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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Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Triumph of Hope over Experience

The Eagles cut reserve defensive end Jerome McDougle the other day. McDougle, a fifth-year veteran and former first-round draft pick (the Eagles traded up to get him), has had an injury (and calamity) marred career. Despite his having 2 1/2 sacks in the pre-season, the Birds opted to let him go.

Enter the Giants, who lost outstanding DE Osi Umenyiora for the season (knee) and Michael Strahan to retirement. They need a DE, and their D-coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, once was the Eagles' linebackers' coach (and is only a full season removed from that job). The Giants claimed McDougle today.

Eagles' fans shouldn't despair, and Giants' fans shouldn't get giddy. The Giants are pretty desperate at the moment, and in five seasons, McDougle hasn't shown anything. At all. D-coordinator Spagnuolo is betting that McDougle, now fully healthy and in excellent shape, will demonstrate to all that he can demonstrate the ability that elevated him to such high draft status five years ago. The Eagles, on the other hand, have elected to move on. McDougle had his chances in his five seasons with the club, and he didn't take advantage of them.

Perhaps a change of scenery for the oft-injured DE will do both teams good.

From Cambridge to Baton Rouge

The starting quarterback at defending national champion LSU is a transfer from Harvard.

The guess here is that he transferred because Harvard doesn't offer a major in communications studies.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Is Sports Illustrated Smoking Crack?

The football cognoscenti at SI have picked the Patriots to beat the Eagles in the Super Bowl, 26-23.

Here are some issues I have with this prognostication:

1. If you look at the individual unit grades for the Eagles when compared to other teams, the Eagles' grades are nothing to write home about save the secondary. So why does SI pick the Birds to finish first in the NFC East?

2. SI also defies recent history by picking a losing team from a prior year's Super Bowl to win the game the next year. Most typically, the prior year's Super Bowl loser has trouble making the playoffs the following year. Yes, I know that Bill Belichick is a great coach and all of that, but the Patriots are human, too. Tom Brady has some nagging injuries, OL Stephen Neal is out, one half of their linebacking corps is aging and their secondary is relatively new. Those facts don't mean that the Pats will go 8-8, but they also don't signify a return visit to the Super Bowl, either.

3. As for the Eagles, let's look at the bright side first. They have an excellent and deep secondary and a hungry, young linebacking corps (that SI overrates because these guys haven't done a whole lot yet). Their starters on the defensive line are formidable, but they lack depth. As for the offense, the offensive line is a question mark. The tackles are old, and C Jamal Jackson and LG Todd Herremans didn't have good years last year. RG Shawn Andrews has health problems, although there are some promising backups. TE LJ Smith is an underachiever, and the receiving corps doesn't scare anyone, although rookie DeSean Jackson is a breakaway threat and a good kick returner. QB Donovan McNabb could have a great year, but he's been injured so often that it's hard to count on him for a full season. If he's healthy and plays the way he's capable of playing, the Eagles could go 12-4 the way SI predicts they will. It says here, though, that the Birds will go 10-6 and perhaps win one playoff game.

Philadelphia fans, naturally, are buoyed by SI's prediction, but they've been disappointed so frequently that they know deep down much has to go right for the Eagles to seriously contend for the Super Bowl.

See Saw

If you look up the word in a contemporary dictionary, one example would be the Phillies-Mets' race to determine who will win the NL East. Two nights ago, the Phillies came back from a 7-0 deficit to defeat the Mets, 8-7, in 13 innings. Last night, their bullpen was depleted (relievers went 9 innings the night before). As a result, the home team had to use end-of-career man Rudy Seanez as their set-up man in the eighth, and when Seanez faltered after two outs, they brought in closer Brad Lidge, who made things worse. The 'pen turned a 3-2 lead after 7 into a 6-3 loss. The Mets now lead the NL East by a half game.

This one will go down to the wire.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Role of a AAA Roster Filler

It's hard to imagine what motivates a 34 year-old, at the prime of his life, to stay in the minors after a five-year absence from the majors. My guess is that the money is good enough to keep potential temporary roster fillers interested in staying, that it's better than many of them can earn elsewhere at the same age (especially if they didn't go to college) and that the dream of making a Major League roster once again and contributing mightily is so intoxicating as to prevent some of these guys from getting out.

But these guys' careers really rest on a foundation made of eggshells. Take Andy Tracy, who last played in the majors five years ago but who got called up to the Phillies when Geoff Jenkins went on the disabled list. Tracy got into last night's epic against the Mets as a pinch hitter, made an out, and took his place on the bench. As I watched the game, I had a bad feeling for Tracy, because the Phillies' bullpen was asked to go 9 innings. That meant, of course, that certain players (such as Clay Condrey) would be unavailable for tonight. And that meant that the Phillies would need an extra arm for tonight's game against the Mets and to set up a critical (aren't all the games critical now?) four-game series this weekend against the Cubs at Wrigley.

So what did the Phillies do?

They sent Tracy back down to the minors almost as quickly as he got to Citizens Bank Park and called up a AA pitcher named Drew Carpenter, a behemoth out of Long Beach State (he was a #2 pick a year ago) who dazzled in spring training in an outing against the Yankees, only not to stay in shape and to pitch his way to a 5.67 ERA at Reading. Carpenter, clearly, will be the long reliever tonight if Kyle Kendrick doesn't last past 5 innings.

Carpenter, of course, is likely to get sent down once the Phillies' 'pen gets rested. Of course, he could be back on September 1, when rosters expand. Still, Carpenter's story is an interesting tale. Had he built upon his inaugural minor-league season and his spring training performance, he could have joined the Phillies rotation in July or August. Instead, he struggled to his current record, showing that talent alone doesn't get you there. Maturity means a great deal.

They say that AA ball separates the potential Major Leaguers from those who will have good stories to tell back home about the guys they played with who made the Majors. Drew Carpenter's journey thus far is incomplete. Phillies' fans can only hope that once he gets a taste of the trappings of the big club, he'll focus better next season and force his way into front-office conversations about the next home-grown starting pitchers.

Meanwhile, Andy Tracy goes back down to Lehigh Valley, wondering, perhaps, if he'll be a September 1 call-up and where his career goes from here.

A Recreation Vacation

After our trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame (see the prior post), we went to an all-inclusive resort in upstate New York. The kids took a golf lesson. We putted on a practice putting green, boated (I was a disaster rowing a row boat, a fact that the kids will never let go of), hiked, did arts and crafts, swam, worked out, played ping pong and foosball, played games, watched movies, swam, shot baskets and fished. And, yes, we ate great food but are happy to report that the activities were good enough to enable the adults not to gain weight.

I highly recommend this type of vacation because you travel to close to the middle of nowhere, where the air is clean, the views are great, the temperatures and humidity are moderate, and the accommodations are so vast that you can get lost in the place and have all the privacy you want. You seldom see the same group twice, and families come to these sorts of places with three and four generations represented -- and for years. They're not cheap, mind you, but the sense of getting away and having plenty to do while you're away is invigorating.

We had lots of fun, and outside of the boating debacle (no, I didn't capsize the boat, but I got frustrated with my kids, who were more concerned, I thought, about my embarrasing them by going in circles than anything else and can laugh along with them now at how silly we must have looked) had a great time. Several activities stand out, so here are the highlights:

1. While we liberated my wife to go on a hike without us on the first day, the kids and I fished alongside a vast lake. We decided (smartly) not to fish from a boat, given the prior day's retrospectively humorous fiasco (the kids have vowed not to go on a boat with me again unless someone else is doing the driving/rowing). So, we took a few fishing rods (spin casters), bought some live bait (earth worms) and repaired to some rocks about a quarter mile or so away from the main house.

And we were all-stars. No one near us caught as much as a cold, but my son started off with a small sunfish. My daughter followed with a few bluegills, and then my daughter caught a bass. When my daughter repaired to the dock to replace her hook (we didn't have a tackle box, and she also displayed a talent for snagging the bottom and getting her line snared), my son caught a trout. A ten-inch trout on a light test line, which was enough of a challenge that I had to reel the fish in. After about 1 hour and 45 minutes, we had caught 9 fish, mostly sunnies, a bass or two, and the trout. Because no fish exceeded 16 inches, we released each fish (had we caught one 16 inches or longer, we could have had it for dinner).

The kids casted away, while I served as the guide and baited each and every hook. I started out by cutting the worms in half, but then something clicked that I needed to put a full worm on each hook. That turned out to be a wise move, and the fish responded accordingly.

There was a large family nearby that fished only several yards from us -- they caught nothing but seaweed.

(The next day was a different story. While my daughter did hear the man at the dock telling a family that a family had caught 9 fish the day before -- that had to be us -- we only caught one fish in about an hour and a half -- a large-mouth bass that my daughter reeled in. Otherwise, we excelled at snagging our hooks on the bottom, fighting losing battles with big fish from a different spot, and catching seaweed. In fairness, we did as well as another family -- which caught only one fish that same day -- and better than most others. Afterwards, the man at the dock told us that late spring was the best time to fish because the proprietors stocked the lake at that time. Still, the kids realized what a good day they had on our first day of fishing!).

2. We all had fun at the pool, an indoor facility that was built about three years earlier to offer more alternatives to families in cold-weather months. Afternoon swims were a great way to cool off after mornings and early afternoons of outdoor activities.

3. Lastly, I had a great hike with my eight year-old son at the end of our trip. He's into playing team sports and video games and having play dates, and appreciating the outdoors and good scenery are relatively new to him (at his age, he wants action more than anything else). He wanted to mountain bike and rock climb, only to learn that he was too young to participate, learning from experience the many institutions' risk management departments or advisors run the universe (or their fear of tort lawyers who advertise on highway billboards controls their actions to some degree). So, we opted for a leisurely walk along a trail around the lake, no more than a couple of miles (if that), watching the boaters and fishermen, spotting various critters and enjoying the sunshine. We talked about his camp, his friends and his school. It wasn't forced, it was, well, natural. As it should be.

(My wife had a similar hike the night before with our daughter, and, while they bonded, the guide didn't have a flashlight, a cold front had come in, and the walk was more nervewracking than it was full of warmth and, yes, light).

Escaping from it all in a world of television and wireless communications is no easy trick. But if you dare to go to a reasonably remote location and turn off the communications, you can decompress quickly and thoroughly.

We can't wait to go back.

Clay Condrey: The Value of the Last Man on the Roster

If you look up Clay Condrey in Baseball Prospectus, you'll see that he doesn't get much respect. If you look up Condrey in the Phillies' 2008 media guide, you'll quickly infer that he's not a part of the core of the Phillies' bullpen, the guys who pitch in key situations that lead to the deployment of the closer, Brad Lidge.

Nope, Clay Condrey is a mop-up man, the long reliever, the guy with neutral stuff and a good demeanor who is put into a game when the team is five runs ahead or five runs behind. His goal -- to not make things worse and to pitch as long as possible to preserve the arms of the guys who are needed in more meaningful situations. That's his job.

It's not glamorous. In fact, it's a dirty or dangerous job, to borrow from the parlance of The Discovery Channel, because he's pitching at the margins. A few bad outings, and Condrey has a one-way bus ticket to Allentown, Pennsylvania to pitch for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. Sure, it's only about 75 physical miles away from Citizens Bank Park, but it's light years away in terms of career aspirations. Just ask guys like T.J. Bohn, Mike Cervenak, J.A. Happ and Andy Tracy, each of whom has had a cup of coffee with the big club this year.

Last night Condrey was called in to bring his mop and bucket into a game that the usually reliable Jamie Moyer made a mess of (Moyer lasted all of three innings). The Phillies slated Condrey to lead off the bottom of the fifth, because they wanted him to eat innings and they didn't want to waste a pinch hitter down 7-1 at that time. (At that point, it was hard to discern what Manager Charlie Manuel was waiting for).

So, up comes Condrey, who was 0-2 going into his at-bat against Pedro Martinez. That's right, 0-2, because long relievers seldom bat, as they're usually pinch-hit for. Each and every fan would have expected Martinez, a future Hall of Famer, to toy with the journeyman, striking him out on three or four pitches. Had Condrey done that, no one would have been disappointed -- he hardly gets a chance to hit.

Clay Condrey didn't get the memo that he was supposed to mail in his at bat. He went up there like a professional, hacked, and doubled down the left field line. When I saw that, I had visions of second baseman Dave Cash in the 1975 season imploring his teammates -- members of an organization haunted by a collapse of epic proportions in 1964 and plagued by bad records -- that they could make the playoffs (which they did a year later). Yes, I thought, the Phillies can win this game.

The next batter, Jimmy Rollins, homered to right.

7-3, Mets.

Chase Utley singled.

After Pat Burrell went out, Ryan Howard homered to left.

7-5, Mets.

All because a seldom-used reliever was so professional that he went up and did what he was asked to do -- have a Major League at-bat.

Yes, the Phillies went on to win, 8-7, in 13 innings, and I'd submit that Condrey's hit was a linchpin in that victory. After all, if the last man on your roster (certainly the last pitcher) gets a double in a game against your archrival, everyone else should be pumped to perform beyond expectations.

Yes, they did.

Yes, they could.

Yes, they can win the division.

And, if the Phillies do, will Mets' fans look back at the time Clay Condrey doubled as the beginning of the end of their season?

Phillies-Mets -- One for the Ages

Great game at Citizens Bank Park last night (even if the Phillies' own broadcaster, Tom McCarthy, referred to the place as Shea Stadium in the top of the 13th inning, owing, in part, to the fact that McCarthy was the Mets' broadcaster last season and even if ESPN's Steve Levy referred to the place as the Vet in a promo to Sports Center while dissing the City of Brotherly Love), where the Phillies came from behind, erasing a 7-0 deficit to beat the bullpen-challenged Mets 8-7 in 13 innings in a classic.

The Phillies' 'pen shut out the Mets in the final 9 innings of the game, holding them to 4-28 during that span. The Mets' 'pen, in contrast, didn't fare so well, although starter Pedro Martinez contributed to the Mets' defeat by allowing a leadoff double in the fifth to mop-up reliever Clay Condrey (whose seasonal at-bats are proportional to his mound appearances). Aaron Heilman bent but did not break, but other Mets' relievers didn't fare so well.

Luis Ayala blew a save and allowed the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, on a two-out single to Jayson Werth and then a pinch double by Eric Bruntlett, the last Phillies' position player left on the bench. The Mets' pen (read: Heilman) struggled in the extra innings, and then the last Mets' reliever, Scott Schoenweis, gave up a no-out triple to the Flyin' Hawaiian, Shane Victorino, in the top of the 13th. The gongs from the "Rocky" song "Go the Distance" started to sound, at least eliptically, and about ten minutes later 36 year-old Chris Coste got his first walk-off hit and ended it. 8-7, the home team, which is now half a game up on the Mets in the NL East.

Good news for the Mets' tonite: their ace, Johan Santana, is on the mound.

As for the Phillies, their inconsistent bats support the contention that if the Phillies were to have hit this year the way they did last year, they'd probably be up 7 or 8 games on the Mets. Then again, if you had the same bats and pitching for the whole year, they'd probably be where they are today.

Almost tied.

The question for the Mets will be whether they get enough pitching to enable them to win the NL East.

The question for the Phillies, interestingly enough, will be whether they get enough hitting (consistently) to win the division.

Look back a year ago, and the positions were probably reversed, but the once-touted Mets' bullpen imploded down the stretch, while the once-questioned Phillies' relief corps stood tall enough to help enable the team's outstanding hitting to carry the day.

Yes, it was only one game, and you'll remember that last year after the Phillies did major damage on the Mets' at Citizens' Bank Park in late August, the Mets went on a tear on a road trip, winning their next 9 or so games before collapsing in September. And, to be quite frank, the Mets should be favored to win tonight's game. Kyle Kendrick is a gamer, but he had to warm up last night, and, his ERA is two points higher than Johan Santana's. That's right. Two points, not two tenths.

So what does this all mean? The last time I checked, this game counts the same as each and every one of the other thirteen that the Mets have played against the Phillies this year. The Mets are 9-5 in those games. So, they still have the Phillies' number, and, again, while the Mets came up empty in the final nine innings against the Phillies last night, the core of the Phillies' lineup -- Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell -- fared poorly in extra innings (Utley might as well ask for a pinch hitter when facing the Mets' Pedro Feliciano, he has struck out half the times he's faced Feliciano).

Then again, the Mets' bullpen blew its 22nd lead this year. Teams draw on successes, and failures can fester. In a 162-game season that still has over a month to go, there is plenty of time for both teams to forget this game or let it define the rest of the way.

Whatever the case, if you're a Phillies' fan, it was a great game to watch into the wee hours last night.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame

We just got back from our end-of-summer vacation, and upstate New York was a good tonic to decompress from the hectic pace of life in the Mid-Atlantic Region. We took the family first to the Hall of Fame and then for some recreation (which will be the subject of another blog post).

I had first traveled to the Hall of Fame about 25 years ago, when Cooperstown was a tired town, especially in March, when snow was on the ground and I stayed at a hotel about 5 miles down the road that was a destitute man's version of the hotel in The Shining. I went with a college buddy, there were very few places to eat, and we were among the few dozen or so visitors that populated the museum that day.

About 5 years later, in the late 1980's, I took a good friend from growing up there as a present for getting his PhD. This fellow is an outdoorsman who looks every bit of the part, who hasn't cut his hair since he graduated from college over a quarter-century ago, and who disdains organized activities as a general rule (unless they're part of cooperative thinking). Ever the contrarian, he is an avid Boston Red Sox fan, drawn in perhaps more by the Sox' Homeric struggles than the fact that they're the home team in New England (where he currently lives). I gave him a Red Sox hat for graduation. To the dismay of his mother, instead of donning a mortar board along with his gown at the prestigious Ivy university that bestowed the degree, he wore the Red Sox hat in the processional. A few months later, I traveled to where he was doing his Post Doc and then took him to the Hall of Fame. Part of my present was giving him a tour of the premises. We had a great time, two overgrown boys looking at Babe Ruth's old glove, Heinie Groh's old "bottle bat", and various other exhibits that did a great job of honoring the National Pastime.

Again, a relatively sleepy, uncommercial town. There was only one memorabilia store, a few old greasy spoons, the grand old Otesaga Hotel (still fine today), but not much more.

Fast forward to today, and you still have a great, tiny village with 2,500 year-round residents, restored inns and hotels, a baseball complex than can host about 100 teams at a time (and does), over a dozen stores where you can buy t-shirts, engraved bats, memorabilia and the like, and an elegant Hall of Fame with great exhibits, excellent lighting, plenty of room, and fun for the whole family. We spent at least a half a day in the Hall (and, predictably with kids, at least that amount of time poring over the offerings of the various stores just so we could purchase the right souvenirs). There was something for everyone (my wife, a native Baltimorean, reminisced over the Orioles' exhibits, as she well remembers the glory days of that franchise, from 1965 to 1983).

I enjoyed the plaques, the special exhibit of women in baseball, the team-oriented lockers, the World Series rings (you'd have to have taken steroids to don one of the two rings the Marlins' gave out over the past 10 years -- the thing is the size of your average ice cube), and, most specifically, the references to the Philadelphia Phillies and the Philadelphia A's. I don't have a lot of family, but I'm sentimental, and some of the most fun I had as a kid was going to Veterans Stadium with my father to see the Phillies of the 1970's and early 1980's.

Mike Schmidt. Steve Carlton. Tug McGraw. Larry Bowa. Garry Maddox. Greg Luzinski. Pete Rose. Bake McBride. Manny Trillo. Bob Boone. Larry Christenson.

And many others.

And then it hit me what a special time I was having. I can't bring my father back, but I can spend time on great, shared experiences with my own nuclear family. And there I was, walking with my wife, son and daughter, telling them about Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts and Jim Konstanty, about Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt, and about the teams that my father and I saw together. We talked about today's team and how it compares. They didn't see me, but at one time I caught myself welling up just a bit about how nice a time I was having.

Just talking baseball.

Phillies baseball.

Philadelphia A's baseball too.

Baltimore baseball (my father-in-law loves to tell the story about how he was at a very special extra-innings game at Memorial Stadium when Orioles' reliver Tippy Martinez -- who was a very good reliever by the way -- picked off three visiting players in a row off first base to get out of the top of an extra inning), too.

Old gloves and bats and ticket stubs.

A display of "The Shot Heard Round the World".

Plaques of guys with monikers like the Chairman of the Board, Cool Papa, the Iron Horse, the Duke of Tralee and Goose.

The Say Hey Kid, Big Train, Little Poison and Mr. October.

Answering questions, telling stories, sharing experiences.

The night before we left I created a scavenger hunt/trivia quiz for the kids involving players such as Ryne Sandberg (whom the Phillies traded to the Cubs) and Fergie Jenkins (whom the Phillies also traded to the Cubs), Athletics and Yankees and such. The kids got a lot of the answers right on the way to Cooperstown and finished the job after our visit to the Hall of Fame.

We bought t-shirts and a few pennants for our basement wall (where our Phillies' pennant hangs proudly), and we walked around a beautiful town -- during the stay, at twilight, at night.

Main Street.

Baseball.

Ice cream.

What a great start to a vacation.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Mike and the Mad Dog (and now just Mike)

Earth-shaking news out of New York, where Christopher Russo has decided that after 19 years of being the Mad Dog to Mike Francesa's overly "New York" confident sports expert, he's decided to go and do different things. Francesa today was quick to point out his admiration for Russo, and Russo was quick to say that he just wanted to do something different and that he and Francesa were getting along fine.

The show was like the city in which it's located. At its best, there were few better than "Mike and the Mad Dog". Both men are very knowledgeable, and Russo's recall of the details of games is astonishing. At its worst, the show could be indulgent, cranky, arrogant and "know it all" - ish, and when the two talked about matters about which they knew nothing (such as the presidency of Ronald Reagan or Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ"), they sounded foolish. To be sure, the latter took place with far less frequency than the former. The guys were able to draw great guests, they did their homework, and they interviewed well without kissing up. I particularly appreciated Russo's counterweight to Francesa's pro-Yankee, pan-New York city attitude, and I'm not sure how well either will fare without the other.

Francesa sounded lost and lonely today on WFAN, as though he had lost a good friend forever. I'm sure that he'll heal, and that his show -- with the best "real estate" in radio in New York -- afternoon drive time -- will continue to hold its own. It will be hard, though, for Francesa to replace Russo or even to try to do so. I'm sure that many would line up for that spot and the money it would bring, but Russo's shoes would be big ones to fill, and I'm not sure how well Francesa would do with another huge ego in the booth not named Russo.

As for Russo, he has the enthusiasm of a teenager who just sat in his first luxury box and saw someone hit for the cycle in person for the first time. He has the ability to play the first fiddle, and my guess is that he wanted that opportunity before he turned 50 (he's 48). He has a show with Boomer Esiason, and he indicated that in a few days he'll be announcing his plans. It will be interesting to see (or, perhaps, hear) where he'll surface.

Both are outstanding talents who have helped define sports radio and have accomplished a great deal in the past two decades. It's sad to see them split, but here's to hoping that both of them can have a second act that is at least half as good as the first.

Because if each can do that, he'll have accomplished a great deal.

Jimmy Rollins and Philadelphia Fans

Dear Jimmy:

Face it, you goofed up.

Okay, so the fans started to expect miracles from you after your career year last year. You amazed in the field, at bat, on the bases, and you were the MVP in the National League. Perhaps they shouldn't have begun the favorable comparisons to Derek Jeter or Ozzie Smith. But perhaps you shouldn't have begun to believe in your own press clippings, either.

Because until you met up with Charlie Manuel, you were more or less a banjo plus hitter. A .260 hitters with little pop and little plate discipline, the type of guy who would kill a rally trying to hit the ball out instead of hitting it where they're not, which is what guys built like you more or less should try to do. Look at David Eckstein, for example. He doesn't have your talent, but he's won World Series rings with two teams and been a catalyst for both. Why? Because he maximized his talent and kept his work ethic, regardless of how well his team was faring.

Since you met up with Charlie Manuel, you became more patient at the plate. No longer are you the guy who swings at the first pitch after the opposing pitcher has walked two guys in a row. No longer are you the guy with too low an on-base percentage in the leadoff spot. You stepped up, big-time, and last year you put it all together -- in the field, at bat, and in the clubhouse. The Phillies were your team, you owned Philadelphia, and you were riding high.

And you deserved all the kudos you got.

And we still like you a great deal.

But you have to admit a few things about yourself and your team. Yes, you did have bad luck when you hurt your ankle at the beginning of the season, and the team compounded it by giving you what appeared to be questionable medical and rehab advice. Had you received better advice and treatment, you might not have missed about a month of the season.

But once you were back, you didn't display the leadership or verve you had last year. You loafed noticeably on a muffed pop fly against the Reds in June, and on occasion it didn't look like you were running as hard as you could on ground outs. Then Uncle Charlie benched you for a key game against the Mets because you got to the clubhouse late. Look, I'm not asking you to be Chase Utley, whose intensive preparation borders on making me wonder whether he has borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder (and also makes me wonders whether he's trying too hard). All I'm asking is that if you are the team's leader, you lead by example. Your enthusiasm is infectious, but your body language is different this year. You're not as positive as you were last year, and you should be one of the first guys in the clubhouse and one of the lead hustle guys on the team.

You don't owe that effort to the fans. You owe that to yourself and to the team at large. They're paying your salary, and they expect you to give a champion's effort every night you're in the lineup. And, yes, for the money you are making, nothing less.

Outstanding managers and leaders look for the following traits in their star performers -- a positive attitude, high energy and a track record of achievement. You haven't been as positive this year as last, your energy has come into question (or else why would you have had your manager -- whom everyone says is wonderful to play for -- have to talk to you about your hustle and timeliness on several occasions) and your numbers are down (and while we don't expect them to resemble last year's, we expect them to be better than this year's).

As for your comments about the fans, think about it. Yes, they're not the greatest group in the world, but they're far from the worst. They've treated Pat Burrell far worse than you, but he wants to stay in Philadelphia (at least from accounts I read earlier in the season). They're not that unfair, and they felt badly for you when you were hurt. But when stories surface about your attitude, effort and commitment, they'll get on you and let you know of their disappointment.

In your case, they're not being mean-spirited or unfair. It's just that perhaps, given some of your mistakes this year, they might be upset because perhaps they feel that they want a title more than you do. They're still pulling for you -- despite their voiced disappointment -- but remember, they weren't the ones who didn't hustle and they weren't the ones who showed up late and got benched as a result. Take away those well-publicized stories, and the cascades of disappointment sent your way wouldn't have come about.

And there's one way to settle your disappointment with the fans.

Go out there and show 'em that they're wrong. Show 'em that you're the same guy as last year -- the guy who picked everyone up, the guy who got the key hit, and the guy who was on a roll in the last two months and led the team's propulsion past the Mets and to its first post-season berth in 15 years.

You owe it to the people paying your salary.

You probably even owe that level of effort to the fans.

Most importantly, you owe that level of effort to yourself.

Always rooting for the Phillies even in the worst of times, I remain in your corner, even when you err -- on the field and off.

Sincerely,

SportsProf

The National League Least

For those Phillies' fans who are panicking, maybe you should be, maybe you shouldn't be. The Mets took care of business and swept the lowly Nationals, while the Phillies went to Los Angeles and lost four straight to the Dodgers. Now the Mets go to the Steel City to feast on the Pirates, who are not that much better than the Nats, while the Phillies hope to recover in San Diego against the listing Padres. Give credit to the Mets, as they saw an opportunity and seized upon it. Ding the Phillies, because they played a team that tested how good they are, and they failed.

I still say that 86 games takes the NL East.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Olympic Spirit

Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James watched Michael Phelps win gold medals today.

That's pretty cool, don't you think?

It would be even cooler that if they were spotted attending, say, judo or yachting, but it's great to see Olympic athletes supporting other Olympic athletes.

Thoughts on the Olympics

Yes, of course I've been watching on occasion, and here are some thoughts (on the participants, on NBC, on Beijing, etc., and in no particular order):

1. Bob Costas should get a better colorist for his hair. The monochromatic die job doesn't jibe with his grey sideburns. He's a distinguished sports anchor, and he should try to look the part. Instead, he looks like someone who is desperately trying to look younger than he is. Jim McKay and Jack Whitaker didn't have a problem aging gracefully, so neither should Costas.

2. How much beach volleyball can we watch? Apparently, the sport isn't all the compelling in Beijing, so why should it get some much prominence on national television?

3. Misty May-Treanor has the hardest body in all of women's sports, and she and Kerri Walsh look to be in great shape as well as having a lot of fun. Are there two better known female athletes on the U.S. team?

4. Why aren't the male beach volleyball players required to wear skin-tight speedos? What do the dads of the women's beach volleyball players think of their daughters and their international exposure?

5. Did anyone see the up-close-and-personal piece on Natalie Coughlin? Unfortunately, it was not interesting at all. They showed her shopping at an open-air vegetable market in San Francisco. While Coughlin said this was a source of enjoyment, she did so with all the enthusiasm of someone about to have a root canal. Which means either that she doesn't like the spotlight (which is difficult to believe given that she competes on an international stage) or that her life is so focused on one thing that beyond swimming her life just isn't all that interesting (at least at the moment)?

6. Do any of you wonder what the point is of synchronized diving and how the judges can tell who is good and who isn't given how fast the action takes place?

7. The stories of some of the synchronized divers seem sad -- moving away from home to a training center, having little time for a social life, if any, training frequently. The commentators noted that one diver was looking forward to going home and being a tenth grader with her friends. I submit that most, if not all, 16 year-olds should have that experience. Why specialize in anything so young?

8. I still have a difficult time watching judged sports and I railed on the topic four years ago. Last night, the U.S. boxer most likely to win a gold medal lost in the first round of the tournament and is out of the competition. Apparently, at one point during his match he snapped the head of his opponent back with a nice combination, only to have the bean counters at ringside score a point for the opponent. Sorry, international boxing powers, but your sport continues to take its shopping cart ride down the hill and off the cliff.

9. The U.S. women's softball team is an aggregation of elite talent that should win the gold.

10. I think that Rowdy Gaines is doing a good job providing color on the swimming, but that Andrea Kremer appears tentative in the post-race interviews.

11. Yes, Michael Phelps is accomplishing great things, but something on ESPN Radio this morning made me wonder about perspective. Now Phelps has 11 gold medals, and Mike Greenberg pointed out that that's more gold medals than any of Mexico, India or Brazil have won in their entire history of competing in the summer games. To which I thought aloud while driving to work, "so what?" Isn't Greenberg's statement an American-centric one? Yes, we as Americans care about stuff like this, but most people around the world care more whether their team can win, say, the World Cup (or, in India's case, the world cricket championship). I don't want to knock Phelps' accomplishments at all -- he's great. But let's compare Phelps to other swimmers and athletes, period.

12. I wish we saw more of the lesser known sports with athletes from one-medal countries winning their golds. A Thai won a gold medal, as did an Azerbaijani, while someone from Togo won a bronze. Those are huge deals, and it would be interesting to see some features on those performers and what their accomplishments mean to their countries.

I'm still watching (perhaps, also, because my favorite team in the world is on the West Coast losing baseball games that end past my bedtime and that begin at my bedtime).

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Phillies-Pirates Last Night (Observations)

1. Great to go to Citizens Bank Park in 70-degree weather. Great night for baseball.
2. Jimmy Rollins' second triple last night looked like a home run that hit a fan in the hands several feet above the small fence above the right-field wall. I thought that the first-base ump was out of position then, but, then again, no one from the Phillies (relatively corpulent) managerial staff summoned the energy to emerge from the dugout to argue.
3. Brett Myers gets the goofball of the day award. Brett, did you miss the memo: when you've stunk all year and get a second chance, you don't show up your manager on the mound or get into an major argument with him in the dugout. When will you get a clue about how to behave?
4. Chase Utley continues to struggle at the plate. No one is chanting "MVP" anymore. I once read about how hard he works out every day, and I would suggest that he lighten up on the throttles and work smarter.
5. How much will it take for the Phillies to re-sign Pat Burrell after this season? My guess is that the 31 year-old outfielder will get 3 years at $13 million per year with a club option for the fourth year for $10 million. Signing him through when he'll be starting a season at age 35 or beyond is too risky.
6. I think that Jamie Moyer's contract expires after this year. Moyer, though, is having a great season. I could envision another 2-year deal at $10-12 million per. Somehow, let's suppose that Moyer pitches for 5 more years, or until he's 50, and wins 300 games in his career. He's 240-185 now, and he's only made one All-Star team. Does he make the Hall of Fame? The only pro that I would see is his longevity and the he still would have pitched effectively into his late 40's. The negatives would be significant -- he was never viewed as a top-tier pitcher during his career, among many others. Regardless of this hypothetical, Moyer has had a great journey and an outstanding career. My guess is that Moyer re-ups with the Phillies.
7. The Pirates are a AAAA team. They play with pluck, but they just don't have the horses. And their farm system may be several years away from giving them some.

The StubHub Marketplace

I had some Phillies tickets that I couldn't use in late August, put them on sale for 75% over face value on Thursday afternoon, and they sold within hours.

What gives?

First, I'll explain my logic in pricing the tickets where I did. Normally, I'm not looking to make a profit on my tickets. I'd just like to break even, period.

Second, buying a partial season ticket plan is expensive, in my case 4 tickets for 17 games apiece at a very healthy price per ticket per game. I would submit that most individual fans cannot afford to front for these tickets, which are downstairs on a baseline at Citizens Bank Park. I would further submit that, if possible, the average fan would try to split this package with a neighbor (where it would still run him about $1,500 per season), the same way I gather some people split four tickets for a full season ticket plan (81 games) among 8 friends, assuming that a) you can find them, b) you can sustain this coalition and c) you divide up the tickets fairly (as well as who gets the rights to the post-season tickets that a full season ticket (and a partial season ticket, for that matter) convey). Before you think that I'm sharing more information than you need, remember that the tickets aren't cheap. Which is why, I'm sure, that Major League Baseball teams have a deal with StubHub so that they can get a share of the cut when fans post their tickets (i.e., for most, the tickets they cannot use) on StubHub for sale -- StubHub, to a degree, helps fans finance their purchase of partial and full season-ticket plans by enabling to sell some of them. The teams don't have to get into the finance business. While I'm not sure they ever felt they had to do this, I guess that they felt they were losing purchases because most fans can't use the full allotment of tickets and it's a ton of hard work to sell tickets to people within your community. StubHub, then, provides a great marketplace, and everyone can win. (Well, almost, as it's hard to sell tickets for games against bad teams in the spring -- when the weather is bad in the Northeast -- or late in the season if your team has fallen out of the pennant race, unless you have a relatively new stadium).

Third, back to me. I didn't want to make a huge profit, but the market is the market, and I wanted to make up for a set of tickets I gave away to literally someone who took them at the last minute because they were for a mid-week game in late April (read: school night, tough weather). And, at that, of the dozens of sets of tickets for sale in my section, mine were the cheapest. By $5 per ticket in one case, and by $10-$40 a ticket in the rest. So, whoever purchsed my seats did pay a premium in one sense, but he got a bargain compared to what the market was asking for the seats. And I got some partial funding for my big initial outlay of cash in the off-season.

Fourth, is this all fair? I honestly think it is. First, when you buy a partial season ticket plan or a full one, you get saddled with a bunch of unnatractive early season games because the weather is bad and people typically get into the game when the weather warms up or when school's out, or both. Second, for the benefits you can get by selling extra late-season tickets that you can't use because you'll be on vacation or because you make a small profit to help the losses you take on early-season games, you as a purchaser of a season-ticket plan get fair treatment (precisely because when you pay your money up front, you take the "bad" -- that is, cold weather, games). Third, the people who want tickets for a single game in August, for example, in Philadelphia, have a choice. They can go to the team's website and, if available, purchase tickets at face value in the (sometimes far reaches of) the upper deck, or they can test the marketplace by going to StubHub and paying the market price for a single game. Remember, they aren't asked to front monies for a partial or full season-ticket plan, so, in my mind, the extra they are paying is the extra opportunity cost of not making a bigger outlay in the off-season. In the end, sellers and buyers both get what they want, especially in a tight marketplace for Phillies tickets.

Now that I've said my peace, I'd like the fans and economists out there to weigh in. What do you think? Is StubHub a good thing or bad thing? Do the teams get a good deal out of StubHub? When will the teams simple weigh the prices of their tickets on a game-by-game basis based upon, for example, data derived from StubHub sales that takes into account a) absolute price, b) the time of year and c) how well the team is projected to do? My guess is that when this happens, the teams will adjust their ticket prices accordingly and take the profits, as they may be, away from StubHub and those who commit to partial or full season ticket plans (who will be asked to pay even more for their subscriptions). Sure, even in this scenario, StubHub will continue to exist, but my guess is that the average season-ticket subscriber will lose money in this scenario.

In conclusion, if you're looking to buy or sell tickets, go to StubHub. It's a great marketplace.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Frightening Night at the Ball Park

On Tuesday night, my wife, son and a friend of my son's went to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia for the Phillies-Marlins game. We sit along the first base line, halfway up to the concourse. We got dinner from Bull's Barbecue, ate some water ice, and then settled in to watch the game. We were hoping to see Jamie Moyer continue his mastery over the Marlins.

But pretty quickly, something terribly wrong happened.

In the top of the first, Marlins' OF Jeremy Hermida hit a screeming line drive into the stands near first base. This wasn't your average long, looping line drive that seems to lose steam as it descends upon the fands. No, this was a line drive shot out of a cannon with full torque on it.

This ball was hit so hard that the fans gasped and stood up, hoping that no one got hit.

But someone did, and quickly we saw a father cradle his young son and dash up the stairs, wife and older son trailing him.

And as I saw the wife and son dash up the stairs, I realized that the family is a family that we're friendly with, that lives a few blocks away, whose older son was in my son's Cub Scout troop and whose house I bike by on the mornings I ride my bike.

What would the odds be of that happening in a stadium that hosted 45,000 plus that night? Even if we didn't know the child who was hit, we would have been worried. As it was, our son and his friend were worried, as they know the boy who was hit. My wife and I were shaken, and my wife dashed up the stairs to see if she could locate the family and offer help of some sort. She didn't, so we sat there, worried, and watched the rest of the game.

We heard the siren of the ambulance that took the boy to Children's Hospital, and we were praying that all he'd come away with was a bad headache. The ball hit the child in the head -- we thought we saw him holding his head, and we learned that the ball actually hit his head from people sitting near us who had friends sitting in the section where the boy was hit.

There was nothing we could do except buy some souvenirs for the kids and take them over to the house the next day. We passed the family's house after we dropped our son's friend at home, and the driveway was missing one car, the house dark.

I awoke at 3:45 a.m., wondering what happened to this little boy. I went online and read an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, and there was a quote from Jamie Moyer saying that he was unnerved, but he heard that the boy was going to be okay. Subsequent stories revealed that both Moyer and Hermida have reached out to the boy's family, and Hermida (who said he was so upset he almost couldn't finish his at-bat) has invited the boy and his family to batting practice the next time the Marlins are in Philadelphia. As it turns out, the boy broke the orbital bone below his left eye, and the hospital was keeping him for observation.

So far, the news is a welcome relief for what for us was a frightening night at the ball park.

Situations like this occur rarely, and it's even rarer when the ball injures someone you know. I don't think it should matter whether the person hit is a friend or not -- it's an awful situation -- but it's even worse when you know the person and the family.

Here's to hoping for a quick recovery for this little boy.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Hard to Believe

but PETA has named Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park the most vegeterian friendly ballpark in the country. Click here and read all about it.

And then laugh, because they're digging pretty deep here to give out this honor.

Look, I like it when my hometown gets plaudits, but this plaudit is a stretch. Vegan offerings? Vegeterian offerings? Where? In one tiny corner of the stadium?

The place is a red meat-eateria, plain and simple. There's a 40-minute wait in line for steak sandwiches at Tony Luke's, where you also can get a pork sandwich with broccoli rabe and provolone. There is a ten-minute wait (at least) for "crab" fries at Chickie's and Pete's, and Greg Luzinski's "Bull's Barbecue" offers ribs, pulled pork, pit beef and turkey sandwiches. The lines are pretty long there, too. And then there are other concessions, like Rick's Steaks, a rival to Tony Luke's, and the "regular" concession stands, that seemingly offer only hot dogs, grilled sausage and steak sandwiches.

Whole Foods it is not.

Not even close.

And then there's the alcohol issue. Sure, there are wandering vendors who sell peanuts and Crackerjack and even novelties from the newstand, but outside an occasional frozen lemonade or real lemonade, a large majority of the vendors sell beer. And a good many fans drink that beer, and many drink more than one. Which is problematic because unlike Nationals' Park, where almost everyone can take the D.C. Metro to get to it, I'd bet that only about 10% of the fans at Citizens Bank Park take public transportation, many come alone and meet friends, and most have more than a 10-mile drive to get home. So what does Phillies' management do? They sell thousands of bottles of (overpriced) beer. Not only is there a drunk-driving risk to that strategy, there's also a family-enjoyment risk, assuming that Major League Baseball would prefer families to twenty-somethings who want to socialize at the new ballpark and haven't figured out that the earlier you start saving for retirement the earlier you can retire. Put differently, whether or not they have lots of disposable income, what income they have they tend to dispose of quickly.

So should the Phillies' and ARAMARK rejoice in the PETA honor? Hardly. It's not that they've done anything close to remarkable, it's just that the other parks must stink so badly at this that the Phillies shine by example. It's kind of like being the best hockey player in Ecuador.

And, after all, despite my grouper-eating exercise in fine dining at Nationals' Park on Saturday night, if you're going to eat some allotment of red meat, what better place to do it than at a baseball game. Along with your crab fries, Coke and bag of peanuts for later in the game.

I'm all for having a Whole Foods-type concession at Citizens Bank Park, or even two of them, but then let's do it right and enable fans to eat healthy once and for all. That would be a great idea and make the Phillies truly unique, and I'd bet that about 15% of the fans would take advantage of that option.

Instead, the Phillies peddle what they peddle, which is more likely to get them cited by the American Cardiology Association than it is feted for a pioneering moment in vegetarian cuisine.

The NBA's Worst Nightmare

is a two-headed monster -- the exchange rate, the huge creation of wealth in places like Russia, and the willingness of newly created (and some not-so-newly-created) billionaires to flaunt their wealth on trophy possessions.

Why is this monster a threat to the NBA? Well, take a look at the English Premiership, where a few Russian oligarchs have already flexed their muscles. Roman Abramowitch owns Chelsea, one of the crown jewels of English soccer, and he helped revive them and put them atop the Premiership. There are other Russian ownership interests as well in the Premiership (and, one of my best sources tells me that Russians own 20% of all homes in London's tony Mayfair district).

So what, you say. Well, witness a) the signing of Josh Childress to the leading Greek team and b) the signing of Carlos Arroyo to the leading Israeli team. Sure, neither is a premier NBA player, but suppose the dollar remains weak and the Russians continue to print money and get acquisitive. They'll do one of two things -- either fortify the European basketball leagues (both in Russia and abroad, as Italia and Spain have top leagues) or even purchase NBA franchises. Suppose they decide not to cross the Atlantic but decide to put big bucks in European teams. What would that mean for the NBA?

Not a total collapse, for sure. But the Russian money could keep the top European players in Europe and then lure some top American players overseas. Even LeBron James has indicated that he'd listen to European offers (because he wants to become an international brand name). Not all players would listen -- some wouldn't like the language barriers, cultural differences and lack of familiarity with U.S. themes. But others would like the lifestyle, the lack of crazy fan attention that has caused many players to take additional security precautions, and, sure, the money. Probably not everyone -- I couldn't see Allen Iverson playing for Benetton Treviso, but I could see others opting for the money and the experience.

The NBA doesn't appear concerned, at least publicly, but the league has to be concerned. Who would want to lose a LeBron James, and if a LeBron James were to bolt, how many others would consider following? No business likes to lose one of its biggest stars.

And then there's the question of what if foreign money proposes to buy NBA franchises in the U.S. It's not a huge issue, because I'm sure the league would permit the ownership so long as the potential owners meet the published ownership qualifications. That said, suppose the new ownership is loaded and wants to blow through the salary cap? Then what?

I honestly believe that big bucks from places like China, India and Russia will make their way into the U.S. sporting arena. Who knows, perhaps some oligarch would want to pay $1.5 billion for the New York Yankees should the Steinbrenner family decide to sell for estate tax reasons the way the Wrigleys had to sell the Cubs years ago? Those with new, huge bucks tend to like the hunt and the trophies that come with it. To me, it's only a matter of time before the ownership landscape for U.S. sports franchises takes an international flavor, especially because it's easier than establishing your own leagues in your own countries.

The NBA may want to go "international", but it should be wary that the international scene might want to take away markets and market share, as opposed to permitting the NBA to set up residence.

Let's see what happens out there in the marketplace.

The Packers and Brett Favre

Coaches say this all the time -- "you have to play the best players." You can't play people because you promised them you would when you signed them (or, in college, recruited them), you can't play people because you like them personally, and you can't play people because you know their family members or even because they're your family members. They'll tell you that unless you've established the premise that the best players will play, your team will break down and not perform for you. Why? The reason is quite simple. If the players know that factors other than on-the-field excellence go into the decision making process as to who plays, they won't go all out in practice for you. The reason -- because they know that going all out in practice just won't make a difference.

So let's go to Green Bay, where you have Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre. Nothing against Rodgers, he's saying all the right things, has a track record of accomplishment in college and looks to be a good prospect. But Brett Favre brought it last year, is one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the history of the game (to be a pain, I'd definitely put Unitas, Montana, Marino, Elway, P. Manning, and Bradshaw before him) and is currently still one of the best quarterbacks in the entire National Football League. While Rodgers has potential and is the quarterback of the future, he hasn't done anything yet.

Sure, the Packers are frustrated and, yes, Favre handled his retirement poorly, or, more charitably, he and the Packers didn't handle the whole thing well together. Yes, the Packers might be miffed that they planned around Favre's retirement (drafting two quarterbacks) only to have those plans backfire. I would think that a good many people outside Green Bay, Wisconsin would be sympathetic to the Packers' management, because few have the patience for those who have trouble making up their minds. That's all well and good. I'm not saying that what's going on in Green Bay is a pleasant situation or an optimal one.

But it's time for the Packers to shed their stubborness, swallow their pride, make amends with Brett Favre, anoint him as the starter and say, "hey, what went on was terrible, no one's happy with it, but we're welcoming back one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game with open arms and we hope to get to the Super Bowl in the winter of 2009."

That's the Packers' best chance of getting to the Super Bowl, period.

Because when you have one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game -- who, importantly, is still playing at a very high level -- you have to play him.

It's that simple.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Are the Mets Done?

Maine is hurt. Perez just had a bad outing. Billy Wagner's has a sore arm.

Fernando Tatis, Damion Easley, Nick Evans, Marlin Anderson and Endy Chavez can't continue to drive the engine and play the roles they've been playing rather well.

So says a good friend who's a Met fan, and who is doubtful that the Mets can win the NL East.

That's funny, because as a Phillies' fan I doubt that the Phillies have enough starting pitching to win the division, and I also wonder whether their bullpen, which has pitched so well this year, will continue to do so. It does look like the team has begun to hit again, and the team is showing the spark that was lost for most of the early part of the summer.

Needless to say, the Mets will be in it until the end, because no team in the NL East is good enough to run away with the division. The Mets aren't as bad as my friend broods, and the Phillies have plenty of holes on their roster. And let's not forget the Marlins, who have shown pluck and will be in the race until the end, too. I still say that it will take 86-88 wins only to win the division.

If that.

Suppose Pat Burrell Has a Season-Ending Injury

Would you sign Barry Bonds?

If the answer's no, why not?

He'd be on his best behavior, he'll give you six good weeks between mid-August and September 30, and he can flat-out hit the baseball, even now, especially when you consider other available alternatives.

I still don't understand why MLB teams haven't pursued Bonds. I'm no huge fan, but given the accelerated level of forgiveness in the sport, why shouldn't Barry get signed? He can't be any more higher maintenance than Manny Ramirez, and while Manny has played all year and therefore is in (much) better baseball shape, you have to believe that Bonds still has enough left in him to scare the living daylights out of the average National League pitcher, especially one who is facing the pressures of a pennant race.

What do you think?

Sunday, August 03, 2008

A Trip to Nationals Park

Sorry for not being as good a poster during the summer months, but the combination of work and trying to get some exercise have cut into my blogging time. In any event, yes, I'm still on the exercise program that I began late last year, and, well, my son and I had a fun time on Saturday night watching baseball at Nationals Park in D.C.



We drove to Washington on Saturday afternoon, got to our hotel, and then took the Metro to the ballpark. I did splurge on tickets, buying "President's Club" seats in the area right behind home plate. Why did I do this? Because I wanted to have a very special time with my eight year-old son and give him a fun night to remember (above all other fun nights, I suppose). And, sure, I wanted to give myself a great night to remember too.



The Metro is a great way to get to a ball game. We had to make one switch to get the the Green Line, and then we only had a few stops to get to the Navy Yard stop. From there, it was only a short walk to the ballpark (near the left field gate). Right away, we went to the Nats' store, as I had promised my son one souvenir. He easily decided on a Ryan Zimmerman t-shirt (even though the Nats' regular 3B is on the DL), and, outside, took off his orange Steve Nash practice jersey and donned the Zimmerman togs.



From there, we had hoped to walk around the stadium (we got there at about 5 p.m., a half hour after the outfield gate opened but a half hour before the entire stadium opened). Unfortunately, though a passing rainstorm hit, and we huddled near an entrance to a rest room for about 15 minutes while the storm passed. The storm meant that the grounds crew put the tarp on the field, ending the batting practice sessions and hopes for autographs or balls tossed from members of the Reds and Nats.


And then we made our way to where the Presidents' Club seat entrance is. We walked along the corridor behind the third base line and made our way to an elevator bank, where we descended to the first level of the stadium. We saw signs for locker rooms, and we made our way to the restaurant underneath the stadium, where a host greeted us, explained the food options that came with the tickets (I bought them on StubHub earlier in the week and didn't know, but all food was free save alcohol, and while I don't imbibe much I do not do so when I either have a long drive or am alone with the kids). It was still raining outside, so we were seated and then hit the buffet. Yes, my son had pasta with sausage and clam sauce and I ate grouper at a baseball game, along with rice and asparagus. It was still raining outside, and my son and I joked that at least we'd have a gourmet restaurant-like setting to stay dry were the rain to continue.

Before dessert we made our way to the far side of the restaurant, where a glass partition separated the place from an underground batting cage, where two Nats (one of them, I believe, was shortstop Christian Guzman) were playing catch. After watching this for several minutes, we returned for dessert. Then it was time to make our way to the seats.

But before you exit the Presidents' Club, you pass tables with dispensers for iced tea and lemonade. Once you get to the door, you see a table with bags of peanuts and Cracker Jack and boxes of peanuts. Before the table are two coolers full of ice and either bottled water or Coke products. We took a bag of Cracker Jacks and then made our way to our fifth row seats right behind the plate. We took photos, learned from an usher that the chance of getting autographs after BP was nil, watched the grounds crew take off the tarp, listened to an amazing ten year-old sing the National Anthem, and just soaked up the fact that we were in awesome seats five rows behind the plate at a brand-new baseball park.

The game was quite exciting. Yes, we sampled Dibs and nachos with cheese and hot peppers and then some more water and Dibs. No, we didn't eat everything, but we enjoyed ourselves on a boys' night out and watched some exciting baseball.

Sure, the Nats are a team of utility players, as a Nats' fan told us. Yes, everyone seems to play multiple positions, and the pitchers aren't great. The pitching matchup had journeyman Josh Fogg starting for the Reds and relative youngster Jason Bergmann on the mound for the Nats. By the middle of the game, the Reds were up 6-2, thanks to a 3-run double in the second by Joey Votto, the Reds' first baseman, a monster shot by Jay Bruce, the rookie star, and a perfectly executed suicide squeeze by Reds' backup catcher Paul Bako, getting the start this night. The Reds also benefitted from a great throw from CF by Corey Patterson to nail Nats' catcher Jesus Flores (remember the name; he can hit) at the plate.

We watched the Presidents' race, and, no, Teddy Roosevelt still hasn't won. On Saturday night, a nimble Abe Lincoln handily defeated Teddy, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. After this bit of entertainment, the Nats regrouped. They scored eight runs between the bottom of the sixth and eighth, thanks to excellent hitting from Lasting Milledge (HR), Ronnie Belliard (pinch-hit two-run HR), RF Austin Kearns and 1B Korey Casto. The place looked pretty full (at least 35,000), the joint jumped, and the Nats showed some pluck (if manager Manny Acta had a reasonable amount of talent, well, look out -- he can handle pitchers, and the players play hard for him).

After the game we followed the crowd to the Metro, thanking those in the President's Club whose nation's capitol version of southern hospitality made our night extra special. Several stops later, we were back in the hotel, debriefing each other on what we liked the best about Nationals Park and the Reds-Nats game.

Three home runs.

A suicide squeeze.

Staying to the end of the game and not leaving early to beat traffic.

Not having to drive to a game.

Too many errors by the Reds (Brandon Phillips' iron glove at 2B hurt the visitors, and Adam Dunn looks statuesque in left field).

Iffy pitching by the Reds' bullpen.

Hanging out with my son, talking baseball, eating Crackerjacks, having an awesome view of a baseball game, a father with his son on what turned out to be a nice summer night.

It was truly a treat.