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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Now the Media is the Story

The other day, I wrote about now-suspended NBA referee Joey Crawford, and commented that the fans pay to see the players, not the refs. In other words, the best refs are the ones that really don't get noticed, and the good ones don't draw attention to themselves. Crawford's in hot water for committing both sins, even though Commissioner David Stern concedes that he's good at his craft. Apparently that type of competence isn't enough. Besides, who wants to see a lead story about a referee, anyway? We need good officiating, yes, but the same way people don't watch games because of who is announcing (if that were the case, very few would watch CBS's coverage of the Final Four because of the presence of Billy Packer), they're not watching games because of who is doing the officiating.

Now the spotlight focuses on long-time Philadelphia sports talk show host Howard Eskin (who would be disdainful of this blog for two reasons, one because he believes very few people much knowledge about sports and two, because he's out their hoofing it for the stories, and bloggers and fans are not). Eskin is knowledgeable about sports and by all appearances he does work hard, but he is very opinionated (he's paid to be) and seldom in doubt, and he's a bit full of himself (some fans would challenge my use of "a bit" and suggest that it be deleted). He likes it when callers refer to him as "The King" and at Eagles games he took to wearing fur coats and calling himself "The King of Bling." He's a complicated guy, because he works hard and he is knowledgeable, but he can get very short with fans and doesn't tolerate opinions that differ from his all that much. In short -- he's the lightning rod that his employers pay him to be. (I listen to him a few times a week at most, if only because the local ESPN guys are not that knowledgeable and sound like they're 15, and the guys on WFAN are much better than Eskin or the ESPN guys).

At any rate, Eskin rankled Phillies' skipper Charlie Manuel, who challenged him to a fight. Most Philadelphia fans would probably want to reinstitute the code duello of Revolutionary War times and let the two have at it either with pistols at ten paces or sacks of horse maneure. While Eskin is in various stages of being in shape from time to time (he seemingly has gone on more diets than your average supermodel), Manuel has the girth of a run-stopping defensive lineman and probably could wrestle the talk show king into submission. Of course, this fight will not happen.

It does, however, raise some interesting questions. Last year, the Phillies were comatose at some point in the season, when Manuel went on a dugout-based tirade that seemingly kick-started the Phillies into gear. Eskin suggested the same sort of tactic last night, and he caught Manuel at the wrong time. Manuel took objection to Eskin's question and perhaps to Eskin personally, and then things mushroomed from there. Perhaps the players, who appear to like playing for their skipper, will now rally to Charlie's cause and start playing as if it were August and September (where they've excelled the past two years) as opposed to March/April, where they've acted like they've been employed as pick 'n packers at a frozen food warehouse.

Were this to happen and were the Phillies to go on a tear, the King of Bling would take credit for inspiring them to their best finish in 14 years.

Because that's the way it works on talk radio.

I'm not a huge Eskin fan and probably won't be, but in fairness to him he's taken the time this year to point out that he's not criticizing Manuel personally, just his managing style. I don't recall Eskin's particular opinions, but he has tried to make that point clear (even, to my recollection, going so far as to say that some people knock Manuel because the way he speaks, and he doesn't think that's fair). That said, Eskin can be unrelenting.

My guess is that deep down, many Philadelphia players, owners, coaches and managers -- past and present -- were hoping that Charlie had picked up a folding chair and used it as a bat while using Eskin's head as a ball. Again, that's what his employers, and Eskin, deep down want, because they'd be at the center of attention. Okay, so no one wants to get hit in the head with a chair, but a photo of Charlie wielding one and chasing Eskin would make the King of Bling a national figure.

This whole sideshow doesn't change anything. The Phillies aren't playing well, and tensions are high. Managers get fired for less, and while Pat Gillick's shortcomings with respect to the bullpen and outfield depth are well-chronicled, the front-office guys usually fall later. Gillick just got to the Cradle of Liberty, so he's not going anywhere.

And neither is the heart of the lineup, which looks like it needs a defibrillator.

In the meantime, this post-game madness has given Philadelphia fans the most excitement since the Eagles beat the Giants in the first round of the playoffs, or since the Wing Bowl.

Manuel vs. Eskin, at the Blue Horizon any day now.


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