Bird that Sings

October 27, 2010

The Series

Filed under: Sports,The Philadelphia Perspective,Uncategorized — admin @ 2:14 pm

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve noticed that once your home team get knocked out, baseball becomes less subjective.

One of these teams, Texas or San Francisco, will lose the World Series and, depending on the manner of their defeat, go back to being the bums we knew they were in August: Literally in the case of both these teams.

Now they both stand to represent something more than their parts, and bigger than themselves.

As I wrote about San Francisco previously, (see below, A tale of two cities revisited) not a great team but good enough to win.

Texas though, might be the story of this Series. Unlike the Giants, the Rangers did not play in a competitive division this year. The California Angels had injuries and basically threw in the towel sometime after the All Star break. The Oakland A’s might have been the most offensively challenged team in baseball since the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies, albeit with good young pitching that could see them contend in the near future.

Seattle had a horrible start and was finished by June. When they traded Cliff Lee to the Rangers around the trading deadline their last place finish was already a fait accomplis.

So Texas was not competing against the division this year, but basically against itself. This, in an often dead Stadium, in football country, in a city that long ago gave up on them, with a owner who went bankrupt after purchasing the team at a discount from George W. Bush who made out like a bandit himself on the deal.

It’s a pretty unsavory story but its’ effect on the team seems to have been at the margins. With power and dangerous hitters up and down the line-up, good team speed, and good defense the Rangers feel like a throw back to the Cleveland Indians team of the late 90’s, and not completely by accident. Those Indian teams, which at various times featured Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, Dave Justice, Brian Giles and Sandy Alomar Jr, were put together by John Hart, former General Manager and current “senior advisor” to the Rangers. Hart’s protégé, 33-year-old Jon Daniels, is the current Texas GM.

The Indians, so dominant during the season back in their prime, never managed to win a World Series and for that reason are a bittersweet memory to their fans.

The big thing the Indians lacked was a great starting pitcher, which is also what the Rangers lacked at the beginning of this season.

The Rangers, however, don’t lack a great starting pitcher anymore.

When Cliff Lee gets hit, he can look pretty bad. His fastball never gets past the low 90s and he needs to keep hitters off balance with a variety of speeds and cutters. But when Lee’s on, he practically unhittable and he’s been nothing but these past two post-seasons.

The Rangers other two main starters, CJ Wilson and Colby Lewis have both pitched well enough this season, but without Lee, Texas would not be here.

The Rangers line-up featuring All-Stars and former All-Stars like 3rd baseman Michael Young, DH Vladimir Guerrero, 2nd baseman Ian Kinsler, and outfielder Nelson Cruz is impressive, but the team revolves around outfielder Josh Hamilton, or as he’s called at my house, The Natural.

The first time I saw Josh Hamilton was in 2008 and, despite his big numbers, I wasn’t that impressed. Boy, was I blind. Josh Hamilton is what Shoeless Joe Jackson would have been if he had played in the live ball era. Think a left handed Matt Holliday with the power of Pujols, the speed of Johnny Damon — and of course, a dark side.

Cliff Lee’s performance in the 2009 World Series not only made him a folk hero in Philadelphia, but a bona fide superstar. The 2010 World Series might do the same for Josh Hamilton. Catch Josh Hamilton while you can, this guy was born to play baseball.

Between Lee and Hamilton, not to mention the serendipity of having ex-Giant Bengie Molina at catcher — who not only knows the book on the Giant pitching staff, but wrote it — I think you’ve got to pick Texas to win this Series… in five, six or seven.

October 25, 2010

The Phillies lose the pennant/Every season tells a story don’t it #7

Filed under: Sports,The Philadelphia Perspective,Uncategorized — admin @ 12:08 pm

Well, the Phillies lose to the Giants in 6, 3-2, at home, and it isn’t that big a deal.

I’m finishing my second shot of whiskey as I write this and my heart doesn’t hurt as much as it did just ten minutes ago when Ryan Howard struck out with two men on to end the game.

For that matter it doesn’t hurt as much as it did the whole 9th inning or even the 8th inning when Carlos Ruiz lined into a double play with two men on to end the threat.

The Phillies scored first in this game but despite having men in scoring position in every inning from the 5th on, were unable to score again and as the game progressed you couldn’t help getting the feeling that it just wasn’t going to be our year.

As Larry Bowa said elsewhere, the Baseball Gods were not smiling on the Phillies this year, and this series was kind of a fractal of the season. Despite having arguably the best starting line-up in baseball, that line-up ended up playing less than twenty games together before the play-offs began.  And once the playoffs did begin, the lineup just didn’t seem to gel in time. Kind of like the Democrats in the mid terms, though we’ll see.

So yes, there is a sadness settling over Philadelphians right about now, and it comes not just from the losing–and not just from the whiskey– but from the sense of loss. This should have been the Phillies year. They had everything in place; starting pitching, power, speed, defense, and with the looming free agency of Jayson Werth there is also the feeling that the team will not be better next year, but worse and worst of all, starting to get older. The Phillies still have a window to win, but winter is inexorably coming now, and the window is closing.

In some respects this particular loss reminds me of the NLCS in 1978, where the Phillies lost for the second year in a row to the Dodgers, a team we all thought that the Phillies were better than–though it must be said in passing, a team far superior to the 2010 San Francisco Giants.  In the 1978 playoffs, the Phils lost the deciding game of the then 5 game series when Centerfielder Garry Maddox, a man Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin used to call “The Secretary of Defense” dropped a routine fly ball to give the Dodgers the win in the bottom of the 10th.

Despite the Phillies of that era being anchored by two Hall of Famers; the best third baseman of all time, Mike Schmidt, and Steve Carlton, the second or third best left handed pitcher of all time, that game against the Dodgers also had the feeling of a window closing for the Phillies and in a way it did.

The Phillies lost the division in 1979 to the “We are Family” Pirates of Willie Stargell and Dave Parker who went on to win the World Series. Those Pirates were frankly a better team than the Phillies that year and it was unclear how the Phils were going to win back their division in the near term, let alone the pennant.

The hopeful part of course for Phillies fans is that the Phillies did come back, shocking not only their fans but themselves in winning their first World Series of modern times in 1980.

So it’s hard to say. I hear Charlie Manuel, the lovable idiot, claiming that the Phils have their best days ahead, and maybe he even believes it. Even stranger, maybe he’s right.

The elements of chance and destiny are a big part of baseball. Nobody in their right mind would have predicted a Giants-Rangers World Series, but (whoop) there it is.

I guess there’s hope for all of us: Even A’s fans.

Anyway, by now I’m finishing my fourth shot of whiskey and it’s getting to be time to wrap this up, so speaking for pretty much everyone in the six County area; most of Eastern Pennsylvania, the entire state of Delaware, Jersey from Cape May to Trenton, and Philadelphians far afield in their Joycean exiles all over the planet, I’d like to say . . .Go Rangers!

You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.

October 23, 2010

The Yankees and the Curse of Empire

Filed under: Sports,The Philadelphia Perspective,Uncategorized — admin @ 8:46 pm

The late Joe Strummer of the Clash assured us that “the Future is not written,” but sometimes I have my doubts.

In the National League Championship Series, the favored Phillies are now down to the Giants, three games to two, going back to Philadelphia for Game 6 and — the spirits of Robin Roberts, Johnny Callison and Richie Ashburn willing — Game 7.

Similarly, in the ALCS, the favored Yankees are going to Texas Friday night, also down 3-2, but there is a difference.

The Phillies have the Giants right where they want them. The Yankees are doomed. The only question is who will finish them off, Colby Lewis in game 6, or Cliff “The Executioner” Lee in game 7.

If the answer is the latter it will be interesting to see how it plays out, especially if Texas goes on to play the Phillies in the World Series.

As I’m only half done writing the screenplay I don’t want to divulge the details of what’s going to happen, only that the thinly fictionalized story of Cliff Lee’s-revenge-on-the-Phillies-and-GM-Ruben-Amaro Jr.-for dumping-him-to-Seattle is tentatively entitled “Payback is a Bitch.” Needless to say I’m also adding a completely fictionalized sub plot where the Lee character is pursued by a baseball crazed country and western singer played by either Reese Witherspoon or Beyonce Knowles, depending.

But that’s not the best part of the story. That would be where Yankees GM Brian Cashman runs onto the field at Citizens Bank Park and in the middle of the Rangers victory celebration, signs Lee under the goal posts (an admittedly cinematic embellishment) to a six year, 160 million dollar contract to pitch for the Yankees.

In the movie it will sort of be a happy ending — if you ignore the part where Philadelphia fans run down Cashman, rip his body to shreds and feed the bloody hunks of flesh to a chained up Sarah Palin — but in truth, Lee will never again pitch in a World Series after signing with the Yankees.

The Yankees mega-million bucks signing of Lee will turn out badly, and Joe Strummer aside, how do we know this? Because with the exception of Mike Messina, CC Sabathia — so far — and the lovable Roger Clemens, the Yankees multi million dollar free agent signings of pitchers almost always turn out badly.

For lack of a better term, you can call it the Curse of Empire.

Talk to people in New York and they are invariably of two minds about the late George Steinbrenner. Yes, they say, he was a liar, a bully and a jerk, but he did what the rest of baseball should be doing: maximizing the natural advantages of his market to make his team great theatre and their financial success, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can see their point but there is a darker side to the story.

When Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973, they hadn’t been a good team for the better part of the previous decade, and what’s more, Steinbrenner wasn’t even the driving force in his ownership group.

Though it was Steinbrenner who, characteristically, took credit, it was his President and General Manager, Gabe Paul who took advantage of the advent of baseball free agency in 1976, signing ex Oakland A’s Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson, then making a series of savvy trades for (La note: thanks, Repoz) Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Mickey Rivers, and Willie Randolph among others that turned the team’s fortunes around.

Steinbrenner forced Paul out after the ’77 season but the momentum of the latter’s deal making carried the Yankees to World Series wins in 1977, 1978 and an appearance again in 1981.

However, the success of the club left George literally drunk with power and his overweening presence in the Front office became the main impediment to Yankees winning again, no matter how much money he spent on the team.

It wasn’t until George was suspended from baseball in 1990 for hiring a gambler to “dig up dirt” on Dave Winfield, that then General Manager Gene Michael was free to develop the farm system and not trade away all the Yankees prospects for established stars. That change in philosophy eventually produced players like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Petitte who would become the core of the Yankees great late 90’s team.

George, of course, came to believe that Yankees great run from 1996 to 2001 was about him, and that a place in the World Series was a Yankee birthright. But when the Yankees lost the World Series in 2001, George was back to his old 80’s ways, signing another former Oakland A’s MVP, Jason Giambi, to a mega contract in 2002.  Then there was Alex Rodriguez in 2004, and Randy Johnson in 2005.

George kept figuring he was one superstar away from winning the World Series again, but until his dying day, I don’t think he ever figured out the problem.

George Steinbrenner never really got baseball and in truth, he’s not the only one.

All season long, the talk in baseball was of attendance being down, even in places where teams were contending like Atlanta, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and San Diego.

Aside from the playoffs, which generate a maelstrom of municipal emotion, where your team is your town, baseball has trouble holding the attention of people these days, especially if they’ve never played the game.

The thing about baseball is that it balances athleticism with skill. You can succeed in baseball if you’re not a great athlete. You cannot succeed without great skill.  That’s a great thing about the game, but it means that results are not direct.

Steinbrenner treated baseball more like football, where if you get the biggest, fastest, most athletic guys, you can usually win. He also assumed that big results elsewhere meant continued big results, and that just goes against the track record of most baseball players over time.

You can strategize for success in baseball and hope for the best, but you can’t mandate it.

You can try of course, but as long as the Yankees continue to try and buy championships, they will not win many.

That is the curse of the Empire.

And I bet Joe Strummer, wherever he is, might agree.

October 14, 2010

Every Season tells a story#5/A tale of two cities revisited

And then there were two.

Just as it’s finally cooling down in the East, it’s heating up on the West Coast after one of the coldest summers in memory. However the contrast between the baseball atmosphere around the San Francisco Giants versus that of the Philadelphia Phillies is less than the similarity.

While even contenders like Atlanta, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay struggled for attendance this year, in Philadelphia and San Francisco, sellouts and full houses were the rule.

Both Citizens Bank Park in Philly and AT&T Park in SF were more alive and vital than anywhere  west of the Last-Days-of-the-Raj grandeur of New Yankee Stadium with its six thousand dollar a game seats in the Legends-of- Investment Banking mezzanine and whispers of lap dancing and cocaine rimmed flutes of champagne in the VIP lounge.

The Yankees are an empire unto themselves, but more on that next week.

For now we’re looking at what promises to be a seriously competitive National League Championship Series.

Much has been made of the “year of the pitcher” in baseball, and while some of that may be due to the decline in the use of steroids and Human Growth hormone in the game, this series does feature the two best starting pitching staffs in the National League, and probably baseball.

Going into the Series, the Phillies have to be considered the favorite since they not only have the 3 Aces — Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels — going for them, they also have, when healthy, the best one through eight hitting line-up in the league.

The problem with being the favorite of course, especially in a tight Series with good pitching, is that the pressure is on the Phillies, while the underdog Giants are playing with house money.

The Giants start with their pitching and sometimes end there, but the result is that they’ve played a lot of very close games. In fairness, they’ve lost a lot of them too, but it hasn’t been the fault of their young starting rotation anchored by 26 year old, two time Cy Young Award winner, Tim Lincecum, 26 year old righthander, Matt Cain, and the sometimes erratic, 27 year old Lefthander, Jonathan Sanchez.

In fact the Giants, with their young front line pitching, along with their patchwork line-up and eccentric closer, Brian Wilson, remind me a little of the 1969 New York Mets.

1969 was the year the Mets shocked the world, winning the World Series behind 24-year-old future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, 26 year old left hander Jerry Koosman, 22-year-old Gary Gentry and 24-year-old closer, Tug McGraw of blessed memory.

Like these Giants, those overlooked, lightly regarded Mets also featured a patchwork line-up built around two good players, left right fielder Cleon Jones (La note: thanks Dave Margolis) and center fielder Tommy Agee along with a cast of part timers; Art Shamsky, Ron Swoboda, Ed Kranepool, Donn Clendenon, Wayne Garrett, Ed Charles, a young Amos Otis, et al.

It must also be added that the 60’s were an era when Great Players roamed the earth, and like these 2010 SF Giants, the Mets didn’t have any.

These Giants do, however, have a lot of pieces. Aubrey Huff has always been a pretty good player and now is in the first post season of his career. Pat Burrell is as dangerous a power hitter as he was in Philadelphia, without the pressure of being a franchise player. Freddie Sanchez is not quite the player he was when he won a batting title with Pittsburgh in 2006 but is still an excellent contact hitter.

And rookie catcher Buster Posey is the real thing. If he doesn’t win Rookie of the Year, he got rooked.

The Giants can’t match the power of Philadelphia up and down the line-up. They don’t have a Chase Utley or for that matter a Ryan Howard, or a Jason Werth, but they have enough to win, especially if the Pitching match-ups work out in their favor.

We already got a glimpse of this with Giants manager Bruce Bochy and Pitching coach Dave Righetti flipping their starting rotation so that Jonathan Sanchez will pitch the second game of the series in Philadelphia, where he previously 2-hit the Phillies on August 19th.

It is entirely possible that Tim Lincecum could outpitch Roy Halladay in the first game of the Series and then Sanchez once more shut down the Phillies left handed loaded lineup. If so, the Giants would go back to San Francisco up by two.

For Phillies fans like myself, this is a scary prospect, but that’s why they play the games.

I say, the Phillies in six… or seven.

October 6, 2010

Every Season Tells a Story, Don’t it #4: The 3 Aces

Filed under: Sports,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — admin @ 6:01 pm

A good rule of thumb might be that anyone who says they know what’s going to happen in the National League playoffs doesn’t, but here are some things we do know.

The Phillies are the best team in the National League, and on those grounds you would think, the favorite to win the Pennant. However, the Phillies are also a team that can go mysteriously dead at any given time for no particular reason: a great team but a flawed team.

So, factoring in the Phillies’ unpredictability, there are two reasons to pick them to win.

The first is the humility factor.

The Phillies came out of Spring Training knowing they were the team to beat in the National League only to have the wheels come off in May.  After an unbelievable series of injuries and  slumps left the team adrift in the doldrums of mid season, local sportswriters and fans pretty much wrote off the team for this year.

On July 21, the Phillies, who finished 97-64, were only two games over .500, at 48-46 and in third place behind the Braves and the Mets. And not only were they in third place but the injuries in particular at that point seemed endemic; Chase Utley, out for seven weeks, Jimmy Rollins missing half the season with three different injuries, Placido Polanco on the disabled list, then coming back and actually playing through a broken elbow. On and on it went.

The reason for the Phillies’ humility then is that they pretty much had the arrogance knocked out of them this season. At this point they are happy just to be in the playoffs, and for a team with as much sheer ability as the Phillies, that kind of hunger and focus is going to make them hard to beat.

The other reason to pick the Phillies over the Cincinnati Reds in the first round has to be The Three Aces.

Philly will open the series with probable National League Cy Young award winner, Big Roy Halladay facing Edinson Volquez, back with the Reds after losing a year and a half to Tommy John surgery.

Game 2 is scheduled to feature little Roy, Roy Oswalt, pitching for the Phillies against one-time Boston Red Sox 4th starter, Bronson Arroyo.

The first game in Cincinnati will feature 2008 World Series hero Young Cole Hamels vs. Johnny Cueto for Reds.

Nothing against any of the three Reds starters: They are all good pitchers, but the Three Aces of the Phillies have the pitching match-up advantage over the Reds in each game of these playoffs.  Especially since, if the Series goes to games 4 and 5, the Phillies are going to come back with Halladay in game 4 and Oswalt — the team’s best pitcher down the stretch — in game 5.

The Reds’ strength is their offense led by potential National League MVP Joey Votto, and they certainly have a hitter’s chance. Personally I wouldn’t be surprised if this Series goes the full five games, but as a Phillies fan, I’m hoping for the Phils in four.

In the other National League first-round series, the Braves vs. the Giants, the Giants should win on their superior offense, especially as it’s been bulked up by mid and late season acquisitions such as Pat Burrell, Jose Guillen, Cody Ross, and the very recent return to form by last year’s Rookie sensation, third baseman Pablo “the Panda” Sandoval.

In a short series, the Braves’ starting pitching is at least as strong as the Giants and their bullpen probably better, but on the strength of the Giants’ offense as well as home field advantage, gotta take the Giants, in five.

But like the man said, I don’t know nothing.

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