Thursday, April 30, 2009

Phillies April Report Card

Well, the first month of the season has ended.  Just like last year, the Phightins are two games over .500 at the end of April, with a record of 11-9.  They're 1.5 games behind the surprising Marlins, who won't stay in first place for long.  The Muts are 9-12, and their vaunted bullpen hasn't been terribly effective so far.  All things considered, it's not great, but it also could be worse.

Here's the report card:

Offense:  A-.  This team can score some runs.  There's no doubt about that.  And they have no quit in them.  No opposing team's lead is ever safe with the Phillies.  While Jimmy Rollins, normally the team's Little Engine that Could, is off to a slow start, he's started showing signs of coming out of his slump.  Chase Utley's been on fire.   Ryan Howard is off to a terrific start, and he's hitting the ball to center, which is what he does when he's swinging the bat well.  Jason Werth has been a little inconsistent and Shane Victorino has been steady.  The big--but pleasant--surprise has been new leftfielder Raul Ibanez, who's been hitting up a storm and has already won over the notoriously fickle Phillies fans--who had finally embraced his predecessor, Pat Burrell--with his clutch hitting.  

Starting Pitching: D-.  There's not much good to say about the Phils' starting pitching.  So far, it's been just plain awful.  I don't ever recall a Phillies pitching staff of recent vintage giving up homers at the rate that these guys have so far this season.  Joe Blanton fed his gopher five times in his last start.  Brett Meyers has been very inconsistent.  He gets hit hard early and then settles down.  Jamie Moyer has had rough patches.  Chan Ho Park has been lit up like a Christmas tree in his three starts.  Cole Hamels, the putative ace of the staff, started slowly after too many off-season distractions.  Then, once he finally got himself on track, he got hit by a line drive and the sprained an ankle in consecutive starts, both of which drove him from games.  The starting pitching HAS to become more reliable very, very soon, before it's too late. I think it's time to give J.A. Happ a shot at the starting rotation.

Bullpen:  D.  Only Clay Condrey and Ryan Madsen have been consistently reliable.  Brad Lidge has been bothered by a sore knee, and he's been hit hard.  Jack Taschner and Scott Eyre, the lefties, have both been hit, too.  Chad Durbin has been inconsistent--fabulous one appearance and not very good at all the next.  If Lidge comes back next week, as he says he's planning on doing, things will probably be alright.  If Lidge has to go on the disabled list, then Madson will become the closer.  Madson has a great arm and great stuff and may very well prove to be a dependable closer.  It's the critical set-up man role that worries me.

Defense:  A-.  So far, so good.  Victorino looks like he's on the way to another Gold Glove, and Ryan Howard's defense is VASTLY improved.  Utley and Feliz are both playing like they never had off-season surgery.  Team defense is the thing I worry about least.

OVERALL TEAM GRADE: C+.  The team has a long way to go.  There are plenty of games left, and plenty of time for the bugs to be worked out.  But the starting pitching HAS to get itself back on track immediately, or there will be no chance of reaching the post-season.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An Offensive Explosion

Never mind that the Phillies pitching staff surrendered six homers to the Nationals last night, and that their pitching was horrific last night.  Never mind that Brad Lidge's sore knee has put him on the disabled list.

The Phils came from four runs down on two different occasions last night on two grand slam homers.  The first one, a moonshot to center field by Ryan Howard, tied it at 6.  The second, to right field by Raul Ibanez, put the Phils ahead 13-11, which was the final score of the game.  The last time the Phils had two slams in a game was in 2003.  Jimmy Rollins finally broke his terrible slump and had three hits, including two doubles.  I am not worried about the Phils scoring runs.  They do so in bunches, and they have no quit in them.  They're the comeback kids.

I am, however, terribly concerned about the ineffective pitching staff.  Even usually reliable Scott Eyre coughed up two long two-run homers last night.  Joe Blanton was awful as the starter, giving up three homers and six runs in four innings.  He's been just awful in all of his starts so far this season.  Brett Myers has also been extremely erratic so far.  He keeps giving up homers early, but then he settles down and pitches reasonably well.  Cole Hamels has certainly not been himself so far this season, and Chan Ho Park has been hit hard.  The Phils' hurlers need to get it together very quickly, because they can't play all their games against the Washington Nationals.  Sooner or later, they're going to have to play the Mets and the Braves and the Pirates and other teams with solid starting pitching, and that's going to be the real test of whether this team has any chance of repeating.  Rich Dubee needs to do something with this staff, and soon.

Monday, April 27, 2009

An Observation About the Flyers

I never thought I would hear myself say this, but....

I think that the biggest problem with the Flyers, other than inconsistent play, is a lack of toughness.  Without Riley Cote in the lineup, there just isn't much toughness there.  Pittsburgh outmuscled the Flyers, and they deserved to win as a consequence.  It's hard to imagine the Broad Street Bullies without a bunch of hard-hitting tough guys, but that is the case with this year's team.  GM Paul Holmgren, who was as tough a customer as one could want when he was playing, should know that the team seems to lack toughness.  Hopefully, his off-season will include adding toughness to the Flyers so that they don't get pushed around the ice again as they did against Pittsburgh.

Until then, fast, highly mobile, high-scoring teams like Pittsburgh will continue to make the Flyers look bad.  Let's hope we see a return to tough forechecking soon, or else the Flyers are destined to more early exits from the playoffs.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

An Interesting Draft

The Eagles have a bad track record of trading away their top draft choices.  Yesterday was the first time in several years that they actually got to use their first round draft choice.  There was a lot of speculation that perhaps the Birds might trade their remaining first round draft choice (they had already traded one first round draft choice to Buffalo for offensive tackle Jason Peters) to Phoenix for disgruntled wide receiver Anquan Boldin.  Not that the Eagles management has ever cared about this sort of thing, but there was a fair amount of pressure coming from the fans and local sportswriters for them to go after Boldin, who has been a game-breaking wide receiver of the sort that the Eagles have not had since Mike Quick retired (with the exception of the one season that Terrell Owens behaved himself and played to his ability).  

The Birds also have been sorely lacking at tight end for some time now.  While L. J. Smith has decent hands, he's a lousy blocker and he's been very injury-prone during his career.  Some had speculated that the Eagles would use their first round draft choice on monster Oklahoma tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who was still available when the Eagles picked (in fact, Pettigrew was the next player taken after the Eagles picked, going to the Detroit Lions, who had two first round picks and need all the help they can get after an 0-16 season last year).

Instead of bowing to the pressure, the made some interesting moves.  They traded up in the draft, swapping first round picks with the Cleveland Browns.  They then drafted University of Missouri wide receiver Jeremy Maclin.  Maclin is the sort of receiver that can make an immediate impact.  He can return punts, kicks, and he has blazing speed and good size, and is the sort of a wide out who can make substantial contributions to the Eagles' West Coast offense.  They now have a good receiving corps, consisting of DeSean Jackson, who had an excellent rookie year last year, Kevin Curtis, who is healthy again, Hank Baskett, Jason Avant, and now Maclin.  The Birds should be set at wide receiver for a few years now.

They used their second pick to draft Pitt running back LeSean McCoy.  McCoy, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, posted 35 rushing touchdowns and 2 1,000 yard seasons in his two years at Pitt, and provides the Eagles with an alternative to Brian Westbrook, who is coming off of knee surgery and is now 30 years old.  McCoy bring size and speed, but with only two years of college football experience, still has plenty to learn.  Eagles coach Andy Reid has already told McCoy that he wants him to work on his blocking, so time will tell whether McCoy can become effective n providing additional protection for Donovan McNabb or blocking for newly-signed fullback Leonard Weaver to carry the ball.

True to form, the Birds then traded away their third round pick.  They'd already traded their fourth round pick to move up in the draft, so the middle round picks won't do much to help the team.  Time will tell.  

One thing is clear: the Eagles certainly march to the beat of their own drummer when it comes to personnel decisions.  Yesterday proved it once more.  Let's hope that Maclin and McCoy become the sort of impact players that will cause Eagles fans to look back with appreciation on the 2009 NFL draft.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Are the Phillies Suffering from Post-World Series Hangover?

Two weeks into the season, the Phillies just can't get untracked.  So far, with very few exceptions (steady Clay Condrey comes to mind), the pitching staff has been abysmal.  Then, when the pitching is on, the hitting is off.  They've only meshed a few times so far this year; the other night's 11-4 victory over Milwaukee comes to mind.  The defending world champions are two games under .500 at the moment, and they look bad.

Manager Charlie Manuel hasn't been shy about letting his displeasure with the team show.  After nearly being no-hit yesterday, Charlie said, "Bush had a no-hitter into the eighth.  You have to give him some credit. He was hitting his spots, making some pitches.  But I didn't like the way we played. I should give Bush more credit. I don't want to take anything away from him. But I didn't like the way we hit. I didn't like the way we swung the bat.  We swung the bats defensively. We weren't aggressive at the plate. We didn't put good swings on the ball. The first ball we hit hard was the one by Stairs."  Manuel was referring to a pinch-hit solo homer off the foul pole by Matt Stairs, which broke up the no-hitter.

Cole Hamels has candidly admitted that the post-World Series celebrity rubber chicken circuit left him less prepared for the season than he has previously.  Plus several Phillies participated in the World Championship of Baseball, and that left them with too much play too early.  It's messed with swings and it's messed with pitchers.  Only a few players--Raul Ibanez, Chase Utley (who seems like he hasn't missed a beat after his off-season hip surgery) and a thinner Ryan Howard come to mind--have performed well while the rest have been significant disappointments.

The Phillies had better get right--and forget last October--very, very soon, or it's going to be too late.  It's up to Charlie Manuel to give these guys a wake-up call, and soon. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sheldon Brown and Demanding to be Traded

Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown, who signed a long contract extension in 2004 and who makes a handsome salary is, apparently, unhappy with commanding a handsome salary and playing for one of the NFL's elite franchises.  Claiming that he's been treated like a red-headed stepchild, and pouting because he thinks his agent has been disrespected by team management, Brown demanded a trade yesterday.  

Eagles management responded quickly and decisively, releasing this statement:

"It's very unfortunate and counterproductive that Sheldon has chosen to go public with his feelings about his situation. After thorough evaluation by himself and discussions with his family and agents, he chose to accept an extension of his rookie contract early that provided his family financial security for the rest of his life. It removed any concerns about health or performance that all other players in his draft class had to worry about. He has 4 years remaining on that contract and, after taking the signing bonus and his first 2 years of salary into account, we feel that Sheldon is being paid fairly. Focusing only on a player's salary for a given year is not a valid analysis.

There have been league MVPs, Super Bowl champion quarterbacks, and perennial Pro Bowlers who have been in a similar situation. All of their teams have required them to wait until their contract expired or there was only 1 year remaining before any adjustment took place. It is only in the most extraordinary, in fact, less than a handful of circumstances in the last 10 years that any players 2 new years into a contract with 4 years left have been adjusted. We don't think this qualifies as an extraordinary circumstance.

Sheldon's comments under the circumstances actually serve to devalue him in a trade if we were willing to consider it; which we are not."

I can appreciate that Brown thinks he's been disrespected, but the simple fact is that he's being paid a huge amount of money to play a game. Shut up and play.  And quit your whining.  Didn't you learn anything from the Terrell Owens debacle?  Or from watching what happened to Lito Sheppard last year when he turned into a petulant child?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Book Review: The Fall of the 1977 Phillies: How a Baseball's Team's Collapse Sank a City's Spirit

Mitchell Nathanson, a legal writing instructor at the Villanova University School of Law, has written a very intriguing book titled The Fall of the 1977 Phillies: How a Baseball Team's Collapse Sank a City's Spirit.  Published in 2007 by McFarland Co., this 264 page softcover book provides a fascinating juxtaposition of the loss of a single playoff game by the 1977 Phillies with the social history of Philadelphia.  For anyone who wants to understand the contentious relationship between Philadelphia and the rest of the baseball world and between Phillies fans and the team they love to hate, this book is absolutely mandatory reading.  I was 16 years old when the Phillies collapsed in 1977, and I remember it like it happened yesterday.

Nathanson dissects the critical third game of the 1977 National League Championship Series, between the Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers, a game that has become infamous in Philadelphia as Black Friday.  The Phils had just completed their second straight 101-win season and had won the National League Eastern Division by 8 games.  From top to bottom, the 1977 edition of the Phils were probably the best team that the Phillies have ever fielded.  Featuring Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, and the National League's best bullpen, the Phils were the best team in the National League.  The players liked each other, and they had harmony.  And best of all, the fans loved this team.  For once, the notoriously fickle Philadelphia fans embraced the Phillies wholeheartedly and without reservation, and they had their collective hearts broken.  He presents the Black Friday game pitch-by-pitch.

In one 10-minute frenzy of poor play and a horrendously bad call by an umpire, the wheels came off, and the Phillies lost game three of the NLCS in the ninth inning.  Their usually reliable bullpen failed them that night, manager Danny Ozark inexplicably failed to make a defensive replacement in left field, Greg Luzinski failed to catch a fly ball that his defensive replacement easily would have caught,  and umpire Bruce Froemming blew a call at first base for what would have been the third out of the inning.  Along the way, the Phillies fans caused Dodger starting pitcher Burt Hooton to have a meltdown on the mound so bad that he had to be removed from the game.  The Phils lost this game and then lost the playoff series, to the disgust of their fans, who were not shy about making their disappointment and displeasure known.  Thus ended the honeymoon between the Phillies and their fans, opening their door to a new era of bitterness and hostility that not even the 1980 World Series championship helped.

The heartbreak of Black Friday is juxtaposed against the social history of why Philadelphia has historically played second banana to New York City, as well as a history of baseball in the City of Brotherly Love.  Nathanson concludes that the wrong team--the Philadelphia Athletics--left town.  He contends that it would have been better for all if the A's had stayed in 1954 and the Phillies had left instead.  The A's had a winning tradition, while the Phillies had a tradition of wretchedness.  He argues--quite convincingly--that the 1977 team was the apex of Philadelphia baseball (at least prior to the 2008 World Series champions), and that the collapse of the Phils on Black Friday led to a collapse of Philadelphia as a whole.  As proof, he points to the tragic MOVE episode of 1978 and the continuing impact of that event decades later.  As the Phillies collapsed, so did the spirits of Philadelphians, who sank back into the depths of despair.

I'm not 100% convinced of the validity of the theory, but the book certainly makes for an interesting, enlightening, and thought-provoking read.  The history of baseball in Philadelphia, in particular, is eye-opening.  It will help you to understand the love-hate relationship between Phillies fans and their team, and it also proves that baseball truly is a game of inches.  

In short, I can't say enough good things about this book.  It really should be mandatory reading for any Phillies fan who wants to understand the complicated relationship between the City of Brotherly Love and the Phitin' Phils.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Streak Ends

Brad Lidge's save streak finally ended last night after 54 games.  Lidge came into a game against the surprising San Diego Padres with the Phils ahead 5-4.  Presumably, it would be more of the same: Lights Out Lidge would nail down another victory.

However, this year's edition of Brad Lidge seems to be different from last year's edition.  He has been struggling with command of his fastball, and has been hit.  He almost blew a save earlier this week when he gave up a homer.  Last night was ugly, because Lidge got lit up like a Christmas tree.  He gave up a lead-off double followed by a couple of hits, walked a couple of batters, and then gave up a three-run homer.  He was wild and not in command of his pitches.  Instead of winning 5-4, the Phils lost 8-5.  To give the notably difficult Phillies fans credit, although some booed when Lidge gave up the homer, they gave him a standing ovation when he came out of the game in recognition of what he'd accomplished and what he meant to last year's world championship team.

We all knew that the streak had to end sooner or later, so it's not a huge surprise that it did.  Lidge is, after all, only human, and this has been an exceedingly difficult week for the Phillies as a consequence of Harry Kalas' sudden  death.  There was a very emotional and undoubtedly difficult farewell ceremony for Harry the K at Citizens Bank Park yesterday afternoon before the game, and I have no doubt that this week has taken a toll on all involved.  I am, therefore, not as concerned about the steak ending as I might otherwise be.

I am much more concerned about the fact that virtually every Phillies' pitcher has been hit hard so far this spring and by the fact that the entire staff seems very ineffective just now.  After ten games, the team ERA is a staggering 7.16, dead last in the National League.  Charlie Manuel had better do something to get his pitching staff righted and turned around quickly, before the barrage of homers by opposing players teams buries the Phils' hopes of repeating before June.  I don't know what the solution is, but they had better figure something out and fast. 

UPDATE, 4:30 P.M.:  Chan Ho Park got hit pretty hard in his second start for the Phillies today.  He gave up 4 earned runs in 5 innings, including two homers.  His ERA so far is in excess of 8.  However, the Phils got excellent work from their bullpen today.  J.A. Happ pitched 3 shutout innings and Clay Condrey 1.  A walk-off two-run homer by Raul Ibanez in the bottom of the ninth won the game for the Phils, who trailed the whole way.  All five of the Phils' runs came on homers, by Utley, Ibanez and a pinch-hit homer by Jimmy Rollins, who got the day off today.  Ibanez has been sensational so far.

I think it's probably time for Charlie Manuel to consider banishing Park to the bullpen and giving Happ a shot at the starting rotation.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What's With the Flyers?

The Philadelphia Flyers came into the National Hockey League in 1967.  A mere seven years later, the Flyers won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and then repeated the next year.  Even though the franchise has the second highest winning percentage in the history of the NHL, the Flyers have not won another Cup since.  The Flyers have won division championships in 1968, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2002, and 2004.  They've also won their conference championship in 1975, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1985, 1987, and 1997, meaning that they have lost in the Stanley Cup finals five times since their last championship in 1975.  The 1979-80 team reeled off a 35-game undefeated streak, which still stands as the North American record.  This franchise's history is not a bad record, to be sure, but what is it about this team that seems to prevent them from being able to get over the hump and win another Stanley Cup?

The Stanley Cup playoffs began this past Wednesday night, and the Flyers are already down 2-0 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round series.  They lost last night in overtime on a goal by ancient Billy Guerin.  They look tired, and they don't look like they have the kind of fresh legs needed to win a championship. 

What is it with this franchise?  For years, I blamed it on Bobby Clarke's stewardship as general manager.  It always seemed like Clarke was bound and determined to re-create the Broad Street Bullies of the early 1970's, but Clarke's now been gone for a couple of years.  To be be fair about it, his successor as GM, Paul Holmgren, has had challenges.  His first team was coming off a franchise-worst season, and he had to rebuild from the bottom up.  Just a year later, the Flyers made the playoffs again, and last year, they made it to the conference finals before losing to Pittsburgh.

However, it all begs the question of why, with all of the great talent that has worn the black & orange over the years, haven't the Flyers won another Stanley Cup?  Something always seems to be missing, and something continues to be missing.  I can only hope that the Flyers can turn things around this year and make it out of the first round, but given the incredible talent that Pittsburgh has, I'm not particularly optimistic.  I wish I had the answers to the questions I've posed here, but I don't.  

I just know that a team that has enjoyed as much success and has had as much talent as this one has shouldn't have gone for 35 years without another championship.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Harry and Me

I was 10 years old in 1971 when the Phillies moved into gleaming new Veterans Stadium.  My father took me to a game there that year, my first in person (old Connie Mack Stadium was in a really bad part of town, and you took your life into your hands to go there).  I got to see the dreadful Phillies lose to the awesome Big Red Machine, and saw Johnny Bench hit a homer into the upper deck of the Vet for the first time.

Along with the new stadium, the Phillies got a new lead broadcaster in 1971.  When Bill Giles came over from the Houston Astros that year, he brought Harry Kalas with him.  Harry had the unenviable task of following the enormously popular Bill Campbell, and the fans were not inclined to accept him.  However, his mellifluous baritone and easy delivery soon won over the fans, who appreciated his chemistry with color man Richie Ashburn.  In fact, Harry and Richie soon became the best of friends--more like brothers--with a chemistry like none other.  

Before long, Harry became the voice of summer.  As I grew up, Harry and Richie--he called him His Whiteness--were always there.  I wish I could count the times that I heard those two call games.  At first, the Phillies were dreadful.  And then, they got good.  Harry dubbed third baseman Mike Schmidt "Michael Jack" and got to call every one of Schmidt's 548 career homers--"Watch that baby--outta here!" Or how he would drag out the enunciation of some names: "Mic-key Mor-an-dini".  He was unique.

In 1980, the Phillies won their first World Series championship, and because of the broadcasting contract between the network and major league baseball, Harry didn't get to call it.  That was sad, and for years, I wondered if he would ever get another chance.  Luckily, he did--last fall.  Although Harry's voice didn't betray it, you could tell his heart was racing as he said, "Struck him out!  The Phillies are the world champions of baseball!"  A World Series championship without was something you couldn't even imagine.

Ashburn died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1997, and Harry's loss was palpable.  You could feel his pain at losing his best friend.  But, he picked up the pieces and went on.  One thing was a constant--Harry Kalas.  He transformed himself from the voice of Philadelphia baseball to baseball itself.  Harry was the Philadelphia Phillies.  Players came and went, but one thing was constant--Harry.

We lost Harry on Monday of this week.  He died as he should have: in the broadcast booth, getting ready to call another Phillies game.  And with him died another piece of my childhood.  ESPN's Jayson Stark, who spent 28 years covering the Phillies, summed it up best when he said that the thought of watching or listening to a Phillies game without Harry was inconceivable.  We lost the voice of Philadelphia.  We lost the voice of summer.  And it will never be the same again.

Rest in peace, Harry.  You will be missed by this Phillies fan.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Welcome to my new blog.

By way of introduction, I was born and raised in the Philadelphia area.  I had the great misfortune of being born into a family of Philadelphia sports fans, and I caught the bug early.  Some of my earliest memories are of watching Dick "Don't Call Me Richie" Allen hit long home runs out of Connie Mack Stadium with my father, and of watching some of the really horrible Eagles teams of the early 1970's lose game after game, season after season.  Or then there were the 1973-1974 76'ers, who posted a 9-73 record.

The only saving grace was the Flyers.  The Broad Street Bullies won two consecutive Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, the only two championships the franchise has won in its 43 years of existence.  I still remember those championship parades as though they were yesterday, even though I was only 13 when the first one happened.

Although I have lived in Columbus, Ohio for 22 years now, I remain loyal to the Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers (although it's always a challenge when the Flyers play the Columbus Blue Jackets).  I've ridden the roller coaster, such as the Phillies' World Series championship last year, and the Eagles losing in the conference championship yet again.  Remember that, before the Phils won last year, it had been 25 years and 100 professional sports seasons since the last championship for the City of Brotherly Love.

True Philadelphia sports fans know pain.  They know suffering.  Rooting for Philadelphia teams is all about pain and suffering, with the occasional burst of glory.  This blog will help to track the pain of a lifetime of disappointment.

This blog will help track the travails of a loyal Philadelphia sports fan who has the misfortune of living 450 miles away from where his teams play.  Check back often.