Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mahalo, Shane

When I first heard the rumors of Victorino being traded I didn’t really feel anything, I knew the Phils would be sellers at the deadline and Victorino would most likely be involved in a trade. As soon as the trade became official I realized how much I was going to miss the Flying Hawaiian.  His performance hasn’t been as exciting as it was during the magical playoff run in ’08, but he stayed one of my favorite players throughout the years, even if I didn’t realize it.

2008 put Shane on the map. He was a one of the biggest keys in the Phillies winning it all that year. From the grandslam off CC, to his game-tying homer in LA during the NLCS, he hustled his way into the hearts of the fans. I was at game 2 of the NLDS when Brett Myers’ walk set up the Victo grand slam and to this day I have never been in a louder stadium. Not only was the grand slam a huge turning point in the game and the series but that was the first time I really believed the Phils could make a run at the WS that year.

The NLCS that year was also a turning point in his career. Starting with his encounter with Dodger’s pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, when Kuroda threw a ball at Victorino’s head and the two exchanged words. Victorino really showed the kind of tough player he was when he showed Kuroda to go for his ribs but not his head. And even though Game 4 of NLCS that year will be remembered for Matt Stairs’ winning home run, that would not have happened without Victorino’s game tying home run three batters earlier.

Even though the years after 08 were not as memorable statistically for Shane, he remained a fan favorite. Shane always hustled on the field, always had a smile on his face and was one of the most loved guys by the players and the media. The past 5 years were arguably the best in franchise history, and Shane was here for it all and had a part in most of the memories. Even though in my opinion the trade probably had to be done, it’s hard to say goodbye to a great guy and a great ball player, not to mention weird to see him in blue. Thanks for the memories Shane and best of luck in LA.

Written by: Ben Bernstein (@benb33)

Down Wit Da 2012 Phillies!

That's right.  I am down with this team.  With the trade-deadline outbound shipments of Shane Victorino and (more-than-probably) Joe Blanton, the last vestiges of the 2008 World Champion squad are: Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Cole Hamels, and Kyle Kendrick.  Yup.  Kyle Kendrick.

Gone are position guys Burrell, Feliz, Jenkins, Stairs, and Werth; elsewhere went Lidge, Madson, Moyer, and Myers.  The 2012 club hardly resembles '08, in more ways than faces, names on the backs of the jerseys.

Yet I'm hearing a lot of bellyaching about the "end of an era" and "fire Ruben and Charlie."  First off, the Phillies haven't won a world title under Amaro.  '08 wasn't his team.  He inherited a bunch of guys with rings, got rid of a few and added some other guys.  The exits of Victorino and Fat Joe signal the end of something, for sure.  But an era of excellence?  I can't get on board with that notion.  Change is unavoidable and necessary.  Firing Charlie only serves to castoff the only manager since Dallas Green in 1980 to bring a baseball parade to Broad Street.  Let's not forget...

Prior to 2012, the Phils have had a sub-.500 record in 15 of the 30 seasons since 1980.  Maybe I'm going back a little too far.  Since '93, 8 of 18 seasons ended under .500.  I hear folks say "I was a fan when this team sucked."  Were you?  Do you remember Mike Mimbs, Bobby Estalella, Rob Ducey, Ken Howell?  The Phillies used to march crap onto the turf at Veterans Stadium and we phans were phorced to accept it. In 2000, the Phils batted .251, bad enough to better only the Brewers' .246 clip.  That team won 65 games and finished 30 games out. 

If you're a fan--er, phan, then be a phan.  Don't bail on an organization that built perhaps the best stadium in the MLB.  Don't be so quick to disown the phirst Philadelphia club in 25 years to have a parade down Broad.  Don't ask Luzinski to put Charlie's head on a spit and make over-priced sandwiches with it.  Sit back, relax, play baggo in the parking lot, buy Herr's chips and watch the Phillies play baseball.  Without the tension.  Without the pressure.  Without the sadness.  For God's sake, it's the Phillies, man!

Yeah, Ruben is selling.  He has to.  Victorino makes $9.5 million this year.  A prorated portion will come off the Phillies' books.  In '08, Shane was a 28-year-old player with tools and upside.  A two-time All Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, Shane showed us his very best; he never quite reached the up-side of his game.  He never really improved.  What you saw is what you got.  Sure, we all loved the "Flyin' Hawaiian" and his "personality," but what matters is leadership on the field and he never quite matured in that sense.  Good luck, kid.  Aloha means hello and goodbye...

Blanton goes because he has value to a team in the hunt and because the Phils have to pay him all or part of $8.5 million.  As of 3:14, the deal with Baltimore still hasn't gone down.  Should it not, I'm ok with Joe.  He's a guy.  He became the first pitcher to hit a grand slam in a World Series game since Oakland's Ken Holtzman in 1974.  That was a great moment in history, not just Phillies history.  Joe goes deep into most games, keeping the bullpen fresh.  He fools batters regularly with stuff that shouldn't be as good as it is.  In little more than four seasons, Blanton has won 34 games and averaged 6.1 innings per start.  Reliable Joe... 

*The trade with Baltimore is being held up.  Should it not go down, I'm ok with keeping Blanton.  Chances are, they'll end up moving him in a waiver-wire deal later in the year...

This team has been held together with duct tape for the past four seasons.  The '09 loss to the Yankees stings because it's the Yankees.  A-Rod is a scum bag cheater and Big Stein is a strapper.  But honestly, that team won ten more regular season games than the Phils (103 to 93) and was stacked.  Heartbreaking, yes.  But not bridgejumpingly so.

In 2010, the Phils rode 43 road wins to win the NL East, six ahead of the Braves.  Expectations were high after the deadline acquisition of Roy friggin' Halladay.  Granted, they had to dump the '09 postseason hero Cliff Lee to do it, but Halladay's arrival gave them a formidable short-series staff of Halladay, Hamels, Oswalt.  They fell to the Giants because the bats went utterly silent--an omen of things to come.

Four Aces (and a guy named Joe)!  Five Division titles!  102 wins!  2011's dream season came to a screaching, skidding halt at home against the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLDS.  It was Cliff Lee's fault for blowing Game 2.  No, it was Charlie's fault, he left Lee in too long.  No, wait, Howard's fault--he batted .105 in the series...  Fact is, the Cards bested the Phils.  102 meant nothing.  Nothing.

Enter 2012.  Howard's Achilles, Utley's knees, Hamels' contract, Jimmy's pop-ups...  Despite injuries, we phans expected the Phillies to "hold on" until our 2008 heroes returned.  Then they would make a move.  Then Citizens Bank Park would rock rather than roil with unease.  Then never came, yet now we are faced with a team making oodles of money (I'm not sure of their noodle production) but little else. 

Today, Ruben let go of an '08 hanger-on in Victorino and a good-but-not-great player in Hunter Pence.  Two-thirds of yesterday's starting outfield today calls California home.  Blanton, as the deadline passes, remains a Phillie, as does Lee.  Amaro may have some 'splaining to do...  And some ass-chewing too.  Lee needs to get told.  Blanton, just keep showing up. 

It's time to see what Dom Brown can do.  Yes, we've seen him before and he stinks.  We think.  We're not sure.  Because we haven't really seen enough.  A .286 average in Triple-A scares few major league pitchers; though his .322 against lefties sounds nice.  Maybe Samuel can get him to stop trying to steal bases, since he's been gunned down in 6 of 10 attempts this season.  He strikes out once every five-or-so at bats.  Look, the kid ain't the bluechipper he once was thought to be.  But he won't even turn 25 until September and he's what we have.  Let's sit back and see what he can be.  That's the only way to find out what he really is.

Let's watch this young bullpen can become.  Most of these guys are 26, 27.  Diekman is 25.  They will get plenty of opportunity to mature over the final two-plus months of the season.  Baseball fans can enjoy that.

Let's see if Carlos Ruiz can become the first catcher to win the NL MVP since Johnny Bench in 1970.  He would join Bench, Joe Mauer (AL-2009), Ivan Rodriguez (AL-1999) and Thurman Munson (AL-1976) as the only catchers in the past fifty years to win the honors.  Regardless, Chooch should continue to give reason to root, to cheer, to follow.  

Roy, Cole, Cliff.  Howard and Utley.  Charlie...

These are your 2012 Philadelphia Phillies.  Come Friday night, I will be in good company at CBP as the Phils host the Diamondbacks.  I fully expect to catch a foul ball, which I will promptly hand to a child--making me an instant hero.  If not, I'm ok just watching Phillies baseball.

*Of course, what choice do I really have?  The Eagles, you say?  What have they done for me lately?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

That Place Where the Wave Finally Broke...

Strange memories on this nervous night in Philadelphia. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. Phillies baseball in the middle to late 2000s was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole season comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left Citizens Bank Park half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the car towards AC at a hundred miles an hour wearing khaki shorts and some obscure soccer jersey… booming through the Egg Harbor toll at light speed,not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end.... but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…

There was madness in any direction, at any hour.… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old(losing seasons) and Evil (The Yankees). Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up to Section 413 and look towards left field, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back (2012). Last night was a welcome respite to days of yore for Phillies fans. It felt like 2008 again, and that was good.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Sky is Falling...

As the Matt Kemp game –winning homer sailed over the fence, if you put your ear really close to the television or radio you could hear the faint sounds of Taps playing. Losing that game was a crushing blow. Lee pitched masterfully. Bastardo/Kendrick/Horst/Schwimmer did their job by keeping the score tied. The Phillies offense was patient against Jansen and Guerra and Pence came up big again in this series to untie the game with a two-run single. That set it up for Papelbon to come in with a tw0-run lead and close the door…

In a  spirit-crushing turn of events, my most despised Phillie of all time, Bobby Abreu scored the tying run. It was all semantics at that point, because I had no faith in Diekman. How were the Phillies going to lose this one is what was going through many people’s minds, I am sure. This is what is called “Chicken Little Syndrome”, but for the 2012 Phillies team, it appears the sky is really falling.

No raising of the accustomed NL East flag on Opening Day. No worry about making plans in October this year. No invoice from the Phillies for NLDS, NLCS, and World Series tickets. No fun. I plan on going to Cooperstown this year in October, hit the Hall of Fame, Ommegang Brewery, and Fly Creek Cider Mill...but truth be told, I would rather be in Citizens Bank Park bundled up in late October with Irish Champagne (Jameson) chilling in the car for celebrating the Phillies 12th win in the playoffs...

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Proceed With Caution: The Band is Back Together

The following is my opinion. It is all speculation and I do not assert any of it as fact. I do not spend any time in the clubhouse, my hypotheses could be 100% wrong and I may just be an asshole. Proceed with caution.

Fresh off a three-game winning streak, 90 games removed from the start of the season, we finally have what we hoped would be the Opening Day lineup. Doc's on the mound, Chooch is behind the plate, Howard's at first, Chase is at second, and if for one night everything's back to the way it's supposed to be. For one night, things are going to be funner again. Let that sink in for a minute.

Now snap back to the harsh reality that is the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies season.

Can this team continue this little mini-run of success, use the return of Roy Halladay to create even more momentum going forward, and give us something to play for once September starts? Anything's possible, but please don't hold your breath. These are not the same players they once were.

Consider Ryan Howard's performance last night. His fourth inning blast to the opposite field was beautiful, a majestic shot that reminded us of what he used to do regularly and gave us hope that he may be able to do it again.

Then remember when he grounded into a double play in the eighth, as the Dodgers had to hurry to get Chase at second but then probably could have jogged over to first and still got Howard in time, his Achilles injury still painfully obvious.

Consider Chase Utley's first game back, when he went deep off James McDonald in his first at-bat back with the team. Chooch followed it up with another home run, as the Phils surged out to a 2-0 lead and for a moment, it felt like a new season had just begun.

Then remember that we went on to blow that lead, fall way behind, and rally back only to have Chad Qualls give up a massive inning en route to yet another painful loss. Also remember that, since that homer, Chase is hitting .222 and has a dismal OPS of .555.

I hate to be negative and piss all over everybody's optimism, but the harsh reality is this is a team that is a long way off from being a contender. The band is indeed back together tonight, but as is the case with most reunion tours, they're past their prime and running mostly on nostalgia. Can they string together some good performances and make this season interesting again? Sure. But it's unfair and unrealistic to expect Chase, Ryan, and Doc to be the difference between a bad baseball team and a great baseball team.

We also have the matter of catching a Nationals team that is playing some damn good baseball. This past weekend, I was visiting a friend who doesn't get CSN, but does get MASN. Being that he's a Nationals fan, we watched their games vs. the Marlins. What I saw was a team that reminds me a ton of the Phillies a couple years ago. 

Ian Desmond scored on a bloop single into left that he read perfectly, breaking as soon as the batter made contact. It reminded me of the kind of baserunning Chase was capable of.

Bryce Harper stole third when Hanley Ramirez came over to chat with Jose Reyes while the pitcher was off the rubber. It reminded me of Victorino, specifically a game in 2008 in New York when he raced to second base and beat Reyes, who was lazily jogging over to get the forceout.

Jordan Zimmermann tossed six shutout innings in his start Friday, making the Marlins look foolish en route to a 5-1 victory. It reminded me of any of our aces as recent as a year ago who, besides Cole, have been less than impressive this year.

Before this season, I was content to concede that we had one more year as the best team in the NL East, but it was likely our last until the Nationals took us over. Early maturation in DC combined with unfortunate injuries in Philly have hastened that. I hate to say it, it literally pains me to say it, but to think we're going to bounce back and take the East this year or anytime soon is foolish. Barring the unforeseen, the Nationals reign has begun. Here's to hoping I'm just an asshole with an incorrect opinion.

By Justin Diaz

twitter: @justindiaz92


One of the most frustrating things about this 2012 Phillies season has been that Carlos Ruiz is having the season of his career and it is being over shadowed by how bad the first half of the season was for the rest of the team. Chooch got his first All-Star bid this season, and he was more than deserving of it (even though in my opinion he should have started), being nearly the only bright spot so far in the 2012 campaign.

So far this season, Chooch’s offensive numbers are better than any other season he has had in the big leagues in nearly every single category. In comparison to other starting catchers in the MLB (as of 7/16), he is first in AVG, and SLG, tied for first in RBI, second in hits and OBP and third in HR. He is also tied for second in AVG for any player in the bigs. He is currently on pace to have one of, if not the best season by a Phillies catcher ever. And right now, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Not only is Chooch propelling himself to new statistical highs, but he is really stepping up as a leader during a season when this team needs one, badly. My dad always tells me that the catcher has to be the leader on the field because he is the only one looking out at the rest of the players, and they are looking at him for leadership. You can just see in the way he carries himself in the past couple of years, but especially this year, he is one of the most important leaders on the team.

The love affair between the fans and Ruiz has it an all time high this season. Chooch has always been one of the most popular players off the field, but his play this year really catapulted him to a new level of celebrity in the city. Not only is he the best player on the team right now, but there is no doubt in my mind that he is the most popular in the eyes of the fans as well. You can tell the fans get the most excited during games to scream “CHOOOOOOOOCH” any chance they get. Even in Colorado over the weekend you could hear through the TV the cheers from the traveling fans for the catcher. Carlos has really established himself on and off the field this season, and I couldn’t be happier for him. I only hope he can keep this going for as long as possible and maybe rub some of it off on the rest of team during the second half of the season and see some positive strides from them toward the end of the year.

Written by: Ben Bernstein (@benb33)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Only History Will Tell

Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1970’s and 1980’s allowed me the opportunity to experience the talents of many legendary sports figures. Of course, as a lifelong fan of the city’s professional sports teams, I have been provided the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat (thank you ABC’s Wide World of Sports, for the phrase) on many occasions.  As expected, I have spent much time wallowing in heartbreak and letdowns in Philadelphia sports. I have also been afforded the golden opportunity to swim laps in the pool of victorious ceremony. It is a combination of both of these that apply, as I sit back and reminisce about the Philadelphia Phillies of the last 35 years.
            At 39 years of age, I am a tad too young to remember much about the Phillies’ 1976-1978 National League Eastern Division teams that steamrolled through the Major League’s senior circuit, winning over 100 games twice, only to lose to the Reds and Dodgers in the Pennant Series. What I do know comes from what I have read, viewed and been told through the years by many who were there to experience what could only be summed up as bitter defeat. While I don’t remember many of the players on those teams, I do know they captured the hearts of a city, those years bookending the celebration of our great nation’s bi-centennial. Their failure to “win it all” in then has not diminished the capacity to which they are held in the memories of those fans who lived through it. My own fondest recollections start a short while after.
            After a season of mediocrity in 1979 (and over most of the 97 years prior, truth be told), the Phillies finally found glory in 1980. I was a little older, and can remember watching on television the final out and Tug McGraw’s victory leap with outstretched arms after making Willie Wilson look just a little foolish with his patented screwball. The newly crowned World Series Champions were permanently etched into my memory.  Even 32 years later, I can remember the names of what I personally believe to be the greatest starting nine (and closer) ever assembled, and the nicknames some of them so proudly beheld: The Bull; Charlie Hustle; Shake ‘n Bake; The Minister of Defense; Schmidty and Tugger. Larry Bowa, Bob Boone and Manny Trio rounded out this tremendous group. This was truly a classic team, which centered around a time in my life where everything seemed larger than life.
            While I didn’t have to wait much longer to witness another shot at glory, the feeling was quickly dissipated at the hands of the Orioles in 1983, despite the Phillies fielding a veritable team of future Hall of Famers: Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Tony Perez. This was to be the last hope for what seemed to be an eternity.
            For ten years, the city’s professional baseball team, and my spirits, went dark, forced to sit through an endless stream of virtual nothingness. As I progressed into the life of a puddin-headed, acne enshrouded teenager, the Phillies skidded into mediocrity. 1984 through 1992 were about the darkest baseball years my memory can recall. As a result, only two events bring any sense of pride to my psyche: The bittersweet ends of the line for Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. Much of the rest, sadly, I’d rather keep deep in the recesses of my rocky cranial cavity. Despite this slip into sports abyss, Philadelphia would once again find itself alight with excitement.
            The 1993 season brought a sense of swagger to this professional sports beleaguered town. The emergence of “Macho Row” on the scene re-captured the bright attention and spirit from 1980 that I had thought was lost for good. The city was hungry, and this band of wiry outlaws were set to provide the feast, a buffet including many of the elite teams in the National League. While they didn’t win the World Series that year (thanks, “Mitchie-poo”), many of the names of that gruff crew will not be forgotten. Heck, even some of their nicknames were rough and tumble, like the greasers in the street gangs of the 1950’s: Nails, Dutch, Inky, Head, Wild Thing, etc. What is funny enough, though, is that the entrance into my legal drinking years (1994 to be exact) started in the same fashion as the entrance into my teen years: with an extended streak of Philadelphia baseball sucktitude. Talk about curses.
            Since I am writing about the memory of a kid growing up in the city, reflected now as he hits middle age, it wouldn’t be fair for me to elaborate on the last number of years as it relates to being excited for the season and to be able to watch certain players grind it out on the diamond all summer long. That will be up to someone else to find their own memories to share. My adult self is all too aware of other, more important things in life to be concerned about much more than general statistics (if even that), as opposed to that starry-eyed kid of yesteryear tracking my favorite players like a throng of teens drooling over the latest singing sensation. Each kid from every generation has their unique memory of Philadelphia Phillies Baseball, and their own story to tell you.  For the kids of today, how will they remember the Phillies of 2007 through this current slide?  Only history will tell.

Cheers to another 40 years!
Russell Hackett