(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Monday, July 26, 2004

Paradise Lost

It probably never was a paradise, not, at least, in baseball terms.  Sure, one franchise had its moments, on average, once a score, while the other fielded great teams twice in its first say 30 years of existence (including, perhaps, the best team ever, '27 Yankees included), before moving its sad former self out of town where, as a major league team (in K.C.), it became a veritable farm club for the Bronx Bombers.   The question:  Who are Philadelphia, the Phillies (WS appearances in '15, '50, '80 (winning it), '83 and '93), and the A's (the '29-'31 team with Foxx, Simmons and Grove arguably was better than the Yankee teams around the same time).

The A's were the favored bunch until they moved out of town, because Mr. Mack when he had the cash knew what to do with it -- he fielded winners.  But more often than not he was cash-strapped, and, as a result, sold off great player after great player.  The Phillies, for most of their existence, were utterly clueless (if you look at baseball results from the Phila. teams from say the mid-30's to the late 40's, well, it wasn't a pretty sight).  Under their manager "Alabama" Ben Chapman, the Phillies taunted Jackie Robinson mercilessly in his rookie year (1947) and at one point tried to get the Dodgers to come to Philadelphia without him.  They waited 10 years after that to sign their first black player, John Kennedy, who was a back-up, and when their first bona fide African-American star showed up -- Richie Allen -- they treated him poorly and rode him out of town.  They had some great days from the mid-to-late '70's through the early 1980's when Ruly Carpenter owned the team, but a few years after the '81 strike the young Carpenter became disillusioned and sold the team to a group of wealthy suburbanites (who at best feigned interest in their investment) led by then- team President Bill Giles.  With the exception of what must have been a harmonic convergence in 1993, when Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton and John Kruk led the team to an almost inexplicable World Series appearance, times have been rather bleak under an ownership that many fans believed lacked leadership, lacked vision, and, well, really didn't care about winning. 

Until two seasons ago, at least.  The fans had fled in record numbers, refusing to pay for an inferior product, a team that just couldn't win the division.  So two years ago, after the public relations fiascos that took place with Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen, the Phillies had to do something.  The Schilling and Rolen trades were bad (how many involving superstars are good for the dispensing team except, in recent memory, the Richie Sexson for half the Diamondbacks starting 8 that has worked out wonderfully for Milwaukee?), and the Phillies then signed Jim Thome and David Bell and traded for Kevin Millwood.  Part of this, of course, was enlightened self-interest -- they had to do something on the even of opening up a new stadium. 

Paradise.  Citizens Bank Park.  Green Grass.  Seats closer to the action, great views (okay, so the parking isn't perfect yet until they tear down The Vet and the food is horribly overpriced, but you can't have everything).  Paradise and a team that going into the season in its inaugural season had a chance of winning the title.  Paradise.

Sounds good.  But Paradise isn't a building; it's a state of mind, and they've never had the success in Philadelphia baseball circles to breed the confidence that fosters a continued cycle of winning.  This weekend, several things took place to shatter the peaceful thoughts that the new ballpark has engendered.

First, Eric Milton lost a no-hitter in the top of the ninth.  Paradise really lost.  That happens, but there were two fielding plays in centerfield by supposedly the team's best centerfielder, Doug Glanville, that made you wonder whether he was auditioning for the part of Willie Mays -- in the 1973 World Series.  It may soon be time for Mr. Glanville to put his engineering degree from Penn to good use.  The Phillies were up 2-0, and then they found themselves tied 2-2 after 8 and a half.  Thankfully, the Cubs have similar pressure issues, and LaTroy Hawkins blew his save opportunity, giving up a single to Pat Burrell that gave the Phillies the victory.  Paradise saved.

Second, GM Ed Wade blew up at a reporter from a suburban paper who had written that pitching coach Joe Kerrigan might not last the year.  Cursed at him in front of 200 fans who were standing around, presumably waiting for autographs (and, no, Wade did not ask those people, "Don't you people have homes?") .  Wade later apologized to the writer, but he thought the report to be unfounded.  Everyone denied that Kerrigan's job is in jeopardy, but he hasn't worked the magic with this pitching staff that he did with average pitchers in Boston.  Vicente Padilla hasn't emerged as a star, and Brett Myers seems all fouled up.  Hard to say whether Kerrigan's work is a problem, but the Phillies' pitching staff has underperformed.  Paradise confused.

Third, the ball park has proven to be a launching pad, thereby negating some of the advantage the Phillies thought they were getting after building what they thought was a formidable staff.  And it was Ed Wade who traded for Billy Wagner, which is a big plus, and for Eric Milton, which was huge.  But it was also Ed Wade who signed Roberto Hernandez, the latest of the gas-can school of relief pitching that has tortured the Phillies over the past few seasons.  Still, Wade rates a plus in this department, but he's tight because expectations are so high.  Paradise, well, in this department, never created.  The Phillies didn't want Coors Field, but they have something like it.

Fourth, the Phillies are desperate for another reliever and another bat in the outfield, and rumor has it that they're mulling over trading for 39 year-old Steve Finley and rescuing that career good player from the scrap heap that has become Arizona.  But how much should Wade give up for Finley?  AA home run talent Ryan Howard, the bruising first baseman?  Who else?  The Phillies did offer Howard to the Pirates for Kris Benson, but apparently they were shot down.  Ed Wade is definitely feeling the pressure here.  One of his predecessors, Paul Owens, was masterful at making the late July trade that helped put the team over the top in the late 70's and early 80's.  So far, Ed Wade has been reluctant to pull the trigger at this time of the year.  Paradise paralyzed.

So there the Phillies sit, in the unusual position of being in the middle of a pennant race.  They have some excellent pitchers and excellent hitters, and they need to show their fans that they can stay calm when they're in the cockpit over the target.  

And, right now, the guy flying the plane is the general manager, Ed Wade.   Take a cleansing breath, get some confidence, and make the trade you need to make.  In Philadelphia, you won't get criticized for the act of commission, but after years of waiting patiently and watching for good pre-deadline trades that never materialized, they will barbecue you on Labor Day at the Jersey shore if you commit the sin of omission. 

That doesn't mean that you have to follow or yield to the angry crowd (even if they do know their baseball rather well).  No, you don't have to do that.

Just allow for their doubting.  This time, they could be right.