December 30, 2008

There Will Be Wrestling

There Will Be Blood, released last year, was a movie defined by a performance. Daniel Day-Lewis dominated the film as the treacherous Daniel Plainview, and luckily, he was in almost every single shot. However, at the same time, there was something detached about him. He was animated, absolutely engrossing, and at times, hilarious, but still just a character on a screen. Most moviegoers hadn't grown up near a rig, hadn't spent much time with maniacal oil barons. There was no relating to Daniel Plainview.

But I spent my entire childhood watching wrestling, and I've spent a good portion of my older years learning more and more about their profession. And Mickey Rourke, and his performance in The Wrestler, defines a job, an era, a series of real-life people and in-ring characters as well as humanly possible.

The Wrestler has been compared to Rocky, and that is a mistake for so many reasons. Do not walk into this movie thinking that a good person will overcome the odds to succeed in the end. Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Rourke's character, is not a good person. He's not particularly a bad person, either; he just seems to have spent his entire life devaluing everything but wrestling.

His daughter hates him, and rightfully so, as he sleeps through reconciliation dinners with her after a night of blowing lines and banging groupies. His ex-wife is nonexistent, and his only real companions are the kids around his trailer park, the Randy Robinson action figure taped to his van' s dashboard, and the NES game, starring himself, that he shows off to the same unimpressed kids.

The Wrestler is not about getting your one big shot; "The Ram" had that a long time ago, and for reasons not explained, he blew it. It's not about the intrinsic value of love and family; "The Ram" blew those things, too. In a way, it's about accepting your fate, who you are and what you love.

Randy's place is in the ring; he's not great at dating, fathering, or deli work. In the end, he resigns himself to his fate, and he accepts that resignation not with sadness but with a look of pure joy. He belongs on the top rope, listening to the fans, doing the only thing he appears to have ever been good at in the only place he's ever been respected.

And this is why the movie touches me so much. Anyone who has been a wrestling fan knows what has happened to the stars of years past - everyone but Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair seems to be dead, drunk or legally insane. It's an industry that chews you up and spits you out. As "The Ram" makes clear throughout the film, staying jacked, blonde and tan at an age when none of those things are natural delays not only the aging process but your inevitable retirement from the sport.

But in a way, wrestlers know what they are getting into from day one. Maybe that's why not a lot has been made of all the death, drugs and worse that has come out in the last few years; there's an unspoken bond between the fans, the media, the promotion and the wrestlers that this is a sideshow, a place that only a truly committed person can survive, and a place where the laws and functions of traditional society do not apply.

And it's a place I spent much of my childhood idolizing. The storylines, the matches, the unchained intensity of promotions like Extreme Championship Wrestling (and one of its spiritual successors featured in the movie, Combat Zone Wrestling) - I loved it all. As I grew up, I grew out of watching it on a weekly basis, but I still look back fondly on all the hours I spent enjoying it. And I cringe, sometimes even get upset, every time another favorite wrestler from the 1980s drops dead. I don't know these guys personally, obviously, but I do know that for all they gave fans like me, they deserve better.

So when Rourke gives a performance like this, a tour de force where he is not only scarily realistic but accurately portraying an inhabitant of the old-time wrestling world, it touches me. It'll bring light to an issue, an issue that probably won't change but will be noticed, discussed, and respected for what it is.

A few people behind us in the theater got upset at the ending; they wanted closure. I think you couldn't imagine a more perfect finale. Rourke's face when on the top turnbuckle, tears streaming down his cheeks, soaking in what was, no matter what happened to him, the last truly joyous moment of his life; that was the ending. In that sense, Randy Robinson is a character, just like Daniel Plainview. But the substance of Robinson, the performance of Rourke, and the truly amazing look into a different aspect of the world of professional wrestling; these are things that make The Wrestler something special, that make it the best movie of 2008.

December 24, 2008

Christmas with Armageddon

This year, the best Christmas gift I received was watching Armageddon on Encore Action!.

It's a movie that takes a lot of flack. The Comcast cable TV listings give it only 1.5 stars; IMDB gives it a 6.0 out of 10. It's directed by the universally mocked Michael Bay, strongly features the universally mocked Ben Affleck and offers up an admittedly hackneyed save-the-world plot.

It's also one of the best movies I've ever seen.

It's right up there with The Godfather I and II, L.A. Confidential, Raging Bull, The Royal Tenenbaums and any other movie that I'd consider a modern masterpiece. It may not be about an important social dilemma, a tumultuous time in history or a cultural icon who defied the odds to represent his generation, but it's my opinion that, not only is it as entertaining as any of these films, it's equally as well-made.

I am a firm believer that strong dramas, especially independent films, get far too much acclaim from both critics and award giver-outers. Heart-wrenching, "important" films about female serial killers, a pair of gay cowboys, social upheaval in suburbia - for better or worse, these are the movies that get Academy Awards, five stars in the paper and industry cred for the standout performance. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, or an all-together incorrect thing - Sean Penn in Milk delivers a better performance than Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, despite the fact that both 100% nail their respective roles.

But it's not always accurate. You can't lump all comedies, action films and thrillers into an "Other" category when describing a well-made movie. Armageddon came out in 1998 and was not nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but you will never convince me that Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth and Life is Beautiful were better movies (Saving Private Ryan was, but that's not my point).

At the very least, Armageddon is just about the best disaster movie ever made. Not only are the special effects on and involving the asteroid terrific, but the casting could not be more top-notch. Wonderful character actors like Michael Clarke Duncan, William Fichtner, Peter Stormare, Keith David and Steve Buscemi give every scene the appropriate level of either humor, intensity and/or plausibility. Bruce Willis dominates yet another action film as the steely eyed hero, and Ben Affleck turns in probably the best performance of his career as the ne'er-do-well who desires the love of both Willis and his daughter.

It's a two hour and 30 minute popcorn movie, and it rarely gets tiresome (assuming you go to the bathroom every time a Liv Tyler/Affleck love scene starts). The first half sets up the characters perfectly while never going over the top with the fish-out-of-water, drillers-as-astronauts scenario, and the second half throws you right into the action while convincing the viewer that every character in the movie could die before it's over. As a veteran of these types of films, you take for granted that the big names will make it back. Willis' sacrifice at the end is a pretty big curveball for a make-everyone-happy studio film, and it only adds to the sense of courage and conviction the characters come to stand for.

And it makes me cry. There is no movie on Earth that can make me cry as easily as Armageddon. Willis courageously taking on Affleck's responsibility to save the day, Bruce's speech to his daughter, William Fichtner's request to "shake the hand of the daughter of the bravest man I've ever met" - tears stream down my face every time. I've seen my fair share of romances, love stories, and tearjerkers in my 12 or so years as a serious fan of film, and I can say that no movie does it as well as Armageddon. You cry because you wish you had the understated bravery of Bruce Willis; you cry because you know it kills him to break such a promise to his daughter; you cry because he backs up his words and proves his mettle, and his valor, to every other character on that ship.

So much of Armageddon's strength stems from Bruce Willis and what he brings to the table. He plays the movie straight as an arrow; he's just there to do his job, no matter what the cost. He's playing Bruce Willis, and this gives him a credibility with the audience that few other actors have. We have no doubt that he's going to save the day, but the matter in which he does us gives us another reason to affirm his status as a true hero.

Everyone plays off him; Affleck doesn't have to do much besides look doe-eyed and try to impress Bruce; this is something he's adept at. The one-liners fired off by the comic relief every time Willis takes a stand or says something serious only add to the beacon of stability he represents. Plus, appearances by a young, post-Anaconda Owen Wilson, the guy who played Vegetable Lasagna on an episode of "Seinfeld," the pool hustler Joe Pesci outsmarts in My Cousin Vinny and Lucius Malfoy from Harry Potter make great trivia to impress your friends with.

There's a right way to make movies and a wrong way. Some people like to elevate the medium to an untouchable art form and hiss upon anything that diminishes what they consider to be its elite status, but there's nothing wrong with being entertained in the proper way. With that in mind, Armageddon has everything you could ever want in a movie. There is action, there is comedy, there is good acting, there are special effects, and there is emotion.

If you aren't seeing it, if you think it's fun and clever to point out the foibles in a thoroughly enjoyable film, perhaps the problem lies with you, and not Bruce Willis, Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, and the rest of the fine cast and crew who made this underrated, overwhelming story of human struggle, sacrifice and perseverance.

December 22, 2008

Why Pat Burrell Matters

When it comes to Pat Burrell, it’s not your first memory of the man but the last that counts.


That memory, for most, is his seventh-inning shot off the center field wall of Citizens Bank Park in Game 5 of the World Series. It’s been said recently that Pat took a long look around the field after he got to second base, knowing that this could be both his final moment of the World Series and final moment as a Philadelphia Phillie. Implied there is that each Phillies fan also took their one last look at Pat, and as well they should. There may never be another like him in this city.


His ups and downs, strikes and gutters have been recapped in words both written and spoken too many times to count. His virtues have been extolled, his faults exemplified, and the debate over the proper superlative to brand upon Pat Burrell probably won’t end until his career does. Did he spend his entire time in Philadelphia underachieving, or were the successes at the end enough to justify countless years, dollars and brain synapses spent analyzing, teaching and pondering Pat Burrell?


Short of Brian Dawkins, Jimmy Rollins and Simon Gagne, there’s been no longer tenured athlete in recent Philadelphia sports, and short of Donovan McNabb, there’s been no one more lustily debated about. He came in as the number one pick in the 1998 draft and left haggling over a multi-year contract at age 32, but these are just numbers, dates. These are facts, and they do not make the man. His on-base percentage isn’t what made him special, and neither is his lead-footedness on the base paths.


It is not about the redemption of Pat Burrell. It is not about how he went from victim of incessant booing to grand marshal of a victory parade better than our wildest dreams. The boos can turn to cheers quickly in any town, Philadelphia including. No, it is not about surprise at his late-career popularity, but the change, in everything, that made it possible.


What it is about is that, somehow, he got this city. For all those like Allen Iverson who know how to play to the crowd, for those like Brian Dawkins who feed off its energy, Pat Burrell understood it. He had to, or else those boos would have driven him mad. He slumped as much as a professional baseball player can slump without losing his job, and he participated on some of the worst, and then some of the most underachieving, Philadelphia sports teams of the last 15 years.


But he rejected every opportunity to leave town, and he denied every opportunity to strike back at the fans – almost as if he knew why they responded to successes and failures with such zeal. His only partial rebellion was requesting “Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley as his at-bat music, a shot at the media’s propensity to ‘kick ‘em when they’re up, kick ‘em when they’re down.’ Funny, and apt. For most players, it would imply that one foot is already out of the door.


But Pat kept at it, and he fought to get healthy, and he stayed. And he seemed to come to terms with himself and limitations, too. When it came time for glory to finally be bestowed upon Pat Burrell, it was to be a cog in the machine, not as the machine itself. Inflating salaries had made his previously bloated contract reasonable, and the arrival of true superstars like Cole Hamels and Chase Utley, combined with increasing years of familiarity, meant less pressure on Pat to be something he simply could not be.


And, surprisingly, this worked. For a prospect who had been touted since high school as the second coming of Jesus Christ on a baseball diamond, this kind of accepted regression, accompanied by mutual fan understanding, is not a typical turn of events. But it made sense, and it was a long time coming, and Pat seemed OK with it. And it worked.


In the end, our last true on-field memory of Pat Burrell is not his big hit but his removal for a pinch-runner, and that is how he should be remembered. He is not the idol that some people are now making him out to be; he was a complimentary piece, a slugging right-handed bat, a prodding outfielder prone to hair-pulling slumps.


He was a letdown, he was wasted talent, he was tenacious, he was integral. But he stuck around long enough to mash all that together into something different, to make his removal from the game, his exclusion from scoring the game-winning run a justified, acceptable part of his legacy. That wasn’t what everyone had in mind back in 1998, but for this city, for that man, it’s more than most will ever get.

December 18, 2008

I'll have the Ruben to go

The second most-anticipated administration in America is finally in power. Ruben Amaro Jr. has (essentially) completed his first offseason as general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, and it was a success.

This is not a universally agreed-upon opinion. For starters, much has been made of the switch from Pat Burrell to Raul Ibanez. And I must admit, there will be times when the team will miss Pat's patience at the plate, his commitment to Philadelphia and his right-handed bat. However, every report on Ibanez describes him as a wonderful teammate, a hard-working athlete and a dedicated student of hitting. Greg Dobbs himself stated that if a transition in left field had to be made, Ibanez is the perfect type of guy to move on to.

The Phillies will certainly suffer an embarrassing loss or two, or a half-dozen, to left-handed pitchers like Johan Santana before the year is out, but they will also positively crush right-handers. They are wagering that Ibanez will continue to hit at a steady clip, and they are also wagering that Jayson Werth will continue to develop as a rising star in right field. Both assumptions, in my opinion, have some merit to them. While the logic behind not offering arbitration to Pat Burrell still escapes me, this is a move that guarantees a level of offensive production out of left field.

Of course, offense gets all the headlines, but as the Phillies proved last season, pitching wins championships. And in resigning Jamie Moyer and Scott Eyre while adding Chan Ho Park to the bullpen, the Phillies maintained a commitment to pitching. While Moyer may not recapture last year's truly astounding numbers, he's been the model of consistency ever since coming to Philadelphia. Every other prediction concerning a dropoff in his effectiveness has been proven incorrect, and his style does indicate the kind of pitcher who can survive without a great deal of wear and tear on his arm. Meanwhile, what ended up being the greatest strength of last year's team - the bullpen - seems deep enough to survive a regression-to-the-norm that some of its key pieces are likely to endure. These are good things.

This might read as a Phillies press release, but I prefer to think of it as rational logic from a fan who finally accepts and understands how this team operates. You see, to view Ruben's offseason correctly, you HAVE to look at it through Phillies-colored glasses. As much as fans would like to see them make a big splash with a Derek Lowe or a Manny Ramirez, that just isn't going to happen. The Phillies operate under a budget - a budget that seems to have increased, as it should, after a World Series victory, but a budget nonetheless. This means that their margin of error is slim.

When an Adam Eaton or a Geoff Jenkins is signed to a lengthy contract and does not perform up to par, the team does not have the flexibility to treat the contracts given to them as dead money (unless, of course, you're as God-awful as Adam Eaton and force this notoriously thrifty team's hand). This is why Pat Gillick proved so useful - he was adept at the little moves, and the only way this team was ever going to win the World Series is if they got lucky (or smart) when cheaply plugging the holes. A few Moyers, Werths, Durbins and Dobbses later, we have a ring.

So Ruben Amaro didn't pull out his checkbook, but he did make moves that appear, at the very least, to be safe. Ibanez isn't a spring chicken, but there's no denying that a) he does a lot of things well, b) he has been consistent, even into his golden years, and c) his contract is not that outrageous. Ditto for Moyer. Park is on a low risk, one-year deal, as is Eyre. Jason Jaramillo and Greg Golson were lost causes in Philadelphia, but Ronny Paulino and John Mayberry Jr. come with a bit of potential.

And then there's arbitration. An underrated subplot for this offseason is that, in the days before World Series championships, the Phillies probably could not afford to bring every arbitration-eligible player back. At the very least, another ultimately failed season could provide a reasonable excuse to trade certain expensive players (cough cough Ryan Howard cough cough) away for 80 cents on the dollar. But now, there's no going back. Everyone knows their wallets are more than a little thicker, and everyone knows that each arbitration-eligible player had a whole lot to do with the parade we had just a few months ago. They can't afford the PR hit, and they CAN afford to shell out some cash. So, Werth will get his multi-year deal, Madson, Hamels and Howard will get big raises, and the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies will look a lot like the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies.

This is not the optimal solution (upgrading is always nice), but it's not bad. We still have arguably the best bullpen in baseball, we still have a top-five lineup and opening the season with Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ sure beats Adam Eaton and Kyle Kendrick. Does this insure a World Series repeat? No. Should we be more frightened of the Mets, who have acquired two important pieces for their bullpen? Yes. But JJ Putz and K-Rod are right-handed pitchers, and you know that Raul Ibanez is sitting in his hyperbaric chamber right now, salivating at the thought of teeing off on them in the late innings. Because we are World Fucking Champions, and, so far, Ruben Amaro Jr. has worked, to the best of his ability, to keep us that way.

November 17, 2008

Would you like to tie me up with some of your ties, Ty?

I'm only 23 years old, but I have to imagine that was the most deserved tie in the history of the National Football League.

As the clock ticked down in overtime, I was openly rooting for the score to stay deadlocked. Not because it was more beneficial to the Eagles' record than a loss would be, but because I wanted the embarrassment that is associated with five quarters of 13-13 football to be bestowed upon the Philadelphia Eagles.

A tie seems like it's always one of the NFL's greatest black-eyes. They can't allow a regular season game to go on indefinitely, but they can't sully the "integrity" of the game with an NHL-esque shootout solution. So, there's that spot always available at the back-end of a team's record, a little space for a second hyphen. Rarely do they use it, but when they do, it's never good.

And in my opinion, this had to be one of the worst. Not for the Cincinnati Bengals, though. The Eagles' defense swarmed them all game, shutting down uber-failure Cedric Benson and keeping the Bengals off the scoreboard, for the most part. Tying a supposed "Super Bowl contender" like the Eagles has to be at least a minor notch in the belt of the soon-to-be-departed Marvin Lewis.

But the Eagles' offense was a disgrace. Donovan McNabb had one of his worst games in recent memory. Brian Westbrook can't be anywhere near 100%, because a) he's barely touching the ball and b) he's not doing anything when he is. The wideouts just keep on dropping passes. The opposing defensive line keeps getting a hand in McNabb's face, batting down balls and hurrying his passes. A week after putting up 30 points on the New York Giants, how can they score only 13 on the lowly Bengals?

A lot of factors, but coaching is a major one. Andy Reid is damned if he does (a season-long breakdown every time they run in a short yardage situation) and damned if he doesn't (13 points with 58 pass attempts on Sunday), and his playcalling doesn't help. Opposing teams have started to sniff out DeSean Jackson. A half-dozen inventive or interesting decisions a game are overshadowed by two dozen inexcusable ones. And his willingness to play for a tie late in overtime shows a coach with no backbone, a coach who is clinging to invisible hopes and the belief that, had a few bounces gone their way earlier in the year, this team would be among the cream of the league.

In a parallel universe, I suppose, that might be true, and it's a sad commentary on the state of the league. In reality, though, this team is the cream of the mediocre, plain and simple. They keep it close with good teams and they used to blow out bad teams, but now they apparently have problems doing that. It's been four years since they were legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and the last time they made any noise in the postseason hunt seems like it had a great deal to do with Jeff Garcia.

I keep coming back to the fact that the roster looks good on paper. They have a lot of talented players lining up every Sunday, and they still can't get the job done. It could end up being a fatal error, but if I was Jeffrey Lurie, I would blame the coaches. Andy Reid has done a lot for this city, but almost every aspect of his act has become tiresome. His offensive system isn't working, his interactions with the media are increasingly grating and dishonest and his team is stagnant, boring and playing without any passion. In a year when Charlie Manuel and his Philadelphia Phillies played with a never-say-die attitude and rose up against the odds to win a world championship, patience with the Philadelphia Eagles is wearing thin.

Before we jettison Donovan McNabb as well, is it that much of a crime to install him in a new system with a new head coach and see how he responds? He doesn't look great, but are we certain that Kevin Kolb will look better? If we're not, then I don't see the point in throwing McNabb out with the rest of the trash. Once he's gone, he's not coming back, and while I don't think anyone will regret saying goodbye to Reid, I don't necessarily feel the same about McNabb.

At the same time, change is needed, and I doubt anyone will argue with it when it comes. No one wants to see another 8-8 year, and absolutely no one wants to hear about how close we were to being 10-6, 11-5. And heads might start exploding if, at the end of year, management tries to call 8-7-1 a "winning season." In the mind of myself, and many other fans, this tie has already defined the 2008 Philadelphia Eagles.

October 29, 2008

Because the Night Belongs to Us

They stole our perfect night.

Who is "they"? Major League Baseball. Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria. Bud Selig ("they" doesn't have to be plural). Mother Nature (or, a physical being of any sort).

They is everyone. They is no one. It doesn't matter.

The point is, the Philadelphia Phillies had a clinching game, in Citizens Bank Park, with Cole Hamels on the mound. And they didn't win.

The celebration, the euphoria, the game itself, were put on hold. It was going to be the greatest moment in recent Philadelphia sports history, and now it's just the punchline of what Peter Gammons has correctly dubbed "the worst World Series ever".

But it can be redeemed. They plan to play baseball tonight. We have 12 outs, they have nine. We have the best bullpen in baseball, and theirs is merely acceptable. They do have "Superstar" David Price, but something tells me that if he offers up a repeat of his "otherworldly" 2.33-inning, two-run performance that earned so much unwarranted praise in Game Two, the city of Philadelphia will be on fire (in a good way) by 10 PM.

There is no reason to assume that the momentum has swung towards Tampa Bay. While the Phillies failed to capitalize on many, many more opportunities in Game 5 Part 1, it took some extreme effort, luck and talent just for the Rays to tie in the game in the half-inning-that-should-never-have-been-played. The Phillies may have lost Cole Hamels and the lead, but they haven't forgotten that they're still the better team, that they still have four more offensive go-arounds to win it all in front of their home fans.

While Joe Buck and Tim McCarver sobbed about the Rays' poor fortune in being "forced" into playing those three outs that could end up saving their season, the Phillies waited, then steamed, then recalibrated themselves. No one has ever played a World Series Game, Part Two like the one that is coming up tonight, but in my opinion, it's going to be fitting, it's going to end up being the final bit of purgatory that Philadelphia fans have to suffer through before making it to the promised land.

I'm not nervous about tonight. I'm anxious. As per ESPN.com, the Phillies have been in a tie game, batting at home, 11 times this year. They've won 7 of those games. The odds are in our favor, and while the Rays claim to "love" being the underdog, someone should remind them that the house always wins. As Brad Pitt says in Ocean's Eleven, "You play long enough, never change the stakes, the house takes you." The stakes are the same. One more game to the World Series, and this house, Citizens Bank Park, is going to be as ready as ever.

And that other part of the quote? The part that goes, "Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big, and then you take the house." Well, the Rays got nothing big left to bet. Their wad has been shot. They're on their heels, because they have nine outs left, and we have 12. Play ball.

October 27, 2008

All I Want

Back when the Philadelphia Eagles were a perennial NFC powerhouse, I remember telling anyone who'd listen that I'd prefer a Philadelphia Phillies World Series over an Eagles Super Bowl. Most people disagreed, but I cited the intensity and importance of every pitch, the epic-ness of a possible seven-game series and the camaraderie built up between a team and its fan base over a 162-game season.

Well, we're here, and it's just as good as I thought it would be.

With Cole Hamels taking the mound for a possible Series-clincher in less than five hours, a lot of thoughts are running through my head. Mostly, though, I'm just happy for Philadelphia. I haven't been home for a second of the run, unfortunately, but everything I hear indicates that the hunt for Red October has enveloped every inch of the city. The City of Brotherly Love is a cauldron of sports nuts who've been steaming for a championship for more than two decades, and this team, this collection of cast-offs and superstars, plug-ins and ace pitchers, has endeared themselves to the town better than anyone would have thought.

Maybe because they're not perfect, either. Hell, about two months ago, they looked like they'd barely make the playoffs. However, I think that's the beauty behind it all. This team didn't look good on paper, and they didn't execute the way championship teams were supposed to execute, and they were streaky as all hell. But they had solid pitching and a marvelous bullpen, and they never gave up, and they were as tenacious a team as you'll find. They were an amazing combination of steadiness and erraticness, frustration and passion, and they found themselves in the perfect situation to make a serious run. And they took it, which, for all their flaws, is the one trait Philadelphia has longed for in their teams. The ability to be in the right place at the right time, to snatch the glory when someone else leaves it hanging. We've had talented teams since 1983, but no one with the ability to do that. Maybe this is the one.

There's no guarantees tonight; if the Rays have any semblance of pride, they won't go down without a fight. But the hope is that Cole Hamels doesn't give them an option, that he shows everyone why he's arguably the most important, if not the best, pitcher in baseball. Or at least the big-gamer we all hoped he'd become. He's 24 years old, he's in his first World Series, and he didn't grow up with the weight of a city on his back. While we were pining, he was out surfing. He's got ice water in his veins, and if the past is prologue like people say, tonight he's going to remind us all why we watch sports. Go Phillies.

October 14, 2008

Phuck Yeah

Greg Dobbs's uncensored post-game profanity says it all.

I hadn't turned the game off, but I'd essentially given up. The momentum seemed to have firmly swung the Dodgers' way, and that depressed me. A 2-2 NLCS series tie was going to erase all the hard work the Phillies had put in back at Citizens Bank Park. "At least we have Cole going on Wednesday," I thought. Leaving behind the HDTV in the living room, I laid quietly on my bed for what I thought were going to be the last few disappointing innings.

Ryan Howard's error in the bottom of the 6th sucked the life out of me, to the point where I didn't even see Chase Utley's (essentially) game-saving double play. Rather than watch how that inning would commence, I took the trash out, a chore that brought me more joy than most of the first seven innings had. Joe Blanton didn't exactly pull a Moyer, but he also didn't offer more than the bare minimum. Missed run-scoring opportunities in the first inning were coming back to haunt the Phillies, and Chad Durbin was already being fitted for a goat costume back in the locker room. To paraphrase Terrell Owens, if it looks like a loss and smells like a loss, well....

But I forgot the cardinal rule of following the Philadelphia Phillies - never lose hope. How many times has this team battled back in the late innings, stealing a game they had no business sticking around in? More times than I can count. That's what happens when you have a bullpen that keeps it close and a bunch of mashers who can drive the ball out in the blink of an eye.

Luckily, I did remember the vice-cardinal rule - keep your TV on. Sure, I might as well have curled up with a pint of Ben & Jerry's and a glass of pinot grigio while sobbing my eyes out, the way I was acting, but I was still watching. I was watching when Ryan Howard singled (finally!) and I was screaming when Shane Victorino took Cory Wade yard. I started thinking inappropriate thoughts when Carlos Ruiz singled, and I went absolutely berserk when Matt Stairs punished that Jonathan Broxton high fastball.

Simply put, I'll never doubt this team again. I'll never doubt what they're capable of, and I especially won't doubt the inescapable thought that this is really something special. Four teams make the Championship Series each year, and two make the World Series, but they don't all do it this way. Their centerfielder doesn't suddenly acquire the power stroke of their monstrous first baseman, their Mendoza-esque catcher doesn't remember how to hit in the nick of time, and their softball-slugger backup outfielder doesn't casually smack the biggest homer of his career (in Phillies postseason history?). This is the stuff that you watch over and over on World Series Champions DVDs. I'm not saying they're producing that particular item just yet, but let's just say they've already got most of the content they'll need.

Now, the Phillies are playing with NLCS house money. They've got three games to close out the Dodgers, one started by their ace and two in the safe confines of Citizens Bank Park. Unfortunately, they'll still be staring down Manny Ramirez, Rafael Furcal and the other pesky Dodgers that have pecked (or bashed) away at them all series. But right now, that doesn't matter. Last night was the kind of win that breaks hearts, even the wacky, child-like heart of Manny's. Teams don't just bounce back from such a devastating turn of events like that.

Of course, if anyone can get them back up again, it's Joe Torre. His biggest problem might be that it's too little, too late. What seemed like a dead-even NLCS a week ago now seems like a treacherous climb up a tall set of Stairs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

October 2, 2008

Rock and/or Roll

So, Brett Myers wants to be a rock star?

He wants the ball in his hands with the game on the line?

He's got it.

When you go up against C.C. Sabathia, every pitch you make is with the game on the line. The man is a machine - I think he's started 12 times in the last 10 days. People have compared him to Bob Gibson, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, William Howard Taft, etc., but in this era, there's no comparison. After last night, Cole Hamels is an ace by any and all definitions, but I can't see him even WILLING to string together two consecutive three-day starts. And that's no slight against Cole - he just doesn't have the strength for it. C.C. does.

And he's good. He's a lefty, and he'll almost certainly mow down Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Geoff Jenkins and any other lefties who are unfortunate enough to be matched up against him. Jayson Werth, Pat Burrell and our other "lefty killers" (all of whom are struggling at the same time, joy of joys) might have a prayer. At this point, though, I think most Phillies fans are rooting for C.C.'s arm to legitimately fall off of his body, because if it stays attached, he's going to be trouble.

So it's on Brett. The same way Cole dominated yesterday afternoon, Brett needs to dominate tonight. There's always a few 8-6 slugfests in a postseason run, but this probably won't be one of them. It'll be a pitchers' duel, as long as both men bring the requisite amount of bullets. Brett claims his problems in the last start were mechanical, and that he was able to identify them immediately after the game. Well, he's had almost a week off to confirm those suspicions, and he's had plenty of rest. He should be reloaded, he should be good to go. There's no excuses anymore; we've seen what he CAN do. He CAN match C.C.

And this is his game. The offense sputtered last night, and rationality and statistics (and a large black man) all point towards another sputter tonight. So, for maybe the first time in his career, Brett gets to be a full-game closer. Somehow, he's put the whole "wife-beater" thing behind him, and the fans are ready and willing to embrace him. Win tonight, and we'll put the first-half struggles behind us, too. Doors open at 6 P.M. for the show tonight, Brett. You're the opener AND the main event. Let's see you wail.

September 29, 2008

Madam, I Pray You're Not Toying With Me

In the time I’ve spent interacting romantically with the opposite sex, I’ve discovered that there are girls with the tendency to put a halt to situations at key moments. These girls, usually acting either coy or pretentiously intelligent, seem to think that hesitating before taking this “significant” plunge will assuage any fears they may have about what might come next. Of course, this requires them to ignore the fact that they’ve already stated a rather obvious interest, along with having spent a decent amount of time or thought on getting the circumstances this far in the first place.

These actions either confuse or frustrate me. “Why would someone act this way,” I wonder, “when both desire and rational thought are clearly pointing them in the right direction?” Are they merely attempting to insure that I won’t hurt them emotionally, or do they take a certain pleasure in believing that they’ll always have the ability to pick and choose, believe or ignore? It usually seems like more trouble than it’s worth, and unless you consider it in another context, it can be borderline insane. That other context, though, is being a Philadelphia sports fan.

We, Philadelphia sports fans, can often be coy or pretentiously intelligent. We’re coy because we know what committing ourselves entirely can do; we’ve seen the failures of the past, so excuse us if we’re a bit disdainful or aloof when asked to believe in another overachieving bunch of rapscallions who probably won’t come through in the clutch. We’re pretentiously intelligent because many of us think we’re on a level above the common sports fan and his simpleton rooting styles. Anyone can show up with an empty head and cheer for 9 guys in baseball uniforms, but to be able to constantly critique, judge and malign these subpar superstars, well, therein lies the true joy of sports fandom. Being a sports fan in Philadelphia isn’t often easy, so if you choose to distance yourself for safety’s sake, or distance the game itself with constant mockeries, you can feel confident that you’ve made the right choice.

But you haven’t. The fact that you went to the effort to make an informed decision on how to deal with your fandom shows that you already care more than enough as it is. Desire and rational thought are telling you to care, and its just your fears that push you the opposite way. Fears that are usually unjustified, by the way. Just because you’ve watched teams come up short year after year has little bearing on what you’re now seeing; odds are, it’s an entirely different set of guys who just happen to wear the same jerseys. There’s no curses, no supernatural reason why you haven’t gotten to babysit a trophy for 12 months. There’s probably a lot of teams, usually 30, in your sport of choice, and a bunch of them probably spend more money or employ smarter management personnel than yours. This shouldn’t make you pull back anytime an opportunity arises to connect with them in a more intimate, engaging fashion.

I bring this up due to a polarizing weekend featuring the Philadelphia Phillies and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Phillies, long a black sheep in the foursome of Philadelphia sports, earned their second straight division title on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Eagles, considered to be one of the premier franchises in the NFL, lost a heartbreaker to the Chicago Bears on Sunday Night Football. The Phillies victory was exciting but unconvincing; for about a half-decade, this very talented team has made a habit of underachieving, and many local fans might still be hesitant to buy into them. The Eagles loss was crushing but expected; popular opinion remains that Donovan McNabb will never win the big game, and that Andy Reid might not coach another one. Two totally different outcomes, but two more opportunities to distance ourselves from a “projected” catastrophe that no one can adequately project.

This, it can be argued, is justified; I’ve done it myself. But it’s wrong. The Eagles have 12 regular season games left to play, most of whom will probably feature their currently injured star running back, Brian Westbrook. A week ago, most people probably would have considered them a Super Bowl-caliber football team. And the way the Phillies captured this second division title indicates a more mature, more responsible team, a team much more likely to achieve postseason success. The sight of familiar faces that arguably choked in last year’s NLDS against the Colorado Rockies should bring satisfaction as much as it causes concern, as these players now understand that there’s more to a winning season than just getting to the playoffs. It’s 2008, not 2007, and while that might seem simple, it’s not.

If more people adopted this philosophy, sports and life both would be better off. That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach? It’s of your own creation. People are different, relationships are different, teams are different, seasons are different. To judge one based on the other is to deprive yourself of a new sensation for unjustifiable reasons. The 2008 Phillies might break my heart, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to break yours.

September 24, 2008

The Eagles Challenge Brian Urlacher to an Honor Du-el

Enjoy before reading.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, enough cannot be said about the Eagles' defensive performance last Sunday. Anyone who has followed Brian Dawkins throughout his career should have seen an angry, dominating performance on the horizon after the shellacking he took in the media last week, but somehow, we all ended up surprised. Pleasantly surprised, of course, as Dawkins showed both fans and press that he's still got much more in the tank.

But really, I can't specifically remember a pass rush being that effective. Not only that, but Broderick Bunkley, Mike Patterson and company continued their quest to be recognized as the best run defense in the NFL, and right now, there's no competition. Statistically, they're the best in the whole league at 45.7 yards allowed per game, and that's after facing Steven Jackson, Marion Barber and Willie Parker. Few would argue that they're all among the top ten backs in football, and only Barber had anything close to a decent game. Jim Johnson has always been primarily known as a blitzing, pass-rushing defensive coordinator, but it looks like (whether he likes it or not) he's assembled the most stout rushing defense in recent Eagles history.

Which should prove handy this weekend against the Chicago Bears. Kyle Orton may have once had a terrific beard, but he's now just a subpar quarterback. If Big Ben could not handle the Eagles' pressure, who knows what will happen to Orton if the Birds send six or seven guys consistently? Orton's biggest "threats" at wideout are retread Marty Booker and out-of-place kick returner Devin Hester, who may not even play on Sunday. The only player I'd be nervous about is tight end Greg Olsen, as TEs have been the Eagles' Achilles heel thus far. Even Steelers TE Heath Miller had 4 catches for 63 yards, by far the most impressive offensive output produced by Pittsburgh. If coach Lovie Smith sticks to a gameplan centered around Olsen and other short pass plays, they may keep Orton upright long enough to put some points on the board.

But, if they decide to try and dominate the ground game with rookie sensation Matt Forte, well, we've seen how that works out for opposing teams. Right now, the down tackles look big, the ends look athletic, and the linebackers look like the perfect combination of both. That's a dangerous situation to go to war against, and I'm sure Jim Johnson would love to stuff Forte early, allow the offense to build an early lead and force Orton to put the ball in the air. Orton makes mistakes, and unlike last year's team, this Eagles defense has shown a nose for the ball in the first few weeks.

And then there's the vaunted Bears defense. Despite a lot of hype (and the genuinely scary Brian Urlacher of the previously mentioned commercial), the Bears recorded zero sacks on 67 Tampa Bay pass attempts last week. 67! Now, my knowledge of the Tampa offensive line is subpar at best, but if you can't get to the quarterback once in that many tries, it speaks as much about your pass rush as anything else. So far, the Bears are allowing 321 yards per game, good for only 18th in the NFL, and they've recorded just five sacks. For an Eagles team who would like to keep Donovan McNabb as healthy and untouched as possible, that is a good sign.

The real question this week is: Play Brian Westbrook? Despite how anemic the offense looked without him, I think if a weekend off is medically confirmed to do him some good, there is no reason to play him. The Bears will not be a pushover, but the Eagles look like a genuine playoff team, and with a healthy Westbrook (and everyone else, of course), there's no reason they can't compete for a Super Bowl berth. It is a little early to be looking that far ahead, but when you're talking about arguably the most talented player in the whole National Football League, his continued health is the number one priority. As exciting as last week was, seeing both McNabb and Westbrook injured as enough to ruin even the most satisfying defensive trouncing.

The Bears are a decent team, but they are beatable in almost any circumstance. In the past, the Eagles have won, despite frequent McNabb injuries, with a combination of Westbrook and defense. This year, they could be lucky enough to keep the old no. 5 around and have a trifecta of overwhelming positives, but the key element in this whole brew is no. 36. The honorable thing to do in this week's du-el is give Brian a week to rest his weary bones and pound Kyle Orton and Matt Forte like their names are Roethlisberger and Parker. Urlacher might be on the opposing sideline, but I think he'd still understand.

September 16, 2008

Out with the Old

Can you blame the starting quarterback, he of the "25 for 37, 281 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT" gem that kept the Philadelphia Eagles from being blown out of the water by the Dallas Cowboys, can you blame him for ultimately losing the game, 41-37?

Absolutely. If you're a Philadelphia sports fan, you've got a PhD in spreading blame, and Donovan McNabb earned his fair share.

Of course, so did Brian Dawkins, so did the entire Eagles secondary, so did the offensive line in the second half and the defensive line throughout the game. Surprisingly enough, for a game as competitive and entertaining as last night's Monday night showdown turned out to be, as my friend Walt put it, "the blood was on everyone's hands."

And partly on Donovan's. Yes, he looked like the quarterback of old - scrambling, evading tacklers, pulling miraculous plays out of nowhere, even breaking an old-fashioned run here and there. But at the same time, he really looked like the Donovan of old. The Donovan who has never been much for fourth-quarter comebacks, the Donovan who often seems to tighten up in a tough situation. Both he and Andy Reid have shown a tendency in the past to abandon what has been working when a game gets close, and last night, there was McNabb, forcing balls into double-coverage, into the ground, into the open air a solid foot above Brian Westbrook.

And then there's the fumble, something I still haven't had explained to me by the various Eagles sites I frequent day after day. I'm not sure which lines were crossed between Westbrook and McNabb, but I do know that it was a key error, perhaps even more damaging than Romo's earlier fumble in the endzone. Romo's blunder was painful, but the Eagles' fumble was in the waning moments of a shootout, and the Cowboys received an extra bullet in their chamber. The way Romo, Barber, Witten and Co. had been playing up to that point, one more shot was all they really needed.

Did McNabb lose the game, either with the fumble or the failed final drive? Technically, yes, but you can't pin the bulk of it on him. Dallas might be the best team in the NFL, and a more optimistic human being might note that we gave an elite team all it could handle, in their own arena, on football's biggest stage. But the NFL doesn't offer a column on the division standings for "Good Efforts." A loss is a loss, and this ended up being a telling loss, indeed.

On one hand, it told us that the Eagles can probably play with anyone. It told us that our offense has the potential to be tremendous, even without Kevin Curtis and "That Other Guy Who Used to Start Before We Got DeSean Jackson." It told us that our defense is still a work in progress, and our special teams, even more so. Most of all, though, it told us that our quarterback is as close to back as he's going to get. If he stays healthy, he's going to win a lot of games this year. But, at the same time, he's still the Donovan we remember throwing up in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. He had his first real test in three years, and he came a little short of acing it. Last night, I remembered how much I appreciate Donovan McNabb, but I also remembered why his fingers are still ring-less.