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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Monday, July 31, 2006

The Mrs. Graham Defense

Floyd Landis says that he has unnaturally high testosterone levels, and that's why he might have flunked his drug test that might cost him his victory in the Tour de France. Justin Gatlin's coach said that his sprint champion, a world record holder, had a massage in which the masseuse, unbeknownst to the sprinter, used a testosterone cream that might have caused him to flunk a drug test.

It's pretty amazing that when crashes like these occur no one steps up and accepts accountability. (Of course, I'll take back my words if tests on Landis's "B" sample prove Landis correct, but I haven't read or heard many commentators who believe Landis; I have heard the protests of fans who simply don't want to believe that cyclists dope). They use all sorts of amazing defenses. It would be refreshing to hear a professional athlete who doped and set records to just stand up and say, "I did it." In baseball, that admission might not even deny the player membership in the Hall of Fame. After all, steroids weren't banned in baseball, and the writers that vote for the Hall tend to be fans more than they are journalists.

All of these discussions remind me of a story that took place in, I believe, the late 1980's or early 1990's about a serial killer who lived in North Philadelphia not far from the Temple University campus. His name was Harrison "Marty" Graham, and when police solved the case they found all sorts of body parts and some corpses in his $90 a month apartment. Needless to say, the conviction came rather easily, and Graham is now in prison for life.

His mother, though, defended her son and proclaimed his innocence. When asked how to explain the physical evidence -- bodies and body parts -- that were found in her son's apartment, his mother replied, "They were there when he moved in."

The local papers had a field day with Mrs. Graham's blind loyalty to her son, as they have had on occasion with the denials that have come forth from the tarnished athlete of the month. No, Bill Giles, Brett Myers wasn't helping his wife on a Boston street. No, Justin Gatlin, if you're a professional athlete you can't play ostrich and have people put mystery creams on you. No, Gary Sheffield, you just can't take things that Barry Bonds gives you.

The stakes are just too high.

And the stories that are told demean the sports that the athletes excel in and besmirch the reputations of all athletes in that sport. The logic goes something like this, "well, if the champions are doing it, then everyone else must be doing it to keep up." True, all professional athletes should seek out the latest advances in nutrition and fitness. We want them to push the envelope, and so do they. But we want them to do it the right way.

I hope that all professional athletes and their representatives out there remember the sports that they are representing when they have to face up to their transgressions. That everyone does it doesn't make it right, and that you have done it doesn't mean that you have to tarnish an entire sport by saying it ain't so in a way that leads even someone who knows little about the sport to think that you did it.

These problems "weren't there when you moved in." When athletes caught in these pickles realize that and face up to it, they will liberate themselves, their fellow elite athletes, and their sports.

Until that time, their lame excuses will just be fodder for late-night comedians and humorists everywhere. They also will continue to sour the public on what is actually being achieved in competitions everywhere.

When will there be a big reckoning?

Just look to the upcoming balloting for baseball's Hall of Fame.

Mark McGwire will be on the ballot.

And the voters will tell us whether they've bought what he's been selling.

And, in the process, tell us whether they've been paying attention to what's been going on.

Imagine. . .

A league without a salary cap or a luxury tax, and where a gazillionaire can field the best team money can buy.

He's done it the last couple of years, and last year his team just ran away with the title in its league.

What league am I talking about, you ask?

It's the English Premiership, the top soccer league in England.

So I must be talking about Manchester United, you say, trying as an American to flaunt what little soccer knowledge you have, if only because David Beckham once played for the team, Rod Stewart sang about it and the Glazer family, who owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, shelled out north of $1 billion to buy the team?

Right?

Wrong!

The team is Chelsea, and you can read about them here.

To draw a baseball analogy, consider the following lineup:

Catcher -- Joe Mauer
First Baseman -- Albert Pujols
Second Baseman -- Chase Utley
Shortstop -- Derek Jeter
Third Base -- David Wright
Left Field -- Manny Ramirez
Center Field -- Carlos Beltran
Right Field -- Vladimir Guerrero
Starting Pitcher -- Johan Santana
Starting Pitcher -- Roy Oswalt
Starting Pitcher -- Pedro Martinez
Starting Pitcher -- Jose Contreras
Relief Pitcher -- Mariano Rivera
Relief Pitcher -- Jonathan Papelbon.

You get the idea. The stars on that team shine so much that on occasion they'll burn more brightly than those found in the solar system. Chelsea is a great team, so much so that it could really push its customary competition (i.e., the middle of the pack teams) -- teams with names like Charlton, Everton, Portsmouth and Aston Villa -- , off the cliff that is the Premiership. Those teams just might not be able to keep up with world football's "Greatest Show on Turf."

Let's see how the English address the problem of "Irrational Exuberance." Could there be a cap or a luxury tax in the future of the Premiership?

Or could Chelsea be to English football in the millenium what the New York Yankees were to baseball from 1949-1964?

This will be interesting to watch.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Wearing the Wrong Colors

We took the kids to the beach today in Manasquan, New Jersey, so that they could work on their boogie-boarding. The waves were excellent, the water was cool, and we all had a good time.

It was the type of weather where you needed to wear a hat, and without giving it much thought I grabbed the one hat that was sitting on the dryer near the doorway to our garage.

A Philadelphia Eagles hat.

I got some stares on that beach that I hadn't seen before.

You would have thought I was wearing a hat that said "Iran" or "Al Qaeda."

Okay, so it wasn't that bad, but when it comes to sports rivalries, it was as bad as it probably gets without hearing profane epithets (and my children hearing them). I'm sure that the woman wearing the Phillies' hat fared better if only because the Phillies haven't been able to get in the Mets' grille this season and because historically they have posed little threat to most cities' teams. The Phillies just aren't a threat.

But the Eagles have been another story. Giant fans just can't tolerate anything Eagles, for reasons which I am not so clear about except that the Eagles over the past several years have gotten the better of the Giants overall. What I can't fathom, though, is the enmity. The Eagles aren't an in-your-face type of team, Andy Reid isn't a bad guy, and Donovan McNabb seems to be a nice (if, at times, too nice of a) guy.

So what is it? Is it the tribal aspects of football? Is it that the Giant fans hate the Eagles because they just can't believe that anything in Philadelphia is any good and, for the times that the Eagles have bested the Giants, they are loathsome if only because they have felt that by losing to the Eagles they have succumbed to the nether regions that fall below medicrioty. Put another way, is that they see something bad in themselves when they have viewed the Eagles' recent successes (okay, not last season) and just get vitriolic for no rational reason?

Hard to figure, but perhaps with the kids, who looked very surfer-like in their rashguards, the Giant fans held their fire. The looks, by the way, came from middle-aged men and older, and not from the kids. Perhaps they were too busy eating their French fries, flirting with the opposite sex and paying attention to riding the waves. Or perhaps they just haven't fully formed their enmity yet.

Whatever it was, it was odd. My host, a native New Jerseyan, ran into one of his buddies, with whom he played HS football. The question from that friend about me was, "What, is he crazy, wearing that hat here?"

Apparently, I was.

Next time, I'll wear a different hat.

When in Rome. . .

Nah, forget that.

A Giants had (or Mets, Yankees, Jets, Knicks, Rangers or Devils) hat I just won't wear.

I'll think of something.

Thank You to David and Bobby

The Phillies started their diamond version of "Extreme Makeover" this weekend, sending David Bell to the Brewers and Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Yankees. Before all is said and done, I wouldn't be surprised if Jon Lieber (signed through '07) , David Dellucci and either Rheal Cormier or Aaron Fultz end up in places like Boston or Detroit. Going into the season, the Phillies had 11 putative free agents on their roster (i.e., guys only signed through the remainder of the season). I would be shocked if Pat Burrell returns to Citizens Bank Park next spring, and Mike Lieberthal won't be back, either.

Phillies SS Jimmy Rollins had a great quote in one of the morning papers. He wondered aloud what Phillies' fans want, given that they didn't appreciate the dirty-uniform style of David Bell or the clinical approach of Bobby Abreu, who is a classic "Baseball Prospectus" type of player when you look at the numbers. It's a great question, actually, and I'll try to answer it.

First, with respect to David Bell, they expected a lot more. He never showed the power in Philadelphia that he did prior to coming to the Cradle of Liberty, and my guess is that a balky back prevented him from being the player he showed signs of being when he was a Giant. Couple that with the fact that he seemed to have gotten a rich contract from Ed Wade, the Darth Vader in the Phillies' solar system, and you have a toxic combination. Put simply, to many fans, Bell was a symbol of the type of errant signing Wade made. Personally, I liked Bell, thought he hustled, thought he was overmatched at a power position and thought he got too long of a contract. The bottom line was that he couldn't begin to replace Scott Rolen, about whom Wade goofed significantly.

I think Bobby Abreu was misunderstood. True, he's not a fiery guy, and true, he doesn't seem to come up with key, clutch plays the way the SS does in the Bronx 90 miles to the north. That said, throwing Abreu under the bus because he's not Papi or Jeter or Albert Pujols misses the point, and I think the Phillies' fans erred here, prompted, to a degree, by some sports' talk radio hosts who want their baseball players to show the type of aggressiveness that, say, Brian Dawkins shows in the defensive backfield for the Eagles. Yes, Dawkins makes things happen, and, to those commentators, Abreu is the type of "numbers" guy that puts up all sorts of numbers, many of which, to them, aren't meaningful. Still, it's hard to be a Brian Dawkins' equivalent on the baseball field. You can't exactly hit the opposition. Can you?

I heard similar talk about Mike Schmidt in the late 1970's too. From 1980 onward, he won three MVP awards, was a first-round entrant into the Hall of Fame and is considered to be the best third baseman ever. (Allen Barra once wrote that, based upon his statistical analysis, Schmidt is the best player ever). How frequently did we hear laments that Schmidt struck out too much, that he was too streaky or that he hit a lot of solo home runs. How unfulfilling did his Hall of Fame induction seem to some fans who never appreciated what a gem they had in their midst while he was in Philadelphia, owing to some degree because they did not like his aloof personality. Many Phillies' fans missed the boat on the star third baseman.

Now before you think I'm putting Abreu on the same pedestal as Schmidt, I'm not -- Schmidt proved to be transcendant (and, somewhat ironically, eclipsed at his own Hall of Fame induction by former Phillies' OF and broadcaster Richie Ashburn, who was inducted on the same day and drew the louder cheers). Look up the numbers and see for yourself -- he was a great, great player. Abreu, on the other hand, has proven to be "just" a very good outfielder.

Okay, so he's not Manny Ramirez, who is the best hitter of his time, and he's not Vladimir Guerrero. And he wasn't even Option A on this year's Phillies, an enigmatic team that has some outstanding individual talent but not enough pitching to carry it beyond a .500 record at best. No, Options A and B on this year's team are Chase Utley and Ryan Howard or Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, depending on how you look at it. Those two, if backed by other solid players (along the likes of the Abreus of the world), could lead the Phillies to greater heights. That, at least, is what the Phillies' historically overmatched ownership is hoping and wants Phillies' fans to believe (even if they are forgetting about how many gaping holes there are in the pitching staff).

Bobby Abreu wasn't appreciated in Philadelphia because, according to one commentator, he walked too much in the #3 spot and should have been swinging to knock in more runs. Yet, unless I'm mistaken, his average was pretty good with men on base and his OBP and OPS were outstanding (and, speaking of OBP, particularly outstanding on a team whose strikeouts-to-walks ratio among hitters is mediocre at best). He hit for some power, although his power production has fallen off considerably since he won the Home Run Derby at the '05 All-Star Game in runaway fashion. Finally, he looked a little chunkier out there this year, and, quite frankly, made certain balls hit to right field look like an adventure.

There, that's an x-ray of Bobby Abreu's season in Philadelphia. History will prove, like other good-to-excellent players, that he was underappreciated in the City of Brotherly Love. How soon that history plays itself will be an interesting thing to watch. If you're a Yankee fan, you should be pleased, as not only did you get a very good outfielder, you also got an innings eater of a starting pitcher who will do will in a ballpark whose dimensions are larger than the pre-school playground that masquerades for a Major League Park in Philadelphia. That's right, Cory Lidle may surprise people.

As for Phillies' fans, the demolition has only just begun. More trades will take place over the course of the next day and a half, and then in the off-season Pat Burrell will go and Mike Lieberthal in all likelihood will not return. By the time Pat Gillick is finished, it could well be that only 10 players from the '05 Opening Day roster will be on the '06 Opening Day roster.

Whether this is good or bad is another story, because the Phillies haven't shown the ability to effect Lazarus-like returns the way the Marlins have twice in the past ten years. Perhaps, like the old Soviet Union, the Phillies are embarking upon a five-year plan. Trouble is, they've seemingly been in that mode for the last quarter of a century.

Meanwhile, we say thank you to David Bell and Bobby Abreu and wish you well in your new venues. And we say a welcome to the relatively nameless prospects, who either will remain nameless or turn into the Smoltzes and Bagwells of the world.

Time, of course, will tell.

And, in the past quarter of a century, that's what we Phillies' fans have had plenty of.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bring Your "A" Game, Not Your Guns

Read this and see what I mean.

It defies description, really, even if you're a huge advocate of a certain interpretation of the Second Amendment.

USA Today reports that Miami coach Larry Coker has discouraged his Hurricane players from owning guns, this after a shooting incident in which a 'Canes player was shot and a teammate chased away the assailant by firing back. Yes, he had a permit for the gun.

What actually is going on at Miami?

Is the environment for college football players there so toxic that they feel the need to pack heat to protect themselves? Is the neighborhood around the school so unsafe that the average student straps a Glock to his ankle for protection?

If the answer to the last question is "no," then if you're the parent of the average Miami student, do you want your kids hanging out with members of the football team? Based on my read of the article, it may well be the case that more than one gridder owns a gun.

I just don't know what to make of this, I really don't. Sure, kids can come from neighborhoods that are so tough the average suburbanite cannot begin to comprehend them and they feel a need to own something to protect themselves with. And, yes, some colleges are in tough neighborhoods, and even if they aren't, students, with disposable income and goods that can be easy to fence, such as stereos, TVs, computers and IPods, can be targets for crime. But generally speaking, aren't most colleges supposed to be oases where kids can get away from the type of situatinos where they would even consider carrying a gun?

It may be that Miami President Donna Shalala is all over this, along with the Miami AD and Coach Coker, are taking a stand here and are talking with the players about their problems and their need for protection -- and outlawing guns. Most companies have codes of conduct that prohibit employees from bringing weapons into the workplace, and I would guess that most colleges have the same type of code. Whether it applies to situations involving students who live off-campus, however, is a good question. That said, I'm not sure that Miami is paralyzed from acting here -- if Coach Coker sets up a team rule that says no weapons, that's the way things have to be.

Then again, as we know, things happen within college athletic programs that sometimes escape the attention of the administration (and it's hard to know what kids own and what they're doing on their own time anyway).

Especially if the team keeps on winning.

I am certain that the entire Miami administration -- from President Shalala to Coach Coker -- cares deeply about all students and just doesn't want them carrying guns. Let's just hope that they can work with these kids and keep them out of student life entirely at the University of Miami.

Before someone gets hurt.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The $100 Million Infield

Those of you who are well read in baseball history know all about the $100,000 infield. They played for Connie Mack, owner and manager of the Philadelphia A's, who alternatively (because his team was poorly capitalized as a result of Mack's being dependent on the gate for his livelihood) fielded great teams (the A's from 1929-1931 might be the best team of all-time) and horrible ones (teams thereafter didn't exactly set the world on fire). Around 1910, Mr. Mack assembled an outstanding infield, featuring Stuff McInnis at first, Hall of Famer Eddie Collins at second, Jack Barry at short and Hall of Famer Frank "Home Run" Baker at third. It was a terrific infield on an excellent team.

There was an intriguing rumor in the Philadelphia papers today, intriguing in that it was mentioned as a rumor and then reported that both sides denied the potential trade. But it would be one of the biggest blockbusters in recent memory, and it goes like this:

The Phillies would send Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, David Bell (white hot in July) and Tom Gordon (the All-Star) to the Yankees for Alex Rodriguez. There was no mention in the rumor, of course, as to how much of Abreu's salary would get picked up, but the trade would make sense in that the Bronx Bombers would get desperately needed corner outfielders (especially if Hideki Matsui doesn't recover quickly and Gary Sheffield is out for the season), a third baseman (they'll need one to fill in for A-Rod, to whom the Yankee fans haven't taken a shine because a) he hasn't hit well with men on base and b) he is not Derek Jeter), and a great setup man in Gordon (remember, a guy named Rivera is their closer).

The Phillies would get A-Rod, thereby giving them the best infield in baseball, bar none:

1B -- Ryan Howard. Makes you think of Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame.

2B -- Another All-Star, Chase Utley, the best 2B in the National League and currently enjoying a 22-game hitting streak.

SS -- Jimmy Rollins. Great talent, needs more discipline in the strike zone, but a good player.

3B -- A-Rod, who already has 450 home runs in his career and will definitely get to 700+ if he finishes his career in Citizens Bank Park.

True, the Phillies would deplete their OF and would start a less-than-thrilling group of David Dellucci in left (but he's played well in a part-time role and hit 27 HRs in Texas last season), Aaron Rowand and Shane Victorino, who would give them the leadoff hitter they desperately need. Lord knows who the back-ups would be, but the Phillies would a) give the fans an exciting infield, b) give Victorino a chance to start and have the leadoff hitter they deserve, c) shed Abreu and Burrell, who have been a symbol for overpaid players who can put up numbers but who don't win championships (the latter is rather unfair, because the last time I checked, neither of them is a pitcher, and pitching has been the hometown nine's problem). It also would leave the Phillies without a closer, and from reading yesterday's Daily News, many Phillies believe that the team, as currently constructed, can win the NL wild card. My thoughts on that are -- bleh! First, they don't have the pitching, and second, if they do, they'll win it with 82 games and get blasted out of the playoffs in the first round. They'll still be stuck with the same core that hasn't done much over the past 5+ seasons.

It's doubtful that this trade would happen, but the infield that would result in Philadelphia were it to occur would leave the fans' mouths agape at the assemblage of talent.

At least for a moment.

And a decent lineup, as follows:

RF Shane Victorino
SS Jimmy Rollins
2B Chase Utley
3B Alex Rodriguez
1B Ryan Howard
LF David Dellucci
CF Aaron Rowand
C Mike Lieberthal
P ____________

And then, again, they'll start wondering about four big questions:

1. Who will close?
2. Where will the starting pitching come from?
3. Who will the back-up outfielders be?
4. And, given the perennial problem as reflected in question #2, why did they build Citizens Bank Park the way they did in the first place?

The $100 Million Infield?

Okay, the $50 million infield.

Certainly, it has a nice ring to it.

Especially since you have the $1 million starting pitching staff.

Only in America

Does a Mennonite who grew up in a non-sports atmosphere and with a hip that now needs replacing put himself in excellent position to win the world's most prestigious bike race.

In France.

Read this and see what I mean.

(And also note the comments that compare Floyd Landis with Lance Armstrong. Landis comes across as much more likable, but, then again, those who reach status worthy of having their likenesses engraved on Mount Rushmore are in such rarified air that they cultivate their images with greater care and are less approachable as a result).

At any rate, read the quotes and tell me what you think.

Personally, I'd rather be out on my bike than watching the race, but the Tour de France has been good theater this year and worthy of following.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Tilting at Windmills, Not Exactly

Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy, wrote an entertaining column as to which team he'll pick to root for in the English Premiership (that's the top English soccer league, for you soccer phobes out there) in the upcoming season. If you want to get an American view of the Premiership teams, read this column.

A few points from where I sit:

1. The Glazer family spent $1 billion to buy perhaps the best known franchise in the entire world (and not just North America), Manchester United, a few years back. They probably figured that they were buying the Yankees, but then. . .

2. Roman Abramowich, one of the Russian oligarchs, bought Chelsea, one of many Premiership teams in the London area and perhaps viewed as the lace-curtain one which, before Abramowich bought the team, was in the top 5 or 6 every year but usually behind Man. United and Arsenal, among others. Abramowich has been spending the big bucks, and last year Chelsea ran away with the Premiership (they stumbled a bit at the end and in the intra-European league championships, but that's another story). Man. U. is still excellent, but now you have some huge bucks in the league other than the Glazers, and more may be on the way.

3. Rumor has it that another oligarch is interested in buying Portsmouth, a team that usually is in the bottom half of the Premiership standings. It's in the Southwest, a port city, and Simmons paints a good picture of it. If an oligarch buys the team and builds a new stadium, the Premiership could get even more interesting.

4. The rivalry between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal (they're probably the Dodgers to Man. U's Yankees) is more bitter than almost anything we see in America. I'm not so sure that Tottenham Hotspur fans would have held up "We love North London" signs the way Red Sox' fans held up "We Love New York" signs in Fenway Park after 9/11. Read Nick Hornby's "Fever Pitch" to get an understanding as to how soccer gets inside the soul of an Englishman. Simmons is spot on with his commentary here.

5. That said, I was surprised that he picked the Spurs, also based in London, as his team to root for. I can't really find an analogous team in baseball, because the Spurs aren't really contenders. They're good enough to give you trouble, to finish in the top third, but they're seldom a threat, at least recently, to win it all. Okay, so they're not the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Washington Nationals. Maybe they're more like the contemporary Twins or A's, with one big exception -- not much emotion gets invoked when you mention those two baseball teams.

6. I root for Arsenal because a good friend does, because they have an interesting style, and because one of the best strikers in the world, Thierry Henry, plays for them. Rooting for Man. U. is like rooting for the Yankees, and I'm not into the big spenders -- Chelsea is a combination of Jimmy Dolan's Knicks and Mark Cuban's Mavericks. Liverpool is an interesting team, but their funky-haired striker, Frenchman Djbril Cisse, is now back in Marseille, and they're in a spot in the England that's akin to a spot in the U.S. I'll probably not get to -- call it Milwaukee. Then there's Newcastle, up in the northlands (the Wilkes-Barre of England), an area that Tony Blair represents as a Member of Parliament (note to you social studies types out there, M.P.'s don't have to live in their districts and many don't -- Blair might root for Newcastle for political reasons, but he's not from there). Simmons is hilarious on his take about Newcastle and probably right -- they get guys who are over the hill or to whom bad things happen after they get there. The thing about rooting for Arsenal is that after years of being a Philadelphia sports fan, I need to root for a team other than the Eagles that actually has a chance at a championship. The Gunners, as they're called, fill that need.

Read the whole thing, though, as it's a great read.

And get interested in the Premiership -- the fervor surrounding it is pretty neat to observe.

Deluded in Dallas

Not.

I was in Dallas the past couple of days and listened to their sports talk radio. On the one hand, they are not as intense as they are in the northeastern U.S. It may be that they're more mellow, it may be that they are not as knowledgeable, and I heard one bit this morning where some red-state (if not redneck) comedian cast aspersions on Terrell Owens in a way that might draw venom if not protests north of the Mason-Dixon line (although Imus sometimes gets away with this stuff).

All that said, when I sorted through it all, there are a few thoughts that are prominent on the minds of most Dallas Cowboys football fans:

1. If anyone can handle T.O., Bill Parcells can. (They cite to Parcells' handling of Keyshawn Johnson as proof that Parcells can have this type of influence).

2. They realize what an oddball T.O. is. The sports talkers do, the columnists do, and the fans do. They're hopeful that he can be a difference maker, but when you ask what will happen when Drew Bledsoe throws to Terry Glenn three times in a row and then overthrows T.O. on a critical down, in unison they realize that they are riding the Mount Vesuvius of playmakers, who, when he erupts, will cover the franchise with sticky, fiery magma the way that old volcano did a number on Naples way back when.

It took that Southern Italian city a little while to recover.

3. Conclusion: they know their football in the Lone Star State, and they know that they have a potentially volatile situation that could backfire on them in a month or so. In England, the oddsmakers would put up odds as to when T.O. has his first flareup with a coach or teammate. I don't think that the oddsmakers in Las Vegas are so bold to do that here, but it would be fun to watch.

Oh, yes, and it was 113 degrees in the car that I was riding in yesterday in Dallas.

Humid, too.

Part of the way I had to listen to a discussion on the sports talk radio station about how unique it is that the Cowboys may be the only team in football (HS, college, pros) to have a star on their helmet. The hosts offered that there have to be plenty of teams with eagles and cardinals on their helmets, but not stars. I don't know what they were getting at other than to point out this relatively worthless fact. The Cowboys do represent the Lone Star State, so there is good reasoning behind the logo, and certainly better than justifications for calling the NBA hoops teams in Utah and Los Angeles the Jazz and the Lakers, where the former is in perhaps the one state most antithetical to the jazz culture and the latter is in a place where there can be prolonged droughts and there aren't any lakes.

Then again, perhaps they were suggesting that it showed moxie, boldness, the Texas way of doing things. Now, I know Louisville is the Cardinals, Stanford is the Cardinals and Boston College is the Eagles, but I am not an expert in helmet design. And I don't read much into the uniforms except that over the years they have stood for excellence (and Cowboy nation, their fans, can go over the top not with the love for their team, but their incessant need to put down fans of Cowboy rivals). As someone who roots for a team in the Cowboys' division that is not the Cowboys, it's always nice to see your team of Eagles, the national bird, by the way, beat the guys wearing the stars on their hats.

There was more talk about the Cowboys than the Rangers, and the talking heads ruminated that if all the Rangers could get from the Yankees for Kevin Mench is Shawn Chacon (who has been bombed about as frequently as Hezbollah outposts in Southern Lebanon), they should keep the outfielder and continue to struggle. Not much energy in Rangers' talk, but lots of it about the Cowboys.

It was hot in Dallas today, but somehow I think it will be hotter when the Eagles and the Cowboys tangle for the first time this season. The team leaders will need to make a statement that they are closing ranks behind Donovan McNabb, who Owens threw under the bus last season. McNabb didn't do anything to Owens, doesn't badmouth his teammates, and I sense that certain key teammates didn't want to get in the middle of it. That resulted in Owens's behaving badly, because had the teammates stood up to him more, the whole set of shenanigans might have stopped. If the Eagles are to rekindle the magic that preceded last season -- and many think that they will (13 starters were on the IL last year) -- the key performers will need to unite behind McNabb, and McNabb will have to lead and unite the key performers.

The NFC East is loaded and, again, should be fun to watch this year.

Drama or no drama.

Friday, July 14, 2006

"There Are More Horse's Asses Than Horses" Dept.

The quote was from my late Uncle Sam, who worked hard and founded a business that grew beyond his wildest dreams. He was raised in a prejudiced world, and he overcame a distinct bias against him to enter a sphere that was foreign to him and succeed.

Click here for the latest evidence in support of Uncle Sam's claim. Hint: It's about Terrell Owens.

The world's most famous Tennessee-Chattanooga alum says he was misquoted in his autobiography. Some Texas HS DT was buying the book at Wal-Mart because he says he'll reading anything about football leadership. Give the currently misguided kid a little credit -- the last book he read was about Roger Staubach. It's probably the case that a HS football player in Texas will read anything about football. But if this kid thinks that what T.O. says exemplifies leadership, then the team doctors should give him an MRI to make sure he hasn't had one too many concussions.

When the sunlight shines on the wisdom of T.O., he removes all doubt as to what a goofball he is.

Because how can you be misquoted in your own autobiography?

Unless, of course, you never read the proofs in the first place.

People who grew up in my Uncle Sam's generation also used the phrase "empty barrels make the most noise." So that thunderclap you'll hear this fall at Lincoln Financial Field is when T.O. run a crossing pattern and gets his bell -- or barrel, take your pick -- rung by Brian Dawkins and company.

Talk about noise.

Because as loud as The Linc is, a shot like that will resonate throughout the nation.

And then what will T.O. say?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

For the Love of the Game

The Double A Zone offers some great stuff on the lives of college athletes and coaches. Click here for a take on life as a DIII softball player. She isn't on a scholarship, but she loves the game as much as someone who is at an elite DI program. While the elite DI spectator sports draw all the fans, it's heartening to know that the bulk of college athletes play for something other than a chance to play for money after their eligibility is up. Washington University in St. Louis is an outstanding school, and it's nice to see blog posts about programs like this one. The papers usually don't give DIII programs much press; in fairness, DIII programs do not sell papers. That said, it's a good and quick read, and it reminds you that there is a unique level of joy in games that do not involve the big bucks.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Cat Ate My Homework (And Other Tall Tales)

I've lived in the Philadelphia area for a long time now, and the one thing I've learned is that you have to have neverending patience with the local sports teams. Philadelphia has four "major" sports teams, and they can be categorized as follows:

76ers: Stuck in the mud with a superstar who doesn't make his teammates better and a GM who should have been fired several years ago. They haven't won a title since 1983.

Phillies: Always finding a way to take one step forward and two steps backwards. They never seem to have enough to contend seriously, so much so that we had to take some joy out of their finishing one game out of the wild card chase last season. Ownership has usually been out of touch, with the exception being the Ruly Carpenter years from the mid-1970's to mid-1980's. the Phillies won their only World Series in 1980.

Flyers: Aggressive and not usually befuddled, although the owner/chairman is so enthralled with the player who put him on the map (Bob then Bobby Clarke) that he hasn't been able to see through his GM's shortcomings. The team spends the bucks, but last year they loaded up on some lummox-like players when the rules changes dictated a need for quickness. They're not guilty of being cheap -- like the Phillies were until a few years ago (once upon a time then chairman Bill Giles claimed the Phillies -- who play in the fifth largest media market -- were a "small market" team, and the fans haven't forgiven his ownership group ever since), just wasteful and misdirected at times. The Flyers won back-to-back titles in the '73-'74 and '74-'75 seasons but have been looking for the right combination ever since (okay, so they've made it to two Stanley Cup finals since then, but, that's a small consolation, right?).

Eagles: The City of Brotherly Love is a football town. When you combined the decline of the Phillies in the mid-1980's with the baseball strike of 1994, Buddy Ryan's obnoxious attitude, the Reggie White-led defense and the clinical way the Lurie-Banner-Reid regime fields teams, you have the recipe for a solid football town. The collapse of the Phillies and the advent of Ryan's defenses pushed Philadelphia into football territory, and the Lurie regime cemented the reputation. This team is a team that seems reluctant to spend that little bit of extra to put its team over the top, even though the teams up until last year have been outstanding in the past decade or so. The Birds are still iffy at WR and RB (where they're also thin), but the defense is going to revive itself bigtime this year, and from Chris Mortensen to Joe Gibbs, many are predicting an excellent year for the Birds. They won their last title in 1960.

Yes, Philadelphia suffers the distinction of being the city with four major sports teams to have the longest drought from its last title -- 23 years and running.

Patience is truly a virtue when you're a Philadelphia sports fan. You have to endure questionable decisions by ownership and the stupidity that can come forth on talk radio, much of it by the callers, but sometimes by the hosts. Yet, there are times when ownership and management just cannot get out of its own way.

Such as yesterday.

One-time Phillies' managing partner Bill Giles sat down and spoke with the media about the local baseball team. He didn't offer up many gems, he didn't give the manager a vote of confidence (saying that he would refrain from comment), he didn't seem to give the average fan any reason to believe his ownership group has a clue about how to win a title (even though they hate losing, he says), he gave the current managing partner (Dave Montgomery) a vote of confidence even though Montgomery has presided over losing season after losing season and was the one who hired Ed Wade to be his GM, the same Ed Wade who lost Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen to bad trades, gave bad contracts to Pat Burrell, Mike Lieberthal and David Bell and who let the farm system virtually collapse, and, yes, he offered up a gem about the Brett Myers incident.

Brett Myers was trying to help his wife. (Scroll down to the first two questions and read this for yourself).

And a Phillies' employee saw the whole thing.

Let's see, Myers was offering Jungian psychotherapy to his wife on the streets of Boston, was gesticulating wildly with his arms and balled up his fist, only to have his much shorter wife walk into it by accident. He pulled her hair because when he studied eastern philosophy at Beijing University while on his Rhodes Scholarship, he became a practioner of Chinese medicine and learned the arts of tonsorial healing (not to be confused with the tortures that Chairman Mao's regime inflicted on tens of millions of people). So who cares if Myers' shaves his pate? Tonsorial pulls are the new tai chi.

The italicized remarks were said notwithstanding the fact that Myers' wife filed a complaint against him, that Myers publicly stated he acted inappropriately, and that the Phillies admitted they handled the Myers affair inappropriately. Giles hid behind the cloak of "it's a legal matter, so I can't say more."

Huh?

Remember, this is the same guy who said Philadelphia is a small market.

Perhaps he meant that the ownership group is either small-minded or small-brained.

Later today, Phillies' president Dave Montgomery clarified the situation, saying that his mentor was basically well-intentioned but got it wrong. You can click here to read the wagon circling and click here to read Phil Sheridan's take on the situation (Sheridan is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer).

Montgomery, by all accounts is a good and smart guy. But if he were running a company outside a monopoly situation, he would have been canned long ago (that is, if he hadn't run the team into bankruptcy first).

The pundits in Philadelphia are offering a bunch of solutions, from firing the manager to trading a bunch of position players to blowing up the team to going only with young pitchers the way the Braves did in the late 1980's to getting the ownership to sell the team and admit that it just couldn't figure out a way to win.

The view here is that if you do any of the first three, you're attacking symptoms. If you do the last thing, you're hitting the cause. Hard.

Bill Giles' latest public utterings rub salt into the wounds that the fans have carried for years. The Giles regime -- and this ownership's regime -- has an easy report card to look at over the past 21 or so seasons -- 1 World Series appearance, and overall losing record and through the 2005 season 142 games under .500. That's progress? How patient do we have to be?

Here are some other excuses that the Phillies could offer this year:

1. Ed Wade signed the catcher and third baseman to no-trade contracts.
2. The team gave too much money to Jim Thome when they signed him as a free agent, thereby hamstringing their ability to do other teams.
3. They got little in return for Scott Rolen.
4. They got even less in return for Curt Schilling.
5. The corner outfielders cannot play defense.
6. They gave Pat Burrell way too big a contract before he strung a few good seasons together.
7. They cannot develop pitching.
8. They brain-cramped on the design of their ballpark and instead of building a neutral park built Coors Park.
9. Despite their manual for doing things, too many of their hitters swing at first pitches, even after watching the other team's pitcher miss the plate with some frequency.
10. Their farm system offers little in the way of help.

Do the math: Add up numbers 1 through 10 and determine who is responsble for the sterling record of this franchise.

Bill Giles, Dave Montgomery and friends.

Do the public a service, gentlemen, please -- and sell the team. After 20+ years at the helm, what past experiences other than the lightning strike in 1994 give you encouragement that your group knows what it's doing? What successes are you really building on?

Want to know what it's like to be a Phillies' fan? Just read the interview.

And then reconsider your view of Phillies' fans. The fact that the keep coming back is not a testimony for the Phillies, but a statement that these fans love the game and refuse to let local management ruin it.

And given Bill Giles' statement about their being no intent to sell the team, the current ownership group will get the chance to run the franchise into the ground.

Where's a strong commissioner invoking "the best interests of baseball" clause and compelling incompetent management with a losing record over 20 years to sell the team?

For the good of the game.

And the sanity of an underrated and earnest group of fans.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Les Bleus Blew It

Observations on watching the World Cup Final:

1. The penalty called on Italy in the fifth minute was a phantom call. Florent Malouda of France dove frequently today, so much so that when he really was taken down in the penalty area late in the game, the referee didn't call it. There are two explanations -- either he felt guilty because he wrongly called a penalty in the fifth minute on a Malouda dive or that he was tired of Malouda's diving. Malouda is a gifted player -- very quick -- but that wasn't a penalty in the fifth minute. Lucky for him, Italy's Marco Materazzi, the player called for the takedown of Malouda, scored Italy's lone goal in the nineteenth minute on a masterful header off a great corner kick by Andrea Pirlo.

2. Gianluigi Buffon, Italy's goaltender, was masterful today. The U.S. announcers gave great kudos to Italian defender Fabiano Cannavaro, who deserved them, but Buffon came up huge again and again today.

3. What was Zinedine Zidane thinking when he got his red card during overtime? He lost his cool big-time and went out not as the grand old man of the game, but as a French cousin to former Ohio State football coach, Woody Hayes. Headbutting an opponent (Materazzi) out of frustration? What was that all about?

4. France blew it because they dominated the action in the second half. Italy took it to France in the first half, but the Azzuri looked spent in the second half. Their catalyst, Francesco Totti, looked like a guy playing with six surgical screws in his ankle, which he was (he was substituted for), and the Italians were more content to kick the ball backwards in the second half than forwards. France had its chances, but they just couldn't convert.

5. It's sad to see one of the world's greatest sporting events end on a shootout. Perhaps the substitution rules should be liberalized so that if you go into overtime, you can have a few more substitutes. Adding more substitutes also would enable the return of the "golden goal." The "golden goal" rule should be reinstituted, because there can be few greater dramas than watching the World Cup final and waiting for the golden -- or sudden death to you Americans -- goal. That France lost isn't the fault of David Trezeguet, an amazing striker in his own right, who happened to hit the top of the crossbar and, unlike Zidane in the fifth minute, see his ball bounce in front of the goal line instead of behind it. Trezeguet hit a hard shot and missed, yes, but Zidane took himself out of the game with the stupid red card, and he's one of the best penalty shooters of all time. Without Zidane, Patrick Viera (who exited early because of what looked to be a pulled hamstring) and Thierry Henry (who was substituted for in overtime because he looked totally out of gas), France fared very well in the shootout but had an uphill fight in it.

6. The referee on balance did a good job today. He let the players play, probably could have issued a few more yellow cards, but he didn't let the match focus on him.

It's a shame that Zinedine Zidane had to go out on such an awful note. He should be remembered for his heroics and his skills, but instead, at least for a while, he'll be remembered for a maneuver that's more likely found in the World Wrestling Federation than the World Cup.

Congratulations, Azzuri, on an outstanding job.

Getting Autographs, Meeting Players

Several weeks ago on one of the many rainy weekend days we've experienced in the Mid-Atlantic region, my kids and I were walking around our local mall and noticed a sign in the sports memorabilia store that a Phillie would be showing up to sign autographs on July 8. As the kids have become staunch Phillies' fans, I promised them that I'd take them and pay the fee (it was small, as the player isn't a regular -- one of their other stores was featuring Ryan Howard at $30 a pop). Right now, my older child has three autographs, and my younger one has one.

The autograph they have in common is that of Greg Luzinski, the one-time Phillies' slugger, who operates the barbecue concession in the concourse beyond center field at Citizens Bank Park. The Bull, as he was called, sits near the stand and signs autographs for free, and about a month ago he autographed the kids' tickets. He smiled at them because they were young and wearing Phillies' t-shirts, no one else was in line, and it was a pleasant experience.

It's hard to expect what you'll experience with players -- they're human like everyone else. Some are extroverts, some are conversationalists, some are shy, some are totally introverted, some are socially awkward, and some are mistrustful. It's a mixed bag, and some are just more comfortable than others with the public.

I grew up revering Willie Mays, partly because he was my father's favorite player and partly because his numbers were great (he was at the end of his career when I started to follow the game seriously), and I had the occasion to meet him one on one when I was doing my independent work when I was in college. The meeting took place at Bally's in Atlantic City (he was working as a greeter, and Bally's arranged the meeting), and I approached the meeting with a combination of glee and apprehension. I was somewhat gleeful because I was going to meet one of the greatest players of all time. I was somewhat anxious because I didn't want to get let down. I mean, what if he were nasty? What if he were dismissive?

What I found was a tired human being who wasn't that open or helpful. Look, I was writing a thesis, and probably instead of viewing me as a kid working on a college project he viewed me as a writer, and my guess is that Mays never was that comfortable with writers. He was courteous but not warm, responsive but not talkative, not offering up more than short answers (Monte Irvin, in contrast, was just wonderful). He was another man, albeit one with great gifts, but the "Say Hey" kid who was one of the most articulate displayer of the baseball arts on the field didn't dazzle me off the field the way I had hoped he would because of the way he played. He was in his fifties, probably somewhat wistful of what was and probably figuring out what to do with the rest of his life -- that's the way it seemed. I came away disappointed to a degree, but I had measured my expectations in advance and didn't come away totally deflated.

Afterwards, a friend of mine said, "that's why you never want to meet your heroes. You'll only come away disappointed. They'll never be what you imagine them to be." He had a point.

But, retrospectively, meeting your heroes, if you're a person who's accomplished some things but doesn't necessarily give yourself credit because they don't achieve the adoration that society gives a ballplayer, can have some self-ratifying aspects to it. You can figure out that your life is pretty good if you hadn't already, you can give yourself some credit that you hadn't given yourself before, and you can realize that you really shouldn't say you want someone else's life, because in fact you have no idea what that life really is all about. That's not to say you wouldn't have wanted to be the center fielder for the New York and San Francisco Giants, but it is to say that perhaps there are aspects of that existence that you wouldn't want at all.

Such as what to do with your life after the cheering stops, after you can't play anymore.

About ten years later, my wife and I were at Miami Airport, returning from the beautiful wedding of a loyal reader of this blog. It was 1993, the Phillies were hot that season, and we were waiting to fly back to Philadelphia. That afternoon was, perhaps, my most interesting day at an airport in my life.

We were standing in line at a kiosk buying a newspaper when I pointed out an older gentleman who was wearing a suit. Somewhat Seinfeld like, I said to my wife, "Do you know who that is?"

My wife shook her head. Silly me, asking someone to identify a senior citizen in Miami Airport is like trying to find a certain fan at a home football game for the University of Nebraska.

"No, I don't," she said.

I smiled.

"Who is it?" she asked.

"That," I said to my wife, "is Joe DiMaggio."

Her eyes went big.

My wife knows a bunch about baseball, having grown up in Baltimore, having gone to the now-torn down Memorial Stadium. She can tell you about the great teams, Earl Weaver, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer and the game where reliever Tippy Martinez, pitching to infielder Lenn Sakata (who caught some in high school) because one catcher was hurt and one catcher (I believe it was Rick Dempsey) got ejected, picked three consecutive batters off first in the top of the tenth to save a game during the glory years of the home team. Of course, she knew of Joe DiMaggio.

"Why don't you go get his autograph?"

I shook my head.

"No," I said. "I don't think so."

I had my reasons. A good friend from college ran autograph shows and had become close to DiMaggio. While fond of the Yankee Clipper, he had told me that DiMaggio was a complicated personality like many of the ballplayers and former players he dealt with, and that he just didn't sign for anybody. As the Yankee Clipper was getting on in years, I didn't want my one interaction with the Hall of Famer to end up having been told to buzz off.

"Let me ask him then," she offered.

My wife is cuter than I am and has a nice smile, so I figured what the heck.

"Yes," I responded with some enthusiasm, "Go, go."

So she pulled a small pad from her pocketbook (which sometimes can host about 2/3 of the items that George Costanza used to keep in his wallet on "Seinfeld") walked over to him and said, "Mr. DiMaggio, may I have your autograph?"

I was far enough away not to hear the interaction, a few passersby blocked my view, but my wife walked back to where I was standing with a smile on her face.

"Got it," she said, happy at her accomplishment and ribbing me at the same time for my reticence.

Thereupon, when we got to the gate, the ticket agents asked us if we minded being upgraded to first class because they needed our seats to accommodate a cruise ship group that had needed coach seats on the plane.

No, we didn't mind at all. The complimentary chocolate chip cookies were excellent.

Then, with the Phillies in the playoffs (this was October), we got stuck on I-95 in a traffic jam in Philadelphia on the way home from the airport, only to be mollified because the game was on the radio. The hometown nine was trailing, but Darren Daulton hit a clutch home run to put the Phillies ahead for good while we were sitting in traffic.

A great ending to a great weekend.

Okay, so fast forward to yesterday. We go to the mall and pay $10 apiece for two tickets to get the autographs of Shane Victorino, the Eckstein-like reserve outfielder for the Phillies who can hit pretty well and who can run the bases faster than just about anyone in the majors. The session was called for 11:30 to 1 p.m., and I doubted there would be a serious line because going into last night's game, the Phillies were 6-20 in their last 26 games. Victorino got their 5 minutes late, the line had about 75 people in it (which meant, probably, that the place was losing money on the venture because you would think he was getting at least $1000 for the appearance), and it moved rather quickly.

One child was nervous -- he didn't know what he would say, and the other was eager, because she would see a Phillies up close and personal. I had cautioned them about a few facts of life -- one, the autograph signing business was such that the store made money by getting as many things signed as quickly as possible -- read, there's little if any time for chit-chat. The college friend who had run the autograph shows told me that he loved having Pete Rose at a show, because a) he was very popular, b) he signed very quickly (having two one-syllable names helped), and c) he was a master of combining quick signatures with interacting positively with the fans. That said, not all players can perform at signings the way Rose did -- he is unique in many ways, and that was one. I told the kids that players are young men, sometimes they can't talk about much other than baseball, that they might be shy, and that they shouldn't expect a whole lot more than an autograph.

So, about 20 minutes later, it was our turn. The kids took with them 5x7 action photo cards of Victorino that we had purchased in a set of Phillies' cards at Citizens Bank Park for $5 a piece (these sets are a relative bargain). They stood in line, and Victorino was concentrating on signing and talking with a couple of people at the store. The kids handed him their cards, and he looked down most of the time. There was no "hi, how are ya doin'?" or anything like that. He picked up a blue Sharpie and signed both cards, and one of the store helpers at the table handed them to me.

I said, "Good luck tonight."

He said, "Thanks, I appreciate that."

And that was it.

An autograph assembly line.

Nothing less than we expected.

That's good in a way, bad in another.

Good because I had told the kids what this could be like. Bad because, well, it should have been something more. A "hey guys," or something like that, an acknowledgment of the kids, wasn't too hard to say, was it?

(Heck, if I were on a team that had won only 6 of its last 26, I'd be thanking each and every fan for coming out, but that's just me).

We checked out a few items in the store, being careful to let the cards dry so as not to smudge the signatures. Then we checked out a baseball hat store, and then it was off to the food court to McDonald's for lunch, and then home.

The kids were happy to see a Phillie in person, sort of, I think, and happy to get something to put in their plastic storage container that holds their programs and baseball cards, another memory of the national pastime.

But, I think, they realized that baseball and baseball autographs are a business, that it's hard to meet players, that they're human, and that when you do it's for a fleeting moment that gives you very little sense of them and that, as a kid, doesn't make you feel special. At least, that's what I gleaned from the experience.

More importantly, though, I think that they better appreciate the time that we spend together at the games. At the suggestion of a friend, I bought a Spalding scorebook, which I'll take to each game that we go to as a family (whether it's in Philadelphia or elsewhere, majors or minors) and record the score. He's done that with his kids, both of whom are grown, and the book is a nice memory of where they've been and what they've seen.

To us, Shane Victorino remains an exciting player who has some great days ahead of him. We'll still believe that, even though in a t-shirt and jeans signing autographs he was just another guy.

It was fun for the kids to see a ballplayer up close and in person, but perhaps it was also important to see that they're not superheroes composed of matter unknown to man.

Better yet, the home team won the game last night, and we watched the end together, all four of us.

That's probably the most important thing about baseball, when it brings families and cities together.

Those are the memories we all cherish.

My father has been dead for 20 years now, and we went to many games when I was a kid. I don't remember the details of many of them, but I remember how we used to go on Sundays, how Steve Carlton pitched a lot on Sundays, and how much fun we had going to the games.

The key thing was that I went with my dad, and it was fun, and that baseball is a refuge for me when I need to get away from it all. I look back on those times with great fondness.

If I can pass those sentiments along to my kids, I'll have done well.

Another Twist on the Family Business

The Nike hoops camp has plenty of big names, sons of former hoop stars and a former football great, as well as the grandson of a controversial religious leader. Click here and read all about it.

The article itself is evidence that these kids will get a lot of attention because of their blood lines, and my guess is that some will handle it better than others and some are more talented than others and have more desire than others. An unfortunate fact of life for these more famous kids is that other kids who might not get the limelight because their names and pedigrees aren't as distinguished will use this lack of attention and the other kids' bloodlines as a motivator to play better and to show the cognoscenti that they in fact deserve the attention.

It's the American way.

And it's totally fair, because each and every kid has to earn his place. Who gets playing time at the best programs isn't determined by anything other than production -- combining talent with desire, effort and a work ethic as much of the time as possible. True, Al Horford, the star forward for Florida, has a father who excelled at big-time basketball. But he wouldn't be where he is just on talent alone. A hard worker, his hoops IQ is off the charts, as his play in the NCAA tournament showed. Then again, a bunch of no names from George Mason propelled that school into the national spotlight. Those kids didn't get nearly as much attention during the recruiting process, but they certainly produced when it counted, didn't they?

We should clip and save all of these articles and then look at them four years later. It will be interesting to see where these kids end up.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Baseball Trades: Auction Theory

Buster Olney made a good point this morning on "Mike & Mike on ESPN Radio" regarding why there are so few trade rumors in Major League Baseball. Olney explains that because so many teams are in the hunt for a playoff spot, there is an abundance of buyers but few sellers. This is especially true in the National League, where every team in the West is in the hunt for the division title and a wildcard spot (playing zero-sum baseball again this year, as the team that wins that division might do it with 85 wins). Teams in the Central are also bunched (with the Cardinals having slipped and four teams in the chase for a playoff spot), and in the East, the woeful Phillies (who have lost 19 of their last 25) are 5 games out of the wild card (and, if you want to extend the list, the entire NL East could contend for the wild card, as all of those teams are on the Phillies' heels for second place in the NL East.

Therein lies a dilemma for many a team and GM. Do you stay the course, hope that the gaps on your roster heal themselves and pray to contend, or do you do something about it? If you have prospects, do you dangle them to other teams to lure that extra starter, reliever or lefthanded bat? Or do you stand pat? Or, and this is the huge or, do you turn yourselves into a seller, auction off your most desirable players, and then re-load your franchise the way Florida did at the end of last season. If you turn yourself into a seller, then you have a chance to reap great benefits, precisely because there are tons of buyers.

Let's focus on the Phillies. They don't have enough starting pitching to take the stress off their already over-taxed bullpen. The guy sitting next to me at the game on July 4th said, "Who would have thought that the Phillies' are expecting pitching relief from Jon Lieber and Randy Wolf? They're not exactly Koufax and Drysdale." He then relented and acknowledged that Lieber would be an upgrade, but Wolf is recovering from Tommy John surgery (hopefully he'll hurl better at the plate than his brother Jim, an umpire, worked the plate in last night's Phillies-Padres game. The lesser-known Wolf brother seemed to have a blind spot on inside pitches to lefthanded batters, calling most in sight strikes -- he also blew a game-ending call at first-base the night before, where the Phillies' runner clearly tied the throw). If the starters get knocked out early night after night, the relievers have to go 4 innings or more instead of an optimal 2 to 2 2/3. But I have digressed. . .

The Phillies shouldn't kid themselves and think they can make the playoffs. True, Brett Myers was emerging as a #1 starter before his domestic violence charge (Billy Wagner opined yesterday that Myers has the physical tools of a #1 but the mental gifts of a #4). Ryan Madson shows flashes of brilliance, but that's all -- flashes. Cory Lidle is a journeyman, Scott Mathieson needs seasoning, and the way Adam Bernero pitched in Toronto the other day you would have thought that the game was played in Cape Canveral. Bernero is back in the minors as is promising youngster Scott Mathieson. Youngster Cole Hamels hasn't thrown particularly well as of late.

The bullpen, outside of Tom Gordon and Rheal Cormier, is flammable if not combustible. Arthur Rhodes' WHIP as a set-up man is almost 2.0. Geoff Geary has been hit harder than the guys Larry Holmes defeated when he was the undisputed heavyweight champion. Aaron Fultz isn't the same guy he was last season, and Rick White is approaching Dave LaPoint's record for the most teams played for in a career. Ryan Franklin pitched well in relief on July 4th, but he's been a disappointment.

Without getting to the position players, I think I've made a good case that this team doesn't have nearly enough pitching to seriously contend for a playoff spot (unless somehow you could qualify with a 74-88 record). That said, there are some position players who might benefit from a change of scenery and who could benefit other clubs.

The Phillies have 5 reasonably good outfielders. CF Aaron Rowand is an above-average CF who plays hard. Shane Victorino is the leadoff man of the future, as he has the stroke, eye and wheels to bring more excitement to the top of the lineup than Jimmy Rollins, whose selectivity in the strike zone will not be confused with Wade Boggs' or Ted Williams'. David Dellucci is having a great year as a reserve OF, and his total bases to plate appearances ratio is one of the best in the Majors for outfielders (according to an excellent column in today's "Wall Street Journal" by Allen St. John, Dellucci appears to be in the top ten in this most interesting of statistical categories). The corner outfielders get maligned, but Pat Burrell hits for power, can hit in the clutch and kills the Mets. Bobby Abreu is one of the few people in MLB history to put together 7 seasons of at least 20 HRs and 20 steals. If a team needs a bat -- and many do -- they should look no further than Philadelphia.

The Phillies have said they're standing pat, although rumors have swirled that teams have approached them about Abreu. Former GM Ed Wade loaded the team up with no-trade contracts (Abreu, Burrell, David Bell and Mike Lieberthal), so Abreu would have to approve a trade. He's making $13 million this year, has $15 million coming to him next year and there's a club option of $15 million for 2008 (with a $2 million buyout). The conventional wisdom has been that the Phillies would have to eat a good portion of this contract to move the RF.

Pundits have opined that the Phillies would be better to blow up the roster and build around Rollins (who has a place in the lineup, but not at the top of it), Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Those pundits have included writers, former manager Larry Bowa, and, to a degree, former reliever Billy Wagner. Bowa figured that if the Phillies didn't make the post-season last year, that perhaps some guys need a change of scenery. He could well be right.

Pat Gillick should take stock in the views of the pundits and the fact that it's a seller's market and make a dashing move -- one that his predecessor never seemed to be able to make. If he auctions Abreu to the highest bidder, interesting things could happen, such as a) getting some good young players to build around and b) getting rid of most of the contract. The question does remain whether Abreu will waive his no-trade clause, but in most cases in the past 10 years that waiver hasn't seemed to be a roadblock. Let's assume, for the moment, that this won't be an issue.

I saw the Padres play the Phillies on Tuesday, and their lineup is weak. Put Abreu in the heart of the order and he'll transform the lineup. Ditto Colorado, Arizona, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Once one team gets interested, its competitors will have to, for two reasons -- one, he can help their team and two, if they get him, not only do they help their team, but he's someone their competitors didn't get. The thing about the NL West is that some of those teams -- Los Angeles and Colorado, to name a few -- have some young prospects worth getting. For example, a trade with the Rockies could yield the third baseman-hungry Phillies promising prospect Ian Stewart while giving the Rockies a potent bat in Coors Field. In addition, if the bidding frenzy heightens as it might well given the abundance of buyers, the Phillies could shed Abreu's entire contract.

The fewer the items on sale (especially if they're scarce items, which they are here) and the more willing buyers, the higher the prices will go. at some point, the egos of those involved who just have to have it will become so inflated that they'll continue to offer a little extra until what they've offered is so overwhelming that the selling GM will say quickly and hope that the other team won't change its mind before the fax confirming the trade gets to MLB's offices in NYC. We've all seen this happen, and some of you, I'm sure, have gotten caught up in this phenomenon on eBay if not somewhere else. It's powerful, and handled correctly by the seller of the scarce item, potentially very lucrative.

This could be a once-in-a-decade opportunity for the right seller.

If Pat Gillick sees this and pulls the trigger, history could well prove him to be a genius.

Shedding Abreu makes more room for Dellucci and Victorino, both of whom have earned more playing time. It also could give the Phillies 2-3 solid prospects to help rebuild what "Baseball Prospectus" has dubbed a woeful minor league system and free up cash for future expenditures.

The possibilities abound for the Phillies (among others), but if they move quickly and become the first of the sellers, they could reap a bounty far beyond what they ever could have imagined. It's only a shame that King George in NYC doesn't have the prospects to trade, because getting the Yankees and BoSox into a bidding war over Abreu would be great theater.

The Phillies and others could be worried that if they throw in the towel and call it a season that their fans will be frustrated and won't show up. Well, truth be told, what's attracting fans to Citizens Bank Park are Utley and Howard and the park itself. The fans are frustrated with ownership's ineptitude to begin with, and they want action. Believe it or not, making this type of big trade, given the fans' sentiments, will attract more fans that it repels. Why? Because the fans know that this team cannot contend, and they want solid signals why they should buy tickets from this ownership group in the future.

Now is not the time to stand pat and watch a starting pitching staff of Lieber, Wolf, Hamels, Lidle and Madson try to pitch you into the post-season. Now is not the time to cross your fingers and toes that Arthur Rhodes can straighten himself out and become the set-up man you hoped for. Too many variables have to come together for the Phillies to contend for the wild card (and, even if they could, it would be a false positive, so to speak, because the way the team is currently constructed doesn't bode well for the future).

Now is the time to seize upon a major market opportunity --

and sell!

Let the auction begin!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

You Know Your Hometown Baseball Team is in Trouble When

10. The leadoff hitter likes to swing at the first pitch and thinks that "walk" is what pitchers do to cool down after they get their running in.

9. The reserve infielder makes Mario Mendoza (he of the famous "Mendoza Line") look like Jeff Kent.

8. Most of the rest of baseball (okay, so maybe not the Tigers) views your RF as a valuable trade acquisition, whereas you give him all of the due that was given Von Hayes when he was in his prime.

7. The fans find a soulmate in a 35 year-old career back-up catcher with a funky 'do.

6. When the GM is interviewed about the team's mid-season report card by friendly radio guys, he still sounds flustered, and all you remember is how many times he said "you know" (The Guiness folks asked for a tape of the chat) instead of coming away with anything of substance about the team's chances in the second half. Yes, he helped mold a few World Series winners, and, yes, he once was nicknamed "Stand Pat." Which guy my team got remains open to debate.

5. The skipper looks (and acts) too much like the Skipper from "Gilligan's Island" and is a walking advertisement for a cardiology practice.

4. Your corner outfielders (the RF listed above and this guy) have should have this traffic sign taped to their backs when playing the field. (And the CF should charge extra for the additional ground he has to cover as a result). The LF's backwards ballet that turned Khalil Greene's flyout into a double will not make people forget Coco Crisp's catch on David Wright in Fenway last week anytime soon.

3. The directions for use that come with your lefty and righty set-up men have a warning in bold that says, "Don't Use Near an Open Flame."

2. Your ace starting pitcher pops his wife upside the head in a public place and team ownership treats the incident the way baseball addressed concerns about steroid usage in the 1990's.

1. During a pitching change in a tie game, the fans start cheering for the local NFL team, even when football season is four months away.

Can you guess which team this is?

Now, of course, there have been a few bright spots, such as -- 1) the starting pitcher in question before he decided to imitate Mike Tyson, 2) the aging closer, who is pitching as well as, if not better than, the guy he replaced (last night notwithstanding) and 3) the right side of the infield, which is one of the best if not the best in the league. Fair enough, but it's not enough. Oh, yeah, the GM took some comfort in that the team, despite not playing well, is only about 5 games out of the wild card.

Remember the '51 Giants? The '61 Giants? The '04 Astros? Any teams in between that overcame difficult mid-season odds?

This team is not one of them.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Don't Bet On It

One-time Maryland hoops coach Lefty Driesell once had something like this to say about players who made early commitments to colleges: "I like it. Now I know who I've got to beat."

Fast forward to 2006, where word out of Ohio is that the consensus #1 player in the HS class of 2007, O.J. Mayo, has told coaches at basketball powerhouse USC that he's going to play hoops for the Men of Troy. No, he didn't dial a wrong number and call Tim Floyd instead of Ben Howland, and, no, he didn't take a wrong turn and end up in South Central instead of Westwood at UCLA. Apparently, he likes the USC brand, likes how Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush became household names, and doesn't want to be just another name at a hoops powerhouse like Duke or North Carolina.

Interesting choice, to say the least.

Becoming a hoopster at a football school.

That's akin to becoming a football player at, well, Duke.

What in the name of John Wooden and Paul Westphal is this kid thinking?

Makes you wonder why he wants to go to a school without a hoops tradition. Makes you also wonder why he wants to go to a school whose coach really has developed only one NBA player in his career -- Marcus Fizer. Makes you wonder, period.

Playing the role of Driesell in this drama, no doubt, will be newly anointed Kansas State coach Bob Huggins, formerly of Cincinnati, a school with a hoops tradition. Okay, so there's some bad pub surrounding Huggins (SI reported that 19 of his players got arrested during his tenure), but the guy won games and supposedly had a solid in with Mayo and one of his HS teammates, a top 10 HS player in the class of '07. Well, now Coach Huggins knows who he's got to beat -- Tim Floyd and USC.

Thing is, if Mayo is looking for a school where he can make an imprint and not be just another name, K State is the place. It has played poor cousin to hoops titan Kansas for a very long time. Okay, so K State gave us Rolando Blackman, but Phog Allen, a disciple of James Naismith (the fellow who invented this great game), coached at Kansas. Wilt Chamberlain, the Paul Bunyan of the game, went to Kansas, as did Danny Manning, Kirk Hinrich, Raef LaFrentz, Nick Collison, Jacque Vaughn, Paul Pierce and many others. No, I'm not dyslexic or dyspeptic, just pointing out that if Mayo would like to slay a dragon, put a school on the map, go up against a dynasty and make a big name for himself, K State could be the place, especially given Coach Huggins' record for developing players (especially when compared to Tim Floyd's).

Only problem is that Mayo needs the bright lights, apparently, and had K State been in the real Manhattan, New York City, instead of the other Manhattan, Manhattan, Kansas, then perhaps he would have been interested. But the thing about places like Ohio and Kansas is that people fly over them to get to places like L.A. and New York City, international cities with a certain star quality that places like Kansas State will never have. In picking USC and Tim Floyd, Mayo knows that he has a school craving to make a dent in UCLA's huge hoops reputation and a coach who is looking to re-establish his name after flopping with the Chicago Bulls in his last head-coaching gig.

Gotta say one thing -- taking on UCLA in L.A. -- the kid's got cajones.

Sounds like a good potential opportunity for Mayo, but a risk for USC and Floyd, because if Mayo has figured all of this out, at the age of 18 he could be hard to handle. Remember, it wasn't as though the Fab Five left a sterling legacy at Michigan (while playing for a coach who seemed to have little ability to steer his players down the right path).

I wouldn't count K State out yet, not in the least. And I also would question the thinking of a kid who wants to play for a school with no discernible hoops tradition, for a coach who is re-treading his tires, and, at the nation's premier football school to boot. He either is into re-making one of the Labors of Hercules (which could be a compelling made-for-Disney TV movie), shirking the limelight or being selfish because at a place like SC he'll have the chance to score 45 points a game and become neither a PG or a 2G in the process.

Unless, of course, he wants to be a magnet and re-create the Fab Five. Perhaps that's the ticket, and perhaps that's what O.J. Mayo is thinking. There are flaws with this logic, however, in that he should be finding the best coach possible to help hone his game. In Tim Floyd, he might have that, but the choice doesn't seem that logical when many better coaches would have loved to get him into their programs. And, if he can't be that magnet, he'll be a bring-it-up-and-shoot-it PG.

The last time I checked, the two guys in the NBA with that description hadn't won a title -- Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury. Yes, Tiny Archibald had with the Celtics, but he had plenty of talent surrounding him. Guys named Bird, McHale and Parish, to name three. Who will surround O.J. Mayo at USC?

This is a very curious decision if, in fact, it's a decision at all.

The situation bears watching. USC sounds like, to use a golf analogy, the leader in the clubhouse.

And that old hustler, Bobby Huggins, has a few tricks in the bag to win this version of a club championship.

Don't count him out until the scorecard -- err, letter of intent -- is signed.

One real positive thing could come out of this, come to think of it. If O.J. Mayo goes to USC, reinvigorates its hoops program, tutors illiterates and comforts widows, he'll also help USC alums attach a positive vibe to a name that has meant nothing but heartache and disappointment for the past dozen plus years.

They called O.J. the football player "The Juice."

What will they call O.J. the hoopster? The Condiment? The Spread?

The possibilities are endless.

But somehow the words "best hoops prospect in the country" and USC Basketball just don't go together.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Soccer Scandal's Ramifications

In the U.S., the biggest sports scandal has focused on baseball and on the extent to which players took performance enhancing drugs. This scandal makes headlines every time it erupts -- from Barry Bonds' grand jury testimony to the testimony of several home run hitters before Congress to the claims of Jose Canseco and the sworn testimony of Jason Grimsely. It doesn't take a Mensa member to figure out that this volcano will erupt again in the near future, showering the fans with all sorts of lava.

Overseas, a huge scandal has rocked Italian soccer. There is a big investigation going on about match fixing, betting and referee deployment that could have some of the biggest names -- AC Milan and Juventus -- relegated all the way down to the equivalent of high-A baseball. That's a precipitous crash, especially in a country not always known for its staunch opposition to corruption. The latest news is that the coach of Juventus (which is located in Turin or Torino, depending on where you're from) has exercised an escape clause to jump out of the cauldron that is Juventus and into the boiling pot known as Real Madrid. The latter, of course, is in the top division in Spain and not undergoing any controversy. It still is a pressure cooker, because Real Madrid fans like to think their team is the best in the world and have high expectations for their team. Needless to say, if you're a Type A coach for a Serie A league, you want to go where the best action is -- and it isn't in a third division. Click here to read about this latest move.

It will be interesting to see how far this scandal spreads and what punishments arise from it. My reading in between the lines is that this could be Italy's version of the Black Sox of 1919, with the difference being that several premier teams are implicated. To draw the stark contrast for you, imagine the Red Sox and Yankees being sent to the Eastern League for their transgressions, and imagine that they'll only be able to return if they finish in the top 3 in successive years in the Eastern League and International League before being elevated back to the Majors. Which means, of course, that these clubs could be gone from Serie A, the top Italian League, for at least two seasons.

Ouch!

How the U.S. would handle a scandal of this proportion is unclear, although given the public hue and cry that would likely result you could see individuals banned for life and teams fined heavily (assuming their involvement) as opposed to teams sent to the baseball equivalent of Siberia. Nonetheless, this is a scandal that bears watching, both for what happens to elite teams and elite players as to how a major democracy handles something of this proportion.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Uh-Oh for Phillies' Fans

Spanning the globe from the World Cup to the home-run hitting derby at next week's All-Star Game. . .

You'll remember that Phillies' RF scorched the competition with a mind-numbing performance at last year's contest. Unfortunately for the fans in the Cradle of Liberty, the hometown RF has only hit 14 HRs since that time -- roughly a full season of baseball. Many suggest that hitting balls thrown with the arc and velocity of the average beer-league softball pitch hurt Abreu's form since that amazing night.

Now it looks like Phillies' 1B Ryan Howard, who scares opposing teams the way Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell used to (not to mention two who should not be named -- Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa) is headed for the same HR derby.

Speaking as one Phillies' fan, I'd rather see my strongman hit his majestic home runs when they count and not is some marketing-designed freak show that is fun for the fans but has proved somewhat disastrous to my team in the long-term. Okay, so maybe there's no correlation, and maybe it's just a perceived jinx.

Then again, baseball players (and fans) form a superstitious lot.

Please, Ryan Howard, stay out of the contest.

If for no other reason than many of your loyal fans think that it's kryptonite that will rob your potent bat of its dynamite.

Vote for Chris Young!

How often does an Ivy Leaguer get a chance to play in MLB's All-Star Game? Not that often, that's for sure, and when you play word association games regarding Major League Baseball, the only time Ivy Leaguers' names usually come up is when you're talking about owners (Larry Lucchino) and front office types (Theo Epstein and Mark Shapiro), but not players (yes, Eddie Collins and Lou Gehrig did go to Columbia, but that was a long time ago). Only the true savant knows the stats of Texas's Mark DeRosa (a former Penn QB and shortstop) and Houston's Brad Ausmus (a Dartmouth alum).

And then there is Chris Young. The former Pirate and Expo farmhand and once-upon-a-time Texas Ranger is having a great year for the San Diego Padres, and he's been nominated for the All-Star game in the five-player vote off that happens each time this year. So, for you Met fans out there, be happy that you have 6 All-Stars and refrain from voting for Billy Wagner, and for you Phillies' fans hold the phone for Bobby Abreu (whom many of you don't care for anyway) and take solace in the fact that you have 3 All-Stars. Make this a vote on merit (and, for those Ivy alums, sentiment too) and VOTE FOR CHRIS YOUNG! And, yes, Dodger and Mia Hamm fans, let Nomar have a full, uninjured year before you sound the trumpets for him. Brewer fans, Chris Capuano is a good hurler, yes, but he's not having the year that Chris Young is.

VOTE FOR CHRIS YOUNG!

You can vote for Chris Young via text message or Internet.-You can vote from right now until 6:00 pm ET on Thursday.

There is no limit on how many times you can vote. Why vote just once when you can vote all afternoon at work?

Click on this link, click on the box for the Monster All-Star Vote (it's front and center on the page I've linked to) and send Chris Young to Pittsburgh for the All-Star Game!

(Thanks to Jon Solomon of the Princeton Basketball News for the heads up!)

Irony

One of the truths that emerged in the off-season was that the Phillies, who finished one game out of the playoffs last season, incurred a significant loss when they failed to re-sign ace closer Billy Wagner and, worse, lost him to the Mets. The cognoscenti (or at least hopeful Mets' fans) figured that the statistical switch would help the Mets greatly.

There is no doubt that the Mets are a better team than the Phillies and the best team in the National League to boot (whether that's like saying they're the best hockey player in Ecuador remains to be seen). The Mets can slug you to pieces, their bullpen before Wagner has been strong (and Wagner hasn't been all that bad, by the way), and their starting pitching has been excellent. Like any good team, they're a few blown wings (Pedro Martinez's and the ancient Met, Tommy Glavine's, come to mind) and a few bullpen injuries (Duaner Sanchez's, were it to have been worse) from falling back to the pack. Still, the odds of that confluence events are small when compared to the odds of the Phillies' starting pitching staff finding consistency and propelling that team into contention for a wild-card spot, not to mention first place in the division.

Put simply, the Mets are the class of the National League. Their players have been rewarded with six All-Star berths, including four position players who have earned the starting nod -- catcher Paul LoDuca (who is hurt and should stay home to mend his injured thumb), shortstop Jose Reyes (the best in the NL), third baseman David Wright (another great player) and CF Carlos Beltran (whose play this season reminds Met fans why the Mets shelled out the big bucks two seasons ago to lure him from the Astros via free agency). Future Hall of Famers Martinez and Glavine round out the squad. It also could be that in the 32nd man on the team vote, Mets' fans will turn out via the internet and vote closer Billy Wagner onto the squad. That would give the Metropolitans' seven players on the team, and few could argue that the runaway best team in the NL deserves fewer. (It also could be that the chatter on WFAN, where many a Met fan has called in to express his disappointment with Wagner, leads Met fans to be happy for their six players and sit out this particular vote; I don't think they will, but if they do, that's probably the explanation).

So where's the irony, you ask?

Well, about four years ago, Tommy Glavine was a free agent, and he was considering remaining in the NL East and had narrowed down his choices to between the Phillies (who wanted him to be their #1 starter) and the Mets (who told him that they wouldn't expect him to be the staff leader -- Al Leiter held that role). The Phillies offered roughly $30 million for 3 years (I believe with a club option for a fourth year) while the Mets offered the 39 year-old lefty $36.5 over three years, with an option for a fourth year (making the total deal worth $42.5 million). Advantage Mets, and Glavine signed with New York.

Phillies' fans, ever impatient for a winner and ever disdainful of ownership, gave the Phillies a relative pass on this one. The Phillies spun it that Glavine, used to being the #2 starting in Atlanta (yeah, right, but with #1 starter's stuff and makeup) didn't want to be THE guy in Philadelphia, which the Phillies desperately needed him to be. They also spun it that four years and $42.5 million was too much for an aging finesse pitcher. The latter point made more sense; the first one didn't take hold. In any event, most Phillies' fans chalked Glavine up to a "nice to have" but didn't mourn because it wasn't as though the team lost out on a flamethrower with many good years left (at least in this instance -- they traded Curt Schilling for a bunch of extras from a Rob Schneider movie two seasons earlier). They lost out on a finesse pitcher, and the deal hasn't borne out as a great one for the Mets until Glavine found the Fountain of Youth this off-season and has embarked upon a tremendous campaign this season.

Fast forward to last off-season. Billy Wagner became a free agent, and apparently the Phillies had been close to signing him during the season, only to have reports come out that then-GM Ed Wade castigated Wagner over the telephone for remarks he made about the hunger of his teammates and soured the relationship between the player and club. (Wagner poured gasoline over that fire before this season began, taking certain teammates to task, even naming a few). Wagner was pretty much "lights out" for the Phillies last season, and with Eric Gagne hurt, was viewed as the premier closer in the National League. The Mets, meanwhile, in previous seasons had struggled with, among others, Braden Looper and Armando Benitez in that role.

It was bad enough for frustrated Phillies' fans to lose Wagner, but it was worse to lose him to the Mets. The Phillies sacrificed Ed Wade to keep the fans happy (lemmings those fans are not), by firing him (and not trying to bunt him with Ryan Howard's bat up the third-base line). Firing Wade, though, did not solve the closer dilemma. Needing a closer but unwilling to go overboard paying for a position that has a short average tenure in the Majors (read: teams switch closers with greater frequency than they change many other positions), the Phillies opted to ink the Yankees' set-up man, Tom Gordon, apparently the second oldest player playing professional baseball in NYC (the first being Julio Franco). And a guy who has had some arm problems in the past.

The response in Philadelphia: "Ugh." Then the Phillies acquired Arthur Rhodes to be the set-up man (having elevated former set-up man Ryan Madson to the starting rotation), and suddenly the two most important men in your bullpen combined to be 76 years old. The response in Philadelphia: "Are you kidding me?" Needless to say, the Pat Gillick era did not get off to a resounding start (okay, the Jim Thome trade was well-received (although a now-healthy Thome is playing great for the White Sox), but signings of Alex Gonzalez, Abraham Nunez and Sal Fasano did little to encourage the hometown fans). It's not, though, that the Phillies' fans didn't respect Gordon. Many of those fans know their baseball, and they knew that Gordon had excelled over the years. But he hadn't closed in about five years, closer is a position that can changes hands a lot, and, well, it was a big leap of faith to ask the fans to accept Gordon as a replacement for Billy Wagner. After all, this is a group of fans that has been fed line after line and questionable roster moves over the past 23 years.

So what happened?

Gordon has pitched better than Wagner and. . .

The players voted Gordon onto the All-Star team, while Wagner has blown four saves and doesn't enjoy the confidence of the Mets' fans that he did a little over four months ago. And, he has 3 more seasons left on his 4-year, $43 million deal. Again, the most practical Phillies' fans agreed that this was a lot to spend on a closer -- Wagner will be in his late thirties when this contract expires, and it's hard to see him throwing 99 m.ph. three seasons from now. Gordon, meanwhile, at the time was overpaid as well, getting $18 million for three years. (Once Toronto has opening up its version of Fort Knox for B.J. Ryan, inflation hit the closer market very hard). Yet, by all objective standards, Gordon looks like a bargain.

It's funny how baseball works. On the one hand, the Mets are winning the war in a big way, running away from the N.L. East the way Secretariat ran away from the field in the '73 Belmont Stakes. On the other hand, in this particular little cubbyhole, the Phillies outdid the Mets -- by accident, of course (because they did want Wagner). It's a small victory in the scheme of things, but one that some in the Phillies' clubhouse will take some joy in because of Wagner's unfortunate utterances in the spring (he blasted his former team before the teams played this year in Philadelphia, and, yet, when he came to the city, he was conciliatory and said there were many guys he missed).

Make no mistake, though: the average Phillies' fan would much rather have his team where the Mets are now, Wagner or now Wagner. And that's one thing that the average Phillie, Met, Mets' fan and Phillies' fan can agree upon.

But deep down, Mets' fans have to be a little bit worried about their pricey closer.

Still, it's a pleasant worry to have when you're team is headed into the thick of the post-season.