Thursday, October 30, 2008

Phils Win! Phils Win! Phils Win!


As a diehard Phillies' fan, I have waited 28 years for this.

As a stalwart Philadelphia fan, I have waited 25 years for another title.

The Phillies picked up where they left off last night. Another of many signature moments was when seldom-used OF Geoff Jenkins, "leading off" in the suspended game, doubled to right centerfield. Somehow, we Phillies fans knew that this was an omen of good things to come.

To the Rays' great credit, they kept battling. A nifty infield play by 2B Chase Utley prevented the Rays from taking the lead, as Utley threw Rays' SS Jason Bartlett out at home. Another signature play, as Utley faked throwing to first, prompting the Rays' 3B coach to send Bartlett home. Carlos Ruiz made the tag, and the game remained tied.

Fittingly, it was the Phillies' closer, "Lights Out" Lidge, who sealed the deal by striking out pinch hitter Eric Hinske to end the game. Controlled pandemonium ensued (the only "scary" moment was when 1B Ryan Howard ran in from his position and plowed into Lidge, but thankfully no one was worse for the wear).

Among the great moments last night, in no particular order of preference:

1. Phillies SS Jimmy Rollins, who said that before the game, he told Jenkins, "Listen, this is the middle of the game. You have to get up there and make something happen."

2. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, whose post-game salute of the fans was memorable in its sincerity and tone.

3. The guy in a Santa Claus suit who held up a sign that said "Phillies fans, I forgive you." Phillies fans were accused of tossing snowballs at Santa in the 1970's. What really happened was that the guy playing Santa was drunk, so they were bombarding him because he was dishonoring Santa, but, naturally, the national media took another opportunity to slam the City of Brotherly Love.

4. The signs that said, "Mitch, we forgive you," as Phillies' fans remember well Mitch Williams, the sometimes wild closer who gave up the Series-ending home run to Joe Carter in the 1993 fall classic. I shrugged; I had never held anything against Williams, who I thought did the best he could. (I thought that the Blue Jays were the better team and that Phillies' manager Jim Fregosi was too stubborn upon insisting that the sometimes struggling Williams always had to pitch the 9th inning). At any rate, when I said all of this to my wife, she said, "Oh my, I didn't forgive him." And she's from Baltimore! Mitch has turned into a wonderful TV commentator.

5. Have a happy retirement, Pat Gillick! You built that Blue Jays' team, you built Seattle several years ago (they won 116 games in the regular season one year you were there) and you helped finish the job in Philadelphia. Great job!

6. Somewhere Ed Wade, Pat Gillick's predecessor, is laughing and smiling. He helped build this team, too, and deserves some of the credit for the team's success.

7. It was great to see the players so happy. To a player, they did their best, picked each other up and did a fantastic job.

8. Lastly, the fans. You stayed to 2 a.m., you got soaked, you froze, and you saw a great triumph!

Onto the parade!

Let's go, Phillies!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Sincere Apology to Tampa Bay Fans

Dear Tampa Bay fans who went to games in Citizens Bank Park:

On behalf of the good fans of the City of Philadelphia (and not the profane, adult-adolescent group who seems to grab all the highlights and actually is small in number), I apologize to you on several accounts.

First, I apologize to you for verbal abuse and threatening behavior that you had to endure because of the particular people who were acting like morons. That behavior is unacceptable, embarrassing, and demeaning. The people who acted badly toward you should be ashamed of themselves, as we, the good fans, are ashamed of them. Believe it when I say that we don't like those bad actors any more than you do. Believe it when we say that we're disappointed in Phillies' management for not giving us the ability to text security (the way fans can do in many NFL stadiums) to alert them to physically menacing and consistently profane behavior, so they can send a team to diffuse a situation and usher the bad actors out. We all deserve better.

Second, I apologize to you for those instances where the good fans didn't take a stand and at least call out to the bad actors to stop. During the rain delay on Saturday night, I witnessed one episode where Tampa Bay fans had trouble getting past a bunch of about-to-be-drunk adult adolescents, some of whom said some very foul things (and, yes, my son and daughter were nearby and had to hear this filth). I shouted to them to stop, told them that kids were nearby. I gripped my umbrella, as did my wife, just in case. They were bullies and cowards, and, chastened, they slinked away. Needless to say, we moved away from them. The good fans who didn't take a stand should think twice about speaking up and out against the small few who can ruin a good time for the rest of us.

Third, I also apologize to you for the below-par job Phillies' management did, especially on Saturday night. They should have been better prepared. Yes, you can yell loudly, call Evan Longoria "Eva", try to boo Matt Garza off the mound, display funny signs and, yes, yell out to the general crowd. But you shouldn't be able to be consistently profane or menacing. Add in a bunch of beers consumed during a rain delay and fans frustrated because they're soggy, and management and Major League Baseball created a dangerous brew. Fortunately, no one got hurt. That said, I'm sorry that you couldn't enjoy yourselves. That's terrible.

So, please accept this heartfelt apology. I walked up to a few groups of Tampa Bay fans, apologize for the behavior that I saw displayed toward them and told them that not all of us go to ball games to drink to excess, act menacingly and shout profanely. Most of us see the same beauty in the game that you do. Most of us like to share our experiences with family members the same way you do. And, believe it or not, most of us admire the story of the Rays' season.

You deserved better at Citizens Bank Park -- from all Philadelphia fans, from Phillies' management, and from ballpark security.

Much better.

Best Managerial Strategic Thought of the Night

This one came from my eight year-old. Yes, I let him stay up, and in the top of the 6th we both were bothered by how awful the field looked and how hard it was raining. After B.J. Upton reached first on a "hit" (under normal circumstances Jimmy Rollins fields the ball and throws him out), my son watched Cole Hamels move to first to keep Upton close. The rain kept on coming. The basepaths and the entire field were a mess.

So my son observed, "Dad, why doesn't Cole Hamels keep on making his move to first until they call the game?"

Smart kid. The field was a mess, and there's nothing in the rule book that says that Hamels can't move to first, oh, say 50 times until the rain is so bad that the field is such a mess that even Bud Selig would have to call the game. Now, of course they weren't going to end the Series on a suspended game (although I'm not clear that the rules actually provide for any other result when one team is leading), but at least the Phillies would have gone into the suspension with their momentum intact and up 2-1. What was Bud Selig going to do after Hamels moved to first 25 times? Invoke the "best interests in baseball" clause and tell the umpire to tell Hamels he'd get fined and suspended if he didn't start pitching?

Somehow, somewhere, one of the best managers of all-time, John McGraw, is smiling.

Because that's precisely what he would have done.

And with all the statheads and baseball minds in the Phillies' dugout, I'm surprised no one thought of it.

More Stupidity from Major League Baseball

Where to begin. . .

First, the weather report was horrid and portended exactly what happened. Which meant, of course, that there was now way MLB was going to get this game in last night. So what did they do? Get all the fans down there, compel them to sit in awful weather, and watch only one good product -- the stuff they used to dry the dirt on the infield. The baseball -- including the home plate umpiring that didn't do justice to Scott Kazmir -- was not very good at all.

Second, MLB compelled the nonsense by playing the top of the 6th inning. Cole Hamels actually had water dripping from his hair, you could actually see the drops. Puddles were everywhere, and even diehard Philadelphia fans headed for cover. Yes, I know that this would have meant that the Phillies would have led 2-1 at the time of the suspension, but Commissioner Selig wouldn't have let the Series end on a rainout (even if, in 1994, they let the season end with no Series). So far, Bud let the steroids era go untrammeled, made a mockery of the All-Star game, and now he's dishonored the Philadelphia fans twice in three home games. The Philadelphia fans deserve better than a 10 p.m. start on a Saturday night and sitting in a cold shower last night (yes, arguably, the nitwits who assault Tampa Bay fans deserve to be put in cages, at least for some period of time, but most Philadelphia fans are not like that).

So, MLB whiffs again. They dishonored the Philadelphia fans, all in the name of the Fox TV contract and the ad revenues that go with it. Not that, of course, most fans around the country feel compelled to watch a Philadelphia-Tampa Bay Series (even if the ratings might be better in Hawaii and Seattle because of warm feelings for Shane Victorino, the first Hawaiian to play in the Majors in over 80 years, and Jamie Moyer, who pitched well in Seattle for many seasons).

Yes, I know that Philadelphia fans are on edge because they see this rainout and today's frosty weather (it was snowing on my way in to work today) as an omen of doom, and part of the collective angst is because of the memories of 1977, when Tommy John and the Dodgers beat Steve Carlton and the Phillies in a driving rainstorm to clinch the NLCS (I was there with my father, and it was a brutal night). Still, all fans deserve better from Major League Baseball.

Including, and especially, those in Philadelphia.

Baseball only prevails because it has a monopoly. If any of us treated our customers the way MLB has treated the Philadelphia fans, we'd go out of business.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Emotions in Philadelphia

We've been waiting for this moment since 1983, when Moses Malone led the 76ers to an NBA title over the Los Angeles Lakers. Great team, that '83 team was, with Malone, Dr. J, Andrew "The Boston Strangler" Toney, point guard Mo Cheeks, power forward Marc Iavaroni and invaluable sixth man Bobby Jones.

It's just that we didn't think we'd have to wait a quarter century for another. But now we're there, the city proper, northern Delaware, South Jersey, and all of Southeastern Pennsylvania and somewhat beyond. Waiting for tonight's game, when ace Cole Hamels goes to the mound to try to win Game Four.

It's been a long time.

For me, I get a little choked up, because my father, who died over 20 years ago, used to go to games all the time. We went to Connie Mack Stadium, parking on the street in North Philadelphia and to Veterans Stadium. We watched some woeful teams in the 1960's, teams still under the spectre of the fantastic collapse in 1964. We watched the team crawl out of its misery in the mid-1970's, and he was there for Game 6 of the 1980 World Series, when the Phillies clinched. He had two interesting observations that day. First, when he got into the building, he wondered to himself whether what he was experiencing was real. After all, it was the World Series. Where were the Yankees and the Dodgers? What the heck were the Phillies doing in it, with a chance to win, no less? Second, he pointed out that there was a slight pause from the time when Tug McGraw struck out Willie Wilson to clinch the series and the time the fans erupted. His view: it took that small pause for the Phillies' fans to realize that they weren't dreaming, that their hometown team actually won the World Series -- for the first time!

I take my family to the games because, well, it's fun, and, also, because it's something that my father shared with me that I cherish and something that I share with my family that I still cherish. I could only imagine what my father would say and do if he were here today. I know that my kids would have every piece of Phillies' wear imaginable, and that he and I would be trading phone calls and e-mails about pitch counts, how hitters fare with men on base and the improbability of Joe the Pitcher's home run. I'd like to think that on Saturday night he blew a strong enough breeze to keep Evan Longoria's long fly ball in Citizens Bank Park, and that he sprinkled magic dust on Joe Blanton's bat before Blanton's home run. He'd be sitting there high-fiving my kids, hugging them, urging his team on.

You can't really find a pinch hitter for loved ones, not every day. Grandparents can enrich kids' lives in a way that parents cannot, as such is the circle of life, to take a page from "The Lion King." But I can try, as much as possible, to replicate the experience, to pass along a warm, fun tradition, and to make sure that the kids realize that what they're viewing is special and that they're enjoying every minute of it. I can tell them about their grandfather, about his knack for counting pitches, about his enthusiasm and his love for the game. How they resemble him at times and share some similar characteristics (the best ones, mostly). In doing so, I tap into some of the deepest parts of my memory, some of the very best moments, something very special.

I'm sure that countless numbers of Philadelphia fans feel the same way. There's some tradition, some ritual, that they replicate that underscores the connectivity from generation to generation. Some people stop at Pat's or Geno's for a pre-game steak sandwich. My great uncle used to show up at family events with a transistor radio earpiece in his ear, as his Phillies were more important to him that most things. My grandmother, who didn't have an athletic bone in her body, watched the Phillies all the time. Most Philadelphians have these rituals and these memories, which is why tonight is such an emotional night.

I cherish the professionalism of Jamie Moyer, the ability of Ryan Howard to strap the team on his back, the hustle of Shane Victorino, the precision of Cole Hamels, the calm of Brad Lidge and the leadership of Carlos Ruiz. I love the way Jimmy Rollins made himself into a tough out, the athleticism of Jayson Werth, the raw talent of Brett Myers and the homespun wisdom of Charlie Manuel. I also love the home run call of Harry Kalas, and I'll never get tired of "That ball is outta here." (I loved hearing the replays of that call last night).

Most of all, though, I love the way that baseball acts as a loving cement that holds generations together and gives them something to share. That's what makes a kids' game played outdoors in the best weather months so darned special for the entire city and its surrounding suburbs.

You'll see that emotion on edge tonight, supportive, nervous and hopeful. And, if the Phillies' win, you'll see it erupt all over the Delaware Valley.

You'll see the collective emotions of generations -- past and present -- reflecting, individually and collectively -- on a triumph that would reflect the shared experiences of millions of lifetimes.

It will be a great thing to witness, but as a native of the Philadelphia area I'll be among the supportive, anxious and hopeful tonight.

After all, the weight of generations is riding upon the outcome.

Go Phillies!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Game 3 of the World Series -- I Was There

The entire family ventured (and, if you know about last night's game, ventured is the right word) to Citizens Bank Park to watch Game 3 of the World Series between the hometown Philadelphia Phillies and the visiting (and media darlings) Tampa Bay Rays. The game itself was compelling, and, as you know, the Phillies won, 5-4, in the bottom of the ninth. The following are some observations:

1. Major League Baseball dishonored and disserved the Philadelphia fans last night. The Phillies have very devoted fans. The team sold out 50 of its 81 home dates. The Phillies hadn't hosted a World Series game since 1993, and this was the first World Series game at Citizens Bank Park. During the regular season, the home team can call off a game before it starts, and, once the game starts, the crew chief determines when and whether to call a game. Understandably, because it's the World Series, the Commissioner of Baseball makes both calls.

And he blew it last night. The game should have been postponed. Yes, I know that my team won (and I shudder to imagine the mood of the fans upon exiting the stadium had the team lost), but to start a game at 10:05 p.m. or so was wrong. Fans were encouraged to get to the stadium early to avoid parking hassles, and, probably, to eat a pre-game meal at the stadium (regular-season games start at 7:05 p.m., a natural lead-in for dinner, whereas many fans -- we included -- opted to eat at home (and save considerable money and enjoy better nutrition) because of the posted 8:35 p.m. start. So, many fans got to the stadium at 5:30 and got soaked (one fan told me that he and his family got so soaked by 6 p.m. that they left the stadium, went home to change and came back).

Our story was different. We arrived at an overpriced parking lot (I don't see the justification for charging $11 for parking during the regular season and $25 for parking during the post-season. Heck, downtown Philadelphia restaurants suffer because those who own parking garages charge around $25 for an evening's worth of parking -- many opt to dine at fine establishments in the suburbs, where they can park on the street for free). We arrived at 7:10 p.m. and stayed in our car until 8 p.m., at which time we walked toward the stadium. We got inside at around quarter after eight and headed toward our seats.

We stood under an overhang until about 10:00 p.m.

Puddles. Wind. Nowhere to sit and be dry. An edgy group of fans not happy with their circumstances. People with children wondering how long their kids would last. And, of course, up in the upper deck on the leftfield line, we had to endure a group of adult-adolescents who were shouting profanities to Tampa Bay fans who were walking by. Some of it was pretty vulgar, and I did take a stand for dignity and decency by calling them on it and telling them to watch their mouths because children were present. (I also had an umbrella with me that I was prepared to use to defend myself should I need it; thankfully, challenged and somewhat chastened, they retreated, at least for the moment).

Finally, it was 10:00 p.m., and it was time to take our seats.

But, Bud Selig, what you did was not fair. Kids aren't playing baseball in greater numbers. Starting a World Series game at 10:05 p.m. doesn't help your case.

Sponsors or no sponsors. California TV audience or no California TV audience.

2. Tampa Bay fans who came to the game were brave. I talked with several and assured them that not all Philadelphia fans were drunken, profane ignoramuses. They conceded that they had met several dozen, and they agreed that there are probably similar ignoramuses in each stadium in the country. Philadelphia is no different from many places, especially New York. Still, profane and assaulting behavior toward anyone is not acceptable.

3. The sign of the night. Fans in left field unrolled a banner that had a picture of a cow bell (the Tampa Bay trademark noisemaker) with the headline "This Isn't a Bell," right next to a picture of the Liberty Bell with a headline, "This Is a Bell." When that poster was flashed on the big screen at Citizens Bank Park, the fans roared.

4. Philadelphia fans made a statement to the world last night. It might have rained on us, it might have gotten a little chilly by the end of the game, and the late start meant that the game went to almost 2 in the morning, but we sat and stood together, tall, proud and loud, until the wee hours. If anything, we gathered strength toward the game's end, and we told everyone that despite any weather thrown at us, we'll stay, we'll cheer, and we cheer loudly to the very end. Except for the ignoramuses out there, Philadelphia fans did a great job last night (and, by the way, rumors about our throwing snowballs at Santa Clause in the early 1970's are greatly exaggerated; the fans who did so did so because the guy playing Santa was drunk and disgracing the costume -- nothing more).

5. World Series fans are wealthier than the regular-season fans and, as a result, aren't used to sitting in the seats for the Series, or, aren't used to going to the games because they only go when the game is an event. What do I mean? Translated, that the fans aren't as passionate and knowledgeable as the regular-season crowd. They'll cheer for ordinary fly balls because they can't judge them the way regular-season fans can (in determining which will or will not fly out of the park). They also don't seem to cheer as loudly as regular-season fans, which is somewhat hard to believe given how loud CBP was last night.

6. I actually had a guy sitting behind me who was yelling that Grant Balfour had pooped in his pants. Continuously. Okay, Bozo, if you read blogs, you exposed yourself for being a fool last night. The est of the section looked at you with a mixture of contempt and incredulity.

7. I also had a guy sitting behind me who left his seats and must have opted to stand somewhere because he couldn't stand the fans who were waving their towels. Okay, first they were heavier to wave because we used ours to dry our seats. Second, why didn't you mentally prepare for this before you got to the game? Where have you been? We've been waving towels since the end of September? Deal with it.

8. I also had a guy sitting behind who yelled loudly and voiced his displeasure because the fans were unwilling or too chilled to cheer as loudly and frequently as he was. I admired his zeal, but not his profanity. He used the "f" word as creatively as contestants on Food Network's Iron Chef use the ingredient of the show. Our kids weren't thrilled. Thankfully, they're well-versed in dignity and manners not to adopt that behavior. Memo to Hard Case: Chill out and let people enjoy the game the way they want to. If you want to be a cheerleader, get some electrolysis and waxing, a better face, dress in drag and try to become an Eagles' cheerleader.

9. Oh, the Ancient Mariner! We Philadelphia diehards knew that Jamie Moyer had a good game in him for the post-season. There were several reasons for our optimism. First, Moyer had a good season, even if he had two bad starts in the post-season. Second, the Rays are a young team who hit fastballs well, and Moyer relies on command and changing speeds. Third, the Rays hit righties better than lefties. Moyer was masterful last night, and got a huge ovation when he left the game. It was a great moment for a grand guy.

10. Unsung Phillies! Eric Bruntlett. J.C. Romero. Carlos Ruiz. Bruntlett has been a good man off the bench all year. Romero aced his post-season exam last night. And Ruiz has become the master field general, an excellent pitch caller and handler of pitchers who has displayed great offense in the post-season. Rays' skipper Joe Maddon had a five-infielder defense in the bottom of the ninth to create a 1-2-3 double-play situation, and Ruiz chopped one down the third-base line for an infield hit and the Phillies' victory. The place went nuts (as it did on Ruiz's home run), and we couldn't have had a more worthy hero.

11. The "Rocky" theme still resonates. The home club played the theme from Rocky going into the bottom of the ninth. Yes, the movie won an Oscar before the Phillies' only World Series win, but the inspiration of the song pumped the crowd bigtime. Thereafter, the Phillies managed to pulled out the game, a dramatic victory.

12. The Phillies might have had their goats, too. RF Jayson Werth has been inept on the bases in two of the three World Series games. Manager Charlie Manuel has made some questionable calls deploying pinch hitters and in positioning his infield. It was curious that he went with lefty Geoff Jenkins in the seventh instead of Greg Dobbs and Matt Stairs both of whom are better hitters. Also, it was curious that with the Phillies up 4-1 he all but conceded 2 runs to the Rays in the 7th when he kept the infield back with men on second and third and no outs. Still, the home team won, and that's what matters.

13. I was happy to leave the park with a victory. The wet, tired and cold crowd wouldn't have been happy leaving with a loss. That would have been understandable, given how long we stood and waited for the game to start.

14. Going home it was great hearing a replay of Harry Kalas's home run calls on the radio. Thank God for simple joys. Hearing Harry's dulcet tones with his signature cry of "That ball is outta here!" is a real treat. Hearing Larry Andersen's guttural "Get outs" or cheers is a distraction.

All in all, though, a great night. Jamie Moyer was terrific, the bullpen pitched well enough, and we saw home runs from Ruiz, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Yes, we did think that Evan Longoria's long fly to left was going out (only to remain inside the park enough for Pat the Statue Burrell to catch). Yes, we dismayed about the Phillies' inability to hold B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford, and, yes, we were ticked when the 1B umpire missed an "out" call on Carl Crawford's drag bunt. But that's baseball. And all our team needed was one run more than the other guys.

We were there together, as a family, spending good times together at the crowning event of the baseball season, the World Series. It was a priceless evening, all things considered.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Jake Peavy is on the Trading Block, Signed Through 2013

The baseball off-season will prove to be very interesting.

First, it will be interesting to see, as a bigger recession seems to be on the horizon, how much the advertisers and season-ticket holders re-up, and how much merchandise is sold during the holiday season. Those indicators will affect what teams might be willing to pony up both for free agents and on long-term deals for budding stars.

Second, Jake Peavy, the Padres' ace, is on the block. Buster Olney of writes about which teams might be interested in him.

I think he leaves two important teams out.

One is Tampa Bay, an excellent team with so many outstanding prospects that it can't probably bring them all up to the majors at once. Life, after all, is demographics, so if you bring up players who are close to the same age and close to having the same number of years to free agency, you could have numbers problems down the road. Even if you're Tampa Bay, you're well run, and you've signed up some of your stars to long-term deals already. So, you're flush with prospects, you probably could use a bona fide #1 starter (even if you have a few studs in your pipeline -- David Price among them -- who project really well). You might be willing to trade a few prospects -- the Rays also have some good outfielders in the minors -- to get a #1 starter and a real stopper. That trade could make an excellent team even tougher to beat.

The second is the New York Mets, who obviously have chemistry, starting pitching (as in aging) and bullpen issues. There are some in New York who think that the Mets need to reconfigure, and, if the Mets go that route, the Mets and Padres could create a blockbuster that involves Jose Reyes as the big name for the Mets and Peavy as the marquis name for the Padres. Omar Minaya, the Mets' GM, likes to get into the mix and isn't shy in his hunt for excellent players. The Mets' probably need to make some changes, but peddling Reyes or David Wright seems risky to me.

Peavy is an excellent starter, and he could make a team a whole lot better. I like Olney's other suggestions, and it also is most reasonable to see Peavy going up the San Diego Freeway to Los Angeles in exchange for a bunch of prospects.

What's the Justification for a $110 Game Jersey

I was at my local Dick's Sportings Goods store the other day, and my kids pointed out to me that an Eagles' jersey cost $110. That's right, for this princely sum, you too can get an Brian Westbrook or Donovan McNabb jersey -- the same as those guys wear in a game.

I asked the cashier whether these items were popular, as follows: "Do these jerseys really sell?"

"Oh, yes," she replied. "We sell a lot of them."

And my question is "Why?"

Yes, I buy t-shirts that support my favorite teams, but at a far less tag price than $110. I bought my kids them as gifts, and, yes, we did get my son a Ryan Howard jersey as his main birthday present 3 years ago (big then, it still fits, and it cost far less than $110). So, with that as disclosure, I ask the question again, "Why?"

Is this something each and every Eagles' fan thinks he should have? Can't you go to a game wearing a green sweatshirt, a green coat, something that doesn't even cost the poundage that it does when you purchase a garment with a logo on it? And if that fan does think he has to have that shirt, what other expenditures is he foregoing to make that purchase? And, is this his only game jersey, or does he (or she, for that matter), have others?

I just don't get it and feel happy enough that I don't feel compelled to buy that jersey. But I think that many out there not only think it's a good idea, they think it's a necessity, not a luxury.

And perhaps, as a societal matter, therein lies a problem as to consumer spending and how we prioritize what's important from what's nice.

Sorry to be a grump about an excellent team and it's merchandise sales, but that $110 jersey has stuck in my craw for a while.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Great Suggestion Regarding National Broadcasts

Why can't baseball arrange to let a playoff team's local broadcasters do the game for the local audience for the playoff team?

Sure, I'll take the Fox or TBS feeds and their ads, but as a Phillies' fan I feel cheated. While I actually thought that Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were pretty good last night, I'd strongly prefer to have the Phillies' team of Harry Kalas, Chris Wheeler (yes, even Chris Wheeler) and Gary Matthews. I would have relished Harry's "That ball is outta here!" call on both Shane Victorino's and Matt Stairs' home runs last night. That call would have meant so much to the home fans.

Instead, we get the neutral calls of the national announcers (I thought, though, that Dan Shulman's calls on ESPN Radio reflected a proper amount of drama). Those calls take some of the excitement out of the game for any playoff team's fans. I would imagine that Dodger fans would prefer Vin Scully to the Buck/McCarver team too.

Credit where credit is due to former Phillies' reliever Ricky Bottalico, who suggested this on the Phillies' postgame show on Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia after the game last night.

It's a Long NFL Season

Eagles' fans were despairing after the team's 2-3 start, especially the way the team lost to Dallas and Chicago. Going into the weekend, the fans were wondering whether the Donovan McNabb era was over, and why head coach Andy Reid seemingly has blind spots about his team every year. Among the laments this season -- a fullback who can't block, a tight end who can't block, and a defensive line that doesn't get a good push. Oh, yes, throw in the lack of a #1 receiver, a frequently injured quarterback and aging offensive tackels. And, of course, for good measure, include the fact that free agent DE Chris Clemons has been a downer and acquired running back Lorenzo Booker has been a relative no-show. Click here for Reuben Frank's excellent article in Sunday's Bucks County Courier Times about some of the Birds' front-office moves (err, blunders).

But, you see, it's a long football season. I, for one, didn't buy the talk that the Redskins were one of the NFL's top five teams, that Jim Zorn will be a great head coach, or that Jason Campbell has arrived and will rival the Jags' David Garrard for throwing the fewest interceptions. I, also, didn't buy the stability of the Cowboys, was waiting for Adam Jones to regress, and still wonder when the human volcano, Terrell Owens, doing okay in dormant status, will blow. As for the Giants, well, they're an excellent team, but they also stumbled in Cleveland last night, and Eli Manning has a bruised chest. For once, it isn't Donovan McNabb who leads the injured list in the NFL.

So, let's hold the phone before we anoint the Cowboys' Super Bowl champs, before we champion the Giants for a repeat, or before we cede a playoff spot to the Redskins. And, of course, Eagles' fans shouldn't get giddy on their late-game breakthrough against the 49ers. Yes, Juqua Parker did his best Lawrence Taylor imitation in the second half, but the Birds' defense is still leaky, and their play is inconsistent. As I said at the beginning of this post, it's a very long season. Remember this, though, that over the years many a team that's started at 6-2 has failed to make the playoffs, while some that have started more slowly do. (I'm sure the statheads will jump all over me about this).

The NFL East is the best division in pro football, and the remainder of the season should be most exciting.

NFL Trading Deadline

The Cowboys paid a steep price for Lions' WR Roy Williams, who seeks a new contract.

The Chiefs held onto future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, in whom the Eagles seem to be interested.

Does this activity underscore the difference between the franchise people suggest will win the Super Bowl versus the one that, while good, might not get their under the combination of owner Jeffrey Lurie and coach/GM Andy Reid? (The Eagles also pursued Williams).

The ESPN article described Terrell Owens as aging. He is getting up there in years, but how many NFL wide receivers look to be in better shape?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Is Philadelphia a Baseball Town Once Again?

Just asking.

All four of the major sports franchises have frustrated the faithful over the past 25 years, as follows:

1. Phillies. We had to suffer the silliness of the first chapter of the post-Ruly Carpenter ownership era in the form of managing general partner Bill Giles, who once referred to the Phillies as a "small-market" team despite Philadelphia's being, at the time, the fifth largest media market in the country. Small-minded was more like it, and there was a sense that the five wealthy families who owned the team didn't really want to stretch and field a champion. Once the ownership pushed Giles aside in favor of savvy baseball executive Dave Montgomery, things began to change, and the building of Citizens Bank Park must have compelled the ownership group to look in the mirror. Signing Jim Thome sent a signal that they were serious about improving the product, and, well, the product is looking awfully good right now. The Phillies sold out 50 of 81 home games, drew well over 3 million people, and the joint just jumps. They are grabbing the headlines, but. . .

2. Eagles. A good amount, if not the lion's share, of sports talk radio in Cheesesteak City focuses on laments about the 2-3 Eagles. The fun part is that they have been pretty good over the past decade, even if Andy Reid's team has made the playoffs only once since their Super Bowl appearance. The prevalent sense among the faithful is that Reid won't take the team any further, he's stubborn, blind to his flaws as a roster builder, and that owner Jeffrey Lurie should swap horses, rebuild the team, and get a new coach. Why? Because it seems each off-season the team fails to improve on key flaws (despite great defense annually by radio talk show host Howard Eskin that the front office knows what it's doing). Going into this season, they needed a fullback, a tight end who can block, an upgrade at wide receiver, and some help on the offensive line, where two 30+ tackles are relative geriatics in the NFL. They looked better on paper on defense, but the D-line seems undersized, and the linebackers, despite the hype, went into the season untested. Put differently, the Birds are a few french fries short of a Happy Meal, and they also find themselves in the toughest division in football. The embarrassing part -- not that they're behind the Cowboys and the Giants, but that Washington, under first-year head coach Jim Zorn, has surged past them. No, the Eagles will not make the post-season this year.

3. 76ers. Up until last season, they were stuck in the quicksand that was the Allen Iverson era. Great talent, bad team player, didn't set an example, lead or make his teammates better. Shedding Iverson was addition by subtraction, and now the team has added a great talent in Elton Brand. They were 40-42 last season, and 48-34 isn't a crazy prediction. They will be a pretty good team this year, and they could win a series in the playoffs in the East. Still, over the years, they clanked along in mediocrity.

4. Flyers. No one can accuse the Flyers' ownership of failing to spend money. Kill the Phillies on it (especially them), question the 76ers (which for a while have been run by a hockey guy, who is incompetent and directing a hoops franchise), and even ding the Eagles (although they have made big splashes in the free agent market), but be fair to the Flyers. It's not that they didn't spend big bucks -- they did. It's just that for a while they stuck to an anachronistic view of "old time" physical hockey when the rules changed and speed mattered more. They need to get back to the Stanley Cup finals -- and they certainly aren't bashful about spending.

So, I've digressed. Eagles or Phillies? Phillies or Eagles? Which is the favorite franchise in town? Sorry, baseball fans, but the Eagles, despite their frustrating play, still get the nod, because they tend to draw more attention all year round. Yes, the Phillies are having a wonderful season and, yes, many fans prefer them over all the other teams, but somehow, some way, Philadelphia first and foremost is a pro football town.

But if the Phillies win the World Series. . . who knows?

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Financial Crisis and Pro and College Sports

The positive side to this story is that all of our games provide great distractions from what's been going on in the equity and debt markets. We all have teams to root for -- even if they are the little league teams our kids play for -- and they are a great distraction to things that are well beyond our control.

But how does the turmoil in these markets affect our games? For example, how will these crises affect ticket sales, especially corporate ticket sales? How will this crisis affect sponsorships, naming rights, stadium expansions, donations to major college athletic programs? My guess is that the financial crisis will affect all of these things.

1. Alumni Donations. Yikes. These will drop, as you have to believe that even mega-net worth people will be worried and just won't show sufficient largesse. But let's break that comment down into two parts, one of which is much more troublesome than the other. The easier of the two problems for a university is that it won't receive future gifts or future pledges. The harder problem is where a university has started a project based on the pledge of future gifts, and, all of a sudden, the donor is unable to fulfill the pledge. What does the school do, only half build a natatorium? Booster clubs will suffer, as might season-ticket sales, even at places where you wouldn't think that to be likely. This crisis has hit everyone, and some of the biggest boosters also might be some of the most highly invested and leveraged people on the planet. With the markets the way they are, those monies might not be forthcoming.

2. Sponsorships. Mixed. Most certainly, the sports that depend on the formerly gilt-edged sponsors will suffer. I'm thinking golf, mostly, and even tennis, to a degree (you have to believe that even the luxury goods market might suffer in this environment). But the banks are in bad shape -- commercial and investment alike -- and the millions that they don't spend to put their name on a tournament they could deploy somewhere else. This doesn't mean, however, that all sports advertising goes away. First, check your local sports page -- there are hardly any ads, because mostly men read those pages and men just don't shop the way women do. Second, sports advertising is the lifeblood for certain companies, such as beer companies. So, assuming that those companies are generally healthy, they'll continue to advertise. Those that sell luxury items, though, might be in a pickle.

3. Naming Rights. The names to certain locations will change, but you wonder about new venues and those places where the naming rights might be up for renewal. Again, depending upon the cost, a company might deploy the funds elsewhere.

4. Ticket Sales. Mixed. On the one hand, sports are a distraction, and people might view their expenditure on tickets as sacrosanct. On the other hand, they aren't a necessity, and individuals and businesses alike might cut back on purchases to save an extra dollar. Those cutbacks would hurt teams' revenues two ways. Directly, the team won't make as money. Indirectly, they won't sell as much as the concession stands. Right now, there's a gap in renewals for the major pro sports. People already would have re-upped for pro basketball and hockey tickets, football season is almost one-third of the way gone, and re-upping for baseball won't happen for a while. That said, I would suspect that both companies and individuals will drop all sorts of full and partial season-ticket plans within the next year. Those drops could hurt free agents and a team's ability to sign them (after all, teams have owners, and you just don't know how the financial mess will affect the pocketbooks of those who pump money into teams to enable them to pay big signing bonuses).

5. Merchandise. Yikes, perhaps. The business press already has reported that retailers are expecting a dismal holiday season. The last time I stopped at my local Dick's Sporting Goods, a "real" Philadelphia Eagles game jersey cost $110. I found that hard to believe, so I asked the cashier if people actually bought them. The reply: "we sell a lot of them." That answer reminded me of the back-and-forth between Eddie Murphy and Bronson Pinchot in Beverly Hills Cop about a piece of sculpture Pinchot was trying to sell at an art gallery. When Pinchot told Murphy what the object d'art cost, Murphy replied with a classic, "Get the *&^%#! out of here." Somehow, families will buy holiday presents, but they won't buy as many of them and they won't spend as much. My guess is that Dick's either drops its price on the $110 Brian Westbrook jersey or will have a lot of them left over after the season.

Naturally, I hope that none of this will be the case, that colleges will be able to enhance all sorts of programs for students to stay fit and for elite athletes to compete. I also hope that pro sports will remain very vigorous, fully able to compete for free agents and buoyed by solid season-ticket and advertising revenues and revenues from the sale of merchandise. But the ramifications of the financial crisis have yet to fully play out, so universities must be bracing about what their solicitations will yield, and pro teams will be praying that there isn't too big a dropoff in people coming back and buying logo merchandise.

Good luck to everyone -- hang in there!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Phillies Are Going to the NLCS!

Yipee! Yee-hah! Yahoo!

The Phillies beat Milwaukee, 6-2, this afternoon to take their NLDS series and head to the NLCS for the first time since 1993. My mother, who is in her 70's, called after the game to remind me that in her lifetime, the Phillies have been in only 3 World Series. Yes, she's a native Philadelphian, as am I, so there are no "Got Titles?" t-shirts in anyone's wardrobe.

Baseball's a funny game, isn't it? Last night, the Phillies stunk the joint out in Milwaukee. They didn't hit with runners in scoring position, Charlie Manuel whiffed by leaving Scott Eyre in to start the eighth and by not starting Greg Dobbs, and Jamie Moyer had trouble finding the strike zone. Still, they battled, and they were in the game until the end. Had pinch-hitter Matt Stairs homered with one man on late in the game, the Phillies would have tied it. Instead, they lost, the Brewers' bullpen pitched well again, and the home team survived to fight another day. Needless to say, perpetually disappointed Phillies' fans -- or at least some of them -- were left wondering whether their team would drop two straight in Milwaukee and come home to play a Series-clinching game with CC Sabathia on the mound for the Brewers.

Their worries were overblown. Jimmy Rollins sent a message with a home run on the first pitch of the game. By the third, the Phillies were up 5-0, thanks to a Pat Burrell home run. (Burrell hit a second dinger later in the game). Ironically, Burrell hit his two homers in a game where Jeff Suppan started for the Brewers; it was a great post-season for the Cards several years ago that yielded a 4-year, $42 million overpayment for the junk-throwing righty. Burrell, in all likelihood, added $10 million to the free-agent contract he'll get from someone (but not the Phillies) after the season. Burrell is 32, and I was thinking a few weeks ago that he'd get a three-year, $30 million deal from someone. With this performance, he may be looking at 4 years and $48 million, perhaps from San Francisco, which overpaid for then-Phillies CF Aaron Rowand last year (5 years, $60 million). Burrell is from Northern California, and the Giants can make it a habit of paying too much for former Phillies on the downside of their careers.

Joe Blanton pitched great for the Phillies, to the great delight of the fans, who were skeptical about how he would perform in the post-season (hint: he outpitched fan favorite Jamie Moyer). "Lights-out" Lidge was lights out again, and the Phillies now go on to face Manny Ramirez and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. It goes without saying that the Phillies will somehow be the underdog despite having the better record and that the Lords of Baseball and executives at Fox (and Lord help TBS, whose announcing crews displayed all of the passion of Mister Rogers reading an infomercial for adult incontinence aids), who would delight in a Boston-Los Angeles Series (dollar signs and ratings would be dancing in their eyes, but the Phillies also populate one of the nation's largest media markets).

Had I told you that the Phillies would have won in 4 without much production from Ryan Howard (fair at best) and Chase Utley (utterly disappointing, causing me to suspect that he has a sports hernia or damage hip and is in great pain), would you have believed me? I don't think so, but, then again, had I told you that they would have won in four despite their not hitting much and the starting pitchers for the most part pitching great baseball, well, you might have.

This was a great day for Phillies' fans, as they now can celebrate their team's first appearance in a league championship series since 1993, when the fans inexplicably chanted the idiotic song "Whoot There it Is" at anything momentous in the Vet and the team's leaders were referred to as "Macho Row", an actually, and retrospectively, almost unappealing group of players who could hit in the clutch and pitch well enough to win. Today's team, I submit, is better, and, also, thankfully, classier.

The Brewers were gritty all year and showed a lot of inner toughness in winning the Wild Card and surviving the front office's flaky move of canning the manager with twelve games to go. The Mets also were very worthy opponents for the Phillies, and both teams brought out the best in Charlie Manuel's crew. The next series should be a great one.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Phillies-Brewers: Line of the Night

My family and I were sitting in left-center field last night. In the fourth inning, Prince Fielder walked to the mound to talk with CC Sabathia.

My eight year-old son turned to me and said: "They're probably talking about where they're going to eat after the game."

I suppose a photo of the meeting would do the line more justice, but restaurants must shudder when guys that big show up on all-you-can-eat night.

At Citizens Bank Park on Thursday Night: Phils Win!

The entire family ventured to Citizens Bank Park last night to watch the Phillies-Brewers game. Parking was no worse than usual, the stadium no more crowded, as the Phillies sold out 50 of their 81 home games this year (and my guess is that they were pretty close to sold out for the other 31). The long lines at Tony Luke's for the roasted pork sandwiches with broccoli rabe and provolone remained, as did the lines at Chickie's and Pete's for their famous crab fries. At Tony Luke's, the line can be 75 deep and it can take you a half hour to get through; at Chickie's and Pete's, perhaps the same, but you can get through in about 15 minutes or less (it is, after all, easier to scoop fries and sprinkle them with Old Bay seasoning than it is to cook a roasted pork sandwich or a cheesesteak).

Anyway, I digress. (My son and I opted for barbecue sandwiches from Bull's Barbecue, named, quite lovingly, after one-time Phillies' leftfielder Greg Luzinski, a home-run hitter built like a linebacker at a young age, a run-stopping DT in his later years, and who field the position with all the grace of Charlie Manuel sprinting out to the field to check on an injured player).

As we walked in, Phillies' employees handed us the white and red Phillies' towels, which we gladly accepted. We then made our way to our seats in left centerfield, a far different vantage point from the one we had during the regular season (down the first-base line). People were excited and nervous, hopeful but skeptical, wanting the elation of victory but, as Philadelphia fans, bracing themselves for the crushing disappointment of defeat.

And there were signs:

1. Brett Myers was godawful in his last two starts.
2. Brad Lidge was starting to resemble Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams.
3. CC Sabathia, the best starter in the NL, was on the hill for the Brewers.

The game did not get off to a great start. Myers was wild, loaded the bases, walked in a run. The top of the first had "big inning" written all over it, but then the Phillies' starter induced Brewers' RF Corey Hart to hit into a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning. Suddenly, the fans emerged from their gloomy silence and erupted at the big play. Sitting in the stands, all of us were hoping that the game wouldn't end before the Phillies got to bat. Our prayers were answered.

The Phillies answered in the bottom of the second. Jayson Werth doubled, and then Pedro Feliz doubled him home. Carlos Ruiz grounded out, Feliz moving to third with two outs. And up came Myers, one of the worst-hitting pitchers in baseball. Sabathia was poised for the kill, quickly gettin the count to 0-2. But then the baseball gods visiting Citizens Bank Park. A combination of fouls and balls got the count to 3-2. By this time the crowd was roaring -- how could Sabathia not put away a guy who looked like Ralph Kramden drunk on Trixie's fruit punch at the plate? Sabathia threw his ninth pitch -- Ball 4. The stadium erupted, fans on their feet.

Brett Myers, you see, was, at the moment, the ultimate baseball player. He worked the count, he extended a must-be-tired pitcher's pitch count, and he worked a walk. Somewhere, Phillies' Hall of Fame centerfielder and former broadcaster Richie Ashburn was smiling.

You know the rest of the story. Unnerved, Sabathia walked Phillies' leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins. Then, he hung a 1-2 slider to CF Shane Victorino, who hit a grand slam. All of a sudden, the Phillies were up 5-1. After 3 2/3, Sabathia would be sent to the showers.

The rest of the game was relatively uneventful. The Brewers got a run back, the Phillies ended up leaving 10 men on base, left 3 men on third as an inning ended, and left the bases loaded twice. To those of us in the stands, the 5-1 lead wasn't enough, and we did worry that leaving the bases loaded twice could come back to haunt the team. But the Brewers seemed deflated, seemed to have too many guys who can hit for double-digit power but who don't walk enough or know the strike zone well enough. They just didn't get it done. 5-2, Phillies.

Brad Lidge revived himself after an iffy outing the night before to get the save, and as Shane Victorino caught the last fly ball to seal the victory, the fans erupted once again. The Phillies are up 2-0 on the Brewers, and in 54 division series, a team down 2-0 has only recovered 7 times to win the series. The odds (as well as the quality of the bullpen) favor the Phillies.

Here are a few observations:

1. Would you have predicted a Phillies victory if you were to be told that Ryan Howard and Chase Utley would combine to strike out 5 times, that the Phillies would strike out 10 times, and that they would leave 10 men on base?

2. Myers was awesome at the plate. In his two at-bats against Sabathia, he forced the portly portsider to throw 19 pitches, almost one-fifth of his total pitch count for the night. Myers' efforts at the plate were awesome, especially for him, and underscore the beauty of baseball -- the little things matter, and great contributions can come from the most unexpected sources. After the game, the media wanted to focus almost solely on his batting, especially his second-inning at-bat. Myers was funny, because at one point he offered, "hey, don't you guys know that I pitched tonight too?" The room laughed.

3. Victorino just beats you, an outfielder in the mold of a David Eckstein. Two doubles, a grand slam, and he's making a great case for a big award in arbitration if the Phillies don't sign him to a long-term deal in the off-season.

4. Charlie Manuel did a fine job, too, swapping Victorino and Jayson Werth in the batting order. Victorino shined hitting second.

5. J.C. Romero was great in the eighth. Ryan Madson got derailed, at least in part by Jimmy Rollins' error, and Romero came in with two out, two on and the tying run at the plate, a guy named Prince Fielder. On the first pitch, Romero broke Fielder's bat as Fielder hit a slow roller to Chase Utley. Inning over. Outstanding job.

6. Brad Lidge looked like the Fireman of the Year last night. A four-batter save, good location, and a great effort.

7. The fans were at the top of their game, from cheering loudly and waving their towels collectively to the guy on the first-base line who caught a foul ball with his hat. We saw it from afar, and it was a nifty grab.

All in all, a great night for the fans and home team at Citizens Bank Park. The collective nerves of the fans will remain, but the faithful left knowing that they have a dangerous team, a team that is clutch, and a team that can pitch. Their hoping now to win this series, get some rest, and then have a hard go as an underdog in the NLCS, where there will be hope for them, as some of the favorites at the beginning of the playoffs -- year in and year out -- emerge as also rans (and the Cubs and even the Angels are in that category right now).

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Does Brad Lidge Have a Tired Arm?

Brad Lidge has had a tremendous year for the Phillies. He's been the best closer in the National League, and for most of the season removed all doubts Phillies' fans had about whether he in fact was a bona fide closer or damaged goods.

But recently he's been less than stellar. We all worried about the fiasco that was the All-Star game, with Bud Selig's edict that the teams would finish "no matter what", and with gross mismanagement by National Manager Clint Hurdle, who warmed Lidge up so much that the Phillies' reliever threw at least 100 pitches in the bullpen (he was up 6 times).

Is that worry coming to roost now? Is Lidge spent?

He doesn't look like a lights-out closer right now. He looks more like Mitch Williams, the "Wild Thing", who was the Phillies' closer in the 1993 season (and who gave up only one of two Series-ending walk-off home runs in World Series history) or like Don Stanhouse, the one-time Orioles' closer who made saves an adventure over 25 years ago.

And that concerns the Phillies' faithful, which it should.

Brad Lidge has had a great year, but he threw so many pitches yesterday that it makes fans wonder whether he'll be available to pitch in relief today. The Phillies' bullpen was one of the best in baseball all year. It needs to continue to honor its great season by pitching outstanding baseball in the post-season. The Phillies won't go far if Lidge isn't "Lights Out" Lidge.

And if Brad Lidge is not "Lights Out" Lidge in the post-season, the Phillies' fans will have cause to sing that old Don Meredith favorite, "Turn out the lights, the party's over" earlier than they would hope to.

I still say Phillies in 4.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Has Al Davis Lost It?

Oakland Raiders' owner Al Davis fired head coach Lane Kiffin yesterday. The Raiders now will have their fifth head coach in seven years. Most coaches take at least three years to demonstrate whether they'll succeed. Good luck to anyone who signs on with Davis; he'll get about 17 months.

Make critical comments every now and then, and, well, at worst you're a harping nag but more likely you're providing constructive feedback. I'd give mostly every head of an organization the benefit of the doubt on that score. That said, Davis has been known to be a meddling owner, and over the past several years his actions have been over the top. Did I say that he's now on his fifth head coach in the past seven years? Does he know something that others don't, or is he just an accident waiting to happen these days?

The Raiders' record since 2003 and before this season began is 17-63.

Davis unloaded on Kiffin, making it seem like the young coach infected the vaunted Raiders' organization and was an unmitigated disaster. I would call out Davis and suggested that by now hiring his seventh coach in five years, he should take a long, hard and honest look in the mirror.

Because what's there isn't pretty.

Make critical comments too frequently -- such as shortly after you've hired a key operating officer -- and, well, you could be a harping nag, or, worse, you've lost it. Al Davis once presided -- no, check that, coached, managed and then actively oversaw -- one of the most respected franchises in the National Football League. Today, though, it's an open question whether the Raiders are just one big joke and what the NFL could do about it. It's an even bigger question as to what coach in his right mind would take a job with Oakland. Yes, there are those who would give anything to become head coach of an NFL team, but those might be the guys you'd want to stay away from. Capricious doesn't begin to describe Al Davis.

The whole situation is unfortunate. A promising young coach is out, and a once proud, very successful owner is at the end of his career and his team is failing. Unfortunately, it's all very public and very nasty, and the matter will end up before Commissioner Goodell and perhaps in the courts, where Al Davis has proved as formidable as his teams in the 1960's were on the field.

What a mess.