December 15, 2009

Happy halladays.

I hate the fact that Philadelphia Phillies fans have to wait a year, maybe more, to determine the true worth of the Roy Halladay trade.

Truths: Roy Halladay is better than Cliff Lee. Roy Halladay is signing a reasonable (relatively speaking), short extension, something Cliff Lee would almost certainly not do. Roy Halladay is probably the best pitcher in baseball, and he's become that despite facing the potent Yankees and Red Sox lineups 15 times a year.

But what I keep coming back to is that we could have kept Cliff Lee. If the Phillies had offered Jamie Moyer arbitration (and a one-year contract) last year rather than a two-year deal...if the Phillies had non-tendered Joe Blanton last week, or traded him for peanuts (don't try and convince me no one would take Joe Blanton; they just wouldn't give us value back)...then the Cliff Lee salary dump (and trust me, the Mariners prospects may be decent, but they weren't their best; it was about losing $9 million from the payroll) might not have to happen.

But instead, we're paying Jamie Moyer around $8 million this year, and Joe Blanton will probably clock in about there, as well. Hindsight is 20/20, and it's easy to nitpick moves made in the past. And more specifically, its probably unreasonable to expect Ruben Amaro to cut ties with Joe Blanton with no Halladay deal right on the cusp. But moves like these, short-sighted decisions that ended up bloating our payroll, along with an openly professed desire for Halladay, allowed the Blue Jays and Mariners to rake us over the coals in the manner that they did.

The Jays might not have gotten a king's ransom for their ace, but they got two of our top three prospects and a solid catching prospect. And the Mariners got our postseason hero, a former Cy Young winner with World Series excellence added to his resume. And we had to trade that postseason hero because in 2010, we owe Moyer and Blanton together a Halladay-esque salary.

As a result of this trade, are we a better team in 2010? Probably in the regular season, as Halladay could easily win 20 games in the National League. But in the playoffs, Halladay can't start more than two, maybe three games a series. And Lee won the two games he started in the World Series. Unless Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge return to form, the Phillies probably won't win another title in 2010.

Are we a better team in 2011? That's the real question. Logic dicates that 2011 was the year Michael Taylor was going to take over for Jayson Werth and Kyle Drabek was going to fill a hole in our rotation left by Joe Blanton. But now, both of them play elsewhere, and the Phils may have to turn to more expensive free agents as an answer.

To be successful in baseball for an extended amount of time, you need to mix young, cheap talent with older, exorbitantly paid superstars. In Ryan Howard, Roy Halladay and Chase Utley, we certainly have the latter. But of the former...well, we're a bit limited. And that could cause a lot of issues down the line.

I will be the first to admit that once we see Roy Halladay take the mound on Opening Day, all this talk won't matter. And I also understand that prospects are not guaranteed to evolve into contributing major leaguers, which is why we shouldn't really lament the loss of Taylor and Drabek. But I think that, with some foresight and creative thinking, we could have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels leading the rotation in 2010, and near-Rookie of the Year J.A. Happ would be in the number four slot. That's a rotation that beats even what they're putting together in Boston, and it kills me that Rube didn't make it happen. Maybe I'm expecting too much from him after the "right-place, right-time" perfection of the Lee/Francisco trade.

That said, all we can do is adore Roy Halladay and hope one or two of Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez pan out. But I know that when I heard on Monday afternoon that we were trading Cliff Lee to the Mariners and then sending Mariners prospects (and Taylor) to the Blue Jays for Halladay, I loved it. I would miss Cliff Lee, but we were keeping Drabek, and we were trading Lee with a purpose. I could live with that. But once the Lee deal and the Halladay deal became separate entities, and the Lee deal began to look like a knee-jerk move made by a team suddenly lacking the upper hand, my enthusiasm turned into skepticism.

I love Roy Halladay, but he can only pitch once every five days. Whether Ruben Amaro can put good pitchers on the mound the other four days, not to mention eight solid players behind them, well, that's become the real question the Philadelphia Phillies will have to answer.

December 12, 2009

Even stevens.

For the record, I support the firing of John Stevens and the hiring of Peter Laviolette.

I don't think Stevens was the right guy to take this team to the next level, and I like the idea behind a tough, demanding coach that'll shake those Flyers who grew up with Stevens out of their comfort zone.

I also believe that firing Stevens will help Mike Richards grow as a captain. It sounded like Richards wasn't sure how to handle the addition of Chris Pronger to the locker room, with a lot of talk about Pronger being afraid to step on Mikey's toes and a damaging lack of communication between the two.

In a perfect world where human emotions were irrelevant, Pronger would probably have the C. He's done it before, and he has the demeanor and the skills to lead in every facet of the word. But Mike Richards is the face of the franchise, the man with the 12-year contract and the team's leader, for better or worse. I don't think anyone regrets that decision just yet, but Richards needs to grow and mature. And he will. The guy is only eight months older than me, and if you asked me to lead with an intimidating 35-year-old future Hall of Famer looking over my shoulder, I'd probably be a little hesitant as well.

It sounds like Richards took a lot of the blame for the coaching change, which is only partly true but definitely the right way for him to view the situation. Whether Stevens's style was holding the team back or not, more consistent play would have saved the man's job, and the Flyers did not provide that. As the captain, that falls on Mikey, and I think in the end that kind of kick in the ass will make him a better player and leader.

That being said, the timing wasn't right. Even though the Flyers looked awful, there didn't appear to be the need for an immediate change. Did Stevens lose the locker room? Unlikely, although Pronger didn't sound too distraught after the fact. Clearly Paul Holmgren lost faith in his coach, and that's understandable based on their recent play. But rather than inspire the team, the coaching change seems to have added to the pressure on the Flyers. A thrashing of the Islanders notwithstanding, the power play has remained painfully stagnant and implementing Laviolette's new system is going to be difficult with the team in the middle of a horrible slide.

A midseason outright coaching change, rather than the temporary promotion of an assistant, is rare. Laviolette was Holmgren's man, no question about it, and maybe he didn't want to take the chance that he'd slip away to another team after the season. But for now, a team with extremely high Stanley Cup hopes is playing like a team expecting a high draft pick.

The talent is there. If they can keep Claude Giroux on one of the top two lines, I think it'll restart his maturation process that began last year. JVR looks like a stud, especially considering how young he is, and hopefully the offensive output provided by the defense at the start of the season re-emerges. They need Blair Betts and Darrell Powe back, and they need Ray Emery to get healthy, as well. It'll be a shocker if they don't make the playoffs, and even if they sneak in, they'll be a debilitating matchup for Boston or Pittsburgh in the first round.

But all this probably could have been done with John Stevens. Right now, the Flyers are a team in turmoil, and when the axe falls next, it'll fall a little higher up on the food chain. Holmgren got his coach, but it might cost him his job.

December 9, 2009

BOWGA.

I have a friend named Walt Schwenk, and he has a friend named Jeff Pearlman. And they've given us all something very special.

Walt enjoys music that the hypercritical and musically pretentious would never give the time of day. I'm talking about Hall & Oates, Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart, Chicago, 38 Special. Bands and artists that were incredibly successful, made large sums of money and sold out countless arenas and stadiums in their heyday. Bands and artists that are now, in many circles, considered a joke.

It's not that he doesn't like "good" music. He enjoys Springsteen, Black Sabbath, The Beatles, a good number of musicians that are both respected and critically acclaimed.

But he makes a point to emphasize his love of this kind of music, music often from a lost era, music that seems cheesy or over-the-top or just flat-out fake.

And this is music that Pearlman calls the "Best of Walt's Gay Asshole (BOWGA)". It doesn't matter why that makes sense -- it just does. It's perfect. Pearlman and Walt even have an audition process -- Pearlman puts a song on, and if Walt spreads his legs in agreement, the song is part of BOWGA. But if Walt folds one leg over the other, much like a lady, the song is rejected. Walt is tough but fair; he's proud of his musical tastes, and as his friend (and fellow fan of forgotten masterpieces), I love it, too.

In fact, I might like it more than he does. We're constantly swapping new additions to BOWGA, setting up Pandora stations for our favorite BOWGA artists and introducing ourselves to unexpected or repressed works of art.

And I think it's time to introduce our tastes to the world, but with a twist. These gems are what I am listening to now, my current favorites in this unappreciated genre:


Don Henley - "Taking You Home"
Ignore the Big Fish video attached to this song. Walt may not even include this in BOWGA, but he should. Don Henley's most known work probably came with The Eagles, but his solo albums cannot be denied. His masterpiece is The End of the Innocence, which features hits like "The End of the Innocence","The Last Worthless Evening" and "The Heart of the Matter". These are all terrific songs, probably worthy of BOWGA, but "Taking You Home" from 2000's Inside Job features unnecessary African American backup singers, a light R&B feel and inclusion as one of my favorite Henley compositions.


Michael Bolton - "How Can We Be Lovers?"
Another friend of ours, Chris Foran, loves Michael Bolton. Far more than any young man should love Michael Bolton, in fact. But he hates this song. No one is sure why -- the part where the music drops out and Bolton belts out, "WE CAN WORK IT OUT!" is probably a top-ten all time moment in recorded music. Plus, Mr. Bolton has a wonderful message -- a relationship is best built upon a solid foundation of friendship. Which is probably why I've drunkenly tried to hook up with so many of my female friends.


REO Speedwagon - "Time for Me to Fly"
Now this is one I know Walt can get behind. Much like Mr. Henley, the Speedwagon has numerous songs worthy of BOWGA -- "Can't Fight This Feeling" and "Roll With the Changes" leap off the tongue. But "Time for Me to Fly" is the perfect mix of ballad and rock, describing the difficulties of relationships while affirming that freedom from said relationship will cure all old wounds. I really want to sing this at a karaoke bar, preferably to a girl I've recently broken up with.


Annie Lennox - "Walking on Broken Glass"
The inclusion of John Malkovich in the music video is a welcome surprise, even though the 18th-century costumes are a little odd. At the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame show that recently aired on HBO, I was disgusted to see that Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin dueted on an Aretha Franklin song. How could Aretha foresake "Broken Glass"? As if she's ever done better. Another song I regret to say I've never performed karaoke to.


Phil Collins - "I Wish It Would Rain Down"
And finally, one of my all-time favorite songs. The music video stars Collins, Jeffrey Tambor and Eric Clapton, and it follows an alternate version of Collins' career where a demanding Tambor ruins his big shot at fame. But the song itself is so multi-talented; it can play so many roles. It can be a tale of heartbreak, of confession, even a key asset on my iPod shuffle running mix. Phil Collins gets a lot of flak, and sometimes rightfully so. But he has a dozen songs, maybe more, that are genuinely well-made and fun to listen to. In my opinion, Mr. Collins should be the spokesman for BOWGA. Much-maligned, successful beyond belief, unfairly shunned by popular opinion, a master of pop music. If people could accept Phil Collins and his music into their lives, the world would be a better place.

December 7, 2009

Back in the high life again.

Allen Iverson and Placido Polanco have returned to Philadelphia.

Only one of these two men will have any impact on a world championship run, and its the demure Dominican. But if a sports team's success related to the amount of headlines it received on ESPN.com, well, the last two weeks would have you believing that the Sixers are the city's gold standard.

And that's not to say I do not appreciate and understand the Iverson media blowout. Allen Iverson was a terrific player, and his introduction during tonight's 76ers re-debut was truly a special moment. It brought back memories of the 2000-01 76ers, a blue-collar team led by Iverson and beloved by the city.

It also made me kind of sad, as all of us basketball bandwagon hoppers finally had to think about how far the sport has fallen in Philadelphia. The Wachovia Center sold out tonight, and if the Sixers start playing competitive basketball, that plus the Iverson influence will get attendance back to acceptable levels. But ever since 2001, the team has either underachieved or flat-out sucked, and the fans have responded accordingly. When that kind of negativity pervades a franchise, it takes a lot to turn things around. Just ask Placido Polanco.

When Polanco left the Phillies in 2005, they too were underachieving. An 88-win season was enough for a close second place in the NL East, but a collapse in the final few weeks of the season left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. The team was talented (Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, the emergence of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard) but untested, prone to slumps and seemingly unable to come through in the clutch.

Fast forward to what will soon be 2010, and Baseball America has named the Phillies the Organization of the Year. Even September's World Series loss to the New York Yankees seemed acceptable...well, as acceptable as a loss can be in Philadelphia. Utley and Howard are perennial MVP candidates; Cliff Lee should be a serious Cy Young candidate next year.

You can talk about how it was the right players in the right place at the right time, or you can stress that the Phillies were smart to get a capable leader in Pat Gillick and the perfect players' manager in Charlie Manuel. Either way, the Phillies are the toast of the city, and the Sixers currently reside in the gutter.

Getting Allen Iverson will grant them a brief reprieve, albeit a joyous one with a special player we should feel blessed to watch again. But more than anything, it allows us to compare to the team that ruled in 2000 and the team on the throne in 2010. Both Iverson and Polanco seem happy to be back, and we are happy to have them both. But ironically, this time around Polanco's brilliant contact hitting will inspire more debate, discussion and (hopefully) excitement than Iverson's flash and flair.

November 5, 2009

I wonder which song they're gonna play when we go.

"I hope it's something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow."
-The Gaslight Anthem, The 59 Sound

The 2009 Philadelphia Phillies went out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

These weren't the defending champs we'd become accustomed to seeing. The team that came up big when they needed to in the regular season, the team that would never say never when staring down Huston Street or Jonathan Broxton.

Other than Cliff Lee, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth, they were exposed in the World Series as a flawed team. Cole Hamels couldn't pitch like Cole Hamels, so the 38-year-old Pedro Martinez was expected to. No one could decide whether Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ were starters or relievers, even though one helped guide us to the championship last year and the other is about to win the National League Rookie of the Year award.

Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino had none of the fire so desperately needed at the top of the lineup. Raul Ibanez looked a thousand years old. Pedro Feliz just looked awful.

And Brad Lidge's season ended just as it should -- with another meltdown, cementing one of the worst seasons for a closer in major league history.

This is not to say that the 2009 Phillies weren't enjoyable. Some of those playoff comebacks were the stuff of legend, and returning to the World Series for the second year in a row will probably mean a lot more when the dust settles.

My biggest issue, however, is that what everyone thought would kill the Phillies all season did, in fact, end up doing them in. Ryan Howard can't hit lefties, and that disability flared up big time in the World Series. Feliz got worse and worse offensively as the year went on, and his performance in the playoffs all but assured that his option won't be picked up for 2010. Lidge and the bullpen were question marks at best, and they couldn't keep some of the more iffy games close when it counted. Hamels was inconsistent all season, and downright awful in the playoffs.

The bench needs to be upgraded, and the bullpen will get at least a minor overhaul. Another closer option would be nice, and a true utility infielder to spell Utley and Rollins once a week is practically a necessity.

The nice thing, though, is that all this team needs is tweaks. The core returns for at least one more season, battle-tested and hopefully hungrier than ever. If Ruben Amaro Jr., who proved with the Lee and Martinez acquisitions that he is not content to stand pat, goes out and gets an Adrian Beltre-type to replace Pedro Feliz, that would be icing on the cake.

All the pieces are there to make a similar run in 2010. That's what I keep telling myself, at least. For now, though, I'm sad that the Yankees turned out to be the better team. I guess it's a testament to this era of Phillies baseball that losing a postseason series can be so difficult -- they don't do it too often.

October 28, 2009

Glory days.

"Yeah, they'll pass you by...in the wink of a young girl's eye."
-Bruce Springsteen
The Philadelphia Phillies versus the New York Yankees.

It's the kind of matchup Phillies fans have dreamed of all year. CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, Andy Pettitte and Pedro Martinez, AJ Burnett and Cole Hamels.

Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Derek Jeter.

Mariano Rivera. Brad Lidge.

Will the Phillies pull it out? As someone who's seen their perseverance, their professionalism, their undying patience and their skill day-in and day-out in 2009, yes.

As someone who knows the sport of baseball, understands the unpredictability of a postseason series and has a working knowledge of how good the Yankees can be, honestly, who knows.

Everyone is picking the Yankees, sure, but Yankees in six, Yankees in seven. That's a long series, and if it truly comes down to one game, and that game turns out to be a rematch of Lee and Sabathia, who could possibly predict the outcome with even the slightest bit of certainty?

These are two very good teams. They smack a lot of homers, they have top-heavy starting rotations and there are still a few question marks in their bullpens.

I hope this series stretches until next week, and I hope it's won because one team outlasts the other. The Angels flubbed countless chances (and pop flies) against the Yankees in the ALCS, and the Dodgers (again) looked overmatched by a team way out of their league. I want to see torturous games, games survived by only the truly best team.

In all honesty, making the World Series two years in a row is an accomplishment in and of itself. This Phillies team is one we'll never forget, that's for sure.

But now that we're back, and now that we're up against the most storied franchise in American sporting history, well, why not win again?

Jimmy Rollins says the Phillies will win in five. I find that overly optimistic. But six sounds just right. And even though I just questioned how this series could be predicted with any certainty, well, I'm in no way certain. But I know the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies sure look like world champions to me.

Philadelphia Phillies in six. Now let's do it to it, let's get this party started.

October 22, 2009

So young and in love.

They've said this is the best Philadelphia Phillies team of all time. I can't vouch for that.

Some have even said it's the best Philadelphia sports team ever. I certainly can't vouch for that, either.

But I will say this -- I've never loved a sports team like I love these Philadelphia Phillies.

"These Philadelphia Phillies" are, of course, the Howard/Utley/Rollins/Werth/Victorino/Ruiz/Hamels/Madson core that has won three straight division titles, two straight National League Championships and one (and counting) World Series.

Other faces, such as Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee, Brett Myers, J.C. Romero, Chan Ho Park, Aaron Rowand, Brad Lidge and Pat Burrell have provided invaluable contributions. Davey Lopes has commanded the running game, Rich Dubee has handled the arms, Milt Thompson the bats, and Charlie Manuel has done the unthinkable: become the best manager in Phillies history.

There are a few faces I don't miss. Tom Gordon was money...until his arm fell off halfway through 2006, one-sixth of the way through his contract. Adam Eaton and Freddy Garcia would be wise never to show their faces in Philadelphia again. And despite my friend "Coach" Foran's constant chanting, Abraham Nunez was never quite the "M-V-P!"

But I love Ryan Howard's monster homeruns. I love Jayson Werth's good eye, Jimmy Rollins's defense and Chase Utley's everything. I love how no ball is out of Shane Victorino's reach, how no pitch escapes the glove, the chest, the something of Carlos Ruiz. I still love Cole Hamels's changeup, even though it's taking 2009 off. I love that Ryan Madson has embraced the bullpen.

Right now, in 2009, I love every member of this team. After seeing Miguel Cairo look beyond awkward in left field during the NLDS, I even re-love Eric Bruntlett. There's a place in my heart for Scott Eyre, for Ben Francisco, especially for the rejuvenated Chad Durbin.

Even when they were winning, sometimes by six or seven runs, 2008 was a nailbiter of a season. Until they finally did it, won it all, we didn't think it could be done. Hell, when asked for my prediction in every series until the 2009 NLCS (minus the NLDS's, of course), I picked the opposing team. Yes, I even picked the Rays. I was waiting for the fun to stop, the magic to run out. I thought it was inevitable.

But this last series, I said, "Phillies in six." And it turned out that even my newfound optimism ended up shortchanging the Phils, although this time in a much more acceptable way.

If you don't believe in the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies, you haven't been watching how this has all played out. Their development from "division winners" to "surprise World Champions" to "unbeatable, never-say-die defending champs" is something out of a movie, or a book. It's perfect; it's what all sports fans want their teams to be. To come together as a unit, to put aside personal goals (as much as baseball players, participants in the most individual of sports, can do so) and unite for a common goal; it doesn't happen anymore.

This team wasn't bought, except for Ibanez, Park and maybe, kinda, Cliff Lee. They were castoffs from other organization, homegrown minor leaguers, reclamation projects and role players. But they all found a home here, and while some have matured in line with expectations, others have blown even the loftiest projections out of the water.

But no matter where they came from or how they got here, they've become ours. In a city starved for winners, they've more than satisfied our hunger. They turned a diehard Eagles town into a passionate baseball haven, where standing room World Series tickets are $500 or more, and they've spread their seed throughout the land. Phillies hats have even been popping up on the streets of Brookline, Red Sox Central, where I now make my home.

But perhaps the most endearing moment took place last night. "Lackluster celebration," a friend said to me, in regards to the televised portion of the Phillies' NLCS victory party. But that's just what I wanted to see -- there's more work to be done. Getting back to the Series further ensures that we'll be treated like an elite team, but beating the Yankees, well, that would make us the unquestioned best. The best right now, possibly the best of the entire decade. That's the only level the Phillies haven't reached yet, and it's not far out of reach.

I could watch, write about, think about this Philadelphia Phillies team for hours. And I often do. They've already won our hearts, put themselves in the record books, become household names, achieved things most fans will never forget. But over the next two weeks, they can make all of America take notice; they can shove themselves down the country's throat. The Phillies are the best team in baseball, and in two weeks, I hope everyone knows it.

October 19, 2009

Local hero.

I said the Philadelphia Phillies would need terrific starting pitching to win the 2009 National League Championship Series.

Well, Pedro Martinez came through. And Cole Hamels didn't.

But somehow I forgot, or neglected to mention, or just plain failed to give the necessary credit to one Cliff Lee. And that's just plain wrong.

Cliff Lee struck out 10 batters in Game 3 of the NLCS. Cliff Lee is 2-0 in the 2009 postseason with a 0.74 ERA. Cliff Lee even stole a base last week.

Simply put, when discussing the heroes of the playoffs thus far, it's necessary to mention Jayson Werth and Carlos Ruiz. It's downright criminal to disregard the record-breaking Ryan Howard.

But, more than anyone else, make sure you pay homage to Cliff Lee.

Cole Hamels was the love child of the 2008 postseason, and his numbers were worse than what The General has been dealing. Not worse meaning "bad", but worse because, frankly, its almost inconceivable to pitch better.

With luck, we won't see him again until the World Series. Randy Wolf seems like a poor matchup for the Phillies tonight, but then again, so did Hiroki Kuroda. And we DEFINITELY won't see Kuroda-san again this year.

The series should be 3-0. Instead, it's 2-1. A sweep in the Championship Series is almost too much to ask for, anyway. But it's becoming apparent to everyone (hopefully, even the Dodgers themselves) that a divide exists between these two teams. One looks like they're championship-caliber. The other one, not so much.

And that divide exists in part, was created, was forged out of sixty feet, six inches and five pitches by Clifton Phifer Lee.

October 15, 2009

Prove it all night.

To win the 2009 National League Championship Series, the Philadelphia Phillies are going to have to come up big in Games 1 and 2.

Clichéd? You bet.

But it's true.

Our Game 1 starter is Cole Hamels, 2008's golden boy but the definition of mediocrity in 2009. His five-inning, four-run start in Game 2 of the NLDS was either the continuation of a subpar season or the result of his mind being elsewhere: His wife went into labor with their first child during the game. Take your pick; either way, he was not the Octoberized version of Hamels we were expecting.

And our Game 2 starter is Pedro Martinez. Pedro threw a 130-pitch gem on September 13th, dazzling the New York Mets on Sunday Night Baseball and winning over the hearts of Phillies fans everywhere. And then, of course, his body fell apart. He only pitched seven innings the rest of the year; we haven't seen him on a mound since September 30th. Just the man you want starting a crucial NLCS road game, huh?

They'll be opposed by lefty Clayton Kershaw and drunk Vicente Padilla, respectively. The book on Kershaw says his electric stuff might be diluted by patience and the pressure of starting a playoff-series opener at 21 years old. And the knock on Padilla has always been "million dollar arm, ten cent head", a phrase that sums him up beautifully. Oh yeah, and he was most likely caught drinking in the clubhouse during the 2002 All-Star Game.

But Kershaw has been dynamite since his second regular-season loss to the Phillies on June 4th, and Padilla threw seven shutout innings against the Cardinals in the Game 3 NLDS clincher. On paper, it might seem the Phillies have the advantage, but the reality is that these two very different pitchers have been extremely successful for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

So it's up to Cole and Pedro to make a statement. What we need to see is the Cole Hamels who loves the spotlight, the Hollywood kid with the squeaky voice and moderately famous wife. The Pedro Martinez who can appear ageless, who evokes annoying Favre-esque commentary like "he's having fun, he's a kid out there." In the past, in their own way, both have reached the pinnacle of the starting pitching mountain. Hamels is trying to keep his spot on Mount Pitchmore, and Martinez will be enjoying what is probably his last shot at adding to his Hall of Fame resume.

But in the next two days, both will have everything to prove. The only impact they've had on the Phillies 2009 postseason thus far is negligible at best, negative at worst. Players like Cliff Lee, Scott Eyre, Jayson Werth, Ryan Howard, and even Brad Lidge are why the Phillies are still in the hunt. If Hamels and Martinez want to exist as fellow heroes in the present, not just as distant memories of championships and successes past, well, they've got two days to prove it.

October 12, 2009

Living on a thin line.

After missing out on several run-scoring opportunities, including leaving the bases loaded in the third, the Philadelphia Phillies' margin for error was thin.

And then Raul Ibanez bobbled a routine line drive to left, adding at least 10 unnecessary pitches to Cliff Lee's escalating pitch count. And the game got even tighter.

And then they left the bases loaded AGAIN in the eighth. And now it was back to the tightrope, one the Phillies walked for the bulk of Game 3 of the NLDS on Sunday night/Monday morning. They navigated it then, but it was terrifying, and it was wobbly. And it's a dangerous place for a playoff baseball team to be.

Finally, they fell. They had to. A beautiful diving catch from Ben Francisco saved some runs, but a Jason Giambi single and Yorvit Torrealba double gave the Colorado Rockies a 4-2 lead going into the ninth.

The game felt over. The offense felt stagnant. Their remaining opportunities were limited. And Huston Street, while shaky in his two previous NLDS appearances, had been a top-tier closer in 2009. It was going to take a miracle.

And we got one.

While my roommate and I sat back on the couch, seething, absolutely furious about having to return to Philadelphia for a very up-in-the-air Game 5, Greg Dobbs struck out swinging. But then Jimmy Rollins, after a great at-bat, reached on an infield single. Shane Victorino grounded into a fielder's choice and took Jimmy's place on first. Victorino took second on fielder's indifference. Chase Utley walked, on another great at-bat. And all of a sudden, through sheer perseverance, the Big Man, Ryan Howard, was staring down Street, and the tying run was on first base.

And Ryan Howard provided the biggest hit of his career. As far as I'm concerned, the most clutch hit of his career, and maybe the second biggest hit I've ever seen, behind Matt Stairs' home run in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS.

His two-run double tied the game. Jayson Werth got him home. And Scott Eyre and Brad Lidge finished off the bottom of the ninth in the only way the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies know how -- painfully, drawn-out, with several baserunners and a constant aura of dread surrounding it all.

But it's over now. The Phillies have vanquished Rocktober, and in doing so, at least to me, they've validated last year's world championship.

It was no fluke. We're no one-year wonder, a team that got lucky. We just won an NLDS that, I have to imagine, will be thought of as one of the most grueling NLDS's ever played.

2008 didn't need validation. But for someone like me, who lives and dies with this team, it couldn't have hurt. And now, a team hurt by injuries, a team that hadn't really faced true adversity all season, stared down a worthy adversary and destroyed them bit by bit.

They're ready for Los Angeles. We're ready for the Dodgers. For another day, awaiting yet another walk on that tightrope they might as well call home, the World Fucking Champions live.

October 6, 2009

The heat is on.

The Internet was abuzz today with talk about the Philadelphia Phillies' NLDS roster.

Should they have kept Eric Bruntlett or Miguel Cairo? Kyle Kendrick or Tyler Walker? Antonio Bastardo or Clay Condrey?

It's fun stuff to debate -- I engaged in a bit of it myself.

But it doesn't matter.

I'm not arguing for the unimportance of the 25th man -- I'm a firm believer that Cairo's bat will prove more important than Bruntlett's meager pinch-running ability. And I think giving the Inglorious Bastard and Double K a shot all but ensures J.A. Happ's starting Game 4 of the series, which, given Colorado's poor showing versus left-handed pitching, could prove decisive.

But it still doesn't matter. All that matters are Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.

Lee was 5-0 with a 0.68 ERA in his first five starts as a Phillie. Hamels was MVP of both the NLCS and the World Series in 2008.

At their best, they are two of the dozen-best pitchers in baseball. They are a one-two punch that may be bested only by Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals. They can win you a series single-handedly, and they're the key to the playoff run of the 2009 Phillies.

For all the debate about the bottom of the roster, the back-end of the bullpen and the struggles of closer Brad Lidge, these Phillies will go nowhere without their dual aces. Injuries have depleted this team, and Charlie Manuel seems like he's relying on gut instinct and luck to get by. If it comes down to the guys being arguing about, chances are the arguments won't matter in the first place.

To make it back to the World Series, let alone win it, they're going to need some gems. Lee needs to prove his late-season struggles weren't evidence of his tank running dry, and Hamels needs to show that his regular season mediocrity is in the past.

Will they come through? No one questions their talent, but what we've seen this year tells us nothing is certain. All we can know for sure is that, if they don't, all the Bastardos and Kendricks in the world won't bring about a repeat.

September 29, 2009

Makin' me nervous.

Tonight is a must-win game for the Philadelphia Phillies.

But not because a loss will directly impact their standing in the MLB postseason chase. I refuse to accept the possibility that the Phils will miss out on the playoffs, and the 99.4% chance ESPN.com gives them to play into October reaffirms that belief.

It is because their performance of late does not befit a playoff team, especially compared to the head of steam the 2007 and 2008 Phillies built up in September.

In 2007, they ran into Rocktober and it didn't matter. But last year, a little older, a little wiser, the Phillies took it to a Milwaukee Brewers team that seemed as good, if not better, than them on paper. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a Phillies fan who didn't think their great regular-season play in the fall carried over into that NLDS.

But right now, almost everyone looks tired, worn-out, overused, as the 162-game season winds down. Cole Hamels can't make the big pitches late, when it counts. Cliff Lee can't make the big pitches at all. The back of the bullpen is a disaster, and the offense has sometimes looked even worse. Chase Utley's batting .222 in September; Jayson Werth's batting .239.

But the pieces are all there for another World Series run, even in the 'pen. As long as they can squeak out the few necessary wins this week, J.C. Romero, Chan Ho Park and Brett Myers should all be ready for the postseason roster. It remains to be seen how effective they'll be, but with Tyler Walker reverting to the norm and Clay Condrey not looking anywhere close to 100%, they'll be the best non-Madson options we have. And if they do come back like we're hoping and praying for, well-rested and healthy, they're among the best options in the league.

That being said, it's impossible to have a World Series-level of confidence right now. Most people would tell you the St. Louis Cardinals are the favorites in the National League, and they're probably right. If we can't hit Yorman Bazardo, how are we going to hit Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright? If we can't get Miguel Tejada out, how can we take care of Albert Pujols?

We're used to seeing the relatively untested New York Mets come up short when it counts, but watching the defending champion Phillies threaten to do the same is very disconcerting. Maybe they don't have any gas left in the tank, or maybe the Atlanta Braves nipping at their heels is what they need to get off the shnide; tonight will be a good opportunity to find out. J.A. Happ and his 2.79 ERA take on Wilton Lopez and his 8.44 ERA, as much a mismatch as you can hope for in late September.

Seven in 17 already happened; four in six won't. I know it won't...I think it won't...I hope it won't. Will it? Only Charlie Manuel and company know for sure.

September 25, 2009

Get happ-y.

Back on August 6th, I wrote:
"If the Phillies hold onto to win the NL East, J.A. Happ should start Game 4 of the NLDS. That, in my opinion, has become a foregone conclusion."
And if all things were equal, that would probably be the case. As well as Pedro's done in a Phillies uniform, Happ's given the team a year of exemplary pitching, not to mention what he contributed in the 2008 playoffs. For better or worse (for an example of worse, see Brad Lidge) Charlie sticks by his guys, and his recent Happ-related comments...
"He's not afraid to throw his secondary pitches. He's really improved a whole lot. He's still got a little ways to go yet, but he has really improved as the season goes along."
...indicate that J.A. is, indeed, one of his guys.

But injuries have felled the Phils. J.C. Romero has barely been heard from all year, Scott Eyre is pitching through a loose body in his elbow, Chan Ho Park is still out and God only knows if Brett Myers will contribute in the postseason. Couple all that with the struggles of Brad Lidge and the jostling around of Ryan Madson, and the bullpen is by far the biggest question the Phillies must deal with going into October.

So it looks like their savior will have to be J.A. Happ. If Pedro looks good and healthy on Saturday, one of the team's main goals for the final week will probably be getting Happ a few innings out of the pen. It shouldn't be too much of an adjustment for a guy who has been moved there and back already, but this time around, he might have to do something he hasn't before.
"Yeah, probably."
That's Charlie Manuel, after being asked if he could see Happ as a ninth-inning guy.

I don't think J.A. is the best man for the job, but right now, he might be the only man for the job. Lidge is either injured, tipping his pitches, a mental mess or all three. And whether Madson can close or not is becoming inconsequential -- he's needed in the eighth.

I don't think anyone really knows what the Phillies will do with their bullpen when the playoffs roll around. Injuries and blown save after blown save are fueling speculation; in all honesty, I'd be surprised if Happ gets a serious look as the closer. But the one thing we can all agree on is that the pen has become paper-thin at the worst possible time, and it needs an injection of new life to last until the World Series and beyond.

And the only ace Manuel and company have up their sleeve is J.A. Happ.

September 23, 2009

You wreck me, baby.

My girlfriend innocently posted this quote on my Facebook wall last night:
"Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
-Ben Franklin
She was merely making reference to an inside joke (yes, about Ben Franklin) that we have, so I was able to forgive and continue to date her. But just looking at it reminded me of the dozens of times I've seen this quote thrown around by uncreative people I know, unnecessarily promoting their love of American-style lagers/eighteenth-century free thinkers/a combination of the two.

And if not that, this:
"I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day."
-Frank Sinatra
Now, as an almost-Philadelphian, I love Ben Franklin. And as an Italian and enjoyer of wonderful singing voices, I love Frank Sinatra. But to boil them down to these generic, college-happy poster-friendly quotes makes me want to punch someone in the face. They're probably two of the coolest hundred people born in the last 400 years, and now a ton of people will partially know them for saying some stupid shit about getting plastered.

But the worst is by far this:
“You have four years to be irresponsible here. Relax. Work is for people with jobs. You'll never remember class time, but you'll remember time you wasted hanging out with your friends. So, stay out late. Go out on a Tuesday with your friends when you have a paper due Wednesday. Spend money you don't have. Drink 'til sunrise. The work never ends, but college does..."
-Tom Petty
To borrow a phrase from John Malkovich in Burn After Reading, "What the fuuuuuuuuuuhhhhck?" What the fuck does Tom Petty know about college? Did Tom Petty even go to college?

(goes to Wikipedia)

He didn't! Motherfucker. The worst part is, it's hard to disagree with Tom's sentiments. College is a thousand times easier than real life, and it's definitely the best time for most people to let loose and have as much fun as they can. If someone had said to me three years ago, "Hey, let's take it easy on the studying tonight and go out drinking," I'd say, "Sure." Most people would.

But when the masses adopt something, it inevitably a) starts to annoy the crap out of you and b) becomes full of crap, itself. I thought Garden State and Juno were really good movies when I first saw them, and now I fucking hate them. And they haven't changed as movies, and I haven't really changed as a person. But they were quoted a million times, and people began to publicly and openly adopt them as inspirations for their own lives, and as a general rule, most people are disappointing and uninteresting. And, perhaps viewing the films with a more critical eye the second or third time around, the movies suffered. And now, Tom Petty suffers, as well. A quote that was probably innocent at the time now seems insufferable and indicative of the bland, banal people who threw it up on their Favorite Quotes.

I still love Full Moon Fever, and I think Runnin' Down a Dream was the best four-hour Peter Bogdanovich-directed documentary I saw in 2007. But there's a part of me that kinda hates Petty, Sinatra and Franklin, and it sucks because it's not their fault. But as the guy in Seven who owns the sex shop where the girl gets killed by the knife dildo says, that's life.

September 20, 2009

Prove it all night.

What the Philadelphia Eagles can prove today:

-That Kevin Kolb is worth a damn. At this point, the bar is set low enough that a single good game from the Kolbster would go a long way towards justifying his place on the roster over the last three seasons. Everyone says he's never had a chance to prepare with the first team offense, never gotten the opportunity to show what he's really got, and I happen to agree with them. But if Kolb comes up small today, with Jeff Garcia and Michael Vick waiting in the wings, not to mention the impending return of Donovan McNabb, Kolb's days as a viable quarterback option for the Eagles would be numbered.

-That the defense is as good as it looked. The general perception of last week's game seems a bit skewed: Sure, the Eagles defense played incredibly well, but Jake Delhomme is also in the midde of what seems to be an epic quarterback implosion. I get the sense that their performance kind of had an asterik attached to it nationally, even though everyone in Philadelphia was salivating over the schemes and strategies rookie defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was employing. How they perform against the Saints will help to clarify the situation -- they're probably one of the top two or three offensive teams in football.

-That running the ball might be in the cards for 2009. The optimum strategy against the Saints, it would seem, is to run the football. Even though they shut down the Detroit Lions' running game last week, they were among the middle of the pack in 2008 in rushing yards allowed. Plus, running the ball would slow down the tempo of the game, something that could knock the quick-throwing Saints from their rhythm. Easier said than done, I know, but watching Nick Cole and Jason Peters smash linebackers while pulling last week, along with a few solid LeSean McCoy runs, made me think that maybe the run-blocking and backup running back situation have been improved to the point where Andy Reid will feel comfortable upping the emphasis on the ground game.

-That this team has a good head on its shoulders. A cliché, I know, but an apt one. Last year there were games where the team started slow, looked lost or just plain looked uninterested, and it was unbelievably frustrating. They looked headed for yet another one of those games early last week, but (coincidentally or not, after what appeared to be a pep talk from Brian Westbrook) they snapped themselves out of it and terrorized the Panthers. At the first home game of the year, against a legitimate playoff, and maybe Super Bowl, contender, there's no excuse to show up unprepared. That, along with the team's confidence level with Kolb at the helm, will be something to keep an eye out for.

I said before last week's game that I had no idea what to expect: A blowout on either side of the ball wouldn't have been too surprising. But now that we're 1-0, I'm ready to expect more from this team. As much as I want to say it's OK to lose to a talented team like the Saints, especially if your backup quarterback is starting, coming up short in your first home game would be borderline unacceptable. This team looks capable of, although not yet destined for, greatness, and this is as good a week as any to confirm that their opening week fustigation of the Panthers was not a fluke.

September 16, 2009

More than just the dad fish in Nemo.

I place a lot of faith in Rob Turbovsky's opinions.

If you aren't familiar with him, here is a glamour shot of Rob:



He currently attends USC in some creative/film bullshit program that will probably enable a wonderful writing career at a formulaic CBS sitcom. But before he gets to all that, back in the good old days when we used to spend time together, he insisted I watch a movie by Albert Brooks called Real Life.

Now, I only knew Albert Brooks from his truly wonderful guest appearance on "The Simpsons" as Hank Scorpio and a book I had recently read called Comedy at the Edge, where numerous people insinuated that, even from childhood, he was the funniest person they had ever met. It turns out I also knew him as the father of Nemo in Finding Nemo, something I found less exciting because that's by far the shittiest recent Pixar movie.

But Real Life blew me away. Brooks, playing the director of a movie capturing a year of a family's life and a (hopefully) more egomaniacial version of himself, toys with the dynamics of capturing reality on film or screen long before it became wildly popular, and he adds onto the role his own personal twinge of manic desperation as a man starved for an odd mix of success and affection.

This set me off on an Albert Brooks binge. In the last three to four weeks I've watched Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, along with about a half hour of Mother on HBO one afternoon. And while most of his movies didn't work as perfectly as Real Life, I was extremely impressed with the central ideas that powered each of them (besides Mother, that seemed like it was just about Debbie Reynolds).

Whether the theme is life, jealousy or the imbalances of post 9/11 America, Brooks approaches it from an interesting angle. I get the impression that people would have called him "subversive" back in his heyday, but, especially in Defending Your Life and Looking for Comedy, he loses his way far too often to make the kind of serious, overarching message that warrants such a classification.

In Defending, for example, the main idea seemed to be that Brooks' character still had a lot to learn about living without fear, which is presented as the most important trait of a successful human being. At the end, however, the fact that he loves Meryl Streep and spends 30 "harrowing" seconds showing this is enough to allow him to move onto the next step of the afterlife. This was a tacked-on, Hollywood ending in a movie that could have really said something about the basic instincts that power humans to full, happy lives. What it really could have used was an injection of what made Real Life so great: self-deprecation. Brooks' character could have been an example of a human life gone astray, but instead he redeems himself, unnecessarily, I guess because he's Albert Brooks.

Looking for Comedy gets this right, to a point, but it still bounces around a bit too much for its own good. For me, it wasn't until the very end of the movie that the overly indulgent self-importance he feels from being an "helpful" American really starts to shine through. His quest to understand Muslim humor feels genuine, albeit misguided in practice, for the bulk of the film, and the confusion and eventual conflict between the two countries he's trying to learn from feels like yet another tacked-on moment until you realize, "Oh! By trying to do good, he's doing bad! Just like a stupid American!" If that was the direction Brooks was looking to take his movie, he should have had his character rant about the medal he was hoping for at the completion of his study, instead of the neurotic and harmless conversations about his 500-page report. It doesn't feel complete, and it unfortunately takes yet another interesting idea and leaves it unfulfilled.

I know that I said I really liked Albert Brooks and then proceeded to bash two of his movies, but I don't want these to seem like attacks. He's the filmmaker, and it seems like he's spent his entire career making the movies HE wants to make. Plus, he cast Drew Carey's transvestite brother as one of the State Department agents in Looking for Comedy, and that always gets a thumbs up from me. But as it is with most critics and fervent fans, those who see something special in a filmmaker and want him to replicate that over and over, we start to decide that there's a pecking order in their work, that A is better than B and C has no place being anywhere near D. In Brooks' case, I saw a truly funny man who took a relatively simple idea in Real Life and ran with it in his own special way, and I expected the same generic but outside-the-box touch in his other work. Lost in America and Modern Romance are both wonderful movies that embody this greatly, and as for the vanilla aspects of his later work, it's almost expected at this point to see a comedian become more formulaic as they get older.

The general consensus I've formed on Albert Brooks, though, is that there's no one like him. He has a joke in Looking for Comedy about starring in an Al Jazeera sitcom as a Jew surrounded by Muslims, and he expresses concern about starting a TV career of any type because "he's a filmmaker." The humor is in the absurdity of the show concept, but if you've seen more of Brooks' movies, you know it's true. There's a touch of him in all of his films that I've seen, a throwaway line that makes you rewind, a look or a gesture or (especially) a change in his tone or volume that is perfection personified, and, most importantly, an idea that he twists in one way or another to make you laugh.

So thanks, Rob Turbovsky. You've done it again.

September 1, 2009

Wow.


All credit to The Fightins

This is the greatest thing I have ever seen. I'd say their public humiliation is complete.

In other news, Cole Hamels is awesome. See everyone in October.

August 26, 2009

There's a darkness at the edge of town.

His 7.33 ERA is the highest amongst qualifying relief pitchers in baseball.

His nine blown saves in 2009 are tied for third most in Phillies history.

He's on pace to shatter the record for "most homers allowed by a closer" (11 in 46 2/3 innings so far).

He is Brad Lidge, and for him, 2009 has been a nightmare.

And yet, people still make excuses for him.

"Underworked," they'd say, when the Phillies wouldn't use him for three or four days. "Overworked," they'd say, when he gives up three runs while recording no outs on his fourth straight day of pitching. "Unlucky," they'd say, when a seeing-eye single turns into a steal of second base and, eventually, the game-tying run.

Granted, most people are furious, and they're through accepting the excuses of Lidge and Charlie Manuel. But there are still voices popping up defending Lidge, throwing out the arguments I've mentioned and more, saying that there's no one to take his spot, that his removal would start a domino effect that would cripple the entire bullpen.

My point is simple - what could possibly be worse?

Almost single-handedly, Brad Lidge is holding back the 2009 Phillies. Not only is he losing them games, he's doing so in back-breaking fashion, ruining exciting comebacks like last night's and presumably deflating his hard-working, never-say-die teammates.

Was Ryan Madson shaky as the closer earlier this year? Yes, but it's almost impossible that he'd be as bad as Lidge is now, considering that he's the worst in baseball. It's so frustrating to see Tyler Walker, a pitcher of considerably less stature, pitch two scoreless innings and Lidge not record a single out. And if it's killing the fans, one can only wonder how the rest of the organization feels.

Any talk about trading or DFAing Lidge is nuts - we saw what he can do last year, and the team needs to do whatever it can to work towards reanimating that Brad Lidge. My advice to the Phillies in that regard is simple - switch Lidge and Madson. This experiment will be two-fold: See if Madson can close, and see if Lidge can effectively pitch the eighth. If he can, maybe the problem is more in his head than his knee, and the Phillies can proceed accordingly to get that part of him straight.

If he can't setup Madson appropriately, then we have to assume it's something physical, or something that can't be fixed before October. He can then be shut down, as he's hurting the team more than helping, and the Phillies can start hoping Brett Myers will be able to pitch on consecutive days. This isn't an attractive solution, but neither is sitting on our hands and acting like things will get better. September starts in six days, and the Phillies won't make it out of the NLDS with issues like these.

Almost everyone associated with the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies is currently above reproach in Philadelphia, and that includes Charlie Manuel and Brad Lidge. No matter how mad we might get at their actions in 2009, it's hard to imagine that they won't be beloved for years, nay, decades, in the City of Brotherly Love. But if Charlie's stubbornness and Lidge's ineffectiveness are the main factors in costing the Phillies a World Series in 2009, the shine from 2008 will start to fade. Calling the 2008 team a fluke as a whole is a ridiculous statement, but by October, it might be fair to say that last year's performances from Uncle Charlie and Lights Out Lidge were of the "lightning in a bottle" variety.

August 20, 2009

And the big man joined the band.

To almost everyone, Cliff Lee was a consolation prize.

A Cy Young-winning consolation prize, yes, but he was no Roy Halladay, the pitcher coveted longingly by Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Philadelphia Phillies. Halladay was one of the top pitchers in the game, and Lee was just the ace of a crappy AL basement dweller.

And now, four starts later, we have confirmation. He's no Roy Halladay.

He's better.

4-0. Two complete games. 0.82 ERA. 34 strikeouts, six walks.

Those numbers are mind-boggling. Cliff Lee himself is mind-boggling. And he's ours for 2010 as well.

I don't think even Amaro and his staff could have predicted this. I knew the trade was a winner, even if Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp become front-of-the-rotation guys, but I didn't know that Lee would look even better in red pinstripes than his former Indians teammate CC Sabathia did in Brewers navy.

But right now, even though the Cardinals have apparently locked up a World Series berth with the acquisition of thousand-year-old John Smoltz, the Phillies are looking good. The NL East lead that seemed to be shrinking a week ago is back to 5.5 games, the home-run mashing beast in Ryan Howard has awoken, and Brett Myers has given Brad Lidge a bit more job security by getting punched in the face in a bar fight. All is right in the world, and it's all thanks to Clifton Phifer Lee.

August 14, 2009

Just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round.

Wow, these last few weeks have been busy, huh?

Cliff Lee, Pedro Martinez, all the training camp injuries, Michael Vick...arguably the most interesting (non-playoff) few weeks in my life as a Philly sports fan.

And I wrote nothing about it.

Well, you try following up a full-time, writing-based job with 1,000 words on the hot news of the day/week. It's not always that easy.

But here's what you do to get your hottest Steve Cimino scoop - contact me. Send me an email. It's like a real-life, interactive blog!

I'll still post on here periodically, but if you honestly find yourself saying, "I wonder what Steve Cimino thinks about this!", well....

stephenvcimino@gmail.com

http://twitter.com/stevecimino

Instant access!

P.S. I love Cliff Lee, I'm intrigued with Pedro Martinez and Michael Vick...sure, why not.

August 6, 2009

The pursuit of happ-yness.

A few days ago, I made the case to a friend that J.A. Happ should move to the bullpen, opening a spot in the rotation for Pedro Martinez.

This wasn't a knock on Happ's pitching ability, nor did I see it as a permanent solution. But the Phillies built up a good deal of enthusiasm by signing Pedro, and even I was a little curious to see how much he's got left in the tank. Regardless, it seemed likely that he'd get his shot, one way or the other.

And Jamie Moyer isn't a reliever. Odds are, his soft-toss precision style would get knocked around worse than RJ Swindle's junk did during his midseason callup last year.

So the only solution seemed to be Happ. He's been lights-out all year, bullpen or otherwise, and he's young enough to be adaptable to both situations. Given the money owed to Moyer (in the middle of a two year, $13 million contract) and the curiosity over what Pedro could bring, it seemed to be the logical move.

But that was before Happ's second complete-game shutout of the year. They've come against the Toronto Blue Jays and the Colorado Rockies, hardly pushover offenses. Overall for the year, he's got a 2.74 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP. The only five starters with lower ERAs are Chris Carpenter, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Dan Haren and Wandy Rodriguez. Lofty company.

Meanwhile, the inordinate amount of respect being shown to Pedro Martinez is starting to annoy me. This is a guy who has been subpar at best the last two years; it's not like we signed late-90's Pedro. Curiosity is one thing, but striking out 11 AA batters and winning a few Cy Youngs when I was in middle school shouldn't guarantee you a rotation spot on the defending world champions.

Would I rather see Pedro in there than Jamie? Probably, and this is coming from a guy with Jamie Moyer pennants and trading cards covering his desk at work. But with the Cardinals, Dodgers and even the Giants looking like strong contenders in the National League, it's "what have you done for me lately" time. And despite dominating the Marlins, Nationals and Diamondbacks, against everyone else Moyer looks like a guy whose time is just about up. Offering him a two-year deal, instead of arbitration, might be one of Amaro's worst moves so far.

I was in support of a Happ bullpen move because it seemed like the only rational solution to the Phillies' pitching logjam. It worked best on paper, but only because of outside factors like contracts, curiosity, commitments and the seemingly easygoing nature of a 26-year old rookie from Illinois.

Now? It's not possible. The kid made his statement, and he backed the Phillies into a corner that, frankly, I'm glad they're in. I'm not sure what they'll do with the aged Martinez and Moyer, but I know one thing. If the Phillies hold onto to win the NL East, J.A. Happ should start Game 4 of the NLDS. That, in my opinion, has become a foregone conclusion.

July 7, 2009

And the big man joined the band.

I remember, as the 2009 NHL trade deadline was approaching, dreaming about the Philadelphia Flyers getting Chris Pronger.

It was just a dream, of course -- poor cap management by GM Paul Holmgren meant the Flyers had to give away Scottie Upshall for the reprehensible Danny Carcillo, just to keep super stud Claude Giroux on the roster. There was no room for a superstar like Pronger, even if he was exactly what the team needed, not in the new, salary-capped NHL.

But when the 2009 NHL Draft rolled around, the dream came true. Holmgren got the chance to acquire the former Hart Trophy winner, and he didn't hesitate to pull the trigger.

The cost was expensive: Luca Sbisa, Joffrey Lupul and two first-round draft picks. Losing Sbisa hurt the most -- I'd be surprised if the kid doesn't mature into an All-Star defenseman, with the way he carried himself as a NHL player at age 18.

But anyone who has seen Chris Pronger play knows that the second he steps onto the ice at the Wachovia Center, we'll forget Luca Sbisa. Pronger was born to dominate the defensive end, born to throw his weight around, born to lead, born to be a Flyer. He's gone to two different teams and brought them to the Stanley Cup Finals, and he'll be asked to do the same in Philadelphia. Most hockey people will tell you that there's no better man for the job.

Signing him to a seven-year extension today was a risk, but one they had no choice but to take. They didn't trade a future star defenseman and a 25-goal scorer for a rental. Both Pronger and Holmgren wanted the former Duck to end his career in orange-and-black, a fact evident in how fast both sides agreed on this new contract.

Simply put, the Flyers have put all their chips on the table. Holmgren saw a team talented but without direction, and he acquired a champion, a leader, someone who has been the places that these Flyers want to go. If Pronger doesn't take them to the promised land, Holmgren might end up saddling himself with another aging, overpaid player (see: Briere, Daniel). If they win a Cup, we'll be too drunk on champagne to care.

More than anything, Paul Holmgren's legacy will be this trade. But I imagine even he'd tell you that if there was ever a player to hitch your wagon to, it's Christopher Robert Pronger.

June 17, 2009

You make-a my dreams come true.

I foresee this taking Keyboard Cat to a whole other level - session musician on videos from the past. I can't fucking wait.

June 9, 2009

Up.


I dare 2009 to bring me a better movie than Up.

The argument I've heard most often against Up (rarely, but enough to note) is that it's an animated movie, and animated movies are for kids. Now, you'd think after Ratatouille and Wall-E, two films that got more than a little talk about Best Picture Oscar nominations, most people would wise up to the fact that Pixar's animated flicks are works of art in both style and substance. But apparently not. And you'd think that the 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating it has would sway almost everyone - I know most people are stupid, even movie reviewers, but it's hard to argue with across-the-board praise like that.

And the thing is - it's entirely justified. Some things in Up come out of left field - animated or not, I didn't walk into this particular movie expecting to see talking dogs. But, like most other things Pixar does, it just works. They're able to mix the real emotion of an old man fulfilling a promise to his wife with the absurdity of a giant, screeching bird and a dog telling a dead squirrel joke with such ease that it's impossible to not be enchanted.

The first 15 minutes have been talked up enough as is - yes, you will at least tear up - but I'd like to emphasis once again what has proven to be one of Pixar's major strengths: Telling their stories without words. Much like the first half-hour of Wall-E, the entire montage sequence in Up that's bringing audiences to tears is a light musical composition over a collection of silent scenes. Yet it's absolutely gut-wrenching, and it perfectly illustrates the problem with other animated movies - the palette these directors and writers have to work with is unlimited. A skilled director in this medium should be able to paint the most beautiful pictures, draw out extremely elaborate emotions and tell the most complex stories of all, because only the sky is their limit. But they don't.

Over the course of time, someone decided to make animated movies strictly for kids. Even though many of the Disney movies from the past hold up as terrific features, in the mid-90s it seems like dancing and singing animals, painfully cliched love stories and celebrity voice-acting officially became the standard template that every animated movie had to follow.

And again, therein lies the beauty of Pixar. They work within this template to a certain extent (although they lampoon it a bit with Up's brand of talking animal) - no matter how many adult themes they manage to slip in, these are definitely movies that your kids will love. But at the same time, instead of casting Brad Pitt as a voice, they cast Craig T. Nelson. Or Ed Asner. Or Jeff Garlin. Instead of talking down to kids, and making movies with fart or poop jokes (if you've seen the G-Force trailer before Up, you know what I mean), they make movies, and characters, with real emotions, and it seems like kids are still able to respond.

When it comes down to it, there is no more reliable studio in American filmmaking than Pixar. Not only are their movies extremely popular, but they are extremely terrific. I saw Up for the second time in a week last night, and I appreciated the humor or emotion just as much. In fact, I even caught some jokes I'd missed the first time around. At this point, it's no fluke - Pixar knows how to tell (and illustrate) a movie better than anyone. If you want to see a brilliant, dazzling, heartwarming film, go see Up.

June 7, 2009

Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow.

If you like Fleetwood Mac, and if you like marching bands, you'll LOVE Fleetwood Mac WITH a marching band.

In all honesty, this is awesome. Every good song should break down at the end into a horn-and-drum clusterfuck.

June 3, 2009

Does Ray = Jay?

According to CSNPhilly.com, the Philadelphia Flyers have signed Ray Emery to be their starting goaltender in 2009-2010.

Everyone seemed to think the Emery rumors were a bargaining tactic, designed to get Marty Biron to drop his asking price. Well, that doesn't appear to be the case, as the once-troubled Ottawa Senators goalie/martial arts expert looks like he'll be assuming Biron's spot between the pipes.

The knock against Emery has never been that he's unskilled - it's been that he's unbalanced. Tim Panaccio, in the same CSNPhilly story, reminds us that set a junior club record for fighting (as a goalie!!), and he got in loads of trouble in Ottawa for various misdemeanors. In fact, he was out of the NHL last year, seemingly shunned by all 30 teams.

But this is more than just a talent-based decision. Being that we spent the entire last season pressed as close as possible against the salary cap, I'm not too surprised that a cost-cutting move was made somewhere on the roster. At the same time, though, I'd be extremely surprised if this didn't lead to a gigantic push for Jay Bouwmeester or a Jay Bouwmeester-esque superstar defenseman.

The Flyers are constantly mentioned as pursuers of Bouwmeester, and rumors have already started swirling of a move similar to the one that bagged them Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell pre-free agency in 2007. A major upgrade on the young-but-talented defensive line would certainly make the Ray Emery reclamation project much easier to swallow.

As more information comes out, I think we'll get a better handle on A) Holmgren's intentions and B) Emery's demeanor, both of which will impact how Flyers fans accept this signing. Still, you can't help but feel that this is the start of something big, a major push by the Flyers to get over a hump named the Pittsburgh Penguins. If that's true, if this is Step 1, it'll be hard to find an unsatisfied Flyers fan amongst the mix.

P.S. As a Flyers fan, the psychopathic smile on Ray Emery's face in this video is also encouraging (...maybe?):

June 2, 2009

We like Roy.

The Philadelphia Phillies need a starting pitcher.

How badly they need one depends on who you ask, and when. A few weeks ago, Brett Myers was rolling and Cole Hamels appeared to be returning to form, while Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton were floundering. Now, Moyer is coming off three solid-to-good starts, Blanton is rolling and Myers is out for the season with a hip injury. Meanwhile, J.A. Happ has locked down the no. 5 spot in the rotation, a change most fans clamored for the day Chan Ho Park was announced as the original fifth starter.

To put it simply, starting pitching, a strength when the games started to matter last year, has turned into a question mark. Hamels has yet to dominate, Happ is too young to be considered a known quantity and the other two have already had truly horrific stretches. Meanwhile, the team will most likely turn to names like Antonio Bastardo, Carlos Carrasco and perhaps even Kyle Kendrick in an attempt to catch that elusive "Kendrick in 2007"-esque lightning in a bottle once more.

In all likelihood, though, that won't work. What will work is a trade for a co-ace, and I can't recall a better time in the last decade to go ace shopping. Names like Erik Bedard, Jake Peavy, Roy Halladay and Brandon Webb are rumored to be available; acquiring a pitcher like that would not only make up for the loss of Myers, it would instantly elevate the team to "favorite" status.

But can we bring on one of these pitchers? Just because they're rumored to be available doesn't mean you can have them for a song. In all likelihood, getting one would require the rape and pillage of our farm system, including a few of our top, borderline-untouchable prospects like outfielder Dominic Brown and pitcher Kyle Drabek. This is not always the best way to go; however, when you look at how the Phillies positioned themselves this offseason, it's practically a no-brainer. It's time for the Phillies to go all-in.

The Phillies have basically locked up everyone that matters until 2011. That means this core will have three more years to win another World Series, including this one. Three more years where they'll most likely make money hand over fist, three more years with several of the top players in all of baseball, and three more years to show that 2008 was not a fluke. When you put a team together with this in mind, it's practically criminal if you don't explore any and every avenue to success.

So it's time to invite all of Major League Baseball to Reading, to Lakewood, to the Lehigh Valley. It's time to showcase Jason Donald, Lou Marson, Vance Worley. And in my opinion, it's time to go, hard, after Roy Oswalt.

Out of all the starting pitching possibilities, Roy Oswalt would be the best Phillie. Webb has been out for most of the season; he'd be a big-time risk. Peavy has already proven himself to be a bit of a whiner, possibly because he knows pitching in Petco Park is a starter's dream come true. Halladay is almost perfection personified, but he would probably require three premiere prospects AND Shane Victorino/Jayson Werth. Perfection doesn't come cheap. And Bedard, while talented and only under contract for the remaining 2009 season, is a walking calamity. No sooner would we trade for him than his arm would fall off, Freddy Garcia-style.

No - the play has to be for Oswalt. Everything I've read about him indicates a hard-working, down-to-earth player who rides a tractor in the offseason. He seems to have the grit and determination necessary to succeed in Philadelphia, and if he has any questions about his future home, former teammates Eric Bruntlett and Brad Lidge are only a phone call away.

Oswalt's contract goes through the 2011 season - exactly when our "window" looks like it'll close. Will he cost an arm and a leg? Yes - he's due to make $15 million in 2010 and $16 million in 2011. But the Phillies have been selling out every game, riding high on their World Series victory, and they still have enough ammunition to make another deep run. Oswalt would set the city on fire again, making another playoff run seem like a lock, and only endear the franchise to its fans even more. Rube, I think's a no-brainer. We like Roy, and we want him in Philadelphia.

May 12, 2009

I'm just so tired of all these star wars.

My expectations for Star Trek were both high and low. High, because I love Wrath of Khan, and I think a good filmmaker can do a lot with these iconic characters. Low, because I'm still attempting to get the awful taste of summer-opener Wolverine out of my mouth, and I know the pitfalls involved in an origin story. However, I had a good deal of faith in JJ Abrams - I loved the first season of "Lost", I think Mission Impossible III is remarkably underrated, and anyone who wrote on the masterpiece that is Armageddon is alright by me. And, as ultimately expected, Star Trek did not let me down.

First off, it was impeccably cast. Zachary Quinto is a picture-perfect Spock (get him off the abortion formerly known as "Heroes", please), Chris Pine is a solid Kirk (Abrams was right to cast a relative unknown) and, for the life of me, I can't figure out why the great Simon Pegg's Scotty was confined to just the last half hour. Even Anton Yelchin, known mostly by me as Larry's magician nephew on "Curb Your Enthusiasm", makes a purposely over-the-top Russian accent work as Chekov. I thought Abrams and company were in trouble when trying to fill roles already marvelously defined, but they couldn't have done a better job.

The special effects were also fantastic. This harkens back to the already mentioned Wolverine: for such a big budget, big expectations piece, it had some of the worst effects I've seen in a while. The fourth time Wolverine and Sabretooth bared their claws, turned into CGI versions of themselves and ran snarling at each other, the entire audience was snickering. And let's not even get into the whole "Deadpool" sequence at the end. But Star Trek starts off fast, with a huge space battle, and never really lets up. Say what you want about Abrams, but his transition from TV to big budget Hollywood movies is going about as smoothly as you could ask for.

If only it hadn't been rushed. This was one of the fastest two hour movies I've seen in a while, and I think there could have been more exposition in certain scenes. For example, Future Spock informs Kirk that he can take control of the Enterprise by having temporary Captain Spock betray his emotions...which he does in about 30 seconds. That's all it took? When the famed James T. Kirk is involved, you expect a more brilliant plot to be executed.

That's another issue - Pine's Kirk is brash, handsome and confident, but the script never offers the sense that he is an intelligent, all-encompassing leader. Even his outsmarting of the Kobayashi Maru test, an event much discussed in the Star Trek canon, turns out to be quick, easy and fairly tame. It almost seems like Kirk is TOO destined for success; every decision he makes is the right one, and all he has to do to execute them is show up. At the same time, this version hasn't been portrayed as a Kirk movie in the first place. It's an ensemble piece - the entire crew of the Enterprise gets their fair share. This isn't a bad thing, it's just different.

Also, I know origin stories don't always leave time for well-developed bad guys, but Eric Bana was particularly wasted as Nero, the angry Romulan. I read that JJ Abrams considered only two actors for this role - Russell Crowe and Eric Bana. Frankly, I'm glad it wasn't Crowe, because he deserves much better than this forgettable, uninspired villain. I don't blame Bana at all, though - frankly, even an actor the caliber of a Daniel-Day Lewis couldn't have done a thing with such a bland character.

In the end, though, Star Trek does about everything you could ask from a summer movie. It's not quite an Iron Man or The Dark Knight, but it's light years better than Wolverine or Indiana Jones 4. My expectations might have been raised for what a big budget summer movie CAN be, but that doesn't mean anything less than should be shunned. Abrams has taken a fairly niche-y series, cast it with relative unknowns and made it work. All things considered, that's a praiseworthy accomplishment.

As for the next one...why not go all the way?

May 10, 2009

The origins of Keyboard Cat.


CNN reports on the worldwide hero/sensation. Compelling, and rich.

May 9, 2009

So far.

After 27 games, the Philadelphia Phillies are in first place, and no one is very impressed.

The offense has been terrific - 3rd in the National League in runs, 1st in home runs, 2nd in strikeouts (in the good way, with very few of them). Raul Ibanez has been a more than worthy replacement for Pat the Bat, Chase Utley has recovered from hip surgery much faster than anyone thought and Ryan Howard looks slim, focused and fantastic in the field.

But the pitching has been historically awful. A 5.41 ERA, 28th out of 30. 51 homers allowed, worst in baseball. There's been signs of life lately - Joe Blanton and Chan Ho Park have both put together solid outings (Blanton has thrown three solid innings as of this writing), and Cole Hamels looked like his old self last night against the Atlanta Braves. But Brett Myers seems every bit the headcase he's always been, and Jamie Moyer is making Phillies fans fear that he might be running on empty.

Luckily, we just won the World Series, and fans and management alike seem to have acquired a new championship-style patience. Park is on a short leash, especially with Happ looking good out of the bullpen and Kendrick pitching well in AAA, but the rest of the starters don't seem to be in any immediate trouble. And they shouldn't be - May games matter just as much as September games, but our top four starters' track records indicate they'll turn it around.

However, everyone should keep one thing in mind. The Phillies are currently paying Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins millions upon millions of dollars to go away, something that previous Phillies teams would never, ever do. Seems like our World Fucking Championship banner is the cause - ownership has decided (rightly, I believe) that the returns from another deep playoff run will far outweigh the already wasted money owed to those two players.

Does this mean that a guy like Jamie Moyer could be in the same boat someday? Unlikely, but I think it DOES mean that winning now officially trumps all for the Philadelphia Phillies. If May goes by and Moyer is not performing, I have no doubt that a move will be made. All of a sudden, we've got some internal pitching options, and we might have the prospects to bring in an Erik Bedard or a Roy Halladay at the trade deadline. I'm not sure what the Phillies are thinking in that regard, but after locking all of the key cogs up for the next two-three years this last offseason, I'd be surprised if they wouldn't at least poke around.

The NL East is wide-open - despite all those flaws I've mentioned, we're still ahead of the pack. There's a time for teaching, correcting and understanding, and there's a time for action. If the summer begins and a player is still hurting our chances to repeat, I'm not sure how long our memories might be. And I'm not sure that that's a bad thing - as the Philadelphia Phillies have made enjoyably apparent over the last few months, winning is now everything.

May 4, 2009

Lost in the flood.

Something surprising happened last week – I reached my Bruce Springsteen saturation point.

Attending four of his concerts in eight days probably didn’t help, but at the time I bought the tickets, I didn’t expect it to hurt, either. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, and I’m kind of hoping that writing this will let me get down to the heart of the matter.

Each show offered its own experience, although as you’ll read, not distinct enough to make it as worthwhile as I’d hoped. Boston 1 was affected by a post-Marathon Monday malaise, and it probably showed in my level of rocking. The band’s impromptu cover of ZZ Top’s “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” was tremendous, but for the most part, it was a little Springsteen 101. Old standbys like “Rosalita” and “Growin’ Up” are always fun to hear, but not necessarily memorable in their own right. It was great, though, to see my friend Katie rocking out at her first ever Bruce show. She loved it to death, which probably was my first sign that I was approaching dangerously high levels of Bruce.

Boston 2, however, dispelled those early fears by being a masterpiece. Simply put, a show like that is the reason you go to Springsteen concerts. "Candy's Room". "For You". "Jungleland". And the cherry on top was a surprise “So Young and In Love” during the encore that got me screaming and sobbing at the same time. It’s one of my top five Bruce songs, a rarity off of his Tracks outtakes album that is certainly not on his usual setlists. But he opened the second show in Hartford with it on the Magic tour, and it’s one I’ve longed to see for as long as I’ve known it. I doubt it’s a universally shared opinion, but to me a moment like that justifies every cent of Bruce’s exorbitant ticket prices.

The final two shows took place at the soon-to-be-exploded Spectrum in Philadelphia. Philly 1 offered the opportunity to be in the pit, meaning three feet from Bruce Springsteen for the duration of the show. It sounds great in theory, and it IS great in execution. The process by which you get into the pit, though, was the concert equivalent of childbirth. It’s a slow, arduous, excruciating process that is redeemed only by the human capacity to forget the almost mind-altering pain we just endured. I’m not sure how they can make it any better – I just know that I hate it, and now that I’ve gotten in once, I’ll never try it again.

That show, while a near-mirror image of Boston 1, was lifted up a bit by “Fire” and “The Fever” in the sign portion of the show, along with a great cover of the Dovells' “You Can’t Sit Down” in the encore. Oh yeah, and by being THREE FEET FROM BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. If luck had shined on us a bit more, we could have been as close as zero feet away, but either way, its five days later and my ears are still ringing and my voice is still hoarse.

Philly 2, though, was the letdown show. On the radio afterwards, DJs on Philly rock stations 93.3 and 102.9 were both calling it one of the best shows they’d ever seen, from any group, ever, and I understand where they were coming from. But it was still a letdown, and I think I feel that way for numerous reasons.

Reason number one was that it was the last show he’ll ever play at the Spectrum (as of right now, anyway), and I expected something special. Sure, he acknowledged that fact a few times, and he played the brief “Springsteen grand slam” bit that Harry Kalas recorded for the Boss, and songs like “Kitty’s Back” and “Thundercrack” harkened back to the old days when Bruce made his reputation with jazzier shows in the Greater Philadelphia area. But there were still the Rising songs that even casual fans must be getting tired of, the crowd-killer “Kingdom of Days” and the general jumbled pacing that has defined his setlists thus far on this tour.

Bruce has a message to get across on this tour – if you don’t notice that after the three-song Recession Package of “Seeds”, “Johnny 99” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”/“Youngstown”, you haven’t been paying attention. It’s a build-you-down-bring-you-up type of situation, where he both laments the downtrodden and then offers an olive branch of hope and love. But the big problem is that his fans are ready to rock, and Bruce is seemingly ready to oblige. When he pops out with “Hungry Heart” or “Spirit in the Night”, the crowd gets on their feet, but he puts them down again soon after with a subpar Rising tune or “Working on a Dream”. It’s a painfully similar setlist every night, and after four shows, I think it’s fair to say that it doesn’t always work. I think it’s also fair to say that I’m surprised he’s keeping it idle for so long, and that back-to-back Bruce shows in the same city can be so alike.

The man is a master musician who’s been working crowds for 40 years, and I’m just some 23-year-old kid with a surprising amount of disposable income and a borderline-obsessive interest in his music. But I’ve operated under the ideal that no two Bruce shows are the same for as long as I’ve listened to Springsteen, and that’s because no two I’ve been to or heard about ever really seemed to be. I caught four shows on the Magic tour, and each was different enough to leave me wanting more. Right now, though, I don’t think I could do another show for a long time.

Did I bring this saturation, this feeling of overkill on myself? Certainly. But when I heard about these four accessible shows, with two of them closing down a legendary arena, there was no way I’d miss any of them. So I took the chance that they’d all be worth my money, and while they partly were, they partly weren’t. I know for a fact that Bruce Springsteen has still got it, but at this point, I wonder if what he’s offering is what I want.