SportsProf

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

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

More on Barry Bonds

Bravo, Sports Frog, for your take on Barry Bonds and the chase to hit 715 home runs. This is required reading for all you purists out there and for those of you who are ready to hit the collective body of mainstream sports media types over the head with a piece of crockery for the crock that they've dished on this "milestone." Enduring the mainstream sports media's coverage on this "milestone" has been akin to passing a kidney stone, with one key difference -- we don't have to listen to it or read it.

Period.

I remember 6-7 years ago when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris' single-season record how we tried to be home (only to have a bad storm knock over a tree in the neighborhood that flatted a cable line that knocked our our service) to watch this monumental effort, only to question the record a week later (because of "Andro") and have my father-in-law call me a cynic for having the temerity to question the latest Bunyan-esque home run hitter. Back then, there were whispers, players were bigger, but there was no hard information.

Fast forward to today. It's been said that democracy and sausage are both great things, but you don't want to see either of them made. It probably was the case about baseball six, seven years ago, when the feats were astounding and we clearly had no clue as to how they were accomplished (thanks, in large part, to the mainstream sports media's kissing the butts of the players instead of looking a little more closely at them for needle marks or steroids-induced acne). Today, though, we know how those records were made, and the repulsion at the process caused us to take about as much interest in Barry's "assault" on the Babe's mark as we did, say, in eating a fruitcake at Christmas-time in December.

I haven't read Tim Kurkjian's piece yet, but I did hear the legendary Peter Gammons on ESPN weeks ago covering a Giants game, and his empathy for Barry Bonds' emptiness was absurd. Gammons is excellent at the game that goes on in between the lines, but he and the rest of the so-called "best" baseball writers aren't of much use to the fan about what goes on outside it.

Keep it coming, Sports Frog!

Lacrosse Mania in Philadelphia

You can name the colleges that have won national titles in Division I lacrosse over the past 35 years on both hands:

Cornell
Johns Hopkins
Maryland
North Carolina
Princeton
Syracuse
Virginia.

Others -- Duke, Loyola (Maryland),Towson -- reached the finals and didn't get over the top, and this year is was UMass's turn to try to break those school's stranglehold on the national championship (in most of the years that the seven school named above won the national title, they defeated one of the other seven schools in the title game).

Lacrosse has been somewhat of a schizophrenic sport over the years. Decades ago, the game was played by blue bloods and the middle class in Baltimore, the middle and working class on Long Island and in New York's Central Valley (near Syracuse) and blue bloods at New England prep schools. Outside of perhaps a few DC area private schools, if you didn't play in one of those areas, chances were that you weren't viewed among the elite, or, put bluntly, as any good. Today, it's different, and elite players come from all over, and there are more hotbeds.

If you don't agree, then check out yesterday's national championship game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, where over 47,000 fans were in attendance to watched an undefeated Virginia squad against unseeded UMass, a formidable program in its own right, making its first appearance in the national title game. My son and I were among the fans at the game, and it was great stuff.

First, there's the Linc. Believe it or not, despite being an avid Phila. sports fan I'd never been there. The reason is simple: none of my friends with Eagles' tickets has invited me, you really can't get Eagles tickets any other way, and I haven't ventured to buy soccer tickets featuring some of the great European teams. The Linc is just a great venue with great sight lines, and it's easy to get to from New Jersey, Delaware and the five-county area that comprises Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Second, there was a Lower Box in the Linc, which is where we sat. So, not only did we get to watch a great game with great sight lines, we also enjoyed good food and didn't have to swelter out there in the heat (I told my son not to get used to seats this good). We sat in shade and relative cool; the initial moments in our car ride home reminded us of how hot it was outside for everyone else. What a way to watch a game!

Third, there was the lacrosse phenomenon, with the Virginia gentry decked out in their orange attire tailgating right next to the lacrosse fans from New Jersey, Long Island and the Philadelphia area, Jags next to pick-up trucks, kids throwing lacrosse balls around in the parking lot, and they were there early. We arrived 1 1/2 hours before game time, only to have to park south of the Wachovia Center -- a ten-minute walk from our entrance -- because so many people were there so early. Thankfully, those running the event honored the tradition that permits kids to bring their lacrosse sticks into the games as fans. I don't know how the tradition started, but there were plenty of kids there with sticks. I had talked my son out of bringing his (he doesn't even play lacrosse, though, he plays t-ball), and he remarked later that bringing a stick to a lax game had less utility than bringing a glove to a baseball game, because the chances of getting a foul ball are far greater. Thankfully, he didn't care that much and elected not to bring his stick, and the lack of a stick didn't diminish his enjoyment one bit.

Tons of people, good if a bit hot weather, and a great matchup. It's not everyday that you get to watch a national championship game in person, and we were excited just at the privilege of being there and in the company of good friends. We rooted for UMass, not because of any affiliation with the school, but because of the concept that they were big underdogs and, well, as happens at many NCAA sites, the hometown crowd typically roots for the upset. My wife and I were at Penn's Franklin Field in 1992, when upstart Princeton knocked off top-ranked Syracuse to win its first national title and broke the stranglehold the troika of Syracuse, Hopkins and Carolina held on the crown for the previous sixteen years. It was a great day then (albeit in the low 60's and drizzling most of the time), so perhaps another big upset could take place on Memorial Day in the city that spawned one of the biggest upsets in U.S. history, the American Revolution. After all, there was a great symbol present in the atmosphere -- the UMass' mascot is a Minuteman.

As everyone knows now, UVA won pretty easily (15-7) and showed why it was the best team in the country. Their speed was superior to that of UMass's, their passing was crisper, and they won 26 of 42 faceoffs, a key statistic in any lacrosse game. The game was close at the half, with UVA up 6-5, and Doc Schneider, the UMass goalie, did his best to keep his team in the game. He was outstanding, but not outstanding enough to stop the multi-faceted attack of the Virginia Cavaliers.

We rooted for UMass, caught up with good friends and ate some good snacks. One the way out, as is my wont, I bought commemorative t-shirts for the kids (the run on merchandise inside the stadium was something to behold). My son marveled at the stickwork of the players, their ability to change direction, how they were able to shoot the ball from behind their backs and heads, how hard they shot the ball, the great replay scoreboards behind both endzones at the Linc, how close it seemed we were to the action, and the sea of orange that decorated one section full of Virginia partisans. It was a great event, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

To learn for yourself about the heightened interest in lacrosse in this country, click on the link to this website and look around.

If you haven't checked out this sport, you really should. It's basketball with some hockey-like hitting on land, and overall just a really good time.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day Weekend Observations

From the local to the national:

1. We had friends over for barbecues on Saturday and Sunday, and the dads succeeded in tiring out the kids by playing the old-time favorite, "running bases." You set up two bases, and dads stand at each one, throwing a ball back and forth, while the kids try to run back and forth without getting tagged out. Some kids stay within the baselines, while others tend to venture into your neighbor's yard. At any rate, the combination of laughs and pink cheeks indicated that on both nights we succeeded in tiring the kids out. And, yes, the barbecue was good too. Just pick an excellent rub for your ribs and you, too, can be a master chef.

2. I am convinced that if kids work on their fundamentals daily they can become better baseball and softball players fast. We have a batting tee and pitchback in the back yard, and the kids are working on their catching and footwork with the pitchback and on their hitting with the tee, and the results are showing. You don't need to read the book "Prophet of the Sandlots" to figure out that if they practice correctly every day they'll get better -- and fast (the book, by the way, is excellent). With so much on the schedule of the average kid, that kid just doesn't get the opportunities to practice enough. If he/she does this every day, he'll get a lot better.

3. Barry Bonds hit #715 and was fortunate to have done so in San Francisco, because it seems like the rest of the nation met this feat with a collective yawn. He tried to be warm and sincere in his post-game interview, but given his public image, few paid close attention to his words. Was this a big yawn or what?

4. Some of our weekend guests speculate that most of the NFL is on HGH since there is no test to detect it, and they speculate that MLB players are on it too. As Buster Olney wrote the other day, you can't prove either way whether a player is -- or is not -- using. That's a shame, but how many 300+ pounders do you come into contact in everyday life (then again, the average ice cream section in your local supermarket is huge). Has the human species evolved so dramatically that the average o-lineman is 50+ pounds heavier than he was say in 1975? True, training and eating methods are more advanced, and some people are just plain big and fat, but the lack of a test for certain substances leaves open the possibility that players are using. And that's a shame in and of itself.

5. Remember when the Indy 500 was something really special? Remember when NASCAR was just a bunch of good 'ol boys? What happened to the Indy racing phenomenon? Did the civil war with the CART drivers kill the allure of the sport? How many of you really stopped what you were doing on Sunday to watch the Indy 500? Remember when that's what we used to do, when the drama was so compelling, with ABC covering the race, Jim McKay up in the booth and Chris Economaki down on pit row? Today the sport seems like an afterthought.

6. Can't say I'm following the NHL or NBA playoffs just yet, and can say that I'm disappointed that so many teams make the post-season and that the post-season lasts as long as it does. I'll hunker down and watch soon, so long as the playoffs don't interfere with my World Cup watching. I'd prefer a Suns-Pistons final, although the Mavs have really stepped it up this year. I'd rather not see the Heat. I like Shaq and Dwayne Wade, but not Gary Payton or Antoine Walker or, for that matter, Pat Riley. Did the Pistons get a step too slow that fast? And imagine the Suns when Amare returns.

7. We're going to the NCAA Division I lacrosse finals today at Lincoln Financial Field, my first foray into that stadium. A good friend gave us some tickets, and given that we have no allegiance to either UVA or UMass we'll do the good old American thing and root for the underdog, which is UMass. I'm no lacrosse expert, but I think that if UMass were to win today, it would be one of the two biggest upsets in Division I men's lacrosse history, with the other being Princeton's first national title in 1992, when the Tigers, in their first DI final, upset Syracuse in double overtime to win it all at Penn's Franklin Field. And therein lies the synergy -- Philadelphia was the home of the other upset 14 years ago. Could it be the home of another huge upset today? The UMass Minutemen faithful are certainly hoping so. My son's one lament is that he has no shirts that are in the colors of UMass.

8. As for the World Cup, the U.S. team has its work cut out for it to get to the second round, the round of 16. There are eight groups in the first round comprised of four teams each, and two from each group will advance to the second round. The U.S. is grouped with Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana, and the conventional wisdom says that the U.S. will not advance (even though they've been consistently ranked in the Top 6 in the world, which has me thinking that the FIFA board royally screwed the U.S. when they came up with the groupings). I will debate that conventional wisdom and predict that the U.S. and Czech Republic will advance to the second round. The Czechs are talented enough and play well enough together that they could win the entire tournament, while I'm not convinced that the Italians will defend well enough to get to the next round. And, if their talented striker Francesco Totti isn't fully healthy, they might not play well enough on offense, either. The U.S. played well in the 2002 World Cup and has a deep enough team to do some damage, and the conventional wisdom doesn't always work in these tournaments. Witness what has happened to the French and Argentine teams in recent tournaments. Your national team can't mail it in in the first round and advance to the second round. I'll have my predictions for you next week.

Have a great Memorial Day!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

What Did He Expect -- the 1927 New York Yankees?

First-year Buccos skipper Jim Tracy has placed the blame on Pittsburgh's worst start in 52 years on the players. While Tracy's remarks may not be politic, they are accurate. Read here for his assessment of his team.

Here are a few things to consider:

1. The Pirates have been a bad team for years. Going into this season, they had 13 losing seasons in a row (scroll down the link for the gory details). What else could he have expected, that he could have waved a magic wand over the team and turned them into, well, the Detroit Tigers? He's not Jim Leyland, let alone this guy.

2. What good did Tracy accomplish? Didn't he basically tell his players that they stink and his front office that they aren't very good at providing players who can really play? That's certainly bound to cause the team to come together and start winning baseball games. I can imagine the clubhouse banter today.

Jason Bay: "Hi, Skip, glad that you were clear in your public comments. You know, I was thinking that myself the other day."

Tracy: "What was that, Jace?"

Bay: "That what was missing for this young team was to have our manager come out in public and humiliate the team. There's nothing like a good, old humiliation in front of the baseball world to right what was wrong."

Tracy: "That's what I was thinking, too, Jace. The real world is a harsh and gritty place, and few know that as well as our fans. I was figuring that if I gave the colts that message, they would start to step up and play better."

Bay: "You know what happens to kids who are raised that way, Jim?"

Tracy: "They become champions."

Bay: "I was thinking that if they always are surrounded by negativity, they end up doubting themselves, underachieving, dropping out, doing drugs and end up populating the nation's prisons."

Tracy: "Strap a pair on, son. You're supposed to be the leader of this team, so act like it. Ah, what was I supposed to expect from you, the sport that the good athletes play in your country is ice hockey."

Bay: "Thanks for the encouragement, Skipper. I suppose that in your old-school way of doing things, the boys and I are supposed to take your comments as a challenge, right? That those comments are supposed to make better men and players out of us?"

Tracy: "Darned right you are. Step up or ship up."

Bay: "My contract's longer than yours, Skip, and I'm the best player you got. I've got a pair and most of us play very hard every day. Perhaps it's you who needs to 'strap up or ship out,' Skip."

Lovely times ahead in the Steel City, aren't there?

3. Sometimes the negative comments people make are more a reflection on the commentator than the commented on. If Jim Tracy had been hired in Boston to take the Red Sox to the World Series and then the team played terribly, he'd perhaps have a point, although he'd have to be careful to ensure that it wasn't he who created a poisoned atmosphere for the players. Instead, he was hired to skipper a Pirates' squad that has only one bona fide position player in Jason Bay and perhaps one bona fide starter in Oliver Perez, and that's only when Perez shows up with his best stuff (which hasn't been often and which has Perez on the verge of being shipped to the minors). Okay, so the Pirates have the worst record in the National League, but is that really a surprise?

4. Yes, there is some truth, of course, to what Tracy is saying. The Pirates aren't losing because of any great conspiracy theories. They are losing because they are not a good baseball team. Pirates' fans shouldn't fret too much, though, as their Steelers just won the Super Bowl. Some cities, such as Philadelphia, would swap a horrid Phillies' season for an NFL title in a heartbeat. That, of course, doesn't make it any easier for Jim Tracy, but the fact of fandom is that big cities like getting world champions, and right now the Pittsburgh sports' faith is sated. Plus, it's a football town. Which means that the audience for this rant is rather small.

5. Here's what the Pirates' bloggers are saying:

From Honest Wagner: "In a loathesome, cowardly attempt to shirk accountability. . .," is the prelude, and then the post goes on to question not only Tracy's comments, but some of his managerial decisions. Read the whole thing.

From Bucco Blog: "I want to sit down and cry. I really do. . . What a bonehead thing to do."

Believe it or not, there are roughly 1/2 dozen blogs that dedicate themselves to the Pittsburgh Pirates, which is pretty remarkable since there isn't much joy in the Pirates' season and many bloggers tend to lose interest over time. I do recall the glory days of this franchise, not only in the early 1990's, but also in the 1970's, when the Pirates were the team that always figured out a way to beat you and came from 3-1 down in the '79 Series to beat the Orioles. It's bad enough that the team isn't playing well, but it's obviously worse when your manager has publicly gutted his team.

I have one piece of advice for Jim Tracy and Pirates' fans: patience. The Tigers rebuilt themselves primarily on pitching, and, let's face it, they've had better luck than you. They have Bonderman and Verlander, both outstanding young hurlers, while you've had Sean Burnett and John Van Beschoten, who once were great prospects who got hurt. That's not much solace, of course, but assuming that the front office knows what it's doing and has some money to spend on its farm system, the team can rebuild itself over time. Jimmy Leyland cannot be the answer to the question: "who turned the Tigers around this year?" He is part of the solution, but the main part, of course, is the players.

Which brings us back to Jim Tracy. Jim, you're right, it is the players, period. Few will dispute that contention. The thing of it is that you're supposed to be a leader, especially of young players, and you're supposed to put the positive face on things, teach players, work with them and, yes, in the day and age of the selfish athlete, nurture them. You have a good job, you get to be in outdoor venues in good weather coaching a game that was meant for kids, so overall how bad can it really be? Every baseball blogger would trade their job and compensation for your job, comp and benefits.

After all, if you polled the fans and asked them whether your squad had a better chance to win or lose 100 games, only blood relatives of the owners would have picked the former.

Things are bad for the Pirates, and with this latest public comment, it's hard to see them getting better soon.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Can't They Be Sent Down to AAA -- As a Team?

In case you missed it, the Kansas City Royals, the once-proud franchise of the 1980's, are 10-35 and playing .182 baseball, which has them on track to win 29/30 games this year.

Click here to read about how they blew a 6-0 lead and have lost 13 in a row.

In high school and college baseball and softball, they have the mercy rule, whereby your team wins the game quickly if they're up by 10 runs after a certain point in the game.

In English soccer, they have relegation, which means that if you finish in the bottom 3 in your league, you get relegated to the division below you, which, translated into American baseball parlance, means that you'd get sent to AAA if you had a bad Major League season.

What do we have for the Royals this season? Can we pass a rule permitting them to take greenies, steroids and HGH? Can we cede the entire nation of Cuba over to the Royals and let them sign the entire Cuban national team to help fill their ranks? Can we give them a visa to let them cut a deal with Fidel Castro? Can we give them 2 years exclusive rights to signing players from the Dominican Republic?

Or can we mercy rule their season? They're already 20 games out and it isn't even June 1. That's almost impossible to do, isn't it? Can we say that if they're out 30 by the All-Star break they can call it a season?

Hard times for a once-proud franchise. Remember the days of George Brett, who is a Hall of Famer and was one of the best hitters I have ever seen? Willie Wilson? John Mayberry? Dan Quisenberry? Dennis Leonard? Frank White, the one player who made his way to the big club from the baseball academy the owners started in Kansas City? Darrell Porter? John Wathan? Larry Gura? Mark Gubicza? Bret Saberhagen?

I can't imagine what it must be like to be a Royals' fan (actually, I rooted for the Philadelphia 76ers during the 1972-1973 season, when they finished 9-73, so I do really know -- it's just plum awful). Click here and here to get a taste of what they're saying.

It's not a pretty site.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Duke Women's Lax Players to Show Solidarity with the Men's Team

are they

a) loyal friends;
b) blindly loyal friends;
c) stubborn defenders of entitlement;
d) the well-rounded Duke ideal;
e) exercising their first-amendment rights;
f) lacrosstitutes;
g) naive kids;
h) standing up for what they honestly believe is right; or
i) defending a way of life that many can't comprehend?

Read this, and you can decide.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Crash Davis Gets Called Up

Okay, so he's not a career minor league catcher, but he's making it to the bigs because he can play the position.

You probably haven't heard of this guy, and chances are that you'll forget about him shortly after he's gone. And the bet here is that he might not last out the season, because his team is pretty good and, with a few timely hits and key pitches here and there, could contend for a wild card spot. But here he is, at the ripe old age of 33, making his debut in the majors for the Philadelphia Phillies. His name -- Chris Coste.

No, he wasn't shot as a young boy headed to Rookie League, didn't drift for a while and doesn't have a customized bat he carved out of a tree that was hit by lightning that he carries around in a violin case. He's a career minor-leaguer, a guy who hit .463 in spring training only to lose out on a roster spot because the Phillies traded for David Dellucci right before the season began. It's just the case that if you didn't get to the majors earlier in your career, a team that thinks it could contend doesn't opt for 33 year-old rookies whose best days are in the rear-view mirror.

So they sent Chris Coste down to Scranton-Wilkes Barre, the Phils' AAA affiliate, to catch and play other positions. While he didn't fret about the demotion, he hasn't excelled at AAA, either, hitting .177, ratifying the big club's decision not to promote him for a spring's worth of torrid offense. Yet, with starter Mike Lieberthal on the DL and catchers Sal Fasano and rookie Carlos Ruiz not making anyone forget about Mickey Cochrane and Andy Seminick, let alone Bo Diaz and Bob Boone, and with Fasano taking a ball into his cup region the other night and ailing as a result, and with back-up infielder Alex (the former Blue Jays' starting SS) Gonzalez deciding to retire, the hometown squad had a roster spot open.

Enter Chris Coste, especially because he can catch.

It may be that he's up for two weeks, or it may be that he's up for two months, but this is a feel-good story for 2006 for Major League Baseball. For every veteran who doesn't appreciate what he has, there are dozens of Chris Costes who never get there and who would give anything to get on a Major League roster, even if only for one game. The promotion of Chris Coste is a tribute to the determination of the workmanlike player, no matter how short-lived his stay might prove to be.

Welcome to the big leagues, Mr. Coste.

SportsProf's Second Anniversary

Today is my second anniversary of writing this blog, and the number of people reading it is up about 6-fold from the average number of readers in the first year. So thanks to all of you who check in regularly, and please e-mail me with suggestions as to how to improve it (sorry, Penn fans, but I can't switch my allegiances!) and as to topics to write about.

The following is a sampling of my highlights from the second year, so please surf through them and pick out one you like:

For All You Moonlight Graham Fans Out There (June 2005);

Melting Mojo (July 2005);

They Coulda Been A Contender (August 2005);

Talking on Radio Bad for Eagles' Players' Future (September 2005);

The Wonderlic Test and the NFL (October 2005);

What to Do with a T.O. Jersey (November 2005);

Redshirting Your Own Kids (December 2005);

The Family Business (January 2006);

An L.L. Bean Story (February 2006);

Breaking Down Baseball America's Top 900 Prospects (March 2006);

A Little Boy's First Pro Basketball Game (April 2006); and

If (May 2006).

Thank you for all of your support during the past two years! I really appreciate it.

The Legend of Ye Olde Stopper

I blogged before that if he kept at it for 3-4 more years, stayed healthy and got to 230+ career wins, he'd have a good shot for the Hall of Fame. I honestly believed that then, and I believe it now. He has thrown a wrench into this analysis, though, because he's talked about retiring as early as after this season.

Last night, Curt Schilling won his 199th career game against the Yankees. True, the Yankees were missing Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui, but the rivalry remains intense and lesser pitchers have wilted in rivalry games. This guy, it always seems, pitches big when the lights are the brightest.

And that, of course, will be his legacy. He may not get talked about today the same way we talk about Clemens, Maddux, Glavine and Johnson, all of whose bodies of work outshine his. I would argue, however, that he has outshone at least three of them in the post-season, and perhaps four, although Randy Johnson pitched outstanding baseball in the 2001 World Series, was named Series MVP and shared, along with Schilling, the award as Sports Illustrated's Sportsmen of the Year. Schilling pitched great in the same World Series, and he can add his heroic efforts in the 1993 post-season for the Phillies and in the 2004 post-season for the Red Sox.

How will he be viewed 25 years from now? 50 years from now? As just another pitcher, someone who just somehow didn't make the Hall of Fame, a la Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris? Or, depending on the sabremetrics of the day, will he be viewed as one of the most clutch pitchers of all time and, therefore, worthy of the Hall?

The media loves him, the fans like him and appreciate his candor, and, okay, so his front offices haven't usually taken a shine to him and his teammates bristle because of the publicity he gets for himself. I can't predict how that cocktail will medicate his chances, but the guess here is that his media-friendly attitude and his heroics will work in his favor.

It would be a shame for him to retire after this year. As the stats have shown, when he gets enough rest and doesn't throw 131 pitches in a game in April, he is better than most, even as he approaches 40. The money has been great, so much so that he's probably set for life and doesn't need to work a whole lot longer. That factor, along with the drag that the travel of a baseball season places on any family, let alone one with four children, plus the fact that his wife is a cancer survivor, might contribute to an earlier than later retirement.

That's Curt Schilling's right, of course, but when he does retire he will be missed. Baseball history isn't usually kind to those who get to the threshold of the Hall and just don't quite make it. I'm not going to digress into an argument as to who belongs but hasn't gotten the votes versus who has gotten in and the voters were nuts to elect them. In Schilling's case, I hope that they'll think hard about his entire body of work and how he has excelled against the biggest names in the biggest games.

It's not only longevity that should count, but also the quality of your body of work. Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro are in the Hall and both were excellent pitchers, but I'd take Schilling in a big game over them any day of the week.

Come to think of it, I'd take Schilling over Clemens, Glavine and Maddux too.

And I'd pay as much as I'd ever pay for a ticket to see a Schilling-Johnson matchup when both were in their primes.

Let's hope that when considering whom to elect, the Hall of Fame voters remember that.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Girls Gone Wild

I blog from time to time on various issues involving college sports, and I try to provide equal coverage on the good and the bad elements. Most recently, I've blogged somewhat extensively on the Duke lacrosse situation, where I've tried to separate the serious charges from a series of irresponsible behavior by a considerable portion of the membership of that team.

The Duke situation raises some very serious issues, as does the overall topic of hazing. Thankfully, none of the hazing situations that has surfaced recently is accompanied by charges of major felonies, but the issues that hazing raises are very serious. It wasn't too long ago that a town was torn asunder on Long Island for some horrible hazing rituals involving the sexual assualt of several young members of a football team. Instead of showing leadership and welcoming the youngsters into the fold, they were treated just horribly. All of this hazing has made me re-think, to a degree, whether I want my kids involved with serious, competitive team sports when they get older. The major reason for my concern is that while some hazing can seemingly start out innocently enough, it can transform into violent, seriously degrading/depraved episodes where everyone loses.

The most publicized of hazing incidents that recently has surfaced involves the Northwestern women's soccer team, the members of which have been suspended from the team pending further inquiry. Interestingly, while Duke's websites took pains to discuss all of the issues facing the men's lacrosse team, Northwestern has circled the wagons. I can't say that they've taken a "girls will be girls" approach, but if you were to Google "Northwestern Women's Soccer" you will get a link to the team's website. Because of the scandal, you can't link to the roster, but if you read the website you'll see that it's business as usual. There is no mention of the probe of the women's soccer team. (You can read the University's official statement -- from the Athletic Director -- here, but I didn't get this from the website).

The members of the women's soccer team have issued a public apology for their conduct today (this came several days after women's soccer alumni co-signed an e-mail in which they express their dismay and concern about the incident), while an assistant editor ofThe Daily Northwestern doesn't (totally) see what the fuss is all about and suggests that what happened on that "initiation" night was "relatively tame." At the same time, the editorial that appeared in the same newspaper states that hazing is a problem and suggests it should be eliminated.

And that's the right stand. Because as innocent as some rituals sound, they can morph into something like this. Something from which that particular affected community might never recover.

There's good clean fun and then there is fun at people's expense which involves humilation and other calumnies. Team leadership should show leadership -- instead of dragging themselves and their powerless newcomers into the cesspool to which events like these eventually lead.

Northwestern unfortunately bears the brunt of the hazing scandals at this moment because it's a prestigious university and because photos of the event made it onto a website (or two or three or four thousand). Before you sit back there and say, "this didn't happen at my school", don't kid yourself. The bet here is that stuff like this goes on everywhere and gets out of control because each year kids test limits and don't get called for testing them, further emboldening them to overstep the line progressively year after year.

Sometimes it's hard to take a stand, as no one wants to be the anti-fun police and all of us realize that college kids need to have their fun. That's part of the college experience, and there's enough serious stuff that goes on after college that at least kids should have some good and, yes, fun experiences while they are living away from home.

Fair enough.

But can't they be constructive -- without alcohol and drugs? Can't they be held in such a fashion that no one gets shamed, that no one gets ridiculed, humiliated or degraded?

And if you say "no", then ask yourself "why not?"

And then try to sell most of us on that answer, because right now I just don't get it.

The girls at Northwestern have more privileges than most people will have in a lifetime. They're bright (you can't get into that school if you're not), athletic (most people are not elite athletes) and some are getting significant financial aid if not full rides. Why can't they simply honor their privileges instead of acting that they're entitled to all that's come their way? Sure, they've earned the right to where they are, but where's the sense of community, the sense of true teamwork, the sense of humility?

Professor Dumbledore was right. While it takes a great deal of courage to stand up to one's enemies, it takes a great deal more to stand up to one's friends. What happened to the courage that gets summoned to maintain one's nerve in the final minutes of a tie game against Michigan? Where was that courage on that night, and where the leaders who should have said that what was planned was all wrong?

Those team leaders are captains in title only. Leaders they are not, and as part of the remedial actions Northwestern should take their captaincies away from them.

Hopefully all of these scandals will help re-focus colleges, their athletic departments, their teams, their coaches and their athletes on the appropriate priorities for all extracurricular activities. Instead of honoring old, worn out and just plain bad traditions, let's fulfill each school's published goal of advancing excellence every step of the way.

Before someone -- or some people -- get really hurt.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

And Just Who Did the Mets Get for This Guy?

Scott Kazmir won his seventh game for the Devil Rays today.

He's all of 22 years old.

We're talking Ernie Broglio for Lou Brock, Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz, Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell and, of course, Ivan DeJesus for Ryne Sandberg (and Larry Bowa). Or, at least it seems that way.

The joke among Mets fans is that they typically get the wrong guy. They got Kaz Matsui when Hideki Matsui has excelled for the Yankees. In this particular trade, they got Victor Zambrano, who is now on the DL, while the better Zambrano, Carlos, pitches for the Mets.

The Mets are a very good team this year, but they did trade two good starting pitchers -- Jeo Seo and Kris Benson -- in the off-season, and their pitching staff has suffered injuries this year.

Bet they wish that they still had Scott Kazmir.

In Case You Missed This

Barry Bonds tied the Babe last night, hitting #714.

That he got a curtain call in Oakland surprised me, not because he's who he is but because SF fans seldom would admit going over the Bay Bridge to Oakland and because Oakland fans don't like the perceived snobbery of the SF fans.

What's interesting to me is that this feat was reported more "matter of factly" than anything else. Just another night in baseball, a factoid amongst many arising out of inter-league play.

What pains most baseball fans is that we really don't care about this the way we should, and the reason for it is placed at the doorstep of Barry Bonds. Deep down, we want to cheer amazing feats, we really do, and we place our anger at our ambivalence not only at Bonds, but of the other big names who apparently corked themselves instead of their bats, those who enabled them, defended them and promoted them.

Sorry, Barry, but the lack of glee from the Baseball Nation is the logical and fair result of the goings on of the past decade.

Phillies-Red Sox Last Night

The family and I went to a considerably warmer Citizens Bank Park than the park we found 2 weeks ago when Barry Bonds and the Giants were in town. No, I'm not talking about the fan atmosphere, just the fact that the wind was blowing out to right last night instead of right at the 45,000 or so who attended the game. While it did get chilly at the end, we didn't come away feeling that we watched the game in a freezer. Having watched several games during my lifetime at Candlestick Park in S.F., I do know the feeling of having been reduced to the temperature of your average chicken nugget.

We arrived early enough to go to Bull's BBQ, the restaurant in center field where Greg Luzinski hangs out and signs autographs. I say "hangs out" because The Bull (who is even bigger than when he played left for the Phillies in the 1970's and early 1980's) sits near the cash registers and signs autographs. He's not a serious conversationalist, at least around strangers, so there isn't the ebullience of a Boog Powell in Baltimore, for example. But he was there nonetheless, with a smile on his face, and after we ate the kids wanted to go get his autograph.

I was the same way as a kid -- getting an autograph was something special -- and hard to get. Today, I don't totally get it, but given what I felt then I sort of understand the allure for the kids. So, after we ate our sandwiches, we walked up to where Greg Luzinski was sitting. I gave the kids some instructions about asking, about saying "please" and "thank you" and calling Greg Luzinski "Mr. Luzinski." The kids were wearing their Phillies' shirts and were greeted with a smile and a "How are you guys doing?" and then each handed him his/her ticket and got a nice autograph.

I told Greg Luzinski that I saw him play in the 1970's and that the teams on which he played were fun to watch, and then I suggested that he would have hit 500 home runs playing at Citizens Bank Park. He replied: "Yep, it would have been fun to play here," and, as we finished signing we thanked him and walked away. It was a fun encounter for the kids, and now my daughter has Greg Luzinski's autograph to add to her budding collection. For my son, it was his first autograph.

We sat in the upper deck last night on the third base line, as when we purchased our "Six Pack" of Phillies' tickets we were guaranteed seats for the Red Sox' series. My guess is that so many members of the Red Sox' nation purchased single-game advanced tickets that we ended up in the upper deck instead of on the first level behind home plate. While I'm no great fan of heights in ballparks, I must confess that the view from this spot was spectacular, as we saw Center City Philadelphia, the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Walt Whitman Bridge, as well as having a great view of the entire park. If you like views at nighttime, sit up top, it's worth it.

There were thousands of BoSox fans at CBP last night, so much so that "Let's Go Red Sox" chants started almost every inning, to be drowned out each time by roaring "boos" from the hometown faithful. My six-year old son picked up on the unwritten rule of hometown protection, and joined the chorus, effectively I might add. My eight year-old daughter would have liked to start a "Let's Go Phillies" chant, but curiously none of those ensued last night, at least where I was sitting. By the end of the game, as we were leaving the ballpark, we heard a few "E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!" chants. Read on and you'll see why.

Right before the game began the Phillies' played the scene from "Rudy" on the scoreboard where the actor who played Dan Devine (same guy who played the obnoxious townie who tried to tell Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) how to do his job at the beginning of "Hoosiers") says to the Notre Dame football squad: "This is our house. . . and no one. . . I repeat no one. . . comes into our house and pushes us around."). I'm not sure that a "Let's Go Red Sox" chant began after that vignette, but it was a curious choice given that the home nine had lost four in a row, including one the night before to the Red Sox. Apparently, "getting pushed around" gets severed into single-game scenarios, at least by the Phillies' scoreboard management.

The pugnacious Brett Myers started out wonderfully, pitching as though he is going to be the stopper that the Phillies haven't had since they traded Curt Schilling to the Diamondbacks for four guys whose names you really can't remember anymore (Travis Lee, Vicente Padilla, Omar Daal and Nelson Figueroa, okay, so I remember them, but it isn't with any fondness). He pitched great for five innings and enjoyed a 1-0 lead thanks to a line drive shot of a home run that Chase Utley hit off Josh Beckett in the third inning. The starters were averaging 10 pitches an inning at that time, and it took only about an hour to play the first five innings.

After five, Beckett was pitching well and had struck out more batters, but Myers was pitching better.

But then disaster struck for the Phillies. A Rookie League throw by Jimmy Rollins with one out in the top of the sixth that, had it been properly thrown, would have led to the second out, but instead sailed about ten feet over 1B Ryan Howard's long reach and almost went into the stands morphed into a four-run BoSox' inning (all of them unearned, because Big Papi Ortiz's sacrifice fly that led to the first run would have made the third out of the inning). Under the Earl Weaver theory of having one big inning to win a ball game, the game would prove to be effectively over. Myers clearly became unglued, as the throwing error was made on a grounder by the then light-hitting Boston SS Alex Gonzalez, the eighth hitter. He then gave up a single to the #9 hitter, Josh Beckett, and, well, click here for the rest of the story.

Red Sox 8, Phillies 4.

Myers has pitched great all year for the Phillies but has suffered from a lack of run support. Before last season, the knock on him was that he had a million-dollar arm but a Five Below makeup, that the littlest things would rattle him. With a new pitching coach last year, Myers showed flashes of brilliance and had a 12-6 record. This season, he's been pretty much "lights out", and he showed some great poise in his last several starts, including one several weeks ago when he outdueled Pedro Martinez (who also pitched a great game). Last night, though, working on a one-hitter, he seemed to lose either his focus or his cool, and the Phillies' paid for it dearly against a crafty Red Sox lineup. Look, everyone's entitled to a bad inning every now and then -- it has happened even to those in the Hall of Fame -- but the Phillies needed a stopper's effort last night and they didn't get one. Sure, it didn't help that a) Phils' skipper Charlie Manuel left Myers in the game too long in the 7th, when he yielded his only earned runs of the ninth, b) Ryan Madson couldn't close out the Sox in the 7th without yielding a further run and c) Aaron Fultz yielded a 2-run homer to Alex Gonzalez of all people in the eighth.

Be all those things as they may, Brett Myers is a good pitcher having a very good season. A better effort last night would have convinced me that he's close to being worthy of the "stopper" designation. The real effort last night, though, showed me that he has some ground to cover before he gets there.

If there's any doubt, look at the effort his counterpart, Josh Beckett, gave last night, not only with the bat (a single and a home run), but on the mound. Myers had better control on an inning-by-inning basis for the innings they battled and had a much better ratio of strikes to balls, but Beckett's stuff seemingly was more electric and he battled from behind on many batters and got outs. That's a stopper, getting the job done even without his best control, and keeping his composure when behind in the count.

As for the Phillies, it hasn't helped that their bats have cooled off, that lead-off hitter Jimmy Rollins is hitting in the .230s and likes to swing at the first pitch, that RF Bobby Abreu looks out of shape and hasn't hit well since before last year's All-Star game (he was woeful in clutch situations last night) and that with catcher Carlos Ruiz in the lineup, the Phillies have two automatic outs in the lineup, the pitcher and Ruiz. The team has to be eagerly awaiting the return of Mike Lieberthal. Ruiz seems an able defensive player, but he's hitting all of .150 (or in that neighborhood). Hitting at the Mendoza line would be a vast improvement for him. The Phillies also eagerly await the return of Aaron Rowand, but until then if I were Manuel I'd experiment in one way -- move Rollins to 7th and let Shane Victorino lead off. The reserve OF has serious wheels, and they should turn him loose. He's also hit about .400 in his last 15 or so games. The bench has played inconsistently -- Shane Victorino has been absolutely brilliant, but everyone else -- Abraham Nunez, Alex Gonzalez, David Delluci, Ruiz -- has not.

Clearly, this team isn't as great as its 13 out of 14 streak that ended a week ago, and they're not as bad as the current five-game losing streak. But there is a wild-card spot out there for the taking, and it also isn't as if the Mets are running away with the NL East, either, or that the NL is all that good. To contend for a playoff spot, the bullpen has to hold leads (it was woeful in Milwaukee, blowing three of them) and the highly paid hitters have to hit when it counts. When everything clicks, this team looks like a thoroughbred running a Triple-Crown race. When everything doesn't, well, it looks like a lot of the 75-win teams we've watched in Philadelphia over the past 20 years.

It's up to this year's squad to determine which team they want to be.

Baseball Passions in the Second City

The "second" team in the Second City showed stormed into first place last year when it won its first World Series in 89 years.

Yesterday, it seemingly established the upper hand in its intracity rivalry, even if it didn't have the upper fist. Click here to read about a bench-clearing brawl that started when both teams' catchers collided.

Michael Barrett's punch might have landed on the A.J. Pierzynski's kisser, but "Cubs Win, Cubs Win" didn't resonate throughout Chicago yesterday. Barrett expressed remorse after the game, Dusty Baker said that Pierzynski didn't do anything wrong, but Cubs' starting pitcher Rich Hill thought that Pierzynski's running into Barrett when the Cubs' backstop didn't have the ball was bush league. The Cubs are listing so badly that there wasn't a consensus within the team about the play itself. Several players were tossed, and fines and suspensions will ensue.

After all the histrionics ended 15 minutes after they started, Tadahito Iguchi hit a grand slam that led to 7-0 Sox' win.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Stick It In Your Ear, Bud!

Bud Selig is at it again.

The baseball commissioner is committed to making one-time parodied commissioner Bowie Kuhn the Abraham Lincoln of baseball. Put differently, compared to Kuhn, Selig plays Bozo to Kuhn's Laurence Olivier.

Commissioner Selig doesn't like manifestations of controversy and prefers that fans tone down their derision of Barry Bonds. Click here to read the article on sportsillustrated.com.

Can you believe that?

The Commissioner is lucky that he doesn't attend many games in person, because he'd hear boos galore. It was under his regime that l'affaire steroids took place. It was under his regime that the owners laughed their way to the bank, watching mammoth men hit towering home runs. It didn't take a rocket scientist or brain surgeon to figure out that Henry Aaron hit all of his homers at 6'0", 175 pounds and Willie Mays was 5'11" and about the same weight. The guys who hit the moon shots on Bud's watch were not the size of scat backs, but rather the size of tight ends, and we're not talking Ivy League tight ends, we're talking beef-fed Big 12 men.

So, having done nothing, and having watched three of the icons humiliate themselves in public -- Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa made fools of themselves before Congress (and given Congress's overall performance that's saying something, that the grandstanding of Congress couldn't eclipse the testimony of the baseball players) -- Selig is dismayed that the remaining player, the Fourth Horseman, is getting booed too loudly and hearing too much negativity.

He cannot be serious, can he?

Can he?

Barry Bonds has brought this controversy on himself. I was at Citizens Bank Park a few weekends ago, and what I heard was a spirited crowd cheering on their red-hot hometown Phillies. Yes, Bonds did hear the boos and see some signs, and, yes, the national media was there waiting for some hard-nosed blue-collar union guy from the river wards throw a Molotov cocktail at Bonds' spot in left field. Yes, they were there to see Bonds try to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time HR list. But they also were there to see the sharks circle.

Except it didn't happen. Okay, so the fans yelled "steroids" or "cheater", but can you blame them? Can you blame them after the players' union circled its wagons and protected the transgressors at the expense of the clean guys? Can you blame them after the baseball media chose to ignore the bloating of the players' biceps and records because they chose to be fans instead of journalists? Can you blame them after the owners chose to ignore the issue because the fans were turning out to watch Michelin men hit the ball out of the park and loved the corresponding "cha-ching" that they heard every time a buffed batter approached the plate?

No, you can't. They're voicing their opinions at the betrayals they have had to endure because organized baseball and the so-called guardians of the game refused to do their jobs. The owners, players and writers need to hear this -- even if it's slightly unfair that Bonds and only Bonds has to endure the catcalls when many others deserve them -- and they need to work to make sure that the causes of this public derision do not recur.

So, Bud, let me give you some advice. Sit there and keep quiet.

Because if you keep it up and then show your face in my hometown, I hope that they boo you out of the park.

Public manifestations of controversy?

Give me a break.

Better that the fans boo than they stay away, which, quite frankly, is what this group of owners, players and front-office people deserve. Then what would you do?

But remember this -- it's our game. Players, owners, writers and commissioners come and go, but the fans and the bonds that they share over generations remain. It's always been our game, and it always will be.

Because we won't let anyone -- including owners, commissioners, players, union officials and even writers -- ruin it forever.

Baseball and Performance-Enhancing Drugs. . . Again

Here's the lastest from ESPN's Buster Olney.

So the questions are the following:

Are we to assume that players now have found undetectable performance-enhancing drugs and are taking them?

Are we to assume that you can't tell whether a player is using or not because you have no proof either way? (That's Olney's basic premise).

Are we to conclude that we've lost our innocence and that basically to get ahead you have to cheat -- on your resume, on the authorities, on the rules?

Clearly, Messrs. Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro, among others, have taken the cloak off baseball and have shown us a part of the process that we didn't want to see but, perhaps, needed to. Olney's article focuses on Albert Pujols, and Olney doesn't conclude one way or another whether Pujols is using performance-enhancing drugs. That's sad for Pujols, because there's been nothing to suggest that he's breaking laws or rules.

Except to some fans, perhaps, his amazing performance thus far.

And isn't that sad?

Olney's a thoughtful writer and one who has agonized more over the steroids affair and the baseball media's totally whiff on a decade-long story. I give him more credence than some of the bigger names who not only missed the story, but seem unrepentant about it and haven't seemed to have learned anything from their mistakes. Having been burned once before (or, put differently, having burned himself before by not tackling the story he should have pursued but writing the one he wanted to pursue -- that of home run chases and records), he's more than cautious this time around.

As well he and his sportswriting sisters and brothers should be.

Over many eras it's been written that the present-day baseball players owe a debt to those who went before, if for no other reason that it was they who paved the way for the lucrative salaries, fancy clubhouses and elegant travel that baseball players enjoy. Today, perhaps, the story should be that those who have gone before -- in the preceding decade -- owe a debt to the players who are playing today and who are, after drug-testing, presumably clean, because they cast a pall over the national pastime that will be their legacy and will cover those who succeeded them and tarnish, perhaps, their accomplishments.

It's an interesting theory, anyway.

But first you have to believe the premise that because of the drug testing that's going on today, all current players are clean of everything except Tylenol, Motrin and Advil.

Do you?

Buster Olney can't be sure, and he's in clubhouses most days of the week.

Champions League: How to Win When Your Goalie Gets Tossed Early

The answer is that you can't.

Arsenal battled mightily in Stade de Paris yesterday (this is the stadium that's on the highway from Charles DeGaulle Airport to downtown Paris -- it looks like a AAA baseball stadium, if you're measuring by U.S. standards), going one up on Barcelona despite having their goalkeeper, German star Jens Lehmann, awarded a red card eighteen minutes into the game for tripping a Barcelona attacker with his arm. (For the uninitiated Americans, that means a) that the player is ejected and b) you play a man down the rest of the game; you can replace your keeper, but you still play a man down).

In the late moments of the game, however, playing one man down finally caught up with the Gunners, as the Arsenal team is called. Barcelona rallied to score two late goals and take the cup.

Barcelona 2, Arsenal 1.

Ouch, for Arsenal fans.

I haven't heard debates on whether the call was fair, but this is tantamount to having a baseball ace ejected from the game in the second inning and replacing him with a long reliever, who is typically the eleventh man on an eleven-man pitching squad. It's the same as having Peyton Manning given the heave-ho in the first quarter and replacing him with Jim Sorgi. You get the idea.

Time, in all likehood, won't be on your side. The other team will smell blood, and eventually they'll get you.

It's not exactly the same as the analogy to American sports, but Arsenal suffered two blows. First, they lost their first-string keeper and had to insert a cold keeper, one who presumably didn't have much time to warm up. Second, they had to play a man down against one of the best teams in the world -- for 78 minutes plus injury time. Sure, you probably can do so and pull off a win against a team that's about to get relegated to a lower division, but to prevail against one of the world's best teams in the final game is almost impossible.

I am sure that those who designed the Champions' series didn't envision a circumstance like this. Still, Arsenal made the most of it and almost pulled off a victory, a feat that would have been as thrilling for the Gunners as it would have been embarrassing for Barcelona, which might have had to relocate to Bulgaria had they lost playing one man up for all that time.

Ejections in baseball happen with some frequency, and they are very rare in professional football. It's a shame that the Champions' League final had to end this way, but the rules are the rules, and the last time I checked, if you flagrantly up-end a striker in the goal area, well, that's a red card in all likelihood.

When There's More to Life Than Sports

ESPN.com has an excellent article about the late Kyle Ambrogi, a running back for Penn who committed suicide last year.

It goes without saying that depression is a very serious illness, so if you know someone who is showing symptoms, help them get help. Ambrogi's family, friends and coaches were helpful to him and supportive of him during his struggles, but his pain was so bad and the disease so difficult for him that he believed he had no alternative but to end his life. As the article points out, he was a wonderful guy in so many respects. Hopefully, lessons learned from the stories of Kyle Ambrogi and other young people who committed suicide will help improve the treatments for this awful affliction.

We love our sports because they help us escape the real world. Let's just remember that the people who play them are real people with real problems. Let's also remember that mental problems can be just as, and sometimes more, serious than physical problems. Torn ACL's are more easily explainable and acceptable today than battered psyches. Let's all be sure to countermand that sentiment in our daily lives, and to lend assistance to all family, neighbors and friends, whatever their needs are.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Live Blogging: Barry Bonds' Home Run Chase

I'm channel surfing tonight, watching the Phillies-Brewers game when I happen upon ESPN, which cuts into its regular broadcast to show the Fox Sports Net feed of the Giants-Astros game in Houston, where the Giants lead 11-3. The reason: Barry Bonds was up, batting against veteran journeyman reliever Russ Springer.

The following happened: Springer throws his first pitch, a slider that slides too much, behind Bonds. To me, Springer looked more like a wild almost has been than a Bruce Kison-like headhunter. To home plate umpire Joe West, who frequently has forgotten during his career that the fans come to see the players and not the umpires, Springer had opened the Astros' missile silos and threatened the diamond equivalent of a global thermonuclear war. What does West do? He warns Springer and his manager, Phil Garner.

Which means either that Joe West knows something that we don't (because the box score doesn't indicate that players had been hit by pitches), he's part of the Barry Bonds' protection detail, or he outlawed inside pitching. So what happens?

Springer continues to pitch inside. He throws a heater so close to Bonds that the it looked like it hit Barry's huge elbow pad when, in fact, it hit the nob of the bat for a strike. A few pitches later, Springer nails Bonds on the square of the back. Bonds gets first base.

Springer and his manager get the gate, courtesy of Joe West.

Now I don't follow Fox close enough, but in the advent of hundreds of current TV channels it's been said that with so much availability, there's so little to watch. The broadcasters took the Giants' side in the matter, saying that the ejection was obvious. Those comments caused a dilemma for me -- what was more idiotic, their broadcasting or the action by Joe West?

Russ Springer is a popular man in Houston now and might garner (no pun intended) serious votes were he to run in the gubernatorial primary as Kinky Friedman's proposed lieutentant governor. He got a standing ovation as he walked off the mound.

I don't think that either he or his manager caused the circus that surrounded this at bat, but they sure brought it to a stunning conclusion.

Why MLB brought Joe West back after having let him go in the great umpire purge of several years ago remains a mystery to me. Russ Springer is hanging onto his career, and the slider he threw behind Bonds' back looked like it slipped out of his hands. He did hit Bonds in the back, but in all likelihood that HBP was a consequence of having a wild pitcher throw inside. The last time I checked, it was okay to pitch legends inside.

Even if you hit them with the ball.

Temptation in Fantasy Baseball

My co-owner and I blew it again this year.

We've been in the same league for about 18 years, and most of the teams still have the same owners. There is so much habit in this league that when we get together for our annual draft, we actually sit in the same places in the living room as we have since the early days.

Things do change, however. The seven year-old who mocked some of our picks and told us that his team was better is now a second-year medical student. The teenagers who showed up more than a decade ago with their dads are schoolteachers. Dads of high schoolers then are grandfatehrs now.

My co-owner and I won the league when we were both single. Now married with kids (we have five between us, all between the ages of 6 and 11), we have resembled the Cubs and Phillies more than the Braves and Cardinals. We flirted with first several years ago, only to have J.D. Drew, Cliff Floyd, Geoff Jenkins and Adam Dunn go on the disabled list on the same weekend. Lose that concentration of power, finish in third out of eleven teams (it's a National League-only league, with a $260 salary cap, when you bid for a player you get him for 2 years at that salary, you can retain 8 of your 23 players for the next season, and those who you're retaining for more than a second year have their "salaries" increase by $5 a year. You have two moves a years when you can drop a player and pick someone else up without regard to whether the player you are replacing is hurt or in the minors. All free agents cost $10, but they don't count against the $260 cap in the year in which you pick them; they do for the next year and then they're subject to the raises I outlined above. here are 8 categories -- avg., RBIs, HRs, and SBs for hitters and Wins, ERA, Saves and WHIP for pitchers -- personally, I think that OBP should replace average and something should replaced steals, and, while we're at it, Saves is a silly stat too. Nevertheless, the league not only endures, it thrives, and the one night of the year -- when we draft -- is a special one).

More often than not, we finish in the middle of the pack. Some years we have good relievers but not good starters, good average hitters who hit home runs but hit solo homers and don't knock in as many runs as their lofty HR numbers otherwise would suggest. Other years we jam on homers and RBIs, but we're lead-footed and hit .250. Or, we get good starters who just don't win ball games. Put differently, there are a few teams out there who do a better job scouting than we do and put together better teams. My co-owner and are great at finding good free agents (and we're frequently in a position to do so because our starters go down -- right now we have both Ben Sheets and John Patterson on the D.L. and have picked up Cole Hamels and Josh Johnson to replace them; we might dump other starters upon the return of Sheets and Patterson), but somehow the first division has eluded us.

Which brings us to this year.

I have finally developed a maxim which is a) don't take too many players from the same team and b) don't take more than one player from the doormat. Unfortunately, we have five players from THE doormat of the National League, two of whom are explainable and three of whom are not. Yes, that's right, we have 5 Pittsburgh Pirates on our team. Now, we don't have Dave Parker, Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Dock Ellis and John Candelaria. We have Oliver Perez, Paul Maholm, Salomon Torres, Jeromy Burnitz and Jason Bay.

What were we thinking?

Well, Bay is a gimme, an outstanding talent surrounded by guys who would be bench players on most other NL teams. Not keeping him from last season would have been the wrong move. Maholm has great promise, we paid little for him, so he was worth the risk.

As for the other three. . .

We panicked when down to the slim pickings among relievers and grabbed Torres (my mistake) because I forgot he was a Pirate (I didn't forget he was a Pirate, I just forgot the significance of his being a Pirate) and thought that I would get someone like Jorge Julio, who, actually, went before Torres and for a lot more money. Truth be told, I was fearful of getting a gasoline can for my bullpen. (Torres, arguably, is aking to using lighter fluid on the pre-treated charcoal briquettes). As for Oliver Perez, we bought into the hype that his great stuff is transcendant, and that has led to two problems. Rule Number 1: he pitches for the Pirates. Rule Number 2: he doesn't always show up with his lights-out stuff. Needless to say, the combination of inconsistency and the Pittsburgh lineup has had us conclude that we overpaid for Perez.

And then there's Burnitz. Short on power, we were, so we opted for Burnitz, who we figured might show something in Pittsburgh. This has turned out to be not such a good move because you now have to figure that if someone's in Pittsburgh, it's because he came cheap, and that has to mean that his career isn't on the upswing. Perhaps we were thinking that he was going to show the promise the Mets thought he would 7 years ago, but we don't imbibe, inhale or ingest so we probably thought he could hit .270 with 20 homers and 75 RBIs. Now we're hoping he gets traded to the A.L. or released.

5 Pirates.

Out of 23 players.

We forgot the cardinal rule (or should we say Cardinal rule, as perhaps it would be okay to have 5 Cardinals on your team) and now are paying the price. If we lived in a Harry Potter-like world, we could argue that we were bewitched. As it turns out, we were just plain stupid.

My guess is that most Rotisserie-ites in Pittsburgh wouldn't have more than 2 Pirates on their 23-man rosters, and then only to mollify the kids who might want to have some hometown players on the roster.

But 5?

And it's only mid-May.

Next year, I expect that we'll have no Pirates on our roster and that we'll try to keep our roster populated only with players who play on teams that are projected to finish .500 or above.

As for this year, well, there's always the hometown team and its streak of having won 13 of its last 14.

And I'd rather have that streak -- and the team that goes with it -- any day of the week.

But we've never finished in last place before, and battling two other teams for the distinction. The perennial doormat is in the middle of the pack of our league, but we're battling with two once-first-division teams for last.

So maybe the baseball worlds is upside down this year.

And maybe, just maybe, the Phillies will win the World Series.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

If

If your starting pitchers can get past the sixth inning
If they can endure the local partisans without getting hot
If your hitters can do more than homer and strike out
Then they could be on their way to a playoff spot.

If your skipper can remember that the league has no DH
If your position players can stay off the disabled list
If your bench can step it up and hit every now and then
If the organization can endure years of being dissed.

If the right side of your infield can hit lefthanded pitching
And your shortstop remembers to take a pitch every now and then
If your corner outfielders can play with some gusto each night
If the closer can wield a magic wand out of the 'pen.

If the bandbox you call a ball park can keep fly outs inside
If your young hurlers can go a magical six, or even seven
If Dutch can summon factors from his other worlds
Then your team can earn a slice of baseball heaven.

If your third baseman's balky back can remain sturdy
If your maligned catcher can mend his wounded knee
If your centerfielder can crash into padding next time
The post-season may beckon by October Three.

If your cagey general manager can pull off a mid-season trade
The way the Pope did during the glory years
If the middle relievers can stay the course
The whole team will allay the fans' perpetual fears.

If the team itself can summon the strength
To win despite a tradition that is has roots in disaster
Then come pennant-race time, of their own fate
They will not be a victim, but a master.

The Philadelphia Phillies are 22-15, having won 13 of their last 14 and are now 1 game behind the New York Mets. All this despite the following having happened recently: 1) starting catcher Mike Lieberthal is on the DL with a bad knee; 2) starting CF Aaron Rowand is on the DL after making a spectacular catch that you no doubt have seen many times since last week; 3) starting RF Bobby Abreu has missed the last 2 games with back spasms; and 5) starting 1B Ryan Howard was in the E.R. last night because of a virus, only to pinch-hit in the 8th and hit a homer to tie the game and then hit a homer to win it in the top of the 12th. Bench players Shane Victorino (who reminds me of David Eckstein), Carlos Ruiz and Chris Roberson have filled in nicely for the Phillies. Starting pitcher Brett Myers is starting to look like an ace, rookie Cole Hamels pitched ably Friday night, and veteran starter Jon Lieber pitched a gem on Saturday night.

That noise you hear in the Delaware Valley is the bandwagon, overflowing with gleeful Phillies fans, fans who haven't had the cause for much joy in the past 20 years. As this post indicates, the Phillies had a lot of "ifs" going into the season, a season which, by the way, is only 20% over. It gets hot in the Middle Atlantic region in the summer, nagging injuries end up being problems that put people on the DL for a month, and hot hitters go cold. Stoppers lose the bite on their breaking balls, and the wind can start to blow out in the home park, a place where all opposing hitters like to play.

All of that is a given. Right now, though, all of the "ifs" are falling the Phillies' way, and, as a Phillies' fan, the games of the past 2 weeks have been a lot of fun. About 2 weeks ago the hometown 9 was 9-14 and going nowhere fast. Since that time they're 13-1 and only a game behind the New York Mets.

I don't know where this season will take us, but as my kids have emerged as full-fledged fans of the home team, well, this is just a great way to introduce them to this wonderful sport.

And, by the way, the team is pretty good too.

Happy Mothers' Day!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Phillies-Mets Last Night

Great game to watch last night, a playoff-like contest between perhaps the best team in the National League -- the New York Mets -- and the team playing the best baseball at the moment -- the Philadelphia Phillies. There are plenty of articles out there on the game, so here are a few points:
  • The Phillies' starters have been knocked (and knocked around) all year. The team needs an ace, and no one ever has thought of Jon Lieber as a #1 starter. One-time first-round pick Brett Myers showed signs of being a dominant starter last year, but the fans have wondered whether he has the maturity to play that role. Last night might have been his debutante ball as a stopper. Myers outpitched Pedro Martinez (who, but for a bad second inning, pitched great), giving the Phillies eight strong innings. If Myers blossoms into a perennial 17+ game winner, the cognoscenti will look back on this night as his starting point.
  • One Phillies' beat columnist may call Charlie Manuel "Elmer Befuddled," but Manuel's pinchrunning for a sore-legged Pat Burrell at first in the bottom of the eighth last night might have been the key managerial move of the game. When Ryan Howard doubled to right (which Xavier Nady played very well), the speedy Shane Victorino zoomed around the basepaths and knocked over Paul LoDuca, who was blocking the plate. Burrell most certainly wouldn't have scored from first on that hit, and the run that ensued, which gave the Phillies a 4-2 lead, proved to be crucial.
  • Phillies' rookie catcher, Carlos Ruiz, playing in only his second major-league game, called an excellent game for Brett Myers, helping the starter located fastball after fastball (two-and four-seamers) on the corners and working his breaking ball very well.
  • Yes, Julio Franco did express bewilderment about a called third-strike call on Kaz Matsui in the top of the ninth to end the inning, but I thought that the home plate umpire overreacted in tossing the classy veteran. Come to think of it, have the umpires been a bit too feisty this year? You really shouldn't toss a key player in a game of this importance.
  • The home plate umpire called a strange strike zone for a good part of the game, especially when it came to low strikes. Chase Utley was called out looking on a pitch that appeared to be shin-high. The next half-inning, though, the plate umpire called low strikes on the Mets as well.
  • Aaron Heilman tried too hard when he made his fateful error in the bottom of the ninth. Probably feeling guilty for letting the bases get loaded after two outs, he tried for the dribbler that Bobby Abreu hit and misplayed it. The ball was Paul LoDuca's all the way, and my guess is that Heilman figured that since he created the mess he should have solved it. Instead of being the hero, Heilman compounded his problems.
  • The win was a big psychological one for the Phillies, especially because of the way the ninth inning went down. All off-season Phillies' players and fans heard about what a big loss Billy Wagner was, and many pooh-poohed the signing of Tom Gordon as the new closer. Clearly, the perception was that the Mets had (and have) the advantage here. So, when Gordon blew the save by giving up the game-tying home run to Carlos Delgado, that's perhaps the worst way the Phillies could have blown the lead. Had they proceeded to lose the game, the doubts would have lingered about whether the team had enough pitching to seriously contend. Sure, it was only one game, but it was a big one, a very big one. Instead of wilting, the Phillies mounted a two-out rally to win.
  • David Dellucci of the Phillies deserves a lot of credit. He hasn't played as much as he probably thought he would, what with the ability of Victorino and the fact that Charlie Manuel has been reluctant to change his lineup during the streak. Dellucci hit 27 HRs last year and had only batted 14 times when he came up last night, but he had the presence of mind to swat a triple to start the two-out rally. It's contributions like those that make a season special.
  • The Mets are an excellent team, and Tommy Glavine's precision should pose trouble for the lefties in the Phillies' lineup tonight. Cory Lidle is a crafty, underrated competitor, so it should be another interesting contest tonight.
  • The Phillies might call up their latest pitching pheonom, Cole Hamels, to pitch against the Reds on Friday night. The Phils don't have a lefty starter in their rotation (Randy Wolf remains on the DL and isn't due back until July), and they could use one. Hamels, from many non-Phillies accounts, is an ace in the making. He's been lights out at AAA, and his ascension could push Ryan Madson, who has been struggling as a starter, back to the bullpen. Madson had been an excellent reliever during the past two seasons for the Phillies, and he could strengthen an already pretty tough bullpen.
  • The second-base umpire blew the call on Jose Reyes. Yes, the Mets' SS was caught in a rundown, but he was safe at second. For whatever reason, Mets' skipper Willie Randolph didn't argue the call.
  • It's run to see an electric atmosphere in Philadelphia. As a Phillies' fan, I still worry about their pitching, especially in their home park, but I forgot what it was like to ride a 9-game win streak as a fan, and I'm enjoying every minute of it.

The Union Wouldn't, Would It?

The MLBPA has the right to nix the current drug policy and revert back to the prior one if the players and owners don't reach a deal on a collective bargaining agreement by August. Click here for all of the juicy details.

Congress is circling, waiting to strike.

The question is, will the players circle their wagons -- and fight?

If the players were to exercise this right, who would draw more derision, the players for doing so or the owners for giving them the right to do so?

All told, the game would suffer.

Baseball has made a significant amount of progress on the steroids issue, and there are certain times in life where people shouldn't hide behind their written agreements.

This is one of them.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Live-Blogging Phillies-Giants -- Stupidity from Joe Morgan and Peter Gammons

I am watching the ESPN telecast and have come away with two thoughts: 1) Joe Morgan is out to lunch on Barry Bonds, and 2) Peter Gammons still is too close to the subject matter and can't assess Barry Bonds critically. Gentlemen, the guy in all likelihood used banned substances, might have lied to a grand jury and seemingly, from most accounts, isn't a good guy. He's brought this mess upon himself. Those points, I think, are not in dispute.

So Joe Morgan comes up with the gem tonight that the fans just can't root for anyone who is chasing the home run records of someone (Babe Ruth) who was bigger than the game at the time he played it. Morgan in essence said that the fans found reasons to root against Roger Maris and Hank Aaron, and now they're finding reasons to root against Barry Bonds. Well, the circumstances today are different, aren't they? It wasn't right that the fans weren't as joyous about either Maris's or Aaron's exploits, but does that mean that they aren't right about Bonds' chase? The reasons are totally different, aren't they? Maris and Aaron weren't villains; they just happened to be chasing a record of the best player in the history of the game. Bonds, on the other hand, not only had the temerity to challenge a titan, but the chutzpah to play with chemistry to do so. As the sign at Citizens Bank Park said so eloquently on Friday night, "Babe Ruth did it on hot dogs and beer." If there is enmity at Bonds, it's because of the means, which the end -- breaking the record -- does not justify. C'mon Joe, let's take the blinders off when it comes to Bonds. Yes, it's sad that there isn't joy in this record chase, but Barry Bonds has brought it upon himself.

As for Gammons, he had access to Bonds tonight (and perhaps was the only member of the media to do have it), and remarked that Bonds is disappointed because his chase of the record is so joyless. Gammons reported this in a matter-of-fact fashion, perhaps as an objective reporter, or perhaps as someone who still doesn't get it -- that he and all other baseball writers missed a huge story and whiffed with the bases loaded on the biggest story of their careers. To me, it sounded like Gammons (and Morgan, for that matter) had pity for Bonds.

But where's their concern for the average fan, for the kids who looked at the home run feats of Bonds, McGwire, Palmeiro and Sosa the way they like "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" only to be told that even the baseball heroics weren't real? Who is standing up for them?

Say it ain't so, Joe!

Dig a little deeper, Peter.

For the sake of the fans and the game.

There's Something About a Baseball Game (With Barry Bonds, Too)

The Phillies promoted "six packs" this year, and we're not talking about either encouraging imbibing among an already boisterous fan base or showing off former Phils' first baseman John Kruk's abdomen. Rather, they enticed fans to buy tix to six games, with the kicker being that you were guaranteed seats to a game against either the Yankees or Red Sox. Given that the kids are old enough to go and enjoy games now and that, well, either despite or because of what the home team does it's fun to go to the ballpark -- it just feels so right -- I jumped in, opened up the wallet, and picked six games. (By the way, in the mid-1980's a friend and I shared a 16-game plan -- 2 tix apiece for 16 games -- and paid 1/2 of what I paid for 4 tix to each of the 6 games I picked. That said, the inflation rate for baseball tickets is actually pretty low, at least in Philadelphia).

Last night was our first game, with the red-hot Phillies, on a six-game winning streak, hosting the San Francisco Giants. I chose this game for a variety of reasons, including that it was the first Saturday night not in April (where Mid-Atlantic weather can be suited more for NFL mud-fest playoff games of the 1950's than a baseball game), that my late father was a Giants' fan, and that, well, yes, Barry Bonds plays for the Giants. (For what it's worth, I don't watch NASCAR races so you can't argue that I watch them for the crashes, but I did want to see Bonds out of curiosity. That said, given his physical problems, there was no guarantee that he'd play last night. Then again, the hometown field's reputation as a bandbox is such that before the series started the Giants announced that Bonds would start every game of a three-game series).

It was a beautiful day yesterday in Southeastern Pennsylvania, so much so that the weather at 5 p.m., at least in the suburbs, belied the weather forecast. The sun was bright, there was no wind, and the car thermometer registered at about 80 degrees. There was some discussion among the four of us about what to wear, but we stuck to the forecast, wore long pants and took sweatshirts with us. The afternoon sun baked the car a bit on the way down I-95, and we expected a very pleasant night at the ballpark.

The ride down I-95 was smooth, and the road was in reasonably good shape, which was a good thing since at various times the local TV news stations, perhaps out of boredom when the nightly homicide and fire count is low, once dubbed it "The Highway from Hell." Driving down that road is an industrial anthropologist's (or should we say archaelogist's) dream, as the faded hulks of the industrial northeast sit there as monuments to a day when the big cities actually made something. It's hard to explain to young elementary school kids what the economy used to be like (or, for that matter, what an economy is), but I find myself sounding like my father when the family used to drive down north Broad Street into Center City Philadelphia when I was a kid.

"Philadelphia used to be the men's clothing capital of the world," my father would say, as he would tick off names like Botany 500, Chips 'N Twigs, H. Freeman, Hickey Freeman, Stanley Blacker and many others. What I saw, of course, were the remnants of the place that in the late 1890's was called "The Workshop to the World" because of all the goods that were produced in Philadelphia -- locomotives, ships, hats, cigars, clothing -- you name it. It wasn't a pretty sight then, and after decades more of corporate flight it's not a glorious site now, either. I, unfortunately, can't begin to explain what businesses once populated, or currently populate, the I-95 corridor north of Philadelphia.

Before I digress into a discussion meant for another part of the blogosphere, I'll return to baseball, because it's the one thing that generations can share that remains, albeit in an updated form, when so much of your ancestors' city does not remain. We exited I-95 at Packer Avenue, wound our way through the Food Distribution Center, and parked in a $10 dollar lot east of Citizens Bank Park and behind the preferred parking lot for fans with parking passes. The kids were excited -- they brought their baseball gloves, and my son was wearing the Phillies hat that I bought him when I took him to his first game two years ago at the age of four.

It was a good walk into the stadium, and what we noticed was that the winds were whipping up a storm. The hot sun and balmy day that spoiled us in the suburbs turned into a very cool night in South Philadelphia. It was as if the Baseball Gods were out there in full force on their Mount Olympus, hurling all the weather they could at Barry Bonds. The forceful winds, mostly blowing in that night, were taunting Barry Bonds (although they haven't adopted my ode to him, which you can check out here). "Try challenging the Babe's record in this," they were shouting." On the same day as his godfather Willie Mays' 75th birthday, the Baseball Gods ironically turned Citizens Bank Park into the old Candlestick Park where Mays played for the second half of the career -- a place where many home runs went to die. "You want to hit more home runs, just try it here. Had Willie played anywhere but in Candlestick Park, he would have hit 800 home runs -- all 5'11", 175 pounds of him!" If the winds had voices, that's what they were saying.

(In the early 1980's I went to a Phillies-Giants game at Veterans Stadium in August with my father. The temperature was 90+ degrees with 85% humidity and we roasted like we normally did; a week later I was in San Francisco, went to Candlestick Park for a game between the same two teams, and the temperature at game time was in the low 60's with 20 mph winds coming in off San Francisco Bay. I attended the game in Philadelphia in shorts and a t-shirt and drank a 32-ounce coke to stay hydrated; in San Francisco, I wore a down vest, took a blanket, and drank hot chocolate to try to fend off a damp cold that is hard to explain unless you had ever been there).

The first order of business was to put on our sweatshirts while walking into the stadium. Upon entering, the kids were given these huge posters, called "Ryan Howard growth charts." Howard, the Phillies' first baseman, is about 6'5" and the charts are about that long. Despite the thrill of a giveaway for the kids, the parents had to lug the charts (okay, so they were rolled up in plastic) around in search of food at the many concession stands. Ultimately, we spent about $10 per person on a combination of hot dogs, sausage, chicken tenders, bottled waters and CrackerJacks, and in the middle of the game I bought a hot chocolate for the kids to share.

Our seats were excellent ones, on the first level, slightly on the first-base side, about 3 rows before the concourse). The game was a sellout, and Phillies' fans were there in full force, wearing everything from Bobby Abreu, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins jerseys to Jim Thome jerseys and, yes, I did see one fan wearing a Robert Person jersey (there were no sightings of either Jose DeJesus, Steve Jeltz or Charles Hudson apparel in the ballpark). We bought a program, ate our food, and then my six year-old son and I took a walk around the concession stands.

Citizens Bank Park, like many new parks, has a lot to offer. There's a playground maze (free), a place to get your photos taken in Phillies' jerseys (most certainly not free), a Build-A-Bear shop where kids can make a Phillie Phanatic stuffed animal, a place to do an imitation broadcast (when we walked by, Jon Lieber was being interviewed, and my son, with his cap and slightly messy face from dinner, walked about as close to the podium as decorum would permit, Lieber flashed a smile), places selling baseball cards, beer, water ice, you name it. We purchased packs of big, 6" x 8" cards of the Phillies' players for $5 apiece for each child (they've started their card collections already) and then sat down to watch the ball game.

Neither starting pitcher got off to an impressive start. Phillies' starter Ryan Madson pitched as though the plate were 2" inside and got into all sorts of trouble. (It didn't help that short-fused umpire Greg Gibson was working the plate, but he called it tight for both sides). Giants' starter Jamey Wright fared better, but amidst the strong winds game up a first-inning rocket to my daughter's favorite player, Chase Utley, who had hit two homers the night before and would go on to double in another run later in the game. In the first, after Randy Winn had walked, Giants' manager Felipe Alou decided to test the Phillies' rookie catcher, Carlos Ruiz, who was playing in his first Major League game. With #3 hitter Pedro Feliz (who makes every ground ball hit to him at third look like an episode of "The Lost World") batting, he sent Winn. Ruiz threw a perfect peg to Chase Utley, who tagged the rightfielder out.

The Philadelphia fans gave him a rousing ovation -- "Welcome to the Major Leagues, Mr. Ruiz." Later, in the second inning and his first at-bat, Ruiz hit a long, high fly to right that got held up in the wind and that Winn caught in the middle of the warning track. The Baseball Gods smiled upon Carlos Ruiz, who worked well behind the plate, last night, but when they spun his fate they just decided that the tough winds would apply not only to the big names, but to the new ones two. It was a long out and recorded without emotion in the play-by-play as a fly ball to right.

The Giants got more hits than the Phillies' last night, but the Phillies bunched theirs better and came out with a 4-1 win, their seventh straight. Their bullpen continues to be the best in baseball, and they are 10-0 when leading after 6 innings of play. Utley's homer in the first gave the Phils a 1-0 lead, and then they scored 2 in the third thanks to some Wright wildness and timely hitting. Other than focusing on staying warm, the fans spent most of their attention on Barry Bonds.

And they were loud.

When the Giants' left fielder stepped into the on-deck circle in the first inning, the boos and jeers cascaded from all corners of the stadium, from Harry the K's eatery in leftfield to Ashburn Alley in dead center, from both baselines, from McFadden's behind home plate, the luxury boxes and even the Wachovia Center about a half-mile away, where the ghosts of horrified Flyers' fans from the disappointment of the 2005-2006 NHL season were still primed with energy, looking for some villain to demonize (except that this one had helped demonize himself). The kids behind me yelled "Cheater" and most fans booed lustily. While hot dog wrappers swirled around the field from time to time, from behind home plate it didn't look like Bonds received an EverReady shower while playing left, just a bath of invective that the Boobirds of Happiness keep on the shelves of their emotional closets. Later, the fans chanted "Bar-ry, Chee-ter" and even later, "Bar-ry Sucks" (we had left the park to defrost by the time those chants happened). I spoke with my kids before the game about whether we should cheer or boo, and I decided that I wasn't going to do either, but later when there were a good number of fans (at least, well, they were noticeable) cheering him, I did admit that if booing was preferable to cheering, as I couldn't fathom why Bonds was worth cheering for, especially outside his home field). The kids booed, politely (if that's an adverb that can be applied to booing), as they were giggling as they did it.

(My frustration, of course, is having to explain to young elementary schoolers why steroids are bad for you and why using them was cheating; thankfully I didn't have to explain to these kids why what President Clinton did with Monica Lewinsky was inappropriate. When my daughter asked "How can we cheer someone who used steroids and cheated?" she was right on the money. )

Bonds' night was uneventful. He walked, hit into a nifty 6-5-3 double play (that is, the Phillies' defense was deft) off the Bonds' shift, hit a lazy fly to left and, late in the game, hit a wind-blown single to left (he left the clubhouse without talking to reporters). A batter later, a ground ball hit by CF Steve Finley hit Bonds' in the basepaths -- Bonds was automatically out. Meanwhile, the Phillies' bullpen trio of Cormier, Rhodes and Gordon shut down the Giants, showing that if the hometown nine can get the starters to give 6 good innings, this team's offense is enough to keep them in any game.

For us the game really wasn't about Barry Bonds, and I'm not sure that my six year-old will even remember seeing him play. It was about getting there early to watch some batting practice, seeing Chase Utley's home run, eating CrackerJacks, starting to teach my eight year-old daughter how to keep score, yelling "Charge!" after hearing the bugle from the stadium's synthesizer, filling out All-Star ballots, eating hot dogs, watching a fan try to catch a foul ball with his plate of nachos (the ball went to someone else, and the nachos, well, they lost) and sharing observations about this wonderful game. It was about showing a budding softball player and a budding t-ball player about how the hitters stride when they hit, how the professionals approach the game. All in all, it was a night of good fun.

There was a special moment where my eyes met with my wife's, with both of us glancing at the kids, sitting there, paying rapt attention, left hands in their baseball gloves, at the ready. I didn't have a camera with me, but I'll remember that image for the rest of my life. Moments like that, well, that's why we go to the games.

Just what is so magical about this game? Is it the pageantry, the images, the sight lines, the drama? Is it because you don't have to be super tall, super fast, or super big to play it? Is it because of the rituals, that the game is played in warm weather, that the statistics actually mean something in a way that they don't in the other major sports?

Or is it just that year after year, kids take their gloves, get messy faces and talk to their parents and grandparents about the players they say and how good they were? My kids have started to ask me about who the best players I saw play for the Phillies, and without hesitation I'll say Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose the way my father mentioned Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts.

Heck, it's probably all of those things and more.

And that's part of baseball's greatness.

That you can't totally explain it.

But it's wonderful just the same.