Tuesday, September 28, 2004

"Now is the Time," Meet "Yes, We Can" and "We Owe You One"

Last night's loss to the woeful Pirates finally, officially, and mathematically extinguished any barely flickering hope the Phillies maintained of making the playoffs. Preseason hype is such a wonderful thing, isn't it? The Phils now can safely sleepwalk through the season's final six games as they did its first 156. Lucky me, I hold tickets to tonight's tilt against the Bucs and Saturday's game with the Marlins. And so once again my final in-person memories will be of who-cares at-bats by triple-A call-ups instead of tightly contested games that, you know, matter.

Now that the body has been certified, the post-mortems are already being filed. Mike Carminati at Mike's Baseball Rants offers a lengthy and depressingly plausible assessment of the failed season, while Tom Goodman at Swing and a Miss takes a look at the enormity of the task facing the Phillies as the off-season looms ever closer. You can judge for yourself which of Tom's suggestions are made with his tongue in his cheek. I'll check in with my long-term thoughts later; for now I need to focus on short-term needs: Tony Luke's tonight, or a Schmitter? Yards Philly Pale Ale, or Brandywine Lager?

Monday, September 27, 2004

Shoot for the Hip

God bless MTV for padding its schedule with infinite reruns. Thus was I able to tune in last night and catch some of the premiere episode of The Real World Philadelphia, which first ran a couple of weeks ago. As much as I'd love to follow this season closely, I'm afraid I'm going to have to settle for periodic drop-ins, with the aim of ensuring that the city's hipness quotient doesn't get undersold, and that's what last night's viewing entailed.

The result was good news and bad news. On the plus side, the city looked fantastic -- bright and vibrant and filled with fun things for young people to do. Yeah, there was the obligatory huffing and puffing up the Art Museum steps, but there also was a nice shot of Logan Circle, and Old City looked like the place to be. Negatively, the previews for tomorrow's new episode have some of the housemates being hassled by the cops inside a club. Philadelphia -- the place that loves you back. Just not too much -- it doesn't want you to get a big head or anything.

As for the pretty young people, well, it's the usual collection of dysfunctional hotties who are laughably clueless when it comes to how the world works. Each year brings a new handful of angsters who think they have to act more and more "outrageous" -- usually defined as involving massive quantities of alcohol and porn-worthy sexual situations -- in order to make an impression. Maybe I'm just getting old, but I'm finding such behavior, especially in the preening, self-involved world of reality television, less shocking than it is tiresome. Though I'd be willing to cut Mel, the short-haired California girl, quite a bit of slack ... .

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Screen Shots

Among the many, many changes wrought by parenthood is the newfound necessity to choose carefully when it comes to pop culture offerings. Your window is simply way too small to accommodate the amount of stuff you used to consume. Want to listen to a bunch of CDs on the seven-hour car ride to Cape Cod? Better be a fan of the Wiggles or Philadelphia Chickens. And where once you gladly would have ponied up eight bucks for a trashy art-house flick whose chief attraction is the rampant nakedness of a hot former TV ingenue, you're now reduced to squeezing in whatever's in your Netflix queue after your little one conks out following a night of Pooh and Piglet.

The real challenge comes in September, when the television networks roll out their new offerings. In years past this was a chance to pick and choose from the best of the debuts, while also retaining ongoing favorites and the usual filler that occupies your time when nothing else is on. Now, though, time is just too damn short. Fully immersing myself in a good new show -- getting to know the characters, following the storylines, really giving the work the attention it deserves -- has gotten harder and harder. (Imagine if I had been forced to shoehorn baseball viewing into such a compressed schedule.)

Yet as much as I can't imagine following another serial -- I gave up the weekly apocalypse ER had become years ago, and the dumbing-down absurdity of The West Wing turned me off that former stalwart last season -- I found myself engrossed in the premiere of Lost last week. I'd never watched J.J. Abrams's other stuff -- the well regarded Felicity and Alias -- but quickly came to see why those shows have had so many fans. Lost takes 40 or so survivors of a plane crash, sticks them on a deserted tropical island, stirs in the myriad facets of the human condition, and then tosses in a mysterious, unseen threat the likes of which hasn't been seen since Predator. The first episode began to establish some interesting characters and offered an intriguing mix of thrills, sci-fi/horror, and drama. It was very well done TV, something I can see myself hunkering down in front of every Wednesday -- in other words, exactly the thing I really don't need.

As for a couple of last year's diversions, I'm finding that both Survivor and The Apprentice are starting to show their age. The former kicked off with the no-longer-innovative battle-of-the-sexes format, the same old challenges, and the infuriating spectacle of watching contestants lose it after a couple of days on the island -- like, haven't they ever watched the show before? And The Apprentice, in just its second go-round seems determined to remind us why we took such glee in Donald Trump's 1990s fall from grace -- the gruff but lovable mogul of season 1 has been replaced by the irrational and self-involved prick that you suspect he really is.

Finally, a last valedictory for The Amazing Race, which copped its second straight Emmy Sunday night and which concluded its fifth excellent season with a victory by the extremely likable married couple Chip and Kim. The fortysomethings outplayed their younger rivals -- the volatile and self-destructive pretty people Colin and Christie, and the annoyingly God-fearing pretty people Brandon and Nicole -- to win the million bucks. CBS was set to start Race's sixth season tonight, but after the show delivered big-time ratings this year, the network reportedly decided to find a better time slot than the wasteland of Saturday night. Nice to see the Eye get something right for a change.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Locking the Barn Door

Of course.

Of course the Phillies sweep the Marlins now. An infuriating hallmark of Larry Bowa's tenure has been winning when it didn't matter much. After nearly two years of abject failure in South Florida, the Phils took three straight to pull to within, what, about a dozen games of the Braves, right? About the only thing the Miami victories are good for is the removal of psychological burdens should the Phillies somehow fashion themselves into a contender next season. Otherwise they're mere window dressing -- frilly curtains which fail to conceal the shattered panes behind them.

Exactly which windows need to be fixed is a major concern for the Phillies, of course. Tom Goodman at Swing and a Miss has some interesting thoughts here, while Rich Hoffman, in yesterday's Daily News, says it's all about starting pitching. Pointing to the correlation between the team's appallingly low number of quality starts and its status as also-rans, Hoffman makes the case for the re-signing of Eric Milton, a topic that has generated some discussion elsewhere.

Depressingly, the trial balloons being floated out of South Philadelphia imply a much less aggressive off-season than the past few years have seen. You'd think that after watching the much-heralded 2004 squad trip over its own cleats, David Montgomery & Co. would recognize the need to field a winner regardless of cost before Citizens Bank Park resembles the deserted wastelands that Miller and PNC Parks have become. I mean, I didn't watch an inning of the Florida series, and, judging by the decreased activity in the Phillies blogosphere, I'm not alone. The Phils have managed once again to drain the passion out of one of the country's most loyal and fervent fan bases, and without a winner next year, baseball will return to its previously full-time status as a sporting afterthought among Philadelphians.

But, hey, at least the ballpark no longer sucks.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

What Did You Expect?

While George Bush and John Kerry spend copious amounts of time dropping verbal cluster bombs on each other, their staffs can't praise each man's opponent quickly enough when it comes to debating skills. It's a funny thing, this expectations game. Set the bar low, and the most pedestrian performance seems outstanding; set it high, and anything less than excellence will seem like a complete failure.

Sound familiar, Phillies fans? The heavily favored Phils, whose discomfort with frontrunner status has been painfully obvious all season long, collapsed almost with the first pitch. What management must ask itself now is whether the expectations were justified. If so, wholesale changes may not be necessary -- a tweak here and there, and certainly a new guy in the manager's office, could make the difference between this year's flops and next year's contenders. But if the boys upstairs take a hard look in the mirror and decide they've been deluding themselves since spring training, then you might expect to see a vastly different team take the field next season at Citizens Bank Park.

Then again, this is the Phillies we're talking about. Honest self-assessment has never been high on the organization's to-do list. Compare the Phils' approach with that of their South Philly neighbors -- the Eagles have spent every season under Jeff Lurie trying like hell to get better. Three straight losses in NFC championship games is nothing to sneeze at, and for all the grief the Birds get from the paunchy, clueless gasbags on WIP, they clearly know what they're doing. Each year has brought higher and higher expectations, and Philadelphia has come damn close to meeting them every single time. Picture the Phillies playing under the weight of what fans expect of the Eagles -- they'd be under the home dugout bench in the fetal position, praying someone would toss them some sunflower seeds so that they wouldn't have to leave to find food.

Isn't it interesting what can happen when the people in charge -- on the field and off -- act like grown-ups and demand accountability?

Monday, September 20, 2004

Putting the 'Ad' in 'Adults'

Watching the Eagles and Vikings on Monday Night Football tonight, I've seen ads from both Anheuser-Busch and Philip Morris urging parents to talk to their kids about not using their products. Because, you know, beer and cigarette companies don't want anyone getting the wrong idea -- their stuff is for responsible consumption by adults only.

Maybe CBS News should consider airing a similar warning each night.

Sunday, September 19, 2004


No matter how much fun a vacation is -- and make no mistake about it, this one was aces -- there's something quite comforting in returning home and finding things the way you left them. It makes settling back into your routine less stressful and unpleasant. So thanks to the Phillies, whose cruise-control season -- a handful of impressive wins followed by clunker after clunker after clunker, regular as clockwork -- continued unabated while I chased my daughter around a beach on Cape Cod for a week.

While the hometown nine lurched toward the end of their uninspiring season, the Red Sox kept on demonstrating what talent and character can add up to. Even if the Yankees manage to hold on to the division lead that they've nearly wasted, Boston has proven to be everything the Phillies are not.

Not that I needed seven days in area code 508 to confirm it.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Road Trip!

Time to shut things down and head to the heart of Red Sox Nation to chill. Time for lobster rolls and cold beer. Time for lots of fun time with the family. Time to forget about pennant races and work deadlines. Time for vacation, baby.

See you in a week or so.

Broadcast Blues

With meaningless baseball returning to Philadelphia painfully on schedule this September, I've begun the process of disengaging from the day-to-day immersion of earlier in the season. No longer must I try to catch at least several innings of every game on television. Instead, I tend to check in on the radio broadcast periodically while out running errands.

Last night, I was in the car during the first game of the Phillies' doubleheader against the Braves, and got to hear Harry Kalas call an inning. Harry brings a different style to his radio work, a little more descriptive and freewheeling, and it's usually fun to give him a listen. But the disappointment of the season was fully evident in his voice -- he sounded thoroughly beaten, as if he couldn't wait to escape to the NFL Films studio. Every Phillies misplay brought a "Now what?" reaction that was difficult to hear. Poor Harry had to start his season uncomfortably in the spotlight due to a conflict with Chris Wheeler, and he has to finish it calling a stretch of games that nobody really cares much about.

And speaking of Wheels, I had game 2 on last night, and when Ryan Howard came to bat in the first, he couldn't resist giggling at Larry Bowa's giving him his first big-league start and hitting him in Jim Thome's usual place in the order. "How about Bo putting Howard in the cleanup spot?" he laughed, as if it were funny that Clueless Larry stuck a rookie with three career at-bats in the No. 4 hole. I know Howard had, like, 90 homers in the minors this year, but presumably the Phils are still trying to win games, and I'm not sure that the cleanup guy should have been a player who spent most of his season in double-A. Wheeler, of course, is completely incapable of delivering even the mildest criticism, no matter how deserved; I think it probably makes him physically ill. But, hey, I'm glad he found Bowa's "managing" so ... amusing. Somebody has to have fun this dreadful season -- why not the team's designated clown?

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Seeing Stars

Hmmm. Two loaded and veteran teams plagued by horrendous underachieving as summer gets underway. The playoffs are a mirage, hazy and questionable on the distant horizon.

Team A insists everything will be fine once everyone starts playing to his potential. The manager stays, and the trading-deadline deals are for uninteresting middle relievers.

Team B cashiers its skipper and lands a stud in a major trade.

Fast-forward two months. The Phillies needed a doubleheader sweep of the Braves tonight just to climb a game over .500; they are a hopeless 11-1/2 games out of first and a daunting six games behind in the wild-card hunt. Their season is, for all intents and purposes, over.

Team B, the Astros, has caught fire. Houston has finally gotten its shit together, and after ripping off its 12th straight win, is up a half-game in the wild-card standings.

I've not followed the 'Stros nearly well enough to tell whether Phil Garner and Carlos Beltran have made the difference for them, though I do know that Roger Clemens has been the kind of ace the Phillies envisioned Kevin Millwood being. (Oh, how naive we all were.) But Gerry Hunsicker took decisive action, while Ed Wade sat in his office gauging the amount of starch in his shirts.

And guess who's a hell of a lot closer to the post-season?

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Funny Papers

As baseball's losers play out the string, the off-season rumors are already beginning to gather steam. Yesterday's New York Daily News reports that once Larry Bowa cleans out his desk at Citizens Bank Park, he could be headed to Shea Stadium, not to manage the Mets but to serve as Art Howe's bench coach. Seems the comatose Howe is perceived as needing, you guessed it, a fiery sidekick. Adam Rubin's story is filled with howler after howler -- an admiring reference to Bowa's "baseball knowledge and blue-collar attitude"; gushing over his "energy and devotion to winning"; and the capper:

In the clubhouse, Bowa also would be a visible presence, his intensity complementing Howe's laid-back style. While Bowa's style hasn't agreed with every veteran in Philadelphia, his baseball knowledge commands respect around the game.

They do get ESPN in New York, right? Is no one in Flushing paying attention to the massive self-destruction in South Philadelphia over the past two years? That didn't happen by accident.

Then again, if you listen to Bob Ford, it's not all -- or even mostly -- Bowa's fault. The Inky columnist is one of the city's best, but his piece Monday was off the mark. Ford faults Phillies management for its subpar trading-deadline efforts and players for their abject underachievement, and he's drop-dead correct on both counts, yet somehow Bowa gets a free pass. I agree with Ford that Ed Wade bears much blame for putting together a roster filled with delicate egos way too easily bruised -- who on this team has any stones, really? -- but Bowa surely must be on the hook for taking a talented team and producing a total less than the sum of its parts.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

One Last Gasp at Respectability

The last time the Law of Inverse Viewing was in effect was late June 2003. According to the Law, the less I watch them, the more the Phillies win. Well, alert the media, for I saw about two pitches of the weekend series against New York, and whaddya know, the Phils swept. Gavin Floyd, Corey Lidle, and Brett Myers all turned in strong starts, and if you're going to wake up for three games and slap a meaningless sweep on someone, you can't find a more appropriate foe than the Mets.

Indeed, I'm kind of embarrassed to mention the phrase too little, too late -- I try to save my glaringly obvious pronouncements for really special occasions. So I'll just say that the Phillies' painful early-September stab at mediocrity is ... nice. You know -- pleasant. Nothing to get overly excited over, but not something you'd toss in the recycling bin, either.

I just hope Larry Bowa is savoring this last month of games. It'll be a good long while before he's managing games involving teams not sponsored by auto-parts stores and delis.

Friday, September 03, 2004

'Out' Pitch

It's tempting to watch a film such as Eight Men Out and shake your head and think about how different baseball in 1919 was from today's game.

There were no television broadcasts, or night games, or batting gloves, or steroids, or charter flights. The only people of color were the folks cleaning the stands after the game. Baggy uniforms; tiny, beaten-up gloves used by both teams; shabby ballparks; a largely compliant media corps -- if not for four bases set 90 feet apart, you might struggle to recognize the game as played in 2004.

But Eight Men Out was made by the peerless John Sayles, whose palette comprises infinite shades of gray, each one a particular, unique tone of the human condition. And as Sayles well knows, people are people. Squint your eyes so that the images blur, and just listen to the words, and suddenly the Black Sox scandal peals with a sadly contemporary ring.

Corrupt owners. Greedy players. And kids who don't want to believe that their heroes are tainted.

Working from Eliot Asinof's book of the same name, Sayles offers the players' willingness to throw the '19 World Series as a function of their animosity toward Charles Comiskey, a tyrant of an owner who squeezed his charges for every last dime. For example, with pitcher Eddie Cicotte, hardly the rough-hewn type many of his teammates were, bearing down on 30 wins, a mark that would trigger an incentive clause in his contract, Comiskey ordered Sox manager Kid Gleason to sit him, ostensibly to rest his arm for the playoffs. As a result, Cicotte missed his 30th win, and in an era when salaries were much more in line with what working stiffs earned, the lost bonus was hugely significant. Compare that with the Orioles' treatment of Rafael Palmeiro this season and suddenly 1919 seems much more recent than it is.

The movie is bursting with razor-sharp performances; John Mahoney, whose Gleason gradually becomes aware that his guys are on the take but is unable to stop it, and Sayles staple David Strathairn, quietly wonderful as the reluctant cheater Cicotte, stand out. John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, and Christopher Lloyd are also effective, and Sayles himself pops up as an arch Ring Lardner. As for Shoeless Joe Jackson, possibly the greatest natural hitter the game has ever seen, D.B. Sweeney plays him with expected confusion and a bit of pathos.

Sayles is hardly the flashiest filmmaker working, but he manages, like no other director, to locate and exploit a common humanity in myriad settings. Eight Men Out is no exception. Ballplayers may be moneyed superstars now, but they are also men, not much different from those who toiled in considerably greater anonymity nearly a century ago.

Teflon Ed

Bad news, friends -- no "Morning Bytes" in today's Inquirer. Maybe Frank Fitzpatrick got beaten up on the flight back from Athens by someone whose nationality he maligned. Fortunately, one need look no further than a couple of pages back in the Inky's sports section to find a piece as difficult to read as Frank's weekly exercise in bad stand-up.

That would be Sam Carchidi's story confirming Ed Wade's return as general manager of the Phillies next year. President David Montgomery said the team is "in much better shape now than we were back" before Wade's tenure began, which is true enough but which also must be evaluated in terms of just how staggeringly inept the mid-to-late-'90s Phillies were. The bar, as they say, was pretty low.

Carchidi, who had a public run-in with Wade earlier this season, uses unusually sharp words --

Another year, another missed opportunity.

For the third time in the last four seasons, the Phillies -- who are now closer to last place than first place in the National League East -- failed to acquire a player near the July 31 trade deadline who would carry them into the playoffs.

In fact, for the third time in four years, the players the Phils acquired have contributed mightily to the club's falling out of contention. ... Most have been flops. ...

The Phils have a 534-570 record, including two winning seasons and no playoff appearances, in Wade's seven years as general manager.

-- to contextualize Montgomery's defense of his GM. What Carchidi forgot to mention was Wade's allowing Larry Bowa another year to screw up. Or his failure to provide players at the top of the lineup able to set the table for the big boppers. To name, you know, just a couple of things.

So Phil Sheridan was right. In holding onto Bowa, his human shield, Wade bought himself another year. Fine -- but next season, he and Monty should be the ones held accountable.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

See Yesterday's Post. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

At this point, as my brother told me today, I know how the Phillies' beat writers feel -- we're all running out of things to say. Writing in today's Daily News, both Sam Donnellon and Bill Conlin offer grim and seemingly accurate outlooks: With much of the roster tied up in large, long-term contracts, and with little internal help on the way, the Phils are going to look much next year as they do this year -- and as they did last year. The problem is, the sample size of games, nearly 300 over two seasons, is now plenty large enough to conclude that, Ed Wade's insistence to the contrary, what you see with this bunch is what you get. Wade's only out now is to change managers, which he will do, but I really wonder how much it will help a team that is going to finish out of first, and possibly behind the wild-card winner, by double digits.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Balance Sheets and Bottom Lines

This year's Phillies team had the best chance in a generation to return baseball to the forefront of the Philadelphia sporting scene. With a gleaming new ballpark and a roster stocked with talented veterans, the 2004 Phils should have reclaimed some of the ground lost over the last two to three decades to the Eagles. Make no mistake -- Philadelphia has long ceased being a baseball town, but with a big season, the Phillies might have avoided their usual status as annual speed bump between basketball and football seasons and been able to spark some long-term interest.

That chance is gone, a conclusion I reached last night during another sleepy loss at the Park. Eric Milton managed to hang in without his best stuff, but the Phillies' offense generated only two hits through the first eight innings. They scratched out a couple of runs off John Smoltz, pitching in a nonsave situation, in the ninth, but it wasn't enough. Even without Atlanta's fan-aided tater, the Phils would have found a way to lose.

The damaging effects of the Phils' seasonlong futility are starting to show. On an absolutely beautiful night, with the first-place Braves in town, only 36,000 and change were at the Park; there were large swaths of empty seats in the outfield upper decks, and three uncreative fans in the section next to ours spent the entire game with paper bags over their heads. Pedestrian traffic flowed through Ashburn Alley with ease, and I was able to snare a decent parking spot 15 minutes before game time. Even the booing of J.D. Drew was halfhearted, as if fans realized the absurdity of abusing a guy whose team is a dozen games ahead of theirs.

Bill Conlin, just back from vacation, observes today:

The club president, David Montgomery, still seems oblivious to the massive slippage this lost season represents at all levels. And even schoolchildren know the next manager will operate with whatever payroll slashes are made after the Phils are slapped with their first-ever luxury tax. Very sad...

Indeed, if the Phillies think that they'll draw as many fans next season as this, they're fooling themselves. Unlike other cities, Philadelphia will not pack a stadium simply because it loves its team -- that train left 30th Street Station a long time ago. As former Philadelphia sportswriter and current New York Times scribe Jere Longman noted Sunday:

There is no sense here of lovable losers like in Chicago with the Cubs, or of intellectual resignation like in Boston with the Red Sox. Losing is always raw in Philadelphia, which has gone longer than any other city -- 21 years -- without a championship in the four major professional sports. About 3.2 million fans are expected this season at Citizens Bank Park, but hope has fallen to recrimination.

The Phillies likely will still draw over the next couple of years, but at nowhere near a level that a successful 2004 would have guaranteed. The result will be a reduced revenue stream -- certainly one below the team's projections. That means less scratch available to pursue free agents and to retain homegrown talent. Sil Campusano, where have you gone?