June 26, 2010

Way down in the hole.

After what seems like a lifetime of hemming and hawing, I started The Wire about a month ago. I'd heard all the talk about it being the greatest television show of all time, and I'd actually gone through Season One a few years back. For whatever reason, though, the switch from the streets to the ports in Season Two threw me off, and I never kept going. (Honestly, the change in theme might be what did it. I know now, obviously, that there's a new theme for every season, but I love the Season One theme so much, especially its return for the final, series-ending montage.)

But I came back, and I finally finished this week. While I can't say that The Wire is definitively better than, say, The Shield or Battlestar Galactica (probably my two favorite shows ever), it's absolutely in the conversation. And I'm mostly speaking from an entertainment perspective; if you're talking about the smartest, best put-together show on TV, then there's no question. It's The Wire.

(Note: Spoilers galore from this point on. Sorry.)

No show is as ambitious as David Simon's creation. While occasionally a little heavy-handed with foreshadowing, the way The Wire follows a case from start to finish, from the (often) minor incident that draws the notice of police or the courts to the investigative aspects to the eventual conclusion is true genius. You kind of take it for granted by the end, because you know how the show operates and you just want to see where it's headed, but in Season One, I don't think you can help being blown away. There's so much going on and so many characters, and you are able to see them grow and evolve with the show. From Lieutenant to Major to Commissioner, you're with them the whole way; not many shows can say that.

On 24, Jack Bauer is Jack Bauer. He's not growing or changing. And it's usually in the best interest of shows to keep characters where there are; keep them where it works, where viewers want them to be. But I read an interview with Simon recently, and he pointed out that the writing staff on The Wire is not based in television. They're novelists and journalists, and they have an eye for telling a story from start to finish. Most stories aren't interesting if the same thing keeps happening over and over, and The Wire realized that. It made the show feel important, storytelling on a much grander scale than you expect when you pop on the TV. This isn't saying that other shows need to operate in the same fashion; it just worked here.

This basis in storytelling also helped ground the show in reality; you were following characters through their lives, not just through a season of TV. Their ups, downs, flaws and talents were accentuated. When you saw McNulty fucking a strange woman on the hood of a car, it was funny, but it was also poignant and a little heartbreaking. You started to invest in his relationship with Beadie; it felt right and natural. You wanted McNulty to keep maturing as a person, not revert back to fun-loving, drunk McNulty, even though drunk McNulty was considerably more entertaining as a character.

Simon also wasn't afraid to kill characters, and to kill them in the right way (something could have learned from Heroes could have learned from The Wire, if it wasn't already canceled for being so very shitty). I loved the way they killed off Omar, how there was no fanfare. Bunk was the only one who cared; McNulty hadn't dealt with Omar in ages, and Lester seemed like he barely knew who he was. There was no dramatic shootout; it was a stroke of bad luck, which is probably how most gangsters go. Wrong place, wrong time; that sort of thing. The Wire takes a truly great balance between understanding how important characters are to the audience and presenting them in the (relatively) real world the show inhabits. No matter how much we love Omar, he's just a guy caught up in the game, and eventually, he's gonna get got. Even if it is by a little punk kid.

And I loved the sense of foreboding I got whenever the ending theme would play. It worked perfectly with the whole theme of the show, the idea that the war against drugs is unwinnable. Even the big victories they scored, against Avon and Marlo's crew, were more strokes of good luck then solid, start-to-finish police work. If Bunny doesn't tip off McNulty to the warehouse or if Herc doesn't steal Marlo's cell number, they've got nothing. Every other time they closed in on a criminal, something would screw it up. That's probably how it works more often than not; it's the nature of the beast. Just not something we're used to seeing on TV.

But there were a few things I didn't buy. Although the serial killer thing makes a lot more sense as the season goes on, it's really jarring at first. I refused to accept that McNulty would a) become a drunk again so fast, b) give up on Beadie so easily and c) really put this serial killer story to effect. By the end of Season Five, you accept it, but mostly because the show's been cramming it down your throat for 10 episodes and you have no choice. The show definitely still had something to say at the end; I loved the whole journalism theme, and we had to see Marlo's crew go down. But I think certain characters, like McNulty and Bubbles (the Sherrod stuff was absolutely awful, I'm glad the lit tle fucker is dead), didn't really have any other place to go. They either went around in circles or moved into areas that didn't feel right. There's no shame in running out of steam a bit near the end, as no show is perfect forever (see Simpsons, The). I just wish they had thought of a better way to tie Season Five together.

That being said, the scene where the FBI profiles the "serial killer" and describes McNulty was pure genius.

I've already moved onto Breaking Bad, and I'm hoping for the same level of excellence in that critically renowned show. But I can't recommend The Wire enough to pretty much everyone. We're in the golden age of television, people, and you're a fool if you don't take advantage of that fact. If you've got 50 or so hours to kill (and who doesn't!), give the show a shot. You shan't regret it.

June 22, 2010

Bon voyage, Mr. Dobbs.

In 2008, Greg Dobbs led the majors with 22 pinch-hits. He hit .301 for the season with an .824 OPS, and he was 7 for 14 in the postseason with two runs scored, the icing on the cake of one of the best pinch-hitting years in Philadelphia Phillies history.

But last year, Dobbs regressed back to a .679 OPS, and in 2010 he was down to .465. By comparison, Wilson Valdez's 2010 OPS is a whopping .642, and Wilson Valdez is not employed for his bat. Hell, Juan Castro's OPS is higher, and Juan Castro truly sucks. Dobbs' defensive shortcomings were now glaringly obvious whenever he'd step in for Placido Polanco at third base, and even the squawkers on Beerleaguer were complaining less and less about getting Dobbs some at-bats and keeping his head in the game. Eventually, they started calling for his head, and today, they got it.

If Greg Dobbs had been plying his trade for any other team in baseball, they would have sent him packing after last year. Cheap, left-handed, no-glove bench offense isn't the hardest thing to find. But because he was a member of the 2008 Phillies, perhaps the most beloved Philadelphia team in the last three decades, he was instead making $1.35 million in 2010. Much like Jamie Moyer's two-year deal (which, oddly, isn't looking so bad anymore), Dobbs was a recipient of post-2008 love; giving a two-year deal to a previously inconsistent bench bat would have been chastised like mad...except after a World Fucking Championship.

I'll cheer the hell out of him when he returns for a 2008 team reunion day at Citizens Bank Park, but frankly, I hope someone claims him off waivers and he's no longer our concern, not even as an IronPig. As more and more mediocre teams start throwing in the 2010 towel, competent bench players will start flooding the market. An ambitious team could already make a move for a versatile player like Ty Wigginton, someone who would actually look good in red-and-white pinstripes.

But moves like that would never happen if the 2008 gravy train didn't finally pull into the station. Was it one of the best sporting years of my life? Absolutely. Was Greg Dobbs, surprisingly, a key part of that? Yes, he was. But the 2010 Phillies are floundering, and Dobbs was dead weight. You don't let bench players "work out the kinks" for 16, 17 months in the hope that they'll get their bats back. You cut them and find other bats, especially if you're a big-market team like the Phillies. In fact, let's hope that Castro is next to follow him out the door if/when Jimmy Rollins proves himself healthy.

There's not many moves Ruben Amaro Jr. can make with this team, beyond closing his eyes and hoping for the best. There's too much invested in a few big names, and frankly, they're way too talented to be where they are, 5.5 out at nearly the end of June. But a change was certainly in order, and setting Dobbs free is a baby step in the right direction. Let's hope, for all of our sakes, that this is the kick in the ass the Phillies needed.

June 13, 2010

What's wrong with the Philadelphia Phillies?

Welp, pretty much everything.

Bob Brookover's piece in today's Philadelphia Inquirer touches on the two more prominent theories:

a) Jimmy Rollins' injury

b) Mick Billmeyer's binoculars

I've got at least two cents on both. Yes, Jimmy's injury has hurt. Shane Victorino's put up a .258/.318/.467 line, which is not gonna cut it from the leadoff spot. His basic stats (10 homers, 36 runs, 36 RBIs) look good, but we now know that they only mean so much.

His career OBP is almost 25 points higher than his 2010 number; so is his career average. His OPS this year is actually above his career norms, but that's just because of the added power...which they don't particularly need from the leadoff hitter. I can't tell you how many first pitches he's swung at; if someone out there's recording that kind of stat, I'd love to see it. Simply put, he's not getting the job done.

And he's not the leader Jimmy Rollins is. Use whatever cliché you want: He's the straw that stirs the drink, he's head of the pack, he's the lace on their nightgown, the point after touchdown. Whatever you want to call it, Jimmy Rollins is one of the more talented, charismatic, inspiring Phillies, and they're a far worse team without him.

Of course, Jimmy's absence doesn't explain the poor play from Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth. It's not like Jimmy is Christopher Lloyd from Angels in the Outfield, guiding their bats with his ghostly powers and lifting Matt McConaughey into the air to make a brilliant catch; all he does is get on base in front of them. Their struggles, for the most part, are their own.

And that brings us to the second theory: BinocularGate. Or whatever the hell they're calling it now. Brookover's scout says that he "saw Chase Utley off balance more in three games recently than I have in the last three years. That gets your attention." He implies a correlation between that and the loss of Billmeyer's binoculars, and to his (very minor) defense, the numbers match up.

The Phillies averaged 5.4 runs a game before the binoculars incident and 3.4 runs a game after. Utley was hitting .314 beforehand; he's now down to .259. Chase Utley should NEVER hit .259; that gets my attention.

But a more telling observation, I think, is something Keith Hernandez said during one of the last Phillies/Mets games. He said that Utley's swing looked odd, that he wasn't getting his hips around, and that he thinks Chase is playing injured. To me, this makes much more sense than "Chase no longer has inside information on how to hit major league pitching." A reoccurring hip injury is a distinct possibility, and we all know Chase would play injured.

But again, that doesn't explain this team-wide slump. Were the Phillies stealing signs? Probably. Could it POSSIBLY have been the number one reason for their success, something they relied on so deeply that they instantly fell apart without it? I find that so very hard to believe. I understand that the dates line up, and I honestly can't tell you why these guys are hitting so poorly. But until someone related to the team acknowledges that (or I guess if they suck this entire season and never ever recover, which is unlikely), I'm not buying it.

Instead, could it be as simple as injuries and contract-related matters? Maybe. Ruiz is dinged up, Polanco has a bad elbow, Chase looks hurt; Howard is trying to justify a giant contract, Werth is trying to earn one. The simplest explanation is often the best one, and this makes much more sense than "they miss their friend Jimmy" or "they're all cyborgs who need Mick Billmeyer's pitching data entry every game to hit home runs." All I know is that they better figure it out, and soon. If they don't, Roy Halladay (and his 1.96 ERA) is gonna put his foot through someone's head.

June 9, 2010

It's all over.

So the Chicago Blackhawks won in six games. Just like I predicted. Damn it.

It's hard to accept that this postseason run is over. There really is nothing like the Stanley Cup Playoffs; they seem to go on forever, in a good way, and every game is more intense than the last. And then, all of a sudden, especially when it's on a bullshit goal that never should have happened, it's over. In a flash, far too fast, never doing justice to the 15-plus bloodbath games that preceded it.

I don't blame Michael Leighton for the loss. Yes, the overtime goal he surrendered was terrible. And the five-hole goal was just as bad. But he made 37 saves, and at least a baker's dozen of those were tremendous. He kept the game from becoming the Blackhawks blowout it seemed destined to be. His last six games were a letdown from the dominating form he showed against Montreal, but as everyone probably noticed, Chicago's no Montreal. The Blackhawks were gonna score a few goals, no matter what happened. If Leighton had stolen a Finals game, we'd probably still be playing tomorrow night. Hell, we might have raised the Cup last night instead. But in the end, Chicago was the better team, and they proved it.

Do I want him to be resigned as next year's starting goalie? Probably not, not if a long-term option is available. I wouldn't call Leighton a flash in the pan, but I think this team really needs some stability in goal. How are they gonna get it? They don't particularly have the bucks to sign a free agent, and most of their assets will be tough to move. But there is one guy that they could trade, a guy whose stock in the city is not particularly high right now...

That guy, Jeff Carter, and his Finals linemate Simon Gagne can go to hell. They were both either out of gas or injured yet again, and they dragged Mike Richards down the entire series. I don't know if Peter Laviolette commissioned the captain to keep the line somewhat alive, or if he was praying that they'd find their stroke near the end, but they contributed as close to nada as two star players can do. Carter, in particular, missed a wide open net near the end of the third period that should have closed out the game. That in particular was disgraceful. The line in general was disgraceful, invisible, irrelevant to the outcome of the series. It's amazing that we won two games and were competitive in three others with basically zero from our "top line."

I openly call for the Flyers to trade Jeff Carter. Yes, as my dad pointed out when I was home last weekend, that would make the team painfully small at the center position. But Jeff Carter is a) a scorer, with not much to offer beyond that, and b) one of the few Flyers with a reasonable contract that could return full value. Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell aren't going anywhere, and Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk are the future. You hope the first two will somewhat match their playoff production during next year's regular season, and you hope the second two will take the next step. Giroux, in particular, needs big minutes on a top scoring line. The only way he's going to get those is if someone is traded, and Carter is the most realistic candidate. Sorry, Jeffrey. You probably peaked in '08-'09, anyway.

A guy at work told me that sometimes a hockey team gels at the right time and starts not just a playoff run but a string of successful years, implying that this could be happening with the Flyers. Could they make it back to the Cup Finals next year? Maybe...but probably not. Again, just as Leighton wasn't a flash in the pan, this wasn't a fluke. The Flyers earned it; anyone who watched the last three games of the Boston series knows this. But we also lucked into the perfect storm of Washington and Pittsburgh being eliminated early, something that probably won't happen too often. The Flyers might be the most resilient team, and now one of the most battle-tested, but they aren't anywhere near the most skilled. Unfortunately, this feels like our one big chance, and we didn't take advantage. Maybe that's what hurts the most.

That's not to say next year won't be fun to watch. A full year under Laviolette, maybe with some smart roster maneuvering, with a full year of Ville Leino (now he might be a flash in the pan, but I'm praying that's not the case), with perhaps the continued added confidence Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle showed at the end of the year; they should be a very competitive team. And maybe they'll make another run, who knows. Two months ago, I hated this Flyers team. Now, I love them. Anything can happen in hockey.

And as for Adam Burish, whoever the hell that is, he better keep both eyes on Chris Pronger when the Flyers come to town next year. That is, as Frank Seravalli so eloquently put it, "if he's [even] playing."

June 8, 2010

Right here, right now.

10 days ago, I said the Chicago Blackhawks would win the Stanley Cup Finals in six games. I hate that I might have been right.

The Flyers could have won Game 1. They could have won Game 2. At the very least, it didn't feel like the series should have been 2-0 Chicago. They were competitive, back-and-forth games, and anyone watching closely knew we were in for a long series.

And then Games 3 and 4 happened, and Flyers fans started to believe. It started to feel like the Flyers were rounding into form, that they were in Chicago's head, that they could steal Game 5 on the road and start planning the victory parade for this coming Friday.

But we aren't thinking that anymore. Game 5 was an out-and-out disaster, and now no one's even dreaming about any sort of parade. We Flyers fans are just hoping to stay alive for a few more days.

Michael Leighton needs to be in goal tomorrow night. As Peter Laviolette said today, he has the best numbers in the playoffs. He's the reason they outlasted the Bruins, and he's the reason they shut down the Canadiens. He wasn't great in Game 1 or Game 5, and he hasn't won a game single-handedly this series. But I don't think anyone expects Boucher to stand on his head, either.

Leighton's no acrobat, he's no Dominik Hasek or Martin Brodeur. He's not a game-changing goalie. He's tended his best goal when the Flyers were playing picture-perfect defense, when they were clearing out every rebound and forcing nothing but shots from the outside, shots they either blocked or Leighton scooped up into his glove.

Leighton's no slouch, but I think he's only as good as the team around him. Perhaps more truthfully, he's only as good as the four stud defensemen around him. Carle, Timonen, Coburn, and Chris Pronger. It's no coincidence that Game 4 of the Montreal series and Game 5 of the Cup Finals felt similar -- they were probably Chris Pronger's two worst playoff games. He was a career-worst minus-5 in Game 5, and his suddenly rejuvenated nemesis Dustin Byfuglien absolutely destroyed him against the boards, a hit that might be the most replayed moment of the Finals if the Blackhawks close the Flyers out. It was not pretty.

All the talk about Pronger being the Conn Smythe winner, should the Flyers win the series, was justified, but there's a flip side to that. The Flyers rely on Pronger so greatly that if he has a bad game, it reverberates all over the ice. I don't think he's tired, I don't think he's burnt out; I think he, like the rest of the team, wasn't ready for the early Chicago rush on Sunday night, and it put them in far too big a hole to recover.

There's no room in the Stanley Cup Finals for a period like the first in Game 5. Maybe there was when offensively stagnant teams like Boston and Montreal were in town, but Chicago is a different animal. They'll put you in a hole, and they'll keep you there. Even if you battle back, as the Flyers looked like they might do for a little while, the Blackhawks aren't gonna be shut out for the last 40 minutes. You have to get the jump on them if you want to win, and that was something the Flyers did not do on Sunday night.

The Flyers are going to have to play two almost-perfect games to win the Stanley Cup. They're going to need to steamroll the Blackhawks tomorrow night at the Wachovia Center, and they're going to have to take that momentum into Chicago and survive the outrageousness of a Game 7 at the United Center. It won't be impossible, but in all honesty, it'll probably be as difficult as winning three straight against the Bruins. The Flyers have shown an almost unreal resiliency throughout the playoffs, but to be remembered as more than a runner-up, they'll have to pull off perhaps their greatest comeback of all.