Sunday, July 31, 2011

Electric Night at the Bank

About 6 weeks ago, friends of ours told us to block out Saturday night, July 30 on the calendar for a game between the Phillies and the Pirates. We go to many games, and there was no reason to look forward to this game any more than any other game at the Bank. The reason is simple -- the Bank is an exciting place to be, a sea of red (although Nebraska fans have nothing to worry about), with a team that has a core of great players, not only because of their individual talent, but because of the leadership the best players show and the chemistry on which everyone in the locker room seems to insist upon.

Yet, there was something particularly exciting about going to the ballpark last night -- the arrival of Hunter Pence.

Don't get Phillies' fans wrong -- we love the players we have, but we figure that the window for this group of players to win World Series will shut in 3, 4 years, and the idea of holding onto well-regarding high A ball prospects for the future perplexes the faithful because this team can win it all now. And the amateur GM in all of us compelled the conclusion that the Phillies have such a good shot to win it all this year that adding one more piece might make that good shot great. When you couple that thinking with the track record of GM Ruben Amaro -- the actual, professional GM whose day job it is to outthink the amateur GMs in the stands -- we figured that he wouldn't sit idly by while the Giants upped the ante in the high-stakes game that is the run toward and into the playoffs by doing nothing.

So, when the news broke on Friday night that Hunter Pence -- all 6'4", 220 pounds of a strong-armed, power-hitting, righthanded batting rightfielder -- was en route, Phillies' fans became even more excited (as did the local merchants, who probably began ordered their Pence jerseys and jersey shirts at on-call shirtmakers after midnight). And that electricity was apparent as we walked into the ballpark.

If you park behind the outfield, the Phillies have huge posters up on the wall near left field behind the stadium that tells you what the starting lineup is. And, in the fifth spot, there was a picture of the field with the indication below it that the right fielder was batting there, behind Ryan Howard. Despite bad public press, the average education provided to Philadelphia-area residents is such that we all could deduce what we had hoped for -- that Pence was going to start on this night.

Regulars at the games can predict with great certainty which players emerge from the clubhouse and in what order for their pre-game warmups. We saw Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins emerge from the dugout to right behind the first-base area to get their stretching and running in. A bit later we saw Carlos Ruiz walked toward the bullpen, followed by Cliff Lee, who was to begin his regimen of stretching and then long toss before going into the bullpen to start throwing hard. Raul Ibanez, Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino also came out, and they, too, began their twists, stretchs, turns and runs. Finally, the last one out -- and a 4:30 arrival at the ballpark -- was Hunter Pence.

He's hard to miss -- a ballplayer right out of central casting -- big, strong and with the high red sox that make him look like he'd want to play two at mid-day in the midst of a heatwave. He ran out to the same area, and by the time he was closer to the rightfield seats, the fans realized who this large player wearing #3 was. And then they stood and applauded, and, as Pence moved toward center, the fans did the same thing. He acknowledged them with a wave, which drew more applause. As he then moved back toward the right field foul line, the fans there obliged him with rousing cheers, and he waved to them.

Welcome to Philadelphia, Hunter Pence! Welcome to the electricity and excitement of the team with the best record in baseball. Pence would receive loud cheers all night, and it was a night for the fans to cheer loudly. Ryan Howard homered before Pence's first at-bat, causing the faithful to be even more loud than they would have been had Howard whiffed before Pence's first appearance. Howard would go on to have a single, two doubles and an intentional walk in addition to that home run, and the second double was of the sort that could he have borrowed Shane Victorino's wheels he would have hit for the cycle. Cliff Lee got two hits, Victorino tripled, Pence got a hit (and should have had another but for a missed call at first on a close play) and, all told, the Phillies had 7 runs and 16 hits en route to a 7-4 victory over a Pirates' team that was gritty and refused to lie down.

Phillies fans don't take these times for granted. We know that they don't last as much as we know the baseball famines that we and our parents and grandparents have endured over the course of generations. We have a great appreciation for how special this era of players is, as we also have -- in the back of our minds now -- the mentality of the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in the mid-1970's, wondering whether there will be one last helicopter to rescue us before the opposition overruns our position. We know that the getting always isn't this good.

Which makes nights like Saturday night extra special. We celebrated a wonderful new addition. We celebrated Jimmy Rollins' making of two acrobatic plays at shortstop that seemed to declare that he isn't declining any time soon. We celebrated the amalgamation of a great core group of players, the sum of whom far exceeds the contributions that any individual can make, and we celebrated an ownership group and front office that has evolved from being cheap and defeatist into an elite. We celebrated summer, we celebrated togetherness, and we celebrated a victory.

We know that nights like this don't come around all that often.

And that makes them all the more special.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Holiday Season in Philadelphia

Boy, what a difference four decades can make.

About 40 years ago in July, every Philadelphia sports team was flailing (with only one -- the Flyers -- showing any hope). The average Philadelphia kid just went about his business, went to the local pool, to a day camp, played softball at dead ends, in open fields, basketball on courts with torn nets, what have you. No one -- and I mean no one -- had any hope that their team could make a run for a title any time soon. The sports landscape was like Irkutsk, Siberia in mid-February, without all the charm.

Fast forward to yesterday, and it was as though the two "major" sports teams in Philadelphia were in a steel cage match to see which one could wrestle the sports headlines from the other. In one corner, wearing the red and white, were the Phillies, with baseball's best record and a pitching staff that's the mound version of a modern-day Murderers' Row. In the other corner, the perenially gridiron challengers, the Eagles, wearing the green with white trim. Each were on a mission.

The Eagles were busy all week, trading for a cornerback, signing a defensive end, a tight end, a wide receiver who can return kicks, and a back-up QB with all the potential in the world, some decent results in his past, but a more recent history of a bad attitude. They had put up a lot of points, got kudos for moving forward when their division rivals were retreating, shedding some big names and past contributors to get under the new salary cap. They were impressing the media judges with their tireless jabs for success, working the media ring, getting attention, but they didn't score the knockout blow.

The Phillies, in contrast, got attention because of the moves that they hadn't made, and the annual debate about whether low-minors prospects can turn into the next Jon Smoltz or a jar of schmaltz (read: chicken fat) had begun in earnest. They also drew news because last year's World Champions took 2 of 3 in their house and then elected to rent the best OF available, Carlos Beltran, to serve as a human version of a PED for their anemic offense. The media judges were questioning their resolve, their tentativeness, noting that while their body of work was impressive they were questioning whether the team had enough to deliver the knockout blow to the rest of baseball.

And then both teams struck at once, one by surprise, and other by stealth.

Early last evening, the media reported that the Eagles came out of nowhere in the sweepstakes for classy all-world CB Nnamdi Asomugha, landing him for enough money to reduce the national debt for about 2 hours. Eagles fans were rejoicing, because now the team had 3 -- count 'em -- Pro Bowl-caliber CBs to help face whatever the best passing offenses could throw at them. I'm sure that the local sporting goods' stores are rushing to mint Asomugha jerseys, and that they'll sell a ton of 'em. Score a huge blow for the Eagles in their quest to knock the Phillies right off the sports pages mid-season.

The normally aggressive Phillies were tentative, because recent history has shown us that they've spent their prospects in trades the way Congress has spent our tax dollars. Over the years, they've shipped over a dozen prospects for Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, so much so that we fans were getting worried that the pimply kid who lives three doors down and broke his arm playing wiffle ball on the ice while wearing shorts was now going to be the top OF prospect in short-season "A" ball. But the reports have been that despite the massive trades, the Phillies were doing a good job of replenishing the farm system, shedding any illusions that it was turning into the after picture of a West Virginia strip mine.

Phillies' fans were getting anxious -- the window for the core players on this team to win it all (again) has an ETA to close in 3-4 years, at which time, perhaps, the prospects whose names were being bandied about might be rookies. Then, about 3 hours later, after the euphoria of the Eagles' signing Asomugha was hitting its peak (where it might remain indefinitely), Comcast SportsNet showed Hunter Pence coming out of the game in Houston and receiving a very warm sendoff from his teammates. Shortly thereafter, the Phillies' broadcasters hinted that rumors were swirling that the Phillies got the 6'4", 220-pound RF with the good arm (if funky mechanics), good power, good OBP and, yes, his right-handed bat. Score one huge blow for the battler in red and white. The euphoria over the Pence trade will last for a shorter while, but it will peak tonight when he's spotted at the Bank and announced -- he'll hear the cheers loudly and strongly.

The final tally? Both teams won, and won big, and their fans are elated. If you had told Philadelphia fans 40 years ago that a day like this would be in the offing, they would have spat their Ortlieb's or Schmidt's at you, tossed a few crumpled Taskykakes your way, and told you that you were delusional.

So, when my son came downstairs this morning, still waking up, he asked, "Dad, is it really true that we're getting Asomugha and Pence?"

"Yes," I replied with a smile, "it is."

Christmas is 5 months away, but the presents came early in Philadelphia.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Calling out Bruce Bochy

Sometimes you read diplomatic language and wince. Our government uses soft language to describe how it's really annoyed with another sovereign power. Or, our legislators sit before the cameras and smile about their attempts to solve the deficit issue, when you know that John Boehner would like to stick a shiv in Nancy Pelosi's career (or at least her hair), and when you know that Steny Hoyer would like to do the same to Eric Cantor.

Which brings me to the diplomatic speak that the Phillies' brain trust had for Giants' manager Bruce Bochy. If the math in this post plays out, then Bochy outright screwed the Phillies in what could be an unethical matter and should be held accountable for it. Then again, he did so in plain view under the fog of war, so he'll get away with it.

Put simply, Bochy warmed up and used Phillies' aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee at the top of the All-Star game, trying to get each to go 2 innings, or 1 more than any other hurler pitched in the mid-summer classic. And that means, of course, that both are unable to pitch this weekend at Citi Field against the Mets. And that means that the way the Phillies' rotation sets up, both will be unable to pitch against the Giants when they arrive at Citizens Bank Park in a few weeks.

And that simply is unfair and unethical.

Now, Bochy and his minions and apologists will smile, say "aw shucks" and argue to they are blue in the face that they were putting the senior circuit's best foot forward in trying to win the All-Star game and give the NL home-field advantage by putting two of the best starters in the game for four innings in an attempt to help the NL win the game. It sounds terrific and plausible, especially if you have a horse in the NL race and want your team to have home-field advantage in the World Series. That's hard logic to argue with.

But if you read the post, you'll discern quite clearly that even if Phils' skipper Charlie Manuel was demure on the topic, his pitching coach is hopping mad. Why? Because the logic of Bochy and his defenders is flat-out wrong and transparently so. The reason? Because if it's a true All-Star game, there are many pitchers who could have played the roles that Halladay and Lee did. And, even if the manager of the NL squad thought it optimal to have his starter (Halladay) go 2 innings, why then did he feel compelled to put in as the next pitcher a starter from the same team, a team his team plays in a few weeks? The simplest explanation is that he wanted to screw up their rotation in a way that would benefit his team. Period. After all, he has some pretty good hurlers on his team -- guys who won him the World Series last season and who are very well-regarded. If he felt so strongly about winning, why didn't he use his guys, guys who'd pull very hard for him and his cause? Why not? Because he didn't want to wear his guys out and then screw up his rotation after the All-Star game.

It was bush league all the way.

The Commissioner's office should investigate this, punish Bochy and then institute a role that prevents this type of shenanigan from recurring. Credit to Rich Dubee for at least showing some body language that suggests he'd like to pole-axe Bochy (figuratively) when he sees him next in Philadelphia.

Bad blood?

You bet.

What's Next, the Best Hockey Players from Ecuador?

The Princeton Basketball Blog linked to this post from, which names the 7 best NBA players from Ivy League schools.

Four are from Princeton; none are from Penn. (And one Princetonian, Bud Palmer, was a pretty well-known sportscaster years ago for one of the major networks; another was a U.S. Senator from New Jersey).

None from Penn? Really? Not Dave Wohl, Corky Calhoun, Bob Bigelow, (current Penn coach) Jerome Allen. Yale's Chris Dudley, who lost a bid to become Oregon's governor last year, also failed to make the list. And neither did Harvard's Jeremy Lin. I don't know why Yahoo focused only on 7, but that's what they did.

The Power of an Encouraging Word

A young boy, in fifth grade, took up a new sport this spring. There were three teams in his age group, and he was on the novice team because, well, he was a novice.

He loved the game. He was timid at first, the result of not knowing what he was doing and, also, not having his coach present at as many practices as would have been optimal because, well, the coach is a volunteer, has a life, and has a job. Still, despite being younger and smaller than many of the kids, he persisted.

He wasn't a star by any means, probably in the middle of the pack toward the bottom third, but he practiced with vigor and did the best he could. A sibling has had more success athletically, and near the season's end he wondered aloud on which team he'd play the following season. Would it be even possible, he asked, if he could make the first team?

We didn't discuss the topic much. All I offered was that kids who succeed do the work in the off-season to get better, which in this case would be to get into better shape and to practice frequently to develop skills. But I'm his dad, and that's what dads are supposed to say. And while I coach him in a different sport and he tells me I'm good at it (and it's not just because he might want me to buy him something, either), it's not easy to push your own child beyond his comfort zone. It's almost like there's something in the human gene pool that creates a barrier that prevents families from going berserk, something like a force field. It was, though, my hope that my son would have an incentive to work hard in the off-season so that he could distinguish himself in the fall in tryouts.

His last practice took place in the late spring, and, as it turned out, the coach of the first team ran it because my son's coach traveled to the state tournament to see his sons play on a team that was more like the Hickory Huskers in Hoosiers than the heavily favored South Bend Central squad. This coach encouraged the boys, but he knew my son's name, and he said, "I'm counting on you to improve, as I really need people who play your position next season."

The conversation wasn't long, but it was powerful. The coach offered enthusiasm and encouragement -- something that any almost adolescent boy needs. My son came home from practice and recounted the story -- with brighter eyes than normal -- and had some extra verve as a result. We then discussed what he needed to do, and he offered that he needed to practice his skills so as to be ready for the tryouts.

And, pretty much, he's been doing that, and through daily activities playing a variety of sports, he's been getting into better shape, building endurance and quickness. He sees an opportunity and wants to take advantage of it, and he has some extra impetus all because of a one-minute conversation in which an adult who wasn't his father told him that he had faith that he could improve enough to play for his top-level team.

There's plenty of yelling, doubting and negativity in this world. So, if you work with someone, are in a position of leadership or are a coach -- you have a duel role -- to challenge your team to do better, and to encourage them that if they have the skills and the tools they can actually achieve beyond what they believe they can. Sometimes all people need is a word of encouragement, even if you say, "Hey, the bar is here, you're not there yet, but I have all the confidence that you can get there. The big question is whether you have the same confidence and whether you can show me."

I watched a recently documentary on HBO about Vince Lombardi. There was a vignette in the film, an interview of Hall of Fame guard Jerry Kramer. Kramer recounted that one day he had an awful practice because he kept on jumping off-side. Lombardi chewed him out pretty good in front of the team. After practice, the coach walked through the locker room. Kramer was sitting on a bench, changing, and Lombardi approached him. The coach patted his young guard on the back and said something to the effect of "Jerry, keep on working hard. You know, you can be one of the best guards in this league." Kramer recounted the story and then said, "After that, I was determined to work as hard as I could. How could you not after encouragement like that?"

The world is in desperate need of leaders who connect with people. You don't have to be a politician or a CEO, it might be that you manage a shift at a convenience store, run a moving crew, coach a Little League team or a cheer team or run a pizza joint or an executive committee. Wherever you are, though, set the tone and make a difference by leading, challenging and, most important of all, encouraging. If you do that, you'll make everyone better -- including yourself.

The End of "Friday Night Lights"

The last episode of Friday Night Lights aired last night on NBC. The powers that be at the network expanded the show to fit a 1 1/2 hour time slot, though truth be told they did so to sell more ads, as it didn't seem that there were more scenes.

The last 10 minutes were really all you needed to see, and they told us that Tami and Coach Taylor moved to Philadelphia (a tip of the cap to the author of the book by the same name, H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, who is from the City of Brotherly Love; Tami incongrously after being a high school guidance counselor in Texas is going to be Dean of Admissions at a Philadelphia college, while Eric, fresh off another state championship, is coaching a high school team in Philadelphia). The Riggins brothers reconciled, with Tim opting not to go to Alaska but to build a house on the land he bought a few years back (with money he earned from helping his brother carry through on his idea of running a chop shop to support his family, and, when the authorities came a-calling, it was Tim who took the rap for his brother so that his nephew would have a father in his home). Tyra returned from college, still attracted to Riggins, but determined to make her way out of Dillon into a new life (although the ever-romantic/seductive Riggins said that he hoped their paths would mesh again). Matt and Julie are together again, in Chicago, where Matt is in art school and Julie presumably will be in college. Landry made a cameo appearance, home from Rice. The town of Dillon formed a "super" team to combine the teams of the two high schools to save money, and Vince is the starting QB, while Tinker has a spot on the team, as does Buddy
Garrity, Jr., and it looks as though Coach Taylor's assistants at East Dillon are running the show for the Panthers. Meanwhile, Vince's co-star, Luke, is back with Becky, but then he ups and joins the army and catches a bus out of town. That means that Becky is along, again.

Got it?

This was one great TV show, even if it didn't get the ratings. You don't have to take my word for it -- take the Associated Press's. My wife really doesn't care much for football, but the show riveted her because it was about a town and a community, about individuals with many virtues and flaws, living life, taking steps forward and backward, but in the end coming together because, well, that's what community is all about. We learned about the Riggins' brothers struggle to grow up without a mother and within an absent, alcoholic father, about the tenuous hold even a successful coach has on his job, about the difficulties raising an artsy daughter in a football family, about Landry's being a brilliant kid in a town where football takes priority, about Luke's quest to get off the farm, and about Vince's struggles given that his mother is overcoming an addiction and his father just got out of jail. We see the hurt that Buddy feels when the Panthers abandon him after they jettison Coach Taylor in favor of a puppet that the father of the star quarterback controls, we see his estrangement from his family after a bitter divorce, and we see the differences between two sides of a town. What we see, or what we saw, in essence, was life playing out, sometimes fairly, sometimes not, but we also saw the power of the individual to make a difference by believing in the power of rebounding and trying harder the next time.

This was a special series. Buy all 5 seasons on DVD. You'll get so hooked from the first episode you'll watch endlessly until you've watched them all.

Thanks, Peter Berg, Jason Katims and the cast and crew of Friday Night Lights. Coach Taylor, Tami, Riggins, Matt, Landry, Lila, Tyra, Billy, Mindy, Julie, Buddy (for whom Brad Leland should have garnered and Emmy nomination) and relative newcomers Becky, Jess, Luke, Buddy Jr., Hastings, and, of course, Vince (as well as Vince's mom and dad) as well as those from years gone by -- Jason, Smash, Smash's mother (whom Liz Mikel did an excellent job portraying) -- as well as some of the unsung actors who played Levi, Mac, Coach Crowley, Coach Spivey and, of course, "Slammin'" Sammy -- you guys were just plain awesome.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are in First Place

When was the last time you could say that?

When was the last time you could say that after the All-Star break?

Here are the standings. Yes, it's true.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Life of A College Hoops Assistant Coach

About a month ago, Dana O'Neil of wrote this excellent piece on the lives of three veteran assistants.

Think selling houses, moving vans, having your kids change schools - time and time again. One assistant had 12 moves in 24 years.

The game is very alluring, and these gentlemen (and their families) make significant sacrifices, all in the name of both opportunity, job security and, at the bare-bones level, employment (period).