December 20, 2012

A preemptive goodbye to Andy Reid.

It's time for Andy Reid to go.

Everyone knows it. Some even want him out this instant.

But when the day comes and Jeffrey Lurie makes it official, I'll miss him.

Not because he's being unjustly canned: The Eagles are 42-35-1 since 2008, with a points differential that's been consistently plummeting (127 in 2008, 62 in 2010, -122 so far in 2012). Two seasons in a row they've put together a talented roster on paper, only to see it fall apart on the field.

Assistant coaches have been unjustly hired, and then awkwardly fired. Entire drafts turned out to be total disasters. Big free-agent signings like Jevon Kearse and Nnamdi Asomugha tanked. And, oh yeah, Michael Vick.

But good coaches are hard to find, as Bill Barnwell noted quite recently, and Andy Reid is (or was) a good coach. The man is 130-91-2 in Philadelphia, record-breaking numbers that may never be topped in this itchy-trigger-finger era of lightning-quick coach turnover.

Yes, it hasn't been quite the same since his army of disciples -- John Harbaugh, Jim Johnson, even Brad Childress -- were lost to other jobs or illness. And yes, one of the main reasons things got so bad is the futility of almost all of Reid's replacements for the departed players and coaches.

But that doesn't mean Reid's five NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl appearance go away. He doesn't have to abdicate his wins because his team officially fell apart in his 14th season as head coach.

Reid was a proud man who probably took on too much responsibility, and he ultimately paid for his mistakes. Maybe his strong suit isn't having final say on personnel; maybe he lost the ability to properly analyze and critique his staff along the way.

Apart from this season, however, disasters were few and far between. The team did sneak into the playoffs three of the last five seasons. It wasn't all doom and gloom; it never felt like we were watching the Cleveland Browns or the Oakland Raiders.

And I think people will recognize that as time goes on. Much like Donovan McNabb is slowly working his way back into everyone's good graces -- being remembered for his successful career as a whole instead of a few high-profile failures -- I expect Reid will eventually attain something close to mythic status.

A new coach will come in and, inevitably, he'll screw up. Maybe it won't be as egregious as making Tony Hunt the fullback, J.R. Reed the punt returner or three wispy ghosts the 2011 linebacker trio, but it'll probably be something close. And folks will call WIP to bitch and moan, wondering where the glory days of the 2000s have gone.

Maybe they won't pine for Reid specifically, not right away. But ask a fan of the Buffalo Bills, or the aforementioned Browns, or even the Dallas Cowboys or Chicago Bears, and they'll tell you what it's like to deal with an oft-moronic string of incompetent head coaches. It's a very difficult job, and there's a reason you hang onto the great ones.

Reid will never be Buddy Ryan, who never won anything either but was beloved for it anyway. But he set the bar high and turned his franchise into one of the league's best, bringing Philadelphia nine playoff appearances when most cities would kill for one.

The best coach in team history is about to depart for greener pastures. Even if we don't applaud on his way out, let's try and remember what he did to make football in Philadelphia special again.

December 8, 2012

Does Revere plus Young equal Hamilton?

I don't think anybody thought Ben Revere and Michael Young would end up being the centerfielder and third baseman, respectively, for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2013.

Nice moves? Sure. Revere is cheap speed and defense (although I'm not sure why Ruben Amaro couldn't get him for just Vance Worley), and Young only has a year left on his contract. No one knows if we'll get the 2011 (.338/.380/.474) or the 2012 (.277/.312/.370) version, but for just $6 million it's worth the gamble. And I'm saying that as someone who would've vomited a little at the thought of Michael Young three months ago.

But the real question is, what comes next? This lineup is still short a power bat at one of the corner outfield spots.

To put it more clearly, this lineup is short Josh Hamilton.

Yes, Hamilton is a lefty, but his career .808 OPS versus LHP would've ranked second on the 2012 Phillies. Not second versus lefties, second total. That team as a whole hit .235/.300/.392 against left-handed pitching; they could use some right-handed help, sure, but what they could really use is help in general. And Hamilton is the only bat on the market that might really make a difference.

He's also possibly the biggest wild-card in baseball. Every single team appears hesitant to give him a four-year deal, and every single discussion involving him comes with this mandatory disclaimer: Nobody knows when his body will break down. Also, I'm not sure if you've heard but the Phillies are already saddled with one disastrous contract.

But this team is made up of elderly guys -- sans Revere and lottery tickets Darin Ruf/Domonic Brown -- who aren't getting any younger. 2013 could be the last year in Philadelphia for Chase Utley and Roy Halladay. The prospect cupboard, at least in terms of position players, is pretty bare. The Washington Nationals, already a tremendous young squad, just traded for Denard Span and signed Dan Haren. Dark days may very well be ahead, much worse than going 81-81 in 2012.

So perhaps the smart thing to do, really the only thing to do, is make one more big splash this offseason. If there's a power bat on the trade market and Amaro can dig up the resources to bring him in, fantastic. But it seems to me that these two trades were designed to fill holes and save some money, and I don't think Amaro likes having cash burning holes in his pockets. He's a spender.

Maybe it's not Hamilton; maybe it's Nick Swisher (although I doubt it). But either way, I suspect another move is just over the horizon. And something big, something Hamilton-sized, could both fire up a frustrated fanbase and send a message to an aging group of guys: We're going for this.

"Here are some older dudes who used to play for the Texas Rangers; win us a World Series before they fall apart."

Josh Hamilton or no Josh Hamilton, I don't think the Phillies are actually going to win the World Series in 2013. But I really don't think they're going to win in 2014 or 2015. So if your only option is to overpay a question mark and gun for that outside chance, well, what's the harm in trying?

December 4, 2012

Tips to save your Sunday.

Things you can do instead of watching the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday:

1) Read a book! I just finished Alan Sepinwall's The Revolution Was Televised, an excellent look at 12 series that have shaped television over the last decade. Next on the list is Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which my brother has been begging me to start for months now. And I've also got A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger currently staring at me from its spot on the bookshelf. Do not read anything about football, even inspiring stories about games from 40 years ago. It'll only stir up bad memories.

2) Go to the movies! I've already mentioned Holy Motors on this site, but I know that's only playing in a few specific cities. Which is a damn shame. My brother heartily recommends Lincoln, which is sure to take home a few Academy Awards and should already be on most people's radars. And I'll be taking my lovely girlfriend to see Silver Linings Playbook tonight, which (coincidentally) has a few storylines that feature our very Philadelphia Eagles! It's kinda like watching the game, but with a lot less heartbreak. Approved.

3) Watch other games! There are a few 1 o'clock games with playoff implications, including Cowboys/Bengals and Ravens/Redskins. Those should be fun. Saints/Giants and Packers/Lions will probably be entertaining, high-scoring affairs, and Texans/Patriots is an excellent Monday night game. You'll be amazed to discover that other teams have smart, talented players that make big, exciting plays, especially on defense.

Things you should not do, under any circumstances:

1) Watch the Eagles on Sunday. Don't give them your time, your money, or your love. They don't deserve it. I was mentally prepared to abandon the team three weeks ago, but a matchup with the local Redskins and two nationally broadcast outings meant I couldn't escape. They were gonna be on my TV, so I had to watch.

And I did, and I hated it. An optimistic person could've dug maybe 15 minutes of joy out of the Cowboys game, and that's if you ignore the two losing teams battling for no purpose and no glory. Each weekend brings with it a 60-minute mess, and they just keep on coming.

2) Bet on the Eagles on Sunday. Two weeks ago, the opening spread turned out to be the Eagles giving 2.5 points to the Carolina Panthers. I remarked to my dad that this seemed to be a very enticing line for gamblers (not me, of course), and he admonished me for even discussing the idea of betting against your home team:

"Come on. You'd end up rooting for the other guys!"

I don't entirely agree (I'd be anticipating yet another Eagles meltdown -- which happened anyway -- not actively hoping for it) but I understand where he was coming from. It's tough when you root for a horrible team that could possibly be exploited for personal financial gain.

You active bettors out there, though, ones with no rooting interest in Sunday's games: take Tampa Bay -7.5 and don't look back. If the Bucs don't score 40 points, I'll be surprised.

3) Think about football and smile. It's all downhill from here, gang. You didn't think it could get any worse, but every Sunday is a new adventure in futility. Will no Jason Babin and no Jim Washburn fire up the troops? Maybe. There are plenty of sites out there that'll analyze such matters. For me, it's time to get away from the Eagles and pray for sunnier days in 2013. I recommend you do the same.

November 16, 2012

Holy Motors reviewed.

Holy Motors is, without a doubt, the most batshit crazy film I've ever seen in theaters. It's also one of the best. If you like alternating between perplexed guffawing and mouth-agape befuddlement, this one's for you.

The plot is hard to pin down, in a good way. The best explanation, without saying too much, is that it's a series of mini-movies. One features a creepy leprechaun-type person hopping around a cemetery, another bursts into a very manufactured Kylie Minogue performance that ends with the kicking of a mannequin head. There's parental disappointment and simulated motion-capture sex.

It should be unintelligible, and it kinda is. But there's something about a director who tells his story with confidence and a clear vision, who paces properly and ensures that all his scenes have the same style, the same uncertain tone underneath, that can magically tie a film together thematically. I've never seen any other films by Leos Carax; I didn't even know who he was until 12 hours ago. But I'm blown away by his ability to entwine a series of seemingly unrelated scenes and make them flow so wonderfully.

To create a movie this bizarre, you need the perfect actor. Someone who fully grasps what you're trying to do, who buys into the insanity and throws himself (or herself) into a role. Or in this case, six or seven. Denis Lavant is that person. Oh, he's that and more. He'll never win Best Actor or any kind of serious awards, but you may never see a better performance. He's a goddamn chameleon, and you'll spend the whole two hours wondering what he'll do (or look like) next.

It's hard not to compare Holy Motors to the year's most engrossing, if not high-grossing, independent film. The performances in The Master were stunning, but I don't think Paul Thomas Anderson was fully able to turn his ideas into a movie. It wears being incomprehensible like a badge of honor; you can fight to piece it together, but I'm not sure how much it helps. Even if we're supposed to be absorbing the events through the boozy, unstable eyes of Joaquin Phoenix's character, there's still something off. It's not fleshed out. And it's not because of a lack of trying. It's a lack of substance.

By contrast, there is too much substance in Holy Motors. It's overflowing. Everything feels linked, even if the separate scenarios are so loosely tied together that the only connection is you're sitting in the same seat still watching (ostensibly) the same movie. When the guy hugs his monkey wife and pets his monkey child, you nod approvingly. Of course that's what happens next. It builds up to a certain absurdity so that practically anything is expected and/or accepted. The only way to describe it is an almost unimaginable level of brilliant, entrancing filmmaking.

I walked into the theater a little sleepy and totally unprepared for what I was about to witness. My friend Rob Turbovsky had recommended the film wildly, and I'd done no research beforehand. No trailers, no reviews. I hadn't gone to a movie fully blind since my brother and I randomly walked into The Proposition six years ago.

And I'd recommend the same for all viewers. I actually considered not writing this review, out of fear that it could spoil certain aspects any readers, but I couldn't resist. Holy Motors has its cinematic fingers wrapped around my throat. I had to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, because it's that mesmerizing.

In fact, this review from Mike D'Angelo of The A.V. Club says it better than I ever could:
"It’s the kind of bugfuck cliff-dive that’ll still be celebrated decades after most of 2012’s prestige awards-bait has been forgotten."
If I had to make an early top-10 list for this year, it would include Moonrise Kingdom, Undefeated, Sleepwalk with Me and Wreck-It Ralph. The Avengers was pretty close to perfection, too. But the only movie that's really gripped me this year, gotten into my head and refused to come out, is Holy Motors.

November 13, 2012

This is going to get worse before it gets better.

The worst part about the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles season? It doesn't end until December 30.

There are seven weeks left. Seven games remaining, seven more chances to further reinforce that the Eagles are one of the worst teams in the NFL.

29th in points scored per game. 22nd in points allowed per game. Tied for 28th in sacks. 31st in turnover differential.

Todd Bowles hasn't improved the defense. In fact, he's kinda made things worse.

Michael Vick or Nick Foles? With a patchwork offensive line that now includes a guy signed off the street, it won't matter.

The time for queries, for "what'll fix this," that's long over. There's no bouncing back from 3-6, from a five-game losing streak, from a minus-65 point differential.

But you're not allowed to simply wave the white flag; there are tickets sold, concessions to peddle, beer to drink and Sundays to fill. So the machine'll plod ahead, all of us awaiting the inevitable.

Andy Reid will go about his business, refusing to give up on his guys, the ones that cost him his job, the ones that everyone else has abandoned. Unless they find new, unprecedented ways to embarrass themselves, he'll survive until Week 17, hoping against hope that it won't be his last game as head coach of the Eagles.

But it will be. The day he fired Juan Castillo (or, if you believe Les Bowen, the day he chose Vick over Kevin Kolb) was the official beginning of the end. Reid was rightly desperate, but the only bullet left in the chamber just sped up the downward spiral.

It felt like this year might be something special. A full offseason to gel, a well-regarded draft, a handful of contract extensions and placated veterans.

Talk about being dead wrong. And any anger I felt has already bypassed sadness and evolved into apathy. In fact, this is the last thing I expect to write about football until the offseason. I won't miss it.

Now it's all about the little things. Finding new ways to occupy yourself on game day, either by watching other teams or (gasp) going out into the world. I was blessed enough to spend Sunday on a bus from New York City to Washington DC, cut off from all forms of televised sports. I think the only Eagles fans luckier than me were the dead ones.

November 6, 2012

The case for, and against, B.J. Upton.

In 2007, a 22-year-old named Melvin Emanuel Upton hit .300/.386/.508 in 548 plate appearances for the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He was 10th in the American League in OPS and ninth in slugging percentage. Bossman Junior had arrived.

Those same Rays, now sans-Devil, made the World Series in 2008. After a very quiet sophomore season (nine homers, .401 SLG), Upton socked three dingers in the ALDS and four in the ALCS before coming up lame against the mighty Philadelphia Phillies. Perhaps superstardom wasn't in his future, but the kid obviously had the kind of talent that most teams would treasure.

But here we are, late in 2012, and B.J. Upton is available to all who may want him. And not only that; he's affordable! The second pick in the 2002 draft, with 118 homers and 232 steals at the age of 28, can be had for the low, low price of (probably) $65 million over five years.

By comparison, Josh Hamilton is asking for (and probably won't get) seven years and $175 million. He's a 31-year-old former drug addict, albeit one who hit 43 homers in 2012. If he's big risk/big reward, Upton is medium risk/medium reward. You seemingly know what you're getting, but is he worth such a (relatively) modest commitment?

Upton's averaged a .416 slugging percentage since his breakout 2007 season, which is about right. I don't think anyone expected him to slug around .500 for his career, and he's become a steady 30-double, 25-homer kinda guy. The real concern is his on-base percentage, specifically how it's sunk like a stone. Starts at a mighty .386 in 2007, steady at .383 in 2008, plummets to .313 in 2009. And it's gotten worse -- his .298 OBP in 2012 puts him in a class with famed flame-outs (and, sigh, occasional postseason award winners) like Delmon Young and Gordon Beckham.

So what happened to B.J. Upton? Maybe just time and regression. Eric Seidman of Phillies Nation reminds us that "offense is declining across the sport," which doesn't explain such a massive fall but does provide a new context in which to view Upton's numbers. He also notes that his unadjusted OBP over the last three seasons falls in line with the American League average, favorably comparing B.J. to Shane Victorino and implying that Upton would essentially provide what Shane brought to the table from 2010 to 2012.

I think we'd all take that. But I still find it disconcerting that Upton's numbers have gotten worse, not better, as his career goes on. His strikeouts have increased every year since 2008, reaching 169 this past season; maybe the league figured him out, or maybe Upton couldn't make the adjustments necessary to go from good to great.

Then again, if B.J. Upton had a yearly OPS that matched his monster 2007, he would cost a lot more than $13 million per year. You get what you pay for. And it's conceivable that Citizens Bank Park could be part of the cure for whatever ails him; Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay consistently ranks as one of the worst parks in baseball for hitters.

It couldn't hurt the Phillies to get younger, and while Angel Pagan or even the aforementioned Victorino might be smarter (read: cheaper) investments, Upton provides more upside. Plus, there's no guarantee that skimping on center field would mean using that money wisely in other areas. Big-market teams should spend as such, and if Ruben Amaro Jr. is looking to snag lightning in a bottle with his new centerfielder, Bossman Junior's skills and potential make him the best bet.

November 1, 2012

The great debate continues.

Fourteen months ago to the day, I engaged in an enjoyable debate with my friend Matt Kakley over who deserved to be the 2011 American League MVP. I said Jose Bautista, he (kinda) said Curtis Granderson. And, of course, it was Justin Verlander. Shows what we know.

But that didn't stop us! Mr. Kakley and I are back again for round two of our great debate. The topic today: Which franchise has a rosier future, the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox?

King Myno: I hate to take us down this road, because it involves two teams that are endlessly overanalyzed by all members of the national sporting media, but I'm fascinated by what the future holds for the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

One team went 95-67 in 2012 and made it to the American League Championship Series. The other went 69-93 and temporarily assumed the role of "most embarrassing franchise in baseball."

On paper, or at least a very small piece of paper containing only the information listed above, it's a no-brainer. Obviously, however, it's more complicated than that. The Yankees are spending roughly $130 million on just seven guys in 2013 (and one of them is A.J. Burnett) while Boston has pretty much wiped the slate clean after a disastrous season. Both franchises are beyond rich; only one has a ton of flexibility.

But even after their drubbing at the hands of the Detroit Tigers, I believe that things are brighter in New York. They've still got: Robinson Cano and his .929 OPS. CC Sabathia and his 3.38 ERA in 200 innings. Derek Jeter's seemingly neverending Derek Jeter-ness. Alex Rodriguez's quietly productive .272/.353/.430 season. Sixty-seven combined homers in a "down year" for Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira. A boatload of available money to bring back Hiroki Kuroda and fill in some of the blanks. The return of Michael Pineda?!

I know that it's not getting better for a lot of New York's older guys -- and it could certainly get much worse -- but it's not like Boston is a lock to spend all their newfound cash wisely. And if the Red Sox turn their focus to player development and internal improvements, rather than throwing $150 million at Josh Hamilton, that's a long-term move that won't pay off for a while. There could certainly be another few rocky years ahead.

Neither of these rosters are the envy of the league, especially since Boston barely has one, but I don't think the Yankees are at risk of bottoming out. When in doubt, go with New York.

Matt Kakley: With the drek that is the Phillies' roster, it doesn't surprise me that you're spending so much time thinking about the Sox and Yankees. It also doesn't surprise me, given your propensity to make brash, shortsighted statements, that you'd go all in on this aging Yankee squad.

While there's no question that the Yankees were better than the Sox this past year, we're talking about the future here; throw those records out the window. I also wouldn't be foolish enough to say the Sox will post a better record than New York in 2013 (meaning, of course, the Yankees; I hope they'll do better than the Mets).

When I look at the future, there are just some things I can't get beyond with this Yankee squad; one of them being $211 million. That's the amount owed for four more years of Teixeira and five years of A-Rod. If any team can handle multiple albatross contracts, it's the Yankees, but those will loom large.

I think A-Rod can stay relevant if he reinvents himself as a hitter, and Teixeria still has decent pop, but they're unlikely to remain middle-of-the-order bats going forward.

Add to that figure the likely (and absolutely necessary) long-term deal for Cano, a possible contract for Grandy and the $100 million (again, deserved) for CC and you've got yourself a team with nowhere to go but down.

I'll take our youngsters and cash flexibility in 2014 and beyond.

KM: Cash flexibility? Once upon a time, the Red Sox had that and a bevy of talented players. Now you've got John Lackey, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and blank. A big bunch of blank.

Speaking of John Lackey, you blew a lot of bucks on him once upon a time. Same with Carl Crawford, and you locked up Adrian Gonzalez for $154 million only 19 months ago.

Now only Lackey remains, and you'd give him away for a bag of balls. I know that was under the old front office, and part of what Ben Cherington did this year was clear out most of the garbage in preparation for building his own team. And kudos for that; it takes guts.

But now you've got all this money, and no players, and the pressure is still on to build a winner. Do Boston fans want to watch another 70-win team? Especially when their once-proud franchise still reeks of dysfunction? The best way to calm a fanbase is to win, and the only way to win when you don't have enough good players is to buy (or develop) a bunch of them. And developing, as we all know, takes time.

This year's free agent class is relatively barren. Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Zack Greinke, a few decent mid-level guys. Smart teams, or at least teams that are more than one or two pieces away, will probably refrain from any craziness.

But if the Red Sox sit on their hands, they won't be good next year. They may not even be very good in 2014. And as more and more teams lock up their stars before free agency (Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen) who's to say that a can't-miss stud will ever fall into Boston's lap? Is there a mix of mild spending and relative patience that will allow the Red Sox to strike at just the right time and return to dominance? Perhaps, but that's far from guaranteed.

And while Boston is deciding just how to construct its next great baseball powerhouse, New York will be competing for the AL East, like they always do. Yes, the Yankees have many aging stars, and everyone but Sabathia (and eventually Cano) is wildly overpaid. But they're still talented, and like I said, they're backed by a whole bunch of cash. They can get away with overpaying.

Plugging holes is a lot easier than building an entire boat, especially when you're still working on the blueprint. I don't love where the Yankees are right now, but I'd take it over the nebulous void in which the Red Sox currently reside.

MK: You forgot about my fantasy favorite Clay Buchholz, but I see your point ... though it's wildly overblown.

David Ortiz will probably be back -- so will Cody Ross -- and a bunch of guys will be offered arbitration (Will Middlebrooks, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Ryan Lavarnway). There's a core there, and one that will be better than .500.

When the Red Sox were the best team in baseball in 2007, it was with a mix of stud homegrown prospects (Pedroia, Jacoby, Kevin Youkilis, Lester) and a handful of "hired gun" stars (Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell). It's that philosophy that the team seems to be going back to.

There are some kids ready to come up and contribute in a big way over the next year or so (Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa) and the team now has the cash flexibility to sign a few big guys that could put them over the top when the time is right.

You say the fanbase is impatient and will demand immediate results, but you've apparently been down in DC too long. The fans are clamoring for the team to avoid guys like Hamilton and Greinke, recognizing that reckless spending at the expense of the future isn't the way to build a great team.

If they were truly concerned about fan pressure, they would have kept their high-priced stars and run it back one more time; there was enough talent there to roll the dice on a better outcome.

No one up here expects this team to compete next year. The big trade has afforded them some breathing room to make smart, long-term moves, and I trust that this ownership group and front office has seen the error of their ways and will go back to what worked. Keep in mind, Cherington has actually been with the team since before John Henry and company came into the picture.

Also, mock the big money for Gonzo all you want, but I see no issue with that deal. He struggled this year, but he's a good enough hitter to earn that money.

KM: The future may be bright for the Boston Red Sox, and kudos to the fans if they're really ready and willing to take 'er easy and see how this all plays out.

But better than .500 in 2013? I don't buy that. And certainly not better than the Yankees, that's for sure.

Mariano Rivera will be back. Andy Pettitte will (probably) be back. A healthy Brett Gardner will return to the outfield, along with a top free agent like Torii Hunter or (gasp) the aforementioned Josh Hamilton. If the Yankees win less than 90 games in 2013, I'll eat my hat. And I don't risk hats lightly.

As you alluded to previously, I am a Philadelphia Phillies fan, so I've watched a team get old fast. And I've certainly seen bloated contracts come back to bite everyone in the ass.

But even the 2012 Phillies won 81 times. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley missed 170 games between them. Roy Halladay only made 25 starts. Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence were traded at the deadline. And yet the team was still somehow mildly competitive.

Granted, the NL East is not the AL East. But a lot had to fall apart for the Phillies to even fall to .500, and I don't expect nearly as much to go wrong in New York. Neither of us knows exactly how things will be five or six years from now, but I firmly believe that the Yankees will use their money and their preexisting talent to weather any storms that may come their way. It's what they do.

And yes, I do feel disgusted for being suckered into writing several hundred words on the most oft-discussed rivalry in sports history. Congratulations.

MK: If you look all the way up at the top of this page, I said the Sox would not be better than the Yankees in 2013, or maybe even 2014 -- I'm looking at the years beyond that.

And I don't see .500 as out of reach in the least. Lester and Buchholz should return to form under John Farrell, and (gulp) Lackey is healthy for the first time as a Red Sox. He'll probably be mediocre at worst, even though I hate him and would prefer he fail out of spite.

Mariano will be a year older and coming off major knee surgery, so there's a strong chance he won't be his old self. Rafael Soriano will be gone. Is Torii Hunter a game-changer? Probably not. Can Hamilton's liver survive in NYC? Probably not.

Again, neither of us has a crystal ball, but the way things look today "on paper," the Red Sox have the chance to get a lot better. I just don't see a whole lot of room for improvement from the Yankees.

The question becomes: How long can they tread water with what is currently a good team? My guess is that the weight of bloated contracts eventually buries them deep in the sea.

So sorry to have dragged you into such a discussion on this "over-hyped" rivalry. If you'd like, we can get together in another 14 months and do one on the Orioles and Nationals.

October 17, 2012

Juan and done.

Twenty months ago, I spoke out in favor of Juan Castillo.

"Embrace the insanity of it all," I said. My hope was that promoting your offensive line coach to defensive coordinator would, at the very least, lead to some kind of entertaining disaster. Like an outrageous Nic Cage movie.

It was, of course, anything but. The Philadelphia Eagles are a boring 11-11 in their last 22 games, and Castillo was fired on Tuesday.

Juan wasn't a mess. His defense was 12th in yards per game allowed in 2012, eighth in 2011. Seven interceptions this year, four forced fumbles. Not showing off, not falling behind.

But when Andy Reid needed a fall guy, it was Juan. He was the only one who could go; as Dan Graziano of ESPN.com noted, there's no immediate replacement on staff for embattled offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.

Todd Bowles, on the other hand, is a suspiciously reasonable choice to take over the defense. Whether Andy knew this offseason that a change would have to come or not, he certainly gave himself a contingency plan.

And it probably won't matter. The Eagles' offense is averaging 17.2 points per game, 31st in the NFL; no defense in history is going to make up for that. If the depleted offensive line doesn't magically get better at football fast, the guy in charge of the other side of the ball will be an afterthought.

It's a desperation move, and everyone knows it. And Reid should be desperate; with five NFC East games, the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints (in New Orleans, of course) still on the schedule, there's no guarantee his team will get the 10 wins (probably) necessary to clinch a playoff berth.

Anything less and it's goodbye Andy, goodbye Michael Vick, goodbye Jim Washburn and Howard Mudd and anyone else who can be jettisoned quickly and painlessly. Reid won't bench Vick, not yet, so he played the only card he had left. Kudos to him for at least recognizing the situation; as an Eagles fan, I hope it works out.

After seeing Sunday's meltdown and the circus that followed, however, I have my doubts.

October 11, 2012

Something is happening in Oakland.

The 2012 Philadelphia Phillies were underwhelming. This is not breaking news; going from 102-60 to 81-81 will sour a fan base real quick.

So god bless my friend Peter. He's a die-hard Oakland Athletics fan, and whenever I'd go over to watch baseball (which was often) I'd inevitably end up catching that night's A's game.

Imagine my surprise, then, when those same A's ended up winning the AL West. And it was genuine surprise; even though I'd seen them play (and mostly win) a few dozen games in 2012, I never thought they had what it takes to catch the Texas Rangers. Let alone wallop them and virtually end their season.

But it's given me a team to root for in these playoffs, which paid off handsomely when Oakland came back against the supremely overrated Jose Valverde and his Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of last night's near-clincher.

In fact, I texted Peter (who was there) before the ninth began, "Good luck pal. You know how bad Papa Grande is." Fortunately for Oakland and all the team's fans, adopted or otherwise, I was right.

You have to look at this Oakland roster to realize how truly special they really are. The A's are so platoon-heavy, and had so many moving parts, that only eight players had more than 300 plate appearances this year. And one of them was Brandon Inge.

But Brandon Moss, a lefty who smartly faced righties in 79% of his plate appearances, ended up with an insane .954 OPS. Yoenis Cespedes surprised everyone by hitting .292/.356/.505 in his first season. Josh Reddick smacked 32 dongers. And Jonny Gomes, according to OPS+, had his best season since 2005.

And the pitching. Oh, the pitching. The A's started 2012 with Bartolo Colon, Brandon McCarthy and someone named Graham Godfrey in their starting rotation. Tyson Ross and his 6.50 ERA started 13 games. And the bullpen ended up being anchored by two rookies.

But the rookies -- Sean Doolittle (pride of Shawnee High School) and All-Star Ryan Cook -- were stellar. Doolittle struck out 60 in 47.1 innings. Cook had a 2.09 ERA and a 0.941 WHIP.

Meanwhile, Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin combined for 75 starts and over 453 innings. All had ERAs under 3.75. They're 25, 23 and 24 years old, respectively.

It's an amazing story, and unfortunately, one that might end real soon. Justin Verlander will be the opposing pitcher in Game 5, he who struck out 11 A's in seven innings on Saturday. He threw 121 pitches that night, and after last night's bullpen implosion he might throw 150 tonight.

But however how it shakes out (and I can say that because I'm not a real A's fan), the Game 4 comeback was probably the most exciting moment of the baseball season. After many months of frustration and mediocrity in Philadelphia, it was nice to see a team that battled back like the Phillies of old.

Here's rooting for a World Series parade in Oakland.

September 26, 2012

How long can Michael Vick last?

If the Philadelphia Eagles want to compete for the Super Bowl in 2012, Michael Vick should be behind center for all 16 games.

But he won't, for two reasons:

He's not going to make it through the season alive. Vick's been sacked nine times in three games. According to Sheil Kapadia, he ended up on the ground 19 times on Sunday. There's no way he can hold up to that kind of punishment, not for three more months.

Vick already looks shaky. He's holding onto the ball too long, trying to force plays that aren't there. He's not sensing pressure and acting accordingly. He might be hurt already, or he's just trying too hard to be the kind of pocket passer that wins championships.

To me, he's overthinking things. Vick is known for making mistakes when he lets the game come naturally, but at least those errors go hand-in-hand with dazzling runs and monster throws. Lately his boners are of the backbreaking, unnecessary variety, and more often than not they're putting him on his ass.

The sad thing is, with no Jason Peters and Jason Kelce, things aren't getting any easier for whoever plays quarterback. At some point, I expect Vick to take a hit and not get up. Then it's Nick Foles time.

Andy Reid's job is on the line. 8-8 is unacceptable. That's what Jeffrey Lurie said before the season even started. And at this point, the Eagles will be lucky to hit midseason at anything better than 4-4.

That's not a slight on them; it's a tough early schedule. But if the Cowboys or the Giants are sitting in first place at 6-2, there will be plenty of negative chatter. In this very possible scenario, Reid's seat might be scorching.

And if Vick's play remains shaky at best? Enter the young savior, now with half-a-year's seasoning under his belt.

My dad's response to this theory was "A rookie QB is not typically a job saver," and he's right. But if the Eagles are floundering, why not? I know Reid loves Vick, but it's looking increasingly likely that what we saw in 2010 was an aberration. Vick may only be a flashy, occasionally competent quarterback, and Reid needs more than that to survive.

At that point, the Nick Foles lottery ticket may be his best bet.

Again, I hope Vick gets his mojo back and starts all 16 games. I don't think the team has a prayer without him.

But after three games, all of them shaky and one downright gross, it's looking more and more like the Nick Foles era will begin sooner than we expected.

September 20, 2012

A thing I wrote that most of you can ignore.

I still remember the first time I saw an episode of The Office.

Probably because it was also the only time I ever skipped out on a day of high school.

The memory is still vivid. It was the winter of 2003. I left my younger brother in the school parking lot -- being unnecessarily cagey the entire way -- and sped off in my big red pickup truck. I pulled into the local Starbucks and sat with the engine idling until I got a call from my friend.

"All clear," he said.

He and I and a few other people went to a girl's house. We watched British comedy. We drove into Philadelphia. We went to a vintage store. I bought a blue ruffled tuxedo shirt. There was probably consumption of hamburgers, or pizza, or some other delicious shit that young kids like to shove into their faces.

This was new ground. I was bustin' out of class. I'd never done anything "cool" like this before. Some of my friends were doing mushrooms and having sex. I was purchasing used clothes. I was behind, but in my mind ground was finally being gained.

In retrospect, this is sorta sad. But it's also beautiful, because I was there and I felt the exact opposite of sad. I bloomed late, which meant that around this time everything happened at once. I packed years into months, months into days. The littlest things were magnified, and the biggest inevitably blew my mind.

There was no immediate risk on that wintry morn, but there was very much an aura of wrongness. I hadn't yet been the type to do such. And maybe then I realized that there are certain types of "wrong" that don't hurt anybody. You can miss physics or gym and nobody notices. Your parents are flawed like everyone else. There is indeed a gray in between black and white, and it's an area you're occasionally allowed to inhabit. I think it's a good day when you learn that, late or otherwise.
 
To watch a recording of it now, you'd probably laugh at my seriousness. But this day, this event, was so all-encompassing at the time, so important to what I was and what I might become, that I can't imagine disparaging the memory with mockery. People were inviting me places. I was doing stuff. I've done other stuff since then, much of which has been more enjoyable. But very little has been anywhere near as exciting.

A few weeks later, my mom found the bag from the vintage store in my closet. We got into an argument. I told her that "I was gonna be doing things that she wasn't gonna like" from here on out.

My friends have made fun of me for that bit of dialogue ever since.

I was grounded for a few weeks. No harm, no foul...except it was harm, and foul. This was a day that mattered. A rare opportunity for me to experience a world outside of what I knew. I didn't always go to girls' houses. I didn't always watch foreign sitcoms. But I wanted to, very badly. To punish me for enjoying something so ultimately harmless seemed unnecessary. And hurtful. And remarkably out of touch with what I needed to live, and be normal.

This is no slight against my parents, who did a wonderful job raising me. But I do look occasionally to the future and hope that, when I have kids, I grow with them. I hope to recognize, in this hypothetical future world, that there are rules and regulations but also observations and understandings -- meaning none of the former must be ironclad -- and that the need for black and white dissipates over time. It's important to acknowledge the existence of the gray.

Most kids in high school are beyond lame. I've looked back at a few AIM conversations saved on my old computer, and they make me want to barf. But the emotions I felt that day, and what came before and after, those were real. To forget about them would be tragic; losing touch with a part of myself that isn't better or worse. It just is. I don't think of it as holding on so much as remembering a time when so little meant so much.

I own The Office on DVD now. Both seasons and the holiday specials. Unsurprisingly, I just can't get into it like I used to.

September 17, 2012

Ain't that pretty at all.

It wasn't pretty. But it doesn't have to be.

These days, Philadelphia football fans aren't worrying much about stats, accolades, or even "looking consistently good out there."

Wins are what count, and the Eagles have two of them.

Michael Vick's continued shakiness? Forgotten (for now) after another fourth-quarter comeback. LeSean McCoy's second fumble of the year? Shady's track record (only 7 fumbles in four years) still inspires confidence.

Jason Kelce is out for quite a while, and if Jeremy Maclin plays, it'll be through some pain.

But victories are victories. Last year's team couldn't pull out close games. The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles didn't take late leads; they blew them.

So far, these guys look like battlers. Maybe we can thank veteran savvy or chemistry or another one of those oft-applied intangibles. Or maybe all the talent that came onboard the last two offseasons, especially on the defensive end of the ball, has finally settled in.

Rookies Brandon Boykin and Mychal Kendricks have looked terrific. This draft class could end up being the finest in recent Eagles history. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie might've been the best player on the field in Week 1. Asante who?

And DeMeco Ryans, well, he's just a dreamboat. An interception! A sack! Some tackles in the backfield! When was the last time an Eagles linebacker made one play, let alone three or four, that made you stand up and yelp? Paul Domowitch should check back in with his pessimistic anonymous scout sometime soon.

Perhaps it was wise to allow embattled defensive coordinator Juan Castillo a little time to simmer. Maybe a talented group of linebackers can learn to play in the now-famed wide-nine scheme. After beating up on lowly Cleveland, you could play the "wait and see" card. But with two straight gems in the books (fourth in yards allowed per game), I've seen enough. And I like it.

There's admittedly only so much praise you can heap on a team that's won two games by a total of two points. But there will also only be (after tonight) six 2-0 teams in the National Football League. And the Philadelphia Eagles are one of them.

September 14, 2012

Shot with his own gun.

When I left for Malaysia on the afternoon of June 27, the Philadelphia Phillies were 36-40.

When I got back to America late on July 8, they were 37-50. And they lost the next one, too.

That, and not the eighth-inning meltdown in last night's loss to the Houston Astros, is why this team won't make the playoffs.

Don't get me wrong. It was fun to believe again, if just for a little while. Overachievers like Erik Kratz (.848 OPS) and Kevin Frandsen (.787 OPS), career minor-leaguers who've been standing on their heads for months, are always easy to cheer for.

But when reality bites, it's usually hard. The Phillies have a 2.7% chance of making the playoffs. The best it's been in recent days is 5%.

That's pretty slim. To sneak into the dance, everything needed to go their way. Nothing could go wrong.

Well, something already did: they lost a very winnable game. Don't blame Phillippe Aumont; he's pitched in five of the last six games (and twice on Sunday). Don't blame Charlie Manuel's bullpen tactics (pick an unproven rookie, any unproven rookie) or the poor at-bats with runners in scoring position (2 for 9).

Blame the fact that they tanked in the summer. Because the reason they are backed up against this wall, the reason they have no margin for error, is because they played abhorrent baseball for two long, sad weeks.

A team that's barely holding onto a near-even record can't afford to lose 11 of 12 games. That's digging your own grave, a deep one you'll probably never escape from.

And they won't. They'll keep it interesting. They may even sneak to within a game or two.

But while I was gallivanting around Southeast Asia, the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies were putting a bullet in their own heads. It just took a little longer than expected for them to bleed out.

August 29, 2012

Back to football.

Roughly 11 months ago, I wrote a post about leaving the Philadelphia Eagles behind.

To put it mildly, I was frustrated. I was enjoying football less and appreciating other sports more. Sunday afternoons no longer had the same all-encompassing allure of years past, and the underachieving Eagles certainly weren't helping matters.

So, with the 2012 NFL season just about to start, how am I feeling about my footballs?

Well, I'd certainly rather live in a world with the sport than one without it, that's for sure.

As for the Eagles, I feel surprisingly hopeful. It might sound crazy, but I think that karma might be on their side. They didn't bring any new shitheads onboard, and they made good with some of their key veterans. If you value things like "chemistry" and "continuity," this year's team should have both in spades.

I like what Andy Reid and Howie Roseman did in the offseason. After one of the most disappointing 8-8 seasons in recent league history, it took some guts to run it back. This team was probably too talented to dismantle, but to try again with virtually the same roster -- not including picks and/or injuries -- is bold. And potentially stupid.

On paper, though, it's hard to argue with any of it. Talented players were resigned or extended. Promising rookies were snagged in what seems like a very impressive draft.

And the next in a long line of beloved backup quarterbacks has arrived.

The offensive line will be greatly weakened without Jason Peters; I wouldn't be surprised to see LeSean McCoy "regress" from All-Pro to Pro Bowler. At the very least, expecting 17 rushing touchdowns again is foolish.

It's also very unlikely that Michael Vick will play all 16 regular season games, which makes Nick Foles that much more valuable/prone to arouse controversy. But even if some people clamor for Nick "Mick" Foles-y, we all know that the team's going nowhere without Vick.

Which is fine; how many teams have two Super Bowl-caliber quarterbacks? Even with a "fragile" quarterback like Vick, it's asking a lot to stash another guy who can do more than just fill in.

Either way, we can say with almost near certainty that someone with a name (first or last) that ends in -ick will be at QB for most of 2012. Sorry, Trent Edwards.

It's a very talented team. Maybe among the best in football. But that and two bucks will buy you a bowl of soup; can Reid, Juan Castillo and Marty Mornhinweg turn these lovable scamps into a contender?

Obviously, Juan raises the most eyebrows. But at the end of last December, right before the finale of a very stirring football-themed post, I wrote this:
"Give Andy and Juan ... one more season to show what they've got."
And I'm glad I said that, because I still feel the same today. (That's the best/worst part about having a blog: Your opinions are retained forever, or as long as the Internet exists.)

Although a quick read through the terrific Eagles Almanac (summary: the team would've been better off playing a painfully simple base defense all year than struggling to adopt Juan's unnecessarily complicated schemes) threw cold water on some of that end-of-2011 optimism, I believe that Castillo will have learned from at least some of his mistakes. I think a full offseason, a slightly recalibrated secondary and a remarkably deep defensive line will bring forth an above-average defense, and the team can reenact the original 2011 strategy of "outscore the other team early and pound the shit out of their QB late."

Frankly, I'm still more concerned about the possible disappearance of NHL games than I am about the inevitable reappearance of NFL games. But that doesn't mean I won't be rooting for my Eagles, watching games (mostly theirs, but occasionally others) every Sunday and hoping that the luck of the Irish shines Philadelphia's way. It's nearly impossible to escape football in America; you have to be a hermit or an unrepentant dick to get away. And since I'm (mostly) neither, I won't even bother.

But I reserve the right, if need be, to write 2,000 more words about how much they totally suck come November.

August 9, 2012

Kevin Nash and his place in pro wrestling history.

Until Thomas Golianopoulos came along, I didn't know the world needed 3,500 words on Kevin Nash.

But his excellent piece on Nash, his career and the aftermath got me thinking. How will Kevin Nash be remembered?

To many people, he's probably just that big dude who pretended to be a bodyguard/truck driver for a while and then started the nWo. And that's really all you need.

But for wrestling fans, it's never that simple. And most fans, especially those who frequent the Internet, hate Kevin Nash.

To them, Nash is the guy who kept Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero down for so many years. The wrestler-slash-booker who ruled over WWF and WCW with an iron fist, who pushed his Kliq buddies to the top and buried rising stars like Bill Goldberg when it served his purposes.

The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder why this viewpoint, which still rests on a lot of general speculation and rumors, somehow tarnishes Nash's wrestling career.


I've always assumed -- and the article confirms this a few times over -- that Nash is a smart guy. For one thing, he's still alive, which is more than most elderly professional wrestlers can say.

So how much can we blame him working his way into a position of power, for using his intelligence and skill at handling backstage politics to ensure a lengthy run at the top? It sounds like, to him, pro wrestling was and is a job. He was a floor manager at a strip club until he stumbled upon a new career that revolves around yelling into a microphone and fake-punching people, and it made him millions of dollars.

Now, I don't mean to excuse Nash of any wrongdoings along the way. But I know a little about how wrestling operates, and to me, he sounds more and more like the only sane person amongst a swarm of overenthusiastic psychopaths.

I really enjoyed the book Ring of Hell, a detailed look at the life of Chris Benoit and everything that led up to the eventual murder-suicide that forever changed the world of pro wrestling. The author, Matthew Randazzo V, paints Benoit as mentally imbalanced long before he committed any crimes. This isn't because he tortured little animals or terrorized his family; it's because he was hopelessly devoted to professional wrestling. Because he'd bash his own head in, day after day, just to put on a show. To be the best wrestler he could be, even if the pay was minimal, the audiences were nonexistent and a rise to the top of the industry was far from a certainty.

Randazzo has a point. Pro wrestlers are, by and large, insane. They have no union. I believe they pay for their own travel and their own health care. Most of them wrestle because it's what they were raised to do, what they were surrounded by as children. They throw themselves into these jobs (and you have to, because there are only so many) and most of them never come out the other end.

The logical way to approach a pro wrestling career is to get in and get out. Make as much money as you can, as fast as you can, and escape while you're still breathing. But when it's all you know, how do you just walk away? Most don't, and that's why the attrition rate is so damn high.

It was a little easier for Kevin Nash; he backed his way into the industry by virtue of being a giant. He's what most wrestling promoters are looking for, or at least what they were looking for, back in his day. Guys like Benoit and Guerrero had to battle for every inch, but Nash was essentially handed the heavyweight title in 1994. His path to wrestling fame, and the cash that accompanies it, was a lot less bumpy than most people's.

But from what I hear about the Benoits and the Guerreros of the world, it wasn't about fame or money to them. They wanted to be heavyweight champion because it meant you were number one. Like Bret Hart before them, they thought the belt was real. That it was something you could, and should, earn through hard work and commitment.

Which is absolutely insane. It's all fake. Vince McMahon and a team of writers decide who has the WWE title and why, and they can force you to drop it to someone else at any moment. For many wrestlers, the obsessed ones, its a carrot to dangle in front of their faces. "Go out and kill yourself every night, and maybe we'll think about giving you this hunk of metal in a few years."

Kevin Nash is the smart one. He understood, and understands, how this all works. He seems like a dick, and he probably buried a few careers unnecessarily along the way, but he found an industry that operates in a remarkably outdated fashion and capitalized. A lot of the backstage stories that emerge, about how Nash would hold both WWF and WCW hostage with ridiculous demands, are probably at least a little tinged with jealousy. As Diamond Dallas Page says in Golianopoulos's story, if someone like Kevin Nash had been in charge of his career, he'd probably have a few more million bucks. I suspect a lot of guys, looking back, feel the same.

And he ended up making his company, and everyone associated with it, a whole lot of money, too. He was one of the biggest reasons that WCW rose to the top in the 1990s; "smaller" guys like Jericho and Dean Malenko might not have had such a highly rated television program to show off on without Nash, Hulk Hogan and the nWo. And the desire to see those "vanilla midgets" rise to the top, the wave of support that led McMahon to offer them serious WWF contracts, that wouldn't have existed without Nash and his cronies "holding them back."

But even if he wasn't good for the business, even if he did value the careers of himself and his friends over a bunch of wrestlers who didn't necessarily look the part, to bash him for these presumed crimes seems to be buying a little too deeply into the twisted world of pro wrestling politics. Because it's not about right and wrong with pro wrestlers (and the devoted fans who love it). It's about perception, and dedication, and how much of your life you're willing to turn over to an industry that chews people up and spits them out.

Guys like Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero are put up on pedestals for giving it their all, and then they kill their families or die of drug-induced heart attacks. All enthusiastic pro wrestlers aren't necessarily degenerates, or twisted individuals. But maybe what makes them so enthusiastic is a flaw that can be neatly repackaged as a virtue. Maybe one day, when we look back on the history of pro wrestling, we'll see the ones who got out early and (relatively) healthy, who took what they needed for their families and moved on to less detrimental careers, as the only reasonable men in a business that should've been dismantled a long time ago.

August 1, 2012

Interesting trades considered.

This is what happens to a team that's 45-57 at the trade deadline.

You have a five-tool player like Shane Victorino who's about to hit free agency, and you have an arbitration-eligible, name-value bat like Hunter Pence.

And you trade them both.

Maybe you don't get an excellent return. Certainly nothing close to what the Phillies gave up for Pence a year ago.

But you get what you can, and you move on.

Although we don't know what else was out there, the haul can be certainly critiqued. There's no Jonathan Singleton or Jarred Cosart coming back, and there's nobody who'll make a big difference next season.

The crown jewel is Tommy Joseph, who should unseat Sebastian Valle as the "catcher of the future." Baseball America had him as San Francisco's number two prospect. John Sickels had him at number three. Everyone agrees that he's got some pop.

As for the rest, Nate Schierholtz is probably just good enough to avoid being shot into the sun. Seth Rosin has actually been called the "real steal of the deal." And Josh Lindblom is a cheap right-handed reliever who's already accustomed to pitching in the late innings. Try to ignore the fact that he kinda stinks.

Maybe they should've moved Victorino weeks ago, if only to shake things up. Maybe they'll really miss Pence in 2013, even though his OPS this year is lower than Pedro Alvarez's. It's more likely that his .954 OPS in 2011's 236 plate appearances was the real aberration; he's a complementary player, and soon to be an expensive one at that.

For better or worse (and it's looking like worse), Ruben Amaro Jr. really went for it last season. The Phillies were 68-39, six games up in the division, before throwing Pence onto the pile. If that team wins a championship, the second in four seasons, nobody cares about a post-title meltdown.

They didn't win a championship, though, and now they suffer the consequences. Key pieces have been sold at auction, and they're still short (at least) two outfielders and a third baseman for 2013.

Throwing gigantic contracts at stars won't solve the problem. There are a few decent guys available this offseason, but no one who will singlehandedly put the Phillies over the top. And there's no guarantee they'll want to come to Philadelphia, either. Much like his mentor Pat Gillick, Amaro is going to have to fill in the margins. So far, that hasn't been his strong suit.

Doesn't mean he'll have to dumpster dive; the team's under the luxury tax, and I'm sure those in charge are well aware that the winning needs to resume post-haste. Offer some of those outfield bucks to Michael Bourn. Make a run at trading for Chase Headley. Maybe sign someone injury-prone but talented, like Shaun Marcum, to fill out the rotation (ensuring that Kyle Kendrick will remain a very expensive long-man). Try not to splurge on expensive relievers, but if you must, bring in someone a little more reliable than Chad Qualls.

A few moves like those would strongly reinforce my belief that the window hasn't slammed shut just yet. A lot internally still has to go right. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard need to get -- and stay -- healthy. Domonic Brown must become a legitimate everyday outfielder. Roy Halladay needs to summon up at least one more ace-like season. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels must pitch like Cy Young candidates again.

But the potential is there. There's some hope that 2012 isn't the beginning of the dark ages. A savvy general manager should be able to take his barrel of cash and turn three aces, 30 homers from first, two solid (when healthy) veteran middle infielders and a top closer back into a contender. I guess we'll see how savvy Ruben Amaro Jr. really is.

July 27, 2012

I hate the Olympics.

Every two years, I shudder.

Not because a goose just walked over my grave. Because it's time for the Olympics.

And the Olympics are awful.

You know they're coming because you start hearing stories. It's a just a pitter-patter at first, like the little ripples in the water cup in Jurassic Park, but anyone paying attention will notice a slight increase in boring, repetitive human interest stories.

Then, all of a sudden, it's time. Now there's a boatload of guys and girls you've never heard of being thrust, literally forced, into the national conversation. We're told that they now matter. Most of them participate in events that no one likes; almost all of them are faceless nonentities. They might as well have popped out of a player creator in a video game.

And many people blindly cheer for them. Because they're supposed to, I guess. Because "tradition" dictates that you should.

What's easy to ignore, though, is that "tradition" often goes hand in hand with "old-fashioned" and "obsolete."

The Olympics are an outdated concept. I understand that they used to be a grand spectacle, bringing everyone together for a few weeks of seemingly random sporting events. But now there's very little need to bring everyone together, besides the fact that they've been doing it for hundreds of years. The world is more connected than ever. Teams and athletes from different countries face off all the time.

And the world's best athletes are already on our televisions every night. You can watch soccer matches featuring players from a handful of different countries; the NBA has become a massive global entity. I'm pretty sure people run races against each other and swim against each other all year, but nobody watches that shit. Because it's boring, or because it "doesn't matter." I think things matter as much as you make them, though, and the real issue that no one actually cares. They just think they should when it's branded as "THE OLYMPICS."

They hop right onboard with the idea of cheering like robots "for our country." And its fine, brave athletes. But who are these people? Why am I cheering for them? Because we're all Americans?

I love America, but I certainly don't like all Americans. This is generally a healthy notion; few people are buddies with everyone.

That's not how it works at the Olympics, though. Sports are suddenly linked with all the good things in the world; things are great, everyone is equal. I've had people tell me that I should just enjoy it all. That I should find something to like about every shitty event, because it's "important."

"Important" is a word that gets thrown around a lot in regards to the Olympics. But what does that mean? Who decided that the Olympics are "important"? They do have history, yes, and Jesse Owens did some truly impressive things as a runner and a human 80 years ago. It's a grand stage, but one that's becoming increasingly arbitrary. Why are the Academy Awards the final word in appraising the year in motion pictures? "Because they are," right? Because someone created them a long time ago, and everyone knows them, and they have clout with everyday folks.

But that doesn't mean you have to respect their choices, or enjoy what they're feeding you. You have choices and options in this ever-expanded world. You have access to whatever kind of sports you prefer. If you like the Olympics, fine. But don't pretend like they genuinely matter. Or that I should, must, need to to watch them.

That's the worst part, and it also applies to other big events like the World Cup. People who love the Olympics, or think they love them, will get genuinely mad if you dislike them.

"You don't like the Olympics?! Why not?! Don't you like America? Don't you like sports?"

Well, why don't you like hockey? Or baseball? Or football? Or the other year-round sports that are played in many different places? I don't see the distinction that some people have arbitrarily created. Despite what they may think, there's no special pedestal that Olympics fans get to stand on, no soapbox from which they preach their precious pro-Olympic rhetoric.

You know who I like? Usain Bolt. Because he's charismatic and it's fun to watch him run really fast. But that's why I like him, not because he's "involved in something special." Because when he shows off his athletic ability, it's extremely impressive and it makes me happy. No one told me to feel this way; I decided it for myself.

I guess the other pro-Olympics argument is that everyone is "cheering for the spectacular," or something like that. So you mostly want the Americans to win, but you're also really pumped if some random guy from Russia jumps really high, or a lady from Antarctica throws a mighty javelin?

Again, my thoughts are that people perform amazing athletic feats all the time. If that intrigues you so, why are you limiting yourself to one three-week extravaganza every two years? You can probably find some high jumps or some javelin tosses to watch every now and then, and there's certainly a whole bunch of swimming and running accessible online or on television. 

It goes back to the World Cup; I fully understand why it gets true soccer fans so excited. It's a legitimate spectacle, a worldwide tournament of stars who've earned the right to represent their countries in a grueling, epic event.

But again, "stars." "Tournament." "Epic. "Grueling." These are the things that make the World Cup great, not just the fact that it's happening. Plus, it's the culmination of years of effort. You get invested in these soccer players growing and maturing as athletes, and then they get their big stage. Everyone knows it's coming; the anticipation is allowed to grow naturally.

Because it's big and exciting and you look "plugged-in" and I guess "smart" if you're onboard, the World Cup still gets far too many bandwagon jumpers, folks who will ram it down your throat even if they don't actually like soccer. That can be annoying, but oh my god it is a hundred times worse for the Olympics. There is no buildup; it's just dropped in our laps, and we're expected to chow down. I remain amazed at how many people do just that.

Well, I'm not. I hate the Olympics, and I know I'm not alone. We're just not as unbearably vocal about it as the pro-Olympics crowd, and for that you should be thankful.

Enjoy your shitty event.

July 26, 2012

Why I only kinda liked The Dark Knight Rises.

The Dark Knight Rises is a good movie. Not a great one.

I wasn't necessarily expecting greatness, just a satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. And to that extent, I got what I was looking for; I walked out of the theater last Friday feeling thoroughly entertained.

But in retrospect, there are things worth nitpicking. Legitimate holes in a well-made film that make christening it "the best ever" seem very odd indeed. Perhaps Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have a bunch of these issues as well, but that's a blog post for another time. For now, let's take The Dark Knight Rises down a few pegs.

Editor's note: Spoilers below. Traverse downward at your own risk.

First off, Bane is no Joker. No one expected a repeat of Heath Ledger's award-winning and totally unprecedented performance, but there's really nothing to Tom Hardy's character at all. He's bulky, he's rebellious, and he's into ruining Bruce Wayne and snapping Batman in two. He breaks into the stock market (!) to use stolen fingerprints (!!) to short some stock and fuck up a guy's finances (!!!). Say that outloud to someone and see if they think it's "cool" or "interesting" or "makes sense." But more than that: Why? Were Bane's motivations shrouded in mystery on purpose, or were they just casualties of a jam-packed movie that just didn't feel the need to provide more backstory?

While writing about Inception a while back, I attacked Nolan for refusing to "examine a thought for more than a fleeting second or two." Lately, however, I believe that's the only reason Inception -- and, to a lesser extent, The Dark Knight Rises -- works at all. Nolan is skilled at telling a story quickly and with great confidence; he gives you no time to wonder about a plot point or a bit of dialogue because ten seconds later he's already onto another visually stunning action sequence or key conversation between two wonderful actors adding gravitas to bit parts.

This isn't a strategy that should always be employed, but it does help hold things together that might otherwise fall apart. Nolan's job with these blockbusters is mostly to send you home with a smile on your face, or at least a pleasantly intrigued look. He sneaks big ideas and sprawling plots into popcorn flicks and dazzles his fans with how cohesive it all seems. But when you sit down and consider his work after the fact, it doesn't always fit. The leaps from A to B to C can be tenuous at best, and while it's impressive when it "succeeds" with a movie like Inception (or, on a smaller scale, Memento), that doesn't mean it's above reproach.

For example, and I think this is a very fair question to ask of a movie created by an expert storyteller like Nolan: When Bane takes over Gotham, why was there virtually no mention of how its citizens responded to his rule?

I came upon this point in an preachy review of The Dark Knight Rises and its politics, and I couldn't agree more. Based on what we saw, Matthew Modine and his pals holed up in their houses for five months until Batman randomly returned. If the movie had taken another route -- if the people of Gotham began to accept this new overlord, maybe because of a "hero vacuum" without Batman around -- then the quest to win the city back would have a lot more meaning. Maybe Bane does something horrifying and reminds everyone of his true purpose. Maybe Batman does something selfless and reminds everyone of his true purpose.

Either way, it's a wasted opportunity. Give this whole conflict some legitimacy with five extra minutes of screen time, and now we're considerably more invested in the fate of Gotham under Bane. There's a big opportunity here for Nolan to "show not tell," too; to offer up some insight into what's really going on in the city. Maybe there's anarchy, maybe allegiances are shifting, maybe there's more than Scarecrow's kangaroo court afoot. The people are afraid, sure, but is that all? We're supposed to accept that "OK, Bane and his scary mask and the tanks in the streets make everyone quietly uncomfortable" and then wait for someone to save the day?

It's arguably the crux of the whole movie -- Batman's city has been taken away from him -- but we get more of Bruce Wayne figuring out how to climb some rocks (with the power of fear!) than the trials and tribulations of his hometown. There's a lot going on by then that Nolan still has to get through, but if there was ever a time to take a breath and make the threat a little more real, a little more personal, I think it was right then and there.

There's also another scene that bothered not only myself but a few others I spoke to: the cut to Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, alive and out in the world, at the very end. Come on. How much more power might that scene have had if you just show Michael Caine's Alfred smiling at an unseen figure? The end result is the same, and you don't have to smack the audience in the face with "BATMAN IS ALIVE DON'T WORRY," which feels more and more like a creative cop-out. Not the biggest deal, but when you're a talented filmmaker who is supposedly crafting a "masterpiece" it's a glaring swing-and-miss.

And let's not even get into the Talia al Ghul "twist." When a character switches sides at the 140-minute mark of a movie with no subtle foreshadowing at all and the only motivation being her real last name, that's just lazy. It sucked a lot of the life out of Batman's day-saving and an ending that, despite its flaws, I was very invested in.

I did enjoy the renewed emphasis on Bruce Wayne/Batman as the main character, though, along with how good Anne Hathaway turned out to be. I'm a huge fan of Rachel Getting Married yet expected nothing from the young actress, and boy did I feel dumb afterwards. I'd also feel shitty if I didn't mention the opening sequence, which was intriguing, complex, unfathomably expensive and instantly forgettable. Only a film like this, on such a grand scale, can start you off with that kinda scene and then just sweep it away for whatever comes next.

But too much of the movie felt contrived: Chris Nolan plowing us forward with skill and technical mastery while offering up an incomplete story and an unsatisfying lack of character development. Considering how much hype and buildup it has resting on its shoulders, The Dark Knight Rises mostly delivers. But if you think it was "great," or some other overly positive adjective, perhaps you and I were seeing different movies.

July 17, 2012

Sell sell sell. Then buy buy buy.

As of July 17, the Philadelphia Phillies have a 0.4% chance of making the playoffs in 2012.

I know that Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and (as of tonight) Roy Halladay are back on the active roster. I know that a team with a $172 million payroll is expected to bring home a championship.

But it's over. The Phillies aren't going to leapfrog seven wild card contenders and make up a 10-game deficit with only 71 games left. Despite what Ruben Amaro Jr. might say, even though they're in the middle of a three-game winning streak, it's time to admit that 2012 is a lost season.

So let's start the selling process. There's no reason to keep guys like Joe Blanton and Juan Pierre. Both will be at least a little enticing to a contender, even if the return is just a mid-level prospect or two.

For the sake of fielding a proper team, it might be tough to swallow trading Placido Polanco. I don't think anyone wants to see a Mike Fontenot/Ty Wigginton platoon at third. But if you get a decent proposal, move him too.

The Cliff Lee-esque contract that the Phillies have apparently offered Cole Hamels is a credible one, but it probably won't get the job done. Hamels could see $20-30 million more on the open market. Whether it's fair or not, if he won't sign, say goodbye. For now. Maybe he'll see a more generous deal from Amaro over the summer.

I'm warming to the idea of trading Hunter Pence (with one more arbitration year remaining, he may have the most value) if Shane Victorino will consider a three-year deal, but that seems unlikely. I expect Shane will be gone in a week or so, and you need to keep one of the two good outfielders.

Either way, the point is that the time for changes has come. Minor changes, of course. Joe Sheehan tweeted recently that the Phillies need work on minimizing this upcoming (and possibly inescapable) down period, to take a more long-term view, but that's tough to do when you've got over $104 million committed to six veterans (Howard, Lee, Halladay, Utley, Jonathan Papelbon, Jimmy Rollins) in 2013. That's a team that needs to compete, one that has entered the upper stratosphere of baseball franchises. A place with certain expectations.

Unfortunately, I do not exactly trust Amaro to make the tweaks necessary to rejuvenate this last-place team and legitimately threaten the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves once again. But he's what they've got, and he would be wise to surrender properly. They have some assets that could net young talent, perhaps even the kind that could contribute immediately.

And I really think there could be reason for optimism. A few smart moves -- a young third baseman, a solid free-agent outfielder, a few bullpen arms, improved -- and there's no reason you can't contend in 2013. Maybe not be a favorite to win the whole thing, but to have that be a possibility again.

But to run it back, to go down with the ship and offer Cole the maximum and act like this is all just an aberration, that would be foolish. I don't think they're going to do that, but I'd love to see them sell hard now and then buy hard in the offseason. I believe that could truly work.

For better or worse, they need to start acting like the Yankees. Or the Red Sox. A team that can get away with joke contracts for John Lackey or A.J. Burnett (or Ryan Howard) because they've got deep pockets and at least a solid farm system. A team that has no problem dropping a few million on some relievers or a centerfielder if that's all that stands in the way of contention.

Farm system's a little barren right now, but the number of talented pitchers and outfielders that'll hit the market in a few months is staggering. So dump what you can, restock the ol' cupboard to the best of your abilities and write a few more checks over the summer.

This 2012 team is majorly flawed, but the 2013 team doesn't have to be. Know when you're beaten and use that knowledge to supplement an expensive core properly. It's not the easiest thing in the world, but it's what Amaro has to do. His legacy, and the immediate future of Philadelphia baseball, depends on it.

July 12, 2012

This is an adventure.

A bowl of soup was placed in front of me.

My girlfriend had asked for "everything." And boy, did we get everything.

There was chicken, or pork, or some kind of meat. That was fine. Noodles, and broth, and some veggies.

And liver. And intestines. And what I later found out were probably brains, but they looked a lot like chicken so I think I accidentally swallowed them.

At times, I gagged a little. I ate around the organs. I discreetly (or so I hope) spit out one particularly gross bite and dropped it on the ground.

But what I really did was think, for the first time, "Welcome to Malaysia."

I had no real expectations before arriving. Until this trip became a reality, I never really planned to visit this area of the world; maybe in some later-in-life travels but definitely not at age 26. Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise; I ultimately threw myself into the unknown with vigor and embraced whatever I came across.

Doesn't mean I was in any rush to eat a bowl of animal colons, though.

Thankfully, that particularly jarring meal of mystery soup wasn't the first I had in Southeast Asia. Our three nights in Singapore were my actual introduction to the area, and it turned out to be the perfect beginning for a tried-and-true American who'd never been anywhere truly "crazy," just a bunch of islands and the cushier parts of Western Europe.

Of course, even in Singapore there were trials and tribulations. I was forcefully ejected from the airport for wandering around at 3 in the morning (my flight arrived at midnight and I was unable to book a hotel room for the "evening"). I slept on a couch in the baggage area for a few hours and then took to the streets, visiting the Botanic Gardens and holing up in a Starbucks until our room opened up.

When I finally arrived at my hostel, exhausted and drenched in sweat, I'm surprised they didn't turn me away. They've surely seen their fair share of big smelly white dudes before, but I had to be the grossest in recent history. My friends and I joke about how the lead singer of Springsteen cover band Bruce in the USA always mentions the air being "like soup" up on stage; I'd love to see him walk even a few blocks in Asia. He'd literally melt.

The rest of my journey's early moments are a blury haze; traversing through Little India with my girlfriend -- Fulbright scholar studying in Malaysia but a Singapore newbie -- attempting to lead the way. I think I bought lotion to combat a pesky bit of chafing. It's the closest I've ever been to "blacked out" without drinking; I didn't remember any of the scenery until days later, when we took another jaunt around the same area and my mind began to recall the images from wherever it'd stored them away.

And that was how my trip began. Exhausted, soaked in my body's own juices, unwilling to eat, unable to take in my surroundings with any sort of pleasure.

Luckily, it got a lot better from there.

Singapore had the potential to feel comfortable. It had maybe the best city subway system I've ever encountered. And malls. And a Mexican restaurant in the mega-touristy area, which I felt bad about visiting but desperately needed at the time. The idea of a hawker center, where street food is gleefully served by skilled but random locals, was still too much.

But I got used to everything. And on day three, despite my stomach's continued occasional protests, we housed a plate each of wanton noodles and shared a big pile of fried dumplings.

"It's the same shit I'm used to," I thought, "only better."

It wasn't all "better," of course. Even though my mindset was largely "put your head down and power through," the differences were jarring. This was not my beautiful house, this was not my beautiful country. I don't want to call it "culture shock" but there was a lot of "holy shit what is this place where do I go I have no idea whoa" going on. For a little while, at least.

Also, I genuinely love the Internet -- checking my sites, sending emails and tweets, evaluating my fantasy baseball team's performance -- and my complete lack of access shook me to the core. I made sure we took our fair share of pit stops in coffee shops and fast food joints, where I'd bust out my smartphone. To my girlfriend's occasional (OK, frequent) dismay.

We saw a bunch, though. The beaches of Sentosa, a tourist trap of sorts located next to Universal Studios that also proved to be an easily accessible, relaxing oasis for weary travelers. The aforementioned Botanic Gardens, which were lovely and particularly nonthreatening. Chinatown, where we got a pork bun and drank the trip's first beer.

And that was only in Singapore. By the time we got to Malaysia, I was beginning to feel like a regular human being.

But then came the Soup of Death, and a boatload of other unexpected "complications," for lack of a better word. The place was called Penang; we thought it would be touristy and welcoming. Turns out it was just a regular Malaysian town, which isn't bad but certainly isn't what you'd call a prime destination. The other travelers were all backpackers. I had my roommate's big gray suitcase. I stood out.

Even that was get-used-to-able, though. The food was excellent. Seriously excellent. Chicken rice, tandoori chicken, roti canai, toast and iced coffee. I'm sure you've had a few of those dishes before; so have I, but never done so right.

And when Penang got a little boring, we went to the mall. There were three: one was shitty, one was decent and one was nicer than most malls in America. We ate waffles and drank bubble tea and saw The Amazing Spider-Man, which was pretty awful. But it was easy and it passed the time on a day when we needed some serious time to pass, so I don't think either of us had any regrets.

One overnight train to Kuala Lumpur later, we were back in the big city. Sort of. It was big, sure, and it had a monorail. But seriously, a monorail? That's a thing people still use?

There was still street food everywhere, but it was a little more organized. And we stayed in a nice hotel that was right next to some of the fanciest shopping you'll ever see. The president of the Czech Republic was staying next door. His motorcade went in and out all day and caused a nice little fuss, until we found out he was just the president of the Czech Republic.

As the trip came to a close, we stopped by the Batu Caves. There was a giant gold statue and about 400 steps that led to some great scenery and a temple. There were also a bunch of monkeys who ate necklaces, stole candy and opened bottles of soda with their two little front paws. Lovable, besides the fact that they're most likely swimming with disease.

We never "roughed it" or anything like that. I won't pretend like I'm suddenly a world traveler or that I have any real newfound understanding of all the mystery around me.

But I was seriously taken out of my comfort zone, and I loved it. Sure, I was more than ready to come home after eight days (and a sudden 11-hour layover in Beijing after missing a connecting flight wasn't exactly welcomed) but I'd survived. And, occasionally, thrived.

In the end, my trip ended up being a lot like my bowl of chicken (or pig, or monkey) guts. Some of it was scary, but that stuff was easy to avoid. And the parts I did feast upon, well, they were delicious.

I want to thank my girlfriend for her amazingness throughout the whole experience, and I want to thank a few assorted Southeast Asian locales (and residents) for being very welcoming to a doofy, curly-haired American.

The fact that I made it through more than a week in Southeast Asia is further proof that human beings can do anything. Although it helps if there are attractive women and delicious food at the end of your particular rainbow.

June 24, 2012

Square pegs in round holes.

The Philadelphia Flyers organization has always been, for lack of a better word, difficult.

They've forced players like Eric Lindros, Eric Desjardins and Mike Richards -- none of whom really fit the mold -- into the captain's role. With mostly underwhelming results.

They gave a nine-year contract to a mercurial 31-year-old goalie who'd never really won anything.

And they signed James van Riemsdyk to an extension based on a handful of good (well, dominating) games in the 2011 playoffs.

That move, in particular, seemed to be a "we helped you, now you help us" kind of arrangement. One of those long-term deals for young guys that are so popular in baseball these days, especially with teams like the Tampa Bay Rays. Lock up the talent and wait for them to take the leap.

But the 2011-2012 season is over, and James van Riemsdyk did not take that leap. Injuries kept him out of the lineup, and his occasional appearances were marred by inconsistent play.

A trade in the offseason seemed very likely, and Paul Holmgren finally pulled the trigger on an oft-rumored move to Toronto yesterday afternoon.

I'm not the biggest fan of this one; I think JVR is a very talented player with a bright future who shouldn't be blamed for a handful of nagging injuries. But he remains unproven over an 82-game season, and it's been clear for a while now that the Flyers have soured on the young winger. We all know how that goes; for better or worse, they've always been quick to correct what they feel are mistakes.

Desjardins quickly handed the captaincy over to Keith Primeau, who ended up being the team's best leader since Dave Poulin. The goaltending carousel has been turning at breakneck speeds for years now; strike out on a Cup run and find yourself out of a job. And Holmgren had no qualms about dumping Richards and Jeff Carter to the highest bidders when it was decided that the two didn't fit into the team's future. Yes, those moves helped the Los Angeles Kings win a Stanley Cup, but I don't think the organization has any regrets.

And I suspect they'll feel the same way about this JVR trade. He could certainly blossom into a superstar in Toronto, but the team was ready to move on. Plus, Luke Schenn sounds like the tough right-handed defenseman that they've long been looking for.

He's also Brayden Schenn's brother, which I think played a big role. A lot is riding on Schenn and Sean Couturier making a leap of their own, going from "talented youngsters" to "top-6 forwards" and turning the Flyers' offense into an unstoppable force. With Luke by his side -- which has already been called "a dream since we were kids" -- the expectations for Brayden are officially sky high. We all saw what Schenn is capable of in Game 1 of the Pittsburgh series. Now he'll be expected to do that on a consistent basis.

The Flyers can be stubborn, but they're also aggressive. Unlike, say, the Philadelphia Eagles, no one doubts that everything they do is aimed at winning a championship. I think Ed Snider would tear the heart out of a living man's chest if it meant his team would take home one more Cup before he died.

And maybe that means they demand too much from the Carters and Richards and van Riemsdyks and Schenns of the world. Maybe not every young forward can handle such expectations, the need to become the next Bobby Clarke or Bill Barber or Rick Tocchet or Paul Holmgren. Maybe the team is still run a little too rigidly, with its overlords a little too insistent on trying to recreate the past.

Only time will tell. But if we do end up looking back and lamenting the loss of JVR, it'll just be another example of the Philadelphia Flyers trying -- and failing -- to force a square peg into a round hole.