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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Too Dumb, Too Greedy, Too Annoying (and Look at Them Now)

The ironies are many. Today the Philadelphia Phillies' baseball arguably is better off than it was say 5 years ago or so, when Terry Francona was the manager, Curt Schilling was the ace and Scott Rolen was the best position player. Today they have the fifth highest payroll in baseball, finished last season with a respectable if disappointing (and misleading) 86-76 record (misleading because the Phils went on a tear in September when they were practically out of the wild card race), and a new ballpark. Imagine what they could be if they had spent the big bucks they're trying to spend now to build a team around those two stars.

Five years ago they played in the decaying concrete saucer known as Vet Stadium, had a young manager who was enthusiastic and supportive of his players, who came recommended to the Phils by, among others, Michael Jordan (who had played for the skipper when he was a Birmingham Baron during one of the world's most famous sabbaticals), who tried to develop players and who did the best with what he had, which wasn't much. Okay, so Francona wasn't always the most adroit with his pitching staff, but given the fact that only five years have passed and the average Phillies' fan cannot remember who was on that staff besides Schilling, it's easy to give Francona a pass. I certainly have.

Because every day, he held his head high. Every day, he tried to do his best, and it was tough. He had outfielders who couldn't hit for power and infielders who weren't that good defensively, save Rolen, and even the huge third baseman had his share of physical problems owing to the unforgiving Vet Stadium astroturf. He didn't offer excuses, put up with a tough group of writers and media commentators, and went down with the ship. The Phillies under his watch just did not have a lot of talent, and, ultimately, the ownership, of whom I have been very critical before, decided to make a change. They went from an Uncle Robbie to a Muggsy McGraw, and well, they still haven't made the playoffs.

I don't recall that the media was that rough on Francona, but today there are talk radio show hosts in the Philadelphia area who put him in the same category with former Eagles' coach Rich Kotite, who was as eloquent in front of the media as the current president of the United States is and for whom their enmity is unmatched. Now, Kotite did have his blunders, and he had his battles with the media, so the comparison is most unfair. The talk show hosts, who, of course, are never wrong, just think that Francona was too dumb to manage a club to a championship. They posit that he didn't know anything, and that he got the BoSox job because he's buddies with Curt Schilling, that he's relied more on who he knows than what he knows to get his current gig.

And that's nonsense. A veteran club needs a skipper who treats the players like men and doesn't rant at them. A smart ownership team doesn't give the manager's job to just anyone after they fired a good baseball man in Grady Little for having made one fatal mistake. They were looking for a good fit, and it appears that they got one in Terry Francona.

But the Phillies just thought he didn't have what it took.

The ace was supposed to be too annoying, and he basically forced his own trade in the 2000 season, when the Phillies got four players for him -- Omar Daal, Travis Lee, Nelson Figueroa and Vicente Padilla. Daal lasted a season, bombed, ended up in Baltimore, and last I looked is out of baseball. Lee was too laid back for Larry Bowa, fielded great but hit badly for a first baseman, was released two years ago, ended up in Tampa Bay, got let go, and the Yankees picked him up in the off-season, but he got hurt (great pickups by the Yankees -- Travis Lee, C.J. Nitkowski and Tanyon Sturze). Figueroa didn't last long, and Padilla, an enigma (great stuff but mediocre results) remains. Great deal, huh? Ed Wade made it, and the following year Schilling combined with Randy Johnson to will the Diamondbacks to a World Series victory over the Yankees. The same guy who pitched so nobly as a 25 year-old in the 1993 Series was lights out in the 2001 Fall Classic.

After last season, Schilling wanted a trade again. The D-Backs were in the process of rebuilding, and they were looking to trade him for a bunch of prospects. Schilling wanted to come back to Philadelphia. He has a home in its suburbs, is beloved in the City of Brother Love for his willingness to step into difficult situations, and he wanted to be the opening day starter in the new ballpark and lead this team to a World Series. But the Phillies didn't really want him. General Manager Ed Wade, in perhaps his most famous line, once said of his former ace something to the effect of, "The thing about Curt is that every fifth day, he's a horse, but on all the days in between, he's a horse's ass."

Now, it might have been that Schilling was fated to go to Boston, but if the Phillies didn't make a serious play for him, history has told us that they were foolish. He's proven himself in Boston to be a horse, and you haven't heard any reports about being a part of the horse's anatomy. Who won 21 games? Who won 2 big post-season games on one leg? Mr. Ed? No, Curt Schilling. How good would those 21 wins have looked in Philadelphia this season? How good would Schilling have looked in the Phillies' red-and-white pinstripes instead of Kevin Millwood? The problem was that there was too much water under the bridge that the Phillies' front office refused to overlook. Schilling had been critical of their unwillingness to spend, and apparently he had hit a nerve. Which is usually what happens when one says something that is both challenging and true.

It goes without saying that Schilling has performed great in Boston, but he also had made one significant contribution beyond the wins and losses. He is a media magnet, which helps some of his teammates immensely. He's one of the best quotes in all of baseball, and because reporters are drawn to him, the heat goes to him and off his teammates. And many a Boston team has wilted under the withering scrutiny it has received in the New England media. Some teammates might get jealous, but no one can argue with the results. The BoSox are a win away from the biggest party in New England since Sam Adams and his pals threw tea into Boston Harbor.

And then there's Scott Rolen. Rolen was a second-round pick of the Phillies slightly over a decade ago, a kid from Southern Indiana who turned down college basketball scholarships to sign with the Phils. He progressed quickly through the farm system, and he excelled at 3B for a while. But he got tired of losing, got tired of seeing the ownership not extend themselves enough to field a roster capable of winning a pennant, and got tired of having a sore back because of the pounding it took from the Vet turf. He plays the game all-out, and he wanted out.

And he was absolutely right. Three years ago he turned down a huge contract, and then a war escalated in the media. Bowa blasted him, and Ed Wade did too, but after you cut through all the rhetoric one thing was crystal clear -- the well-mannered 3B was absolutely right. Management wasn't committed to winning.

Yet, somehow, some way, management won the media war. They painted Scott Rolen as a greedy ingrate, as a symbol of what was wrong with the modern ballplayer, and they traded him for a few boxes of baseballs and an old bus to use with their Rookie League team. Actually, they traded him to the best baseball town in America, St. Louis, for Bud Smith, Placido Polanco and Mike Timlin. Smith quickly went down with arm problems, Polanco is a good guy but it's doubtful he'll be leading a team to a championship any time soon, and Timlin, for whatever reason, they let become a free agent. Which was very interesting because the Phillies' bullpen always was a sore spot, and they let an excellent setup man go. Where is he today? In the bullpen of the Boston Red Sox, as the right-handed setup man. That sound is one of the collective raising of eyebrows of the ever-shrinking group called Phillies fans.

Of course, the spin was different. Because of the money they saved by not signing Rolen (reports were that they offered something like $100-$110 million for 6 or 7 years, I don't quite recall), they were able to sign Jim Thome (whose batting average with men on base this season was about .200 and whose 42 or so HRs were among the quietest in modern baseball history, but I like Thome as a player, so I don't want to be too critical) and David Bell, who has been hurt a lot and whose name doesn't immediately come to mind when you say, "quick, name me three slugging third basemen." Yes, you'd name Rolen, Blaylock and A-Rod, and not in that order. And, further, the Phillies' brass argued that with the money they saved, they were able to afford to pay Kevin Millwood, whom they acquired in a trade 2 years ago. The problem was that Millwood has forgotten how to pitch consistently, and the player they traded for him was all-star C Johnny Estrada (once regarded as a steal for the Phillies, the deal is now regarded as such for the Braves).

Terry Francona wasn't smart enough. Curt Schilling wasn't agreeable enough. Scott Rolen was greedy.

But all are still wearing their uniforms tonight, playing on baseball's biggest stage, making things happen.

And Ed Wade is sitting in his office in Philadelphia, watching his alumni play and wondering why.

And the Phillies' ownership is sitting in their mansions doing the same thing.

Sunday night is Halloween, and the Phillies' top brass should seriously consider what they are going to give out to their trick-or-treaters.

Because the Philadelphia fans won't be drinking their Kool-Aid this year.


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