Bird that Sings

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.

September 14, 2010

A Tale of Two(or Three) Cities/Every season #3

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

As the requiem-for-Labor Day weekend drew to a close, the baseball pennant races in both Leagues kicked into gear, but especially in the National League, which appears to be where the action is this season.

In the East, the Phillies and Braves were locked in a Chinese death match, with the two teams still to play each other six more times– including the last three games of the season in Atlanta. In the Midwest, Cincinnati had pulled decisively ahead of St Louis, although the Cardinals remained in the hunt for the Wild Card. In the West, the San Diego Padres had come back to the pack with the Giants and the fatefully fast closing Colorado Rockies coming on.

A week later, there are now less than twenty games to go in the season, but in baseball, sometimes even ten games from the end, you still don’t know what’s going to happen.

Three years ago, the Phillies looked dead in the water when the Mets suddenly collapsed in the last two weeks of the season and the Phillies got to their first playoffs in years. Then in 2008, the Mets came out of Labor Day weekend up by two and half games, only to fade <em>again</em> as the Phillies rolled to their first World Championship since 1980.

On the other hand for Phillies fans, there will always be 1964: six games up with twelve games to go. Because of moments like September 1964 in the Phillies star-crossed history, this year’s abundantly-talented team is contending not only with Atlanta and the Wild Card contenders from the West, but with the ghost and demons of Phillies teams past.

Meanwhile, in the West, while the Padres are interesting because they came out of nowhere, and the Rockies because they mysteriously get hot every September, the team with the most to lose—and therefore the most interesting— are the San Francisco Giants.

At the turn of century, the Giants were a team built to win in their new “naming rights here” ballpark, and win they did. But as the great Barry Bonds slowly faded, GM Brian Sabean tried to build the team from the outside-in around Bonds, and it didn’t work. Now in their third Bonds-less season, the Giants have to win, or Sabean may be sayin’ goodbye.

By any measure though, the Giants GM has done a good job with this year’s team, piecing together a respectable offense out of a collection of prospects, spare parts and castoffs to go along with the already strong, young pitching.

This weekend was big for the Giants. They went into San Diego, took three out of four from the Padres and pulled into a mathematical tie for first place in the West.

The Giants had been out of the Division lead since the end of May. It should have been a triumphant moment, but on Sunday one of the key spare parts, 32 year-old Centerfielder Andres Torres, went down with a sudden case of appendicitis.

Previously pretty much of a career minor leaguer, Torres became the Giant’s spark this year: a base stealing, home run hitting lead-off man, whose speed in the outfield compensated for the incredible lead-footedness of fellow cast-offs Pat Burrell in Left and Jose Guillen in Right.

Losing Torres is bad, but even worse for the Giants is the irresistible, “who are those guys,” rise of the Colorado Rockies who have now won ten in a row, putting them a game and a half behind both San Francisco and San Diego.

The Giants play three more games with Rockies the weekend of September 24-26, and they better hope they can hold their own until then.

If I had to lay a wager today, I would bet on the Phillies to win the East, the Giants to win the West, Cincinnati in the Midwest and Colorado to take the Wild Card.

Perhaps fortunately for me, I don’t have the money to lose.

I’ve also made a personal decision to try and ignore the National Football League until the end of baseball season. I don’t know if this will make me a better person, but . . . it couldn’t hurt.

August 28, 2010

Every Season Tells a Story, Don’t it #2

While the rest of the country, not to mention the Northern Hemisphere, cooks in the cauldron of Climate-Change-Alert summer, this has been coldest summer in memory in the coastal towns and cities of the San Francisco Bay. That is until this week when an offshore flow more associated with September and October swept through and brought baseball weather to the cheering packed house down at 24 Willie Mays Plaza, home to the San Francisco Giants.

For the Giants, and certainly their General Manager Brian Sabean, this is a make or break season.

When the Giants played at Candlestick Park, on Candlestick Point, the coldest, most windswept, godforsaken spit of land in the State of California, the typically spare crowds were mostly hard-core and hard drinking.

Then in 2000, the Giants moved to Pac Bell Park, now meretriciously renamed AT&T Park.

In the new millennium, with Barry Bonds–love him or hate him, the greatest hitter of his era–breaking home run records, the Giants in contention, margaritas at the bar, Orlando Cepeda’s Caribbean Cha-Cha Bowls at his concession stand and the once nerdy tech guys and girls basking in their new found dot-com wealth, everyday at the new ballpark was a celebration.

Then came the dot-com crash and the failure of the Giants to win the World Series in 2002.  Bonds got old, then indicted and as Sabean desperately tried to build another contender around his aging superstar, it became clear that for ordinary players, it was really hard to hit home runs at Whatchamacallit Park.

The fans–new and old– went on the warpath, calling for Sabean’s head, but the GM was saved by the emergence of a young pitching staff headed by “The Freak,” Tim Lincecum, and his formidable partner, Matt Cain.

The pitching made the Giants a fashionable choice to take the NL West for the past two years, but the anemic hitting of the post Bond’s era continued, so this year, in mid-season, Sabean went on a wild binge.

He picked up Pat Burrell, the one time Phillies slugger, who had been released by Tampa Bay. He picked up Jose Guillen from the Royals, Mike Fontenot from the Cubs, and this week, Cody Ross, a solid hitter with some power from Florida.

They joined a cast, which, against all odds, was already potent, headed by Outfielder/first baseman Aubrey Huff, having the season of his career. There was career journeyman, Andres Torres, at 34, winning the Centerfield job from one time all-star Aaron Rowand. There was this year’s prize prospect, catcher Buster Posey to go along with last year’s prize prospect, 3rd baseman Pablo “The Panda” Sandoval.

Add to the mix, ex-batting champion, 2nd baseman Freddie Sanchez, and power and clutch hitting shortstop, Jose Uribe and suddenly these Giants had hitting up and down the line-up. They seemed ready to challenge the more than surprising San Diego Padres in the West.

However after losing 2 out 3 to San Diego in San Francisco, and then 2 out 3 in both Philadelphia and St Louis, the Giants came back home to play Cincinnati, a game behind Philadelphia in the Wild Card and 6 games behind San Diego in the West.

The Giants won the first two games of the series and were playing a day game Wednesday afternoon. I was out myself: I needed to go food shopping and was walking over to my first appointment with the local CityCarShare, which I joined after my wife totaled our car. It was still hot, but the weather was already changing. You could feel a slight breeze and smell a hint of the Bay.

I found the reserved car just where it was supposed to be and put the electronic sensor up the window: nothing happened.

I walked home and turned on the game.

The Giants were down 10-1. I went to make lunch . . . and the Giants started rallying. They scored two in the bottom of the 5th, two in bottom of the 6th and then six in the bottom of the 8th to go ahead 11-10.

The fans were going nuts.

Meanwhile Atlanta had lost a 10-1 lead in Colorado, losing their third game in a row, this one 12-10. This was good because my team, the Phillies, had just lost the night before at home in sixteen innings and were chasing Atlanta in the East while trying to stay ahead of the Giants in the Wild Card.

You’re not supposed to lose extra inning games at home when you come from nine runs down to go ahead, but on Wednesday afternoon the Giants did, losing to the Reds, 12-11. Then the Phillies lost that night, at home, 3-2, behind their ace Roy Halliday. Then the Phillies lost again today–four in a row at home to the out of it Astros– while the Giants were off.

It’s now late Thursday afternoon and the fog’s rolling over San Francisco, that sad, gray city as Jack Kerouac once wrote.

The Phillies are flying to San Diego to play the Padres tomorrow. The Giants are hoping that one of them loses, and everybody’s starting to worry about Colorado.

There’s five and a half weeks left to play in the season.

To paraphrase Curtis Mayfield, gotta keep on pushin’.

August 20, 2010

Every Season Tells a Story, Don’t it

Filed under: Sports,The Philadelphia Perspective,Uncategorized — admin @ 1:24 am

This is my almost unmentionable 50th year of following the Philadelphia Phillies, but even fans of less antiquity understand: This is the best Phillies team of all time.

The phrase has a warm ring to it, but I can’t help remembering the words of my late father quoting Branch Rickey — or maybe it was Paul Richards — that the best team on paper almost never wins.

In April, the Phillies came out fighting and looked like they might really blow away the League, let alone the Eastern Division. A record string of sellout crowds, some there to see the team, others there to make the scene, celebrated the moment at Citizens Bank Park. When “The Bank” opened five years ago, local sportswriter, Bill Conlin, dubbed it “the Money Pit,” and you could really see it in High Definition now.

But the hubris of the scene apparently offended the Invisible Lords of Baseball and players started dropping like flies in the unbelievable humidity — even for South Philadelphia, which is built on a swamp — and heat.

By the beginning of August, every regular on the team with the exception of Jason Werth — whom the local media had mistakenly traded three or four times — had either been on the disabled list or out for a good chunk of time.

Not only that, but the Bullpen had turned out to be like a long night trapped in a tranny bar, best epitomized by closer Brad Lidge, MVP of the World Series in 2008, whose every appearance now caused fans of all ages to clutch at their hearts. No lead was safe with Lidge on the mound in the 9th.

However, even through the smoky haze and the incredible ruinous run of injuries, the Phillies were only two games behind Atlanta in the Eastern Division of the National League, and were finally getting healthy.

And then too, the alternately celebrated and abused General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had, for the second year in a row, pulled off a coup at the trade deadline. Last year it was the acquisition of Cliff Lee. This year it was Houston Right hander Roy Oswalt, who becomes one of “The Three Aces” — the other two being Roy Halliday and Young Cole Hamels.

The Three Aces: who will give this team their commemorative handle should they bring home another World Championship to Philly.

All this is prologue: Now it was the evening of Thursday, Aug. 12, and the game was on.

My wife was leaving on a trip to Central America with her sister early Saturday morning and was out, frantically running last minute errands. I was watching the Phillies-Dodgers game on the MLB Network and trying to fix the lock on the front door.

Joe Blanton, the now appropriately designated number 4 starter, was pitching for the Phillies against 22-year-old left-hander Clayton Kershaw, who appears to the future of the Dodgers, but is not quite ready to be their ace yet.

Blanton got hit early, giving up three runs in the first, but he does that sometimes and then settles down. Meanwhile I had taken off the doorknob and diagnosed the problem: a bad spring, but figured I could WD 40 the whole thing and get it working again.

The problem was that I needed help slipping the turning mechanism back into its fitting, so I called my wife on the cell. Initially she was quite irritated, but finally agreed to come home since the front door was hanging open and I couldn’t leave, even to buy us stuff to cook for dinner.

Meanwhile the Phillies scored a run in the second and a run in the fourth, and the Dodger lead was only 3-2. I figured it was only a matter of time until the Phillies went ahead or perhaps, simply stole the game at the end since they were batting last.

Then disaster struck.

My wife was on the phone, sobbing. She had totaled the car. It was a relatively inexpensive Japanese car that we got a great deal on nine years ago, but we liked it. My wife was unhurt. According to the pop-up gauge nestled behind the grill (who knew?) she had made impact at five miles an hour, but the headlights were destroyed, the hood crumpled like an accordion, and the radiator broken. I guess that’s why it was an inexpensive car.

Meanwhile, as I put the turning mechanism back into the doorknob my own damned self, the Phillies’ bullpen was collapsing —  big surprise — and the Dodgers scored two in the 7th and three in the 8th. The eminently winnable game had become, fittingly enough, a 9-2 slaughter.

And now as I stood in the middle of the living room idly watching, waiting for my wife to get home in a cab, the Phillies rallied for four runs in the bottom of the 8th.

At least they’re making it a game, I thought.

By the time she made it home, it was the bottom of the 9th.

Dodgers closer Jonathon Broxton, who’s never been the same since Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins beat with a double in the playoffs last year, hit the first batter of the inning, Placido Polanco, then walked the second, Ryan Howard sub, Mike Sweeney.

It was a tense moment, at least in my living room. After walking Jayson Werth to load the bases, Broxton induced fourth outfielder, Ben Francisco to hit a ground ball to third.

It looked like a possible double play ball, or at the very least, a close play at the plate, but Casey Blake, the usually sure handed Dodger 3rd baseman, inexplicably came down with Bill Buckner disease — which must be some kind of congenital Dodger disorder — and let the ball go through his legs. Two runs scored and now the Phillies were only down 9-8.

The next batter, catcher Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz, who was an offensive afterthought two years ago and has now arguably become the team’s MVP, hit a double to left center, driving in Werth and Francisco.

The Phillies had won.

I ran out of the house, the local natural foods store was closing in ten minutes.

Second baseman Chase Utley, the best all around position player in baseball came off the disabled list last night as the Phillies beat the Giants, 6-2, to go ahead in the Wild Card race.

First baseman, Ryan Howard, one of the three best power hitters in baseball, probably comes back on the weekend.

It’s the middle of August; my wife is out of the country; my son is on the road shooting a movie; I still don’t have a car, and the race is on.

I’ll keep you posted.

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