsy, gigantic amoebas?"), and -- surprise, surprise -- painfully unsuccessful stabs at bringing the funny ("Five favorite clothing articles: 1. Kerri Walsh's bikini. ... 5. Kerri Walsh's other bikini.").

Oh, yeah, the ethnic slurs -- how could I have forgotten? Were you aware that Japanese people like electronics, and that Europeans like to rag on American reporters about President Bush?

And the traditional media wonders why it's losing readers ... .

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Stipe's Rich Pageant

America's best still-performing band is back with a nifty new song, one which has me crossing my fingers and burning incense in hopes of a return to its beguiling combination of craftsmanship and passion.

The band is R.E.M. -- remember them? -- and the song is "Leaving New York," the first effort off its upcoming record Around the Sun. It's a fine initial single, plaintive and yearning, with Michael Stipe in fine form, supplemented by nice accompanying vocals from Mike Mills.

Once upon a time, of course, R.E.M. was the quintessential indie band, a staple of college radio, and its music from those days of long ago resonates still with many, many fans who insist that that was their best work. They had some crossover success with Green, then exploded with Out of Time, a bouncy and fun romp into the mainstream. Following this came Automatic for the People, for my money not only the band's strongest record but one of the very best CDs of the past 20 years. Its elegaic and often haunting lyrics were perfectly matched by a rich, atmospheric sound that alternated between lush and spare, and the result was a layered, fully realized collection of songs that to this day I find tremendously moving.

R.E.M. then spent several years searching for its next step. Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Up, and Reveal weren't bad records; they just weren't all that interesting. The musicianship was unquestionably top-notch, but except for a single here and there, the songs felt detached, as if the band's musical advancement had scrubbed some necessary grit from its soul. And after being all over the radio for a period of about five years, R.E.M. no longer mattered much.

Which brings us to the present day and Around the Sun. It's probably fashionable to say that R.E.M. is incapable of making a very good record, let alone a great one, at this stage, but if once-written-off U2 could pull it off with All That You Can't Leave Behind, why not the boys from Athens? Here's hoping.

Until I hear the rest of the CD, I'll have to comfort myself with "Leaving New York" and my other new favorite song. That would be -- and here's where I destroy the cred I've carefully constructed over the previous several paragraphs -- Ashlee Simpson's "Pieces of Me," as fine a piece of disposable pop as is being played on the radio these days. Go ahead, music fans, take your shots; I deserve it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Favor of the Weak

We've all been agonizing over the Phillies' implosion, most recently manifested in today's sweep by the Astros, but in a sense they've done us a huge favor. Rather than postponing their inevitable second-half collapse until September, they've gone ahead and gotten it out of the way in August. This is undeniably considerate.

It means that I'll be able to enjoy going to the Park Tuesday to see them play the Braves in a meaningless game. Thank God! No needless worrying over such insignificant things as the score, the number of games behind, the lame rotation, the tattered bullpen, the inconsistent offense, the ineffective coaching staff, the clueless front office -- none of that stuff will matter! Instead I'll be able to concentrate on my Schmitter and my beer and whether to hit the Philadium or the Cherry Street Tavern after the game.

And in a few weeks, when I'm scarfing down lobster rolls and relaxing on the beach in East Dennis, I won't have to scan the Cape Cod Times for wire stories and box scores. I'll be able to concentrate fully on my vacation, secure in the knowledge that final scores are of no consequence and that there will be no need for Larry Bowa to set up his playoff rotation and rest key position players.

By taking swift action and putting this year's failure on the table sooner rather than later, the Phillies have done a civic duty -- the only thing they might have done better was to concede the playoffs by the All-Star break, and some of us had our suspicions even then. Whoever says ballplayers are selfish sure hasn't experienced this bunch.

A Dave and a Sneer

Sam Donnellon's devastating column in today's Daily News is a spot-on indictment of the layers and layers of incompetence whose end result is the Phillies' smoldering wreck of a season. His buck stops at team president David Montgomery and his fellow owners, a Star Chamber of self-imposed anonymity that has managed somehow to avoid blame for years of neglect and faulty decision-making by its charges. Larry Bowa and Ed Wade, Donnellon writes,

could be gone at season's end. With a new park, high-priced club and even higher expectations for next year, Montgomery, finally, would take the hot seat.

It's about time.

That everyone is talking about next year already is crushing. Better to be realistic, though -- something is seriously broken here, and somebody needs to fix it. The Phillies are about a half-season away from becoming the next Milwaukee Brewers -- they need to ask themselves whether 11,000 fans a night will buy enough Tony Luke's sandwiches to pay off their debt on the Park.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004


One assumes there was no Usher pulsing through the Phillies' clubhouse. Nor was anyone speaking in cautious yet optimistic tones about climbing back into the wild-card race. For after pushing around the Brewers for three games, the Phils last night ran into Roger Clemens, a guy who pushes back, and lost, 8-4. Then again, when you counter Clemens with Cory Lidle, you can't expect much.

So for all of the talk about signs of life in Milwaukee, the sad truth is this: The Phillies are playing out the string. The papers acknowledge as much simply by their placement of game stories. The players acknowledge as much simply by their approach to each game. After Clemens clobbered Jason Michaels on a tag play at first -- a hard play, but not a dirty one -- the best Michaels could do was attempt a menacing glare directed toward the Rocket, who defused the situation with an apology and a pat on the backside. So much for playing with purpose. Michaels rolled on his back, threw his paws in the air, and let Clemens scratch his belly before slinking back toward the dugout in docile shame. Good boy, Jason, good boy.

Maybe we fans are playing out the string, too -- hell, the game was in the fifth before I even realized the Phillies were playing last night. So dutifully I turned off women's beach volleyball from Athens to catch an inning or two. For some reason I found Clemens's ample backside less alluring than the taut bodies -- er, I mean the impressive athleticism -- of the volleyballers, so back on went the Olympics.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Little Help?

If anyone can recommend a reliable and reasonably priced Web host, please e-mail me. I'm also interested in hearing about the blogware you like. Thanks.

Gold Milwaukee

It's hard to get excited about a sweep of the Brewers -- "Too Little, Too Late" is how Bill Liming terms it, while Jeff Hildebrand advises, "Let's not get too excited" -- but wins are wins, I suppose. Yet I can't shake a nagging fear that the Phillies will finally put together the winning streak they've avoided for months and somehow play their way back into wild-card contention, only to fall just short, convincing management that Larry Bowa et al deserve another shot.

Meanwhile, Chase Utley continues to do anything and everything asked of him -- tell me again why he's not starting more? And Roberto Hernandez can't even be relied on to mop up -- tell me again why he's not sitting by the phone and waiting for the Diamondbacks to call?

Sunday, August 22, 2004

I Scream, You Scream

Does Thomas Crown have an alibi for earlier today? The getaway car had to have been a MINI Cooper, right?

Beer Nuts and Tea Leaves

The Phillies were just about done snoozing through a loss to the Brewers last night when the offense finally woke up. The Phils hung a 6-spot on Milwaukee in the eighth, rallying from five runs down and winning, 8-6. With the sacks drunk in the eighth, Chase Utley took a 1-2 fastball and hit it hard into the gap, clearing the bases with a triple and giving the Phillies the lead. Utley now has 49 RBI in 208 at-bats; more important, his consistent, compact swing should serve as a model for his teammates, who too often allow themselves to salivate over Citizens Bank Park's short fences and end up overswinging. I'm talking to you, Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell.

Meanwhile, the ever-frustrating effort to read between the lines of Ed Wade's comments concerning Larry Bowa's future continues with Jim Salisbury's parsing in today's Inquirer. Salisbury infers from Wade's recent reticence that Bowa will indeed be a part of the off-season house-cleaning. "All Wade will say on the matter is that Bowa is the manager and he's not getting into daily updates on his status," he writes. "That doesn't bode well for Bowa because longtime Wade observers know that he is very capable of giving definitive votes of confidence when he wants to. ... Wade is not nearly as loquacious on the subject of his manager [as he was a year ago], and that is extremely telling."

UPDATE: Murray Chass of the New York Times really takes a stand today: "Consider the state of their pitching," he writes of the Phillies and everyone's search for the party responsible for this mess of a season. Two paragraphs later, he literally writes the phrase "on the other hand,"

the Phillies have played surprisingly poorly for two years despite an influx of talented players. They have underachieved so much under Bowa this season that in the space of six and a half weeks, they lost 25 of 40 games and plummeted from three games ahead in the N.L. East to 10 games behind.

Chass posits, as have many other pundits, that the Phils hesitate to sack Bowa because of his enduring popularity, but I have my doubts. Bowa may remain a fond figure based on his exploits as the feisty little shortstop that could, but are there any fans left who think he's this team's best choice for manager? Those who believe that Bowa as skipper holds some sort of warm spot in all of our hearts just aren't paying attention much.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Milwaukee's Best

The Phillies snapped out of their stupor, however briefly, with last night's 4-2 win over the Brewers. Eric Milton twirled seven strong innings, and, as Tom Goodman notes in Swing and a Miss today, is starting to make noises about wanting to come back after this, the last year of his contract.

This puts the Phils in something of a bind. Milton has been the team's most consistent starter this season by far, and appears to have the kind of mental makeup necessary to pitch in Philadelphia. (Are you listening, Mr. Millwood?) Yet his record -- 13-2 after last night's win -- has been vastly inflated by the impressive run support he has enjoyed. The law of averages suggests a return to normal next year, and I'm not sure that Milton's going to be worth the scratch he'll want once that happens.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Morning Bytes; Fitzpatrick Bites

Filing again from Athens, Frank checks in today with an effort reminiscent of my weaker pieces at the college paper for which I wrote. I mean, it's barely worth mocking.

The key word, of course, being "barely."

Today's mail-it-in effort is a listing of lesser-known "events" in Olympic history. Like Mary Lou Retton being penalized points for perkiness. And the IOC denying a U.S. request to make NASCAR racing an event. And the first Los Angeles games including the new sports of Meditation, Ostentation, and Instant Gratification. I'll give you a minute to catch your breath -- all of that laughter is tough, isn't it? This week's ethnic slur is directed at the British:

1948: After a long absence caused by World War II, the Games resume in London. A Paraguayan fencer loses several teeth when he takes an epee in the mouth. He is flown to Paris for treatment after officials fail to locate a dentist in Britain.

Frank Fitzpatrick, ladies and gentlemen. Frank Fitzpatrick.

Connecting the Dots

The Phils embarrass themselves and their organization in front of hundreds of thousands of fans in kicking a 10-game homestand, yet Larry Bowa climbs on a flight to Milwaukee to go through the motions for another road trip. Bowa jokes -- jokes! -- with reporters about rubber walls and large bottles of scotch, and is widely acknowledged as being more relaxed than at any time during his tenure as manager. Peter Gammons passes along a rumor that the Phillies' off-season shakeup will include major coaching changes but not a managerial switch.

Can it be?

Is it possible?

Could Ed Wade have told Bowa that it's okay to chill? That indeed he'll be back at the helm next year? That they'll pin the blame on Greg Gross and Joe Kerrigan, insulating the GM and the manager for yet another frustrating and underachieving season?

I don't quite agree with it, but I can understand Sam Donnellon's view that sacking Bowa now would make little difference in how the Phillies finish the season. They're as done as an overcooked steak, and no amount of marinade is going to make this tough piece of meat taste like filet mignon. But jettisoning the coaches (a wise move) while holding on to the manager (most unwise)?

No wonder so many people root for the Yankees -- it's an organization that holds itself accountable.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

How to Lose a Pennant in Five Months

They lose pitchers' duels. They lose slugfests. They lose well-played games. They lose coyote-ugly games. They blow big leads. They mount comebacks that fall just short.

If there's a way for the Phillies to lose, by God, they'll find it. Just give them time. Now is the time, right?

Amazingly, it appears as if Larry Bowa will indeed hand out a lineup card in Milwaukee tomorrow night. Then again, it likely makes no difference who's managing this herd of losers at this point; a firing would only have appeased fans and media, and if there's one thing the Phils have never been accused of doing, it's caring much about their dwindling fan base. Ed Wade should have dropped the axe today -- hell, he should have dropped it last October -- but evidently he decided to let Bowa go down with the ship.

Well-chronicled are the rumblings that little internal help is on the way over the next couple of years, thanks to a farm system depleted in a bunch of moves that have left the team three games under .500 and 10 games out of first. So, yes, we were all wrong -- Wade will trade away prospects. And it's not as if he got bad players. (Well, not all of them.) But his manager fails to get the most of the talent on the field, and there is no ass-kicker in the locker room, just a bunch of laid-back nice guys who just don't get it.

In landing pretty good players, Wade somehow managed to assemble a pretty bad team. In retaining Bowa, he gave the Phillies absolutely no shot to be something more than the some of their parts. On a squad with very little heart, this was a fatal combination, a perfect storm of malaise, guaranteed contracts, and incompetence.

Field of Screams

We're all running out of things to write about this bad baseball team, so I'll borrow a paragraph from Sam Carchidi's story on last night's loss in today's Inquirer:

The Phils are now 1-8 on the homestand, which mercifully concludes this afternoon. With a loss, the Phils will have their worst 10-game homestand in the club's 122-season history.

Real grass. Real disaster.

For a team that has lost more games than any other in U.S. pro sports history, that's a hell of a thing to consider. Meanwhile, everyone parses Ed Wade's words in an attempt to read the tea leaves. The most obvious time for a sacking would be after today's game, but, alas, the Phillies seem to have the Astros on the ropes in the sixth; would Cautious Eddie dare to pull the trigger -- as he should -- after a win? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Lance Berkman destroys a high fastball from Roberto Hernandez -- who else? -- and we're all tied up at 7. The Phillies' five-run lead has evaporated, and Ed Wade, one hopes, is preparing to meet the media.

UPDATE: Eric Bruntlett -- all together now: Who? -- goes yard off Rheal Cormier to give Houston a three-run lead. All the beat guys are grumbling because they'll have to write extra stories about Larry Bowa's firing.

UPDATE: Astros 12, Phillies 10 -- final. To Wade, I offer just two words, channeling Ben Stiller from Starsky & Hutch: Do it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

This Just In

So I'm the car last Thursday, listening to Channel 6's coverage of Jim McGreevey's resignation. I hear a reporter -- Cathy Gandolfo or Nora Muchanic, I think -- mention that there have been rumors of the governor's switch-hitting for a while now, but that Action News tries not to report rumors.

And I hear anchor Jim Gardner, his immaculately trimmed mustache bristling, cut off the reporter and say with barely contained righteous fury, "Not only do we try not to report rumors, we don't report them."

Had I been drinking something at the time, I would have executed a world-class spit-take onto the interior of my windshield.

Only among the good folks in WPVI's marketing department is Gardner considered some sort of scrupulous, ethically upstanding paragon of journalistic integrity. How many times in his career do you think he's begun a sentence "Sources tell Action News ... "? In fact, the missus reported that not long after Gardner's snippy correction, he passed along an unconfirmed report about a potential sexual-harassment lawsuit against McGreevey. That the report was later confirmed doesn't change its status as, yes, a rumor at the time Gardner delivered it.

Broadcast journalism traffics in rumor-mongering. Without it, those pretty men and women on camera might have to attempt something they're professionally incapable of doing -- actual reporting.

Monday, August 16, 2004

War and Remembrance

Nestled on the Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, the World War II Memorial is a poignant reminder of the effort expended by -- and the terrible sacrifice extracted from -- a generation of young men and women who saved the world.

Our weekend trip to the D.C. metro area brought the chance to walk among veterans, family members, and fellow tourists checking out the new memorial. Separate portions pay tribute to those who fought in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of operations; embossed quotes punctuate the enormity of their accomplishment. A series of bas reliefs offers a nod to efforts on the homefront.

Most striking was the wall of stars, each representing a certain number of servicemen and servicewomen killed during the war, above a slab marked with words reminding visitors of the price of freedom.

In an age of ambiguous combat, it's tempting to look back 60 years with a kind of wistful longing for a "cleaner," less questionable war. The threat posed by the Axis powers was immediate and obvious, and the enemy was easily identified and found. World War II is described sometimes as our country's last "just" war, though I'd argue that efforts to locate and either capture or kill Osama bin Laden are easily morally defensible.

But to argue about whose war was "better" serves no purpose except to diminish the bravery and commitment of all Americans who have answered the call to serve. Regardless of one's politics, the World War II Memorial stands as an elegant and appropriate acknowledgment of fallen heroes who in death preserved liberty and made possible so much good that followed.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Morning Bytes; Fitzpatrick Bites

Oh, that wacky Frank Fitzpatrick. Filing from Athens, he devotes his entire piece today to a bunch of short Olympics-related items in which he pokes fun at Greek ruins and sports he's not interested in. Because, you know, the Olympics are all about what a calcified, coffee-breath, aging Philadelphia sportswriter thinks is interesting. There's even his weekly note of bigotry, this one because a Greek politician has some trouble with English:

Greek to me. I speak no foreign languages. And if asked to translate English into a another tongue -- the reverse of which is often the case with my copy -- it likely would be more incomprehensible than a Stuart Scott-hosted SportsCenter.

That being said, however, if I were a city official preparing a written statement to hand out to the world's media, I'd do a better job than Panayiotis Janikos did.

Janikos is the mayor of Maroussi, the Athens suburb where the main Olympic stadium is located. A packet handed out to the assembled journalists contained an official welcome by the mayor.

"At the end of the 20th century," the welcome begins grammatically enough, "our Greece, was candidate for organizing the games here in the place that were born and revived, was also placing a bet on capability towards the world, and putting the stakes for such a small very, very high."

Ha-ha! Does Frank Fitzpatrick bring the funny or what? There's even an ironically placed typo ("a another tongue") in the first 'graph of that item. He is the master of irony! Maybe next week he he'll write something hilarious about the fact that so many of the Olympic athletes look ... different than he does. We can only hope.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Uniform Standards

The best reason to cheer the launch of the NFL season is the return of Tuesday Morning Quarterback. Gregg Easterbrook's enormously entertaining weekly look at pro football, quantum physics, cheerbabes, science fiction movies, geopolitics, and anything else that crosses his mind made its 2004-05 debut Tuesday. TMQ likes to write about uniforms, and said that of all the NFL teams that have altered their unis over the last several years, "only the Bucs, Eagles and Rams look better in their revisionist duds than those that came before." He also drooled, as usual, over the Eagles cheerleaders' unis, or lack thereof, but that's a whole 'nother story.

Speaking of uniforms, Paul Lukas has taken his Uni Watch column from Slate to ESPN.com's Page 2. His inaugural column there, explaining his general thoughts on teams' clothing, can be found here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Rudderless Brooklyn

Writing in the New York Times Book Review last May, Laura Miller did readers everywhere an enormous favor by issuing a blanket amnesty for those who abandon books before finishing them. "Why subject yourself to an irksome book when so many sublime ones are available?" Miller asked. A number of writers and reviewers with whom she talked agreed. The talented Michael Chabon, who gives a book two pages to grab him, explained his ruthlessness as a function of time: "I'm very unforgiving. ... I guess I'm less responsible to books than I should be, but my time for reading is so limited and the competition is so fierce. It's a Darwinian process."

Miller continued:

Some might see this as evidence of a culturewide case of literary attention-deficit disorder, but it's hard to justify time wasted in the reading of unloved books. The burden is on the author to prove that what you're holding is something exceptional, and if not in the first few pages, then where? It's also unwise to idealize the passionately committed reading habits of youth; becoming a writer yourself can make you realize how low you once set the bar. ''I had an insatiable appetite for complete narratives,'' says Jonathan Lethem (''The Fortress of Solitude''), remembering the years when he finished every book he started. ''I needed to know what happened. I'd fillet a novel of its story. Now I read more slowly, less to get to the end than for the pleasure of the sentences and paragraphs. Before, it was pure consumer frenzy.''

Interestingly, I thought of Miller's piece while struggling with the first 150 pages of Lethem's book and ultimately giving it up. His ode to "the pleasure of the sentences and paragraphs" is what made Fortress such a frustrating read for me. The portion I read was terrifically overwritten, as if Lethem ached with the need to describe, as unnecessarily precisely as possible, every last excruciating detail in the lives of a white kid and a black kid growing up together in Brooklyn in the 1970s. While his acclaimed Motherless Brooklyn, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, careened along with an entertaining, manic abandon, Fortress feels like a calculated attempt to write something Important, and in the process the book suffers. Suffocated by its attention to detail, the novel come across as unfocused, with nothing to ground it, nothing to compel me to continue to its conclusion

My brother, a more discerning reader than I and a hell of a writer in his own right, offered both a modest defense and a few jabs of his own:

I'm sure Lethem would tell you he's trying to take a giant step forward. From what I understand, most or all of his previous books are exercises in so-called "genre" fiction, especially sci-fi and mystery; even "Motherless Brooklyn" (the only other thing by him that I've read) is at heart a detective novel. "The Fortress of Solitude" feels to me like a very conscious (or self-conscious) attempt to write the Great American Novel -- a serious literary book that will say everything important that needs to be said. ...

For what it's worth, I found it equal parts interesting and frustrating. (How's that for taking a stand?) Yes, parts are overwritten -- the obsessive attention to detail, in particular, feels frantic and precocious, like grad-school fiction. And the second half of the book -- in which a 30-something Dylan ends up unhappy and adrift in California, and feels the pull of Brooklyn -- is pretty unsatisfying because it's so generic and easy; Lethem uses bright, weightless California as a lazy stereotype, the opposite of dark, gritty New York. But a lot of the first half is really something. You don't have to have grown up on that particular block in Brooklyn to respond to Lethem's channeling of summer in the neighborhood. ...

Like I mentioned earlier, it's definitely a product of its time, sharing a voice and a mission, among other things, with "The Corrections" and "White Teeth" and "Underworld" and other recent books about everything.

I guess I give Lethem points for trying, but I can't say I regret bailing, especially after recalling Miller's essay. If life is too short to drink bad beer -- and it most certainly is -- then, too, it is too short to finish frustrating books. Back to the search for something sublime.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Maybe Next Season is the Time

Out: Pat Burrell, facing season-ending surgery.

In: Cory Lidle, acquired from the Reds for two minor leaguers, neither of them a blue-chipper, and a PTBNL.

Burrell had dropped off after his promising start, but still showed enough flashes to provide some measure of protection for Jim Thome. If Chase Utley is even remotely ready for leftfield, I'd run him out there over the Doug Glanville/Jason Michaels combo any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

As for Lidle, he's no one's idea of a Cy Young Award candidate, but the guy does eat innings, and if there's one thing the Phillies' staff needs, it's that. Much of the bullpen's struggles this year can be attributed to the increased workload forced upon it by ineffective starting pitching. Lidle, who doesn't walk a ton of guys, looks to be able to hold down the fort -- and make no mistake, that's why he's here, not because anyone thinks he's going to have a Randy Johnson- or Livan Hernandez-like impact -- better than Paul Abbott.

Regardless, each passing day seems to bring news that buries the Phillies deeper and deeper. This season of promise increasingly feels destined to end in all-too-typical disappointment.


MVN is having server troubles, so this morning's Phillies post is on Shallow Center:

Brett Myers's sparkler capped a strong latter half of the Phillies' road trip, allowing the team to finish it 6-7 after starting 1-6. That's the good news.

Here's the bad news: During that same stretch, the Braves went 11-2, so the Phils, by virtue of their completely mediocre performance, lost five games in the standings. That's right -- for all the talk about how strong they finished, the Phillies suffered serious slippage in National League East.

Even worse, Larry Bowa's job apparently is no longer in jeopardy.

So after an enigmatic road trip, a two-week microcosm of this puzzling team's mysterious season, the Phillies return to Citizens Bank Park in worse shape physically and in terms of the division race. Jeff Hildebrand at Phillies Foul Balls nicely summarized the team's various mood swings last night. The Phils do play 18 of their next 25 games at home, and 16 of 19 against sub-.500 teams. For any normal team that would augur a nice little run, one which is desperately needed, but these are the Phillies, remember. Conventional wisdom need not apply.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Poor, Poor, Pitiful Them

You might think that in 2004, Baby Boomers would have finally run out of things over which to claim victimhood.

You would be wrong.

Inquirer columnist Karen Heller is all hot and bothered because her kids made fun of '70s clothing, hairstyles, and music after watching the Starsky & Hutch remake.

No, really.

Referring to the likes of Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Will Ferrell, Heller writes:

Those are fighting words. We already have political strife and class conflict and global issues and high gas prices and a looming deficit, but that wasn't enough in these times, when we should all be coming together. No, these boys, boys being the operative term, had to launch age warfare.

They've reduced my decade of Nixon, Carter and Reagan to John Travolta in snug pants.

As a bona fide member of the baby boom -- a claim as unpopular as liberal or feminist or intellectual -- as someone who graduated from high school and college during the 1970s, perhaps I can jog their memories and help reeducate the poor, misguided children of today who believe, falsely, that Anchorman is a fitting time capsule. I'm no fan of nostalgia, but these guys have played the ugly-clothes card one too many times.

She continues, with absolutely no hint of irony, that her '70s was a decade marked by more daring fashion designers, more intelligent filmmakers, more significant writers, and more vital causes. The laughable conclusion:

Perhaps, in 30 years, when the kids of today are making movies, they'll exact revenge and harvest this period for their own recycling.

Alas, when they look back, all they'll find is a stale collection of fright wigs, tight shirts and retro car crackups. They'll be forced to be creative and original.

Just like people were back in the real 1970s.

Poor Boomers. Not only do we have to listen to them prattle on about how groundbreaking their contributions have been; not only must we agree with their self-assessment of being the most important people in the history of the world; not only must we acknowledge the inferiority of all other generations' cultural legacies; but we also must respect their desire to be sacrosanct, and must never, ever laugh at them.

To offer a typically Philly response: Yo, Karen, lighten up. There isn't a child alive who doesn't think his parents dressed funny 30 years ago. And just because you protested 'Nam and Watergate doesn't mean your hair wasn't hideous. Just because Scorsese and Spielberg were making magic on the screen doesn't make today's writers and directors are hacks. Reserve that epithet for the bloggers, okay?

Friday, August 06, 2004

Morning Bytes; Fitzpatrick Bites

If it's Friday, that must mean it's time for another Morning Bytes column in the Inquirer. Not to mention a brand-new Shallow Center feature -- a weekly assessment of Frank Fitzpatrick's painfully unsuccessful attempts to bring the funny.

Today Frank leads with a pretend memo from the Phillies' owners to the team's staff suggesting possible ways to cut costs. You know, because the Phillies are cheap. What's that you say? They're spending more than 90 million this year on a second-place team? It's not that they're not spending, it's that they're not spending wisely?

Things get even worse with Frank turning his middle-aged attention to the Eagles and Terrell Owens. Among the list of things he hopes "T.O." doesn't stand for are "Totally Obnoxious" and "Too Outspoken."

I'll pause while you wipe the tears of laughter from your eyes and catch your breath.

Frank's "NASCAR Note of the Week" -- he's so funny for ripping on NASCAR; why didn't anyone else ever think of that? -- includes a Montezuma's Revenge reference, as there will be a race in Mexico City next year. So now we're trading in ethnic slurs. How the hell did Last Comic Standing miss this guy?

And the coup de grace: "'X' marks the slop. It's ESPN's X Games time again. Among the new events added to this 10th edition of the slackers' favorite sporting event will be body defacing, parental resource draining, grammar butchering and nihilistic narcissism." Oh, stop, Frank! You're killing me! If you keep this up, people might stop thinking of you as an amusing curmudgeon and start calling you a cranky and nasty old bastard embittered beyond belief and incapable of seeing value in anything that's happened since the Kennedy administration.

A gratuitous shot at the Big 5, based on recent scandals at La Salle and Villanova, concludes the hilarity for the week.

Have you stopped laughing yet?

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

C'est McVie

A very welcome voice is poised to return to music. Christine McVie, who sat out Fleetwood Mac's last studio effort, Say You Will, releases her new solo disc, In the Meantime, next month, and I heard its first single, "Friend," on 'XPN Monday. Like much of McVie's work, it's a pleasant, sturdy little tune; if history is any guide, repeated listens will foster the realization that she continues to be capable of writing songs with irresistible hooks and of singing them in a lovely, perfectly inflected, and singular voice.

McVie for years served as Mac's unsung heroine. While Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks garnered all the attention, McVie was quietly writing and singing some of the band best songs. Lacking Buckingham's self-indulgent flash and Nicks's goofy aura of the occult, she simply kept her head down and did her job. In a sense she was Larry to Buckingham and Nicks's Moe and Curly. I mean that as a compliment -- honestly. And though Lindsey and Stevie famously used the band as a cathartic outlet to soothe the pain of their mercurial relationship, Christine managed to divorce bassist John McVie then continue to work alongside him in an arrangement seemingly built on mutual respect and professionalism.

Nobody pays much attention to her, but McVie gave Fleetwood Mac a necessary softening. Maybe I'm just a sucker for sweet pop tunes, but without her presence, it would have been easy to envision Mac drifting into a wearying and pointless stasis of never-ending punches traded by her two more famous bandmates.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Rotation Play

I won't lie to you.

Yeah, I started this thing more than a year ago as a way to do something for myself. Yeah, I told myself that if folks checked it out and liked what they read, well, that would be pretty nice. Yeah, it's been kind of cool to find out that there are indeed people all over the world who, for reasons known only to them, hunger for news and views regarding Phillies baseball, and come to Shallow Center as part of their foraging.

But then I found out that I'm in some kind of demand, and, well, then I really had some juice.

And so when Evan Brunell of the fledgling Most Valuable Network e-mailed and asked me to join Jane Conroy on her Phillies blog, Phanatic Phollow Up, I was intrigued. Well, intrigued and flattered. Alright, flattered. Anyway, I poked around the other MVN sites, listened to Evan tell me his plans for world domination, and thought, hey, I'd like to be part of that.

But as much as Shallow Center is mine, Phanatic Phollow Up is Jane's, so she and I did some brainstorming for a new name, something that would represent a newly hatched project we could work on together and build up over time. Thus was born Poor Richard's Scorecard, the new Phils blog on MVN. From now on, just about all of my Phillies stuff will be posted there. So do update your links and bookmarks accordingly, and check out my stuff as well as Jane's.

The thought of giving up Shallow Center is too much to bear -- no, really, it is -- and so this little site will live on. The banner at the top mentions something about "pop culture and other important matters," so if the urge strikes me to write about something other than Larry Bowa's job status, I still have a place to put it. And I plan on taking advantage of that, regularly. There's a very fulfilling non-baseball portion of my life, and I do enjoy writing about it, so please continue to check back here.

As always, let me know what you think, of what's happening here and on MVN, by leaving comments or dropping an e-mail. Thanks very, very much for reading so far -- and keep it up!

It's Not Randy Johnson, but ...

Unlike the Phillies, the management here at Shallow Center has some major changes in the works. Details to come soon.